We wrap up our Advent series today with the last of the Genesis ancestors of Jesus—the story of Joseph. In many ways I think Joseph’s story is the quintessential biblical story: a prototype, if you will, for the Gospel—the good news that God overcomes the evil of humanity in surprising and powerful ways. \
We have seen this at work—from God’s saving Noah in the Ark and deciding to stick with rebellious humanity rather than destroy it, to God’s covenant with Abraham, to God sticking with Jacob despite his deception and manipulation. We have seen the human family with all of its foibles. When we read these pages, we see ourselves…but moreover, we see a God who works with us and heals us.
In a sense we’ve seen the human family take its lumps and lick its self-inflicted wounds with God’s help. These biblical characters are scarred, and scars touch our memories.
We all have them. Some are on the surface and some, scars of the emotional kind, run deeper. Some are the result of accidents, and some are the result of a deep woundedness of the soul. Scars remind us that life isn’t always fair and that it can be very painful – physically, spiritually, emotionally. Every time we see them, feel them, we remember…
When I read the story of Joseph in Genesis, I think of it as a scar story – the story of a young man’s woundedness and recovery, but even more so a story of hope.
The book of Genesis takes 13 chapters to tell his story. We read for you the beginning and the end of it this morning, but here’s the Reader’s Digest version:
You’ll recall from last week that Jacob had 12 sons with 4 different wives – where we get the 12 tribes of Israel. Joseph was the first son born to Rachel, Jacob’s favorite – the one for whom he had labored for 14 years to receive her hand in marriage. Consequently, Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son among all the sons. So pleased is Jacob that he makes Joseph a many-colored coat with long sleeves (indicates that he wasn’t really expected to work!).
Joseph’s brothers are jealous, of course. Add to that the fact that Joseph has dreams about his brothers bowing down to him and you can see the sibling rivalry really get going. When Joseph goes out to check up on his brothers at his father’s request, they finally decide to get rid of him – they strip him of his garment, throw him in a cistern, and eventually sell him into slavery. They tell their father that he was eaten by a predator, presenting him the coat smeared with goat’s blood (this was the time before CSI and DNA, of course).
Joseph is brought as a slave to Egypt, sold to a man named Potiphar. After a while, though, Potiphar saw what a good servant Joseph had become and eventually put him in charge of the household. Genesis makes it clear that Joseph is successful—even getting a new robe. By now, Joseph was growing into a handsome man and attracted the attention of Potiphar’s wife, who secretly propositions Joseph to engage in an affair with her. When he refuses on moral grounds, however, she become furious and falsely accuses him of raping her, and has him thrown into prison.
There he languishes for years in incarceration, but even in the deep, dark dungeon he makes a favorable impression on the prison warden, who puts him in charge of the other prisoners, interpreting their dreams and then, after a long time, is called to interpret the dreams of the Pharoah, the ruler of all of Egypt. When Joseph interprets Pharoah’s dreams, preparing the land for a great famine to come, Pharoah makes him prime minister in charge of social and economic affairs, managing the resources of the empire. Once again, he is given a tunic with long sleeves…
When the famine strikes it hits hard in Joseph’s homeland of Canaan, where his father and brothers still reside. They hear that there is grain stored up in Egypt, so they decide to go down and buy some grain, not knowing who it was they would be buying it from!
Imagine Joseph now standing over his brothers – scarred for life by what they had done to him. He has every right to play the victim – he is one, after all and we’d expect him to want some payback. And we’d expect that because we live in a culture of victimhood. (Reminds me of a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon: First panel Calvin says, “Nothing I do is my fault. My family is dysfunctional and my parents won’t empower me. Consequently, I’m not self-actualized. My behavior is addictive, functioning in a disease process of codependency. I need holistic healing and wellness before I’ll accept any responsibility for my actions. I love the culture of victimhood!” To which Hobbes replies: “One of us needs to stick his head in a bucket of ice water!)
But Joseph refuses to give in to victimhood. He does not view his physical and emotional scars as reason for despair or revenge. He sees them, incredibly, as signs of God’s providence.
Look at how Joseph points to his scars in Genesis 45:1-8, the account of the reunion with his brothers:
“Joseph couldn’t hold himself in any longer, keeping up a front before all his attendants. He cried out, “Leave! Clear out—everyone leave!” So there was no one with Joseph when he identified himself to his brothers. But his sobbing was so violent that the Egyptians couldn’t help but hear him. The news was soon reported to Pharaoh’s palace.
Joseph spoke to his brothers: “I am Joseph. Is my father really still alive?” But his brothers couldn’t say a word. They were terrified – speechless—they couldn’t believe what they were hearing and seeing.
“Come closer to me,” Joseph said to his brothers. They came closer. “I am Joseph your brother whom you sold into Egypt. But don’t feel badly, don’t blame yourselves for selling me. God was behind it. God sent me here ahead of you to save lives. There has been a famine in the land now for two years; the famine will continue for five more years—neither plowing nor harvesting. God sent me on ahead to pave the way and make sure there was a remnant in the land, to save your lives in an amazing act of deliverance. So you see, it wasn’t you who sent me here but God.”
Wow. Here is Joseph, looking back at the events of his life with a new vision – the scars of pain, rejection, and separation are, for him, only part of the story. In Genesis 50:20, he sums it up: “You intended to harm, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” David Seamands, one of my professors at Asbury, called this 50:20 vision…Genesis 50:20 vision. What the world, the human plan, the human scheme planned as an evil, self-serving act – God took and used for good, preserving life!
One of the persistent puzzles of the human experience is how we deal with the evil in our world. As humans in a fallen world, we seem to live lives of constant jeopardy – vulnerable to a wide range of evil – sickness, crime, destruction of families, oppression – you know them all because you live them every day. It’s quite a legitimate question to ask or even cry out, “Where is God in all this?”
Joseph’s 50:20 vision tells us that despite all evidence to the contrary, God is at work. God is making things good despite the evil.
Does this mean that every tragedy we experience has a silver lining? That all evil is really good, and that all our suffering is somehow being orchestrated by God?
Not at all.
The world is full of senseless violence, horrifying hatred and a whole range of actions and attitudes that attempt to thwart the will of God.
It would be bad theology to assert that the Lord is orchestrating all this evil, as the tension of life builds toward some grand and glorious ending. But one thing that both the Old and the New Testaments teach us is that God has the power to transform human evil into divine good.
Notice that the end of Genesis has the same message as the beginning. In Genesis 1, God creates the universe, the earth, and us and calls it all “good”. By chapter 3, humans have rejected God’s goodness – but despite all human efforts to the contrary, God’s intention for good overcomes. He used the slavery of Joseph to save a family, and he transformed the death of Jesus into the salvation of the world. Even the apostle Paul, languishing in prison, writes to the Romans “For we know that all things work together for good to them that love God and are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:20)
Never should we ask for a scar to be removed. Joseph didn’t, Jesus didn’t, and neither should we. But God can create a life in which our wound is transformed into something good, and we are propelled toward new and abundant life.
That’s 50:20 vision. How do we get it?
In his classic book The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen reflects on what it means to minister in a hurting and alienated society. He recommends prayer, not as a “decoration of life,” but as the breath of human existence. A Christian community is a healing community, says Nouwen, not because wounds are cured and pains are alleviated, but because wounds and pains become openings or occasions for a new vision – 50:20 vision.
How about you? What’s your vision? Take a look at your scars: physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual. How can they be openings or occasions for new visions? Joseph looked at the scar of his sale into slavery, and saw that God had a saving plan for his life. Perhaps some abuse you have suffered will enable you to serve people who have been abused; maybe some hurt you have endured will equip you to ease the pain of another; it could be that some loss you have experienced will put you in a powerful position to assist those who are grieving.
We can find meaning in our scars. As we gather here the week before Christmas, we celebrate the coming of the baby in the manger, but we look ahead, too, to the reality of the Cross and the Resurrection. We remember that when Jesus came out of the tomb, he still had scars. Phillip Yancey, in his book The Jesus I Never Knew explains:
“Presumably [Jesus] could have had any resurrected body he wanted, and yet he chose one identifiable mainly by scars that could be seen and touched. Why?
I believe the story of Easter would be incomplete without those scars on the hands, the feet, and the side of Jesus. When human beings fantasize, we dream of pearly straight teeth and wrinkle-free skin and sexy ideal shapes. We dream of an unnatural state: the perfect body. But for Jesus, being confined in a skeleton and human skin WAS the unnatural state. The scars are, to him, an emblem of life on our planet, a permanent reminder of those days of confinement and suffering.
I take hope in Jesus’ scars. From the perspective of heaven, they represent the most horrible event that has ever happened in the history of the universe – the crucifixion – Easter turned into a memory. Because of Easter, I can hope that the tears we shed, the blows we receive, the emotional pain, the heartache over lost friends and loved ones, all these will become memories, like Jesus’ scars. Scars never completely go away, but neither do they hurt any longer.”
The story of Genesis is that God is always working for good despite human efforts to the contrary. God has stuck with us, and seeks to work in and through us. No matter what we are facing, we can be sure that somehow, someway, God is still working for good.
That’s 50:20 vision!