Striving to Make the Best of Messes
A sermon based on Genesis 50:5-21
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on September 17, 2017
by Rev. Scott Elliott
We are going to talk about Joseph this morning. You may not have thought of this before but Joseph played in the first tennis match mentioned in the Bible, because the Bible says he SERVED in Pharaoh’s COURT. And I never thought it before but, maybe that is why God’s people have long said “love all.” We also know from the Bible that Joseph is a good yardstick for us because we are told that Pharaoh made a RULER out of him.
Of course those are not really meanings found in the Bible– Joseph did not play tennis, nor was he literally a measuring stick. I say “of course” because I sometimes hear people claim we UCCers do not know the Bible very well or don’t talk much about the Bible. I have even heard from time to time that I do not preach on the Bible.
It is my opinion that these assertions are off the mark because, among other things, every week, all year long, we hear at least one Bible lesson and usually at least one Psalm. Plus I often also read a children’s version of the lesson, and, as those of you who attend regularly know, I always preach at length and in depth on a Bible lesson– I do that 48 weeks a year. On top of which our wonderful Sunday School class teachers lead Bible oriented discussions and our music and anthems and hymns in one way or another are always tied into the Scripture.
So despite the notion that the Bible is somehow not covered much among us UCCers, here in this church, we have considerable exposure to Scripture. We had even more this summer because on first Sundays we had further discussions on these Bible based sermons and the underlying texts–and we are continuing that practice into the fall and Adult Forum has decided to have other Bible related discussions. So if you want more Bible knowledge this church is a good place to be.
As part of my job of bringing in Bible verses and stories and in-depth exposition of Scripture I sometimes take a Bible person or story or theme and expand and summarize it in a sermon. One time you may recall I actually summarized the entire Bible up here in less than 20 minutes. This sermon is not so ambitious, but I do plan to use today’s Old Testament Lectionary text as a spring board for summarizing the story of Joseph from book of Genesis.
Joseph’s father was Jacob and his mom was Rachel. But Joseph grew up a mixed family in the way of the ancient Near East culture’s upper classes. See, his dad had two wives and two concubines. So Rachel was not Joseph’s only mother figure, he also had Leah and two concubines Bilhah and Zilpah as step mothers. Between these four women we are told there were twelve sons and one daughter. And among them Joseph had one full sibling his brother, Benjamin.
All the children except Benjamin were born – and mostly raised– outside of Cannan, the Promised Land. As most of you may recall Jacob had a falling out with Joseph’s uncle Esau over a birthright blessing and was in hiding for twenty years in a land called Haran. But God convinced Jacob to take his family back to the Promised Land. But only after literally wrestling with God does Jacob arrive and makes peace with Esau. Jacob’s name is then changed to Israel which means “one who struggles with God.” And it is out Israel’s sons that the twelve tribes of Israel come from.
After making peace with Esau, Jacob’s family settles in Canaan. It is there that Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin. Jacob adored Rachel and treated her and her sons favorably. As a part of that favoritism Joseph was given a special robe many of us remembering as many colored. But we are told Joseph also had gifts from God including psychic dreams and understanding them.
Like some adolescents, Joseph at 17 was a bit insensitive about his gifts. The fact he had them and was not humble about them, plus the fact he was favored by Jacob rubbed his older brothers the wrong way, and can be understood to have threatened their inheritance. As Jene’ in her wonderful sermon last month preached, this led to conflict. The brothers got pretty mean and considered killing Joseph, but after throwing him in a pit a brother named Judah led a conspiracy to instead sell him into slavery.
After Joseph is sold the brothers lie to Jacob telling him he was killed by an animal. They even present a animal blood spattered on the special robe to “prove” their lie. Potiphar, an Egyptian official, buys Joseph and enslaves him. Joseph makes the best of that awful situation and becomes a valued slave until trumped up charges get him thrown in prison.
As a prisoner Joseph also makes best of that terrible situation using his gift for dream interpretation with other inmates. Years later one of the prisoners mentioned Joseph’s gift with dreams when Pharaoh can’t figure his own out. Joseph is brought from prison to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams and does so warning of a coming wide-spread famine.
Then Joseph does his best as he works for Pharaoh figuring out how to store food and avoid food shortages during the famine. When the famine comes his plan works. Joseph becomes very powerful in Egypt as Pharaoh’s right hand man. During the famine Joseph’s brothers are sent to buy food from Egypt’s stores unaware the brother they sold into slavery oversaw it.
All the brothers except Benjamin, come before Joseph. While they do not recognize him, Joseph recognizes them, but doesn’t tell. At first Joseph acts revengefully. He falsely accuses them of spying putting them all in prison and then keeping one of them hostage he sends the others back for Benjamin. When they return with Benjamin, Joseph falsely claims Benjamin is a thief and threatens to enslave him as punishment. Judah – the brother who instigated Joseph’s enslavement– begs to be enslaved in Benjamin’s place instead. At this, Joseph weeps and finally discloses who he is. He then gives the astonished brothers food and riches to take back home.
The brothers go home and then bring Jacob to see his long lost son Joseph. Jacob moves to live in Egypt, and before Jacob dies he passes on to Joseph and Joseph’s sons the family covenant with God that Jacob got from Isaac and Isaac got from Abraham. When Jacob dies Joseph lovingly takes his body back to be buried in the Promised Land.
Although Joseph returns to Egypt his dying instructions are for the family to one day get back to Canaan, the land God gave to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and them. 1
Our Lectionary lesson today contains the details of what transpired between the brothers after their father after Jacob died:
Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?”
So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.”
After the brothers say this, one of the most moving texts in the Bible follows. We are told Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept [and] fell down before him . . .” They fear now that their father is dead Joseph will get even with them for their sins against him. So they tearfully say on bended knee
“We are here as your slaves.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”
In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
That’s a very good way, the best way, for a wronged person to act, forgiving and caring and tending to the well being of others– even those who have done us grievous wrongs. Joseph’s response is so on the mark that we still talk about Joseph and his story because, at the end of day, he illustrates how to strive to make the best of all the messes that life doles out.
Joseph is not perfect, like most of us, he is not always humble and sometimes revengeful, but he works through his issues. Indeed he ends up in all the messes of his life eventually doing his best. This includes tending to the well being of others, even the foreign non-Jewish Egyptians who enslaved him, even his brothers who hated him and sold him into slavery. At the end of the day Joseph does his best in every mess.
And it is very important that we understand that is a primary directive and repeated message in the Bible. From Moses to Joseph to Job to Mary to Mary Magdalene to Peter to Paul to Jesus, think about it, they all strive to make the best of life’s messes. God calls them to that . . . and they comply. And God call us to exactly that too . . . and we . . . we are to comply. It is not just Joseph’s way. It is Jesus’ Way. It is God’s way. And, of course, it ought to be our way. That is an over arching lesson in the Bible and in our story today. It is our call is to strive to make the best of the messes that life throws us.
A line that gets perverted in the text today is when Joseph says “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” The perversion is the hear and preach this as meaning God caused and intended harmful actions for good. No! that is not right. God never ever intends a harmful act toward anyone. Ever. God is love. Love does not intend or desire harm.
What God – love– intends, desires and calls for is that in all the messes of life, including harmful choices and conduct by us and others we are to find our way to make the best we can of the situation, that is to say we called by God to make good out of the tough and dark events and places we encounter.
Just as God resurrects Christ from an awful violence, we are to strive to become phoenixes out of ashes . . . and make diamonds out of coal. And not because God wants ashes and coal and violence, but because they exist and the best choice is to resurrect, rise and make gems of our lives for us and for others, for God.
I’ve said this a number of times up here: “Life is messy.” I don’t care who we are, that is a truth. Life is messy and it always will be. Joseph’s story epitomizes this. His sins and the sins of his brothers and his slave owners are overcome because at the end of the day what Joseph chooses to do is strive to make the best of life’s messes. God calls Joseph to that and he complies. We can hear in Joseph’s story how he desires and tends to the well being others, those of other faiths, those of other peoples, those who wrong him. Those who act evilly. The result is that Joseph saves himself, he saves his brothers, he saves his family, he saves friends and he saves his enemies . . . And actually in the context of our story he can be understood to save the entire world.
The material gifts, Joseph was born with do not help, his robe and family wealth and favoritism are not what matters. It is the gifts God gave him and the efforts he makes to use them for good that turn all the messes into something else. Through his best efforts–with God by his side– he . . . made . . . good.
With every mess, with everything, in every moment, God is by our side and intends for us to do our best to make good of each moment no matter what . . . as good as can be made. We may stumble and not be humble. We may make wrong choices. Regardless of the past we are always called to best-ness in each new moment.
And hear me clearly, that does not mean that bad things are good, it means we must handle them in a good way– God’s way. In that way Joseph’s statement to his brothers is true: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good . . .” See all of this we do as people and a community of God (here in this church) is intended to be about relationships in the messiness of life.
Jesus’ Way– which he gets from the Old Testament teachings, is about doing our best in the mess. (The Old Testament lessons are very much infused in the New Testament lessons!) Jesus teaches us what Joseph models. They both provide peace through the tending to the well being of others doing the best in all the mess to bring love into the world.
And our lesson indicates – as many other lessons we cover indicate– that that love has no strings attached to it. So we know it is God’s love which Joseph is a conduit for. Right? He says to his very sinful brothers
“Do not be afraid! . . .have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
Joseph in the great messes of his life loves kindness and seeks justice and in so doing he learns to walk humbly with God. May we do the same. AMEN!
1. I based my summary on the latter half of Genesis with some help from another wonderful summary by Sparknotes found at
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