Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Since Martin Luther first posted his 95 Theses 500 years ago, five Latin phrases known as the Solaes or Slogans of the Reformation have emerged as the principles of Christian faith. Sola Fide by “faith alone”: Sola Scriptura “by Scripture alone”: Sola Gratia “by grace alone”: Solus Christus “by Christ alone”: and the sola most popular among musicians, Soli Deo Gloria “to the glory of God alone.” For Luther, faith alone was always the most important. It was the solid, unshakable confidence in God’s promise which allowed the believer to act by faith. This morning we continue our sermon series on the Old Testament characters mentioned in the Book of Hebrews. Today we will conclude the story of Joseph.
From Hebrews 11:22
By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave instructions about his burial.
Dreams play an important part of our lives, although we tend to forget them, once we wake up. Several great scientists, however, were so taken by their dreams that they wrote them down for later inspiration. Sir Isaac Newton spoke often of the falling apple and the theory of gravity which developed. Alexander Graham Bell’s, the inventor of the telephone, dreamed of speaking to his mother who was profoundly deaf. For both men, dreams became a playground of new ideas. As Vincent Van Gogh once wrote, “I dream my paintings and then I paint my dreams.”
Of course, there are humorous thoughts on dreams as well. Perhaps you’ve heard, “I dreamed I wrote The Hobbit the other night. I think I was Tolkein in my sleep.” Or “I had a nightmare once about being trapped in Panama during a snowstorm. Turns out I was just dreaming of a white isthmus.” A friend of mine is convinced that everyone dreams in black and white. I told him I dream in color, and he told me “it’s merely a pigment of my imagination.”
Joseph was an interpreter of dreams, and to summarize his life in a 15 minute sermon is a difficult task. British musicians Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber needed an hour and a half in their musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” But one verse of scripture captures the lesson that we are to learn from Joseph’s life. It is what he said to his brothers as a word of forgiveness. “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” That is the message we will share this morning.
The story of the Joseph begins in the land of Canaan in a very blended family, two wives, and two servants, and 13 children. Joseph was the 11th of the 12 sons of Jacob. Now that wouldn’t necessarily be such a great problem, if all were treated equal in his family. Unfortunately, Joseph was the favorite of his father’s 12 sons and everyone knew it. Joseph’s mother Rachel was also Jacob’s favorite wife, and this created a bitter sibling rivalry. When Joseph was seventeen years old he had two dreams. In the first dream, Joseph and his brothers gathered bundles of grain, of which those his brothers gathered, bowed to his own. In the second dream, the sun his father, the moon his mother, and eleven stars his brothers bowed to Joseph himself. Apparently, he did not know understand the diplomatic policy of don’t ask, don’t tell. He freely shared his dreams with his brothers. He also enjoyed sporting a special robe his father had made for him. Some translations say it was a pure white tunic that reflected the hues of various colors. Others would say that the actual word means a full-length robe; a kind of formal robe with long sleeves and that would reach all the way to the ground. Either way this was not the sort of garment of laboring tenants wore out into the fields. It was a garment of an overseer or supervisor. And so Joseph’s jealous brothers resented their young brother, and devised a plan to get rid of him.
One day Joseph came out to the fields in his dream coat. His brothers seized him, cast him into a pit, and then sold him to merchants on a camel caravan heading to Egypt. They then painted goat’s blood on Joseph’s coat and showed it to their father Jacob, who believed his beloved son Joseph was dead. Ultimately, Joseph was sold to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard where he found safety and respect. “Even though Joseph’s brothers had intended to do harm to him, God intended it for good.” Within Potiphar’s home, Joseph distinguished himself by his skills, his beauty and his ability to read dreams. In the Islamic tradition it is said, “One half of all the beauty God apportioned for mankind went to Joseph and his mother; the other one half went to the rest of mankind.” Unfortunately, in Potiphar’s home, beauty wasn’t his greatest asset. Potiphar’s wife didn’t like his vain, moral example, so she had Joseph wrongfully arrested and imprisoned. “But even as Potiphar’s wife intended to do harm to him, God intended it for good.”
Because of his skills of administration and moral strength, the warden put Joseph in charge of the other prisoners, and soon afterward Pharaoh’s own chief cup-bearer and chief baker, who had offended the Pharaoh, were thrown into the prison. There Joseph interpreted their dreams. The cup-bearer returned to the Pharaoh’s service, and promised that he would mention Joseph to his master one day. Two years later, the Pharaoh had a dream of seven lean cows which devoured seven fat cows; and of seven withered ears of grain which devoured seven fat ears. When the Pharaoh’s advisers failed to interpret these dreams, the cup-bearer, remembering Joseph, implored the Pharaoh to release Joseph from prison and summon him. Joseph interpreted the dream as seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine, and advised the Pharaoh to store surplus grain. Since no one else could interpret the dream, the Pharaoh judged Joseph to be the wisest and most trust worthy man in the land, and he was named Vizier, or Viceroy, of Egypt. He was given Asenath, the daughter of an Egyptian priest to be his wife. During the seven years of abundance, Joseph ensured that the storehouses were full. In the sixth year, his wife Asenath bore two children to Joseph: Manasseh and Ephraim. “Even though Joseph’s brothers had intended to do harm to him, God intended it for good.”
When the famine came, it was so severe that people from surrounding nations came to Egypt to buy bread. In the second year of famine, Joseph’s brothers were sent from Canaan to buy food. When they came to Egypt, they stood before the Vizier but did not recognize him as their brother Joseph, who was now in his late 30s; but Joseph recognized them and did not speak to them. Instead, he accused them of being spies. After they mentioned a younger brother at home, the Vizier demanded that he be brought to Egypt as a demonstration of their truthfulness.
Upon their return, the brothers were received by the steward of the house of Joseph received them with warm hospitably. When the Vizier appeared, they gave him gifts from their father Jacob. Joseph was overcome with emotion when he saw the gifts and his younger brother Benjamin. That night, Joseph secretly ordered his steward to load the brothers’ donkeys with food and all their money. Deceptively, however, Joseph also ordered that his silver cup be put in Benjamin’s sack. The following morning the brothers unknowingly began their journey back to Canaan. Joseph ordered the steward to go after the brothers and question them about the “missing” silver cup. When the steward caught up with the brothers, he seized them and searched their sacks. The steward found the cup in Benjamin’s sack just as he had planted it the night before. This caused a stir amongst the brothers. However, they agreed to be escorted back to Egypt. When the Vizier confronted them about the silver cup, he demanded that the one who possessed the cup in his bag become his slave. In response, one of the older brother pleaded with the Vizier that Benjamin be allowed to return to his father, and he himself be kept in Benjamin’s place as a slave. Joseph then broke down into tears. He could not control himself any longer and so he sent the Egyptian men out of the house, and he revealed to his brothers that he was in fact their brother, Joseph. “Even though they had intended to do harm to him, God intended it for good.”
Later Joseph commanded them to go and bring their father and his entire household to Egypt. Thus, Jacob and his entire house of 70 came to dwell in Egypt. When Joseph finally met his father Jacob, after 20 years, they embraced each other and wept together. His father then remarked, “Now let me die, since I have seen your face, because you are still alive.”
There is a beautiful variation on this story in the Quran. When Benjamin was taken by his brothers from his father Jacob, the old man wept himself to blindness. But when the brothers brought their father to Egypt, they found a fragment of Joseph’s many colored robe. Joseph wiped his father’s eyes with it and miraculously he could see once again.
“Although Joseph’s brothers meant evil against him, God meant it for good.” That was Joseph’s abiding confidence and faith in God in the midst of his trials. Throughout his eventful life, he had learned a truth that we may have all experienced. People will let you down. People will fail you, disappoint you, and leave you hanging out to dry. Perhaps, even your own family. But the story of Joseph teaches us that you need not let disillusionment with people turn you away from to the goodness and faithfulness of God. For he will not disappoint you. He will be there in the seemingly, bottomless pits of life. He will be there when you are falsely accused of things you did not do. And he will be there to provide you with the wisdom to make sense of others’ dreams. Whatever happens in life, whenever people intend to harm you, God will order it for good. Even death.
Joseph and his family lived in exile in Egypt far from the land Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had been promised. But Joseph knew that God would one day order it for good. Joseph lived to the age of 110, living to see his own great-grandchildren. Before he died, he made the children of Israel swear that when they left the land of Egypt they would take his bones back to the promised land. The children of Israel remembered their oath, and when they left Egypt during the Exodus, Moses took Joseph’s bones with him. The bones were buried at Shechem, today’s city of Nablus, in the parcel of land which Jacob bought from the sons of Hamor for his family. It stands today as a monument for Jews and Samaritans, Moslems and Christians, as a witness to a man who against all human tragedy believed that God could and would change evil for good. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.