Sermon: The Unlikely Choice
The Unlikely Choice
Text: Gen. 37:1-4, 12-28
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 8-20-2017)
Cain and Abel took center stage last Sunday. Jacob and Esau were on stage the week before. Today, the spotlight is on Joseph with his coat of many colors. If the stories of Cain and Abel, and Esau and Jacob, left you scratching your head, then put on a hard hat this morning. For if God could put a protective mark on the sniveling murderer, Cain, and could build the future of the people of God on the back of the deceiving, scoundrel Jacob, it is even harder to grasp what God does with the obnoxious, repulsive, braggart Joseph.
In Andrew Lloyd Weber’s marvelous interpretation of the Joseph story, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the older brothers are incensed when Father Jacob gives young Joseph a coat of many colors. In the musical, Joseph twirls around his other brothers on stage wearing his new coat and singing:
I look handsome, I look smart
I am a walking work of art
Such a dazzling coat of colours
How I love my coat of many colours
It was red and yellow and green and brown
And scarlet and black and ochre and peach
And ruby and olive and violet and fawn
And lilac and gold and chocolate and mauve
And cream and crimson and silver and rose
And azure and lemon and russet and grey
And purple and white and pink and orange
As young Joseph struts across stage in Weber’s play and struts across time into the Cove sanctuary today, he leaves no one around him with a case of the warm fuzzies. He is a hard, if not impossible, person to like, much less to love. His father Jacob is not one of the easiest people in the Bible to love, but Joseph is far worse. He is a spoiled brat. Is there anyone more difficult to love than a first-class, strutting, spoiled brat?
Read on and the story only gets worse. Joseph not only boasts a coat of many colors, he boasts to his brothers a dream that is nothing less than offensive. In Joseph’s dream, his older brothers kneel before him as if he, their baby brother, were their king.
Joseph’s dream of dominance is the last straw for his brothers. If Father Jacob will not discipline Joseph, then his brothers will. When they conspire to kill Joseph and then end up selling him to a traveling band of Midianite slave traders, it is hard to feel sorry for Joseph. It is hard not to think, “Thank God. Finally, this arrogant, spoiled brat got a taste of what he deserves.”
That is just where the story catches us up short. For does anyone, even arrogant, spoiled, brat Joseph, deserve to be sold into slavery, to be treated with murderous hatred and disdain? Does anyone deserve to be torn from home and family without choice? As the story continues, this privileged, favorite son becomes an undocumented alien in Egypt. He arrives with no passport. No valid I.D. His language betrays him as an immigrant and his handsome looks do not miss the eyes of Potiphar’s wife and eventually land Joseph in jail. In short order, Joseph goes from favorite son to prized slave to illegal alien to unjust inmate.
As you read Abraham and Jacob and now Joseph’s stories, you hear little mention of God. God is a behind-the-scenes character, at best, who only occasionally steps on stage. God invites Abraham outside to number the stars as a sign of his future descendants and God wrestles with Jacob until dawn and re-names him “Israel.”
So where is God in the long, winding Joseph saga? Where is the God of justice when Jacob gives Joseph preferred treatment? Where is the God of wrath when his brothers threaten to kill and then sell Joseph into slavery? Where is the God of wisdom when Joseph is dealing with the uninvited advances of Potiphar’s wife? Look hard and you will find no mention of God throughout the Joseph saga.
It is not until the very end of the story when his brothers try to defend their indefensible behavior that the word “God” appears in the long Joseph saga. Through his dream interpretation, the feared illegal alien becomes a trusted national advisor to Pharaoh. And, in the ultimate irony, Joseph, the despised brother, is the one who saves his hateful brothers when their future is almost foreclosed. Joseph does not mince words. For the first time, God appears in this story as Joseph looks at his traitorous brothers and says: “The evil you planned to do me has by God's design been turned to good, to bring about the present result: the survival of a numerous people” (NJB).
Joseph has no problem naming evil, the evil of betrayal by his own brothers and the evil of slavery into which he was sold. It was evil that did not have two sides, as if the brother’s annoyance with Joseph somehow gave them the moral right to send this spoiled pest into slavery. And yet despite their evil intentions and actions, God redeems the situation and even redeems Joseph’s seemingly unredeemable brothers.
One reason I love the Joseph saga is precisely because God’s name is not plastered on every page of the story, detailing how God said this and how God did that. The authors of Genesis are willing to let us live with ambiguity and live into the mystery of why God would choose the annoying, self-centered Joseph to do much of anything, much less to be the one to save his own people.
Joseph’s story is an early biblical reminder never to underestimate God, never to decide who is qualified to be an agent of God’s redemptive purpose, never to give up on people who are hard to love, including ourselves, as if God were bound by our own emotional and moral palette. Of all the biblical stories, Joseph’s must be read from start to finish because it is in its entirety that we meet a God whose purpose will not be thwarted by ignorance or arrogance, by age or appearance, by class or position.
God will work God’s purpose out, be it through a pompous, favorite son who becomes a hated illegal alien or later, through a mighty king who becomes a lusting adulterer, and yet the very one who will be a distant ancestor of Jesus, or even later, through a young woman far from home who is great with child and will become the mother of our Lord or after the death and resurrection of Jesus, through a far right Jewish zealot who persecutes the church until by God’s grace he becomes the very voice of God to those whom he had been brought up to despise. Joseph is in the rich biblical company of unlikely choices by God.
Whenever I read the Joseph story, it rings true in terms of how I most often experience God. It is when I look back that I most clearly see God’s signature in a way that I could not see clearly at the time. It is not unlike the disciples at Emmaus after the risen Jesus has left the room that I too often find myself asking: “Did not my heart burn within me?”
The name of God may not appear on every page of the Joseph saga, but God is there working out a purpose that even Joseph can only recognize in the rear view mirror. In the past few pregnant weeks, I have found myself asking: “Where is God?” Where is God amid the tragedy and horror surrounding Charlottesville last weekend? Where is God in the dangerous international rhetoric of nuclear war? Where is God with untold and too often unseen victims of sexual abuse? Where is God with the chronically underemployed, much less those who can find no job? Where is God where cancer has grabbed hold of our bodies?
I cannot point to a specific location for God in response to all of the questions above. What I can do is commend that we read the story of Joseph again from start to finish. Read it and remember that ours is a God who is working God’s purpose out, God’s mysterious purpose, even through people like Joseph, and even through people like you and like me.
In these disturbing and divisive times, may we all hold fast to the final words of Joseph to his murderous brothers, “The evil you planned to do me has by God's design been turned to good.” May God take all that is evil within us and all that is evil around us and once again strip it of its grip on us and with resurrection power once more turn even evil into good.