For four weeks, I am preaching on Old Testament Bible stories. This week is the story of Joseph in Egypt recorded in Genesis 41, 42, & 45. Preached on July 9, 2023 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas
If anyone has a reason to believe that life is unjust and God seems completely absent, it is Joseph in the book of Genesis. Sure, he is his father, Jacob’s favorite of his 12 sons—the first son of his beloved wife, Rachel, but what did that get him? A technicolor rainbow coat, the which I like to call the first LGBTQ-friendly garment of the Bible—but that didn’t last long.
• Joseph’s jealous brothers sell him into slavery; with family like that, who needs enemies?
• He ends up with a good gig in Egypt, but Joseph is betrayed again by his boss, Potiphar’s wife. She tries to seduce Jospeh, and when he refuses, she falsely accuses him of advances toward her. Joseph ends up in jail
• While in jail, Joseph accurately interprets the dreams of two servants from Pharoah’s household, but the one who gets out of jail, forgets all about him.
• Imagine, having done nothing wrong—and in fact—having done a lot of things right—and still suffering unjustly
Life is harsh for Joseph—full of human betrayal and failings, causing him a great deal of misery and suffering. Life can feel that way sometimes—stacked against you through no fault of your own –one bad thing after another just piles up and you go from illness, to mishap, to a car breaking down, to grief over a loved one passing, and you feel like you are living in a smash up of disaster without a break. Worse, you wonder where God is, and why God feels so absent.
I imagine Joseph felt that way. No doubt he had his moments when he wondered when God was going to show up and help change his situation.
God does show up for Joseph, but it’s different for Joseph than for Abraham or Jacob or Moses—Abraham receives instructions directly, including angel visitors; Jacob wrestles God; Moses has direct conversations with God; but not Joseph.
Joseph experiences God differently. Maybe Joseph’s story takes up so many chapters in Genesis, (12 to be exact!) because he is more like the rest of us to whom God may not speak directly or visit with angels. The Joseph story tells us over and over again that God is there in all of Joseph’s circumstances—in the suffering and in the good times.
For Joseph God is a constant presence, working things out in the background according to God’s divine timing. God also uses Joseph’s gifts and skills to improve his situation and to be a blessing to others. God is not necessarily experienced as a feeling or a direction—but the constant presence that provides hope and strength that runs through everything. Let’s hear this in a little more detail:
When Jacob was brought to Egypt and he was sold to Potiphar and Genesis, Chapter 39 says, The LORD was with Joseph, and he became a successful man and served in his Egyptian master’s household. His master saw that the LORD was with him and that the LORD made everything he did successful.
We hear God’s constant presence with Joseph, using his skills as a manager to make him successful.
While Joseph was in jail, God was with him: The end of Chapter 39 says 21 the LORD was with Joseph and remained loyal to him. He caused the jail’s commander to think highly of Joseph. The jail’s commander put all of the prisoners in the jail under Joseph’s supervision, and he was the one who determined everything that happened there.
Even in prison, we hear of God’s constant presence with Joseph, and working through his skills as a manager to improve his situation in the jail, and make things better for everyone.
Also while in jail, Joseph trusts in God’s presence with him when 2 prisoners have dreams. He says in chapter 40, “Don’t interpretations belong to God? Describe your dreams to me.” He successfully interprets the dreams for the Pharoah’s cupbearer and chief baker making clear that God is present in his suffering.
Never does Joseph have an angel visitation, a direct conversation, a still small voice, a quiet moment away from the demands of jail management, a light of revelation—nothing supernatural. Just over and over—God is with him, God is with him, God is with him.
Yet, God’s presence cannot be separated from God’s agency or actions—God’s presence in Joseph’s life does move toward particular ends—not just to bring Joseph to a better place, but to use him to be a blessing to others.
Joseph blesses others repeatedly—in Potiphar’s home, for the jailer and the prisoners, with those who have strange dreams. God’s presence is like the hard drive of his life, always running in the background—offering strength and hope and presence, and securing he has what he needs in the future. It takes two more years of suffering in jail—since the cupbearer forgot about him—which is not Joseph’s preferred timing, but it did give him two more years of hard-core managerial experience!
When Joseph finally does receive an audience with the Pharoah as the one gifted with dream interpretation, he is now prepared for the bigger work God has called him to do. He is ready to save not only Egypt, but neighboring nations from famine, including his own brothers and father. What started out as a story of jealousy and evil, God ends as a story of blessing and salvation.
What humans intend for evil, God uses for good. [For those of you who did not know how the Israelites ended up in Egypt—this is how—Jacob and all of his sons and their families move there with all of their herds to survive the famine.]
Rabbi Zalman Stein who lived across the street from us in St. Louis was once asked the question why in Exodus did God say to Moses, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob—why waste all that precious parchment and not just say, “I am the God Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?” Rabbi Zalman responded, “because God develops an individual relationship with each one of them and therefore with each one of us.”
God has a different relationship with Joseph than he had with his ancestors and those who followed him. And God has a different relationship with you and me. Maybe it is similar to Joseph’s relationship, where God is not always a feeling or direct conversation—but a constant presence—like the hard drive of your life—always running in the background, offering strength and hope to keep you moving in divine order, through times of suffering and through times joy, and securing your eternal future.
How do we live in a harsh world? Joseph encourages us to pay attention to our individual experience of God’s presence in our life. How does God communicate strength, hope or love in your individual relationship with God? It may be through others, through nature, through prayer, through a deep conviction like Joseph.
Second, Joseph’s technicolor faith shows us that we are blessed to be a blessing—in both hardship and in happiness. With our new members today, we have a whole new set of gifts and talents and blessings joining our mission. Be open to their gift and new ideas, as they are open to yours.
I also invite you to choose one way to be a blessing to others this week with skills and gifts God has give you. Maybe you already have it scheduled. Maybe you can join us at the free breakfast this Saturday. Maybe you can join our member visitation team—we have 3 in rehab and several who receive home Communion. Maybe you can ask God for a new way to serve. Maybe you are recovering, and God has a new way for you to show gratitude and bless those who are supporting you. Maybe all you can do right now is hang on to the presence and strength of God and that’s okay.
Remember that in Joseph’s technicolor faith, what starts out as hardship and pain, God turns into life-saving good. Ask God for the eyes of Joseph to see what good the Lord is bringing out of your current situation as God uses YOU as a blessing in a life-giving that’s unfolding even now.