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Business as usual?

July 13th, 2012 No comments

“Business as usual?” (Genesis 40-41, 47)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
June 24, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Well, last week we left Joseph the dreamer in Pharaoh’s dungeon in Egypt. God’s loyalty and provision led Joseph to concrete ways of living in the real world. He had acted with character, integrity, virtue, and ended up wrongly accused and in jail because of it. Nevertheless, the Lord was with Joseph, and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper in pursuit of the mysterious dream Joseph had. The story goes on. . .

[Read Story]

What about Joseph?
Well, Joseph has finally made it. His dream of power from so long ago is finally coming true. From prisoner to president in a week. He’s even feeding the world, implementing careful prudence and doling out the grain during a widespread famine. Pharaoh’s right-hand-man. Actually, he’s even more effective in ruling than Pharaoh himself ever was. He is famous throughout the land. His practical wisdom is unsearchable. He has the incredible gift of interpreting dreams. He is the very focus of God’s providential care. He is a hero!

The children of Israel would hail the faith of their ancestors, proclaiming the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. You’d think they’d add a fourth generation to the list and proclaim the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph! Everybody loves a good underdog story. Surely the boy who climbed from the dungeon to run the ancient world’s greatest empire would get some special mention here or there!

Or at least something like, “as it was in the days of Joseph,” or “think of Joseph,” or “did not Joseph trust God and become great?” But in the Scriptural memory, Joseph is hardly given special recognition; in fact, his sons Ephraim and Manasseh often seem to get more fame than he does. And when Joseph does get recognized in the famous role call of faith in Hebrews 11, it isn’t for ruling in Egypt, but rather, for anticipating at the end of his life that the children of Israel would one day leave Egypt. Oddly, Joseph is remembered as being really quite ordinary.

Business as usual
It was business as usual for Joseph as he was growing up. He was a favored child and in all honesty a bit of a weasel, but then again that’s nothing unique in his family. But then, then the dream happened. That dream that gave to him notions of greatness, of power, of ruling. That dream that drew out the treacherous plotting of his half-brothers, who sold him into slavery in Egypt. That dream that brought him power and favor with Egypt’s captain of the guard, who nevertheless turned on him and cast him into the dungeon.

But even there, the dream – God’s mysterious dream, God’s hidden ways – persisted, and once again, he rose in favor, taking charge of the prisoners. Not an especially grand little fiefdom, but I suppose a measure of power and accomplishment nonetheless, considering the circumstances.

Well, it was pretty much business as usual in the prison for Joseph. Not a whole lot tends to change in prisons. That’s sort of the whole idea of prisons. Wardens like consistency, order.

But then, then, there was the dream.

Divine thoughts, human plans
Pharaoh had a dream, and Pharaoh was greatly troubled because he could not understand this dream. In fact, he was beside himself, quaking in his boots because he was realizing that he did not ultimately control the destiny of humankind, of his empire. He did not have divine knowledge or divine right. His power and wisdom were not absolute, and he was greatly troubled, as he well should have been.

He heard rumors of some dream interpreting Hebrew somewhere in one of his dungeons. So this disheveled Hebrew prison rat got himself cleaned up for his opportunity, for this audience with Pharaoh.

Well, Joseph was certainly no stranger to dreams in the night. Interpretations of dreams had been given to him, and so he knew quite simply what it meant. There would be seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. There were powers at play that even mighty Pharaoh who thought himself divine could not control. The future was fixed, set. There was nothing he could do about it. “The thing is fixed by God,” Joseph said. Pharaoh didn’t run things after all.

The prophet Isaiah once spoke the word of God, saying, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways. . . For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8-9).

Pharaoh was not in charge after all. God’s mysterious activity was greater still. At any rate, it will happen soon, Joseph said. Therefore, he said, we need to make some plans.

You see, just because God’s purposes are fixed, just because God’s thoughts and ways are higher than our thoughts and ways (and who knows why God would want to strike the earth with famine), just because God’s plan is set, that doesn’t mean that human planning is to be done away with.

Quite the contrary. God’s purposes are to be the foundation of human planning. The firm purpose of God calls for bold and decisive human action. Human plans are to be responsive and faithful to God’s purposes.

We need a plan!
Therefore, Joseph said, we need a plan. Gather up the surplus during the plenty and doll it out during the famine. Simple. Prudent. Frankly, a little mathematically obvious. But Pharaoh is incredibly impressed. He sees that this dream may yet prosper him in the end, and this Hebrew is his path to get there. So he gives him his signet ring, and parades him throughout all the land for people to bow down to him. Sounds like Joseph’s dream is finally coming true after all, and 13 years after it all began, he is ruling Egypt.

It happened as he said. And during the years of famine not just Egypt, but all the world came to buy grain from Joseph, and the world did not perish. What a story! Amazing! Such an underdog story as I have never seen: dungeon rat saves the world from famine! Would that every kingdom, every empire, every government would operate like that!

Well, actually, truth is, most do operate like that. You see, in a later chapter, we get a few more details to the story. Joseph didn’t just sell the grain; no, he gathered up all the money from the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan. And when there was no more money, he gathered up all the livestock: the horses, the flocks, the herds, and the donkeys. And when there were no more herds, the people sold their land. And when there was no more land, well, the people sold themselves and became slaves. And Joseph, the Hebrew, presided over it all.

It may just be the biggest government takeover project in history. Everything got centralized under Pharaoh’s ownership and control; even the people. Now Pharaoh did really control people’s destiny. Years later, when there was a new Pharaoh, what do you think happened? He “forgot” about Joseph, and Joseph’s own descendents fell into the system of slavery that Joseph himself had set up. Maybe not such a hero after all.

Not only did Egypt doll out the grain; Pharaoh also got rich! Filthy rich! Profiting from scarcity, leaving the folks who got you there behind, now that sounds a little more like it. That’s business as usual, right?

This is the way the world works, after all. Power is gained through accomplishment, skill, and a little good fortune. It’s often used for some good or another – creating jobs, providing services or protection, helping those in need find what they need to have a chance at success and a shot at survival. But the thing with power is that it often creeps into becoming self-serving. Not out of malice, mind you.

Look at the good I accomplished with $100. Think of what I could do if I had $1000, or $100,000 or $1 million. Look at the good I accomplished on the city council. Think of what I could do as mayor, as governor, as president! Why, I could change the world! Look at the good things I am doing! People are depending on me; they need me. I must press on for their sake and use my ever-increasing power! Was Joseph not wise? Did he not feed the world?

Messiah complex?
Look, Jesus wasn’t ever tempted to become a murderer or a thief or a liar or a cheat. No no, he was tempted to feed the world. He was tempted to become a ruler. He was tempted to be a hero. Isn’t it just amazing – actually, isn’t it a little alarming how the very best temptations sound mostly good? Just below the sound of the groaning stomach, the Devil was whispering the asterisk, the fine print,

“Don’t leave yourself empty and hungry. Don’t empty your life for the world; serve others by serving yourself. Make your calling narrow. Play by the world’s rules, and you can skip all the messiness, all the suffering and pain and go straight to the final victory. Don’t bother with the power of sacrificial love and costly grace. Political power, the power of propaganda, the power of coercion is faster, easier. Trust me, not God, and you will be great.”

The best temptations aren’t to fall, but to become great.

Joseph became great. He became powerful. And he made Egypt even more powerful through it. This is simply business as usual in politics and power. But the thing with the great faith tradition of Israel is that it is never, never business as usual. In fact, that is the very defining characteristic of God’s people. They are unique, different, chosen, set apart to be a blessing to the world. God’s people are to be the alternative to the ways of the world, the alternative to business as usual.

You remember Mary’s song of faith and trust in God that Kris read for us earlier? God has scattered the proudhearted, brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry and sent the rich away empty. God has remembered his mercy in accordance with the promises of old. And Mary wasn’t just singing for herself. She was also singing for the son she was carrying, who would be despised and rejected, and because of that, he would be lifted up.

Paul quotes what is perhaps the earliest hymn of the Church when he tells Jesus’ followers to have the same mind in them that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but instead emptied himself, taking the form not of a ruler but of a slave, humbling himself and becoming obedient to the point of death on the cross.

And therefore, in God’s grand reversal of things, it was not business as usual. Therefore, God highly exalted him, that every knee should bend and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Php. 2:5-11).

Remember me!
Jesus didn’t exploit his power, his status. Rather, he gave it up, and in God’s great reversal, by doing so, he became king.

What happened with Joseph? How did he end up going down a different path? He seemed to be on the right path, acting righteous in the face of temptation by the wife of the captain of the guard. He had virtue, character. How did he end up enslaving the people of Egypt?

Well, I hope you remember that this is a story about real life and real faith in the real world. And the simple fact of the matter is that in the real life of people of real faith in the real world, sometimes we choose rightly and well. Sometimes we are the shining example of morality and faith. But sometimes our character fails us. Sometimes we miss that tripwire that’s just below the bait that looks oh so very good, so very just, so very right. That’s real life. This is a true story, friends. Hollywood didn’t get its hands on it to make it some idealistic tale. It’s real. It happens every day.

Back up a little bit, to when Joseph was in prison. He was running the prison, yes, but he was still a prisoner, and he was miserable. Now ordinarily when people in the Bible are in prison, at the end of their rope, hopeless and miserable, they pray to God saying, “Lord, remember Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Remember your covenant.” Even the thief on the cross prayed as much, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom!” “Remember me, Lord, do not forget your servant!”

Joseph did not pray this prayer. Pharaoh wasn’t the only one who had a dream when Joseph was in prison. Joseph interpreted other dreams too, including the cupbearer’s dream, predicting the cupbearer’s deliverance out of prison. And Joseph said, not to God, but to this cupbearer, “Remember me. Show me loyalty” (loyalty is the exact word used of God earlier in the story). Yet, the narrator ends this chapter of the story saying, “Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.” That’s business as usual in the world. Forget the little people on your way to success. Forget the folks who helped you get there.

Never business as usual
Joseph had trusted God’s loyalty, God’s steadfast love and faithfulness before, and he followed God’s path when he did. Now, he trusts Pharaoh with his deliverance, and the cupbearer’s loyalty, and he follows Pharaoh’s path when he does. Action follows faith and faith follows action. Joseph becomes the ruler of Egypt – quite impressive, until you remember that in biblical faith, it’s never business as usual.

In fact, in the Old Testament, “Egypt” is a sort of cypher, a sort of metaphor for whatever works against God’s just purposes. Joseph ruled over Egypt, and people suffered, even when there was an abundance available. Sadly, he set the stage for his own descendents’ slavery in Egypt for 400 years, just as he himself was sold into slavery in Egypt so long ago. Little wonder he’s not exactly the hero of the Scriptures you might think he’d be. How heroic can it be to become the ruler of Egypt and lead your own family into slavery?

Heroic? Much moreso to be a footwasher, a servant. Much moreso to give away than to gather up. Much moreso to be humbly obedient. Much moreso to love in costly ways. Much moreso to trust that God will remember. That’s the sort of hero Mary was. She sang to God of her trust that God remembers mercy and is faithful to the promises of old.

That’s the sort of hero Jesus was. He gave and gave and gave and gave his life away. He prayed to God. He trusted not the kingdom and ruler of this world, but God alone. He knew that the costly way of self-emptying love is the way of true and pure power. And because he took that path, our knees bend before him, and we confess that he is Lord.

Whom or what do you trust to remember you? What actions follow your faith?

God remembers, friends. Jesus remembers his followers. It’s not business as usual with him. He does not forget, and he brings us all into his kingdom. Have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus. If you wanna be truly great, truly effective, truly work for good in this world that needs God’s goodness, don’t dream of becoming king or emperor or president. Dream of being a humble servant, obedient to the Word of God. Trust in Jesus, follow his path, and you’ll experience a power greater, grander, and better than anything you’ve experienced before.

Yes, but. . .
Now there’s one last bit to this part of the story, a little teaser for next week as we finish the story, a little question to ponder. Joseph made some choices that seem highly questionable in terms of biblical values to say the least. But, the world was fed. Famine did not wipe out the world. The human race lived on. There is yet more to this dream. There is yet more to the great and mysterious providence of God. Tune in next time to finish the story. Until then, let’s sing our faith, let’s sing our praise, our love, our humble service to God.

Categories: Sermons Tags: ,

From bad to worse

July 13th, 2012 No comments

“From Bad to Worse” (Genesis 37 and 39)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
June 17, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

The Dream
“The Lord was with Joseph, and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.” Joseph found favor in the eyes of his father, Jacob, and he was given a place of privilege in the family, and a robe fit for a king to go with it. Joseph dreamed big dreams of power and authority. And pretty well before he knew it, he found himself as the right-hand-man to Potiphar, the captain of the guard in the greatest empire of the ancient world. “The Lord was with Joseph, and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.”

Joseph found himself in favor and prosperity from the day he was born, being the firstborn of his father Jacob’s favored wife Rachel. By the time he was about seventeen, his father had fashioned him a robe fit for royalty, though much to the resentment of his older brothers. “The Lord was with Joseph, and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.”

Now if you think about the news that sometimes comes out of Hollywood or Capitol Hill or Wall Street, you can imagine that sometimes prosperity goes to a person’s head and can start to affect a person’s character. Well, Joseph gets back from from helping his older brothers tend sheep one day, like usual, and delivers an unflattering report of his brothers, like usual – and maybe the report is at least partly true. And of course, Jacob believes this favorite son of his.

You can imagine that the older boys don’t take too kindly to getting chewed out by their dad while Joseph quietly smirks at them, plenty pleased with his lot in life. A regular occurrence in the house of Jacob, I imagine. Jacob spoils and prospers Joseph all the more in everything he says and does; Joseph’s brothers deplore him all the more in everything he says and does.

And then, then there was the dream.

One day, seventeen-year-old Joseph has a fantastic dream. Surely this dream confirms his superiority and his prosperity in every way over the less-favored brothers. And, in good favored-child fashion, Joseph dawns his royal favored-child robe with sleeves and many colors, and goes and tells his brothers all about it, making sure they don’t miss the part where they bow down to their younger brother. “The Lord was with Joseph, and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.” Prosperity can do that to a person.

His brothers roll their eyes as he starts up again. “There we were,” Joseph says, retelling this dream for the thousandth time, “binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf!”

It’s not too surprising that his brothers get sick of it all pretty quickly, and start hating him more and more each time their spoiled kid brother opens his mouth. Dreams are not something that these brothers appreciate. What really sets them off, though, and when things start to go bad, is when Juvenile Joseph starts telling an even more outlandish version of the dream. “The sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”

Was even his deceased mother to bow down to him? Well, apparently hotshot young Joseph went way too far with that one (prosperity can do that to a person), drawing even the rebuke of his father, who ordinarily spoiled him. Nonetheless, Jacob, the father of young Joseph, kept the dream in mind.

Bad news: Sold into slavery
Well, his brothers kept it in mind too, except they have it in mind to murder him. They aren’t dreamers, you see. One day, while they’re out a ways pasturing the flocks, Jacob sends Joseph out like usual to bring back a report, as if would be any less unflattering than usual.

Seeing him coming, the older brothers get to scheming with one another, “Here comes this master of dreams,” they say to one another, not bothering to conceal their contempt for the boy. “Let’s kill him!” one of them cries. “Yeah, and throw him in the pit.” “And tell Dad a lion killed him!” “Then we’ll see what happens to his dreams,” pipes up one of them, and the brothers roar with laughter.

Now, old Reuben, he has at least a half a conscience about him, and recommends that instead of killing him, they just throw him into the pit. Judah, who also seems to have at least a half a conscience, recommends that they just sell him into slavery instead – and make a little money to boot. So off to Egypt young Joseph goes, and all his dreams with him.

And the brothers have their scheme together. They tear Joseph’s fancy robe, smear it with goat’s blood, put on their faces of alarm, and dash off to father Jacob. “Look what we’ve found! Is it your son’s robe?!”

And Jacob wept and wept for his son, and saw no end to his grief just about until the time would come for the grave to claim him. As for the brothers, they are free of their arrogant little brother and his grandiose dreams. Such fanciful things they do not wish to believe.

As for Joseph, well, “The Lord was with Joseph, and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.” He’s beaten, naked, sold into slavery, and with him, the dream also. Prosperity?

Worse news: Thrown in the dungeon
Now what happens to him next is really quite remarkable. He falls into the hands of an Egyptian man named Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. And he so excels at whatever task he does, that before he even really knows what’s going on, Joseph has climbed from Hebrew slave-boy, to number two man to Potiphar, the captain of the guard in the Egyptian empire. Potiphar, the captain of the guard of the Egyptian empire, has placed this young Hebrew man in command of running his entire household and managing everything he owned.

After all, “The Lord was with Joseph, and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.” Joseph was living the dream of old, once again in a position of privilege and prosperity, once again in royal raiment, but now also with power, authority, command. Young Joseph has risen to even greater heights, which is when things begin to get even worse.

You see, what this young man Joseph soon discovered, is that in this empire, as in just about every political, spiritual, or corporate empire since, the greatest prize and the most seductive allure is prosperity, power, authority, command. And what once may have been genuinely sought in order to provide for the good of others, soon becomes a goal and desire in itself. Prosperity can do that, can affect a person’s character, and shape an empire’s values.

And as it goes with the empire in Egypt, so it goes with the wife of Egypt’s captain of the imperial guard. She sees young Joseph, who has taken command of her husband’s household, wealth, and affairs. She sees this young man of rising prosperity and power, and he becomes her desire, her all-consuming obsession and lust. You see, more important to her than fidelity, more important than the most basic morality, more important than family or promises or truth, is prosperity, power, authority, command.

As with the wife of the captain of the imperial guard, so with the empire. How else can an empire permit the enslavement of an entire race of people? How else can a corporate empire possibly tolerate the devastation of land and communities in poor regions around the globe to boost its bottom line? How else can a nation that is supposedly Christian send its young men off to one crusade or another to kill for Christ, or another programmatically remove native peoples from their land, or another preside over the extermination of millions?

Prosperity, power, authority, command.

Suddenly, Joseph finds himself right in the middle of the wiles of the empire; suddenly he is entangled by the corrupted values of the empire. But what this wife of the empire misses, and perhaps what Joseph is only beginning to realize, is that his power does not come from the empire, and that his prosperity is not, in fact, an end in itself. (More about this in weeks to come as the story unfolds.)

Perhaps Joseph has grown in character since the days of flaunting his privilege before his brothers when he may very well have happily jumped into bed with the empire, or perhaps he is starting to understand something of the true meaning of his dreams of greatness (though no one fully understands until the end of the story). At any rate, Joseph summarily rejects the wiles of this imperial wife, and he soon finds himself once again stripped of his royal raiment, but now also wrongfully accused of sexual assault, and thrown into prison.

Joseph came to Egypt as a slave; he ends up shamed and in prison. It’s gone from bad to worse for him, but “The Lord was with Joseph, and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.” You know, it’s interesting that the story keeps on saying that in one way or another, but as Joseph is sitting in prison, I can imagine him saying to himself, “Thanks, Lord. That’s enough prosperity for me. Why don’t you go and prosper someone else for a change?”

I suppose that kind of prosperity that lands an innocent person in jail is actually fairly common among people of faith. This is a story about real faith and real life in the real world. There’s the diagnosis that no one wanted to hear. There’s the phone call from emergency responders that you need to get to the hospital, and fast. A family relationship gradually unravels as the years pass. A business venture doesn’t pan out. Death robs us. Illness strikes. Crops fail, and things go from bad to worse.

A Sandwich of Providence
“The Lord was with Joseph, and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.” You know, prosperity is an interesting thing, isn’t it? This whole story of Joseph’s fall from power to prison thanks to his own integrity is surrounded – sandwiched – by repeated reminders that the Lord was with Joseph. In fact, the narrator of this story is nearly tripping over himself to be sure that we get that part.

“The Lord was with Joseph. . . the master saw that the Lord was with Joseph. . . the Lord caused all he did to prosper. . . the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake. . . the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love. .. the Lord was with him, and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.”

The events of real life are sandwiched in God’s providential care and sovereignty. In hindsight, it seems that nothing, no circumstance in life – not Joseph’s own arrogance at the beginning of the story, nor his brothers’ treachery, nor the injustice and corruption of the empire – nothing can derail God’s desire to prosper Joseph and preserve the dream, whether he’s in plenty or in prison.

We’ll see more of that still as the story unfolds in the coming weeks. But the other part of this story of Joseph and the Egyptian wife being sandwiched in between God’s loyalty and provision is that God’s loyalty and provision must say something important about what actually happens in the story of Joseph and the wife of Potiphar, the captain of the imperial guard. Is Joseph’s fall from grace a part of God’s provision? Possibly, although one would wonder why God prospered Joseph to a position of command in the first place, and there’s not much to lead one to that conclusion.

I suppose there are a number of scenarios that are quite possible because the narrator has chosen to leave a number of things fairly open-ended in this story. But there’s one possibility that is especially important. Remember that this is a story about real faith and real life in the real world. And there has to be some intersection between faith and life in the real world. What if Joseph is able to make choices with integrity and courage because of God’s loyalty and provision? What if confidence in God’s loyalty and provision leads to concrete ways of living in the real world?

Character for concrete living
Something has changed in Joseph since his younger years of tattling and taunting his brothers. Maybe he has come to understand the dream better. Maybe his hardships have taught him something. Maybe the times of provision have given him insight and understanding. Whatever it is, somehow, he instinctively knows to do the right thing, and he knows the right thing to do. Even before Israel’s Law with its code of moral conduct is given, Joseph knows the right thing to do.

Something about God’s provision for Joseph, and something about Joseph’s faith has formed his character so that he knows that to accept the invitation of the wife of Potiphar the captain of the imperial guard would be deeply disloyal both to Potiphar and to God. Joseph’s conduct says something about his character.

As we leave this story here until next Sunday, I’d like to close with a few thoughts about character. Glen Stassen and David Gushee, two Evangelical scholars, in their book Kingdom Ethics, talk about their research into the formation of character as it relates to the sermon on the Mount.

First, they say, specific practices form character. “If a family, church, or community makes an explicit practice of mercifully coming to the aid of people in need, its members are likely to learn mercy and compassion.”

Second is the importance of developing virtues – the marks of good character. The Beatitudes that Penny read earlier for us are a list of Christian virtues: humbleness before God, a repentant spirit, surrender to God, longing for righteousness and restoring justice, pure and total devotion to God, making peace, and willing to suffer because of loyalty to Jesus. Paul in his letters emphasized similar virtues, including love, faithfulness, compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, tolerance, purity, unity, peace, joy, righteousness, and endurance. Can you see the shape of Christian character that these virtues create?

Third is that community shapes, encourages, and corrects character. How can you be a part of a character-shaping group here in the Grace Hill community?

And finally, they say, is the knowledge that we are participants in a larger history, a larger drama. We don’t live just for ourselves. We have a larger purpose, a calling, a larger story in which we find ourselves. Joseph had a dream that became his larger purpose and calling, and God sought to lead him into that dream (which will become more clear in the weeks to come as we read along), and that dream shaped his character in different ways.

The Lord was with Joseph, and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper. The Lord is with us always, to the very end of the age, prospering us for the kingdom. May we in every circumstance – in plenty and in poverty – have the character to do the right thing, and to know the right thing to do as we place our hope and trust not in ourselves, nor in the empires of the world, but in the Lord our God. Amen.

Categories: Sermons Tags: ,

Hidden Dreams

April 6th, 2011 No comments

“Hidden Dreams” (Genesis 37-50)
By Pastor Peter Goerzen
March 20, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Today we continue our Lenten journey with Jesus, a journey which will inevitably bring us to the cross. Jesus has, as Paul put it, “broken down the dividing wall between us. . .” and “put to death that hostility through [the cross]” (Eph. 2:11-22), so our Lenten journey is also a journey toward reconciliation – both with God and with one another. It is to this that we turn our attention along our annual spiritual pilgrimage to the cross this year.

Today, as we continue to look toward the cross, we take a look backway back – to the famous story of Joseph and his brothers, from the end of Genesis.

This is one of those stories that seems to keep saying something new every time you tell it. Sometimes when I hear it, I’m filled with hope because of what God has done in preserving the promise; sometimes I’m filled with despair because I know that the family’s move to Egypt means that 400 year of slavery await them. Sometimes, I’m inspired by Joseph’s wisdom in dealing with and testing his brothers; sometimes I’m appalled at how he manipulates them. I’m impressed with Reuben and Judah, who try to stand up for Joseph, but shocked that they do little else to help him. I’m amazed at Joseph’s rise to power in the world’s great empire, and disappointed at how he uses his power and foresight to seize land for Pharoah from the Egyptians.

Joseph’s narrative is a story about intrigue and empire; it’s a story about God’s sovereignty in hidden ways; it’s a story about dreams and promise. Today, since we’re looking toward broken-down walls, we want to look at this as the story of a family on a journey toward reconciliation and into God’s future.

Cocky 17-Year-Old
Joseph was a seventeen-year-old boy when it all started. Well, he gets back from helping his older brothers tend sheep, like usual, and delivers an unflattering report of his brothers, like usual – and the report is maybe at least partly true. And of course, Jacob believes this favorite son of his.

You can imagine that the older boys don’t take too kindly to getting chewed out by their dad while Joseph quietly smirks at them, plenty pleased with his lot in life. A regular occurrence in the house of Jacob, I imagine. Jacob spoils Joseph all the more; Joseph’s brothers deplore him all the more.

Then, one day, things get worse. Seventeen-year-old Joseph has a fantastic dream. Surely this dream confirms his superiority in every way over the less-favored brothers. And, in good favored-child fashion, Joseph dawns his royal favored-child robe with sleeves and many colors, and goes and tells his brothers all about it, making sure they don’t miss the part where they bow down to their younger brother.

His brothers roll their eyes as he starts up again. “There we were,” Joseph says, retelling this dream for the thousandth time, “binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf!”

It’s not too surprising that his brothers get sick of it all pretty quickly, and start hating him more and more each time their cocky kid brother opens his mouth. Dreams are not something that these brothers appreciate. What really sets them off, though, is when Juvenile Joe starts telling an even more outlandish version of the dream. “The sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”

Was even his deceased mother to bow down to him? Well, apparently hotshot young Joseph went way too far with that one, drawing even the rebuke of his father, who ordinarily spoiled him. Nonetheless, Jacob, the father of young Joseph, kept the dream in mind.

Joseph’s Brothers Scorn the Dream
Well, his brothers kept it in mind too, except they have it in mind to murder him. They aren’t dreamers, you see. One day, while they’re out a ways pasturing the flocks, Jacob sends Joseph out like usual to bring back a report, as if would be any less unflattering than usual.

Seeing him coming, the older brothers get to scheming with one another, “Here comes this dreamer,” they say to one another, not bothering to conceal their contempt for the boy. “Let’s kill him!” one of them cries. “Yeah, and throw him in the pit.” “And tell Dad a lion killed him!” “Then we’ll see what happens to his dreams,” pipes up one of them, and the brothers roar with laughter.

Now, old Reuben, he has at least a half a conscience about him, and recommends that instead of killing him, they just throw him into the pit. Judah, who also seems to have at least a half a conscience, recommends that they just sell him into slavery instead – and make a little money to boot. So off to Egypt young Joseph goes, and all his dreams with him.

And the brothers have their scheme together. They tear Joseph’s fancy robe, smear it with goat’s blood, put on their faces of alarm, and dash off to father Jacob. “Look what we’ve found! Is it your son’s robe?!”

And Jacob wept and wept for his son, and saw no end to his grief until the time would come for the grave to claim him. As for the brothers, they are free of their arrogant little brother and his grandiose dreams. Such fanciful things they do not wish to believe. Deceit, grief, favoritism, rivalry, cutoff. That’s how you describe Jacob’s family.

The Brothers Come for Food
Skip ahead a number of years. The family is still at odds. Having long forgotten the dreams of his youth, Joseph has miraculously risen to be the Pharaoh’ s right-hand man, among much drama and intrigue. He has interpreted the Pharoah’s dream about the years of plenty and the years of famine, and has shrewdly prepared for the famine that is now at hand.

The famine has stretched all the way to the land of Canaan, where Jacob and his sons are living. Jacob, having heard of the storehouses of grain in Egypt, sends his sons to go and buy grain. Except he keeps home his second-favorite, Benjamin, the younger brother of Joseph, and the one when his favored wife Rachel had died during childbirth. Jacob, anxious and grieving, simply cannot lose Benjamin too.

Soon the ten brothers find themselves before their younger brother, Joseph, whom they cannot recognize. Joseph, on the other hand, recognizes them, but treats them harshly, accusing them of spying, and he throws them into prison. One wonders whether a smirk crossed Joseph’s face as he at last remembered the long-forgotten dream of his youth. It would seem he was finally getting his just vengeance upon his brothers for their treachery of long ago.

But he still longs to see his brother Benjamin. Keeping Simeon hostage, he sends the brothers on their way with the grain with instructions to bring Benjamin back. Little do the men know, Joseph has slipped their payment back into their sacks, making them liable to accusation of robbery.

When they get back to Canaan, however, Jacob, unable to part with Benjamin, will hear none of the plan. He chooses instead to leave Simeon in jail in Egypt rather than risk losing Benjamin. When they find themselves hungry once more, they need to take Benjamin with them to get food, but Jacob responds by blaming his sons for revealing that they have another brother at home. It’s their fault. They need Benjamin in order to get food, but Jacob won’t hear of it – he’s too busy playing the blame game.

Stuck
Stuck. That’s what Jacob’s family, this family in conflict, is. The brothers finally realize that their bitterness has brought such anguish upon them. Joseph’s relentless testing literally has one brother in stuck in jail. And Jacob – it was his flagrant and repeated favoritism that got them into the whole mess to begin with – first with Joseph and now with Benjamin. It’s as though Jacob won’t exist apart from these two favored sons. And God’s role in all this is mysterious, behind the scenes, difficult to name and decipher.

So they’re stuck: 1) The family is starving once again. 2) The brothers don’t know who Joseph is, and still have not taken responsibility for their actions. 3) Joseph won’t release more grain without seeing Benjamin. 4) Jacob won’t let Benjamin go. 5) And who knows what God’s hidden purposes though all this have been!

Stuck in fear and conflict, and all they have is an old, forgotten dream that has caused so much conflict and fear, an old forgotten dream hardly worth believing. Seems like all of God’s promises have come to a screeching, grinding halt.

How is it that we so often find ourselves stuck like that? How do we end up in those binds where someone needs to make a new move to break the grief, but no one has the courage, where each person thinks it’s the other’s responsibility? How is it that we’d often rather assign blame than work together toward resolution? Do you ever look around and just wonder how on earth you ever got so stuck?

Maybe in some ways, that’s the human problem we acknowledge and confess during the season of Lent. We’ve gotten ourselves stuck. You don’t have to look much further than the front page of the paper (or in a mirror, for that matter!) to figure out how badly stuck we are – in our relationships with each other, in our stewardship of God’s creation, in the ways we care for one another, in how we witness to the world, perhaps even in our ability to trust and worship God. Lent is a season that drives us to our knees in confession that we’ve gotten ourselves stuck all right, and we can’t get out on our own.

Being stuck is frustrating. And the more frustration there is, the deeper you get stuck. Accusation follows accusation. Reuben was full of typical “I told you so”’s. That didn’t help. Jacob yells accusations at his sons. No help there either. Judah responds with his own exasperated speech.

Jacob Trusts the Dream
And then, something happens. Somehow Jacob makes a move. Somehow Jacob breaks through his grief to release young Benjamin. I don’t know how or why Jacob finally changed his mind and released Benjamin. Maybe he finally realized he’d starve, and his whole family with him.

But I wonder if there’s more to it than that. Jacob, you’ll remember, was the one who kept Joseph’s scandalous dream in mind. “May El Shaddai – God Almighty – grant you mercy,” Jacob finally says. Jacob “invokes this old name for God and hopes for mercy. Everything is staked on that one name.” At a time when every promise of God seems to be in jeopardy, Jacob “dares to think of a new possibility. In his boldness, he breaks the cycle of his own grief and loss. And at the same time, he breaks the sons’ spiral of betrayal and deception. Jacob is a picture of faithfulness that permits newness. He is able to care and grieve and therefore to hope.”1

And look what happens. Jacob clearly had a big role in getting the family suck in the first place with his constant favoritism, but Jacob’s courageous hope, his risky vulnerability, is what finally gets the wheels moving again. The brothers are able to go, finally. Joseph runs them through the wringer again, but Jacob has enabled Judah to make a moving and selfless speech to Joseph: “Throw me in prison, not the boy Benjamin.” And then Joseph, so long hidden from his brothers but now greatly moved, is able to reveal himself. “I am Joseph, your brother. . . Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves. . . God sent me before you to preserve life. . . You meant to harm me, but God worked it for good.”

Meaning of the Dream
The meaning of the dream is finally revealed. Joseph’s dream, it turns out, wasn’t about some cocky kid lording it over his brothers, as Joseph had imagined it in his youth. It wasn’t about humiliation or rivalry, as his brothers had imagined it. It was a dream about provision for God’s future and for God’s promise.

To Joseph, it meant his superiority over his brothers. To his brothers, it meant humiliation. But really, the dream was of provision for God’s people in their time of need, in their time of famine. It is after all, originally God’s dream – the dream of a people to bless the nations, the dream of a people to bring healing and hope and release to a world that’s stuck.

Not even the flagrant favoritism of a father can obliterate the dream; not even the arrogance of a spoiled youth can derail God’s purpose; not even the bitterness and murderous jealousy of the unappreciated brothers can cancel out God’s dream, which works through, with, and in human actions and even in spite of human plotting and disobedience.

I have to wonder if maybe Jacob caught a brief glimpse of this dream for God’s future, and that’s why he could finally let Benjamin go. At any rate, it is because of the dream that we find Joseph finally weeping with his brothers, reconciling with them, and after so many years of rivalry, finally actually talking with them.

Trusting the Dream in the Shadows of Grief
But Jacob knew not of this future reconciliation when he drew up the courage and released Benjamin. Jacob is hardly a heroic figure. Judah and the other brothers didn’t even like the dream to begin with. Joseph was still dead to Jacob and still trapped in his suspicion. God’s actions were as yet mysterious, undetectable, unclear, when Jacob said “go.”

Jacob didn’t release Benjamin, didn’t get the family system unstuck, in the light of the reconciliation to come and the revelation of what God had been doing. That all came later. No, Jacob was still in the shadow of his own grief, reaching for God amid the thick fog of pain and ambiguity, most likely severely doubting God’s promises, when he chose to trust the hidden dream. Jacob is the picture of trusting God among the shadows, the grief, the conflict.

It’s like when the power goes out in the middle of the night, and everything is pitch black. You take a few steps and realize you’re disoriented. You can stay stuck right where you are, afraid of what might happen – what you might break, which stairway you might fall down – or, you can trust the dream and take a step. And it’s just that step, that one step, that gets things unstuck and starts to make reconciliation possible.

This, you see, is a season that beckons us to trust the hidden dream, the hidden call, the hidden promise, the mystery of God, the scandal of the cross, even in our moments of injury, of confusion, of fog, of conflict, of stuckness. Perhaps those are the moments when faith is most fully revealed and the Holy Spirit empowers us to follow Christ, and to say, “I am your brother, I am your sister.”

For it is God’s dream, and what God has dreamed will come to pass.

Notes:
1 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation Series, 339.