Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, July 18, 2018
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Good Out Of Evil

 Our Old Testament lesson today is the climax of one of the longest and, I think, one of the best stories in the Bible.  I can’t read the whole story, since it takes place over the course of about six or seven chapters, but let’s at least take the time to summarize so that we can understand where we are.  

 The main character of this story is Joseph.  Joseph is one of the 12 sons of Jacob, whom God renamed Israel.  Jacob was the grandson of Abraham, and his 12 sons would become the patriarchs of the 12 tribes of Israel.  

 Jacob had 12 sons with four different wives.  Jacob’s favorite wife was Rachel, who died giving birth to her second son, Benjamin.  Joseph was the first son born to Rachel, so he had a special place in Jacob’s heart.  It wasn’t fair to his brothers, but fair or not, Joseph was the favorite son.  And Jacob spoiled Joseph, such as with his gift of the “coat of many colors,” or as it might be better known today, “The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”  

 Joseph didn’t do much to help to alleviate his brothers’ jealousy.  Joseph had dreams in which his brothers bowed down to him.  I guess it was one thing for him to have those dreams, but then he went on to tell his brothers all about them.  That really put them over the edge.  And they decided they’d be better off without Joseph.  

So they cooked up a plan to be rid of him.  At first, they planned to kill him.  But cooler heads prevailed, and instead they sold him as a slave to a passing caravan on its way to Egypt.  

In Egypt, Joseph became the slave of a man named Potiphar.  He worked hard for Potiphar and earned his respect.  Potiphar even promoted him to the head of his household.  Things seemed to be turning around for Joseph.  But then he caught the eye of Potiphar’s wife who wanted to have an affair with him.  Joseph spurned her advances, so as retaliation, she accused him of rape and he was thrown in prison.

In prison, Joseph met two men who had served in Pharaoh’s household.  Each of these men had a prophetic dream, and Joseph interpreted their dreams.  Eventually, one of them was released from prison and returned to Pharaoh’s service.

Some time later, Pharaoh began having troubling dreams.  His servant remembered how Joseph had interpreted dreams, and so Joseph was summoned from prison to interpret.  He heard Pharaoh’s dreams and God revealed to him that there

would be seven years of abundance in Egypt, followed by seven years of famine and hardship.  Joseph recommended to Pharaoh that he begin stockpiling immediately in anticipation of the coming famine.

Pharaoh rewarded Joseph by placing him as second-in-command of all of Egypt and appointing him to oversee the collection of grain to prevent the famine.  And sure enough the famine came, not just to Egypt, but to their neighbors as well.  

Nine years later, Jacob and his family were starving.  They knew there was grain in Egypt, so Jacob sent his ten oldest sons to buy grain.  And this brought them face to face with Joseph, but they didn’t know it.  When Joseph saw them, he carried out an elaborate ruse to bring all 11 of his brothers there to Egypt and to see what they had become in the intervening years.  Were they still the kind of men who would sell their brother into slavery, or had they matured?  After learning the answers to his questions about them, Joseph revealed his true identity to them.  And this is the account of that revelation:

Genesis 45:1-15

The story of Joseph raises all kinds of interesting questions about something that theologians call Providence.  The word providence basically means “How God works in the world.”  How does God maintain and govern the universe?  How does God accomplish his purposes in the midst of human choices and human actions?  

We touched on this subject three Sundays ago when we looked at Romans 8:28, which reads, “We know that God works all things together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose.”  The question is:  If we are free, if we truly make our own choices, then how does God act in this world without taking away from our freedom?  If we were robots, God could simply make us do what he wants us to do.  But God created us to be free.  So how can God accomplish his purposes when very often the accomplishment of his purposes depends on our actions?  

I was reading about this passage, and I came across a quote that I liked.  It went like this:  God works in, with, and above human actions.  I’m not sure I completely understand that, but I like it.  Sometimes God works in the midst of what we are doing.  Sometimes he prompts us to act by his Holy Spirit and we are aware that we are helping to accomplish God’s will.  And sometimes we have no idea that God is at all interested in what we are doing or that it is being used by God for some special purpose.

We know from Scripture that past, present, and future are not the same to God as they are to us.  God makes it clear that he can see and understand the future in ways we can’t.  And he can influence events in the present to bring about a future that only he can see.  

Joseph says to his brothers, “It was not you who sent me here.  It was God.”  How do we take his statement?  Obviously, it was his brothers’ actions that led to him being taken to Egypt.  Did God give Joseph his dreams to prompt his brothers to act?  Or were the dreams simply God’s way of letting Joseph know in the future that God was at work in his life in the past?  I don’t know.  

One thing I think we can say about God’s providence is that God often does not interfere with the workings of this world.  God knew the famine was coming on Egypt.  And if God is all-powerful, he certainly could have stopped it from coming.  But he did not.  That would seem to indicate that God allows the processes of nature to happen, at least much of the time.  Instead, he chose to use Joseph in order to prevent the catastrophic effects of the famine.

And I think that reveals something about God:  In the midst of our sinful actions, God acts to accomplish his own purposes.  I think in this story we can see two specific purposes of God.

First, God desires to preserve life.  Joseph’s arrival in Egypt.  His ability to interpret dreams.  The dreams of Pharaoh’s servants and Pharaoh himself.  Joseph’s wisdom and ability to manage things.  All of these were in one way or another orchestrated by God to preserve the life of Jacob’s family.  And it was obviously not just the lives of Jacob and his family who were preserved through God’s actions.  All of Egypt and even their neighbors were preserved through the working of God.  

In order for the rest of God’s purposes in this world to come about, life must be preserved in one way or another.  For God’s promises to Abraham and his descendants to come about, Jacob’s family had to survive.  

The second specific purpose of God that we see in this story is restoration.  In fact, there are several acts of restoration.

One that might not be obvious to us is the restoration of land.  The book of Genesis begins with Adam and Eve “losing” the good land of Eden because of their sin. 

But in the final chapters, Jacob’s family is restored to a good land, Goshen, where God will bless them in the coming centuries.  

The most obvious restoration in the story is the restoration of Jacob’s family.  The son he thought he had lost, his favorite son, is ultimately restored to him.  

And along with that, Joseph and his brothers are restored.  Let’s not miss the chance to see that this is also a powerful story of forgiveness and reconciliation.  And it is Joseph who takes the initiative in reconciliation.  He was the one who was wronged.  He could have said to himself, “I have every right to make my brothers beg for my forgiveness.”  But instead he begged them to be reconciled to him and to forgive themselves for their sins against him.  Too often, when we are the ones who have been wronged, we want the other person to come to us begging for forgiveness.  But when Jesus talked about reconciliation, he made it clear that both sides having the obligation to seek peace.  

Does the fact that God used the actions of Joseph’s brothers to accomplish something good take away from the sinfulness of what they did to him?  No.  Their actions were wrong no matter how God used them.  But we can credit Joseph for having the spiritual insight to see how God used evil for good.  And I think it did make it easier for him to forgive. 

And that’s what the story is all about:  Good coming out of evil.  In chapter 50, after Jacob’s death, Joseph’s brothers are afraid that he has only been kind to them out of respect for their father.  They become afraid he will kill them with Jacob gone.  But he reassures them by saying, “You meant it for evil, but God used it for good.”

Let’s go back again to that verse from Romans:  “God works in all things to accomplish good for those who love him.”  I don’t think God just works good for those who love him.  I think the difference is that we who love God are able to see how he works to accomplish his purposes in the midst of evil.  And sometimes, we are given glimpses into the mind of God, just as Joseph was.  And I think if we seek God, he will reveal to us how even the worst circumstances of our lives are used by him to accomplish good and to help us become stronger, wiser, and more caring toward others.

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