This sermon was shared on February 24, 2019 and is based on Genesis 45:3-11 & Romans 8:28-30
Our reading from Genesis this morning is the climax to one of the great stories of all time. The story of Joseph and his brothers is an amazing piece of literature on its own, but it is only the final chapter in the saga of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, fathers and mothers of the three great religions of the world. The account of Joseph’s life is sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims, all of whom honor him as a great prophet. In today’s reading, we find Joseph, a great leader in the land of Egypt, revealing himself to his brothers who thought him long dead. He explains that God has placed him in this position of great power in order to preserve life – to literally save the house of Israel from extinction. For context, and with context a greater understanding, let’s review how Joseph and his brothers wound up in Egypt at this particular time.
Joseph had eleven brothers, all of them sons of Jacob whom God called Israel. The twelve siblings were, therefore, the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel, a key part of God’s covenant with Abraham.
Joseph’s brothers didn’t like him very much. From the time of his birth, Joseph was clearly his father’s favorite child. He was the first of Jacob’s sons born to his second wife, Rachel. Scripture and tradition tell us that both mother and son had great physical beauty. In fact, there’s an amazing quote from the Quran which reads: "One half of all the beauty God apportioned for mankind went to Joseph and his mother; the other one half went to the rest of mankind." As I look in the mirror each day, that explains so much. Joseph was handsome, and he was spoiled. Famously, his father gave him a beautiful, expensive coat which his brothers greatly envied. Most important perhaps to his brothers’ antipathy, Joseph dreamed marvelous dreams, in which his brothers and even the moon and the stars bowed down to him in reverence. He enjoyed sharing these dreams, bragging about them to all who would listen. One can imagine how popular that was over family dinner.
His brothers decide to be rid of Joseph. They capture him, tear off his beautiful coat, and throw him into a deep, dark pit. Instead of killing him, they decide to sell him to some traders who are passing by on their way to Egypt. After the transaction is completed, the brothers rip Joseph’s coat, splatter blood on it, and present it to their father as proof that Joseph has been killed by a wild animal, thereby plunging Jacob into his own pit, one of grief and despair.
Once the traders reach Egypt, they sell Joseph to an Egyptian official named Potiphar. Because Joseph acts with integrity and remains faithful to God, he soon earns Potiphar’s trust and eventually is put in charge of his entire household. Potiphar’s wife is attracted to the handsome Joseph, but he resists her advances. In retaliation she accuses him of rape, and Joseph is thrown into prison. Even there, he quickly earns the respect and trust of those around him. Two of Pharaoh’s own household who are also in prison experience bizarre dreams which Joseph interprets for them. Joseph’s interpretations prove accurate, and while that results in freedom for Pharaoh’s cupbearer, it means death for the other official. Years later, when Pharaoh himself is troubled by nightly visions, the cupbearer remembers Joseph and his ability to find meaning within strange dreams. Joseph, who is now thirty, is called from prison and into service for Pharaoh.
The mighty king tells Joseph of his dreams in which seven emaciated cows devour seven fat, healthy cows and seven blighted ears of grain consume seven plump ears. God interprets the dream for Joseph who explains to Pharaoh that there will be seven years of great harvest and plenty followed by seven years of terrible famine. Pharaoh believes Joseph and places him in charge of the effort to conserve and store grain during the years of plenty so that there will be enough to provide for the time of famine to come. Pharaoh sets Joseph as ruler over all the land, second only in power and authority to Pharaoh himself. So it is that Joseph begins to prepare for the famine ahead.
After the years of plenty and as the famine begins to take hold throughout the land, people from all over Egypt and from the neighboring territories come to Joseph to buy grain. Because the famine has reached as far as Canaan, Jacob sends his sons to Egypt so that they can acquire food. When they first encounter Joseph, they do not recognize their brother after so many years, but he recognizes them. So it is that after some back and forth in which Joseph gets some measure of retribution by accusing his brothers of being thieves and spies, Joseph and his brothers are reunited and all realize the truth in Joseph’s words – that Almighty God had destined Joseph to lead Egypt through the great famine and to preserve the children of Israel so that God’s covenant and God’s people would endure. Paul’s words to the Romans are an echo of Joseph’s, reverberating across the centuries: “All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
We can celebrate this inspirational story from antiquity of how a flawed but faithful believer overcame betrayal, slavery, and false imprisonment and realized God’s purpose for his life. Joseph’s story and Paul’s assertion to the Romans serve to confirm in our own lives that everything happens for a reason, that whatever happens it’s all part of God’s grand plan, and that God will never give us more than we can handle, right?
Actually, that isn’t right. That isn’t right at all.
There are those who believe and teach that. There are those who want you to believe that Romans 8:28 and other passages like it are evidence of an eternal Golden Ticket, giving the believer admission to a lifetime of happiness, prosperity, and health. Just last week while having my morning coffee, I came across a televangelist who was proclaiming exactly that based, in part, on Romans 8:28. He declared to an auditorium of thousands and all those watching from home that a true believer’s faith makes one just like Jesus, who, according to his interpretation of Scripture, was rich beyond measure and never suffered from any illness. Therefore, all who claim Jesus as Savior and who simply trust in God will be blessed with financial and physical prosperity. The sermon title was, “God’s Guarantee for Your Prosperity.” According to the televangelist’s own website, this sermon demonstrates how you can “experience the blessedness of this truth and expect your health, finances, marriage and all that you do to prosper.”
My friends, that’s a very thin and flimsy foundation for faith in so great a God. Paul’s letter to the Romans never promises the believer only good things, nor does it guarantee success in life. Listen to The Voice translation of Romans 8:28 and 30: “We are confident that God is able to orchestrate everything to work toward something good and beautiful when we love Him and accept His invitation to live according to His plan. From the distant past, God’s eternal love reached into the future. You see, He knew those who would be His one day…. As for those He chose beforehand, He called them to a different destiny so that they would experience what it means to be made right with God and share in His glory.”
We live in an imperfect world. In life there are accidents, natural disasters, diseases, and, sometimes, those with malicious purposes succeed in harming others. As human beings our worries range from financial to medical, we experience grief, depression, and, eventually, we all come face to face with our own mortality. In this world of ours bad things happen to good people. Bad things happen, and we find it difficult at best to see what good and beautiful thing God will make of it.
In her book, “The Hiding Place,” Corrie ten Boom tells of the how she, her sister Betsie, and their father Casper are led by their faith to aid, protect, and hide Jews in Nazi-occupied Holland during the Second World War. After the invasion of their beloved homeland the Nazi infestation of hatred inexorably leads to greater and greater Jewish persecution. As life for their Jewish friends and neighbors becomes ever more difficult, the ten Booms agree to help and begin hiding Jews temporarily, until passage to a safer and more permanent residence can be secured. They know that this ministry, that this calling, may cost them their lives, but as they welcome their first Jewish guest, Corrie prays, “Lord Jesus, I offer myself for Your people. In any way. Any place. Any time.” In little time, the ten Booms become a vital hub of life-saving underground activity with spokes reaching throughout Holland. But after two years, the ten Boom house is raided. Corrie and Betsie are eventually imprisoned at the German labor camp of Ravensbrück.
At Ravensbrück, they are forced to live and work in filth, and they suffer abuse, hunger, and disease. But in that horrible pit of death and despair, they begin to have a secret worship service in the back of their barracks. They gather around a dim bulb each evening to sing, read Scripture, and share God’s love among the other captives. They soon add a second service so that all who wish to participate, can. Amazingly, none of the Nazis stop them. The filth and the lice within the barracks are so great that they deter the guards from investigating their activity. In the unfathomable darkness and evil of Ravensbrück, the dim bulb becomes a beacon of God’s love. In their dire and deplorable circumstances, Corrie and Betsie understand their call with even greater clarity.
By the end of 1944 it becomes clear that Betsie is dying. The day before her death, as she is being taken to the infirmary, Betsie charges Corrie to “tell people that there is no pit so deep that [God] is not deeper still. They will listen to us, Corrie,” Betsie declares, “because we have been here.” Betsie was right! Corrie, who was released by a clerical error only days later, would go on to inspire millions with her book, The Hiding Place, and, for her work helping Jews during the Holocaust, she was honored by the state of Israel as “Righteous Among the Nations.” The awful treatment of Corrie and Betsie, though not in any way caused by God, was used by God to save lives, to inspire others, and to build the Kingdom.
Paul claims that we are called to a different destiny. Amid our worry or grief, in the pit of our despair, we find it difficult to ponder how God can orchestrate our pain into future goodness and beauty. Thankfully, our call, our destiny, our salvation is in no way dependent upon our ability to understand God’s plan.
Our call is found where faith meets opportunity. Our purpose becomes clear whenever our works as faithful Christians intersect with an opportunity for God to use us to serve others and further the Kingdom. In that regard we each have unique opportunities based on our experiences, and, therefore, we each have a different call.
Our destiny, on the other hand, while different from those without faith, is shared among the body of believers. Our destiny is to return one day to God. And we will because God’s son, Jesus, sought and bought us – we belong to God! No matter what happens along the way, our destiny is sure.
In order to best understand a particular passage of Scripture, one must have an understanding of its context: Who wrote it? To whom was it written? When and where were the words laid down? As Paul wrote to the church of Rome, ninety percent of the citizens of that city lived in poverty. Whether Jews who had accepted Jesus as Messiah or Gentiles who were called to faith in Christ, the Roman believers lived outside the acceptable cultural norms of their time. In the decades and centuries to follow, they would face bitter persecution for their faith, including ridicule, imprisonment, torture, and death. It strains credulity to think that the recipients of Paul’s letter would read it as a Divine guarantee of permanent health and wealth, and there’s no evidence to show that Paul intended to convey a gospel of limitless prosperity to his Roman sisters and brothers.
There is evidence, however, of how the Christians in Rome expressed their faith symbolically. In the late first century, believers in Rome began to bury their dead underground, in what we now call the catacombs. These necropolises contain an amazing collection of early Christian art. Perhaps because it was still in use as a form of execution at the time, the cross is not used as a symbol of the early believers’ faith. There is one symbol, however, that is found in abundance – the anchor. Even as they experienced persecution, even when they buried their dead, the early Christians of Rome chose to represent their faith as a strong, steadfast support, a sure and steady link to God. There are two things worth noting about an anchor: you never fully appreciate its strength until a storm comes, and it does its work unseen, beneath the surface of whatever storm is raging.
Although we are unlikely to ever find ourselves sold into slavery like Joseph or placed in a concentration camp like the ten Booms and although my sincere prayer for all of us is that we live in peace, health, and happiness, odds are that we will each experience some level of grief, suffering, or doubt in this life. Many already have. Some are right now. When facing the difficult and trying times, remember this quote from Betsie ten Boom: “There are no ‘ifs’ in God’s world. And no places that are safer than other places. The center of [God’s] will is our only safety…. Let us pray that we may always know it.”
No matter what, we are anchored to God – God chose us, and Jesus bought us. Our destiny is glory divine. In response, we are called to be light and love wherever we find an opportunity.
Glory be to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.