A sermon preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, July 23rd 2023
Watch the whole service on YouTube
‘Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. This is the story of the family of Jacob.’ (1-2) Here we are, set up for five weeks of sermons and discussion about the story of Joseph and the very first thing we read is that it was written as ‘the story of the family of Jacob.’
But we won’t let a little thing like that stop us making it the story of Joseph, though. Chapter 37 of Genesis begins with Jacob, the son of an immigrant to the land of Canaan where he now lives. Chapter fifty concludes Genesis with Jacob’s death and outcomes from it. All the same, though, most of this family story is told through his youngest-but-one son, Joseph … so we don’t have to retitle the musical!
Instead we’ll live through a saga of family failings which indicate the depths and dimensions of our human predicament. We’ll encounter a divine dream, expressed through shared human dreams; God’s big dream for human flourishing; God’s dream, which will not be frustrated by humankind’s worst actions. And today, we’ll ask ourselves how we might recognise God’s dream still active in the here and now, because we have heard it not only in the story of Joseph, but that of Jesus.
But we begin with human family failings. This is the story of Jacob’s family, plunged into conflict by his public favouritism for Joseph above his other sons. Jacob, the bible tells us, ‘loved Joseph more than any other of his children,’ and he signalled this publicly by presenting him with ‘a long robe with sleeves’ (3); traditionally described as ‘a coat of many colours’. (KJV)
When this colourful gift was given, Joseph’s brothers saw red. The dreams that Joseph then shared (we’ll get to those in a moment) only made things worse. But it was Jacob, playing at family favourites, then sending their younger brother to supervise or report on their care for the family business (13), who provoked Joseph’s older siblings into action.
Favouritism, triggered hatred (4, 8) and jealousy (10). This led to violence, tearing off Joseph’s hated robe and tipping him into a deep pit. (23-24) Fraternal betrayal was followed by deception and cover-up; the bloodied-up robe was used to deceive Jacob into thinking that Joseph was the victim of wild animals, which I suppose in some sense he was … human wild animals. (31-33)
And the outcome of all of this? Enslavement for Joseph, trafficked, as are many today, into servitude in a foreign country. His brothers were left with a bad conscience, perhaps especially Judah and Reuben, who knew what was right, and should have done more. (21, 26) There was despair and pain for Jacob, convinced that the son he loved more than any other had been forever snatched from him: ‘he refused to be comforted, and said, No! I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.’ (35)
Who in their right mind would want to be a member of Jacob’s family? And yet, in some ways, we bear a family resemblance to that of Jacob. Favouritism, conflicts, betrayals: perhaps even in our own family histories we have heard, seen, or experienced such things. And even if such traits have never appeared within the family to which you belong by blood or marriage, we know that such things are well represented in our shared human family.
And this is where dreams come in. In the face of human failing, exemplified in the family of Jacob, and the experiences of his son, Joseph, we are presented with dreams; particularly with a divine dream.
And God’s dream, here in Genesis, is expressed through political dreams. In Joseph’s first dream the sheaves that his brothers bound bowed down to the one that had been bound by Joseph. In his second dream the sun, the moon, and eleven stars bow down to Joseph. In those times you bowed down to your social and political superiors, as people today might still bow to a monarch.
There’s no doubt that Joseph’s family understood the dreams in this way. His brothers said to him, ‘Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?’ And we’re told, ‘so they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.’ (8)
Those of us who know how the story turns out – SPOILER ALERT! – know that those dreams work out in very political ways. The imagery of sheaves and sun and moon and stars bowing down to Joseph is actualised, becomes real, in Egypt. Joseph rises to a position of political eminence and power, second only to the Pharaoh himself. With that exception, all of Egypt, and any visiting people, such as Jacob’s family, must bow down to Pharaoh’s right hand man, Joseph.
Ironically, the brothers’ attempts to frustrate Joseph’s dreams by having him carted off into slavery in Egypt are work only to turn the dreams into reality! This is because they are human attempts to frustrate God’s dream, and at the end of the day, God gets God’s way.
Yes, what we so often call “Joseph’s dreams” are not actually Joseph’s dreams at all. They do not arise from within his psyche, expressing his subconscious or concealed desires. Instead, they are dreams given by God to Joseph. They are God’s dreams, given in order to hint at God’s big dream for us and for the world. So what is God’s big dream?
God’s big dream concerns people who have got themselves and this world into a fix. Relationships have broken down; relationships with each other, with our surroundings, and with our Creator. Humanity is Jacob’s family writ large. Given our human track record, things seem hopeless, except that we do have hope because of God’s intention is to put things right; God’s intention that the human family flourishes within this home that it shares with the rest of God’s creation.
What this biblical story proclaims is how God works in order to actualise God’s dream of people, families, and systems working together for the flourishing of all. First, God works through an individual; in this case, Joseph. Second, God works through an individual who is betrayed by those who are closest to him: ‘and they sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver.’ (28) Third, this individual is reduced from the status of beloved son to that of slave; stripped of his clothing before being consigned to his fate. Fourth, though, it’s through this person’s suffering, brought about by human family failings, that the whole family comes to be saved from destruction.
Perhaps you now hear echoes of the Joseph story in that of another individual; a story of God at work in and through one person for the sake of the life of the human family within God’s creation. That reminds me that there are two Josephs in the Bible, both dreamers and both sons of Jacob. One we have heard about already today. His story fills up the concluding chapters of the Book of Genesis. The second Joseph, also son of a Jacob (1:16) appears near the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel: ‘Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph …’ (1:18)
And this story Joseph is familiar to so many of us because we encounter it around Christmas time every year. Joseph of Nazareth is minded to call off the wedding when he discovers that Mary is pregnant, and he knows he is not the father. He thinks he is caught up in yet another incidence of human family failings. But Joseph sticks with Mary. Why?: because ‘just when he had resolved to do this [to break the engagement] an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.’ (1:20)
Joseph of Nazareth has a dream. It’s a dream sent from God about how God will bring God’s big dream of human flourishing into reality. God, Joseph is told, will work through an individual, through a beloved Son, who will be betrayed by those close to him, in return for pieces of silver, reducing him to the status of a slave (Philippians 2:7). And what’s the purpose and outcome of this process? The angel states it in the dream: ‘you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ (1:21)
Now let’s be clear. The Old Testament Joseph, the one whose story we’ll continue to follow in the coming weeks, was no Jesus! At least, he was not so in character or in some of his actions, as we will find out. All the same, his story has Jesus-like elements to it. That’s because the God we meet through Jesus Christ is the one and same God to whose existences and actions the Old Testament writers testify; the God who is working out God’s big dream.
So if God was at work in Old Testament times, in ways consistent with how God would then later act through Jesus Christ, that’s the sort of God we should be looking out for and cooperating with today. We should be examining our dreams, asking God for dreams which promote human flourishing, which allow this whole world to flourish. Some of these dreams are likely to be political dreams, like Joseph’s dreams were; dreams that became actual in the world of politics so that people might be saved and flourish. We might even have dreams about rescuing people from modern slavery today, inspired by the biblical story we have heard.
There are so many situations in today’s world which reflect failings in the human family, and where we should dream for change. These include Jacob-like family failings. And you can add to that, disparities of power, reflected in such things as sexual exploitation or surging prison populations. But what should Christians say or do about sexual harassment or unjust imprisonment? These feature in Joseph’s experiences as a slave in Egypt. So they are themes for next week’s sermon – same time, same place, same preacher, see you then.
Let us pray.
O God, give us dreams that move us to change your world for the better; dreams which fit in with your big dream of life and flourishing for each one of us, and for all of your creation. Amen.