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Joseph--Intended for Good

Original Date: 
Sunday, July 14, 2013

Hebrews 11:20-22; Genesis 50:20 Hall of Faith: Joseph—Intended for Good

Luck vs. Providence
When I was a teenager our high school Sunday school class was held in the living room of the parsonage. There would usually be about4 or 5 of us, right after church, recapping what we had watched on Saturday Night Live before Pastor Mike would come and teach us about the Heidelberg Catechism.

Pastor Mike was single then, just out of school, and most of the furniture in his house was second hand and mismatched. So I have found memories of sitting in these old, scarred up leather couches having deep discussions about theology.

And one Sunday morning in particular stands out to me. It was the morning that Pastor Mike asked us if there was such a thing as luck. It was a question I had never considered before.

We talk about luck a lot. We wish somebody “good luck” before they leave for a job interview or go out on a date. We say that a basketball player hit a “lucky shot” when the ball goes in just before the buzzer or when they shoot as they are falling down. We deflect praise when someone tells us we did a good job by saying: “Oh, I was just lucky.” And when things don’t go our way, and we don’t know why, we blame it on “bad luck.”

Luck is what we give credit to when things appear to turn out randomly. We have several words for it: chance, fate, fortune, coincidence.

Expressions that use the word “luck” and situations that we chalk up to luck are so common that it had never occurred to me to ask if such a thing as luck existed. But Pastor Mike forced us to think it through. If we believed in God, and if we believed that God was in charge of everything that happened, then could we really say that there was such a thing as luck? Can things really happen at random in world that God is in control of?

It was a deep discussion that really blew my mind—so much so that I can still remember it 25 years later. Instead of luck, Pastor Mike said, we needed to think about “Providence.” Then he introduced us to Heidelberg Catechism question and answer 27:

Q. What do you understand by the providence of God?

A. Providence is the almighty and ever present power of God
by which he upholds, as with his hand,
heaven and earth and all creatures,
and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought,
fruitful and lean years, food and drink,
health and sickness, prosperity and poverty—
all things, in fact, come to us not by chance
but by his fatherly hand.

That is really quite a sentence. I want us to linger here a moment. Look at what this is saying. God is almighty and ever present. And if that is the case, then everything that happens—leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty—it all comes from God. Not by chance. Not by luck. It comes from His providential hand.

From that day on, I decided I didn’t believe in luck anymore. I believe in providence. I believe that we live in world governed not by fate or random chance, but by a loving Father who has a plan for everything that happens.

I decided then that I would try to strike the word “luck” from my vocabulary. I haven’t been 100% successful. I still say “Good luck” from time to time. But I don’t mean it. I don’t believe in luck. I believe in providence.

Enshrined in the Hall
There’s probably no better illustration of providence than the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis. A long story—it covers the final 25% of the book, from chapter 37 to
chapter 50—Joseph’s story involves no direct intervention by God—other than a few dreams—and yet it shows evidence of God’s providentially guiding hand throughout.

We are in the midst of a series in which we are going through Hebrews 11, the Bible’s famous Faith chapter. We’re calling it the “Hall of Faith” and we are looking at the stories of the Old Testament characters who are highlighted there. Today we are up to Hebrews 11:20-22:

20By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future. 21By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff. 22By faith, Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions about his bones.

This group is known as the Patriarchs, the fathers of God’s people. Isaac, Jacob and Jacob’s 12 sons, the fathers of the 12 tribes of Israel. The son, grandson, and great-grandsons of Abraham. And of all of these, the Bible gives most of its attention to Joseph—the 11th son of Jacob--so we will too.

The Coat of Favoritism
The first thing we learn about Joseph is that he was a tattle tale. Genesis 37:2

2Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives, and he brought their father a bad report about them.

We don’t know what Joseph’s brothers were doing wrong, but Joseph wasn’t afraid to rat them out.

The second thing we learn about him was that he was spoiled. Verse 3:

3Now Israel [another name for Jacob] loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made a richly ornamented robe for him. 4When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.

We don’t know exactly what this robe was. Various translations call it a “coat of many colors” (KJV); “elaborately embroidered” (MSG); “varicolored” (NASB) and “a long robe with sleeves.” (RSV) What is clear is that it was a special robe, and it sent a clear signal to Joseph’s brothers that their father favored him over the rest of them.

Now, we need to understand that Joseph came from a very dysfunctional family. He was the 11th of 12 sons, all born to Jacob. But they did not all share the same mother.

In fact, Jacob had four wives and the story of how he acquired them is a soap opera in its own right. The love of Jacob’s life was his cousin Rachel, and he struck a bargain with her father to work for 7 years to earn the right to marry her. But on the night of his wedding his uncle Laban swindled him and swapped the less desirable Leah for her sister. So Jacob married them both and worked another 7 years to earn Rachel’s hand.

Meanwhile, Leah had babies and Rachel did not. Frustrated, Rachel gave her handmaid Bilhah to her husband. When Leah stopped having babies and saw that Bilhah was, she gave her handmaid Zilpah to Jacob. In this way Jacob’s first 10 sons were born. 6 born to Leah. 2 born to Bilhah. And 2 born to Zipah.

And yet with Rachel, his one true love, he had no children. Until finally, in his old age, Rachel gave birth to two boys, Joseph and Benjamin. As she gave birth to Benjamin, however, she died.

So Jacob had a hard time separating his love for Rachel from his love for the two sons she bore him. He clearly played favorites. And his household suffered for it.

The third thing we learn about Joseph is that he was a bit of a braggart. He had dreams, and in his dreams it was apparent that his brothers would one day bow down before him. I suppose it’s not his fault that he dreamed these things—and in fact, they came true—but he wasn’t afraid to share this information his brothers, and they didn’t appreciate it.

So, Joseph was a spoiled, bratty, tale-bearing, robe-parading, braggart living in a very dysfunctional family.

Eventually, his 10 angry brothers saw their opportunity and took it. One day when they and Joseph were out in the fields they laid hold of him and dumped him in a dry well. They planned to kill him, until a better opportunity presented itself. A caravan of traders came by and they sold him as a slave for about half a pound of silver.

Then, to cover up their misdeeds, they took his robe—the richly ornamented one he was so proud of and they were so jealous of—and covered it with the blood of a goat. They presented it to their father and claimed they found it out in the wilderness. Jacob concluded that his favorite son had been torn apart by wild animals.

Joseph, meanwhile, was carried to Egypt where he was sold into the house of a man named Potiphar, the captain of the Egyptian royal guard.

It was, you might say, a terrible bit of luck for Joseph. He may have been snotty and obnoxious, but he certainly didn’t deserve to be sold into slavery by his own brothers. Without a doubt, it was a spectacular sin on the part of the sons of Jacob.

But, of course, we don’t believe in luck. And even in the midst of terrible sin, God is still at work.

The Discarded Robe
And so, as Joseph travels to Egypt, God goes with him. Genesis 39:2:

2The LORD was with Joseph and he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master.

It soon became apparent to Potiphar that there was something special about his new servant and he quickly put Joseph in charge of his household and all that he owned. From that time on, it seemed that everything Joseph touched prospered, and Potiphar enjoyed great success.

Joseph did not escape the attention of Potiphar’s wife however. Apparently, Mrs. Potiphar was auditioning for a role on the “Real Housewives of Cairo,” and she attempted to seduce Joseph.

Joseph refused to betray his boss in that way, however, and rebuffed her advances. This went on day after day, until finally it was just Joseph and the Mrs. in the house. Again she came on strong, again he resisted, only this time she grabbed him by the robe and snatched it from his shoulders.

When he fled, she decided to turn the tables on him. She shouted for help and claimed that he had been making advances on her. It was a classic case of “he said, she said”; but she had the additional evidence of the discarded robe. Her husband believed her side of the story and Joseph soon found himself in prison.

Again, hard luck for Joseph. The victim of someone else’s sin.

Only we don’t believe in luck.

The Coat of Fine Linens
Even as Joseph travels to prison, God goes with him. Genesis 39:20-21:

But while Joseph was there in the prison, 21the LORD was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden.

Soon, Joseph proved himself more than capable and he was put in a position of responsibility in the prison. He was still an inmate though.

Then, more dreams. This time, the dreams belonged to two of Pharaoh’s top officials—his butler and baker—who had angered him and been thrown into prison. When Joseph interprets their dreams correctly—giving credit to God as the only revealer of secrets—predicting the imminent demise of the baker but the soon restoration of the butler, the butler promises to put in a good word for Joseph to Pharaoh.

But, of course, upon his release from jail the butler promptly forgets all about Joseph. For two more years Joseph languishes in prison.

Until Pharaoh has some unusual dreams. They sound like a Salvador Dali fever dream. Pharaoh sees 7 fat cows, hanging out on the riverbank, grazing among the reeds. Then 7 more cows, looking ugly and skinny, come out of the river and eat the 7 fat cows whole. The second dream involves 7 fat, healthy heads of grain being devoured by 7 thin, sickly looking heads of grain.

It freaks Pharaoh out, and he repeats the dreams to all of his officials. But no one can tell him what they mean. Until, at last, the butler remembers Joseph down in the dungeons. Joseph is summoned into the Pharaoh’s presence and, after giving due credit to God, proceeds to explain the meaning of Pharaoh’s dreams. As it turns out, Egypt is about to experience 7 years of bountiful harvests and abundance, followed by 7 more years of hard famine and drought. As the Heidelberg Catechism would say, 7 fruitful years and 7 lean years. It would be wise, Joseph says, to save up during the 7 good years in order to be ready for the 7 bad years.

Immediately, Pharaoh sees the correctness of Joseph’s interpretation and the need to have someone who can prepare the land for the coming disaster. He elevates Joseph to his second in command, puts his signet ring upon Joseph’s finger and—again with the robes—dresses Joseph in robes of fine linen.

Finally, it seems, a little good luck has come Joseph’s way.

Except, we don’t believe in luck, do we?

Family Reunion
Everything plays out exactly has Joseph predicted. There are 7 years of abundance, and under Joseph’s management huge storehouses of grain are built and filled. Then the lean years come, but Egypt is ready.

The famine doesn’t just strike Egypt, however. Neighboring countries are also affected, and soon they are coming to Egypt to buy some food. This includes the people of Canaan. Genesis 42:1 and 2:

1When Jacob learned that there was grain in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you just keep looking at each other?” 2He continued, “I have heard that there is grain in Egypt. Go down there and buy some for us, so that we may live and not die.”

And so, “as luck would have it,” the 10 brothers who conspired to sell Joseph and pass him off as dead find themselves standing in an Egyptian throne room, bowing before that same brother and begging for bread.

The family reunion that follows is a drawn out affair.

Joseph, of course, immediately recognizes his brothers; while they are clueless as to his identity (they could hardly expect to find the brother they gave up for dead sitting on an Egyptian throne.) Joseph hides behind an interpreter to discover that they are still carrying feelings of remorse over what they did some 22 years earlier. Then, without revealing himself, he sends them back to fetch his younger brother Benjamin and prove they haven’t treated him in the same reckless way.

Jacob, of course, is reluctant to part with Benjamin—the only child left of his precious Rachel—but the famine forces his hand. When all 11 of his brothers return, Joseph loads them up with grain and sends them on their way. But first, he arranges to make it look like Benjamin is a thief, slipping his silver cup into Benjamin’s grain sack.

When the sliver cup is discovered, Joseph has them all brought back to court and declares that he will have Benjamin placed in slave chains. The others, he promises, will be free to go.

At this point, Judah speaks up and pleads for Joseph’s mercy. If Benjamin is lost, Judah says, it will kill poor Jacob. Already he has lost Joseph, he won’t be able to bear the loss of Benjamin as well. So Judah says:

33”Now then, please let your servant remain here as my lord’s slave in place of the boy, and let the boy return with his brothers. 34How can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? No! Do not let me see the misery that would come upon my father.”

It is at this point—when Joseph knows they have not treated Benjamin as they have treated him, and when he sees that Judah would rather sacrifice himself than to see Benjamin suffer—it is at this point that Joseph could no longer keep his secret. Sending his attendants out of the room and weeping loudly, he declares:

“I am Joseph! Is my father still living?...I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt!”

And so, it seems that luck has brought the family back together.

There are still 5 years of famine left, so Joseph persuades his brothers to go get their father and all of their children and livestock and move to Egypt. Pharaoh is welcoming and soon the tiny nation of Israel—70 people strong at this point (Gen. 46:27)—is living along the banks of the Nile.

Good fortune for Israel, it would appear, that Joseph was in such a position of power. Only we don’t believe in fortune. We don’t believe in luck.

Genesis 50:20
Joseph himself gives the explanation for everything that has happened, and reveals the Hand of Providence that has guided his entire story. Genesis 50, verse 20. An important verse in the Bible. Joseph says to his brothers who are worried he might still hold a grudge:

20You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.

Isn’t that remarkable? Joseph is able now to look back over his life with absolute clarity. And what he sees is a series of evil acts: the wrong done to him by his brothers that led him into slavery; the sin of Potiphar’s wife that put him in prison; the forgetfulness of the butler that left him on the shelf for an additional two years. He can find example after example of harmful acts meant to hurt him. And yet, at the same time, he can now see God’s fatherly hand guiding him through all these obstacles in order to accomplish enormous good. He can see how God was at work in the midst of the evil—in spite of the evil—to make something remarkable out of his life.

This is a theme throughout scripture; it is one of the profound things we mean when we say that God is sovereign, that He sits on the throne of the universe: What man designs for evil, God designs for some great good. Even the most spectacular sins can be reversed to display the glory of God. This is the providence of God.

The great good that Joseph sees is “the saving of many lives.” Because of the providential guiding of God, Joseph was brought to the place where he could enact policy that would provide food in the midst of famine. In this way, the lives of many Egyptians, as well as the lives of many neighboring nations, were saved.

And, of course, no less important is that the line of promise was preserved. The family of Jacob, the descendants of Abraham, escaped annihilation in the famine because Joseph was in a position to feed them. In this way the nation of Israel, though it was yet small, would survive and grow.

And that’s important because it is this line of descent that will lead to Jesus. It’s worth noting that it is in the midst of this story that Jacob places his hands on Judah—his fourth-born son—and pronounces this blessing:

10The scepter will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until he comes to whom it belongs
and the obedience of the nations is his.

Jacob calls Judah a lion, and he predicts that it is from the tribe of Judah that the great Lion who rules over all nations will emerge. Judah does not realize it yet, but his offer to step in and take the place of Benjamin will someday be repeated by his great, great, many great grandson when He offers Himself as a substitute not just for one, but for the whole world.

That is the line of promise being preserved through God’s providential guiding in the life of Joseph.

Good Confidence
So what about us? How does providence make a difference in our lives? What does it matter if providence or luck is the guiding force in our lives?

Heidelberg Question and Answer number 28 asks that very question:

Q. How does the knowledge of God’s creation and providence help us?

A. We can be patient when things go against us,
thankful when things go well,
and for the future we can have
good confidence in our faithful God and Father
that nothing will separate us from his love.
All creatures are so completely in his hand
that without his will
they can neither move nor be moved.

We’ve been talking about faith a lot in this series. Hebrews 11 is the Faith chapter after all. And here’s another aspect of faith that we can add to our understanding. Faith is the “good confidence” that—no matter what happens—God is still in charge and has a good plan for our lives.

I want you to understand that faith is not about “finding the silver lining” in the midst of a bad situation. Sometimes we think that, as Christians, we need to find some small, trivial thing that can be considered positive even when everything else is crashing down around us. Like, if you house burns to cinders and you say: “At least my garden gnome survived.” That’s not the kind of faith I’m talking about.

Rather, this about having faith that God has a good plan even when the silver lining is completely non-existent. It’s about believing that even when we can’t see how things could possibly turn out well that God has all things under control.

Faith means when things go well, we stop calling it good luck. And when things go bad, we stop calling it bad luck. And instead, we rest in the good confidence that our faithful God and Father is working all things for our ultimate good.