A sermon by Rev Richard Keith on Genesis 37-42 on Sunday 1 December 2019
Legend has it that Don Bradman was the greatest cricket player in history. But what if it isn’t true? What if the greatest cricket player never had the chance to play the game? What if the person with the right physical and mental qualities to make them the greatest ever lives in China, or lived and died long ago? All we can really say is that Don Bradman was the best who got the chance to play.
To be honest, it’s not an important issue when we are only talking about sport. If the greatest possible cricket player never plays cricket, there is still a very good chance that they will still have a full and rewarding life. Possibly. But let me put the question a little differently. What if the woman who could cure cancer is living in a remote village in Pakistan with no access to education and no expectation that she should learn anything? What if the person who could save us all will never get the opportunity?
The book of Genesis poses a similar question. What if there was going to be a famine in the ancient world? What if it was not just going to strike the small, insignificant countries but also the greatest power of the day? Egypt. The bread basket of the world. With its farms irrigated by the river Nile, producing food for other countries. What if the famine needed the right person to be in the right place at the right time to come up with a plan and to have the chance to pull it off? What if that right person lived hundreds of kilometres from Egypt and had no reason to ever go there? Hundreds of thousands of people would die.
What we see in the story of Joseph is the extraordinary lengths God went to to make Joseph the right person and to put him in the right place at the right time to save the lives of thousands.
Joseph was a spoiled brat. He was his father’s favourite son, born to his favourite wife. And his brother’s hated him. They hated that his father gave him a special coat to show that he was the favourite. They hated that his father used him to spy on them. And they hated his dreams. Joseph said, “Your eleven sheaves of wheat bowed down to mine.” Joseph said, “The sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed down to me.” To his brothers, it was bad enough that he had these dreams, that he thought he was going to be better than them. But he made it worse by telling them as if they wanted to know.
Joseph was seventeen years old when his brothers got the chance to get rid of him. They had all been working, far from home, looking after the sheep. Joseph, the favourite, got to stay at home. Of course. Until his father sent him to spy on them. I mean, to check and see how they were going. They saw Joseph coming from a distance before he saw them. They recognised him because he was wearing his special coat. “Let’s get rid of him and his dreams,” they said. They grabbed him, took off his coat, and threw him down a dry well.
Some of them wanted to leave him there to die of thirst. But Judah said, “What profit is there in killing him? Let’s sell him to these traders.” They sold Joseph for twenty silver coins and the traders took him to Egypt. And his brothers thought they’d never have to worry about bowing down to him ever again.
But the Lord was with Joseph and everything Joseph did was successful. He was sold to a royal official called Potiphar. Potiphar saw how everything that Joseph touched turned to gold. It wasn’t long before he put Joseph in charge of everything. The house. The farm. Everything. And his master’s only concern was what to have for dinner.
Mrs Potiphar also saw how handsome Joseph was and she wanted to sleep with him. “Come to bed with me,” she said to him.
“No,” said Joseph. “How could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?”
Once, when her husband was away and none of the other servants were inside, coincidently, she grabbed Joseph by the coat. “Come to bed with me,” she insisted. But Joseph wriggled out of his coat and ran away.
Mrs Potiphar kept his coat until her husband came home. She ambushed him. “Look what you’ve done. That Hebrew slave you brought into our house tried to rape me and here’s the proof.” And she waved Joseph’s coat in his face. Given the choice between his wife’s word and Joseph’s, Potiphar had Joseph thrown in prison.
But the Lord was with Joseph and everything he did was successful. The gaoler could see it and he put Joseph in charge of all the other prisoners. Two of the prisoners were very important. No less that the king’s own butler and baker. The man who brought the king his wine. And the man who baked his bread. Maybe someone had tried to poison the king and they were both in prison till they found out who.
One morning the butler and the baker were both upset. “What’s wrong?” asked Joseph.
“We’ve both had dreams and here we are stuck in prison with no one to tell us what they mean.”
“Tell them to me,” said Joseph, “the interpretation of dreams belongs to God.”
So the butler told his dream. “In my dream I saw a vine and on the vine there were three branches. The branches budded and grew a bunch of grapes. I squeezed them into a cup and gave the cup to the king.”
“Good news,” said Joseph, “the three branches are three days and in three days’ time you will get your old job back giving wine to the king. Please, when you get your job back, tell the Pharaoh that I am in gaol here far from home and I never did anything wrong.”
The baker went next, encouraged by the butler’s good news. “In my dream three baskets were on my head. The baskets were full of bread and pastry and birds came down and ate them up.”
“Bad news, I’m afraid,” said Joseph. “The three baskets are also three days but in three days’ time the king will cut off your head and feed your body to the birds.”
What Joseph said came true. In three days’ time the baker was executed but the butler got his job back. Did he remember Joseph? Did he tell the king all about him? Did he say how Joseph was in prison for doing nothing wrong? Did he let Joseph free to go back home to his family? No, in his own personal relief, he forgot Joseph and Joseph stayed right where he was in prison in Egypt. Why? he must have thought. Why?
Two years later, we find out why. The king had a dream and no one could explain it to him. And the butler said to the king, “Please forgive me, your majesty. How could I be so stupid? Two years ago you were angry with me and put me in gaol. The butler and I had a dream each and a Hebrew prisoner explained them to us and what he said came true.”
And this is the precise moment when everything became clear. Joseph came to Egypt against his will, the one place he was needed, the one place he would never have otherwise gone. He was put in prison for something he didn’t do because that was the place where he met the king’s butler. Who remembered him not as the Hebrew slave unfairly imprisoned but as the dream teller, so that when the king of the bread basket of the world had a dream, Joseph was brought to him. And the most powerful man of the most powerful country in the world at the time met the only man who could save them all.
It may not be remarkable that Joseph was no longer the spoiled brat who spied on his brothers and shared his dreams so thoughtlessly. His suffering had humbled him. What is remarkable is that his suffering had not made him bitter and that when the king needed him most, he could not only explain his dream that a famine was coming, but could also suggest the wisest plan to deal with it. The only explanation is as Scripture says, “The Lord was with him.” Not only moving him about like a pawn on a chessboard, but shaping his character to turn a boy spoiled by his father into the perfect saviour of the world.
It would be nice if I could say that we are just like Joseph. Life is sometimes confusing, but everything happens for a reason if we just trust God. The truth is, however, that Joseph isn’t as much like us as he is just like our Lord Jesus, who was moved here and there by the Spirit into the desert, from town to town, and finally to Jerusalem, confronting evil in all its forms, and who was tested and moulded by his suffering, so that he could be the right person at the right place at the right time to save the lives of millions.
As the book of Hebrews says,
“Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered, and once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation.”
It doesn’t mean that Jesus wasn’t morally perfect, and had to suffer in order to become perfect. It just means that until he was tested by his experiences and passed those tests, he was not yet our perfect saviour. A baby Jesus who died of whooping cough couldn’t save us. A boy Jesus who was run over by horse and cart couldn’t save us. Only the man who had faced temptation, who had stood up to the religious bullies, who had hungered and been driven to prayer through exhaustion, only the man who had faced his last temptation in the Garden, saying, “Take this cup from me, but not what I will, but what you will be done.” Only the man who knew what the cross meant and endured it with faith and obedience could give his life for the whole world. For me. And for you. The perfect saviour for all of us.
Like the people of Egypt in Joseph’s day and in the countries round about we are those whose life and salvation comes about through the suffering of the Saviour. Everything happens for a reason. And that’s what we celebrate today. At the Lord’s table we celebrate that even the cross happened for a reason. Even that darkest day was part of God’s good plan and shone with the light of his grace. Because we are great sinners. And because Jesus is a great and perfect saviour.
Sometimes bad things happen to us. They happen for a reason, but often we never find out what that reason is. But we don’t have to just hope that there is a God who has a mysterious plan, because we trust in a God who has revealed his plan to us in Jesus Christ. A God who has laid out all the cards on the table in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is the source of our eternal salvation. This is the God who is with us in our prosperity and in our suffering. This is the God who is shaping our character. This is the God who is leading us to him through stormy nights and sunny days. Everything happens for a reason. They happen for our life and our salvation.