Kingís Acre Church, 22 July 2001
I was at Primary School, I think, when I first heard the story of Joseph and his dreams.† But these old friends bear looking at periodically, I find, to see what can be said about them.
You know, of course, the basic story of Joseph.† How his ability to interpret dreams preceded his ability to be tactful about it, and so he made his brothers loathe him.† Not helped by the fact that he was his fatherís favourite.† So the brothers plotted to kill him, but Reuben persuaded them to throw him into a pit rather than actually stab him.† Reuben had planned to rescue him afterwards, but before he could, Judah suggested that they sell Joseph to the Midianite merchant-caravan that just happened to be passing.† So they did - Reuben was pretty distraught when he discovered the pit empty.† They allowed their father to think that Joseph had been torn to pieces by a wild animal.
Joseph, meanwhile, had been sold into the household of Potiphar, one of Pharaohís top officials.† And you remember how he got on very well, until he was falsely accused of rape and cast into prison.† And while he was there, his ability to interpret dreams was rediscovered.† He accurately said that Pharaohís chief cupbearer would be restored to office.† But, sadly, the cupbearer forgot to mention Joseph to Pharaoh, which he had promised he would, and Joseph was left to languish in prison for another two years, until our story starts.
And, of course, Pharaohís dreams were a warning from God of a famine to come.† There would be seven years of plenty, first, and then seven years of famine.† Joseph emphasises the necessity of saving at least one-fifth of each good yearís produce, so that there would be ample food during the lean years.† And Pharaoh appoints him overseer to ensure that this is done, and to ensure the fairness of the distribution.
And, as we know, Josephís long-lost brothers eventually come seeking grain, as do many from the surrounding areas, and Joseph tests them, to see whether they have changed, or whether they would be willing to get rid of his youngest brother, Benjamin, as easily as they got rid of him.† And eventually there is a large, emotional family reunion, and the whole clan settles in Egypt, which turns out, in the end, to be a Big Mistake.
So what, then, is this story about?† Apart from being a good yarn, that is.
Firstly, I think, it is about Godís provision for us.
What I find fascinating is that there is no thought that the seven lean years will not happen.† They donít try to persuade God not to let them happen.† Other times in the Bible, people do argue with God, to great effect - look at Abraham about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, or Moses, offering his own life to God if that would lift his anger about the golden calf.† But this time they donít.† They accept that the next fourteen years are going to need special care and attention, and they get on with the job of building granaries to store their grain.
We are not told why the famine had to happen.† If we assume that it was in order to reunite Joseph with his family, that seems remarkably like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut!†
We are rather used, I fear, to thinking of God as all-powerful, which, of course, he is, and we forget that God actually limits his power so as not to interfere with our freedom.† We are free to make our mistakes, to pollute our planet, to mistake a cigarette-lighter for a gun and shoot the person carrying it.† And so on.†
In our day, famine is largely caused by human greed and war.† And I notice that Pharaoh was willing to sell grain to folk from neighbouring countries who hadnít known about the famine, so hadnít been able to make provision.† I wonder what that says to us in a world where one-tenth of the population consume nine-tenths of the resources.†
We donít know what caused the famine in Egypt, and we donít know why God was unable, or unwilling to stop it.† But God had a Plan B.† The famine was going to happen, so in order to minimise suffering, this was what to do.† And Pharaoh and Joseph, between them, did it, and probably hundreds of lives were saved as a result.
God always has a Plan B.† When things start going pear-shaped, we often cry out to God and demand to know why, what has gone wrong, what did we do wrong?† But perhaps that isnít what we need to be asking - okay, often we find we do need to ask it, for our own satisfaction, but maybe itís the wrong question.† Maybe the question has to be, okay God, what is Plan B?
The thing is, when things go wrong, God is always there in the middle of it.† We often donít know why God has allowed it to happen - why do people get cancer and die before their time?† We donít know.† Any more than we know why some people live what might seem to be long after their time, a fine intellect destroyed, even a strong and vibrant faith in God all gone.† We donít know why a little girl can wander away from her teachers and friends and drown - but maybe we do know that when that happens, Godís heart is the first to break.
Human beings, alas, are the cause of many of the ills in this world.† We are often unwilling to give up any part of our lifestyles in order to make things better for those who are less fortunate.† The trouble is, there are so many of us!† For so many centuries we thought God wanted us to breed as copiously as possible, not seeing the problems we were storing up for ourselves.† But there again, I am sure God has a Plan B.† Maybe, even, we humans were Plan B after the dinosaurs perished!† Who knows?† And if our planet does suffer from global warming, if the sea levels do rise and drown most of this country and a great many others as well, then God will have a Plan B for humanity, even now.
But we live our lives as individuals, and it is on that level we are most concerned with Godís provision for us.† And even there, we know God always has a Plan B, although we often only see it in retrospect.† The thing to do is to go on trusting God.† We have to live through the dark times - there donít seem to be any short cuts.†
Joseph doesnít seem to have given up hope, throughout those long dark years when, first of all, his brothers abandoned him and then he was accused of something he didnít do.† Even in prison he remembered that his gift of interpreting dreams came from God, and was careful to say so.†
He seems to have grown up in prison, which is perhaps just as well.† Maybe, had he been able to refuse Potipharís wife more tactfully, she would not have been humiliated and cried ďRapeĒ on him.† Certainly he seems to have learnt how to be a good administrator, how to earn peopleís respect - the same respect that he had thought, when he was a boy, was his birthright.† The time in prison wasnít wasted, because he learnt skills he needed later.†
We know, St Paul tells us, that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.† And this was certainly true for Joseph.† And I have often found it to be true in my own life, as Iím sure you have.
I have read, somewhere, that a better translation would be ďGod works all things together for goodĒ, or even ďGod intermingles all things together for goodĒ.† I rather like the latter, because it accepts that the bad times are bad.† We arenít required to be happy all the day, like the choruses tell us!† Itís okay to grieve, to be upset, to be bewildered.
But itís not okay to despair.† Despair says to God, ďEither you canít help or you wonít.Ē† And that is just so not true!† God will help, although not always in the way we expect.
Sometimes we want to yell at God to get his finger out, to put a stop to whatever particular piece of suffering we, or the world, is going through.† I reckon thatís okay, too.† We will often not see Plan B, except in retrospect.† But we must realise that there will be a Plan B, and some time, maybe not for five years, we will see how God has worked all things together for our good.
For Joseph, being in prison must have been terrible, and it must have been hard not to despair after Pharaohís cup-bearer forgot he was there.† But God didnít forget him, and God doesnít forget us, either.† God was making provision for the famine which, at that time, was nearly ten years away.† Who knows what God isnít preparing us for, right now this minute?† Itís not always easy to trust, but letís at least be open to that possibility!†