A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, July 30th 2023
Watch the whole service on YouTube
Welcome to sermon number two in a series of five, concerning Joseph, Son of Jacob. Here’s the story so far:
Last week, Joseph the seventeen years old son of Jacob contrived to annoy his brothers, first by denouncing them to their father as bad workers, then in dreams where they were made to bow down to him. They were already angry with Joseph because their father, Jacob, had indicated that their younger brother was his favoured child; he did so by publicly bestowing upon Joseph an ornamental/long sleeved/royal/ multi-coloured coat. Then Jacob sent then Joseph to oversee their work. They snapped, first planning to kill him, but contenting themselves by beating him up, then selling him off as a slave to passing merchants on their way to Egypt. They covered up their crime by convincing their father that Joseph had been killed by wild animals.
That was last week. This week, Joseph has been bought by Potiphar, captain of the Pharaoh’s guard. He promotes Joseph to be overseer of his household. Potiphar’s wife demands that Joseph sleep with her. When he refuses, she accuses him of trying to force himself upon her. Enraged, Potiphar consigns Joseph to prison where Pharaoh’s prisoners are confined. The chief jailer promotes Joseph to be overseer of the prisoners.
Angry with his chief cup bearer and chief baker, Pharaoh has them put in prison. Both have dreams with meanings but no one to interpret them. Declaring that ‘interpretations belong to God,’ Joseph provides interpretations of both dreams. He has good news for the cup bearer, but bad news for the baker. The dreams indicate that the former will be restored to office and the latter executed. Upon release, the cup bearer promptly forgets all about Joseph, still languishing in jail.
Now, however, Pharaoh is the dreamer – plump and thin cows, plump and thin ears of corn – and no one to interpret his dreams. The cup bearer remembers Joseph (at last), and he is called out from prison, interpreting these dreams in terms of a coming famine. He recommends Pharaoh appoint one person to oversee preparations for the lean times. Pharaoh appoints Joseph as his right hand man. Joseph has a proportion of harvests taken from the people, and stored for future use. When famine comes he sells that grain to those in need. Now people are travelling to Egypt from other countries in search of food.
Are you keeping up? It’s certainly a rollercoaster journey for Joseph. At one moment he’s in the bottom of pit, literally, and I suppose he thinks things can’t get much worse. Then he finds that they can. He’s been sold and sent off to a foreign country as a slave.
Things look up. Potiphar, captain of the Pharaoh’s guard, who has bought Joseph, sees him as capable and trustworthy. He appoints him as overseer of his household. Things look good for Joseph.
But the rollercoaster of like takes its next plunge. Potiphar’s wife likes Joseph, but not in a way that Potiphar is going to like. Whatever Joseph does he’s going to make someone unhappy. He’s caught between the proverbial rock and hard place.
As it turns out, Joseph makes no one happy by rejecting the advances of Potiphar’s wife. She’s insulted, and once she has denounced Joseph on the trumped up charge of making advances to her, Potiphar’s enraged, and Joseph ends up in a prison cell.
Once again, though, things look up. The chief jailer, like Potiphar before him, takes a shine to the young Hebrew, making him an overseer within the prison. On top of that, Joseph’s dream interpretation skills put him in the good books of the Pharaoh’s chief cup bearer (though Pharaoh’s chief baker may have less impressed). People are fickle though, and the cup bearer forgets Joseph as soon as he’s free. Joseph’s still stuck in the clink.
But once again the rollercoaster starts to rise for Joseph. He’s released from prison in order to interpret Pharaoh’s troubling dreams. Not only that, but Pharaoh takes up his suggestion that with a major famine coming Egypt needs one person charge of preparations – maybe someone with a track record in administratively overseeing things … like the household of a senior servant, or a population of prisoners in Pharaoh’s jail!
Soon Joseph as soared to new heights. He’s number two in the land, behind Pharaoh. He’s been showered with the trappings of office – chariot, gold, wife, and ‘garments of fine linen.’ (42) People do keep giving Joseph fancy clothes as gifts to demonstrate how much they love him and how important he is in comparison to others. As Genesis puts it, ‘thus Joseph gained authority over the land of Egypt.’ (45)
By now, the seventeen year old we met back at the beginning of the story is thirty years old. These thirteen years had been eventful to say the least. And Joseph is grateful; grateful to God. When his sons, Manasseh and Ephraim are born, the names he chooses for them carry meanings that reflect his good fortune and his gratitude: ‘Joseph named the firstborn Manasseh, ‘For’, he said, ‘God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house.’ The second he named Ephraim, ‘For God has made me fruitful in the land of my misfortunes.’ (51-52)
As happens at several points in Joseph’s story, the events described invite us to ask ourselves how things work in this world. Does life simply consist of a series of chance happenings. Is it as the car manufacturer, Henry Ford is reputed to have said, that ‘history is just one darn thing after another’? (He might have used another word than ‘darn’.) Alternatively, like Joseph declares, do events in life come to us as gifts from God, perhaps even some of the ones that we don’t find that comfortable?
The journalist and newsreader, George Alagiah, who died last week, after living with bowel cancer for the last six or seven years, commented that, given the choice, he would not have chosen to have a disease that was going to kill him, and he was going to miss his family. Yet, he said that living with the knowledge that time was limited had given a richness and value to each day that he was glad to have experienced.
These things are not straightforward. Joseph believes that the various, extreme experiences he has undergone have in the end brought him to a good place, and this in some way is down to the grace of God. Reading this Old Testament story through Christian lenses we might want to reflect that it is through the suffering experiences of one person, Jesus Christ, that God works to bring us to a good place. Even when we see or experience sufferings, or feel them in solidarity with others, we can have hope that in the end, here or hereafter, God will bring these things together to good. (Romans 8:28)
It is because of Joseph’s varied experiences, including his sufferings, that he is well qualified to organise things when the time of famine comes; the right person in the right place at the right time. He does so with previous experience of organising things in challenging situations. He has built up a personal resilience that enables him to make a nation resilient in the midst of its difficulty. At least in part, it’s through the sufferings of Joseph, that the storehouses of Egypt are full when famine arrives, and the people can obtain food that keeps them alive.
Indeed, as this section of the Joseph story ends, we hear that, ‘moreover, all the world came to Joseph in Egypt to buy grain, because the famine became severe throughout the world.’ (57) ‘All the world, that including a fractious family from Canaan, the sons and daughters of Jacob.
How might Joseph react when those who consigned him to suffering, which unintentionally opened up his path to power and prestige, come calling asking for food? What will he do now that their fate is in his has hands as once his was in theirs? Will he just let bygones be bygones? Or will he exact revenge?
Find out in next week’s sermon, same time, same place, same preacher. See you then.