Scripture: Genesis 37:1-28
37 Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. 2 This is the story of the family of Jacob.
Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. 3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves.[a]4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
5 Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. 6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. 7 There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.” 8 His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.
9 He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” 10 But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?” 11 So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.
12 Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 13 And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am.” 14 So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron.
He came to Shechem, 15 and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” 16 “I am seeking my brothers,” he said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” 17 The man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. 18 They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19 They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” 21 But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22 Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. 23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves[b]that he wore; 24 and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
25 Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. 26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed. 28 When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.
Close your eyes for a moment and think about your teen years. Can you remember when you were seventeen? For some of us, that may bring back good memories of a time when we were thinner, or stronger, or had more hair. Maybe a time when we enjoyed fun times with friends. Maybe we can remember the hopes and dreams we had for what we thought our future would be. Or, maybe remembering that time brings back painful memories – maybe there were difficulties at home, or in school, or fitting in with friends. Maybe we’d rather not revisit those days when we struggled with acne or dating or passing algebra. For those of you who are near the age of seventeen now, I can only imagine how the addition of internet and smart phones have complicated the pressures on young people today. And personally, I can tell you that I would not go back to relive my teen years for anything in this world!
When I think back to when I was seventeen, I think about my senior year in high school. Some of the good things I remember about that year is that it was finally my turn to be Captain of the Color-Guard, Dance Captain of my Show Choir, Editor of the school Literary Magazine, and secretary of the Student Body Government. I had achieved some things I had worked toward for all of high school. But I also remember that, maybe even because of some of these achievements, I didn’t have many friends that year. There was a rift that occurred in my friend group, and for most of the year, it felt like my friends had turned against me. And I’m sure I didn’t help the situation by avoiding them as much as it felt like they were avoiding me. But what caused even more harm to our friendship that year is that I unfortunately got caught up in a prank war with them by joining in the pranks of another group of students who considered my former friends their rivals. Needless to say, there were some mistakes made, and maybe some of those pranks went a little too far. So when you think about your teen years, are there mistakes you made that still haunt you today? Maybe you were the one on the receiving end of someone else’s mistake. And those of you who are living through your teen years right now, one thing I would say to you is just hang in there. It does get better.
All of us have to survive those teen years in order to grow up and become the adults we are meant to be. Some of us leap into adulthood, ready to leave those immature days behind us. Others of us may have to be dragged into adulthood kicking and screaming, not wanting to leave those carefree days behind and face new responsibilities. But growing up is a part of life; and our lives themselves become these stories of what happened and how. So today we are beginning a worship series called “What’s Your Story?”
We all have a story! Some of us may think that no one else really wants to know our story – that no one would write a novel or make a movie about our life. But here’s the thing – our lives are not neutral; they are telling a story whether we realize it or not. And I think that every single one of us has a captivating story to tell – not the ones we edit and post on Facebook, that make it seem that we are living these perfect lives! But our real story – the one that is absolutely unique and unlike any other, and one that, when told, has the power to free us and others! In worship we’re going to be studying the story of the family of Jacob, or Israel, which centers on his favorite son Joseph. We’re going to learn about family dysfunction that included rivalry, deceit, human trafficking, seduction and imprisonment! But we’re going to see how, even within this human family full of human failings, God was present and working to bring hope out of despair, and to fulfill the promise of bringing wholeness and reconciliation in the end.
There’s a small group study that goes along with this series. You’ll see information on your connect card about the two different times these groups will be meeting. I encourage all of you to try to get involved in one of these groups, because with the tools in the study, you’ll have the chance to go back through your own life to discover the times when God has also been present in your life, and maybe to discover something new about ways God has worked through the events and circumstances in your life to bring you where you are today. And even more, how you can more intentionally begin to partner with God, to co-write the next chapter in your story, and then begin to share that story in a way that gives others hope for God’s working in their lives, too!
I want you to take a moment and think about any unresolved conflict with another person or group of people that may exist in your life today. And hold that in your mind as I lead us in prayer.
Creating and Loving God, we know that you have created all things for good, and yet in our humanness, we spoil your peace and harmony with our selfish actions that cause others pain and strife; in our immaturity we think more of ourselves than our neighbors. We pray that you will guide our hearts and minds today as we consider our own stories of conflict along with the story of Joseph and his brothers. Open our hearts to receive your Spirit of gentleness and peace, and move us to actions that heal and restore. In the name of Jesus we pray, Amen.
Before we dig into Joseph’s story, I want us to think for a moment about the nature of stories. Some of the best stories are those that begin with an unlikely hero. Usually, in the beginning, everything is good. And then, something unexpected happens to send this unlikely hero on a journey or quest to solve this problem that has occurred. Along the way the hero meets obstacle after obstacle, which makes us cheer for our hero even more. And in the overcoming of these obstacle, the hero will likely discover something new about him or herself which helps the hero finally complete the journey or quest. Joseph Campbell was an American scholar who studied the structure of the great stories of literature, and helped to formalize what we now recognize as the structure of the mono-myth, or the hero’s journey. He says that the hero’s story always has three acts: Act I is the Call to Adventure – we meet the hero who is confronted with a problem or conflict to solve; Act II is full Plot Twists – where the hero begins to encounter new challenges; and Act III involved Embracing a New Identity – our hero becomes more self-aware, having grown and changed because of the journey, and now fully accepts his or her new role in order to resolve the original conflict or problem. I’m sure you can think of many stories and movies that follow this pattern: Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The Hunger Games, just to name a few.
As Christians, we can think about the life of Jesus and it also seems to follow this pattern of the hero. Jesus himself became the Word, became the ultimate Story so that we would know God more. And Jesus even used stories as his preferred method of preaching and teaching. Think of all the parables Jesus told as a way of telling us more about God, about being a disciple, and about the kingdom of God. The Bible, which is a collection of many stories, many of which were passed down orally for many, many generations before finally being written down during the period when the Israelites were living in exile, can be read as one long story – God’s story of creation and re-creation.
In the beginning, God created everything & everything was good – it was as it was intended to be. Everything was green, the earth was teeming with life; the water was clean, the air was clean, the soil was clean, and humans lived in harmony with each other and with God. But with the gift of free will came the ability to make choices that were not good, that were not what God intended, and our world fell into chaos. So the Bible records the story of how God has worked through specific people at specific times and in specific places to try to restore what was broken. And our lives today are a continuation of that story. The story isn’t over – God isn’t finished working to restore the world. After Jesus, God sent the Holy Spirit to form God’s church, the body of Christ in the world; at our baptisms, we were given God’s Spirit to work within each of our individual lives, as well, so that we can co-create with God; so that through God’s church and God’s people, God’s Spirit is still actively creating and recreating today!
So, let’s think about the beginning of Joseph’s story for a moment. When we meet our unlikely hero, he is a seventeen-year-old who seems to be kind of bratty; he’s the youngest (so his brother Benjamin is probably either about to be born, or is still an infant), he is sent to spy and tattle on his less-favored brothers to his father, and his brothers are not so secret in their jealousy and resentment toward him. They could not speak peaceable to him – they withheld their shalom from him. Think back to that conflict in your life – are there people right not that you avoid speaking to? People that, maybe when you see them in the grocery store, or at work, or maybe even in church, you turn and go out of your way to avoid them? That was Joseph’s situation with his brothers – now these were brothers from another mother – literally. Jacob had two wives and two concubines, and Joseph was the first-born of the favorite wife, which made him the favorite son. See the dysfunction? And in addition to this, Joseph has been having these dreams – dreams that would suggest that Joseph is going to be in a position of authority over his older brothers, even over his father. And it doesn’t really sound like there was any humility on Joseph’s part when he dropped this little bit of forecasting.
Maybe partly because of Joseph’s immaturity, and partly because of his father’s favoritism, Joseph seems to only be able to interpret the dreams in terms of how it elevates him over his brothers, without really thinking about how it may hurt their feelings. I wonder if any of you can relate to Joseph in this part of the story. I can look back at my seventeen-year-old self and see very clearly how my pride and arrogance got in the way of my friendship with others. And I’m certain there are times today when I revert to stages of immaturity, especially in my faith, which cause my thoughts and actions to be more me-centered. When we’re not able to see past the nose on our own face, it’s very hard to notice the feelings or needs of others around us. When we get stuck in self-ish thinking, we can convince ourselves that our own needs, or aspirations are more important that someone else’s. So a lesson we can all learn from Joseph here is to ask for more humility in order to put our wants and needs into perspective, and to ask God to lift our eyes so that we can see the needs and desires of others in the same way that God sees them – and remember that sometimes we are the answer to someone else’s prayers.
These dreams seem to be the straw that break the camel’s back for Joseph’s brothers. The scriptures say that after this, Joseph’s brothers hated him even more! So they plotted to kill him! Can you imagine being full of so much jealousy, and hatred and resentment towards someone? We have to ask ourselves, why they would get so bent out of shape. And the answer is most likely fear. The brothers feared losing status, losing land, and losing wealth. And they based this fear over an interpretation that wasn’t even accurate. So can you identify with the brothers at all? Have you ever experienced jealousy or resentment? Have you ever let fear of losing something cause you to feel hatred or wish harm on someone else? You know, there is a lot of tension in our country today. The whole country seems to be divided into a rivalry like Joseph and his brothers. And most likely, each one of us sees ourselves on one side or the other. In such extreme polarization, it can be very difficult to remain neutral, or to try to be a bridge between people with differing views.
It was poignant to be reminded at the funeral of Senator John McCain that no matter how much political forces may be working to appeal to our fears, or to fill our social media feeds and airwaves with vitriol and accusations of ‘fake news’ that we as individual Americans can choose not to take the bait. That we can choose to be united in the higher values and ideals of the Kingdom of God. McCain himself wrote, “We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil. We are blessed and are a blessing to humanity when we uphold and advance those ideals at home and in the world. We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.”
When we turn back to our story, Jacob – the wise father – seems to take a ‘wait-and-see’ approach to the message of Joseph’s dreams. Remember that Jacob, also called Israel, is the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, with whom God made a promise to make him the father of many nations, and to bless him so that through him all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Jacob himself had has own sibling rivalry with Easu and cheated him out of his birthright; and had even wrestled with God, but had seen that God continued to work through his family to fulfill the promises made to his ancestors. So Jacob was able to take a step back from the situation and put himself in someone else’s shoes, to contemplate the “what if” of the dreams. With his wisdom and experience, he could look back on his life and see how he had grown in his own faith and knew that God could be trusted to be faithful in his son’s lives as God had been faithful to him.
How many of you have gained this kind of insight and wisdom over the years? How many of you have been through struggles already when you knew the hand of God was working to bring you through it, or to bring healing or restoration on the other side of some tragedy or trauma or conflict? How many of you have had your faith strengthened by looking back and clearly seeing the times that God has come to your rescue? If that’s you, then you already have a wonderful story to tell – to share with someone else who may be right now feeling like Joseph at the end of our story – like someone who has been thrown into a pit! It could be a pit of depression, or financial worries; a pit of illness or loss. There are many pits that we may fall or be thrown into on our own life’s journey. But thankfully, this is only the beginning of Joseph’s story. And no matter where we are in our own life’s story, this doesn’t have to be the end of our stories, either.
Joseph didn’t roll over and give up when he was in the pit; and if we remain in our pits in life, then our stories remain unfinished – we don’t get to see the new stories that God wants to create through us because of who we are, and the world misses out on our story. So take courage – there is always the opportunity to turn the page and ask God to help you write a new chapter! God is with you, always working for good, always working to give you a future with hope. Next week, we’ll find out what happens when Joseph goes from the pit to the palace. There are pot twists ahead, so stay tuned! Let’s pray:
God of mercy and faithfulness, we thank you that no matter what mistakes we make, that you are still with us; that no matter what pitfalls may throw us of the course that you have set for us, that you are still there to set our feet back firmly on your path for our lives. God, we want to live a life that is worthy of your calling; we want to tell a great story with our lives that point others to you. So humble us, and give us courage to let you help us write the next part of our stories, that we may be a living witness to your love. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.