Saturday, May 5, 2007


This morning, I’d like us to talk about one of my favorite people in the Bible.

This guy was very likely one of the most important people in the entire Bible: without him, the entire people of Israel would not have survived. But he was also undoubtedly one of the very most annoying people in the Bible. Can you imagine? But it is true: God is able to use annoying people. In fact, God often chooses annoying people to do his work. Now if you are one of the prestigious, proper, pious, perfect people, you might find this bit of news to be quite bothersome. In fact, some people have been turned off to God precisely because he is friendly with annoying people. Do you remember the Pharisees’ complaint about Jesus? “He hangs with tax collectors and sinners,” they said. Sometimes it is tempting to do the childish blackmail thing with God: we tell God, “if you want to be my friend, you aren’t allowed to play with him – he is so annoying.” But I’m happy to report that God doesn’t for a second even consider buckling to any kind of blackmail. He will play with the very most annoying people on the planet, and that is tremendously reassuring for the rest of us!

But let’s get back to my hero, X – oops! I almost said his name. I wanted to ask you to guess who he was. Does anybody – any of the children, now – have any idea of who my hero is? Now before you guess, let me remind you of what you know already: the only clues that I’ve given so far are that 1) He saved all the people of Israel, and 2) he was really annoying. Actually there are quite a number of guys like that in the Bible, aren’t there? Ever heard of Samson? He was a really strong guy who saved the people of Israel, and he was really annoying to the Philistines – remember when he tied the foxes tails together around a torch, and let them loose in the grain fields. Hoo-boy! But he’s not my hero: Samson was annoying to his enemies, but my hero was even annoying to his friends. Can you imagine? Ever hear of Moses? He was the great leader, who led the people of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt, and he was annoying to those same people – the Bible even says that after Pharaoh asked them to make bricks without straw the people wouldn’t listen to him at all. But he’s not my hero: Moses might have been annoying to the people of Israel, but my hero was even annoying to his family. Can you imagine? Ever heard of David? David was the great king of Israel, who conquered the Philistines decisively. But when he was younger, he was annoying to his brothers – did you know that David’s older brother called him conceited and wicked? But he’s not my hero. David’s brothers just wanted to insult him, but my hero was so-o-o-o-o annoying, ten of his brothers actually wanted to kill him! Does anyone know who my hero is? That’s right, my hero is a guy named Joseph. He wasn’t just an ordinary Joe, let me tell you.

Do you know why Joseph was so annoying to his brothers? Well, for starters, he was the father’s favorite. You might have thought that of all people, Joseph’s father Jacob would have learned the lesson that parental unfairness causes problems – having lived on the short end of the favoritism stick and all. But no: Jacob ended up having a favorite, too, and Jacob’s favorite son was Joseph. So guess what? Joseph’s brothers resented the special treatment that Joseph received. It didn’t help that Jacob gave special presents to Joseph. That kind of upset his brothers. And it didn’t help matters that Joseph was a bit of a tattle-tale: whenever his brothers did something that he thought they shouldn’t, Joseph would go to his father and rat on them. And it didn’t help that Joseph had this bad habit of telling his brothers about these dreams in which he was always much more important than his brothers. His brothers didn’t exactly warm to that, either.

So one day, when Joseph was out in the countryside with his brothers, they took him, tore off his fancy coat and threw him into a dried up old well. And while they were at it, they very likely let it slip that they were planning to kill him – just to make sure that his last hours were as miserable as possible. Now we don’t have many old wells in our back yards these days, so it would be like locking someone in a closet, or taking someone and wrapping their hands and mouth with duct tape. I’m sure that nobody in this church would be cruel enough to do that to anyone. And I’m sure that nobody in this church deserves that kind of treatment. So imagine Joseph wrapped in duct tape, I mean, there in the bottom of the well. What do you think he did in the well? It’s not like he could fight back. All he could do was howl – in fact, the Bible talks about his cries of distress. Ever so often I hear something like howling at my house, but I’m sure glad my kids haven’t tried to kill each other – yet. The howls in the Peters’ house often come with a cry for “Dad!” – because part of my job is to keep things fair between my kids. But Joseph’s Dad was miles away, so Joseph couldn’t call for his father to come and bring justice. The Bible says that besides howling, Joseph was pleading for his life. After all, they had taken his fancy coat, and it was starting to get dark, so Joseph was probably getting a little cold, and a little frightened. Can you think of anything else that Joseph might have been doing down in that well? Well, it is possible that Joseph did some praying down in that well. But you know what? Sometimes things get worse before they get better. And if Joseph was praying, God didn’t seem to be answering that prayer at all.

So picture this: it is getting late, and Joseph is cold and hungry and miserable. He has been crying for hours. And just as it starts to get dark, he thinks for a second that his prayers have been answered: a rope is thrown down into the well and he is allowed climb out. But then he hears this noise , and his brothers grab him, wrench his arms behind his back and wrap him with chains. “What are you guys doing?” I’m sure he asked, and then he noticed something that he hadn’t noticed before: his brothers weren’t the only ones at the top of the well. Then he heard a sound like and he spun around to see some strange man wearing strange clothes giving his older brother a stack of coins. How would you feel to discover that your own family considered you to be worth about this much metal? And then his brothers start walking away. And he was hauled off to Egypt and sold as a slave.

Now some people, having just been mugged by your family and sold as a slave might be a little tiny bit bitter about the experience. Some people might have accused God of letting his guardian angels go on vacation at the wrong moment. And then after blaming God, it isn’t hard to give him the silent treatment. But let me tell you from experience: giving God the silent treatment only makes things worse. Now I’m not sure if Joseph avoided that mistake. Since he was only human, it took him a while to be able to handle the whole slavery thing. But I do know that he eventually came around, and concluded that God could even be at work in Egypt. After all, if Joseph let God work in him, and Joseph was in Egypt, then God would be working in Egypt, too.

Being a slave has never been fun, and being a slave in Egypt was no fun at all, let me tell you. But Joseph was sold to a guy named Potiphar. And that was a good thing. You see, since Potiphar was wealthy and powerful, he could afford to treat his slaves well – especially the good slaves. And Joseph turned out to be one of the very best slaves that Potiphar had. That’s already a good indication that Joseph was trusting in God. When we trust in God, God often helps us do our work better. So after a while, Joseph’s life wasn’t so bad. But just when Joseph was about to get comfortable, Potiphar’s wife comes along. Now if you remember, I told you before that Joseph was a bit of a tattle-tale. But there are two types of tattle-tales: the first type tells those things that you’d prefer to be kept secret. That’s the kind of tattle-tale that Joseph was with his brothers. But Potiphar’s wife was the other kind of tattle-tale: you see, she wanted to get Joseph in trouble, and so she made up lies to tell his master. She told Potiphar that Joseph was doing some really bad stuff. And who is Potiphar going to believe, this slave he bought from the camel traders, or his wife? Well, he believes his wife, and Joseph gets thrown in a dungeon.

Now some people, having been thrown into a dungeon because someone made up lies about them might be a little tiny bit bitter about the experience. Some people might have accused God of letting his guardian angels go out for doughnuts. And then after blaming God, it isn’t hard to hold a grudge against him. But let me tell you from experience: holding grudges against God only makes things worse. Now I’m not sure if Joseph avoided that mistake. Since he was human, it probably took him a while to be able to handle the dungeon smells. But I do know that he eventually came around, and concluded that God could even be at work in the dungeon. After all, if Joseph let God work in him, and Joseph was in the dungeon, then God would be working in the dungeon, too.

Now the Bible doesn’t tell us exactly how long Joseph was in the dungeon, but it does say that it was a least two years. Can you imagine? The first time Joseph gets thrown into a well, he “kinda-sorta” deserved it – he was annoying after all. But this time, he didn’t deserve it at all. In fact, he was thrown into the dungeon for doing that right thing. Thrown into a well, sold as a slave, wrongfully accused, thrown into a dungeon…Joseph might have been tempted to imagine that God had abandoned him altogether. But do you know that the Bible says that God was with Joseph this entire time? What do you think of that? I can guarantee you that there were times in those two years that Joseph was convinced that God had entirely left him. He was, after all, only human. But that’s an important lesson, isn’t it? Just because we don’t think that God is around to look after us, doesn’t at all mean that he has left us alone. When God says “I will never leave you, I will never forsake you,” he doesn’t sneak in some fine print “as long as you do such and so.” As long as we live, God is there watching out for us, and showing his grace to us. The Bible says, “In him we live and move and have our being,” and “in Him all things hold together.”

So as a picture for us, as an illustration of His love that we can learn from almost four thousand years later, God came and rescued Joseph. It only took thirteen years from the time that he was thrown in that old well. Thirteen years! Some of you gentlemen in the front row aren’t even that old. That would be like waiting your entire life. But if you remember the story, what happened was this: one of the guys that Joseph met in the dungeon had this really strange dream, and Joseph explained to him exactly what that dream meant. So later on, when Pharaoh, the king of Egypt had some dreams, this same guy remembered Joseph, and told Pharaoh that this strange guy in the dungeon named Joseph could interpret dreams. And then, when Joseph proceeded to explain to Pharaoh what his dreams meant, Pharaoh was so pleased with Joseph, that he made him the ruler of the entire land. And it was a good thing, too, because Joseph was able to prepare in advance for the worst famine that the land of Egypt ever had. That’s when they don’t have enough rain to grow food. Because he had the people store away food before the famine, they had enough to survive when the famine came.

Now it is always fun when people dig up archeological evidence for the Bible. Did you know that they have evidence that the source of the Nile River, the big river that runs through the land of Egypt, dried up for a significant time in the same period that we think that Joseph was there. What’s more, there is also a lake in Egypt whose source dried up at the same time. There is an ancient canal that was built to supply this lake with water. And do you know what they call this canal? They call it “Joseph’s canal”, and as far as we know, that is the only name that it has ever been called. I don’t know about you, but I love learning about stuff like that.

And so God saved Joseph, and Joseph saved all the people during the drought and the famine. Pharaoh had Joseph manage all the food distribution for seven years. The famine was so bad that people from all over the area came to buy food from Joseph. And one day, ten men arrived from a long distance away to buy food. They don’t recognize Joseph, but he recognized them. That’s right: his brothers had come to ask for food. My hero this morning was really, really powerful, and when he had his enemies entirely under his control, did Joseph get back at them? No, my hero looked after them instead. You can picture it: here is a ruler in the greatest kingdom on earth, flanked by squads of guards. And his enemies come groveling before him. These are the same enemies who had come “this close” to killing him. They were only talked out of it at the last second. Instead, they tore off his clothes, they threw him in a well, and they sold him as a slave. But now Joseph is the boss, and they are nobodies. But Joseph, even though he might have struggled with the situation, is really kind to them. He takes the money that they used to pay for the food, and has it hidden in their luggage, so when they get home, they find food and their money. And then when the entire family returns to Egypt, Joseph makes sure that they live in the best part of the entire country – a part that is the least affected by the drought and the famine.

So everyone lives “happily ever after,” more or less. But the best lesson of the story comes a little later on, when we finally get to see what is in Joseph’s heart. You see, Joseph’s brothers are feeling so guilty about all they did to him, they suspect that Joseph has some plan to get back at them. And they imagine that the only thing holding Joseph back is the fact that his father Jacob is still alive. And so when Jacob became old and died, Joseph’s brothers all got together and came to Joseph, and the Bible says that they threw themselves down before him and said, “We are your slaves.” Now listen carefully to what Joseph says in reply. He says, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God?” Now this is a rhetorical question. Does anyone know what a rhetorical question is? (apparently not – I love that joke). A rhetorical question is a question for which the answer should be obvious, so it doesn’t need to be answered. And Joseph’s question was just that. Joseph’s answer is “no, or course not, I am not in the place of God.” Now considering that the rulers in Egypt had a long history of claiming to be in the place of God, Joseph’s words are particularly significant. Here is Joseph, in deliberate opposition to centuries of tradition, making it clear that God is God, and he is just a man. This might just be the hardest lesson to ever learn, and one that each of us dearly needs to learn.

It is so easy, so convenient, and so seductively empowering to take the place of God, isn’t it? And it all goes back to the Garden of Eden, and the temptation that our greatest-grandfather and greatest-grandmother bought into. What did the serpent say to Adam and Eve? He said, “if you eat of the fruit, you will become like God, knowing good from evil.” This is the primary human temptation – it always has been and it always will be. We want to be in the place of God. We want to decide what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil. We want to judge, we want to be in control. But we all need to come to the place that Joseph came to, where he knew that it was not his place to judge, it was not his place to decide what is right and what is wrong. He was not in the place of God, and neither are we. And when we finally come to the place where we realize that we are not in the place of God after all, then our whole perspective changes. What does Joseph say to his brothers next? Genesis 50:20 says, “Even though you might have meant it for evil [when you threw me into that old well,] God meant it for good.”

“God meant it for good.” Being thrown in a well? “Yes, God meant it for good.” Being sold as a slave? “Yes, God meant it for good.” Being wrongfully accused? “Yes, God meant it for good.” Being thrown in the dungeon? “Yes, God meant it for good.” Now it is one thing to recognize God’s work in your life when He has picked you up and dropped you on the throne of the greatest civilization in the known world, but it is quite a different thing to recognize God’s work in your life when you are still in the dungeon. But this trick here is just this: if Joseph wasn’t able to give God room in his heart while he was in the dungeon, Joseph would not have given God the credit that he deserved when he sat of the throne. If things aren’t working out for you at school, or at home, or at work, don’t give up on God. Even in the most evil situations we will ever experience, God can still work. Let him work in your life and in your heart, and you will not get in the way of his working in your school, or your home, or your work, to redeem that situation. While you may not have seen the end of your story quite yet, the story of Joseph gives us a hint as to how it can turn out: whatever is going on in your life, it can’t possibly be as bad as what happened to Joseph, and if Joseph was able to come to the place of being able to recognize that God meant it for good, then perhaps we should, too.

Now when we know what someone means, when we know what someone “is getting at”, when we know what someone intends, we say that we understand them. Joseph was someone who actually understood God, because he knew that God’s ways are higher that our ways, and that God can turn even the greatest evil into good. One of the greatest of all human experiences is simply to be understood, and one of the most tragic is to be misunderstood. In fact, we could even go so far as saying that a friend is someone who understands us, and an enemy is someone who chooses not to understand us. One of the most heart-breaking experiences you will ever face will happen when you say something nice to a friend, and the friend imagines that you are saying something unkind. The classic case (it would be a joke if it were not so tragically true) is when a husband says to his wife: “Your dress looks great, honey.” And the wife replies, “What’s wrong with my hair?” Ouch. That hurts.

But I wonder how often God is heart-broken by our choosing to misinterpret his work in our lives. He means it for good, but we misunderstand it as evil. I wonder if we hurt God by missing His meaning. Be God’s friend this morning: be willing to understand him. God “meant it for good” in Joseph’s life. God could also mean it for good in our lives, too.