The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
August 14, 2011
The Old Testament: Genesis 45:1-15
Sermon: "What Conviction"
The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles, Rector
The Old Testament:
Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, "Send everyone away from me." So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, "I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?" But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, "Come closer to me." And they came closer. He said, "I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, `Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children's children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there-- since there are five more years of famine to come-- so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.' And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here." Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin's neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
This morning, we begin at the end. We are starting at the end of one of the best known and best loved stories of the Bible. Then we’ll go to the beginning, and work our way back again. It is the story of Joseph; you know, the guy with the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. As the scene opens, Joseph is the second most powerful man in the greatest empire of his day; Egypt. Before him stand the very brothers who had sold him into slavery years before. They are terrified that this brother whom they treated so cruelly now has the power of life and death over them. Few moments in all of world literature are as gripping as this.
Joseph has risen from a lowly slave to the Grand Vizier of Egypt. Joseph, so horribly wronged, now rich beyond the dreams of avarice, with all the power of empire to back him up, holds the fate of his treacherous foes in his hands. By nearly every worldly standard there is, Joseph is now one of the most successful persons who has ever lived. His story has inspired billions of people over three millennia. What made him such a standout? Is there anything about him that you and I might appropriate; that could actually change our lives?
Well, the Bible points to a particular trait in Joseph that is worth examining; and it’s this: extraordinary conviction. Joseph was a man of extraordinary conviction that God was with him. We’ll understand better if we look to his background. So, let’s jump to the beginning of the story for a moment. Joseph, you may remember, had been his father’s favorite son. And like any favorite child, he was hard to live with. He just couldn’t seem to avoid lording it over his sibs; like always wearing that amazing coat of his. Now, I have to confess that I hate the new translations of this part of the story that tell of his coat with long sleeves. I mean, it just doesn’t have the splash of that Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It certainly wouldn’t make it to Broadway. I suppose that an explanation is in order here. It seems that only relatively recently have the most ancient texts been decoded well enough to show that what we thought was a many colored coat was really a coat with long sleeves. The good news with this though is that we can now figure out what the brothers were so upset about over it. You see, when you’re a hired hand, or a lesser person in the household who is having to muck around with the sheep and the crops, sleeves on your coat get in the way. They get wet, dirty and heavy from labor. Only the master or one who is not required to labor can get along with the luxury of full long sleeves. No wonder Joseph’s brothers hated him. His coat said that he was above the, better than them. We’re told that his brothers couldn’t even say a kind word to him.
At first, his brothers schemed to kill Joseph, but finally they decided to sell him into slavery to some Midianite traders passing by headed for Egypt. Then they took his amazing, not so colored coat, shredded it, poured goat blood on it, and took it to their father Jacob to explain Joseph’s disappearance.
Meanwhile, the slave traders who had purchased Joseph, sell him in Egypt to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. Potiphar very soon recognizes that there is something special about Joseph; something that his brothers had missed in their rivalry. Potiphar eventually places Joseph in charge of everything he owns.
Everything goes very well for awhile. However, in a scene that could have come from any daytime soap opera, Potiphar’s wife tries to lure Joseph to her bed. But Joseph protests that he can’t betray his master’s trust or God’s trust
Just here we begin to see this trait of extraordinary conviction that makes Joseph different. I say extraordinary because Joseph’s life took so many strange twists and turns. First he’s sold into slavery, then he’s arrested. Potiphar’s wife ‘s accusation lands Joseph in prison. Twice now at a young age he is gravely wronged; first by his brothers, now by his master’s wife. Any one of us would find it difficult not to let such adversity get to us. “Why me?” most of us would demand of God. Most of us could allow such injustices to cripple our relationship with God. In such times we could just stop believing that there is a plan of God for our lives. Indeed, we could even stop believing that there is a God, or at least one who actually cares about us personally. Surely Joseph must have been tempted by these same thoughts as he lay there in that prison. Why had he fallen so far? Sure some of it was probably his own fault; the pride especially. Well…arrogance actually. He had been downright contemptuous of his brothers. OK, he’d been a lousy brother, and he’d needed to be taken down a few pegs. But did he really deserve this? Had God just discarded him? Was God even still aware of him? Yet, even in these years of darkness, Joseph’s commitment to his faith in God held on; perhaps slimly at times, but still held on. He stayed committed to doing right. He stayed committed to serving God. It made him stand out. He shined in the darkness of that place. The warden of the prison was so impressed by Joseph that he eventually put him in charge of the entire prison. Like cream, no matter how hard you shook Joseph, he kept rising to the top.
Like Joseph, you may be in a difficult place right now. You may have been in this place for some time. You may be wondering if God has forgotten you. You may even be feeling foolish that you ever thought that God had his eye on you; or that you were meant by him for something better, something great. Your sense of conviction about God’s love is slipped about as far as it can go without letting go altogether. Listen! Stay faithful! You have not been forgotten. There is still his plan for you yet to unfold, and it will happen. Joseph, despite the doubts that must have racked his mind and heart stayed at it. He used the gifts he had, though the opportunities to use them were limited. For instance, one day he interpreted the dream of Pharaoh’s cupbearer who was temporarily out of Pharaoh’s favor. As Joseph predicted, the cupbearer was returned to his post. You’d think that that would have paid off, but the cupbearer promptly forgot about Joseph. I mean what’s the point of keeping at it, when it doesn’t pay off? Joseph had to wonder.
Two years pass. Then, one night, Pharaoh has a nightmare. Seven fat cows are devoured by seven lean ones, and seven healthy wheat stocks are devoured by seven barren ones. Pharaoh knows this is important, and wants to know what it means. At last the cupbearer remembers Joseph. Joseph is summoned and correctly discerns that Egypt has seven good years of plenty ahead that will be followed by seven bad years; seven bad years of such severe famine that the good years will be forgotten. Joseph recommends that Pharaoh appoint someone to be in charge of food stocks to prepare for the coming famine. This Pharaoh is a shrewd judge of people. He can tell in a moment that this Hebrew before him is just the one for the job. In one moment, Joseph goes from slave and prisoner, to Grand Vizier of the Empire; second only to Pharaoh himself. It should be noted here that Joseph is a changed man. The years in slavery and prison have stripped him of his arrogance. He no longer sees the good things of this world as his by Divine right; he sees them as his by Divine grace. He is only now ready to rule with wisdom and compassion.
Scene change: (as we say in theater). Now enter Joseph’s brothers. The story has come full circle. The very ones who had sold him into slavery all those years before, now stand before him begging for food. Hat in hand, they have no idea from whom it is they’re asking for mercy. The full story here is too involved to tell in detail. It is an intriguing and moving story. Joseph creates some serious mischief for his brothers. Despite all he’s come through, despite, the dizzying heights to which he has risen, despite the fact that he is a different person than he once was by God’s grace; he just can’t quite resist a little sibling payback. He knows that he’s going to save them, but he just wants to, well…put the fear of God in them, we used to call it. He frames them for theft, has them arrested with the stolen goods as they are leaving Egypt, and has them hauled before him for judgment; and just at the moment that they are groveling on their faces before him, begging for their lives, protesting their innocence but fearing all is lost, he tells them who he really is.
“I am Joseph, your brother,” he announces. In the midst of his brother’s terror at what Joseph might do to them now, what they know that they deserve, Joseph says, “don’t be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here…it was not you who sent me here, but God.”
After all that he has been through, Joseph has not lost his conviction in the goodness of the Lord. “It was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you,” he says. What more needs to be said? Of course, there is a happy ending; father and son are reunited, the whole family prospers in the rich delta land they are given, and things will be good for a good long while. That will all change, suddenly, down the road, but that, as they say, is a story for another day. Here was an extraordinary person who made an enormous success of his life against all odds. What was his secret? Yes, he had some natural gifts of intelligence and talent and skill. But all of us do. God has not left any one of us without our own special gifts. What made the difference? It was his conviction of faith in God’s mercy. That is the secret, and that is what you and I can appropriate from his example. Trust, stay faithful and keep believing in the goodness of God. And no matter what twists and turns your life may take, God will meet you in every moment and guide you in the way you are to go.