Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, “I remember my faults today. Once Pharaoh was angry with his servants, and put me and the chief baker in custody in the house of the captain of the guard. We dreamed on the same night, he and I, each having a dream with its own meaning. A young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard. When we told him, he interpreted our dreams to us, giving an interpretation to each according to his dream. As he interpreted to us, so it turned out; I was restored to my office, and the baker was hanged.”
Then Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was hurriedly brought out of the dungeon. When he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came in before Pharaoh. And Pharaoh said 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 answered Pharaoh, “It is not I; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.”
Genesis Wisdom; From Prison to Palace
For the next three weeks we will be studying the trials and tribulations of Joseph. There are so many ups and downs in this life that it reminds me of the penny dreadful, “The Perils of Pauline.” You don’t have to be a bible scholar to know about Joseph. If you have ever seen Joseph and His Technicolor Dream Coat, by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, you know this story. This is Joseph, the dreamer, the favorite son of Jacob. This is Joseph of the coat of many colors. This is Joseph who was thrown into a pit by his brothers and sold into slavery in Egypt, who was a successful overseer in Potiphar’s household. This is Joseph, who was wrongly accused by Potiphar’s wife and thrown into jail. This is Joseph who interprets dreams of Pharaoh’s butler and Pharaoh’s baker in jail. And as we come to today’s text this is Joseph who has been languishing in jail waiting for more two years for Pharaoh’s butler to remember he owes Joseph a favor. This is Joseph who interprets the dreams of Pharaoh and is wildly successful as Pharaoh’s administrator. This is Joseph who needs to both forgive and save his brothers.
About 14 chapters, and a quarter of all the stories, in Genesis are all about Joseph. So the Joseph story is like a novella tucked inside Genesis. Why is so much space allotted to Joseph? His long life incorporates so many of the experiences in our own lives. Joseph seems so supernatural in his grand abilities and dark suffering. But in some ways Joseph is really a regular Joe. Our lives incorporate all the highs and lows that Joseph experienced. We know ups and we know downs. We know how it feels to be a brash ‘know it all’ teenager. We know about families that don’t understand us and or that betraying us. We know about working hard and having some success. We know about hard time in pits of grief and loss. We know about prisons that keep us stuck. I can almost hear God calling to us, saying, “Pay attention! There is a wisdom in this life that can teach you how to live your lives.”
Today we are going to start right in the middle of this long story. The middle is an odd place to start. Let me explain. Right in the middle of this story is a HINGE. At the start of our passage Joseph is in jail in Egypt. So he is not only a slave. He is a slave in jail. For all his dreaming, Joseph doesn’t know what will happen next. He is still in jail, still waiting, still faithful, but still profoundly uncertain. But something is about to happen. The MIDDLE is where we are starting because the middle is right where lots of us are. Every one of us is in the middle of something; The Middle of School, The Middle of Life, The Middle of a Project, The Middle of Recovery, The Middle of Family Strife, The Middle of Sickness, The Middle of Learning. Unless you were born this very morning or are 100% certain you are dying this very night, you are in the middle. Every one of us has a history and every one of us has a future. So we are all in the middle. The middle is just another word for right now, another word for the present moment. God wants to be with us right in this moment, right in the middle.
So what can Joseph teach us about the middle?
First if you are in the middle of suffering. Don’t waste it. You will be tempted to waste it. You will be tempted to lay on your bed and turn your face to the wall. You will want to waste your suffering because you are wasting away. Don’t do it! When Peter was cast into jail in Acts 12, what did he do? He prayed. When Paul and Silas were cast into jail in Acts 16, what did they do? They sang. When Joseph was stuck in jail what did he do? He talked to his fellow jailbirds. He interpreted the dreams of the baker and the cupbearer. He let God use that place of suffering. There will never be a moment in the future or the past that will motivate us more to search and to find God as the moment of suffering. That is why Peter prayed as though he had a doctoral degree in divine petitions. This is why Paul and Silas sang with all their heart and soul. This is why Joseph was keen to hear and sense God in the midst of the dreams of others. Suffering hurts. But suffering helps us to focus all our heart and soul on our deep needs. It is in suffering that we stretch and reach out and reach up. Suffering that you don’t learn from is just suffering. Such suffering is pure waste. Let the suffering grow your faith. The point of the cross was that Christ suffered. But through that suffering new possibilities were born. Suffering was transcended. The cross led to the resurrection. It was that way for Jesus and it can be that way for us.
This reminds me of a story. A farmer had a dream in which God told her to push against a gigantic rock in the back 40 of her farm. The farmer understood that this dream really was from God. So day in and day out, after her other chores, she would go out to the rock in her field and push and push against this rock. Every night she returned to her farmhouse worn out and sore and then goes back out again the next day. After years of this the woman became tired and started to doubt. So she did the wisest thing she knew. She brought her doubts to God in prayer. And in prayer God answered her saying, “I asked you to push the rock, to be obedient and faithful. I never told you the rock would move. But look at you now. Your arms and legs are muscled and strong. You have a strength now you never had before.” Never waste suffering. If you are pushing against a rock, let that make you stronger.
Second, prepare for next opportunity. Joseph learned important lessons in humility in his time in slavery and imprisonment. He went from a brash, thoughtless 17-year-old to a 30 year old with wisdom. His experience prepared him to rule and to forgive. Joseph prepared for the opportunity in any basic way he could. If you remember in our scripture, it says Joseph washed and shaved before he went before Pharaoh. Don’t you think that is weird? Why would such a thing be recorded in the biblical record? But this funny little detail is telling us about Joseph’ willingness to reach out to his captors and enemies. In the Hebrew culture beards were a mark of veneration and manliness. But hair on your head or your face wasn’t cool for Egyptians, especially Egyptians at court. So with a simple act, Joseph appeared in a way that was polite and acceptable to Egyptians. Joseph prepared himself so that Pharaoh could hear him. We can do the same things. Do we insist on things that may us comfortable in worship or in dress or in culture, just because it is what makes us happy. Do we ignore the sensibilities of other in the culture? Do we insist that other bow to our whims and not we to theirs? Understanding what is essential and what is merely cultural claptrap is one way to prepare for the next opportunity.
Preparing for the next opportunity comes in many forms. Nelson Mandela prepared for a free South Africa years before it came into existance. For 27 years Nelson Mandela was in jail. Yet at the end of his time in prison, he became the single most powerful man in South Africa. To an outsider it might look like nothing, but for 25 years, Nelson Mandela broke rocks. Outside the cells of the prisoners in a barren courtyard would be placed a pile of rocks. Some prisoners would daily sit at there rocks and burn with rage. Some would sit in self-pity and despair at the cruelty of it all. Nelson Mandela, broke rocks and thought about how to unite a country, how to forgive each other, how to end apartheid. Third, be God focused. At this hinge of Joseph’s life, Joseph has learned wisdom and humility. In his interactions with Pharaoh, Joseph again and again points to what God will do. Not what Joseph will do. God will interpret the dream. God has sent the message to Pharaoh. God has revealed this to future. This was not how Joseph was when he blabbed his glory dream to his brothers and his dad at seventeen. This was not how Joseph was just two years ago. When Joseph interpreted the Cupbearers dream, he quickly recounted his own story and asked for a favor. Here Joseph focuses on what God is revealing to Pharaoh. He allows his own problem to be secondary. He doesn’t use this time to promote his own justice. He doesn’t listen to Pharaohs dream and then immediately jump in with his own cool dreams. The focus on what God is doing overshadows his own story. By focusing on what God is doing, God invites Joseph to be part of this saving of all Joseph’s family.
This is a crucial vision test, if we are to do God’s will, to be God empowered, we need to have our eyes on the right goal. With everything we do in our person life or in our church life, we need to start the discussion with “What is God calling us to do?” This is a radical departure from our myopic selves. We too often focus on what we like, what makes us comfortable, what we have done before.
Joseph has an amazing story. He has youthful flaws, bad luck and ultimately a chance to serve and to save. He went from a pit to a prison to a palace. What we lose sight of is that each of us have an amazing story. God wants to work in and around the beginning and middle and end of our lives in the same way God works with Joseph. Perhaps our lives have slightly less Broadway appeal, but the most important ways God can wants to be invited to live with us at all these learning moments.
Our churches have Joseph stories too. Hopeful brash beginnings, some difficult and painful middles and lots of work to be done so that our churches become places that restore families, promote forgiveness and feed hungry souls and mouths. So our task as a church is the same as our task as individuals. 1- If we are in tough times then don’t waste them. Figure out how mistakes and disasters can help us grow up. Don’t waste the suffering. 2 - Prepare our church for the next opportunity. Are there ways we need to clean up to prepare for what’s ahead? Or can we pray and discern together while we are pounding those rocks. Finally, number 3 - Be God focused. Let’s get the focus off ourselves. God’s focus often brings blessings of growth, but seldom for growths sake. As a church the focus is on where God is leading, helping, saving, growing. We join in God’s work, not hijack the process for ourselves. The Joseph story has one really great surprise. It wasn’t about Joseph at all. It was about what God does – delivers, redeems, frees, forgives, feeds. I think that is a great place for a church to be. Amen.