It all starts with a dream, ends up in a nightmare, and somehow ends happily ever after. It’s the ridiculous story of the life of Joseph that never seems to be typical but somehow shows us the miraculous love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit to transform people. Last week, we saw these truths in the lives of Jacob but he was the main culprit in his own tragedies; in Genesis 37, we realize that for the personality he shows, it’s really about how he responds to the things that are done to him.
Remember how Isaac and Rebekah played favorites, where Isaac loved Esau and Rebekah loved Jacob? Remember how that caused all of the problems with Jacob and Esau last week, and how it almost lead to bloodshed? It’s all part of the wonderful family dynamic we see in Joseph’s story here: Jacob hasn’t really leaned anything, and he makes it clear to Joseph’s other ten brothers that Joseph is the favorite.
How many of you know you were the favorite child growing up? How many of you know you weren’t? There’s pressure being the favorite, being the one who is always supposed to do the right thing- but for ones who have not been the favorite, it’s hard to convince yourself that anything could be better.
In Joseph’s case, Jacob has painted a target on his back: he gives him a beautiful coat of many colors. He makes him stand out in the middle of his own family- and naive, seventeen-year-old Joseph, he just makes it worse.
Now, think for yourself about the choices you made at seventeen. Were they wise? Were they focused on others? Or did you tend to think about yourself more often than not?
Joseph aggravates the situation first by tattling, telling Jacob about how the other brothers were hanging out rather than working hard, and second, he tells the family about two dreams he had where he was the hero (Genesis 37:1-10). First, he tells them about a dream from an agricultural perspective, where Joseph was a giant bundle of grain — and his brothers were smaller bundles, who bowed down to him. They hate him for it and then he tells them about a dream where they were all stars that bowed down to his brighter star.
You just want to shake him, right? You want to tell him how the way you treat people can come back to haunt you, but as a teenager, would you have listened? And no matter what was said or done, does Joseph deserve what comes next?
Joseph goes out to visit his brothers, most likely on the orders of his father (Genesis 37:18-25). The brothers figure that this is the chance to even the playing field, to remove Joseph from equation, to do what they’ve always wanted to do: kill Joseph. But one of his brothers, Reuben, pleads with the others to sell him into slavery rather than kill him. So, Joseph’s sordid next few years go like this:
-Joseph is sold to traveling slave traders, not exactly known for their kindness and compassion. Joseph is treated like an animal and carried miles away from home, where he is then sold into the possession of Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, in Egypt.
This is where we think, like a good African story, that one of the low points hasn’t worked out too badly, because working as a servant in Potiphar’s house is better than forced labor building pyramids. Of course, things do go well enough for Joseph in Potiphar’s house until…
-Potiphar’s wife comes on to Joseph amorously, and when he rejects it honorably, not wanting to betray his master, she accuses him of rape. Potiphar sides with his wife (how could he not?) and Joseph is sentenced to prison indefinitely.
Again, our narrative takes us back to a ‘high’ point of the story, because Joseph proceeds to interpret the dreams of the cupbearer and the baker correctly, and soon finds himself interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams. From the penthouse to the cellar and back again…
Now, years removed from being nearly killed by his brothers, sentenced to life in prison by his master, and a life of slavery, Joseph is the number two in Egypt. He’s in charge of caring for all of the supplies in a time of plenty- like a leader who knows the recession is coming and starts stockpiling everything for a day when it will be needed. And suddenly, Egypt is a place where everyone else wants to come because they have enough to go around.
The famine that Egypt is ready for because God used Joseph’s dreaming and interpreting to prepare the country is hammering Jacob and his remaining sons. So Jacob sends them to Egypt, and they find themselves interviewed by the Pharaoh’s number two, who they don’t recognize as their own brother. They do a figurative dance, trying to impress on them why they need the food, and he tests them, ultimately getting them to reflect on what they did to Joseph all of those years ago.
And then Joseph reveals himself to them and he says, “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 45:4b-7).
Years later, when Jacob dies, the brothers become concerned that Joseph has just been biding his time, that this is Revenge or The Count of Monte Cristo and he is now going to make them pay. But Joseph says, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children” (Genesis 50:19-21).
I wonder if that’s what it felt like to be Chesley Sullenberger in the eighteen months after he safely landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River. This one man went to work one day, flying as he had flown for forty years before, and pulled off a maneuver very few people could safely pull off — and then they put him on trial behind the scenes for eighteen months. Eighteen months of watching the computer diagnostics, and eighteen months of cross-examinations.
Even though he hadn’t done anything wrong.
Even though his decisions saved 155 people from dying.
Even though he did the best he could in the situation.
And yet, Sully never let his temper get the better of him; he never pointed fingers. Sully never thought he was bigger than the system, but he recognized he’d been put there for a reason.
Can you imagine? No, I don’t mean all of the negative stuff. Sure, some of us have been betrayed by our families, torn from places and relationships we love and struggling with finding a new place to stand, forced to suffer the trouble of other people’s lies, and locked in a prison that life seems to have formed around us and thrown away the key.
No, I mean, can you imagine… forgiving those who’ve hurt you that badly?
Can you imagine finding the reason for why all of the trouble and suffering had come your way as God had sent you through it to bless other people? Can you imagine looking the people who have caused it in the eye and saying, “You tried to kill me but God used this to save, well, everyone.”
Joseph stands in front of his brothers and basically does the sort of things and says the kinds of things that Jesus will say on the cross. Joseph says the kinds of things that Paul proposes in Ephesians 4- again, a man writing from his chains, imprisoned for something that’s not even a crime- telling us to “put on the new self” (something unnatural and better than human ‘normal’). [Paul will later write in Colossians 3:13 that we should “bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you”.
There’s Joseph, essentially saying that he refuses to let the sun go down on his anger, that he will rid himself of bitterness, rage, and anger, and instead be full of kindness and compassion, “forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you”. But wait…
Joseph doesn’t have any idea who Jesus is! Jesus hasn’t said, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15).
Joseph doesn’t have the example or teachings of Jesus to fall back on. He can’t point to the cross and say, “Now I get it, that’s why I should hold on a little longer, smile a little bigger, take a little bit of joy when there is none…” Joseph doesn’t have Jesus to look at; Joseph doesn’t know about the cross.
Now, I don’t think life is a game, but if I were to use life as a game as some kind of cosmic parable, it might play out this way:
There’s a smoky room, although its more dry ice than nicotine, and the beverages look more like unfermented grape juice than adult beverages. But there’s a circular table and poker is being played. Not by dogs but by figures you’ve heard of before: Moses, Noah, Jesus, and … the devil.
Moses says, “I’ve got this,” and throws down a hand of cards that look suddenly like several of those famous Ten Commandments that Trouble aka the Trickster aka the Devil sits there, smoking, all cool and collected: “I see your hand and I raise you suffering, sickness, death, frustration, misery, and war.”
Noah starts to protest, “But I’ve built this ark…” and the Devil just smiles, smugly expecting his hand is downright unbeatable.
Still, there’s one hand left to be played. Softly, tenderly even, the final player, Jesus, all laid back except for the nail holes in his hands looks down at his final cards, and lays them down:
“I raise you- a cross.”
That’s the final word on forgiveness, isn’t it? Joseph, he forgave, but he probably had the sense to realize that fair or not, his seventeen-year-old self didn’t do him any favors. He probably realized that things could’ve been much worse.
But Jesus? Jesus didn’t do anything wrong to anyone. He lived, he loved, he encouraged people to cling to God. And he was strung up on a cross for his troubles. But he forgave anyway- and he continues to forgive us.
So what are we going to do about it? Who have we been holding in contempt- who we really have no right to? No matter what they’ve done to us- we’re all separated from God because of our sins, no one’s better and no one’s worse.
No matter what, we’re supposed to forgive.
The spouse who betrayed our trust. Forgive them.
The parent who mistreated us growing up. Forgive them.
The boss or coworker who made us feel small. Forgive them.
The friends who failed to be fully present when we needed them most. Forgive them.
The church that lost sight of keeping the main thing the main thing and thought Jesus cared more about judgment than grace. Forgive them.
The people we see everyday when we look in the mirror, realizing how stupid some decisions have been and how badly we’ve mistreated others. Forgive them.
It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, what’s been done to you, who you should’ve been. If you accept the death of Jesus on the cross for you, I have good news for you:
“In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”
Not “might” be forgiven. Not will be if certain conditions are met. No, to all the stuff you’ve done weighing heavily down on one side of the scale, Jesus drops two pieces of timber in the shape of the cross on the other side, and suddenly, the other side fades away.
Forgiveness. It’s crazy, unnatural and contagious. Pass it on.