Going From Protest to Praise
Congratulations! Today is your day. You’re off to Great Places! You’re off and away!
You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.
You’ll look up and down streets. Look ‘em over with care. About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there.” With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet, you’re too smart to go down any not-so-good street.
And you may not find any you’ll want to go down. In that case, of course, you’ll head straight out of town.
It’s opener there in the wide open air. Out there things can happen and frequently do to people as brainy and footsy as you.
And then things start to happen, don’t worry. Don’t stew. Just go right along. You’ll start happening too. OH! THE PLACES YOU’LL GO!
Those are the opening words to Dr. Seuss’s children’s book “Oh! The Places You’ll Go!” Over the past several years its become popular to put that book on a table at high school graduation open houses, inviting people to write a note of encouragement to the graduate. We did it for Aubrey and Sterling, and I’m sure we’ll do it for Eli and Reece too. They’re words of hope and anticipation for a bright tomorrow full of dreams fulfilled and challenges accepted and overcome.
But what do you do when you get to tomorrow and it isn’t full of butterflies and rainbows and sunny skies? What do you do when tomorrow becomes today and today is filled with dashed dreams and painful memories? When you’re confused and angry and you don’t know why you’re going through the things you’re going through. When you find it difficult to anticipate or even figure out God’s timeline. When God’s methods are hard to recognize.
Turn with me to Genesis 45:1-15. I want to look today at the well-known life of one of Israel’s patriarch’s – the Old Testament figure of Jospeh. You see, Joseph lived what many would call a hard life, at least parts of it were incredibly hard. But God’s hand was all over him the entire time. We first meet Joseph back in Genesis 37 as the son of Jacob. Isaac was his grandfather, and Abraham was his great grandfather. God actually renamed Jacob “Israel,” and his sons, Joseph’s brothers, along with Joseph’s two sons, became the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Now, the Bible comes right out and tells us that Joseph was his father’s favorite. And the extra attention their father gave to Joseph made his brothers, and that made them kinda salty. Genesis 37:3-4 says “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him.” The Bible even tells us that, in typical youngest child style, Joseph tattled on his brothers. Genesis 37:2 says “And Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father.”
None of that was Joseph’s fault. Well, maybe the tattling. But Joseph seems to be oblivious to the whole situation. God had gifted Joseph as a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams, a prophet of sorts, and spoke to Joseph through dreams. And Joseph had two dreams. In one, he and his brothers were in a field binding sheaves of grain, and his sheaf got up and stood upright and the sheaves his brothers were making bowed down around it. In the other, the sun, moon, and eleven stars (funny, he had eleven brothers) were bowing down to him. Even his father rebuked him for telling everyone about that dream.
“But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?” And his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the saying in mind.” Again, the problem isn’t that Joseph HAD these dreams. It’s that he TOLD THEM TO HIS BROTHERS. There does seem to be a bit of impishness in Joseph. Impishness that continues through right to the end of his story. But more than anything, he seems oblivious and lacking in any sort of tact.
But his sharing those dreams is also evidence that God’s hand was on Joseph, and in everything Joseph was about to go through, God would be at work. God’s hand was on Joseph, even when it didn’t seem like it.
Well, his brothers had had enough of Joseph, and they decided to kill him. But one of the brothers – Reuben – talked them out of killing him outright. He convinced them to throw Joseph in a pit out in the wilderness, and Reuben figured he’d come back later and rescue Joseph. He’s more hoping to teach Joseph a lesson about respect without actually killing him. So Joseph shows up while Reuben is away, and adding insult to injury he’s wearing the colorful coat his father had made for him, and not them, and they strip the robe off him and throw him in the pit.
And then, without Reuben’s seemingly calmer head in the mix, Judah convinces them to sell him as a slave to some Midianite traders who were caravanning down to Egypt with goods. Then, after they sold Joseph to the traders in the caravan, Reuben came back and was very upset. But they had to hatch a plan – something to tell their father – so they took Joseph’s coat and smeared goat blood on it and sent it to their father, who assumed Joseph had been attacked and killed by a wild animal.
So Joseph was taken to Egypt and sold to Potiphar, an important man in Egypt – he was the captain of Pharoah’s guard. Now, what Joseph may have lacked in tact at the age of 17 (and what 17 year old is known for tact?), he made up for in ability. He was clearly a talented man. God had blessed him with gifts in administration, in addition to his being able to interpret dreams. And Joseph did well in Potiphar’s house. The Bible tells us that everything he did for Potiphar was successful. “The LORD was with Joseph, and he became a successful man (although a slave of Potiphar) … the LORD caused all that he did to succeed in his hands … the LORD blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake” (39:2, 3, 5). And Potiphar noticed, and put Joseph in charge of his whole house. Scripture tells us that with Joseph in charge, God blessed Potiphar’s family and business because of him and that Potiphar didn’t have to worry about anything other than what he was going to eat on a given day. After a rough patch, things are looking up for Joseph. Joseph has, seemingly, survived catastrophe, and God’s hand is on him.
Now, the Bible even tells us that Joseph “was handsome in form and appearance” (39:6). In other words, Joseph had a handsome face and the body to go with it. Now, I don’t know what women look for in a man’s body, but whatever it is, Joseph had it. And Potiphar’s wife decided she wanted to sleep with Joseph, but no matter how often she threw herself at him, and she was persistent – the Bible says “day after day” she spoke to him, trying to entice him. And he didn’t give in. One day she even threw herself at him, and she grabbed his clothes, so he had to slip out of at least his outer garment and run out of the house. Joseph did the right thing in an incredibly tempting situation.
Well, do you remember the old saying, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned?” It was certainly true in the case of Potiphar’s wife, because when Joseph rejected her that time, she told her husband that Joseph had come on to her and left his clothes in the room when she cried out and he ran out. So Potiphar had Joseph thrown into prison. The prison where Pharoah’s prisoners were kept.
And again, the Bible tells us that God was with Joseph, even in prison. God blessed him there and showed him favor. “But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison” (39:21). Favor? Steadfast love? Joseph has been unjustly sold into slavery by his own brothers and unjustly imprisoned for something he didn’t do!
Well, just like in Potiphar’s house, where Joseph was a purchased slave in charge of everything, the prison keeper placed Joseph in charge of all of the other prisoners, and with Joseph in charge, just like with Potiphar, the jailer didn’t have to worry about anything. But Joseph was still a prisoner. He did the right thing, and was punished for it. Some time later, two of the prisoners, Pharoah’s cupbearer and Pharoah’s baker, each had dreams that Joseph was able to interpret because of God’s blessing on his life. And one of the two men was restored to his position in Pharoah’s court. At this point, it had been about 13 years since Joseph’s brothers had sold him to the Midianite traders. Joseph asked the cupbearer, who was restored to his position to remember him, maybe try to get Pharoah to let him out of prison, as a favor after interpreting the dream. But the cupbearer forgot. For two years. Until Pharoah himself had some troubling dreams that none of his wise men and sages could interpret.
This jolted the cupbearers memory, and Joseph was brought before Pharoah to interpret the dreams, which he did. Seven good years were coming to Egypt, and that would be followed by seven years of devastating famine. So Pharoah needed to appoint wise administrators to save and store grain during the seven good years so that the people would have enough to eat during the seven years of famine. Famine so bad that farmers wouldn’t even attempt to plant crops after the first two because it was just a waste of time and money. And in Pharoah’s eyes, Joseph, the man who had interpreted his dreams and suggested the plan, was just the man to handle the job.
Seven good years passed, and the famine hit with a vengeance. And Jacob and his sons were running low on food, but Jacob had heard that there was grain stored in Egypt, and so he sent his sons to get some. And though Joseph recognized them, they did not recognize him. And, true to form, Joseph’s impish nature came out and he toyed with them a bit. Ok, a lot. He sent them back with grain and hid a bunch of expensive stuff in his brother Benjamin’s sacks of grain. Benjamin was now Jacob’s favorite. And then he sent men after them to “discover” the supposedly stolen items, and Benjamin had to stay in Egypt while the others returned to their father, again without a son. They kept losing brothers. Man, if this is how Joseph messed with his brothers, I wouldn’t have wanted to be in Potiphar’s shoes when he realized Joseph was his new boss. Ah, but Joseph really has forgiven them. And that brings us to Genesis 45. Look with me at Vv. 1-4.
Joseph doesn’t gloss over the wrong that they had done to him. He confronts it. He would always be the one they had sold into Egypt. He doesn’t gloss over the past or pretend it doesn’t matter. He confronts it directly and forces his brothers to do the same. It is a part of who he is and has shaped who he is. Real wrong has been done here.
Until we’ve faced them, the times we’ve been wronged aren’t “all in the past.” We have to be willing to face the wrongdoing that has been done to us, and the wrong we have done. We can’t sweep it under the rug. We can’t just pretend it didn’t happen. We have to face it.
And then, and this is the key, we have to realize that God has been using it to shape us and place us where he wants us, for his glory. Look at Vv. 5-8.
This isn’t a story about Joseph’s incredible ability, or an encouragement to be like Joseph. God included this narrative in Genesis for a purpose far greater than that. You see, God is the great actor in the narrative of Joseph’s life. When Joseph was sold by his brother’s into slavery, we’re left to wonder, right? What’s going to happen next? This isn’t good. God was certainly at work using Reuben to keep the brothers from just ending Joseph’s life. And then there is the repeating refrain … in Potiphar’s house, “The Lord was with Joseph.” And then he was thrown into prison. “And the Lord was with Joseph.”
God uses the difficult times in our lives to shape us. Joseph has been uniquely prepared by God to fulfill his tasks as administrator over all of Egypt. First in his father’s household, where his ability to interpret dreams was realized. And then with Potiphar, over the household, which would have included his wife and children and their spouses and the rest of Potiphar’s slaves and servants. And then in Pharoah’s prison over all of the other prisoners. And then in Pharoah’s court and ultimately over all of Egypt. God doesn’t cause the hurt and pain in our lives. But God in his sovereignty and love does use it to shape us more into the image of Christ and to fit into the place God has for us to serve him.
And Got uses the difficult times in our lives to place us. God used the horrible events in Joseph’s life to move him from place to place until he had gone from the well pit to the throne room of Pharoah himself. Joseph’s brothers were understandably terrified when the realized that the powerful Egyptian ruler standing in front of them, in all likelihood the second most powerful man in the world at the time, second only to Pharoah himself in mighty Egypt, was their snot-nosed, bratty little brother who ran around in special clothes and had annoying dreams. He had the might of the Egyptian military at his service. He had the authority to have the executed on the spot if he wanted. But he didn’t.
Why? Because where others might see only tragedy and many of us would play the victim role – why do these tragedies keep happening to me? – Joseph can trace the hand of God at work. Don’t be distressed or angry with yourselves. Why does Joseph say that? V. 5. “God sent me.” Again in V. 7. “God sent me.” And again in V. 8. “So it was not you who sent me here, but God.”
Now, I can promise you that when Joseph’s brothers stripped his robe off him, and threw him in the pit, and then sold him into slavery, he was terrified. And when he was unjustly accused and imprisoned by Potiphar, he was angry and terrified. And when Pharoah’s cupbearer forgot about him and left him to rot in prison for two years after Joseph interpreted his dream, he was despondent. He would have experienced all of those things, because he was human. But God was at work. Even when his timing didn’t make sense to Joseph. Even when his hand of providence was hard to find. God was at work.
A young man from an impoverished background dreamed of a better life for himself and his family than the hardscrabble existence he had known growing up. He saved all he could and went deeply into debt to launch a grocery startup in a town called New Salem. His partner had an alcohol problem, and he ended up so far in the hole that he referred to his financial obligations as “the national debt.” He gave up on ever being a successful businessman, and it took him more than a decade to pay off his failed dream.
He went into law, and then politics, and in 1860 Abraham Lincoln was elected president. He was an avid Shakespeare fan, and his favorite quote came from Hamlet: “There is a divinity that shapes our ends, roughhew them as we may.” He came to believe this deeply about his own life, but also about the nation he led. His entire second inaugural address is an amazingly profound reflection on how God was at work in the Civil War in ways more mysterious and profound than any human being could fathom. What a loss it would have been – not just to him but to a whole nation – if the doors of that little grocery he started in New Salem hadn’t closed.
In Romans 8:28, St. Paul tells us that “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” FOR the good. God causes all things to work FOR the good. Paul does not say that all things ARE good, that there really isn’t any such thing as a tragedy. He doesn’t say that at all. He says that God can and will use all things, good or bad, FOR the good. For HIS purpose. Some things in life aren’t good. But God will use all things FOR good. Even if we never see it.
That is what Christ came to proclaim and to accomplish. When Jesus began his public ministry, he stood up in his Jewish synagogue, picked up the scroll of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, and read Isaiah 61:1-3. And then he proclaimed that in his life and ministry, and ultimately in his death and resurrection, those words were fulfilled. In Jesus, God brings beauty from ashes, gladness from mourning, praise from exhaustion.
Because Joseph could now trace God’s hand at work in even the most difficult, challenging, and painful of times, he was able to let go of anger and bitterness, and forgive his brothers. Look at Vv. 9-15. We’ve come full circle now. Back in Genesis 37, years and years before, Joseph’s brothers “hated him and could not speak peacefully to him.” But now? “And he kissed ALL his brothers and wept upon them. After that his brothers TALKED WITH HIM.” Healing. Complete and total. From a fractured family to wholeness and healing. In Joseph’s case, the relationship was restored. That doesn’t always happen, nor should it. It could happen because his brothers were able to admit and face their own wrongdoing. When that doesn’t happen, when real change doesn’t happen, we may not be able to be in relationship with those who have hurt us in the past.
Moving from protest to praise is a long and excruciating journey. And many of us don’t get to see the conclusion of the story the way Joseph did. But we can still trust that God has always, is, and will always use every situation for his purpose and for his glory, whether we understand his timing and can trace his hand in our lives or not. A lot of what we experience in the world doesn’t make sense. We’re surrounded by a weird mix of joy and sadness, healing and pain. And we all experience difficulty. Some more dramatically than others. But this we can trust – that God is at work, whether we can see it, or even believe it, or not. That God is working to shape us and place us where he wants us. That sometimes the most difficult of circumstances can launch us into what God has for us next. And that nothing can stop the rolling tide of his amazing grace. Our job is to face the wrong done to us. To trace the hand of God at work in and around us, and to forgive, knowing that God has been at work all along. Let us pray.