Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Sunday School Stories: Joseph, Part I
You all know I have three brothers. And like any good set of siblings, we have often indulged in a game of ʺwho is Mom's favorite?ʺ We all both claim and accuse each other of holding this title in some way. Jim is the oldest, so he had six whole years of undivided parental attention before I came along. I am the only girl, so obviously I am the real favorite. TJ had several health problems when he was born, so we all know he got the most coddling. And Todd – well, Todd is the baby, so he got everything, including my mother’s car, a gift that we will never let either of them live down. Spoiled. Then we figure Jim reclaimed the title by producing a grandchild, which is a totally sneaky way of winning favorite status. But of course, we all really know that while each of us has a different relationship with my mother, she loves us all equally. Completely, unconditionally, but with no hierarchy.
It may or may not surprise you to realize that this kind of equal love for children doesn’t seem to have much place in the bible. It always surprises me when people talk about biblical family values, because families in the bible are some of the most dysfunctional groups of relatives I've ever ready about. The family we encounter today is no exception. The Bible explicitly states in more than one place that a parent prefers or loves one child more than another, that a spouse loves one spouse more than the others. Sometimes, people in the Bible play favorites. And that’s where we start out today.
Last week we read about Jacob wrestling the angel or God or a man who symbolized God, or something like that! Jacob, we heard, was on his way to reconcile with his brother Esau, who he had tricked out of his firstborn birthright by pretending to be Esau in front of their failing father Isaac. This week we find Jacob settling down in the land of Canaan with his family – his wives Rachel and Leah, their maids Bilhah and Zilpah, and between the four women, twelve sons of Jacob, and, oh yeah, a daughter named Dinah.
But our story quickly focuses in on Joseph, one of Jacob's younger sons with wife Rachel. We learn a couple things about Joseph. He is his father’s favorite. Jacob loves Joseph the most, because he is the child of his favorite wife, Rachel. Jacob doesn’t try to hide his preference. To show it clearly, in fact, Jacob gives him a coat, described in different translations as long-sleeved or of many-colors. Either way, the point is, it sets Joseph apart from his other brothers. On top of that, we find out that Joseph – well, he is a tattle-tale. He and his brothers are all shepherds, but Joseph sees fit to run back and make a bad report about the work all his older brothers are doing. Naturally, this, coupled with his favorite-status, doesn’t endear him to his brothers.
But there’s still more. Joseph has these dreams. He dreams that that he and his brothers are binding sheaves in the field, and suddenly his sheave stands straight up in the air, while the others bow to his. And then he dreams that the sun, moon, and eleven stars, one for each brother, are all bowing down to him. Brilliantly, Joseph shares these dreams with his brothers. And our text says that the brothers hate Joseph and cannot even speak peaceably to him. No reaction from Joseph is recorded. We don’t know if he is just oblivious to their feelings or what. He certainly doesn’t seem to act very wisely. In fact, Joseph seems like a spoiled brat.
Eventually, it becomes too much for the rest of his brothers. One day when Jacob is coming for them as they are pasturing their flocks, they decide to kill Joseph. ʺHere comes this dreamer,ʺ they say. ʺLet’s see what will become of his dreams.ʺ Reuben, one of the brothers, talks them out of outright killing Joseph, but Judah, another sibling, persuades the group that they might benefit most if they sell him into slavery. So they sell Joseph to some Ishmaelites, and they take him away to Egypt.
We will hear more about Joseph next week. But what can we learn from this part of the story? Frankly, Joseph isn’t really very likable, is he? Andrew Lloyd Webber may have made him into the hero in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and maybe we root for him by the end of the story. But really, Joseph is not that likable. I obviously don’t recommend murder or selling your troublesome family members into slavery. But who is surprised that the brothers can’t stand Joseph? He is the clear favorite of their father, and Joseph can’t seem to stop rubbing that fact in their face.
I told my mother that I was going to title today's sermon something like, You know that Obnoxious Person you Really don’t like? Yeah, God is Calling Them. Catchy, right? But hopefully it conveys my point. Here is the hard truth about the scriptures, and what they tell us about who God chooses. God does not choose the most faithful, the nicest, the most devout, the most well-behaved, the most-loving. It is a rare event in the Bible for us to read about any particularly positive attributes of people God chooses for amazing tasks. Instead, it seems, God chooses liars and adulterers and cheaters, even murderers, and even snotty siblings. How frustrating, right? That means that if we think over the people who we don’t really like very much – we have to admit that there is a chance that God will be using them to do God's work in the world. One of the hard lessons we have to learn, though, and I’m serious about this, is that God is often working through people we don’t like! We have to learn to look beyond the faults we find in others because if we can’t, we might miss where God is at work.
Hardly seems fair, does it? I've shared with some folks here that a line from a Newsboys song goes like this: ʺWhen we get what we don’t deserve, it’s a real good thing. When we don’t get what we deserve, it’s a real good thing.ʺ Although we value fairness a lot in our culture, God isn’t really into fairness. I have a lot more to say about that in some other sermon! But we should be thankful that God isn’t all about what is fair, because sometimes we forget that if God was being fair to us, giving us what we deserved to get – well, maybe we, sinners, makers of bad decisions, hurters of others, ignorers of God's calls and commands, wouldn’t really deserve much actually, or wouldn’t want what we did deserve. What we receive from God then, instead of fairness, is mercy, love, compassion, forgiveness, which is infinitely more valuable to me. We don’t often deserve it. But thankfully it comes as a gift, free, without price. So the second lesson we have to learn from Joseph is this. Sometimes it turns out we might be acting like the spoiled child. We might be behaving in a way that causes someone else to wonder what God sees in us! But our bad behavior won't get us off the hook either. God loves us anyway and calls and commands and uses us anyway too.
Next week, we will see where God continues to be at work in the story of Joseph’s life, and the story of his brothers too. But in the meantime, I want you to think about the people that, for whatever reason, you find a little challenging to be around. And start looking for God at work through them. You might be amazed at what you find. And maybe, because of grace, you will start finding God at work in you too. Amen.