A sermon preached by the Reverend Dr Trevor Jamison at
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields,
August 20th 2023
Owing to holidays, it was not possible to record today’s service
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 had to send his sons on trips to Egypt in search of grain, not realising Joseph was the man in charge.
After tormenting his brothers for a while, Joseph revealed his true identity to them, saying that it was God, not they, who had sent him to Egypt. He urged them to bring their father, Jacob, to Egypt, along with the rest of the family.
Then, after the family’s arrival, the story as we have heard it this week:
C47 Joseph presents selected brothers and his father to Pharaoh, who gives permission for them to live in Goshen. Famine continues in Egypt, and Egyptians come to Joseph for food. Now they have run out of money, Joseph takes their livestock as payment. The next year he takes their land and themselves. Then he puts them back to work on the land they used to own, with Pharaoh receiving 20% of every harvest.
C48 When Joseph hears that Jacob is ill, he brings his sons, Manasseh and Ephraim to him to be blessed. Jacob declares that they will be regarded as his sons now. He blesses Ephraim first, despite him being he younger brother. Joseph is displeased at this and tries to prevent it, but Jacob goes ahead anyway.
C49 As death approaches, Jacob’s sons gather and he blesses them, though the “blessings” Reuben, Simeon and Levi receive are not complimentary. Judah and Joseph are singled out for more substantial blessings. Benjamin, blessed last, is described as a ravenous wolf! Requesting to be buried with his ancestors in Canaan, Jacob ‘breathed his last and was gathered to his people.’
C50 Joseph seeks and receives permission to go to Canaan, along with Jacob’s family and many Egyptian retainers, to bury Jacob near Mamre. Then they all return to Egypt. His brothers still fear he might bear a grudge against them. They report that Jacob wanted him to forgive them, and declare themselves his slaves. Joseph reassures them, proclaiming that events were part of God’s plan for their flourishing. He makes the Israelites swear that they will take his bones from Egypt at the right time. Then Joseph dies, is embalmed, and placed in a coffin in Egypt. Thus Book of Genesis concludes, and the stage is set for the Book of Exodus.
And they all lived happily ever after …
Oh no, they didn’t!
First, they didn’t live for ever, and in fact this week features the deaths of Jacob and his much-loved son, Joseph.
Nor were they completely happy. The family carried on as they had started out, bickering away right to the end. As you will remember, the story started with things going wrong in the family because Jacob publicly favoured his younger son, Joseph over his elder brothers. Now, having suffered many things as a result of that, Joseph attempted to do the very same thing with his children.
When he heard that his father was ill, and thinking that the end might be near, Joseph brought his two sons to him for a blessing. Jacob, we’re told, ‘stretched out his right hand and laid it on the head of Ephraim, who was the younger, and his left hand on the head of Manasseh, crossing his hands, for Manasseh was the firstborn.’ (48:14) There we go again, Jacob favouring the younger brother over the older, just as he done with Joseph, and look where that had got them. Joseph tries to stop Jacob doing this, saying that it’s not right to favour the younger son. (48:17) It was ok when Joseph benefitted from it, but he’s not so keen when it affects his own sons. Hypocrite!
Then, Jacob dies, and the grieving family take his body to Canaan for burial. Upon return to Egypt, however, it’s clear that all is not sweetness and light between siblings, at least not as far as Joseph’s brothers are concerned. They are worried that now that Jacob is gone, Joseph might decide to seize his opportunity to gain revenge over them for their previous treatment of him: ‘what if Joseph still bears a grudge and pays us back in full for the wrong we did to him?’ (50:15) They tell him that Jacob’s last wish was for Joseph to forgive them, which sounds like a made-up tale to me. But Joseph reassures them, once again making the point, ‘Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.’ (50:20)
What a family! And what a character. Re-reading the story of Joseph through adult eyes, and without the help of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber, I’ve got to say that if Joseph is a hero then he’s one with feet of clay. As well as his hypocrisy when Jacob blesses the younger Ephraim before he blesses the older Manasseh, just consider his treatment of the Egyptian population now that he is in power.
He’s gathered the crops of the Egyptians into storehouses in anticipation of the years of famine. When food runs short he sells it to them as food aid – sells them their own food! Then the next year, when they come back again and have no money with which to buy food he takes their livestock as payment. The year after that, now that they have neither cash nor livestock, he takes their land and their bodies in payment: ‘So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh. All the Egyptians sold their fields, because the famine was severe upon them; and the land became Pharaoh’s. As for the people, he made slaves of them from one end of Egypt to the other.’ (47:20-21) Not Mr Nice Guy, is he?
And yet, hidden in that there is some good news. As we’ve heard, Joseph reassures his brothers that he harbours no bitterness against them because he understands that events turned out well because God made use of them to ensure the survival and flourishing of all. Accepting that suggests to me then that God works through imperfect, flawed individuals like Joseph. It follows that God works through other imperfect, flawed individuals … like me … and you.
Church then is less a club of people made, or nearly so, more a lifeboat available to sinners in danger of drowning in their own shortcomings. As Jesus once put it, ‘those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.’ (Luke 5:31-32) It’s with imperfect people, like Joseph and King David in the Old Testament, like Peter and the rest of the Twelve in the New Testament, like us in the twenty-first century, that God chooses to work.
They didn’t live happily ever after because they were not perfect. And they did not live happily ever after because that’s the phrase we use when a story come to its conclusion, to its end. And although there are some endings recorded in the closing chapters of the Book of Genesis, it’s by no means the end of all things.
Both Jacob and Joseph die, but neither of them will continue to be in Egypt for ever. Jacob, as we’ve heard, was buried in Canaan. And when the time came for Joseph he made a request which was wrapped up in a prediction: ‘‘I am about to die; but God will surely come to you, and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.’ So Joseph made the Israelites swear, saying, ‘When God comes to you, you shall carry up my bones from here.’ (50:24-25)
Things are coming to a close in the Joseph story, but it’s only one part of a continuing story as far as God is concerned. The Hebrews may be flourishing in Egypt now, but some day a new king, a new Pharaoh would arise in Egypt ‘who did not know Joseph.’ (Exodus 1:8) Then where would the family, the descendants of Jacob, the Hebrews be? But Joseph is confident that the God whom he believed had brought him to Egypt would also bring him (or his bones) and his family back out of Egypt.
Whether we are flourishing or struggling, either as individuals, as a church, or as a world, where we are now is not the whole story. God will continue to work through imperfect folk, like Joseph and us to bring the world to where it should be. We have to live in the here and now, with only a notion of what comes next, or what comes ultimately. Along the way, on the journey, we should think about Joseph, his family, the nations, and how God might have been at work there. That biblical story is a resource, offering us wisdom for today and for the days ahead. So may God give us the strength and the vision so to hear and to respond. Amen.
Next week? God’s story and our story continues…
Same time, same place, but different preacher, because this one will be away on his holidays!