Genesis 37 (Briarwood, March 2013, Joseph ‘I’).
One of the strangest things about the story of Joseph and his family, a story that is acted out in Sunday School classes and theatres across the globe, with coloured coats and bad guy brothers, a story full of dreams; one of the strangest things is that all throughout the whole first chapter, God is never named. Never mentioned.
It’s like God is hidden.
Joseph is introduced, his father, his brothers, the dream he has where he is enthroned and his brothers bow down, the scenes where Joseph comes out to find his brothers, they see him, “the dreamer”, they plan to kill him, throw him into the pit (like a ‘grave’), he is traded away, and ends up in Egypt. All of it. No God. Never mentioned. Not around.
And that fact, is saying something.
Many believe that this story of Joseph and his brothers was written a long time, ago, probably around the time of the reign of King Solomon. A lot of the Bible is like this. Placed in certain parts, but written down, in different eras. And the Joseph story likely comes from Solomon’s time. That is, the community that first hears this story, is that community. Who live in a time of security. When the country is in control. When it seems that someone, like a king, and their plans make it seem as if everything is rather established. Where human purposes and work seem sufficient. Where people ask whether God is relevant to their situation or not? After all, in Joseph’s story here, God is never mentioned.
And so this story of Joseph becomes a story about the God who is never named, and whether this God is still at work. It is a story, a theological story, that makes a claim about God’s purposes in the world. How God works.
And the claim the Bible makes in this whole story, from beginning to end, is that God’s purposes, whether we see them or not, are indeed at work in the world, especially in the darkest times of life, and they are hidden.
I often ask myself why the game of hide and seek works so well with kids. That game works every single time. I mean, you would think, that children, the smart, adaptable like beings that they are, would tire of it, and learn pretty quickly that the person hiding has not in fact disappeared forever, and that if you just leave them, they’ll eventually come. But, that’s not what happens. During hide and seek there is this immediate excitement around finding the person who is hiding. Whispers, questions, running around here, and there. Seeking. And I think that is because, everytime I hide, in a closet somewhere waiting to be found, there is that question, though faint, in the back of every child’s mind, is he really gone? I’ve got to check. Has Dad really disappeared, or is this something temporary? There is a natural dislike, dis ease with hiddenness. It makes us wonder.
And we wonder, is God really at work right now? In my life? In my world? In my workplace? In the life of my family? Because I’m not sure that I see God at work. And neither does Joseph or his family, until much later. The Christians Paul writes to in the book of Phillipians struggle with the same question. Is God at work still? In my time? In our lives? And to them Paul writes, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from this first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among who will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ…..work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” It is God who is at work.
It is a thoroughly ridiculous idea, absurd. That God is at work in our lives. It is a truth though, that “you and I are invited to bet our lives on” (J. Buchanan). We are known by God. And God is working in our lives, whether we feel it, see it, taste it, or not. And that is good news.
But the hidden work of God in our lives, like it is for Joseph, is as strong and real though hidden in the bad times as it is in the good.
This is not a good story for Joseph. He is rejected by his family. He is threatened with violence. He is violated. Beaten. Thrown into a pit with no water. Like a grave. He almost dies. He is exiled. Separated. Sold.
This is not good for him. This is bad. Bad times.
In her book, God in Pain, Barbara Brown Taylor says this about God:
Christianity is the only world religion that confesses a God who suffers.
It is not all that popular an idea, even among Christians. We prefer
a God who prevents suffering, only that is not the God we have got.
What the cross teaches us is that God’s power is not the power to force
human choices and end human pain. It is, instead, the power to pick up
the shattered pieces and make something holy out of them—
not from a distance but right close up.
A God, in Jesus, who is at work in the bad times. And close up. And friends that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ: the good news. That in Jesus, God has come near the pain of the world, our pain, our bad times, and on the cross has defeated the power of evil, and in his resurrection shows the purposes of God to be all powerful, even over death. “The power to pick up the shattered pieces and make something holy out of them.” The power to raise up out of the pit, Joseph, the little brother, and give him a life. The power, though hidden to us sometimes, to raise us up out of whatever pain we are living through. And to transform our lives in the power of the risen Jesus. That is our God. That is our God.
God’s purposes in this story are represented in the dreams that Joseph has. God’s purposes are hinted at there. In Joseph’s dreams, his sheaf of wheat rises up and those of his brothers bow down to him. In Joseph’s dreams, the sun, the moon and the 11 stars (one for each brother) bow down to him also. Joseph’s dreams are about the exaltation of Joseph. His enthronement. We’re not told why. It is cryptic. It is hidden. We only have an idea of God’s hidden purposes hinted at in these dreams because we can read the whole story and see God raising Joseph up in Egypt so that one day he can save his whole family. But at the time, nobody knows that. The dreams just represent – as they always do in the Bible – God’s purposes and plan.
And like Joseph’s Dad Jacob, like Joseph’s brothers and like Joseph himself, we have the opportunity to respond to God’s dream. To God’s purposes, and to how God works them out, even in spite, above, through and beyond us.
We can deny the dream. Like Joseph’s brothers. They see Joseph coming and they say, to one another, Here comes this dreamer. They distance themselves from the dream. They want to kill it. So can we. We can choose to make God small in our souls. Reduce the possibility that God has a plan for us and for our world. Maybe, because we have a hard time trusting God. Maybe because we feel that God has let us down in the past. Maybe because we really don’t want to expose to God what is most deeply on our hearts. And friends, when we wish to deny the dream, we can also remember that there is nothing too small or trivial, no burden too heavy, no concern that is unimportant to God, our heavenly Father, who like parents love their child, loves us, and invites to trust him with our very lives. With our purpose on this earth. With want, we want to do, accomplish, see happen, add to our world, with what is left of our lives. In Jesus we are, in the title of a recent sermon, we are “accompanied, embraced, held”.
But like Jacob, Joseph’s Dad, we can also “keep the thing” (Brueggemann). Jacob’s Dad, when he hears the lie from his sons that Joseph is dead, and they show him his bloodied robe, Jacob takes it. And mourns. The bloodied robe represents the death of the dream. But Jacob holds onto it. As tenuous as it is. We can do the same. When it seems God’s purposes are defeated. When it seems God’s plan is coming to nothing. When it seems like God’s presence in our lives is torn to shreds and bloodied. Like Jacob, we can keep the thing. Hold on. As hard as that is. Jacob, was not ready to let go completely. And sometimes in our lives, we’re called to just hold on. For all we’re worth. When things come crashing down around us. And it doesn’t make sense. When the dream is almost quashed. Hold on. Keep it.
You’ll see behind me on the screens a fresco from the year 1040. It is in the Abbey of Saint Savin, France. In it, Joseph in the turquoise robe, is being sold by his brothers to the Midianite traders who sit on their horses. This is not exactly the Biblical account. But what those Christians from the year 1040 are saying in the picture, is how Joseph is sold. How he his sold for silver into a life of death. You can see one of his brothers in the dark yellow, mustard, tunic, reaching out his hand to the traders on horses for payment, as he passes Joseph over to be grabbed by the arm and sold. You can see the exchange. The betrayal. Because, those Christians a thousand years ago, in that Abbey in France, wanted, from their own lives, to make this point: that Joseph is a foreshadow of Jesus. That in being sold for silver, Joseph is seen as one whose life is given over to death. Given over, so that eventually, through his work in Egypt, he saves. It is a painting. It is a story. It is a message, today, of God’s ultimate, far-reaching, out of the world purpose – God’s purpose and express wish for our salvation through Jesus. Through a Jesus who is sold into the slavery of death. Through a Jesus who gives his life for us. Through a Jesus who sacrifices for us. Through a Jesus who is lowered down into the pit, into the grave, for us. Friends, it is all about this Jesus.
God’s purposes aren’t hidden any longer. They are made completely plain to us, in the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. He loves this world. He loves you and me. He gave himself for us, so that by something miraculous, we might live. I can’t say that I understand that. I can’t say that I can lay it out anymore than that. Friends, in Jesus we are loved. Eternally. With a power that is stronger than anything. By a God who is working in our lives. And this, friends, is incredibly good news.
Thanks be to God.