A Sermon on Joseph (Part Three: The Statement)

by Glenn on August 11, 2015

When you hear a story, you want to know, “Is this going somewhere? Is there a point to this story?”

When little kids tell stories, it can get a little tedious. If you’ve ever listened to little kid stories you hear a lot of “and then …, and then …, and then …” so that as you listen, if you’re wondering if the story is going to go somewhere, if there will be a point, the answer often is no. It turns out these stories are just a sequence of events. There is no significance, in the sense of greater meaning, to them.

Great stories go somewhere and say something. They are more than one thing after the other. The story of Joseph is one of those kinds of stories. The trick with the story of Joseph (or any great story, especially those from the Bible) is to discern what the story is saying.

In writing on the story of Joseph, Madeleine L’Engle took time to reflect on the nature of story and the parables that Jesus told. She wrote,

“Jesus did not tell his parables in order to give us facts and information, but to show us truth. What is the truth of the story of the man with the great plank in his eye? Doesn’t it tell us very clearly that we must not judge others more stringently than ourselves?”

What is the story of Joseph about? Here’s what L’Engle says:

“The story of Joseph is the journey of a spoiled and selfish young man finally becoming, through betrayal, anger, abandonment, unfairness, and pain, a full and complex human being. I have much to learn from his story.”

There are a number of statements we could make based on the story of Joseph about family life and integrity and perseverance and the remarkable nature of forgiveness for starters. For this sermon, though, I decided not to focus on what the story says about Joseph, but what it says about God. The story of Joseph teaches us some things.

First, God is in control. The story of Joseph unfolds naturally. Nothing appears contrived. No one’s will seems to be overruled. And yet beneath the story of Joseph God is working His will.

We understand Joseph to be something of a dreamer, but Joseph’s great-grandfather, Abraham, once had a dream where God spoke to him.

“And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and, lo, an horror of great darkness fell upon him. And [God] said unto Abram, ‘Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance. And thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age.’” Genesis 15:12–15 (NIV, emphasis added)

And now all these years later, it begins to happen. One of Abraham’s descendants finds himself a stranger in Egypt. What I find extraordinary is how this story begins with a spectacular sin. Remember that plan to murder which turned into a case of human trafficking? That wasn’t good. Human beings were behaving very badly. And yet somehow this was part of God’s plan. God allowed it to happen. And maybe “allowed” isn’t a strong enough word.

Some weeks prior to giving this message, I read through Psalm 105 and noticed that it provides a little bit of commentary on the story of Joseph. Psalm 105:16-19 says,

[God] called down famine on the land
and destroyed all their supplies of food;
and he sent a man before them—
Joseph, sold as a slave.
 They bruised his feet with shackles,
his neck was put in irons,
till what he foretold came to pass,
till the word of the Lord proved him true. Psalm 105:16–19

It sure sounds like it was part of God’s plan for Joseph to be sold into slavery. How is it possible that God can take a sin and accomplish his good purposes through it? Our pastor in Bend likes to say, every so often, “Remember, God is God, and you’re not.” While Joseph’s brothers were unspeakably unkind to Joseph, God was using the situation to fulfill the promise He had made to Abraham. Fantastic.

 

A second thing we learn from this story is that God is interested in life transformation. While God was fulfilling a promise to Abraham, he was also changing the character of Joseph. Our pastor in Bend also likes to say, every so often, “God is more interested in your character than your comfort.” This is certainly true of Joseph who was humbled and exalted to levels it is difficult to comprehend. Joseph was definitely transformed by his experience.

Finally, because God is in control, and because God is interested in our character, the third thing we learn about God from this story comes in the form of a caution: We cannot base the goodness of God on the quality of our circumstances. In other words, God’s goodness and our circumstances are two separate things.

We have a bad habit of thinking that when things are going well, then God must really be doing his job well. He is pouring out blessings—how wonderful. (Or we can get very arrogant and think, “Wow, I must be living right, because look at how God is blessing me.”)

On the other hand, when there is a reversal, when there is a loss, when things aren’t going well, it’s very tempting to ask, “Where are you God?” “Why have you stopped being good?” (Or, to think, “Wow, I must be really bad.”)

The story of Joseph really challenges any assumptions you have like that. It introduces a profound tension that never quite gets resolved: A good God sometimes allows people to walk through difficult times. The entire book of Job is a case study in God allowing horrendous things to happen to an absolutely good person. Conversely, it’s possible, indeed likely, that there are people around us who are dealing with difficult things and whose character may be better than others who appear to be living a blessed life. You just never know.

What is encouraging about Joseph is the way he is able to see God’s goodness in the rough things he experienced. When Joseph is reunited with his brothers, he is able to say to them,

“[D]o not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. … God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.” Genesis 45: 5, 7 (NIV)

Joseph lived a long time before the apostle Paul, but I think Joseph could have said something like,

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28 (NIV)

Some years ago, the phrase, “Everything happens for a reason,” became popular. I still hear people say it, but I’m not sure I understand what it means. I think it is intended as a statement of comfort—this is not a random world, cause-and-effect is in force even though I may not know the cause.

I don’t think Joseph would have said, “Everything happens for a reason.” He names names: “You, my brothers, tried to do me harm, but God is interested in all of our good.”

The story of Joseph makes some profound statements:

1. God is in control.

2. God wants to see our lives transformed.

3. We can’t let our or anyone else’s circumstances be a referendum on God’s goodness. And we know they aren’t beyond God’s ability to work in them.