God Sent Me Before You: Genesis 45:1-15
Sermon Preached at Idlywood Presbyterian Church, Falls Church, VA
It is so easy look out on the world with a lens of two categories in which to place people: heroes and villains. Maybe this is indeed why the movies with the highest gross sales this summer (or anytime of the year usually) are those films about superheroes using their powers to defeat the evil characters. We can’t get enough of depictions of do-gooders vs. villains it seems. Batman vs. the Joker. Spiderman vs. the Green Goblin. And of course, Superman vs. Doomsday. It’s an expression of this to:
- Label one group as right and another as wrong and to have no grey in the middle… .
- Label one neighbor as good and another as bad without hope of rehabilitation . . . .
- Label everything in life in fact according to the statement of “either you are for me or against me.”
And in doing so, our depiction of what it means to be human in this world becomes quite flat, doesn’t it? All the complexity, all the compassion, all the grace simply isn’t present.
Even if we call ourselves opened minded or even progressive Christians, we have to admit we all like to play this game of assigning parts both to ourselves and those we encounter in our daily lives . . . And of course, you and I always play the role of “good guys.”
This morning I am going to propose that when we read scripture, we do the exact same thing. We read Biblical stories assuming we’d find alignment with only the best of the best. And if not this, then we’d find ourselves in the group of the characters that emerge in the end as heroes. Right?
We’d be like Jonah preaching to Ninevah. We’d be like Stephen, preaching the gospel until our death. We’d be like Paul going on his 3rd missionary journey bringing hundreds to the faith. But, wow.
What a distorted image we have of what doing good in this world is all about! And of God’s word too.
So this morning, I’m inviting you to take a deep breath. To take a 15 minute and counting holy pause and open our eyes anew. And in this time, see again the limitation of what is our human lens but what is the vastness of our God.
In our Old Testament reading for this morning we encounter Joseph, several chapters into this story as outlined with careful detail in the book of Genesis. This is what we know—and probably what many of you might know well from Sunday School or a certain Broadway play called Joseph and the Amazing TechniColored DreamCoat.
Joseph was one of the younger sons of the great patriarch of the Hebrew story, Jacob. Joseph was born to Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife along with the youngest Benjamin. And for this reason and others that only Jacob knows—Joseph was a highly favored child. And everyone knew it, including his 11 other brothers. In his favored status, Joseph became the kind of guy that all of us might just want to slap around for his “know it all” attitude.
So you can imagine how well this went over with his brothers . . .
One day Joseph came and spoke to them about a dream he had (that one day they would bow down to him) ALL while wearing the special coat that father gave to him and only him. In response, Joseph had to die, one brother said! And the prank that should have just been a boyish prank went one step too far.
Joseph was thrown into a pit. And he was left there. In an effort to get rid of him, a brother sold him into slavery to a band of travelers that just so happened to be heading toward Egypt.
That night Joseph’s father, Jacob was told that his beloved son was dead.
Joseph goes on to Egypt in chains. He makes the best of it though, becoming a house slave for prominent Egyptian citizen. But his good luck didn’t last for long. Soon he was accused of adultery (that we clearly see he didn’t commit) and thrown into Pharaoh’s prison.
It’s at this point of the story that we start to feel sorry for Joseph. Poor guy was not loved by his brothers. Poor guy was thrown into a pit. Poor guy was sold as a slave. Poor guy found himself in prison. Joseph, clearly is the good guy, then, right? Poor Joseph.
And while I’m all for compassion to those who have suffered— after a week like what we’ve had this week, we know our world is in need of more compassion and kindness, isn’t it?
But, let us stop ourselves from making this story into good guy moralism tale—as if Joseph had no responsibility (even a little) for what happened to him that day his brothers threw him into a pit.
The story goes on that Joseph rises up from a prison inmate to become Pharaoh’s advisor, again by relying again on his dream interpretation ability. He tells Pharaoh that he sees that a famine is coming to the land. In the days of plenty, Egypt needed to prepare for the lean times that would be up ahead.
The Pharaoh trusts the counsel of Joseph’s dreams so that when the famine does come—just as Joseph said it would be—Egypt has already positioned itself as a nation of great influence. Everybody who needs grains has to make a journey to Egypt to purchase some.
And as the story goes, the sons of Jacob are hungry—they are running out of food and Jacob sends them to Egypt to purchase some food. But, Rachel’s other son, Benjamin cannot come. He must stay at home with his father in case anything happens to the band of brothers along the way.
So the brothers come to Egypt. They make their case. They tell their story. Joseph knows right away who these men are, but the brothers do not know Joseph. It is at this point of the story where most would say that Joseph had every right to take revenge, to make his brothers pay for how his life was ruined as we’ve heard shouts of “somebody’s going to pay for this” all week on the news.
And this is what we know, Joseph doesn’t cause them harm. But he doesn’t openly embrace them either. Instead Joseph plays a game.
Anyone watch the popular reality TV show called, “Undercover Boss?” It’s found its way to cable television now though it used to be shown weekly on CBS. The basic premise is that a prominent CEO goes undercover in various positions throughout the company for a week. In doing so, the CEO usually puts on a wig or special costume, tells no one whom he or she is with hopes of finding out the real story of what is going on with the morale of the lower level employees.
It can be funny at times as a person used to wearing a business suit every day is ordered by their trainers to wash dishes or hang power lines or even collect trash—all while no one knows that the “trainee” is really the ultimate boss. The show usually climaxes in a reveal moment—where everyone knows the truth about the big boss. Those who have done a good job while in the presence of the CEO unaware are rewarded and those who have misbehaved are disciplined.
When we arrive at Genesis 44, what we find is Joseph acting a lot like the CEO of “Undercover Boss”—he gives his brothers a series of tests to see how they will respond. He places a large amount of money in several of their bags—as a test of honesty.
He throws his brothers into prison until they can come back with his youngest brother and then later his father.
As I was sitting with these verses this week, trying to come to the conclusion that most commentators do at this point: “Oh, Joseph was just trying to be sure his brothers could be trusted…. Of course he’d put them to the test.” I just couldn’t go there, because what I saw Joseph doing was playing tricks on his brothers, torturing them with his games.
Why? Because he was doing what those who have been abused often do to others—abusing them in return.
Joseph helped his brothers feel some of the pain he’d known for all those years. And sure, while it would have been nice if Joseph’s brothers had enough awareness to recognize him in the first place . . .
And sure while it would have been nice for his brothers on first sighting of Joseph, bow down in tears of repentance . . .
They didn’t. But, such did not give Joseph a free pass at playing hurtful games on his brothers.
To be abused does not give a person the right to be an abuser. Ever.
Eventually, much like the ending of one of the Undercover Boss shows—Joseph could not control himself anymore. Upon sight of his full-blood brother, Benjamin he weeps then collects himself again then declares to all: “I am Joseph.”
And Joseph makes this statement in chapter 45, verse 5: “And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.”
It is at this moment, church that we want to bless Joseph as the good guy, the one who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, the hero of providence that used the circumstances handed to him for good—and all of this true. Joseph is a good man as much as any of us are good. Joseph did seek to do well with the difficult life challenges he was given. And he certainly was a guy who could be labeled with the virtue of “perseverance.”
BUT, is this a story about Joseph and what it means to be on the good guys team? Many Biblical commentators might say yes, as they often want to turn this chapter into a role-play about “how to make friends with your enemies.”
But consider Joseph’s statement again—“For God sent me before you. . . .” I believe that one sentence is the best thing Joseph ever said or did. Joseph may have gotten a lot wrong and he might not be a perfect model on reconciliation, BUT he stopped to acknowledge the Lord. And by saying, “God sent me before you,”
Joseph gives a short sermon summing up what could be the entire message of scripture.
Let me explain: you see, in the end, the story wasn’t really about Joseph. It wasn’t about his brothers or his father. It wasn’t even about the continuation of the tribe of Jacob and their sticky relationship to come with the nation of Egypt.
No, Joseph’s life is a story about God. It’s story was and is about how God includes us, uses us and cares for us as we live into the good news of life’s grey in between.
It’s a story about how nothing of our humanness can hinder the movement of God’s presence in the world—not our pride, not our deceit, not our trickery, nor our famines or war.
It’s a story about how God is such a mystery beyond all our comprehension—even on the darkest of nights, most confusing of landing points, we can still believe in God who goes ahead of us to forge a way. It’s a story of God being very much present. When I look at our world and all the big things that have happened in the past week or two-
- Cease fires not honored in Israel and Gaza
- Air strikes toward Isis
- Children starving in Syria
- Ebola in Africa
- Beloved comedians taking their own lives
- Innocent black teenagers being shot in Ferguson, MO
(And more than I can name)
I have to think that all of us need some more good news of a God who goes before us, a God who never leaves us (though we might feel the absence), and a God who uses even the greatest evil plots of human hands for the good.
Later on in chapter 50 Joseph says this to his brothers, “You meant [what you did] for harm, but God meant it for good.” Why the horror of corruption, of evil, of injustice go on in this world, I do not know.
Why God does not intervene sooner than we would like, I do not know.
But what I do know is this: good always wins in the end.
And, God’s vision for our lives, for this world, for the human race is always bigger than we could ever imagine. So we need not go back to our search for a superhero, or our camps of “He’s good and she’s not.”
No, let us find another way to be together that begins in love.
And though weeping may come for the night, joy will come in the morning. Would you join me in singing this song of hope as our reminder of God’s presence with us?
He´s got the whole world in His hands, He´s got the whole world in His hands, He´s got the whole world in His hands.
He´s got the the tiny little baby in His hands, He´s got the the tiny little baby in His hands, He´s got the whole world in His hands.
He’s got ev’rybody here in His hands. He’s got ev’rybody here in His hands. He’s got the whole world in His hands.