This summer we will be journeying through the story of Joseph. I’ve been spending a lot of time getting to know Joseph over the last couple of months. I’ve been struck by what a profound and mysterious story this is. When reading the story of Joseph you almost can’t help but see patterns at play over and over that recur throughout the rest of the Bible, the history of the church, and the life of faith. Throughout these chapters are stories of promise and sacrifice, death and resurrection, transformation and redemption. The stuff that comprises Joseph’s story set the pattern for the way that God will continue to work in the lives and histories of his people. So, as we walk through the story of Joseph, I won’t be surprised at all if each of us begin to see something of our own story at play in the midst of these pages. It’s my hope that as we read this story about how God is at work in the midst of dying dreams, broken families, entrapment, and finding restoration, we might find hope for our own dreams to be restored through the same God who acted in the life of Joseph.
To begin with, let’s orient ourselves as to where this story sits in Scripture. This story comes as the climax and conclusion of the first book of the Bible, Genesis. The book of Genesis basically sets the agenda for the rest of the Bible. (Slide 2) This agenda becomes clear when you read Genesis Chapter 12, where God says to Abraham, “Go, I will make you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and those who damn you I will curse, and all the clans of the earth through you shall be blessed.” The rest of the book of Genesis, as well as the rest of Scripture, concerns how God will bless the world through this family.
The story of Joseph marks a new chapter, recording how this promise was not only carried forward, but grown and developed. For example, when they interpreted Joseph’s dream, his brothers introduced the notion of Joseph ruling over them. This is new. Up to this point, the promise given to Abraham’s children did not carry the concept of ruling over others. Joseph’s dream prepares the way for the future promise of the Messianic King. So, the story of Joseph marks a new chapter, recording how God’s promise to Abraham not only was carried forward, but gives new meaning to that promise.
(Slide 3) What will strike anyone anyone reading the story of Joseph is just how unprepared Joseph is for carrying on this vision. The first we hear about Joseph is how he rules over his brother by being a tattle tale. The second thing we learn about Joseph is that he is without a doubt the favourite child. Jacob dotes on Joseph, the child of his beloved but deceased wife, Rachel. Jacob doesn’t see Joseph like the rest of his brothers do, spoiled, a tattletale, and arrogant. Jacob dotes on Joseph and gives him the robe, that splendid beautifully ornamented robe. The robe which once belonged to royalty. This robe which Joseph would shamelessly wear about, broadcasting the horrific truth to the brothers: Joseph was the chosen one. Joseph had taken the place of Reuben and Judah. And it appears Joseph was rubbing their noses in it. What a poor choice Joseph seems to carry on the blessing to Abraham. How hard it was for the brothers to live with this beautiful, intelligent, ornamented little brat. (Slide 4). The brothers saw it was he their father loved more than all his brothers, and they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.
So, why did God choose Joseph for the dream? It seems almost careless of God to give the gift of that dream to Joseph. Joseph did not appear to be able to handle the extravagant gift of the ornamented robe, it alienated him from his brothers. Through flaunting the robe, he was at risk of their jealousy. If the robe went to his head, how could the dream not do the same? And we see that our fears were grounded. Joseph saw no reason to keep his dream a secret. (Slide 5) Listen, pray, to this dream that I dreamed. And, look, we were binding sheaves in the field, and, look, my sheaf arose and actually stood up, and look, your sheaves drew round and bowed down to my sheaf.” “Look, look look” says Joseph. “What could this possibly mean?” “Isn’t this so wonderful?” We shake our head wondering whys God would give such a powerful dream to such an immature boy.
God blesses Joseph with another dream, a dream more extravagant than the first. Again Joseph says, “Look, look, look!” (Slide 6). “Look, I dreamed a dream again, and, look, the sun and the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me”. The interpretation of the second dream was no different than the first, but this time even his father wonders along with the brothers, “Shall we really come, I and your mother and your brothers, to bow down before you to the ground?”
Surely it would have been better for God to withhold these dreams until Joseph was older, more mature, more deserving. Maybe then Joseph would have been prepared and equipped to receive such a lavish gift from God.
But who is ever deserving of God’s gifts? Who is ever mature enough to receive a vision from God. Who is ever wise enough to discern the Word of God? Who of us is holy enough to receive the Holy Spirit. In spite of our immaturity, each of us received the extravagant gift of the Holy Spirit at the moment we believed. Who of us ever deserved such a gift? Thank God for his foolish ways of giving gifts to his undeserving children.
It can be tempting for older, more seasoned Christians to look in disdain on of those who are new in the faith. Its easy to write off people who are green in their faith. Sometimes new believers, believers newly charged with the Holy Spirit, can come across as sometimes naive, sometimes arrogant, sometimes simplistic. It can be tempting to write off their extravagant dreams. This story cautions us from being to hasty in writing off others in their immaturity. What we’re seeing may be a dull vision that will take years for God to sharpen to a reality. But that’s God’s grace, in our youth, in our imperfection, God blesses us extravagantly. That’s the encouragement we find in Joseph. No matter what our personal shortcomings, we are not beyond blessing.
For the brothers, this was too much. That the father would give Joseph the robe was unreasonable, but that God would give these dreams was unbearable. It was bad enough for the robe to be a visual reminder of their father’s favouritism, but imagine the torment of the brothers upon hearing the dream and suspecting that God too was blind to this dreamer’s shortcomings. Is it no wonder that in the next section we learn that the brothers moved their flocks 80 kilometres away to Shechem. It seems even that distance was not far enough away from the dreamer, so they journeyed a further 21 kilometres to Dothan.
Perhaps it was too soon for Jacob to send the tattler, Joseph, to check up on his brothers. Perhaps, the father was hoping for reconciliation, if so, why didn’t he forbid Joseph from wearing the robe of blessing. Certainly he would have known that was a bad idea. We know Joseph didn’t have the foresight to avoid that fatal error. He approached his brothers robed in splendour. The son that they were trying so desperately to avoid walked right into their midst. Their rage roared to the surface as they saw the Dreamer walking towards them. “Here comes that dreamer!” They said to each other. “Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.” Reuben tried to divert his brothers from their intent to shed blood. Probably not an act of altruism, but a lame attempt at getting back in his dad’s good graces after sleeping with his father’s concubine. Joseph walks closer. Perhaps when he saw the look in their eyes, he realized that he should say nothing. Perhaps at that moment Joseph realized that all people didn’t love him more than they loved themselves. Perhaps this was his moment of awakening from his dream. Perhaps that was the moment he was stripped of his own arrogance and immaturity as his 10 brothers stripped him of that precious ornamented robe.
And its here that we see the grim reality of what we spoke of last week. (Slide 7). Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” Last week Aria told us a story of vineyards in Hungary where they prune the plant beyond recognition for the sake of fruitfulness. In the story of Joseph we hear of a God who is not afraid to prune. God is certainly not ignorant of Joseph’s shortcomings, God loves Joseph far too much to leave him be. God blesses us in our ignorance and arrogance, yet he is not content to let us stay there. He gives us a robe, and allows it be torn and dipped in blood. He lets us be cast into the well, only so that we might be born again as we are pulled back into the light. This is the pattern God often has for us. God blesses us extravagantly in our imperfections, and then puts us through the refiners fire on the way to perfection. This is called sanctification, or the process of being made holy.
Each of our stories will of course be different. God can use any circumstance for refining. The circumstances will be unique. For some, like Joseph, it might be family troubles. Joseph’s family was not something that God didn’t anticipate in his plan for him. Getting thrown into the bottom of the well was not something that God didn’t know about. These very things that weren’t good things in and of themselves, in fact his brothers meant to harm, but God used them to do his work of making Joseph holy, of pruning him of his arrogance, so that fruit might grown. God can use any circumstance that might look like it was intended for harm in this way. It might be the loss of a job. For another, God’s refining might come through a serious illness, or coping with great loss. It could be just a feeling of emptiness. Like the character in Paul Simon’s song, “America,” who on a road trip suddenly is suddenly overcome with dissatisfaction with life; “Cathy, I’m lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping. I’m empty and I’m aching and I don’t know why.”
I wonder how many of us here have endured this pruning, this refining. I think the challenging part of this is whenever we go through these difficult times, our experience is not in a story where we can easily see that God is using these painful circumstances for refining. We don’t see the circumstances like Joseph, as a necessary step on the way to holiness. We often can’t see our circumstances as step towards growing into God’s purpose for our lives. Instead, hardship can just feel meaningless. Yet often hardship can grow and mature us into truly being able to use the gifts he has given us. Without the trials of his life, Joseph never would have been able to live out the dreams God had given him.
(Slide 9). That’s one reason why the author of Hebrews reminds us to “endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children… No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” We must constantly remind ourselves that God can use all things for the good of those who love him.
It must be said that there was nothing good in the brothers’ violent actions. They were sinful through and through. Yet, years later, only after Joseph had been through this refining fire, was he able to say to his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God meant it for good.” The action of the brothers were evil, but through those actions God was able to prune Joseph so that he might bear much fruit. View hardship as discipline. For the one who has blessed you extravagantly, the one who has gifted you with dreams, will raise you up out of the well.
This was the pattern walked by Joseph. This was the pattern walked by Jesus. (Slide 10) “Son though as he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him…. This is the pattern set for us, whether we are robed with blessing or cast naked into the pit. Through Jesus, we are never beyond His2 restoration.