"God Intended It for Good"
Scripture - Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, July 7, 2013
If you enjoy a good story, the Book of Genesis can fire your imagination. It includes several tales that reveal profound insights into the human condition. It begins with two stories of creation that affirm the basic goodness of the material world while acknowledging that evil has also slithered onto the scene. There is the tale of the great flood and how Noah's family helped the human race reboot after a disastrous start. There is the grandiose attempt to build a tower that reaches into the heavens and the resulting babble after the collapse of the foolish enterprise. Things finally get a great deal more promising with the adventures of Abraham and Sarah, but the feud between Jacob and Essau makes you wonder if Homo sapiens would rather draw blood than make peace.
This morning's text is a snippet of the longest story in Genesis €“ the fourteen chapter saga of Joseph. Today's lesson begins the story and our narrator reports that Joseph is 17. He is Jacob's eleventh son out of twelve, but in his father's eyes, he is always nÃºmero uno. His status is known to everyone, no more so than to his eleven brothers. To say they cannot stand the favorite son is to under calculate their feelings by a factor of fifty.
Perhaps you know the sting of not being the favored child. Whether your parent genuinely loved a sibling more than you or that was simply your perception, hardly matters. Your perception became your reality. Time and again you strove to be as cherished, as prized as the parent's pet, but eventually you accepted the fact that there was nothing you could do to win equal admiration. You were always handed the silver medal; never the gold.
Father Jacob has the bad sense to make his favoritism known to all his sons. He bestows upon Joseph a special coat. A coat of many colors or with long sleeves €“ the Hebrew is unclear; but the significance of the coat is altogether clear. Joseph got a Lexus, his brothers all got Fords.
It is bad enough that Joseph's brothers are filled with jealousy at Daddy's shining star, but Joseph does not know when to give it a break. He drives the wedge deeper when he gathers his brothers around him and tells them that he has had the most fascinating dream. He dreamt that they were binding sheaves in the field and his sheaf rose and stood upright and the brother's sheaves bowed down to his sheaf. You can bet they just loved hearing about that dream!
The brothers' jealousy of Joseph and their fury toward their father finally erupts. One day, when they are far from home, the brothers hatch a dastardly plan. They decide to kill Joseph. And they likely would have carried out fratricide had Reuben not intervened and convinced his brothers of an alternative way to rid themselves of their nemesis. They can simply throw him into a nearby pit and let things take their course.
The brothers agree to go along with the modified plan and when Joseph walks up to them, they jump him. They strip off his fancy coat that screams: "I'm number one!" and toss him into a pit. Then, they sit down to eat and likely compliment themselves for finally accomplishing what they have yearned to do for years.
But while they are eating, they spot a caravan heading toward Egypt and they envision a sterling opportunity. They need not kill Joseph to rid him from their lives. They can sell him as a slave and pocket a hefty profit.
Once the deed is done, they must contrive a story for their old man. They shred the special coat and dip it in the blood of a slaughtered goat. Then they feign their innocence taking the coat to their father and saying, "This could not be your son's coat, could it?"
Jacob falls apart as he imagines a wild beast devouring his son. He is inconsolable. Meanwhile, the traders sell Joseph to one of Pharaoh's officials.
It proves to be a wake-up call to Joseph. He must prove himself industrious if he is to land on his feet in this foreign land. He proves to be a quick study and advances to higher positions. However, disaster strikes again when the wife of the official makes advances. Joseph tries to steer clear of her, but her husband has him tossed into prison.
Time passes and Joseph languishes. Then, one day, the Pharaoh begins to have disturbing dreams that no one in his court can interpret. It is the perfect opening for Joseph, the dream interpreter!
Joseph tells Pharaoh that there will be seven bountiful years of harvest followed by seven years of famine. Switching from dream interpreter to strategist, Joseph recommends that Pharaoh appoint a special overseer to stockpile grain during the abundant years so that they can weather the lean years. Pharaoh is so taken by Joseph that he appoints him to this high profile position.
Joseph handles the job admirably. For seven years, he stockpiles an abundance of grain. Then, after seven years of bumper crops, the drought sets in. Famine is widespread, even as far away as Canaan, where Joseph's brothers and father still reside. Desperate to feed his family, Jacob learns that Egypt has grain to sell. He sends ten of his sons to Egypt to buy all they can, keeping only his youngest son, Benjamin, at home.
It has now been 20 years since Joseph's brothers sold him to traveling merchants. What will Joseph do when they show up and he has the upper hand?
The brothers appear before Joseph and do not recognize him. But Joseph knows who they are. He pretends to be suspicious of their motives and has them thrown into jail. After three days, Joseph agrees to sell them the grain they so desperately need, but only on condition. They must leave one brother as hostage until they return with the youngest brother.
The brothers return home and explain the situation to their father and he is greatly troubled. He has lost one son €“ so he thinks €“ another is being held hostage and now his youngest is in jeopardy. The famine worsens and there is no option but to return to Egypt to buy more grain. To secure the deal, Benjamin must accompany them.
When they reach Egypt, Joseph has prepared a great feast for them. And when Joseph lays eyes on his younger brother, it strikes that chord within him that drives emotions to the surface and readies the tear ducts. He must quickly leave the room to compose himself.
Once he has his emotions in check, he returns to the banquet to keep up the charade. Is it because he wants to squeeze them a little longer? Will he ever be able to forgive them for what they did? How easy do you find it to forgive a sibling or friend who turned on you?
Joseph devises a trick plan to arrest Benjamin for stealing. The brothers plead for his life saying that if Benjamin does not return home, it will surely put their father in his grave. Finally, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and they are stunned. They are glad that their brother is alive and incredulous that the brother they sold into slavery has saved them. However, it is not clear whether Joseph forgives them. Their relationship remains tenuous.
Eventually their father dies and all the brothers mourn his death. But the brothers worry that now that their father is gone, Joseph might seek revenge. They plead for forgiveness, even offering to become Joseph's slaves. Then Joseph utters the line that has intrigued people of faith for centuries. He says, "Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good."1
If you favor a rigid view of predestination, you can hail this passage as evidence that God controls events to play out exactly as they do. The brothers' jealousy of the 17 year-old Joseph prompted them to sell him into slavery. Had they not sold him into slavery, he would never have ended up in Egypt where he was able to save the entire family from the famine.
Most of us have experienced something bad that eventually led to something good. Perhaps a love relationship ended in disaster and you thought you would never love again; only to discover later, an even greater love. Perhaps you were devastated when you failed to get into the college of your dreams, but the school you attended opened up greater opportunities than you ever imagined.
Some of the greatest breakthroughs had their genesis in something dreadful. However, that does not lead me to embrace predestination or any notion of God controlling the events of the world.
The Scriptures are clear that we have freedom to choose how we will live. God wants us to be loving, just and generous. God does not want us to be deceptive, selfish or cruel. But we get to choose.
Each of us carries scars. You may carry a scar that was inflicted by a parent who said you would never amount to anything; who never came to your piano recital or soccer game; who criticized your weight; who still treats your siblings far better than you.
Or perhaps your good friend became jealous of your success and it drove a wedge between the two of you. Or, maybe your child blames you for his problems.
All of us also inflict wounds on others and we feel guilty that they carry the scars that we imposed. Maybe your work kept you from being as involved as you wish in your daughter's life. Or, maybe you put a supreme effort into involving your son in sports, but not the church, and now he has no spiritual foundation.
When I ponder the Joseph story, I imagine that Joseph made many decisions along the way that led to him being in a position to surprise his brothers and save the family. I suspect that after he was sold into slavery, he could have said, "Poor me," and never amounted to anything. Or, once he landed in prison, he could have given up. Or, once he rose to a prominent position and held the fate of his brothers in his hands, he could have sought revenge for the cruel way they treated him. But he chose forgiveness and grace which changed the course of the lives of everyone in the family and became a ripple that impacted countless generations to come. The way we respond to an adverse situation can be more consequential than the situation itself.
God envisions our best future given our current situation. God interacts with the world as it is, constantly seeking what is good for all. God wants us to embrace the best possibilities before us, but does not take away our freedom to make decisions. God's Spirit speaks to the depths of our soul, urging but not coercing, calling but not controlling. Thus, we are free to make decisions that drive us further away from divine dreams or draw us closer to the beautiful outcomes God desires.
Patty Anglin had a rough childhood. She was sent away to a harsh boarding school where each day was a trial. Her learning difficulties were not only obstacles to academic achievement; they also made her feel inferior to the other students. She often felt all alone and could not envision life ever improving.
But rather than continuing her dreadful existence in adulthood, she devoted her life to working with children who were abandoned by their parents. Patty says the misery she experienced in childhood enabled her "to understand the feelings of abandonment, loneliness, and the sense of not belonging." Because of her turbulent childhood, she works with children from abusive, dysfunctional, and broken homes." For years, she chaired the Children's Health Alliance of Wisconsin, an organization that has improved the lives of scores of children.2
All of us experience hard days, hazards and hatefulness, and if we allow them to dictate our future, we may never get out of the pit. But if we embrace divine virtues and seek the guidance of God's Spirit, we can spawn surprising outcomes.
The Great Prayer
By the Reverend Thomas R. Stout
Eternal and faithful God, your presence and your love are ever around us. And so we pray: O God, receive our prayers.
We pray especially this day for those who have lost their lives while serving and defending the lives others, the homes of neighbors, this country of us all, and all who seek your peace. O God, receive our prayers. (Silent Prayer)
Grant wisdom and insight to all who press for responsible governments; equitable treatment; peaceful streets, work places, and homes - be it in nations like Egypt or Syria or Afghanistan, or our own city. O God, receive our prayers. (Silent Prayer)
And then we pray that you would strengthen us and those dear to us. In love may we speak truthfully and openly in times of testing, or of trial, or even of joy. O God, receive our prayers. (Silent Prayer)
Now hear us, O Christ, and breathe your Spirit upon us and upon this bread and this cup. May these become for us your body, vibrant with life, healing, renewing, and making us whole. As this food and drink change into us, so may we be changed into you, loving and caring in this world.
And now we are told to pray as Jesus taught, praying:
Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name,
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil:
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
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