Seward United Methodist Church
Thursday, August 16, 2018
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All Things Together For Good

Genesis 37:1-11 and 50:14-21

 Joseph is not really the most likeable character, is he?  At least not at the beginning of his story.  He’s the privileged child.  Jacob had four wives, but Rachel was his favorite, and Joseph is the first-born son of the favorite wife, so he’s the favorite son.  Daddy spoils him.  He gets special gifts, like a nice coat of many colors.  And we also learn he was a bit of a tattle tale.  If one of his brothers did something wrong, Joseph told Daddy all about it.  

 He also wasn’t very smart at the outset.  He has these dreams about his own greatness and about his brothers coming and falling down at his feet.  It’s one thing to have those dreams.  It’s another to tell everyone about them!  

 Jacob wondered what those dreams meant.  Why did God give them to Joseph?  

 Eventually, the brothers’ jealousy gets the best of them.  They hatch a plan to get rid of Joseph.  There’s some disagreement between them about just what to do.  Some want to kill him.  The oldest brother Reuben doesn’t want to do that.  So they punt and sell him as a slave to Egypt.  

 But God blessed him there.  He was sold into the house of a man named Potiphar.  And Potiphar recognized the abilities Joseph had and soon Joseph was in charge of the whole house.  He attracted attention for his skills as a manager of people and resources.  

 Unfortunately for Joseph, he also attracted another kind of attention.  Potiphar’s wife began to make advances toward him.  He consistently refused them, till finally she grew weary of it, turned against him, and accused him of an attempted rape.  Potiphar had him thrown in jail.  

 We can’t always control what happens to us in life.  Joseph had no control over the series of actions that led to his slavery.  He had no control over Potiphar’s wife’s interests.  But we certainly can control our own choices and behavior.  

 We can compare Joseph’s actions to those of his older brother Judah in chapter 38.  Judah promised his son in marriage to a woman named Tamar, but then went back on his word.  Tamar got her revenge by dressing up as a prostitute and seducing Judah.  Joseph resisted temptation, and Judah never bothered to put up a struggle.  

 So Joseph ended up in prison for doing the right thing.  I have to think that was hard on him.  It’s always hard to suffer for doing what’s right.  But he was in the right place.  He was where God wanted him to be.  And I think we should take something away from that:  Obedience to God does not always lead to ease or comfort.  Too often we shy away from difficulty on the assumption that “God opens doors,” in other words, God makes the right path the easy path.  And that’s not always the case.  Sometimes the right way is the difficult way.

 In prison, Joseph continued to gain experience as a manager that he would need later.  Before long he was in charge of everything that happened in the prison, too.  

 And it was in prison that Joseph met Pharaoh’s chief baker and cupbearer, each of whom had fallen out of favor for some reason.  And perhaps you know the story.  Each of them has a dream that night.  Joseph has been gifted of God with the ability to interpret the meaning of dreams.  Joseph interprets their dreams, and sure enough, the interpretations come to pass.  The baker ends up dead, but the cupbearer goes back to Pharaoh, restored to good graces.  

 He forgets all about Joseph for two years, until Pharaoh begins to have disturbing dreams.  Suddenly, he remembers, “There was a Hebrew in prison who could interpret dreams.”  Joseph is summoned to Pharaoh.  He interprets the dream, revealing that Egypt will have seven years of abundance followed by seven years of hardship.  Someone needs to prepare the nation for the coming famine, someone with experience and wisdom as a manager.  And Pharaoh chooses Joseph, who had learned to manage Potiphar’s household and to manage the prison.  Pharaoh elevates Joseph to the place of second-in-command of all of Egypt.

 At this time in history, Egypt was divided.  Lower Egypt, which was the northern part of the country, lower on the Nile River, was controlled by foreigners called the Hyksos, who were of Semitic origin.  This is the reason why the Pharaoh welcomed Joseph’s family.  It’s also the reason why several hundred years later, there was a Pharaoh who had no knowledge of Joseph.  The “true” Egyptians in Upper Egypt gained enough strength to take back control of Lower Egypt and removed the memory of the Hyksos Dynasty.  That becomes important later on, in the story of Moses.

 Eventually, Joseph is reunited with his brothers.  When the famine becomes bad enough in Canaan, they come to Egypt to buy grain.  

 Joseph tests them.  What has become of their character in the 20 years since they sold their own brother as a slave?  We learn that their betrayal of Joseph has haunted them.  They didn’t all agree with it, so it’s become a source of contention.  And even the ones who agreed to it, feel guilt over it.  And they are sad at the way that it devastated their father Jacob.  So now they’ve become over-protective of their youngest brother, the other child of Rachel, Benjamin. Joseph uses their protection of Benjamin to test them, and finally he’s convinced that they are sorry for their actions.  And then he reveals himself to them for his true identity.  

 He says to them in 45:5, “Don’t be angry with yourselves that you did this, for God did it.  He sent me here ahead of you to preserve your lives.”  

 This raises one of the great theological issues of Scripture.  What is the relationship of human activity and divine activity?  Who really sent Joseph to Egypt?  Was it God or his brothers?  

 God turned their evil intent into a good result.  Did God therefore cause their actions?  Or did God only use their actions?  God gave Joseph the dreams that spurred their jealousy on.  How does that relate to their actions?  Was that God prompting them?  There are several options here:  

One is that we can say it was only the brothers who sent Joseph to Egypt.  God was uninvolved completely, not even necessary.  Only they sent him to Egypt.  The rest was just good luck.  Not really the best option.  

The second option is that it was only God that sent Joseph to Egypt.  God caused the brothers’ actions that sent Joseph, so it was really only God acting.  But then God becomes the source of everything, even evil.  So that’s not a very attractive option either.

The third option is somewhere in the middle.  Both human and divine intentions are at work, one for good and the other for evil.  People can, of course, resist God’s intentions, but God in his infinite wisdom, draws the evil intentions of the brothers into a larger story and works them into a good result.  

God can do that.  And of course, that’s something very difficult for us to understand.  We can’t see the future.  We don’t know what will happen because of our actions.  But God does.  God exists outside of time as we know it.  So he can see the

results of our actions in the present in a way that we just can’t understand.  It’s marvelous, but it’s also mysterious.  The Epistle to the Romans says it this way, “God works all things together for the good of those he loves.”  

In all things, God works to preserve goodness and life.  In the story of Joseph, we find that the book of Genesis has come full circle.  In the beginning, God created a world of goodness and life.  That world was spoiled by human rebellion against God.  But God is always at work to preserve goodness and life.  People can resist God’s will, but ultimately, God is God, and his purposes will prevail.

I find the story of Joseph to be a cathartic, healing story.  But one that we can only appreciate fully when have the wisdom to look back on our own lives and see God’s providential hand at work.  Have there been events or circumstances in your life that made you feel like a Joseph, suffering for no apparent reason, maybe even for doing the right thing?  But then later, you were able to see God’s providence as God turned evil intent into good result?  If so, you probably appreciate Joseph’s story a lot.

One last aspect of the story:  Joseph offers forgiveness to his brothers in chapter 45.  But it’s not until after Jacob dies and they begin to wonder what Joseph will do to them in chapter 50 that they come to him, seeking forgiveness.  The fact that God used their evil intent to do something good does not take away the fact that it was wrong.  

Two things to notice:  One is that Joseph forgave them long before they ever asked for it.  Forgiveness does not require repentance on the part of the other person.  Reconciliation does, and that’s what we see in chapter 50.  And Joseph weeps to think that the reconciliation is not yet done.

 The other thing I want you to see is that Joseph not only forgives them, but also reassures them that he will care for them and their families.  Real forgiveness is more than just letting go of the wrong.  Real forgiveness is actively seeking the well-being of the other.  Real forgiveness is loving those who have hurt us.  If you say, “Okay, I’ll forgive you, but I never want anything to do with you again,” that’s not real forgiveness.  Real forgiveness is “I forgive you and I will love you and seek to bless you in any way I can.”  

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