A sermon preached by the Reverend Dr Trevor Jamison at
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields,
August 13th 2023
Watch the whole service on YouTube
The story so far …
Joseph, the publicly favoured younger son of Jacob, having told tales on his brothers, and then shared with them his dreams where they bow down to him, was beaten up by them and sold to be a slave in Egypt. And they convinced Jacob that his son was dead.
In Egypt, Joseph served as a slave of Potiphar, and was promoted to oversee his household. Then, however, he was consigned to prison, where once again he was promoted, this time as overseer of the prisoners.
In prison Joseph interpreted dreams for others which led to him being freed to do the same for Pharaoh. He promoted Joseph to be his no.2, in charge of preparations for the years of famine foretold in his dreams.
Famine also affected Canaan, so Jacob sent ten of his sons to Egypt in search of grain, keeping Benjamin safe at home. They did not recognise Joseph when they met him as governor, but he recognised them, accusing them of being spies, and demanding they bring their remaining brother, Benjamin, to Egypt. Jacob, however, would not let Benjamin out of his sight.
Worsening famine forced the brothers to return to Egypt, along with Benjamin. Joseph had the brothers’ sacks filled with grain, but also had a silver cup sneaked into Benjamin’s baggage. When this was “discovered”, Joseph declared he would keep him as a slave, and the others should go home. They tore their clothes in despair, believing Jacob would die if they brought news that now Benjamin had been taken from him.
And then, the story, as we’ve heard it today …
Joseph can contain himself no longer. With loud weeping he reveals his true identity to his brothers. They are ‘dismayed’ but he reassures them, saying that it was God, not they, who had sent him to Egypt. He urges them to bring their father, Jacob, to Egypt, along with the rest of the family, promising them land in Goshen. He weeps with Benjamin, then kisses all his brothers and weeps with them.
When Pharaoh hears the news, he tells Joseph to do what Joseph has already told the brothers to do. Joseph provides each brother with a new set of clothes (five sets for Benjamin!). They return to Canaan with the news about Joseph. Initially, Jacob cannot believe them, but, once convinced he is eager to see Joseph before he dies.
Jacob and his family set out for Egypt. First, though, he diverts to Beer-sheba, to offer ‘sacrifices to the God of his father, Isaac.’ Here he receives visions from God to not be afraid to go to Egypt. He brings all the family to Egypt, all sixty-six of them. When Joseph meets Jacob he weeps upon his neck for some time. Jacob says he can die now that he has seen Joseph. Joseph tells his brothers he will take care of negotiations with Pharaoh, which will lead to them having the land of Goshen.
Every week in this Joseph series the introduction to my sermon keeps gets longer and longer. Next week there might be more introduction than sermon!
Today, though, let’s focus on the astonishing thing that Joseph says to his brothers once he has revealed his identity to them, that moment when Joseph, ‘could no longer control himself [and]‘made himself known to his brothers.’ (45:1, 2)
We are also told that the brothers, ‘could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.’ (45:3) You can hardly blame them. Not only did they suffer the shock of discovering that this Egyptian VIP was their long-lost brother, but they realised that their lives were in the hands of someone who when the situations were reversed, they had beaten, abused, and had enslaved. They must have been terrified of the retribution he might now visit upon them.
Then, at this point, Joseph comes out with the most astonishing statement. He says that they were not responsible for his sufferings. Instead, if anyone was responsible for Joseph’s sufferings it was God … though as an essential part in a greater, positive divine plan.
Joseph called his brothers closer to him, saying, ‘do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.’ (45:5) God, Joseph says, arranged his enslavement, which enabled his rise to power in Egypt, so that he would be in a position to save the family of Jacob from death and destruction when famine came along. ‘So,’ Joseph tells them, ‘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.’ (45:8)
Well, that’s a stunner! And not just for Joseph’s brothers, or for the rest of his father Jacob’s family. It’s also a stunner for the whole wider human family, us included, if this really is how God works; that God allows, or perhaps even causes incidences of suffering and injustice to take place in order to bring about the greater good. Is that how you and I understand the character and activity of God today?
That certainly seems to be Joseph’s understanding of his own story: his brothers’ actions, his enslavement, the sexual harassment by Potiphar’s wife, and his imprisonment are all understood as outcomes of God’s will and actions; as are the good things that happened to him: God ‘has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, “Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay.’’ (45:8-9)
I think this also must be the understanding of the person who wrote Genesis: God was working by or through these incidences of human suffering to bring about a divine plan. It’s in the Bible, so we have to give it some serious thought, not dismiss the idea out of hand. That said, we need to careful where such ideas might take us.
For example, those who cause suffering or perpetrate injustice can’t be allowed to hide behind the excuse that at the end of the day they were simply carrying out God’s will. You might think that’s obvious, but it’s not so far away from the situation where even today some among the rich will tell the poor that they, the rich, cannot be held responsible for the sufferings of others, because that’s just the way of the world. I can just imagine Saint Paul saying to them, as he once wrote to first century Christians, ‘So let us not grow weary in doing what is right … whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all. (Galatians 6:9-10)
In fact, I wonder if Joseph was wrong to tell his brothers not to be distressed or angry with themselves on account of what they had done to him, on account of it being an integral part of God’s plan for their shared future. He assumes that his brothers had to mistreat him in this way for good to come about.
What, however, if they had never sold him off as a slave to Egypt? Would that have completely derailed God’s plans for the future? I don’t think so. God would have gone down another track. Perhaps, instead, Joseph would have been a Prodigal Son ahead of his time, running off to adventures in a foreign land, but in his case prospering and rising to power, unlike his NT counterpart in the parable who was reduced to eating pig fodder. (Luke 15:11-16)
All that said, it is plausible to me that God does work in the way that Joseph suggests to his brothers. I find that an uncomfortable thought, but consider what you might call the ultimate case study. God comes to humankind in the person of one human being, and through this one person the whole world family will be saved in order to enjoy life. For this supreme good to come about, however, that person – Jesus – must endure injustice and undeserved suffering at the hands of fellow members of the human family; suffering that goes far beyond anything experienced by Joseph.
If that’s how God works in and through Jesus Christ – through God’s own suffering for our sake – then why not through the events in Joseph’s life, or even in our lives? It’s not easy though, and often impossible, for us to tell the difference between events that God brings about or uses for a greater good, and events in life which are simply, bad, unjust and wrong. It might be that sometimes we are better placed to tell the difference after the event; when we get the chance to look back on things. Joseph certainly had lots of enforced leisure time in his prison years to ponder the significance of what had happened to him. Maybe that contributed to his convictions about God which he shared with his brothers.
The fact is, of course, that we can’t be certain about the relationship between God, bad things happening in the here and now, and what God intends to happen in the future. It’s beyond our capacity to comprehend. As Saint Paul put it in another of his letters, this time to the church in Corinth, ‘For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.’ (1 Corinthians 13:12)
Until that time, though, when all things are revealed, we live in hope; not a hope dependent on an optimistic outlook, but upon our understanding of God, as it has been revealed to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Seen from a Christian perspective, Joseph’s story hints at how God’s story and our story are to be understood through the story of Jesus, including his sufferings.
Until that time, O God, when we see all things clearly,
Help us to press toward that mark,
And, though our vision now is dark,
To live by what we see;
So when we see you face to face,
Your truth and light our dwelling place,
For evermore shall be.
George Caird (1917-1984)
Next week: As the Joseph story comes to its end, it’s a case of like father, like son, when Joseph tries to play at favourites with his children. Same time, same place, same preacher – see you then.