Sept. 9/10 Joseph: From Slave to Deputy
Scripture: Select Readings from Genesis 37 and 42
Today we continue The Story, a 31-week journey where God sets out to redeem a broken creation and makes it possible for us to be in a loving relationship with him. In today’s story, we find ourselves moving from the old man Abraham to a young man named Joseph.
I thought it just a bit strange this week, with the news reporting much on the so-called “Dreamers,” the children of undocumented immigrants, that we find ourselves considering a young teenager whose life was lived mostly in a country not his own. As a 17 year old, Joseph was the second youngest son of his father Jacob, and he was about the age most of us start asking existential questions, questions about being and purpose. It’s obvious from the text that Joseph’s brothers do much of the heavy lifting around the farm, which means that Joseph has plenty of time to sit around and think. I imagine Joseph asked the questions we all find ourselves asking from time to time, questions such as: Does my life have meaning? What is my purpose? And Is God working through me?
It’s that final question I find to be interesting because God seems to be mysteriously absent in first part of Joseph’s life. Unlike the story of Abraham, where God is plastered all over the chapters and we undoubtedly know that God is moving in and through Abraham, God seemingly takes a back seat in this young man’s story. We can see how that might happen. I bet it’s probably happened to many of us. We get so caught up in life that God is kind of put on the back burner. I mean, we have careers to plan for, children to raise, community responsibilities that we can’t neglect… And if someone were to write a book on our lives, they might very well ask the same question, “Where is God in the midst of your story? “ So maybe Joseph and his family were moving through life quite unaware of God’s activity. But even if this was the case, or even if they were simply ignoring God, God was still very much telling his story through them. So is God at work through Joseph’s life? Of course, even if he couldn’t see it!
The first indication we have of God at work can be pinpointed to a dream that lodges itself in Joseph’s consciousness. This dream becomes a part of Joseph’s identity, and you might even say his calling. We can say a lot about Joseph’s life, but we can never separate his life from this dream. And it’s a pretty phenomenal one. In this dream, which God actually gives in two different ways, Joseph sees his older brothers bowing before him. Who wouldn’t want that? This is a great reversal of his life. The younger one will rule over the older ones. The weaker one will become the stronger one. And as the excitement grows inside, he can’t keep it to himself. He goes and finds his family and blurts out, “Hey everybody, guess what you’ll be doing someday…” And you can just imagine the reaction. Whatever quiet life they enjoyed had now been disrupted. Whatever normalcy they counted on had been uprooted. His dad was embarrassed and offended, and the brothers? Well, they were livid and filled with jealousy and hatred.
The more familiar we become with Scripture, the more we notice that we should pay attention to the “older brother” reactions. Much like the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son, it’s the reactions of Joseph’s older brothers that cause the most division. Already jaded by their father’s preferential treatment of their younger brother, they couldn’t bear the thought of letting little brother win the day. And so they plot to kill this dreamer in hopes of also crushing the dream. They strip him of his robe and strip him of his dignity, then they mock him and shame him and finally humiliate him by throwing him into a cistern where he will rot and die. But then as they see oncoming travelers, they get another idea. Instead of killing the dreamer, why not make some money off of him? And so they sell him for silver and watch with pride as this band of travelers take this young man far, far away. But what they could not see, or maybe what they refused to see, was that this was never Joseph’s dream; it was God’s dream. And God does not easily abandon his dreams.
The story quickly shifts to Egypt, which was the international superpower of the day. Nobody messed with the Egyptians. And in Egypt, it certainly seems that this dream has no fighting chance to survive. Joseph is quickly sold into slavery, and then falsely accused of seducing his master’s wife, and then finally thrown into jail, which probably didn’t feel too different than the old cistern. In the bowels of this ancient superpower, in a country he didn’t ask to live in, Joseph finds himself out of the public eye: lowly, marginalized and largely forgotten. And this is exactly where God begins to resurrect the dream.
It’s probably no coincidence, but this is the first time we hear of God’s presence mentioned in the story. With Joseph unable to do anything- he can’t run, he can’t fill up his calendar with to-do items, he can’t stay busy- we begin to see what we’ve suspected all along, “The Lord was with him.” And that reassurance is enough to rekindle the dying flame of any dream. I’m sure Joseph had moments when he wanted to throw up his hands, give up and mark his life as a failure. He didn’t ask for this dream. He didn’t ask to be the younger son. He didn’t ask to be sold into slavery. He didn’t ask for his master’s wife to seduce him. He didn’t ask to be thrown in prison. He didn’t ask to be broken, forgotten and abandoned. But sometimes those are the places where we finally see what we need to see: the Lord was with him.
Something happens to us when we are broken and vulnerable. We tend to allow God to have a bit more influence over us. As Henri Nouwen, the great Catholic theologian and priest reminds, “Jesus didn't say, 'Blessed are those who care for the poor.' He said, 'Blessed are we where we are poor, where we are broken.' It is there that God loves us deeply and pulls us into deeper communion with himself.” As Joseph sat quite alone in that brokenness, I think he was drawn into deeper communion with God. And I’m probably making some assumptions here, but I think as Joseph experienced that grace-filled communion, God’s kindness began to unravel his worldview and began to shape him into a new man. Maybe in that lonely prison Joseph was learning the lessons that would be taught by another dreamer generations down the road: If you want to be first, you must be last. If you want to become great, you must learn to be a servant. It is better to give than to receive. And above all, pray for those who persecute you and love your enemies.
Years later, Joseph’s situation would change. This one-time slave became second in command in all of Egypt; only Pharaoh was more powerful than he. As a matter of fact, the whole world finds itself at his doorstep, looking for food in the midst of famine. Hungry and needy, bruised and broken, they come to Joseph looking for hope. And among those who arrive and knock at his door are his older brothers, the very ones who thought they were doing the world a favor by getting rid of this dreamer. But again, you can’t get rid of God’s dreams too easily. Bowing before Joseph, their cast off little brother, the older boys are at his mercy. With one word he could fell them, with one snap of his fingers, he could wipe them off the face of the plant. Instead, he does something what only a God-dreamer would do: he runs to them, embraces them and forgives them. And then he shares his newfound perspective that I believe he learned in his season of brokenness: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good. He brought me here to save the lives of many.” And the first life saved? I believe it was his own.
God does not easily abandon his dream, and his dream- the same dream he planted inside a 17-year old Joseph- is alive and well today through the work of the Holy Spirit. It may seem at times that very few are paying attention to the work of God, but that doesn’t mean God isn’t moving. It may seem at times that we feel as if we are in a prison, cast aside and forgotten with no way out. But the Lord is with us. And it may even seem at times that evil stands strongly opposed to the goodness of God’s ways, causing division and chaos…but hold on to hope, because evil cannot deflate the dream of God where “one day, every knee will bow and tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
That day has not yet arrived, but it’s coming. Until that day God will keep telling his story, and if we’re willing participants, he’ll tel l it through us. You are called to help keep God’s dream fresh and vital in our culture, and you can do it in three ways. First, pay attention to God. Don’t let God be a blip on the radar of your life. Secondly, cultivate a deep communion with God. He will change your perspective on the world. And finally, allow God to break you so that when you see the God-famished souls, you offer them nothing but open arms and grace. Amen.