Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
August 10, 2014
Genesis 45:4-12, Romans 8:28, 35-39
Audio not available for this sermon.
I love the story of Joseph. It has been a favorite ever since I was first introduced to it in Sunday School as an 8 year old. I remember coloring pictures of Joseph and his “coat of many colors,” and being secretly thankful that I was an only child and thus not subject to being sold into slavery by jealous siblings.
Joseph is Abraham’s great-grandson, born late into a very complex and difficult family. His father Jacob had married two sisters – Leah and Rachel. Rachel was his favorite wife and they had two sons. Leah, although she was unloved and unappreciated, had given Jacob six sons. According to the custom of the time, Jacob also had four children with his wives’ maidservants. All in all, there were twelve sons in this ancient blended family – the twelve whose names later would be given to the twelve tribes of Israel.
Joseph and Benjamin, Rachel’s boys, were Jacob’s favorites. Favoritism seems to have been a family failing for Abraham and his descendants. Abraham chose Isaac over Ishmael; Isaac preferred Esau to Jacob; and now here’s Jacob doing the same thing, spoiling and petting the two younger sons, children of his favorite wife, over the other sons, who grew understandably jealous.
When Joseph was about 17 years old, he must have been pretty obnoxious. He was a tattletale to his father about his brother’s poor skills as shepherds and he bragged about dreams he’d had in which his brothers and even his father were all bowing down to him. He must have been really arrogant because Jacob even scolded his favorite for his attitude.
It all boiled over one day when Joseph, all dressed up in a fancy new robe his father had given him, showed up to lord it over his brothers while they were working. In their resentment and anger, the older brothers seized Joseph and put him in a pit to die. As they debated whether or not to kill him or just leave him there, a caravan of slave traders happened by and so they simply sold their brother into slavery, a seemingly wonderful solution. They’d gotten rid of the little pest, they had not actually had to spill his brotherly blood, AND they’d even made a profit off of him. They took his fancy coat with the long sleeves and stripes and dipped it in the blood of a goat, taking it back to their father as proof of Joseph’s unfortunate and untimely death. Jacob was inconsolable at the loss of his favorite.
Joseph, meanwhile, wound up in Egypt. First he was a slave in the house of Potiphar, an official of Pharaoh’s army. Potiphar’s wife took a liking to Joseph, however, and when he refused her advances, she had him thrown in jail on trumped up charges. While in prison, Joseph made friends with several prisoners who were well connected to Pharaoh, interpreting the dreams of two of them with great precision and accuracy.
Because of his ability to interpret dreams, after a number of years in prison, Joseph finally came to the attention of Pharaoh who’d been having some bad dreams himself. Because of Joseph’s ability to interpret the dreams he was able to save Egypt from the devastating effects of a famine, and Pharaoh placed him in a position of great power and influence in the Egyptian government.
Finally, in an incredibly ironic and satisfying twist of fate, Joseph finds himself in a position of power and authority over his own brothers who have come to Egypt looking for food for their starving families. The dreams of the arrogant boy come true when his family bows down to him. The same brothers who had thrown him into a pit and sold him into slavery are now the powerless ones, the ones in fear for their lives, and Joseph holds the power of life and death over them.
If all we had were these verses that we shared just a few minutes ago, it would seem that forgiveness came easily to Joseph, that upon identifying his brothers, he wept tears of joy, threw himself on them in a great big bear hug, and said “Forget about it!” Well, actually what he said was, “Don’t be distressed or angry with yourselves! God sent me before you to preserve life.”
But Joseph doesn’t say these words of absolution when he first recognizes his brothers. Instead he plays a few dirty tricks on them. He pretends not to know them, he accuses them of spying, he throws them into jail for a few days, and he demands that after they take their grain home, they return to Egypt with Benjamin, their youngest brother. He even holds one brother hostage to guarantee their return.
When they finally return, only after all the grain has run out and they have no other choice, they bring Benjamin with them and Joseph has his own silver cup slipped into Benjamin’s bag, setting him up to be charged with stealing. And at that point, Judah, one of Joseph’s older brothers, who way back when argued for selling Joseph rather than killing him, pleads for Benjamin’s release for the sake of their father Jacob, who could not at his advanced age bear the grief of losing yet another son.
It is only then, with the life of his father on the line, that Joseph makes himself known to his brothers and offers reconciliation. Even though he knew who they were earlier, even though he was touched by their presence, and moved to private tears, he could not keep himself from toying with them, manipulating them, giving them just a little taste of their own medicine.
Joseph is no great paragon of virtue, any more than his father, or grandfather, or great grandfather were! He may have been chosen by God to be God’s instrument, but he is a very human instrument, as were his forebears. He is capable of deceit, of selfishness, even of cruelty. But you and I know that people can change; attitudes can change; understanding can change and we can have compassion for the weakness of others.
Over the years, Joseph has matured and so have his brothers. They have never forgiven themselves for what they did to him; the guilt of that selfish act has burdened them throughout their lives. They see their present situation as punishment for their sins. Because of what they did, they have had to watch their father grow old in sorrow, knowing full well they are the cause. They have come to love their younger brother Benjamin, even though he is Joseph’s full brother and only their half-brother. They don’t feel jealousy toward him as they did with Joseph; they are not in competition with him. They know how special Benjamin is to their father, and instead of resenting it, they want to protect that relationship; they are determined to save Benjamin. And Judah even offers himself in exchange for him. Their earlier fear and insecurity have been replaced by guilt and regret, and then by love.
It is their obvious change of heart that unlocks Joseph’s heart and enables him finally to let go of his anger, and to speak words of consolation rather than vengeance to his brothers. When he says “God sent me before you to preserve life,” he does not blame God for the actions of his brothers. He lays that squarely on them, when he identifies himself saying, “I am your brother Joseph, whom YOU sold into Egypt.” He does, however, affirm that God was able to use his brothers’ sinful actions for God’s own purposes. The brothers may have had one evil, selfish action in mind, but God was able to use their action to bring about good.
In our reading from Romans 8 this morning, Paul says much the same thing. “All things work together for good to them who love God.” God can and does work in even the most dreadful of circumstances, often in hidden and unnoticed ways. And God’s ways are trustworthy and reliable, and will ultimately bear fruit. It doesn’t mean that the bad things aren’t really bad, or that they don’t really matter. Sometimes the bad is truly terrible and the good may seem powerless against that terrible reality.
Nowhere in Joseph’s story does it say that he was without anxiety or pain while in the pit thinking he would die or when he was forgotten in an Egyptian prison. Nowhere does Joseph say in the midst of his tribulation “everything is going to be just fine; this is all a part of God’s plan.”
He can only say, “God sent me” in retrospect, in hindsight. Only in looking back can he see that despite all the bad things he’s experienced, it is a good thing that he is in Egypt at that time, and that because he is there, he can make a difference. People will be fed. His brothers and his father will be fed. His family will not die. And the descendants of Abraham will continue to thrive.
In my own life I can recall things that have happened that have been terrible, but because of them, I have wound up in places I never thought I’d go doing things I never thought I’d do. Maybe you’ve had those experiences too, and have been able in hindsight to see the hand of God at work in the mess to bring something good out of it.
And for us as a church, there is no doubt that the fire last year was a bad thing. God did not set the church on fire to teach us a lesson or to give us a growth opportunity or to test our faith. The church bad wiring. But I don’t believe that any of us can doubt that God has worked to bring good things from the bad of April 15, 2013. In retrospect, we can look back over the last 15 months and see all kinds of evidence of good things, of
gracious things, of downright miraculous things. Paul is right; nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
In remembering the story of Joseph and his deeply troubled family, we are given encouragement that even in our own sometimes troubled and dysfunctional relationships, guilty fear can be assuaged; grief can be resolved; and revenge can become unnecessary because forgiveness and healing are possible.
Joseph’s story also reminds of God’s willingness to work in and through flawed, limited human beings in order to bring about God’s own purposes that are often unseen at the time and become clear only in hindsight. It’s amazing, isn’t it, that through people just like Joseph way back then, and people just like you and like me right here and right now, that the way of God is accomplished? Thanks be to God. Amen.