Sermon … Chapter 3

Joseph

Sep 29, 2013 | by Rev. Stephen Heinzel-Nelson | series: The Story

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You Go Nowhere by Accident

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You go nowhere by accident.
Wherever you go,
God is sending you.
Wherever you are,
God has put you there.
God has a purpose
in your being there.
Christ lives in you
and has something
he wants to do
through you where you are.
Believe this and go in the
grace and love and
power of Jesus Christ.
— Rev. Richard Halverson

I love this benediction by the former U.S. Senate chaplain, Richard Halverson; I’ve been using it since it was introduced to me by Rev. E. Stanley Ott over a decade ago.  I would end every worship service at Westminster Presbyterian, Baytown, Texas, with the words; they were so much a part of our congregation that when I left the church for my next call, my going-away cake said, “you go nowhere by accident.”   Soon after I left the church, the new interim pastor came by my office wanting to talk about that benediction.  How could you possibly use those words?  The theology is all wrong, he said, and dangerous for the spiritual and emotional development of our members.  We need to assure people that God doesn’t cause the pain in their lives.  “You go nowhere by accident …” implies that God creates even the bad things that happen to good people.

We see the same tension in the Joseph story.  Does God cause those bad things to happen to Joseph?  It is all part of God’s master plan?  Is God a powerful manipulator of human lives?  Did God know Joseph’s brothers would traffic him to the Ishmaelite traders who would sell him to Potiphar’s house, where he would be accused of attempted rape and thrown in prison, which would lead to Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams and leading Egypt through the boom and bust, all so that he could provide food for Jacob’s family during the famine?  Did God plan all of that?  Did Joseph really go nowhere by accident?  Didn’t he really go by human abuse and by assault?  This couldn’t have been God’s intention.

Joseph says pretty much the same to his brothers when they return to Egypt, in part, to appease their fear and guilt about what they had done to him:

And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.  For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping.  But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. (Genesis 45:5-7)

I cannot believe in a God who would cause that amount of pain in the life of Jacob’s favorite just so that one day he can save his family.  I cannot believe in that any more than I can believe that a person is stricken with cancer so that they can be a witness of goodness in the chemo lounge  God doesn’t intentionally heap riches and wealth on one and starvation and poverty on another just to make a point.  God doesn’t make bad things happen so that we can grow in faith, or be more creative, or meet the right people.  That understanding of God is mistaken; it’s premised on a hind-sighted logic that gives meaning to something after the fact.  It takes a truth … “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28)” … and turns it around to imply that God caused those bad things to happen in the first place.  No, that is not the God I know and love.  God is more like the potter with the clay.  If things don’t turn out exactly the way it was imagined, then the potter uses the apparent imperfection or flaw to create something new, dramatic, functional and beautiful.

In Joseph’s case, God continues to act in the life of the boy, who was abused and stripped of all he was given (his name, his family, his home, his prized cloak, his freedom, his identity) yet continues to live faithfully.   In fact, God blesses Joseph so much, that he is a blessing not only to his own family, but to many nations.  Sound familiar?

When I say the words of the benediction, “you go nowhere by accident” I am not saying God has a master script that we’re all reciting in which God wants us to be in the cells of prison (literally or metaphorically); I am saying, instead, that God is so much a part of us that he is present even in the worst of times and the ugliest of places.  Even in those times and in those places, we are guided and shielded and blessed by the hand of goodness.  God can take the worst of conditions and still work in us in such a way that we can be a blessing to others.  Christ, who lives in us, wants to do something through us where we are.

Joseph realizes that it’s not his own ingenuity that saved his family, it was not his intellect or his good looks or his wealth … it was the work of God … the blessing of God working it out through him …  “for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose (Philippians 2:13).”  This is the life of faith.  So everywhere we go, we go with the intentionality of God’s grace, God’s abundance, working in us, strengthening us, saving us, forgiving us …

What do you think of the idea that God didn’t have it all “planned” from the beginning, but that God works in and through us, even our flaws and sins?

The Lord was with Joseph

Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son. He was the first born son of his favorite wife, and Jacob couldn’t help but lavish his favor on Joseph.  Joseph got the fancy coat that set him apart from the others. And, while the other brothers were off tending the herds, Joseph stayed at home with his father. It certainly seemed that the Lord was with Joseph.

That phrase, “The Lord was with Joseph,” appears several times throughout this week’s reading. In particular, when Joseph was sold into the service of Potiphar in Egypt, we are told that

The Lord was with Joseph so that he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master.  … Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned. From the time he put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, the Lord blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph.

A very similar story takes place after Joseph is placed in prison, being falsely accused of attempting to rape Potiphar’s wife. So what does it mean that “the Lord was with Joseph?” Other times I’ve read this story, I’ve always read “the Lord was with Joseph” to mean that good things would happen to Joseph. But that is clearly only a part of the story. After all, if that were it, then Joseph should never have been sold into slavery in the first place. Nor should he have been thrown in prison while in Potiphar’s service.

As I think about this now, I’m getting the sense that “the Lord was with Joseph” doesn’t mean good things would happen. Rather, I’m getting a sense of “the Lord was with Joseph” meaning that Joseph was able to be in touch with strengths and abilities beyond himself. Like the interpretation of dreams. So, when it reads that “The Lord was with Joseph so that he prospered,” it may be that Joseph prospered as a result of the actions he was able to take as a result of the Lord being with him, rather that the prosperity being the direct result of the Lord being with him.

Somewhat counter to that interpretation is the last portion of the above quote: “the Lord blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph.”  However, “because” can be a somewhat nebulous word, and I wonder if perhaps “through” would be another possible translation of the original Hebrew text. I have no idea if that’s a possibility or not. Just something I’m wondering about.

Does this sort of analysis resonate with anybody else? Or is this the sort of thing that only interests me? I’d love to hear other thoughts on this, or anything else in this week’s reading that jumped out at you.

Random thoughts on Chapter 3

This isn’t my “official” post on chapter 3. That will be coming up on Monday morning. Rather, this is a few random thoughts that came to me this morning during worship and Sunday school. Feel free to comment on any of this, or other thoughts you might have on this chapter.

  1. Does the feast and famine sequence in the Joseph story relate in any way to the parable told by Jesus in Luke 12:16-21? In that parable, a wealthy landowner finds he has a bumper crop, and is so pleased with himself, he decides to build new barns to store all that bounty. Jesus chastises that landowner for not focusing on what’s important. On the other hand, Joseph is rewarded for planning for the future. He even gets the Egyptians to sell themselves to Pharaoh. Seems to be directly opposed to the message of the parable. Thoughts?
  2. A popular topic among some Christians today is the idea of spiritual warfare – the idea that “the enemy” is actively placing obstacles in their way to attempt to prevent them from doing God’s will. Was Joseph the victim of spiritual warfare? There were certainly obstacles placed in the way of Joseph fulfilling his destiny as he saw it. But God needed him to be in Egypt. So were all those obstacles from the enemy, or from God? And how does that relate to what’s called spiritual warfare today?
  3. In my prior readings of this story, I’ve felt that the “character” of Joseph was lacking, from a purely literary perspective. Not because he has flaws – in fact, just the opposite. Joseph never seemed to “grow” as a character, and I found it hard to identify with him because of that. I tended to identify more with the brothers. But I saw something reading it this morning that I hadn’t seen before. When Joseph described his dream abut the sun, moon, and stars bowing down to him, Jacob rebukes him. I always just glossed over that in the past, but, today, I saw it as a sign that Joseph, as a young man, was a little full of himself, and his father had to reign him in. It was only later that Joseph learned to attribute everything to God, and not himself.

I’d love to hear your comments on these random thoughts, or anything else you’d like to talk about

Assignment 3 — From Slave to Deputy Pharaoh

This week we’ll be reading the story of Joseph. That’s Chapter 3: From Slave to Deputy Pharaoh.  For those reading along in your own Bible, the references are: Genesis 37; 39; 41-48; 50. Look for this week’s reflection on Monday Morning.  In the meantime, make comments or ask questions here.  Or on the facebook group page, or on Twitter using the hashtag #apcthestory.