Monday, September 23, 2013

The Great Story: From Pawn to Prince - Joseph and the Ultimate Conspiracy

Preached on Sunday, September 22, 2013

Scripture readings: Genesis 37:2-36; 50:15-26

In Sunday school a class was learning about Adam and Eve and their family. The teacher asked her class, “Why do you think that Cain wanted to kill his brother Abel?” One boy raised his hand and said, “Maybe it was because they had to share the same bedroom.”
July 2013: Manito Park, Spokane, WA
The Bible is full of terrible stories about rivalry, and anger, and hatred, and violence; even within families. The Bible is full of similar stories about societies and nations. As terrible as such stories are, there is nothing unusual about them. Such stories are in the news every day, if we have the stomach to pay attention.
There are people who will argue that such a world is proof there is no God; at least no good, loving, and powerful God. The Bible is an honest book. It never covers up the terrible state of the world and of the people in it.
There is something behind the Bible that insists on putting a good, and loving, and powerful God right in the middle of this terrible world. The claim of the Bible is that this strange “something” behind the Bible (this “something” that insists on putting God right in the middle of this terrible world) is none other than God himself.
The Bible dares to say that, when Jacob’s sons captured their younger brother and contemplated killing him and sold him into slavery instead, “The Lord was with Joseph.” (Genesis 39:2) When the wife of Joseph’s owner falsely accused him of attempted rape, and got him put in prison, the Bible dares to tell us that, “The Lord was with him.” (Genesis 39:20) When Jacob’s family was in danger of starving and Jacob decided, at last, to go down to Egypt where there was food, the Lord spoke to him, “I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again.” (Genesis 46:4)
And so the Lord is with those who are hated and abused and betrayed by their families. The Lord is with those who are falsely accused and unjustly imprisoned. The Lord is with refugees fleeing from disasters and migrating over borders into foreign lands to seek a better life, or to seek their very survival. The Lord is present in a terrible world.
The Lord is more than present. The Lord has purposes and plans in the middle of such a world. The Lord works out those plans, even in the middle of the most terrible stories of evil done by humans to their fellow humans.
Joseph never forgot the day when he listened to his brothers discussing his murder until they changed their minds and decided to sell him into slavery instead. It was a day that the brothers, themselves, never forgot. They could never forget the grief their actions brought to their father.
Joseph seemed to forgive them, but (more than once) his forgiveness seemed impossible to them. They couldn’t comprehend Joseph not trying to get his revenge, especially when their father finally died.
Joseph had to weep when he heard about their fear of him. When they came to ask for his forgiveness, he told them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:19-20)
This is never actually explained. It is simply given to us, hard as it is to understand. “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good.”
Many people have misunderstood what Joseph was saying. It does not mean that God meant, or willed, the evil intentions of his brothers. God didn’t have to manipulate the minds of the brothers in order to get them to think badly and hatefully of their brother. God didn’t have to plant thoughts in their heads so that they would want to do Joseph in or get rid of him in some way. They could be counted on to will that evil on their own initiative.
In my family, I am the oldest of three children. I have two sisters: one about 2 ½ years younger than I am, and the other about 8 years younger than I am.
Because I can remember when I was a baby, I can remember a book that my mom read to me soon after the time my first sister was born. It was about a little boy who got a younger sister. It was about how he was jealous of her, and how mad he was at having a younger sister who got so much of his parents’ attention. But the story went on to tell how he learned to love her and help take care of her. I think I know the reason why my mom bought that book for me.
I began my career as a brother with resentment. I remember crying because I couldn’t sit in the front seat with my parents anymore, because my sister had to sit there. (The standards of child safety were so different back then!) I didn’t cry from sorrow, I wept out of pure rage.
Then I took my job as older brother to heart; even though there were times when I couldn’t help still feeling the old jealousy. I knew what my job was; and even more so, when my youngest sister came along.
I protected them. I hugged them. I helped them play together and be nice to each other, even when they didn’t want to be nice. I was also selfish and mean to them.
When I meant to be bad, God only meant what was good. When I was a bad brother, the Lord would find a way to be with my sisters anyway. Even though God was with them, I was never proud of giving God all that bad raw material to work his wonders with.
God had nothing to do with my jealousy and competitive attitude. When I meant evil, God meant grace and used the raw material of his own goodness. God used his own plans for forming the lives of my sisters.
With Joseph and his brothers, God’s part was to add something completely outside of all human possibilities. God added the plan to save many lives from death by starvation. God added the plan to bring together a family, and a set of bad brothers.
The solution to the famine was the easy part. It took God years of work to get these brothers to truly care about each other. It took God even longer to get the older brothers to trust the very brother they had wronged.
We have the most difficult time trusting the God whom we have wronged by our sins against love. Just like Joseph’s brothers, we think a truly good heart is impossible in such a world. We think that God somehow wills the evil of this world in a secret conspiracy to get his good plans done.
God doesn’t have to will a storm or a famine to get his will done. God doesn’t have to will a war, or a crime, or outrageous behavior. These things simply come. Human beings, by their very nature, make some of these things so easy to come by. And God adds the otherwise impossible element of grace and goodness to the equation.
God’s plan is to overcome evil with good. Paul told us to do the same, if we wanted to follow the love and power of God. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21) Because the Lord is with us, we can find ways of bringing something seeminlgy impossible and unexpected into the terrible equation of this world. This is something that Joseph cooperated with, through faith.
The brothers thought that Joseph should hold a grudge and pay them back for all the wrongs they did to him. His answer was, “Am I in the place of God?” Maybe he meant, “Are you afraid that I might be like the God you are afraid of?”
As a person of faith it was not Joseph’s place to act as a judge in the form of a punisher. For one thing, he didn’t see even God acting like a punisher, but as a savior. As a person of faith, all Joseph could do was cooperate with what he saw God doing: being a savior.
Joseph was not able to explain the complete incompatibility between what his brothers did and what God did, but he was committed to being a part of what God did. He forgave his brothers.
The most important thing that Joseph understood was that he actually loved his brothers. When Joseph heard of their fear, he wept. The story of Joseph tells us about his weeping over his brothers more than once.
Joseph forgave his brothers not just because he trusted that God could take their evil and turn it into good. Joseph forgave his brothers for the very same reason that God could be trusted to turn their evil into good. Joseph and God both loved his brothers, just as God so loved the world. (John 3:16)
In the course of his life, Joseph became what God, himself, became in Christ: an active and redemptive victim of the sins of the world. Joseph could have made his victim status into a cause by living out a well earned resentment every day. He could have resented the wasting of his life for all those years in slavery and in prison. Instead, Joseph became a blessing to others as a slave, and as a prisoner, and (finally) as a prince in Egypt.
We can brood over our failures, and our wounds and scars, especially when we can see them having roots in the unfairness and the wrongs done by other people. We can brood over the injustices done to us. We can brood over the wasting of years and hopes.
The story of Bible gives us a different way to live. The Bible gives us a view of the world based on faith in the goodness and the faithful love of God.
It tells us a long, long story, full of many terrible things, in which God means good; in which God works for good. Paul told us this, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
God came to work for good even in the terrible stories of the injustice and the brutality that was directed against him when he came to earth as a servant. God came to work for good even when it required crucifixion and death. God added what was humanly impossible to our world by becoming human for our sake, by taking our place, and by becoming (in his own flesh and blood) the start of a new human life and a new human nature. His suffering and death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead tell us that nothing need be wasted or lost.
In 1944, when the Nazi’s were destroying their own country from within, and the allies were destroying it from all around, and from the air, there was this German pastor and teacher named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was in prison, implicated in plots and crimes against the Nazi German state. He was on his way to being hung for his involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler.
Bonhoeffer had numerous chances to escape from Germany, and even from prison, but he didn’t take those chances because he felt his own people and his own family needed him where he was. Because of his determination to face hardship and trouble (and even to seek it out) many of his friends thought that he had wasted his opportunities in life.
Here is something he wrote about this in a letter from prison to a friend. “I heard someone say yesterday that the last years had been completely wasted as far as he was concerned. I’m very glad that I have never yet had that feeling, even for a moment….for I’m firmly convinced – however strange it may seem – that my life has followed a straight and unbroken course, at any rate in its outward conduct. It has been an uninterrupted enrichment of experience, for which I can only be thankful. If I were to end my life here (in these conditions) that would have a meaning that I think I could understand…” (“Letters and Papers from Prison”, 11 April 1944, punctuation altered by me)
His life had followed a straight and unbroken course of his love for others, and his love for the truth and for the right. Whatever evil was being done, God intended it for good and so Bonhoeffer committed himself to joining the conspiracy of God.
This is the long, and sometimes terrible, great story of the Bible. It tells us that, in all the twists and turns that human beings bring to the world, God brings something completely different so that no good thing is ever wasted and no good thing is ever lost. This is what God has made possible through his cross and through his resurrection from the dead.

This is why we can take up our own part in the great story, hopefully; full of faith and hope, and love. This is the story of what God intends to do through us, through Christ in us. This is how we follow him.


  1. Dennis, good thoughts and especially in light of what is going on in our world today...lots of cruelty, hatred and abuse and still some folks thinking that men can tackle such evil and solve it...the further our society moves from seeing God as you do in this sermon, the tougher is will be to resolve our dilemma...I liked that Joseph illustratio

  2. A different way to live...didn't the early Christians call it "The Way"?
    What a wonderful sermon. I was thrilled by the story of Joseph forgiving his brothers when I was a kid and I still feel the same way every time I hear it.
    (I also wonder, what in the world was his Dad thinking, making him that special coat...what do you THINK the other brothers would make of it?)