“God’s Grace in the Life of Joseph”
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 23, 2017
7th Sunday after Pentecost
1 Samuel 1:1-28; 50:15-21
It was her first day on the job. She entered the Pre-School with anticipation, expecting to care for the newborns. Instead, Sarah found herself in a room full of 4-year-olds who invited her in as their guest. As their guest, she had a special role to play. During “circle time” Sarah had to answer any question the four-year-olds asked of her. How else could they get to know their new friend? Politely taking turns, the children asked questions and Sarah patiently answered. The questions were what one might expect from a four-year-old, and Sarah fired back answers with little effort…until the little girl with long brown curls in the pink dress raised her hand. “Miss Sarah, I have a question for you. Who is your favorite princess?” Nearly stumped, Sarah had to stop and think for a moment. Then she responded, “Well if I actually liked princesses, I suppose Cinderella would be my favorite because she worked really hard before she became one.”
Echoing Sarah’s sentiment, if I were really fond of princes, I suppose Joseph would be my favorite because he worked really hard before he became one. Of course, technically, Joseph is never called a prince in Scripture; nonetheless, it is certainly how his father, Israel (or Jacob, as he is better known) treats him.
Our story begins with Joseph at the tender age of seventeen who is the “helper” of his older brothers in shepherding the flock. But there’s a problem. Joseph’s brothers hate him. We are told he brought a bad report of them to his father. In other words, (dare I say it) Joseph is a tattletale. To make matters worse, Jacob loves Joseph more than any of his other children—a fact that he doesn’t keep secret—instead, he broadcasts his feelings by making Joseph a special coat.
There’s debate over the appearance of this coat because the Hebrew word describing it is difficult to interpret. The KJV and my Children’s Bible describe it as a “coat of many colors.” The NRSV describes the coat as a “long robe with sleeves,” and the NIV says it is a “richly ornamented robe.” In the end, defining the word is less important than understanding the power the object holds. Joseph’s special coat is an outward symbol of a truth Joseph’s brothers know beyond any doubt: Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son! And while this symbol effects Joseph’s siblings, it also effects Joseph, who grows into the persona of the precocious favored son of the family, strutting around in his special coat, sharing his dreams of superiority—dreams which imply that his brothers, as well as Jacob, will one day bow down before him. Jacob rebukes his young son, but we are told: “he kept the matter in mind.” No wonder since Jacob has had a few dreams and visions of his own throughout his life.
One day, at the request of his father, Joseph goes to check on his brothers. In Shechem, a man finds Joseph wandering in the fields like a sheep without a shepherd. He can’t find his brothers. “They have gone to Dothan,” he is told. And that is where he finally catches up with them. They recognize him from a distance—maybe because of his special coat flying in the wind. “Here comes the dreamer,” they say. Quickly, they devise a plan to kill Joseph and his dreams along with him. But their plans change, and, although his brother, Reuben, tries to intercede, Joseph is sold for twenty pieces of silver to a caravan of Ishmaelites. Now, what will they tell their father? Another plan is devised…a lie that will haunt them for years. Having stripped Joseph of his coat, they dip it in goat’s blood and send it to their father. Jacob recognizes the blood-stained coat immediately and assumes a wild animal has devoured his most beloved Joseph. Jacob, who was once a deceiver himself, is deceived by his own sons in the cruelest way.
Of course, Joseph isn’t dead. In Egypt, he’s sold to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials. He finds favor because we are told—God is with him. But the favor is short lived. He is falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife and spends 2 years in prison. But even there, Joseph excels, becoming overseer of the prisoners, for we are told, the Lord was with Joseph. After a time Joseph, the dreamer, interprets the dreams of two of the prisoners. Eventually, this act of kindness will lead to his release when Joseph is called forth to interpret the troubling dreams of Pharaoh. Listen to the exchange between Pharaoh and Joseph: Pharaoh says to Joseph, “I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.” Joseph answers Pharaoh, “It is not I; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” Mmmh…could it be that Joseph, the young lad, has grown up?
We know the rest of the story. Ultimately, Joseph becomes the 2nd in Command in all of Egypt. He is instrumental in saving his father, Jacob, and his entire extended family from death by famine. Joseph’s dreams do come true. His brothers do come and bow before him, but they are sorely troubled when they learn that this ruler of Egypt is, in fact, their brother. They fear for their lives but Joseph reassures them, “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me ruler over the land of Egypt.”
Though Jacob and all his family live in Egypt under Joseph’s protection for 17 years before Jacob’s death, his brothers can’t truly accept Joseph’s forgiveness. They’ve held onto the family secret so long, they can’t let it go. So when their father dies, again they are filled with fear. “What if Joseph wants to pay us back now for what we did to him so long ago?” And again, Joseph must offer forgiveness to his brothers. Again he must extend to them the love and grace that God had extended to him as he reassures them saying, “Do not be afraid. Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do me harm, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”
Joseph may appear larger than life but if we dismiss his experiences as too distant from our own, as having nothing of importance to teach us, we do so at our loss. So what might we learn? One thing that stands out is Joseph’s ability to forgive. He suffered tremendously because of his brother’s hatred, yet he is able to forgive and treat them with love and kindness. Truly, a spirit of unforgiveness and a spirit of peace cannot reside in the same person. Joseph is blessed to be a man at peace with his past and with his present. But it has not always been so. Although we are given no specifics, along the way, Joseph was sure to have had doubts. Where was God when his brothers threw him into a pit? Where was God when he was sold into slavery? Where was God when he was unfairly imprisoned? Where was God?
We still ask “Where is God?” when evil appears to be winning out but it would behoove us to remember things are not always what they seem. We may draw comfort from the story of Joseph, which reminds us God’s hand may be moving long before God’s hand is revealed. We may draw comfort from the knowledge that God’s love and care are far-reaching…a sentiment echoed in Paul’s letter to the Romans, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
In reviewing Joseph’s story, we may also note that the hand of God shapes the whole course of Joseph’s life. It is God who brings him to his destination, not chance. This must have brought Joseph comfort as he looked back over his life. As believers in a Sovereign God, it is a comfort we can claim as well. Wherever we are, wherever we are going…we are never alone. The psalmist says this so beautifully in Psalm 139, “Oh Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar…you hem me in behind and before, and lay your hand upon me, such knowledge is too wonderful for me.”
As a young man, strutting around in his special coat, Joseph envisions others bowing down to him. He seems self-focused and self-centered. But in time, Joseph becomes the caretaker of a nation, more concerned with the needs of all the people of the land than with his own needs. This is a much-needed message for us today. In our individualistic society, too easily we become trapped in the vicious cycle of seeking our own purpose above all else. Then we let our own desires become the focus of our very existence. Too easily, this attitude creeps into the life of the church. When that happens, when we stop being the community of God—then we are like young Joseph, out wandering in the fields, like a sheep without a shepherd—but (in our hearts) still looking for our brothers. We, the church, need each other. We need to look out for the good of our sisters and brothers, holding each other up in times of darkness; celebrating the joys of life in times of gladness.
Joseph, the young man, despised by his brothers, is given a coat—a special coat—a coat that declares his royal status. But it will take years before his character grows into his coat. Then and only then does he become the man God intends for him to be. Through Joseph, God will save his chosen nation from death by famine. And through this chosen nation, the Son of God will come into the world to save us all.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
*Cover Art by Patriarch Joseph the All-comely Orthodox Icon; Public Domain