This sermon is for Sunday, July 7, at The Stand UMC at 9 a.m. and Blandford UMC at 11 a.m. in Petersburg. If you’ll be there, stop reading! For the rest of you, it’s based on Genesis 37-45. Please leave your thoughts in the comments– I’d love to hear from you!
Remember the show Married with Children? Al Bundy (Ed O’Neill before he was Jay Pritchett) headed up a family that made you feel like your family really wasn’t that bad. The truth is that not all families work the way that they should, the way we want them to, the way that God intends for community to be.
But that’s the way many families in the Bible relate. They’re just.. not quite right.
In our story today, we see seventeen-year-old Joseph. He’s a bit of a narc, reporting back to his father when his brothers are goofing off in the field while they’re supposed to watching the sheep, making a name for himself as his father’s favorite, and compounding that he’s already the one his father favors. But his dissonance with his brothers grows when he relays back two dreams (one about grain and one about the solar system) where he is the center of the universe and his family bows down to him.
Is that naïve? Or arrogant? We don’t know for sure. But we do know that Joseph isn’t exactly making any friends with any of his ten brothers.
But then one day, dear old dad sends him out to check up on his brothers again. We know he can expect a good report, that Joseph will thoroughly examine what his brothers are up to. But they’re not where they’re supposed to be, and when he finally tracks them down, it’s certain that the brothers can expect another bad report to their father. So they plot to kill him and blame it on a wild animal.
Pretty extreme, right? In the end, it might be more humane than what they actually did.
The brothers strip Joseph of his famous robe, woven just for him by his father to make him spectacular to look at, and his identity, throwing him in a pit and later selling him to a group of traveling traders. He’s sold in slavery in Egypt, and ends up the chief slave for an official of Pharaoh in Egypt.
Now, a couple of things about Joseph. Obviously, he’s organized, intelligent, a good communicator, and he quickly works his way up to being responsible for all of Potiphar’s house, even when he’s away. Potiphar trusts him. But when Potiphar’s wife comes onto Joseph, he cites his responsibility to Potiphar AND to God, refusing her advance. She accuses him of attacking her, and he’s thrown in jail.
From favorite to slave to favorite to prisoner. Joseph has reached rock bottom.
We know from our own experience that there are plenty of stories about people who met God for the first time when they were at rock bottom. We see that Joseph already knew God… but maybe he didn’t quite understand how he fit into God’s master plan. Whatever the case, he finds himself, in his twenties, chained next to the Pharoah’s chief baker and cupbearer, and interpreting their dreams correctly. Years later, the cupbearer tells a cranky Pharaoh that there’s a slave who can interpret his dream. Pharaoh sends for Joseph, and Joseph explains that God is providing seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, and that Pharaoh should put a wise man in charge of storing up for that time.
Pharaoh sees that the Spirit of God is on Joseph and puts him in charge of all of Egypt. Joseph saves and saves and saves. And then famine comes, reaching all of Egypt and much of the surrounding areas.
Reaching so far back that even Joseph’s family is affected back in Canaan.
So Jacob sends Joseph’s ten older brothers to buy grain. He won’t let Joseph’s younger brother Benjamin go along because he’s afraid to lose him, too. And suddenly, the brothers are standing before their long lost brother again, only this time they don’t know him. But he knows them.
Joseph puts his brothers through a series of tests, until they’re forced to consider what they’ve done to him—and whether or not they’d sacrifice themselves to save Benjamin or not. Joseph tests their ability to learn from their mistakes, and to recognize the gravity of what it would be to lose another brother.
And just when it seems like the brothers would break, Joseph reveals himself to them, and tells them that “God sent me ahead of you to save lives.” Later, after his father dies, and they’re worried about his vengeance, he tells them, “Am I in God’s place? You intended to harm me but God used it for good, to save many lives.”
When you experience trauma in your life, do you respond with “you meant this for evil but God used it for good?” When it involves family, are you able to take one for the team, or do you have to see someone suffer as much as you did?
Joseph proves something here with his enduring love, his steadfast faithfulness, his willingness to be a blessing for other people that’s remarkable. He counts his suffering as a mark of being used by God to be a blessing. Do you see your life that way?
In their song, “Shadow Proves The Sunshine,” Switchfoot sings,
Oh Lord, why did you forsake me?
Oh Lord, don’t be far away away
Storm clouds gathering beside me
Please Lord, don’t look the other way.
Crooked souls trying to stay up straight,
Dry eyes in the pouring rain
The shadow proves the sunshine
The shadow proves the sunshine
Shine on me,
Let my shadows prove the sunshine.
The truth is that we each have a shadow, cast by the way our lives aren’t quite everything we want them to be. Maybe it’s sickness in the family; maybe it’s a crushing divorce or personal relationship. We are “crooked souls trying to stay up straight,” but we’re bent, and too often broken, by the loads we carry. We try to bear them on our own and we end up stooped down until our shadows and our lives seem to be touching.
Joseph’s life could have been burdensome. He could’ve looked back and realized that his hubris had led to his family’s hatred for him. That his place as a slave had robbed him of the right to defend himself; that years in slavery and prison as the result of someone else’s meanness had left him deprived of the life and love he should have had.
I’m sure Joseph prayed that prayer in the song, “oh Lord, why do you forsake me.” But somewhere along his way, he recognized that without the sun, without the power of God in his life, he wouldn’t be able to distinguish that the shadows were temporary and fleeting.
First, Joseph claimed that for the life he lived as a slave rising to power in a foreign land. And second, he claimed it within his family.
The most dangerous shadow cast over Joseph’s life wasn’t the one of lying in that pit, waiting to be killed or sold into slavery at seventeen. No, the most dangerous shadow was the voice in his head certainly crying for vengeance against his brothers, to right the wrongs by his own hand, to punish them for all of his pain and suffering.
But the sunshine that Joseph knew, the glimmers when he was sold into slavery and not killed, the moment when he was thrown into prison rather than executed for crimes against his master; the moment when he recognized he could save his whole family instead of dying alone and unknown in a foreign country… Joseph had learned to recognize the sunshine.
Joseph knew that no matter how bad his family looked… no matter how horrible his life had been at times, God had a plan. (You can check out the Joseph, King of Dreams music video, “You Know Better Than I,” to get the wrap-up.)
One of my favorite Bible passages is Jeremiah 29:11-14, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, but to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will bring you back from captivity.’”
God knows we’ve been sent into situations that weren’t pleasant, weren’t aimed for our good. Some are with our families, with our jobs, with our health, or our friends, or our minds. But the good news for today is this: God has a plan for you to give you hope and a future.
Even those moments that were intentionally set up by someone else to bring you harm, God is using for good, just like Joseph told his brothers.
We might not see the good, or understand the good, for years, or ever. But God WILL use the evil for good. God WILL prove the sunshine. Or Sonshine.
The hubris of Joseph telling dreams about his superiority shows us he couldn’t handle the decisions he’d make for Egypt, and for his brothers, at seventeen. But after the life experiences he gets, the moments of isolation and abandonment, the dreams he had come true, and he can recognize what to do with them. His life has come full circle; he can see the plan.
I remember a decade ago, in seminary, in the course of a few months, that I broke my leg and I flipped my car. I was no fan of seminary to begin with, but in the course of those events, I lost my freedom to come and go as I pleased, I lost my part-time job, I was almost set back a whole semester in school, I was financially broke. I wondered why God would drag me to the middle of nowhere with no family and let those things happen to me.
And then some friends put me up in their house for three weeks til I could walk with crutches. And someone else gave me a ride home. And when I could drive again, someone loaned me a car, no strings attached. And a friend sent money to another friend to buy me groceries. And someone left hundreds of dollars anonymously on my chair in class so I could pay that semester’s bill.
And I realized in ways I never had before that I was not alone. That I was not self-sufficient. That what I had could be taken away, and be given back, and in the process I would see my life as so much fuller than before. It’s driven me to be more generous than I was before, to organize benevolent ministries for those in need in the short term, to see that what I have isn’t just for me.
All of those shadows proved the sunshine.
I pray today that you would find the peace of God in his plan for your life. May you recognize the shadows in your life, claim them, and point instead of to your troubles to the sun that shines. Without the sun, there are no shadows, just darkness. Thanks be to God, we don’t live in the dark. Go out and prove the sunshine.