You can watch the video of this sermon here.
Over the last couple of weeks, we have seen that in the Bible there are two story lines. The upper story is God’s story where God fulfills his purpose and the lower story is the human characters’ story with all the complexities and details of life. Sometimes those details look like God is acting unfairly.
It doesn’t seem fair for God to kick Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, for example. It doesn’t seem fair for God to favor Isaac over his older half-brother Ishmael, either. But God’s purpose is only made known to us when we see things from an “upper story” perspective. God calls us to capture the upper story and its effects on our lives. The story of Joseph is a great example of how the upper and lower story lines come together in the Bible. Help me out here. Tell me when you think something that happens to Joseph is good (thumbs up), and when it’s bad (thumbs down). Then let’s see how God uses the bad to create good through Joseph.
The story starts in Genesis 37, when Joseph is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. (That’s bad) Joseph is 17 and is “the favorite” of his father Jacob (Rachel’s son). (That’s good) Joseph had dreams of his brothers and parents bowing down to him. This does not make him popular. (That’s bad) Joseph’s brothers sell Joseph to a band of Ishmaelites, and they tell Jacob that Joseph was killed by a ferocious animal. The Ishmaelites take Joseph to Egypt as a slave. (That’s bad)
Joseph is sold as a slave to an Egyptian official named Potiphar and becomes Potiphar’s right hand man. (that’s good) Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph. (that’s bad) When Joseph refuses her advances, she falsely accuses him of assaulting her, and Joseph ends up in prison. (that’s bad) While in prison Joseph gets a reputation for correctly interpreting dreams. (Baker, cupbearer) (that’s good)
Joseph never plays the victim card, but he stays connected to God.
Over and over, we read that “The LORD was with Joseph” (39:2, 23). (That’s good)
Pharaoh has troubling dreams that none of his wise men and magicians can interpret for him. (that’s bad) But remember the reputation Joseph built in prison for being a good dream interpreter? (this could be good) Joseph is called to Pharaoh and correctly interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and counsels Pharaoh to prepare for what they say about the future. (that’s good)
Dream #1- Egypt will have 7 years of bountiful harvests (that’s good)
Dream #2- Egypt will have 7 years of famine. (that’s bad)
Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge of carrying out a plan to prepare for the years of famine, and this puts Joseph exactly where he needs to be in God’s upper story of redemption. Joseph is promoted to Deputy Pharaoh in Egypt at age 30 (Genesis 41). (that’s good)
The famine hits Canaan, where Jacob and his other sons still live. (that’s bad) Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to ask for food, and they do bow down to Joseph. (is this good or bad, do you think?) Joseph is now age 39. It’s been 22 years from the time of his initial dream to its fulfillment.
This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for in Joseph’s story. Now he can take revenge on his brothers for selling him into slavery. Now he can balance the scales and tie up all the sub-plots before the credits start to roll. It’s only fair. The only question left is, how will he do it? How will Joseph pay back his brothers for the 22 years of suffering they have caused him? Will this turn out to be good, or bad?
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. 2 And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. 3 Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 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. 6 For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7 God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. 9 Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay.10 You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. 11 I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’
25 So they went up out of Egypt and came to their father Jacob in the land of Canaan.26 And they told him, “Joseph is still alive! He is even ruler over all the land of Egypt.” He was stunned; he could not believe them. 27 But when they told him all the words of Joseph that he had said to them, and when he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him, the spirit of their father Jacob revived. 28 Israel said, “Enough! My son Joseph is still alive. I must go and see him before I die.” (Genesis 1-11, 25-28)
Joseph does not take revenge, but offers forgiveness and reconciliation instead, and we have to ask “Why?” Joseph was able to forgive his brothers because he saw that God was up to something; he had captured the upper story, God’s bigger plan. What the brothers did was wrong, but God used their sin and jealousy to accomplish his overall purpose, his upper story.
God was already at work in the new nation, so that God could reveal himself through it. God made provision through Joseph to sustain the new nation during severe famine. The famine would have killed the little fledgling nation of Israel, but God made a provision to save them by putting Joseph in the right place at the right time. Why didn’t God just thwart the famine? Because it wasn’t time for the nation of Israel to take ownership of the land of Canaan. They weren’t ready yet. Even though his brothers intended to do Joseph harm, God had different plans. God’s plan was to preserve his people and help them to flourish. (Genesis 50:19-20)
Joseph was God’s agent to save the new nation by bringing the new nation to Egypt. Why Egypt? The Israelites in Egypt were shepherds. The Egyptians considered shepherding a disgusting job. In Egypt Jacob and his sons were given the incredibly fertile land of Goshen where they thrived. Intermarriage was a threat in Canaan (Genesis 38), but since Egyptians thought shepherds were disgusting, there was no risk they would try to intermarry with the tribe of Israel and dilute the new nation.
Within Egypt the Israelites grew to a great nation of over a million people. Joseph was 110 years old when he died. He had 22 years of a difficult life, but 71 years of a blessed life. He saw the upper story and it made his life in the lower story richer. It made everything that happened to him in the lower story survivable.
So, how does Joseph’s story help us understand our own stories a little better? In Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, he writes And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him and who have been called according to his purposes. (Romans 8:28) The trials we go through test us and cause us to trust God and to see his power in desperate situations, and equip us for the very thing he wants us to do that we’re not yet equipped to do, so that others will see not us, but God.
We must face huge consequences for doing things in the lower story to hurt other people, even though God often uses our sinfulness to accomplish his overall will. If your life isn’t turning out like you had envisioned it, you need the perspective of Romans 8:28. You need to know that all things do work for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purposes.
But this incredible promise of God is not applied to everyone. It is only for those who have aligned their stories to the upper story of God. This promise is for those who call Jesus ‘Lord,’ and mean it. How can we respond to so great a promise?
The first step is to love God, and that is only possible by admitting our own sinfulness, asking God’s forgiveness, and repenting of our sin. The second step is to align ourselves with Christ, to make the commitment to follow Jesus. Being a follower of Jesus means making him our leader and ruler over our lives. It means developing a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and nurturing that relationship through prayer, Bible study, and fellowship with God’s people.
This is more than simply believing that Jesus is God’s Son. It’s a commitment to follow Jesus, and to go where Jesus sends us into the world. When you align your life to God’s purposes, instead of your own, you begin to change. Instead of asking God to bless your big ideas in your lower story, you begin to turn it around and adjust your entire life to what God is up to. Then the promise of Romans 8:28 becomes yours.
If it is not going well for you right now, if things are not making sense in your lower story, maybe it’s time to abandon your will to God’s will. Remind yourself daily of God’s upper story while you endure the lower story issues. Then, instead of asking, “How can a good God allow evil?” you can ask, “God, how can you turn the evil in my life into good?” Instead of asking “Where is God when I really need him?” you can rest assured that God is present with you in every circumstance. Then you will know “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him and who have been called according to his purpose.”
O Lord, who protected Joseph when his brothers sold him into slavery, we ask your protection from the things that enslave us. Give us vision to see our stories from the perspective of your great Story. Help us to depend on you alone. Banish our fear. Give us courage to remain faithful, even when the world around us is not. Use us to bring in your Kingdom, according to your plan and desire. We pray these things in the strong name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.