August 10, 2014

Joseph Sold into Slavery

Passage: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-36, Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, Romans 10:5-15, Matthew 14:22-33
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But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him. Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more.

Bronnie Ware, author of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, worked for many years in palliative care. She was with patients for the last three to twelve weeks if their lives. She wrote; "It is not logic that assists one in moving toward the yearnings of the heart, but faith and courage. In pursuing one's dreams, applying logic is often illogical."

His brothers called him “the dreamer.” The moniker was used derisively. Joseph had big dreams. He was seventeen years old and in the stirrings of his heart and mind he dreamed of a great future. Of course his dreams reflected the social structures of the era in which he lived. He dreamed of leading a great family empire. A young woman or man today might dream of building a company, becoming the CEO, heading a surgical department, leading a research team to discover a cure for cancer.

Perhaps you can remember the hopes and dreams you had for your life. Why is it that such dreams always meet opposition? Others seem so ready to cut them down to size. If a seventeen year old in your family orbit spoke of such a dream we find ourselves conflicted. Yes, we want to affirm them in these aspirations but our life experience teaches us that there is not always a direct road to such dreams; that some things get modified along the way. Even Jacob was conflicted by young Joseph, the son he loved more than his other sons. (I am of a mind that you should dream big because you will find that your capacity to dream will enlarge as you go along.)

1. Many dreams get shut down for that very reason—they are opposed, ridiculed, stomped on. The naysayers triumph and dreams are thrown into the garbage. In Bronnie Ware’s Top Five Regrets of The Dying one of the five most common was, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” We settle for a dumbed-down version rationalizing our current situation as in some measure fulfilling the dream. Or maybe we simply discarded it altogether as childhood fantasy; the musings of the unrealistic.

Genesis chapter 37 begins what is known as the Joseph sequence that extends to chapter 50. This is this the story of how it was that God brings this family to Egypt; of how God has his hand on Joseph—though callously sold into slavery by his brothers—such that he becomes the chief administrator for the Pharaoh; of how Joseph’s administrative and leadership skills are put to use such that a large portion of the middle east avoids the ravages of famine because “there is grain in Egypt.” It is the continuing story of God redeeming his people.

Listen to what Joseph says to his brothers having forgiven them of their treachery. “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. … God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 45:4-8)

This belief that Joseph has that his life was to serve God in being a blessing to others is not something he gains after being thrown into a pit to die by his brothers. He learns it in his home where Jacob tells him of the promises of God first given to Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob and now them. Through you God wants to bless the nations of the world. This vision capture’s young Joseph’s imagination. He believes God and in the stirring of his heart a dream emerges—a dream of Joseph being a blessing. A dream I believe that emerged in the heart of a young man who asks, seeks, and knocks.

Are all dreams God given? John Wesley gave this advice to his preachers. “Do not hastily ascribe things to God. Do not easily suppose dreams, voices, impressions, visions, or revelations to be from God. They may be from him. They may be from nature. They may be from the devil. Therefore, ’believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they be of God.' Try all things by the written word, and let all bow down before it.” He went on to say that we on not to “despise or lightly esteem reason, knowledge, or human learning; every one of which is an excellent gift of God, and may serve the noblest purposes.”

Paul, in his Roman letter, wrote “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Our Lord’s redeeming of our life is never merely personal. You are in the life boat and that is the end of it. All rescued and on my way to shore. No. We are saved for something. Jesus gave himself for us so we are to give ourselves for him and others. Because we belong to him who blessed us with himself we are to be a blessing—the same call of God that was on Joseph is on us. I would say to you that within that context of being a blessing for his sake dreams emerge and are blessed of God. Each of us has been given human capacity of reason, knowledge, and human learning; every one of which is an excellent gift of God, and may serve the noblest purposes. Look to what God has given you and use such as best you can to be a blessing for his sake. And may your dreams reflect his glory.

2. We call it the green-eyed monster. Envy. In his book Envy Joseph Epstein has this clever quip, “envy is nothing to be jealous of.” Epstein writes: “Of the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all. Sloth may not seem that enjoyable, nor anger either, but giving way to deep laziness has its pleasures, and the expression of anger entails a release that is not without its small delights. In recompense, envy may be the subtlest—perhaps I should say the most insidious—of the seven deadly sins. Surely it is the one that people are least likely to want to own up to, for to do so is to admit that one is probably ungenerous, mean, small-hearted.”

There's plenty of research to back up Epstein's statement. Psychologists have found that envy decreases life satisfaction and depresses well-being. Envy is positively correlated with depression and neuroticism, and the hostility it breeds may actually make us sick.

But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him. To be sure, Jacob’s favouritism of Joseph was a problem. However, these sons are responsible for their response to it. Envy, like bitterness, is like drinking poison waiting for the other person to die. AS this envy metastasized in the brothers’ hearts they can’t even bring themselves to have a civil conversation with Joseph.

On the surface we may wonder why the brothers are so exercised by Joseph’s dreams and their father’s favouritism. It seems they must all be rather thin-skinned to let such things elicit so visceral a response. A little family history and review of the practise of primogeniture may help us understand.

Primogeniture said that the oldest male gets everything—essentially becoming the family/tribal ruler. With that in mind, consider a brief review of Jacob’s children. (slide) Recall that Jacob marries Leah and Rachel and that he loves Rachel more than Leah. After their marriage Leah has four sons in succession. Rachel is jealous, seemingly unable to bear children herself, so she gives her maid-servant Bilhah to Jacob as a potential surrogate mother—Dan and Naphtali are born. Leah, not to be outdone, does the same with her maid Zilpah—Gad and Asher are born. Then Leah has two more sons and a daughter. Finally Rachel conceives and Joseph is born. Rachel died in childbirth bearing Benjamin.

So the question is who is the oldest son? Technically it is Reuben, Leah’s firstborn. But Joseph is Rachel’s firstborn, the wife Jacob loved most. Further, Joseph is his favourite. He gives Joseph a richly ornamented robe—a robe of leaders. And then Joseph has dreams; in the first where the brothers’ sheaves bow down to his; in the second the sun and moon and eleven stars bow to his star—signifying the whole family. The brothers’ envy is loaded with all the problems of primogeniture and jostling one another for position. To be sure, Joseph could have handled the sharing of his dream so as not to appear to be braggadocios. Perhaps just youthful exuberance.

At an early age it was evident that Joseph was unusually talented with acumen for management and leadership. Jacob could see it in him. This is why he keeps Joseph at home to help in managing the family empire; why he sends Joseph on an inspection tour to see how things are going. Jacob knows he can rely of Joseph’s insights. Jacob can trust Joseph to tell him the truth—good, bad or indifferent. It is this very acumen that we see on full display and tested to its fullest limits as he rises to power in Egypt.

It is worth noting how envy destroys those who cannot accept that sometimes God gives remarkable gifts to other people; and in this case to someone so undeserving as the young upstart brother Joseph. At a conference I attended last June I heard Dr. David Novak, Chair of Jewish Studies and Professor of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Toronto, read a paper. He has to be one of the most learned men I have ever heard speak. When he cited a Hebrew scripture passage he first gave it to you in Hebrew and then an English translation—all from memory and all quite naturally. He wasn’t trying to show off; this is how he did theology. This was just one instance of his remarkable learnedness.

There are moments when I thought—I wish I could do that. But each has been given the gifts they possess—given by God—and are to be used the best we can to bless others. Rather than envy him I get to read his work and benefit from the gifts God has given him.

3. Betrayal by an associate is tough enough to take; by a friend harder still; betrayal by a family member can undo us completely. Imagine Joseph in the cistern having no water (Genesis 37:24), such that Joseph will not drown but will also not be able to drink. Ringing in his ears is the taunt of his brothers—“so let’s see how all those dreams of yours work out now.” What was it about Joseph that sustained him in all of this? What was it about Joseph that rendered him a blessing?

I read a recently published article titled I’m 19 and on the cusp of something. The author was a young woman starting out on a writing career and had moved from her Canadian home to Australia. (Rhiannon Collett) She wrote, “I’m on the cusp of something. It’s a strange, mildly awful period of your life, this “cusp,” this transition from childhood to adulthood. It’s comparable to having your hard drive erased on your computer, except there’s no friendly Apple employee there to hold your hand. … Becoming an adult is heartbreaking; you realize just how scary it is to be a human. This year I became aware of my own fear. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of fear. Yet among all that terror was a glimmer of bravery. I’d come this far. That was something. Being away from everything I’d ever known allowed me to discover what I had always known. I started to see who I was.”

What sustained Joseph wasn’t because down in the cistern and being hauled off in chains he began to see who we was. Rather he could see whose he was. Joseph always knew whose he was. Regardless of where he was, but especially when he was in Egypt, in all circumstances Joseph knew whose he was. It’s crucial that we know whose we are for out of that we know who we are.

Who am I? This question is answered by another—who tells me who I am? Who are you? And who tells you who you are? By faith in Jesus Christ I am a child of God. He makes me who I am; and having made me who I am, he — and he alone — tells me what he has made: child of God, not child of darkness or child of night. A child of blessing and hope and dreams.