And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined; he remained there in prison. But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love; he gave him favour in the sight of the chief jailer. The chief jailer committed to Joseph’s care all the prisoners who were in the prison, and whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. The chief jailer paid no heed to anything that was in Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.”
Don’t you love walking up to some people in the middle of a conversation? Within a few sentences or so, you catch on to the subject and follow along just fine until the end. But, you might wonder, how did this conversation or story begin? Sure, the part you were there for was meaningful and understandable, but what had you missed?
Last week was the beginning of lay academy for the year. I was proud of myself for reading the entire book for the session, cover to cover, a few weeks ago. It was the most prepared I have been in quite a while. On Friday morning, while reviewing the syllabus to see if there was anything else I needed to take along, I discovered I had read the book for the session in March of next year! I feared having no idea what the instructor was going to be talking about.
So it is with today’s scripture passages. We pick up with Joseph in Egypt, where he has been bought as a slave by the pharaoh’s captain of the guard, Potiphar. This is after his brothers had thrown him into a pit to die, then, feeling remorseful or maybe just greedy, they pulled him back out of the pit and sold him into slavery for twenty pieces of silver. How’s that for the Reader’s Digest version of a preface?
Joseph was a man of faith. Potiphar saw that, and learned that he could trust Joseph with all that he had. And, because of this, God blessed Potiphar's house. With Joseph, Potiphar hadn’t a concern.
But, alas, we handsome and good looking men don’t always have it easy. Potiphar’s wife was struck with Joseph, and made repeated advances on him. Being faithful – both to Potiphar and to God – Joseph turned her away each time. This until, finally, she tore his robe from his as he hurried away. Angry, embarrassed, or insulted at Joseph’s refusal to give in, she showed the robe to Potiphar and insisted that Joseph had tried to force himself on her!
This is where I think the story takes an interesting turn. Instead of executing Joseph, as would have been the norm, Potiphar sends him away to prison. So, just as he had escaped death in the pit, he now has escaped death at the hands of Potiphar. And, of course, he quickly earned the trust of the chief jailer. Just as had been the case with Potiphar, the jailer learned that he could trust Joseph with anything. Joseph became the keeper of all of the prisoners.
In his commentary on today’s scripture, Rolf Jacobson makes an interesting observation. The story of Joseph, Jacobson tells us, is one of unfaithfulness. Joseph’s brothers were unfaithful to Joseph, selling him to the slaves who took him to Egypt. His brothers were unfaithful to their father, Jacob, lying and telling him that Joseph had been killed by a beast. Potiphar’s wife was unfaithful to her husband in attempting to seduce Joseph. Then, she was unfaithful to Joseph by accusing him of trying to seduce her.
And yet, despite all of this unfaithfulness by others, Joseph maintained his faith in God. How easy would that have been? I wonder how I would have handled all of that?
At this point, I’m going to step out of today’s scriptures to go back to when Joseph was seventeen. Remember that he had had two dreams. In the first, his brother’s sheaves of grain all bowed down to his own. And, in the second, the sun, moon, and stars all bowed down to Joseph himself. When his brothers decided to cast him into the pit to die, they scoffed at his dreams. Clearly, those dreams had been meaningful not only to Joseph, but to his brothers and his father as well. Perhaps it was those dreams that kept Joseph going with the faith and belief that God had something in store for him. They certainly would not be the last of his dreams, but that story is for another day!
However he did it, Joseph never lost his faith. He knew God’s promise and, despite all that happened to him, Joseph trusted God to bring him through. And, through his trust in God, Joseph – and those around him – were blessed. Joseph showed Potiphar and his other servants, as well as the chief jailer and his staff and prisoners, that enduring and unfaltering faith in God will show us a path even in the dark hours of our lives. Matthew Henry, in his biblical commentary Exposition of the Old and New Testaments wrote, “A good man will do good wherever he is, and will be a blessing even in bonds and banishment.”
In many of my sermons, you will no doubt find a common theme. That theme is well-exemplified in the story of Joseph. It is to live daily in such a way that others can see God working through us. It is to show others that faith in God and in Jesus Christ guide us purposefully to do good and to always strive to be better…to follow the prophet Micah, who told us to “do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” This is exactly the life of Joseph, as it must be our own measure of our Faith.
Jacobson, in the closing of his commentary, writes, “the biblical promise is that God meets us in our suffering. And God does not leave us there. God meets us in suffering and moves us to what one psalmist called more ‘pleasant places.’ And in the process, God will bless others through us.”
Though we have heard about just a few years in Joseph’s life in today’s readings, we can no doubt all identify periods in our lives when it was difficult - in some cases maybe impossible – to believe that God was with us or somehow guiding us. We look for signs, something that says, “I am here with you,” and come up empty. Sometimes – as was the case with me – we let ourselves drift away…we might experience a crisis of Faith which blinds us. It is during those times that we might think things like, “if there was a God, these things wouldn’t happen.”
And, yet, it is exactly these times when we need to trust in God. It is during these times that we need to remember Joseph who suffered from so much betrayal. Because, despite the betrayal and unfaithfulness around him, Joseph knew that God was with him in his suffering and was guiding him to do his own justice, to love his own kindness and, indeed, to walk humbly with his own God.
Remember that the Egyptians at the time of Joseph were polytheistic. They didn’t believe in the God of Israel. They had multiple Gods, including the Pharaoh himself. But, when they saw Joseph and experienced his faith in God, they knew that Joseph was not alone. Joseph had God’s blessing and, even if it wasn’t their own god, they knew that with Joseph around, things would be okay.
I recently saw an interview with Cornel West, and was struck by one of the lessons he learned from his minister father: “If the kingdom of God is within you, then leave a little piece of heaven wherever you go.” I spent many hours pondering that statement in the ensuing days, especially as I was already preparing today’s sermon. I would offer a bit of a change to it, though.
We so often hear about God being with us. I take just a little different view though. It’s not so much God being with us as it is us being with God. God is always there. During those dark times when we think God has left us, it is we who have left God. I know that is true from my own personal story. I know that during my own crisis of faith, it was I who showed God my back, not the other way around.
And, so, my take on the teaching of Cornel West’s father would be, “If you are within God’s kingdom, then you have it within you to leave a little piece of that heaven wherever you go.” God and God’s kingdom never falter. They are ever present within us. It is up to us to be within them! And, when we are, God’s blessings will be there not just for us, but for all of those around us. God is with us. Always.
Pass it on.