“God sent me before you to save lives.” (Genesis 45:7)
Today, we continue our sermon series on Dysfunctional Family Vacations. Last week, Jo Forrest left Joseph in a roadside ditch, in the process of being sold into slavery by his own dysfunctional family, his jealous brothers, who in return for his brother’s life, got twenty pieces of silver.
Jo told you that it would be my task to untangle Joseph from that mess and today you will see that the tides have, indeed, turned, and before we can begin to read scripture, I need to bring you up to speed on where Joseph is and how he got there.
From the roadside ditch, Joseph is taken to Egypt where he is sold to a powerful Egyptian official named Potiphar. Unlike some slavery narratives about abuse and poor living conditions, this story sees Joseph well treated in Egypt. This is where he gains favor with Potiphar, and is given a wide span of responsibilities.
All is well for Joseph, until Potiphar’s wife, lusting after the apparently quite handsome Joseph, tries to seduce him, and when Joseph refuses to sleep with her, she instead accuses him of trying to sleep with her. This soap-opera-esque move gets Joseph unfairly thrown into jail. But, even in jail, Joseph gains favor with his jailers, and becomes the lead caretaker and overseer of the prisoners.
Some years pass, and when the Pharaoh in Egypt is troubled by a dream, Joseph, having gained a reputation for dream interpretation, is pulled out of jail and into the office of the Pharaoh. Upon hearing Joseph’s interpretation of his dream about an impending famine, the Pharaoh immediately puts Joseph in charge of the entire Egyptian food economy, storing away grain for the future and ultimately saving Egypt from a devastating famine.
So, without even beginning our scripture lesson for today, Joseph is not only out of that roadside ditch and out of slavery, but he is, in fact, in Egypt, in the middle of a famine, in charge of the country’s grain reserves, and in the highest position of power second only to the Pharaoh himself.
Then, when Joseph’s brothers, starving in their homeland, come to Egypt in hopes of finding food, Joseph sees them, recognizes them, but doesn’t at first reveal himself to them.
Never expecting that the brother they sold into slavery would be alive, let alone in such a position of power and authority, Joseph’s brothers don’t even recognize him. That is where we begin today, with Joseph unable, emotionally, to keep his identity hidden any longer.
Read Genesis 45:1–24
Sent on “vacation” by his brothers in the same way that the mafia might send someone to “swim with the fishes,” Joseph’s journey last week took him away from his home in Canaan, the Promised Land, the land promised by God to Abraham’s sons.
Joseph’s journey took him beyond, into an unknown future of slavery away from home, and ultimately to Egypt, that place better known in scripture as the place that held the Israelites in slavery, the place out of which Moses leads the people of God.
So, in part, we are used to slavery in Egypt. It is a familiar story. But this time, there is no comfort in the Promised Land. Canaan is a land of famine and need. Today, comfort is in Egypt, a place of hope in a hopeless time, a place of abundance in a time of scarcity.
Unlike last week, when Joseph’s brothers sent him on his way, this time, Joseph is the one doing the sending. He sends his brothers from Egypt to Canaan, not into some unknown future of famine and scarcity, but into a future of hope, a promise of abundance.
Joseph sends his brothers on a joyfully unexpected luxurious wagon ride home, with plenty of food and supplies, on a mission to bring everyone in their household safely back into the land of abundance — a land of feasting in a time of famine — all at the request of a brother who was presumed dead and is now found alive, the brother who was lost and is now found, the brother who was mourned and is now celebrated.
It sounds a little familiar, yes? It echoes the Gospels, Jesus’ parables, Jesus’ life, even.
Even so, from our vantage point, it sounds like a fable, a classic happily-ever-after story. The handsome favored son is picked on by his brothers, but even being sold into slavery, he gains freedom and power beyond imagination, and ends up saving even the lives of his brothers who hurt him.
Like a fairy tale, like a Disney movie, the powerless one becomes powerful, the slave becomes free, the famine becomes a feast, and the dream becomes a reality. All that is missing is the fairy godmother. It is such a happily-ever-after tale that DreamWorks, better known for its fairy tale-centric Shrek films, actually did make a direct-to-video version of this story called Joseph: King of Dream a prequel to their more well-known 1998 film, The Prince of Egypt.
We do know what happens next, of course. We have seen the sequel to this story. We have turned the pages, we’ve opened the next book in the series, and we have seen that in the book of Exodus, the happily-ever-after does not last. A Pharaoh eventually rises in Egypt who did not know Joseph, who, out of fear, oppresses Joseph’s people, so that they groan with misery under the weight of hard labor and cruel work.
But, today at least, Joseph lives happily-ever-after, sending his brothers on their unexpected wagon ride to pick up their father and their sons, to bring everyone back from the brink of starvation into the belly of the empire, the land of Joseph’s fortuitously full granaries.
There is an attractiveness to this story that ends so well — where struggles lead to abundance, where all sins are forgiven, where all who were lost are now found. We get pulled in, wishing that our lives, too, might find that happily-ever-after.
But our faith and our lives don’t rest here, do they? In our lives, at least, no matter how our day ends or our week or our year, no matter how well the next chapter unfolds, we find only a small portion of happily-ever-after. We count our lucky stars for the moments that are fairy-tale-like, yes. We find moments of happily-ever-after, I’ve seen them, moments like walking your daughter down the aisle or holding your first grandchild. We launch our whole heart and soul into overdrive with prayers of thank you, thank you, thank you God, when dreams become reality, like bringing your preemie precious twins home from the NICU or finding out that dad’s cancer is in remission. We know that we have to live in the more difficult moments, the rough edges of life, and so we design our happily-ever-after-type vacations to places of comfort or luxury, knowing that we only have a moment to unwind before we return to the daily grind, the office drama, the nagging responsibility, the incessant worry.
So, what does this happily-ever-after story of an unexpected wagon ride have to say to us? And, as some of you may have been thinking already, why might we even begin to consider these ancient stories from Genesis and Exodus, when as Christians, the Gospels seem to be so much more critical to our life of faith? What does this unexpected wagon ride have to do with our God, with God-with-us, Emmanuel, Jesus Christ, the risen one? As Christmas and Easter people, rooted in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, what does this wagon ride have to do with us?
To unpack those questions, I want to take you with me into the wilderness. You might know that I just returned from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, launching canoes with a team of teenage women, armed with a change of clothes, some food, precious little toilet paper, and enough bug spray to last until kingdom come. We paddled and hiked, set up tents and cooked over the campfire. All day long we were on the move, and by dusk when the mosquitoes came out in droves, we settled into tents, sleeping with the rhythm of the sun.
With breakfast and dinner, we had church time: praying and reading scripture, mostly focusing on the big picture of Christianity — who is God, who was and is Jesus, why do bad things happen, and what does this all have to do with us? We celebrated Christmas on Tuesday and Easter on Thursday — the fastest holy year ever — and I hope that when we hum Silent Night in the dead of winter this year, it brings us all back to the sunset we watched together from a small island in the wilderness on a warm Tuesday in July.
In the wilderness, based on some wild hope that they might take me up on it, I challenged my team to read the gospels, but with this warning: like all your other attempts to “read the bible all the way through,” whether you start with Genesis or the Gospels, you will be bombarded by genealogies. Don’t give up.
Knowing that the Gospel of Matthew hands you a genealogy right off the starting block, I launched into a mumbled apology about genealogies, and then found myself halted in my tracks. Why would centuries of Christians affirm this story that opens with ancestry if it weren’t important?
Back in my tent, seeking refuge from the mosquitoes, I re-read Matthew’s genealogy for myself, and then flipped forward and read Luke’s genealogy. What do these names have to tell us about God’s presence in our lives?
Today, I see it. Reading Joseph today, it is clear. We cannot make it to verse three of the Gospel of Matthew, verse three of the New Testament, without Joseph. He’s not listed there, of course, but his story is embedded there nonetheless.
Without Joseph reaching out from his position of power in the belly of the empire to his brothers during the famine, Abraham’s lineage would be quite short. Without Joseph, Abraham’s lineage would not continue from Isaac to Jacob, from Jacob to Judah (Joseph’s brother) from Judah to Perez. Without Joseph reaching out across the wounds of time, looking past the feelings of abandonment and the pain of being sold into slavery, and living into God’s radical call to forgiveness, the people of God might perish.
The themes in Joseph’s story return to us over and over again, not just in the ancient stories of Abraham’s sons, but again in the story of Jesus, the one in whom we place our faith and trust. These are the promises of God, the promises enacted when we partner with God.
The hungry are fed.
The poor are raised up.
The slaves are freed.
The ones who are lost are found.
The ones who are presumed dead are found to be alive.
The unforgivable is forgiven.
Scarcity becomes abundance.
Broken relationships become made whole.
And God’s presence is named in the midst of all of it.
If there is one thing I am trying to do as a pastor, whether in Wilderness Confirmation Program or Centennial Confirmation Program, in Youth Group or Sunday School, in worship or service projects, it will be centered on this question: How might you live differently in response to God’s presence in the messiness of your life?
Joseph answers that question for us today. Joseph lives differently because of God’s presence in the messiness of his life. Joseph doesn’t do what the world might coach him to do. Joseph doesn’t punish his brothers. He doesn’t enslave them or hurt them. He reveals himself to them and fills up a wagon full of provisions, so that they might have enough to go home and bring their whole family back with them to the land of abundance.
Joseph doesn’t do this because of his own smart leadership. Joseph doesn’t do this because of his own power or authority or because someone told him to do it. No, he sees that God has been at work in him and through him this whole time. He has seen the hidden mystery of God, the disruption of God’s presence in his life, and he lives differently because of God’s presence in his life.
So, how might you live your life differently in response to God’s presence in the messiness of your life? Even when we cannot quite catch a glimpse of happily-ever-after, we have a chance to live differently. The protests in Ferguson, MO give us a chance to live differently in the hope of racial reconciliation. Robin Williams’ death gives us a chance to live differently with the hope of healing in the face of depression and mental illness. The Iraqis stranded on a mountain top give us a chance to live differently in the hope of peace in the Middle East. The Ebola outbreak gives us a chance to live differently in the hope of disease control in poor areas of the world. The brokenness in our own lives gives us chance after chance to live differently in response to God’s presence among us.
It is in this that God comes to us. God calls us to a better way, a bigger hope, a different way of living. God calls us beyond our own smart leadership, beyond our grudges, beyond our painful broken relationships, beyond our precious desire to get ahead or to get back or to get out. God calls us out, and calls us to live differently.
It is in the space between struggle and hope that we can see and name God with us. It is because of our struggle and in pursuit of our hope that God comes alongside us; that God comes to dwell with us; that God goes to the cross on our behalf; that God returns to us grace upon grace.
Let it be so. Let us live in response to this, God’s presence in our lives.