Broad Brook Congregational Church
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 17, 2014
Joseph, the Man Part 2
Welcome to the continuing saga of Jacob’s family. Previously on “All My Sons:” Joseph was the center of Jacob’s affection and his brothers’ jealousy. We last heard that Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers and on his way to Egypt. We spent time “in the pit with Joseph,” so to speak, with no word from God and finally were left hanging on the edge of a cliff without knowing Joseph’s fate—left without hope.
Part 2 begins with Joseph, all grown up and reuniting with his brothers in Egypt. But what has happened between his bondage and now? The story of Joseph begins in chapter 37 and ends in chapter 50. The lectionary gives us only two snippets of his life’s journey. I think it is important to at least have a summary of what has happened to Joseph in order to fully grasp the meaning and impact of today’s episode on Joseph and us.
Once Joseph arrives in Egypt he is sold to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh. There Joseph prospers and earns the trust of Potiphar. Potiphar’s wife however tries to seduce Joseph and when she is unable to entice Joseph into her bed, she tells a lie to her husband implicating Joseph. Potiphar throws Joseph in jail with other prisoners of the king. (There are nine references to God bracketing the 39th chapter of Genesis, thus revealing the key theme: God has not abandoned Joseph.) “God’s presence is a more unobtrusive, behind the scenes type of presence than is common up to this point in Genesis. God does not act alone, but works in and through Joseph and his considerable competence in the political sphere to bring blessing” (The Discipleship Study Bible: NRSV).
While in jail, Joseph displays his talent as a dream interpreter for the prisoners’ dreams. While the prisoners’ dreams are not from God, the interpretations given by Joseph are from God. Pharaoh gets word that within his jail there is a prisoner who interprets dreams and sends for Joseph. It is Joseph who interprets Pharaoh’s dreams but it is God who gives him the insight to interpret the dreams properly. Joseph’s own dreams led to his slavery, but it is the dreams of others that result in his release from bondage. Pharaoh says, “Since God has shown you all this, there is no one so discerning and wise as you. You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command: only with regard to the throne will I be greater than you”(vv. 39-40). Joseph was then 30 years old.
Then come the seven years of plenty and the seven years of famine that Pharaoh’s dreams foretold. Because Joseph was so wise politically, economically, and socially everyone in the known world (including Jacob’s family) seeks help from Egypt—seeks grain in order to survive the years of famine. When Joseph’s brothers come seeking help they bow down before him and although Joseph recognizes them they do not recognize Joseph. Joseph remembers the dreams he had dreamed about them. He said to them, “You are spies; you have come to see the nakedness of the land (42:9)!” They refute the claim. Joseph then puts them to a test. As a result the treatment of Joseph by his brothers comes full circle. The brothers acknowledge their guilt and say that God has found out. In saying that they witness to the activity of God and Joseph in exposing their guilt.
This leads us into today’s episode. We move from the despair of last week to this week’s overflowing joy. Time has changed all these men. Joseph has matured into a compassionate and generous man. The brothers are bent with age and the effects of their struggles.
When Joseph meets his brothers, his act of forgiveness towards them is amazing in its generosity and brings the themes of forgiveness and providence together. He becomes so emotional that he weeps so loudly that supposedly Pharaoh can hear his wailing at his house. Joseph’s first words to his brothers, “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt” (45:4b), must have shocked them.
Joseph immediately seeks to calm their obvious anxiety and guilt. The reassurance he offers not only indicates forgiveness but also the reason behind God’s hand at work in his life. God had a plan for the Israelites and now Joseph sees himself in that plan. “God sent me before you to preserve life, Joseph tells his brothers (45:5). God recognizes Joseph’s gifts and uses him to help God’s chosen people to survive the famine and go on to be as numerous as the stars just as God had promised. Joseph is bubbling over with joy and compassion and tells the brothers to gather their father, families, and possessions and move to Egypt so that Joseph can care for them in the struggles that lie ahead.
Before we rush off in a celebration of Joseph’s deep faith and our ability to now see God’s purpose in this long narrative of Joseph’s life, let’s spend some time looking at Joseph’s understanding of God’s will. Last week we heard that one scholar said Joseph “listened to his life” to try and understand God and God’s will. Walter Brueggemann, a Hebrew text scholar, claims, “Joseph, man of faith, takes a second hard look at his life. He is willing to host the hidden, inscrutable, unresolved purpose of God for his life that is beyond his control…[and] trust a purpose for his life that is larger than his own horizon”(Taking a Second, Painful Look” in The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power, and Weakness). Brueggemann goes on to say of the “hiddenness” of God at work in our lives, the “something hidden, inscrutable, playful, and unresolved” requires trust in God’s purposes even when we can’t see or understand them.
We would like to think that life is not random and without purpose, yet we have difficulty sometimes glimpsing the why of things that happen around us. It is wrong to see God as a puppeteer who made the brothers do something malicious in order to accomplish something good in the end. To see God in that light is to deny our human freedom and responsibility.
God acts in mysterious wondrous ways that are good. Joseph has had an eye opening experience. He sees not only that God has been working in his life but also working in ways on a larger scale that goes far beyond Joseph’s individual life. Joseph understands that God is at work in his own life, but as we engage in this narrative those ways that make our typical measurements of God’s providence seem inadequate. Sometimes we can’t see the largeness.
What would happen if instead of a puppeteer we saw God as an artist? How would that change our understanding of God’s providence? Barbara Brown Taylor says God is more like an artist, “like one of those genius sculptors who can make art out of anything.” For such an artist “nothing is too bent to be used—not even tragedies, not even bad decisions, not even plain human meanness. She describes Joseph as a “living work of art” (“Listening to Your Life,” in Gospel Medicine). When Joseph looked at his life, he did not see a series of senseless tragedies. He saw a lighted path…” (Gospel Medicine).
A word of caution is necessary here. It is irresponsible to encourage victims to see God’s plan in the abuse enacted upon them. There must be sensitivity to the suffering of victims who are damaged or injured. The larger arc in our story is one of freely given extravagant forgiveness on Joseph’s part that gives him great joy and gives his brothers relief.
We have all experienced tragedies in our lives. If we can look beyond those events and take a hard look at our lives we might just see the hidden, inscrutable, playful, and unresolved work of God in our lives, and when we can’t see God’s fingerprints all over our lives we must trust God—trust in God the artist—who can make art out of anything. For God nothing is too bent to be used—not even tragedies, not even bad decisions, not even plain human meanness.
God works in mysterious wondrous ways. Life with God as a real and vital part of it is much, much larger, shattering our little categories of control, permitting us to say that God’s purposes led us well beyond ourselves to give and to forgive, to create a life we would not have imagined.
It is my hope that you take a hard look at your life and when you do that you see God’s fingerprints all over your life—beyond the tragedies, the bad decisions, and human meanness and then give thanks to God.
In the greatest of hope may it be so.