A sermon on Joseph (Part One: Introduction)

by Glenn on July 15, 2015

Last Sunday I had the privilege of teaching at Glenfair Church in Portland, Oregon. The pastor, Kevin Hoffman, was going to be away for a week and had asked if I would fill in. It was a privilege.

Glenfair is a small church. We’ve visited a number of times but had more conversations this time. I met three individuals who have attended this church 25, 35, and 40 years, respectively. (I’m not sure they are the only ones with that kind of longevity.) It was interesting to talk to people who have such long and deep connections to a particular fellowship of believers.

This is so different from my church experience, having attended six through my college years (as a Salvation Army Officers’ kid, you go with the parents to wherever they are appointed to go, which was a lot of places) and then a number of others as a choir director after college. The church we attended the longest (nearly ten years) was New Hope Church in Bend, Oregon, which we left in 2012 when we moved to Portland.

The sermon topic was Joseph, which is one of the great stories of the Bible.

By way of introduction, I tried to put the message in context. Some weeks ago, Pastor Kevin began a series of messages that will take his congregation through the entire Bible over a period of 18 months.

I pointed out that much of the Bible so far is a series of stories: the story of Creation, the story of Adam and Eve, the story of Cain and Abel, the story of Noah, the story of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What I find fascinating is that every story is its own thing but then you put all these stories together and you get a picture of what God is doing in history.

Before you get to Joseph, you could say that the most talked about person in the Bible is Abraham. Joseph, whose story picks up in Genesis 37 takes you, with the exception of a couple of chapters, to the end of the book of Genesis. Something like 12 chapters.

It’s compelling reading with two exceptions.

Genesis 38 is an interlude about one of Joseph’s older brothers, Judah. I guess it’s compelling in a way, but mostly it’s disturbing. PG-13, I think. What Tamar does makes you shake your head (as does Judah’s behavior), and then you remember that the name of Tamar makes it into the genealogy of Jesus. It’s pretty bland in Matthew 1:3a:

“Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar …” [Matthew 1:3a]

What it should say there is: “Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, his children through his daughter-in-law, who dressed up as a prostitute and solicited him and he eagerly accepted.”

And then in Genesis 49 the action stops while Jacob blesses his children. I should use quotes around the word “blesses,” because he has some difficult words for many of his children—the boys, really, because his one daughter, Dinah, is out of the picture after the horrifying incidents of Genesis 34.

What makes the story of Joseph so fascinating for me is how easy it is to relate to. You have to be living an unusual life not to relate to the story of Joseph in some way:

If you’ve ever experienced a loss.

If you’ve ever been betrayed.

If your circumstances have been not as good as you wished.

If you’ve ever experienced a sudden reversal.

If you’ve struggled with family members.

If you’ve ever been falsely accused of something.

It’s amazing that we have a story of Joseph. The Bible so often stresses the importance of the oldest son. But in Genesis 37, the Bible says,

 Jacob lived in the land where his father had stayed, the land of Canaan. This is the account of Jacob’s family line. [Genesis 37:1–2]

The next word is … Joseph.

Jacob’s household included children from two wives and their two servants, which is a little different for us here in the 21st century. I typed up a chart of the children of Jacob.

Jacob’s Children

Joseph is son number 11 and child number 12, yet he’s going to be the focus of the rest of Genesis. The next ten verses of Genesis 37 introduce us to Joseph. It isn’t a very flattering picture:

Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives, and he brought their father a bad report about them. [Genesis 37:2]

The first thing we learn about Joseph is that he was what we called, when I was growing up, a tattletale. Today I hear it referred to as a snitch or a nark. And the problem is that Joseph was actually a good kid. He knew right from wrong, which would serve him all his life. But rather than go to his brothers and say, “Hey, this isn’t right.” He goes marching off to dad, “Hey, you know what my brothers did?” You can imagine how his brothers felt about that.

Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made an ornate robe for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him. [Genesis 37:3–4]

The second thing we learn is that Joseph was the favorite. His father, Jacob, had been tricked into marrying the sister of the girl he actually wanted to marry and Joseph was the first of two boys from his beloved Rachel.

(Rachel died giving birth to Joseph’s younger brother, Benjamin. It seems like Jacob never really recovered from this loss. One imagines what it must have been like to be Leah or the two servant girls. Someone who has imagined it is the writer, Madeleine L’Engle, who wrote Sold Into Egypt, her reflection on the story of Joseph. I read her book in preparation for this message. Sold Into Egypt is a three-stranded rope consisting of an orthodox reading of the story of Joseph, reflections on the recent death of her husband to cancer, and imagined monologues by many of the characters involved in the life of Joseph. It’s wonderful.)

I’ve never had children, but I don’t think it’s wise to choose a child that you label as your favorite. Jacob should have known better. His own father preferred his brother Esau over him and now here he is showing favoritism. In some translations (the King James Version, for example) the Bible talks about “a coat of many colours.” Here it’s called “an ornate robe.” The expression is used only one other time in the Old Testament so no one really knows what it means. What we do know is that it was nice and it separated Joseph from his brothers. (Chuck Smith offers this explanation: The coat of many colors was, likely, a coat with sleeves. People who had to work in the fields had sleeveless coats. People who were too important for or too much status to do manual labor had coats with sleeves.)

To put it in modern terms imagine a family that needs to do some back-to-school shopping. To keep things on a budget they go to Ross where they buy clothes for all the kids except one. For the one child they say, “Joseph, don’t worry. We’re not going to buy your clothes here at Ross, we’re going to take you to Nordstrom. You’re special.” Imagine that.

The third thing we learn about Joseph is that he was a dreamer. Genesis 37:5–11 reads,

Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.”

His brothers said to him, “Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said.

Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. “Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”

When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?” His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind. [Genesis 37:5–11]

Joseph had a God-given ability to receive and understand dreams that would tell about the future. But he’s not very humble about it. I try to picture this scene: Son number eleven goes up to sons numbers one through ten and says, “Hey guess what God told me—you guys are going to bow down to me.” No wonder the Bible says his brothers hated him. He’s insufferable.

To examine the life of Joseph, I decided to look at his life three ways:

A story

A statement

A symbol

(More to come.)


One comment

[…] decided to divide the sermon into four segments. An introduction to Joseph as a young man (see Part One) concluded with the announcement of an order for the message: Story, Statement, and […]

by A Sermon on Joseph (Part Two: The Story) « glennaustin.com on 18 July 2015 at 9:29 pm. #