Saturday, 5 July 2014

Joseph and the big picture

Genesis 50:15-26

Imagine our opening scene. We meet 11 men with their heads bowed. One man is standing over them. He is pretty impressive. He is the prime minister of Egypt. 

There is an image of that man in one of our South windows. 

His name is Joseph. The 11 are his half-brothers. And they are terrified that Joseph is going to order their execution. 

Many years earlier these 11 had done something dreadful to Joseph. They had seized him, dropped him in a pit with the intention of leaving him there to die, and then - when they realised they could get some money for him - had sold him as a slave to some passing traders.

Yes, Joseph was an arrogant brat. He was 17, the youngest of the family so far, and the favourite son of their father. His father had made that blatantly clear by giving him an honoured robe.  He swaggered around in that robe. He snitched on his brothers. He even told them of his dreams: I dreamt that you all bowed down before me. And they hated him. So when they had the opportunity to get him out of their lives once and for all, they took it. 

But they didn't get him out of their lives. Somehow, miraculously, Joseph - the brother they had sold as a slave, who had then been locked up and forgotten in an Egyptian prison - had become the second most powerful man in Egypt, after Pharoah. He was Pharoah's prime minister. 

Many years later there was a famine in Canaan, and there was food in Egypt. So the brothers came to Egypt to get food. They came to Joseph, although they did not realise it was Joseph, to beg for food. And Joseph finally makes himself known to them, appears to forgive them (in 45:5),, and tells them to bring their families and his father to Egypt - where there would be food for them. 

But now their father Jacob has died, and the brothers are terrified. Had Joseph just forgiven them for the sake of his father? Now that Jacob was dead, would he finally get his revenge? 

"When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?’ 16 So they sent word to Joseph, saying, ‘Your father left these instructions before he died: 17 “This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.” Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.’ When their message came to him, Joseph wept.[Gen 50:15-17].

Joseph wept. I don't know why. 
He may have wept because it showed him that for these past few years his brothers did not really trust him and had lived in fear of him.
Or maybe he wept because it brought it all back: being thrown into the pit, being sold into slavery, being locked up in prison not because he had done anything wrong but because he had done what was right. He wept for the lost years, the years as a slave, the years in prison, when he was forgotten and abandoned. 

Whatever, his brothers see his tears and are even more scared. They fall at his feet and offer themselves to be his slaves. 

But Joseph lifts them up and speaks some of the most gracious words we find in the bible. He tells them that they really do have nothing to fear, and he promises to protect them and their little ones. 'He comforted them and spoke kindly to them' (v21). 

How can he do that? How can you forgive when you have been treated so badly? How can you forgive when your own brothers drop you in a pit to die, and only pull you out in order to sell you as a slave?

1. Joseph has learnt that he is not God.

'Am I in the place of God?' He says. 

Strangely that is a difficult lesson for us to learn. We like to think that we are God, that life rotates around me - or should rotate around me - and that it is all about me. 

It's a bit of a joke really! We can control so little. We have no say about where we are born, to whom we are born. We have no say as to what gifts we will be given, about our life chances, about our health or the health of those we love. We cannot control the climate, whether it will rain, when the sun will shine; we cannot control little disasters, let alone major tragedies. We do not know when or how we will die. 

Joseph had learnt that. He had learnt that he was not God. He had learnt it in the university of life. He probably thought he was God as an arrogant 17 year old. But then his brothers had sold him as a slave. And when he resisted the approaches of Mrs Potiphar (you can read that racy little story in chapter 38), he was locked up in prison. And those years in prison had taught him that life was outside of his control. 

He learnt that he was not God. But he also learnt that the true God had not abandoned him, but was with him. We are told three times, when he is at his lowest, that God was with him (Gen 39:2, 21,23).

So Joseph, even though he had a power that we can only dream of, had learned that he was not God. 

And because he was not God, he realised that it was not his job to judge his brothers. Only God could do that. And if – through their evil actions - God had sent him on ahead to Egypt to save them, who was he to now condemn them?

[cf. Romans 12:19-21]

2. Joseph has learned that God is sovereign in everything.

In v20 he says, 'As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive'.

Bad stuff may happen to us because bad people do bad things to us. Bad stuff may happen to us because bad stuff just happens. But if we keep open to him, God can use it all. 

If Joseph had not been obnoxious he probably would not have been sold as a slave. If he had not been sold as a slave he would not have entered Potiphar's home. If he had not served in Potiphar's home, Mrs Potiphar would not have taken a fancy to him, and he would not have ended up in prison. If he had not been in prison he would not have interpreted the baker and chief cupbearer's dreams. If he had not been kept in prison, when the cupbearer did finally remember him, he would not have been around when Pharoah had his dream. And if he had not interpreted Pharoah's dream, probably 100s of thousands of people would have died of famine, including his own family. There is a great line in the musical, Joseph, ‘All these things you saw in your pyjamas. Are a long-range forecast for your farmers.’

So do not despair when life goes pear shaped on you. Do not despair when bad things happen to you. I will let you into a secret: bad things will happen to you.
But don't despair, because God is still God. He has not abandoned you, and he can use even the rubbish that happens to you to bring good to both others and yourself. 

3. Joseph has learned to see the big picture.

In v24, Joseph says, ‘I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob’. And Joseph makes his children swear that when that does happen, they are to take his body with them.

That theme is taken up in the lower part of our window. Joseph is on his death bed. And underneath are the words, 'Joseph foretelleth the Exodus'. 

By telling them to take his body with them when they leave Egypt - even though it is not going to be for many years yet - Joseph is making the prediction that the people of Israel are going to return to the land that God had promised to give Abraham. And the reason that he could be confident that one day they would leave Egypt and return to Canaan is because he had learned to trust in the promise of God. 

He saw the big picture.

Joseph’s life is a real roller coaster. A favourite son, honoured by his father; sold into slavery; works his way up as head of Potiphar’s household; thrown into prison; becomes mr efficiency in prison and given responsibility; forgotten; then raised to a position beyond anything he could have imagined. And of course, that was not the end of the journey. He was going to die.

But Joseph saw the big picture. He looked back to the promise given to Abraham – that his descendants would be a great people, that they would occupy the land of Canaan, that all peoples would be blessed through them. So his little roller-coaster of a life was just a tiny part of that much greater picture. And he probably realised that the big picture was bigger than that.

I think it is significant that he asks for his body to be taken to the promised land. I suspect he did not consciously believe in a resurrection - that faith only seems to come later in the Old Testament - but I suspect he did have an unconscious belief in the resurrection. He wanted his body to be there, because he knew God was able to do something. 

Yes there are going to be times in our lives when it seems that everything has gone wrong, when bad things happen, even that God has abandoned us. But we need to keep our eyes on the bigger picture. On Good Friday it seemed as if the world of the disciples had come to an end. Everything they had believed, everything they had committed their life to came crashing down when Jesus was crucified. But it wasn’t the end. Three days later, Jesus rose from the dead. And one day he will return, and come as judge, and establish his kingdom of what is right and full of joy. And even though we may not understand, even the rubbish that happens to us can, in some tiny way, become part of that bigger picture.

 So I think the reason that Joseph could forgive was because he had learned that he was not God, he had learned that God is sovereign in everything and can even use evil intentions to bring about his will, and by faith, he had begun to see the big picture.


Look at the two pictures together – look at them in the setting of all the windows on the South side – and you will see the big picture: of men and women who are living by faith in the promises of God.




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