A Sermon on Joseph (Part Two: The Story)

by Glenn on July 18, 2015

For me, sermons should awaken faith and help people see Jesus.

How do you do that?

From my perspective, there aren’t really any rules for what a sermon should be. There are people who like to make rules and will scold you for not following them. For example, some would say that sermons must always be expository. I think many should be, for lots of reasons. But there are certain times and certain subjects where a topical approach seems more appropriate.

Based on simple observation of people who do expository preaching, there doesn’t appear to be widespread agreement about how to do it. For example, how long should a sermon series on the book of Hebrews take? I’ve seen some that have gone on for months. Others, just weeks. Do you follow the scripture word after word, or do you follow it idea after idea? Are you “allowed” to refer to other passages in the Bible? It seems like you should, particularly because there are certain passages that don’t tell you enough about a subject and so it’s helpful to look at what the Bible says in other places. Or there are passages (Melchizedek, for example) that are clear allusions to other places in the Bible, so that it’s possible (perhaps even commendable) that in the sermon series in Hebrews, you would take your hearers to the book of Genesis (and Psalms). And that sounds like topical preaching to me. In other words, a sermon series on the book of Hebrews will include a topical message on Melchizedek.

I do think frameworks are important. The highest value of a seminary class in preaching, for me as a listener of sermons (and sometime practitioner), is they force the preacher to introduce order to the message. The sermon then becomes about one thing or a few things. This is good. My pastor in Bend, when he prepares messages, says he tries to get to an outline fairly quickly, because then you have something to preach.

***

How do you talk about the life of Joseph (keeping in mind that you want to awaken faith and help people see Jesus) in one 30-minute message? Madeleine L’Engle in Sold Into Slavery told the story in twelve chapters, one for each of Jacob’s sons.Very creative, but there wasn’t time and I didn’t want to imitate that form.

I 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 Symbol.

Telling stories isn’t easy. You can sound like you are rambling. And it’s complicated by the fact that some of your listeners know the story of Joseph better than you do and others have never heard it before. A further complication is the fact that the story of Joseph doesn’t follow the unities of time, place, and action that make for classic storytelling. The main action of Joseph’s life unfolds over 30+ years in Canaan and a household, prison, and Pharoah’s court in Egypt. It is sprawling. Epic, even.

To tell Joseph’s story I used the convention of his life as a five-scene play. (I tend to avoid the first-person monologue form of storytelling, unless I am talking to kids and can be goofy and use props. Kids are more willing and able to do “suspension of disbelief” and so the threshold for what it takes to pull that off is better for me and, one imagines, for anyone listening to me.)

 

Scene 1: “Conspiracy to attempt murder and traffick a human being.”

(Aside: I wasn’t thrilled with the names I came up for the scenes. If I get to work with this material again, I want to show a little more imagination and creativity.)

Genesis 37:12–36 tells us just how bad Joseph’s brothers hated him. Their father, Jacob, was very successful which, I imagine, was both a blessing and a curse. The blessing was he had large herds of livestock and so there was plenty of food. But this meant a lot of hard work for the sons who had to care for all of them. At least in this one scene, Joseph, the favorite, was not part of the care-giving for the animals. While the brothers were out traveling miles and miles looking for grazing land, Joseph was at home.

One day Jacob sends Joseph out to check on his sons who’ve been gone for a while. Joseph puts on his fancy coat and, after some searching, finds them. When Joseph’s brothers see this tattletaling, special clothes-wearing, obnoxious kid coming they say (in effect), “Let’s kill him and end our misery.” Imagine the kind of dysfunction going on in this family. What did Tolstoy say?

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

This family is unhappy about the way the father treats this one son.

Two brothers step in to stop this death plan. Reuben, the oldest, says, “Let’s just throw him in a well.” His idea was to grab Joseph later and take him back to his father. But when Reuben is away and a caravan headed for Egypt comes by, then it’s Judah who says, “Let’s sell him into slavery.” And they do. For 20 pieces of silver, Joseph is sold into slavery and taken to Egypt.

For whatever reason, at this point in the story it doesn’t say much about Joseph’s reaction to all of this. But later when Joseph’s brothers are in a tight situation, you read this:

They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us.” [Genesis 41:22]

So, as Joseph is sold into slavery, he begs and pleads with them for his life. Can you imagine how cold-hearted you would have to be to ignore these cries for help? The brothers then lead their father to believe that Joseph was killed by a wild animal.

Scene 2: Joseph in Potiphar’s house. (Genesis 39)

Joseph is taken to Egypt where he is sold again, this time to Potiphar, a important Egyptian official in Pharoah’s government. Things are bad for Joseph. He’s a slave in a foreign country. I try to imagine everything you would have to learn if you were suddenly dropped, not of your own free will, in a different culture.

But then things start to look up. Genesis 39:2-4 says,

The Lord was with Joseph so that he prospered …

That phrase, “The Lord was with Joseph,” becomes the theme of Joseph’s life. Not, “Things went great for Joseph,” but

The Lord was with Joseph so that he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master. When his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did, Joseph found favor in his eyes and became his attendant. Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned. [Genesis 39:2–4]

What looked bad, suddenly looks a little better.

The story of Joseph, though, is a story of stunning reversals. And in verse 7 of chapter 39 we find out two things:
1. Joseph is a handsome guy.
2. Potiphar’s wife is a lonely woman.

She (we never learn her name—it’s just “Potiphar’s wife”) invites him to her bedroom. He refuses. One of the amazing things about Joseph is that he is able to keep his integrity in whatever circumstances he finds himself. The Bible says Joseph’s integrity was tested again and again by Potiphar’s wife. Today we’d call this harassment—a hostile work environment.

In a climactic moment, Potiphar’s wife physically grabs Joseph by his coat. Joseph flees. leaving his coat behind. Joseph keeps his integrity, but Potiphar’s wife, scorned, decides some revenge is in order and makes up a story about how Joseph attacked her and so Joseph winds up in prison.

(Aside: One of the themes of this story, indeed all of Genesis, is sexual sin. It’s interesting to compare Joseph with his brother Judah in Genesis 38. )

Scene 3: Flourishing in prison

There is something remarkable about Joseph. The worse his circumstances get, the more he seems to do well. It’s tempting to think, “I’d be better and I’d do better but I’ve got these circumstances.” Joseph is despised by his family and sold into slavery. He’s falsely accused and thrown in prison. And the Bible says this about Joseph in prison:

But while Joseph was there in the prison, the Lord was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden. So the warden put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there. [Genesis 39:20–23]

Joseph flourishes in prison. And it’s there that Joseph’s gift with dreams comes up again. Only it seems like Joseph has a new humility about this gift. In Genesis 40, two of Pharoah’s closest assistants—his cupbearer and baker, the one who serves his food and the one who prepares his food—find themselves in prison. They have some dreams and they don’t know what they mean.

“We both had dreams, but there is no one to interpret them.” Then Joseph said to them, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams.” [Genesis 40:8]

Joseph seems to have acquired some humility about his gift with dreams. It’s not “Let me tell you,” it’s “Dreams belong to God.” Joseph interprets the dreams and the predictions come true. The cupbearer was allowed out of prison and back to his job with Pharoah (and promptly forgets about Joseph) while the baker was killed. Joseph remains in prison.

Scene 4: From the bottom to the top.

Joseph was sold into slavery at the age of 17. We don’t know how long he is in Potiphar’s house before he is put in prison, but we know when he comes out. Thirty years old. For thirteen years of his life, Joseph has been in some combination of slavery and prison. And then one day Pharaoh has a dream.

In Genesis 41 we read Pharoah’s dream:

He was standing by the Nile, when out of the river there came up seven cows, sleek and fat, and they grazed among the reeds. After them, seven other cows, ugly and gaunt, came up out of the Nile and stood beside those on the riverbank. And the cows that were ugly and gaunt ate up the seven sleek, fat cows. Then Pharaoh woke up.

He fell asleep again and had a second dream: Seven heads of grain, healthy and good, were growing on a single stalk. After them, seven other heads of grain sprouted—thin and scorched by the east wind. The thin heads of grain swallowed up the seven healthy, full heads. Then Pharaoh woke up; it had been a dream. [Genesis 41:1–7]

These dreams really bugged Pharoah but no one could tell him what they meant. And then the cupbearer remembered that when he was in prison two years earlier there was a guy who could interpret dreams.

Joseph is brought before Pharaoh where he interprets his dreams. Egypt is going to have seven years of fantastic harvests. But those seven years will be followed by seven years of desperate famine. Pharaoh takes this very seriously and decides something needs to be done about it so he appoints Joseph to be in charge of the entire country of Egypt and prepare for the coming famine. From slavery and prison, Joseph has now become the most powerful man in Egypt.

Scene 5: Family reunion.

The final scene of the story of Joseph takes a number of chapters beginning with Chapter 42. A lot of time has gone by.

For 13 years, Joseph was in slavery and prison.

For 7 years, Joseph was in charge of Egypt and has been saving 20% of the annual harvest in storehouses around the country.

And now the famine hits. Joseph’s family up north do well for a while, but then it gets bad.

When Jacob learned that there was grain in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you just keep looking at each other?” He continued, “I have heard that there is grain in Egypt. Go down there and buy some for us, so that we may live and not die.” [Genesis 42:1–2]

And so Joseph’s ten older brothers take money down to Egypt to buy some grain. They find themselves in front of Joseph but don’t recognize him.

As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them. [Genesis 42:7]

I’ll admit, I don’t understand why Joseph took so long to reveal himself to his brothers and why there was so much (what feels like) trickery involved.

One of the theories is that Joseph wanted to see if his brothers were still the same ruthless guys that put him into prison. Eventually we learn they weren’t. Another theory is that Joseph was struggling to decide how he would respond to his brothers. He was giving himself options. Finally, it could be that Joseph was trying to orchestrate a way to get his family back together.

Eventually, Joseph does reveal himself to his brothers. It’s emotional and a remarkable scene.

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. [Genesis 45:4-7]

If ever there was a person who had good reason to be bitter and vengeful, it was Joseph. When his brothers showed up, he could have said, “Guess you guys didn’t see this famine coming. Sorry we don’t have any grain for foreigners.”

But Joseph forgives his brothers. He loved them even though they (at least at one time) didn’t care for him.

The end of the story has Joseph’s entire family, including his father Jacob and younger brother Benjamin come to Egypt. That’s Joseph in five quick scenes.