Tuesday, September 23, 2014

"The Lord is with Us": Joseph and the Providence of God

The following is a shortened version of a sermon I preached from the Narrative Lectionary reading of Genesis 39:1-23 for Sunday, September 21, 2014.

The story of Joseph in Genesis is one which raises, in my mind, the question of God’s good providence. Many of us know his story as Joseph dominates the final fourteen chapters of the book of Genesis, and if we know his story, then we also know that Joseph’s life is a paradigm of the up and down life.

Joseph’s father loves him more than his other eleven brothers, most likely because he is the first born of his favorite, but second wife, Rachel. In fact, Joseph’s father gives him a fine garment, making his other brothers jealous of Joseph’s place in their father’s heart.

If that is not enough, Joseph tells about two dreams he had, one in which eleven sheaves of wheat bow down to his, and the other dream in which the sun, moon, and eleven stars bow down to him. Joseph interprets these dreams as foretelling his future as ruler over his family.

It is little wonder why his brothers could not stand him and why they decided to put him in a pit until they sold him to a group of Midianites, who then sold him to Ishmaelites who were headed to Egypt (Gen. 37:12-36).

Once in Egypt it seems that Joseph’s life was not getting much better, as the Ishmaelite traders sell him as a slave to Potiphar, a wealthy Egyptian merchant. Yet, we find tucked away in this story of Joseph’s decline from being a beloved son of his father to being tossed into a pit and then sold into slavery a statement that serves to guide the narrative: “The Lord was with Joseph.”

Theologians call this providence, God’s intervention in the world and in the lives of humans to guide God’s plan toward God’s intended goal.

And yet, even though the story tells us that the Lord was with Joseph, and because Potiphar recognizes leadership potential in Joseph and promotes him, it is not very long before Joseph returns to another very low point in his life.

Potiphar’s wife saw Joseph as attractive and tried to persuade him into a compromising position. Yet, Joseph refuses, and when he continues to refuse, she accuses him of something he does not do, and Joseph is thrown into prison.

But, “the Lord was with Joseph.” At least that is what we are told.

If we were to visit Joseph in prison, some of us well-meaning Christian folk might say, “Don’t worry Joseph, God’s got a plan.” “This has happened for a reason.” “Trust in God’s providence.”

I get providence from a theological perspective, and I think there is indeed something comforting, even perhaps necessary for us, when we hold to the idea that despite what happens in our lives, God has everything under control.

Yet, I wonder what Joseph thought as he experienced the epitome of the up and down life. You see, we must be reminded that we are in a privileged position that Joseph was not in. We get to see behind the curtain of his story, as the narrator tells us three times about how the Lord was with Joseph.

It is easy for us as readers to see the whole story and see how everything worked out, and how God, as the story emphasizes, was with Joseph.

But, how did Joseph feel about God’s providence during these low points?

Here was a guy who seemed to understand, at least through the dreams he had, that God was going to do great things for him. Yet, he is thrown into a hole by his own brothers and then sold into slavery in Egypt, where he ends up in prison. Not exactly evidence of God’s good providence.

If our good Christian were to say those nice Christian things about God’s good providence to poor Joseph as he is in prison, Joseph might respond, “If this is God’s providence, then it is not so much good as it is scandalous.”

And who could blame him, for we have all been at periods in our lives when we cannot see behind the curtain, when all that we thought was right with our lives was shaken, and our lives were turned upside down.

Out of nowhere comes something that almost destroys us, and we must wonder, if God, in God’s good providence, saw this coming, then why did God not stop that something from happening?

It is certainly a philosophical question of theodicy, but more personally, these times always present, if we are honest with ourselves, existential crises of faith. And yet, in the depths of our hearts and souls, it is possible that during these times we become aware of the presence of God even in the lowest points of our lives.

Although suffering will come our way, as it came Joseph’s way, we must hold onto to what we might interpret from the story of Joseph as not only a statement of fact, but also one of promise: The Lord is with us.

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