Joseph in Prison – Sunday, September 21 (NL Week 3)

Sunday’s Readings:
Complementary Text: Matthew 5:11-12
Preaching Text: Genesis 39:1-23

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

 Twenty years ago, actor Tom Hanks gave voice to a character named Forrest Gump in the 1994 movie that bore his name. The film was critically acclaimed from the beginning, and is memorable for many reasons, but what has stuck with many of those who have seen it more than anything else is one quote that seems to sums up Forrest’s life: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get…” That quote has stuck with so many because it seem to ring true. Life has a way of taking unexpected twists and turns – sometimes for better, and sometimes for worse.

Today we hear a portion of the story of Joseph, a figure who perhaps more than any other might have found himself nodding along in agreement if he’d ever had occasion to hear these words. Joseph’s story is one of dramatic swings of emotion. He begins the story as the favorite son of his father Jacob in the land of Canaan, and ends the story with a poignant burial alongside his father in their homeland. In between is a tale of jealousy and deceit, of power and powerlessness, of alienation and reconciliation. Joseph experiences all the highs and lows that life has to offer him, and through those abrupt changes in circumstance, we see a reflection of human life in all its messiness. Perhaps you identify with Joseph because you are familiar with being part of a family in strife. Perhaps you have found yourself bearing the consequences of false accusations. Perhaps you have risen from meager circumstances to make a name for yourself. Perhaps at one time you enjoyed some measure of status and had it taken away from you. Most all of us can find our story in Joseph’s story, and all of us can learn something about what life lived in relationship with God looks like in a world filled with promise and scarred by sin.

Before today’s reading picks up, we meet Joseph and his family in Canaan. Joseph, as I’ve mentioned before, was admittedly his father’s favorite son, and he had the clothes to prove it: a richly woven and intricate robe that was the envy of all his brothers. If his brothers thought taking a backseat to Joseph was bad enough in general, Joseph tended to make matters worse through his unfortunate habit of rubbing it in their faces, including when he shared a pair of dreams that predicted Joseph would rule over his entire family. From his brothers’ perspective, Joseph had to go, and an encounter with him in a pasture with no witnesses gave them the chance to act. Reuben, the oldest of Jacob’s sons, was able to persuade his brothers not to kill Joseph outright, but not to keep him around. Joseph was sold off to the first slave traders who came across the brothers, and he ended up in Egypt. He soon became the favored servant of his new master, Potiphar, and held that post until Potiphar’s wife failed to get what she wanted out of him and had him thrown into prison on trumped up charges. Joseph was freed from prison again – only after being forgotten for years, I should add – when he proved himself an able interpreter of dreams that had tormented the Pharoah, Egypt’s most powerful leader. As a reward for his prowess, Joseph became the second-in-command in Egypt, responsible for navigating the people through a seven-year-long famine. Eventually, the famine reaches Canaan, where Joseph’s family still lives, and the tables are turned on the brothers who schemed to have Joseph killed. He keeps them at his mercy until he can no longer hide his true identity, then forgives them for their cruelty to him.

Joseph’s story is both remarkable and familiar. It is remarkable because it is so raw and real, so fraught with human emotion. It is familiar because we can identify with Joseph – not so much because of the details of this story, but because of its shape, its recognition of life’s unpredictability. One can’t help but come away from this story with the overwhelming conviction that – if nothing else – life is complicated, and that the life of faith has its own ups and downs. From the very beginning, Joseph enjoys favor: his father’s, Potiphar’s, the Pharaoh’s, and (most importantly) God’s. Despite that favored status, Joseph also experiences incredible hardship: slavery, false accusation, imprisonment, and the awful responsibility of stewarding an entire region of the world through famine. At every turn, Joseph is met with the consequences of human sin, whether it is his own, his brother’s, Potiphar’s wife’s, the butler who forgets about him and leaves him to rot in jail for years, even – at the story’s seemingly triumphant conclusion – the greed of the Pharaoh and his administration that leads to widespread slavery in Egypt. At the same time, the conviction that undergirds this entire story is not that life is nothing more than a crap shoot, but that God is able to work in the midst of challenge and hardship and struggle to bring good. Let me make that point perfectly clear. I am not suggesting that God orchestrates hardship and struggle in order to bring about God. I am suggesting that when we are faced with hardship and struggle, God is still capable of bringing about good; that, as Joseph puts it to his brothers when he reveals his identity to them in Egypt, “…you meant to harm me, but God intended it for a good purpose, so he could preserve the lives of many people, as you can see this day.” (Genesis 50:20, New English Translation)

If anything, that’s the main point of Joseph’s story, and perhaps the most important thing we can take away from it as we reflect on our own lives. We who have been called and claimed by God in Christ are given no guarantees about life being easy or free from challenges. God isn’t in the business of making guarantees, after all. But as we’ve seen the last two weeks, we worship a God who makes promise after promise, and who has been shown to be faithful to those promises time and time again. God took a second chance on creation and continues to sustain this creation moment by moment, upholding that amazing promise never to bring destruction to the whole world again, even if we haven’t done such a great job of tilling and keeping this planet and its creatures. God chose an old man named Abraham, promised him descendants and a land to call his own, and billions of people around the world now claim Abraham as their father in the faith. God worked in the life of a young man named Joseph to bring him through trial and tribulation and put him in a position to save entire nations from famine.

Brothers and sisters, in the end, maybe Forrest Gump wasn’t exactly right after all. We might not always know what’s coming our way, but we do know the one who holds us, loves us, and keeps us always in God’s care. We worship a God of promise whose word is trustworthy and true. God’s desire for our lives, our communities, our world, is that hope, healing, and wholeness might be extended to all creation. As God’s people in Christ Jesus, let us pray that we might be inspired by the story of Joseph to keep our eyes open to those people and places and times in which goodness has taken root and sprouted, even in the soil of despair. Let us pray that God’s Spirit might move to bring reconciliation where relationships have been broken. Let us pray that God would use us to be messengers of life and love and hope in a world that so desperately needs them. Above all, may we continue to place our trust in God, who has claimed us and promised to be present with us always, come what may. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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