Dream Big Despite Family Dysfunction - The Start of Joseph’s Story (Sermon Notes)

Sermon Notes / Produced by Individual TOW Project member
Joseph gen 37 sermon

This morning we begin a new series of services based on the life of Joseph as recorded in Genesis chapters 37-50. The story of Joseph has fascinated every generation of believers because it provides such a dramatic presentation of themes that we can all identify with. A kid whose mum dies in childbirth. Raised by his dad. Who dreams of accomplishing something significant with his life, but who gets into such strife with his brothers that they plan to kill him. At just age 17 he’s sold as a slave and dragged off to a foreign land. He suddenly starts to do well. Then he gets into strife with his boss when his boss’s wife accuses Joseph of trying to rape her. He’s condemned to spend years in prison. Once again he has to live with hopes awakened and then hopes dashed. It's pretty hard to see how Joseph continued to nurture those dreams through 13 years of increasing strife and misery. Then suddenly out of nowhere he’s elevated to power in Egypt so that its his brothers have to come crawling to him for help. Sweet revenge or mercy - what will it be?

Its such a great story full of raw passion and trickery, political conniving and sibling rivalry, love and hate, jealously, lust, ambition, courage and cowardice, judgement and grace - it's all there. In one sense Joseph is the hero, but the lead actor is really God - as through the twists and turns of Josephs story we also see God’s story unfolding. What seem to be such disastrous reversals from Joseph's point of view are turned into opportunities for God to advance his purposes. And so we are invited to examine and interpret our own stories in the light of these insights. Could it be that this same God is working his sovereign purposes out even in the twists and turns of our stories and even in spite of the personal struggles and wider political maneuverings and rumours of war that we live with? If ever we need reassurance about what faith looks like in the midst of adversity, then here's another example to put alongside the book of Job, for us to live in and be encouraged by.

And so today we’re thinking about the first full chapter of Joseph’s story as it's related in Genesis chapter 37. Two themes dominate the story of this chapter: The power of family and the power of dreams.

There is no question that the families that nurture us have a powerful influence on our lives. The role models that our parents provide for us imprint a strong stamp on our lives, and this is clearly evident in the life of Joseph. Although, when I say this sort of stuff as a preacher I feel like I am tiptoeing into a minefield. Many Christians today talk about the importance of family and the need for family values in a context where the view of nuclear family that they promote as being God’s biblical pattern doesn’t correspond very well with the actual circumstances of many people today. When we start talking about family in church, for some people it can feel more alienating than helpful. Moreover, it doesn’t correspond with the actual families that we meet in the Bible either.

The Bible presents us with all sorts of patterns of family life. Much more often we see some view of extended family, rather than a picture of mum and dad and two kids and a dog or cat and a backyard. Personally, I don’t believe we can talk about a typical family based on the pictures of families we meet in the Bible. I think we can talk about some principles that we are encouraged to apply in our families, but there is certainly not just one neat biblical pattern for families.

The patriarchal families of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob make that very plain. Abraham is talked about as the father of our faith and of Islam and Judaism too, a nomad married to Sarah whom he loves dearly and who yearns for children but for years is barren. In desperation, Sarah talks Abram into sleeping with her Egyptian maidservant Hagar in order to have a child. Only once she’s pregnant, Hagar and Sarah get into deep strife. Not exactly what we would promote as a model family here. When Sarah does get pregnant and Isaac is born, strife in the family is multiplied down generations. Here are the origins of the struggle between Muslims and Jews and Christians even today.

Isaac marries Rebekah in a marriage arranged for him by his dad Abraham. Isaac and Rebekah have twin boys: one is Jacob who will become Josephs dad, and the second Esau who is a hunter and outdoors man and who is his father’s favourite. Rebekah favours Jacob because he’s the one who gives her cuddles and stays home and helps with the cooking while Esau hives off all over the country. So Rebekah sets things up so that through deception Jacob gets the blessing that Isaac had prepared for Esau. A deep resentment grows between these twin brothers because of the way they have been forced to compete for their parents affection. Esau gets so mad that he plans to kill Jacob, and even turns against the father who had favoured him.

Favourtism and the unfair treatment that accompanies it inevitably give rise to jealously and resentment. And so it may seem strange when it comes to the story of Jacob and his own children to find him showing the same kind of favourtism to one son ahead of the others when he had suffered so much from the bad consequences of this himself. And yet we read this in Genesis 37:3-4

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. 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.

Of course there is also a long story behind this. Jacob as a young man fell in love with Rachel. But her father forced Jacob to work 7 years before he was allowed to get married, only for her father to substitute Rachel's less attractive sister Leah on his wedding bed and then force Jacob to work another 7 years for Rachel. But although it was Rachel that he really loved, it was Leah who had the children - 4 sons, in fact. Rachel was beside herself with grief, and so she got Jacob to sleep with her maidservant and produced 2 sons. I response Leah got Jacob to sleep with her maidservant so that she bore him another 2 sons. And then Leah produced another 2 sons and then a daughter. Whoever said the Bible was boring? These are the bits they don’t teach you in Sunday School. Even Susan Howatch never gets as racy as this.

Finally, we are told in Genesis 30:22 that God remembered Rachel and listened to her and opened her womb. Joseph was born with his name meaning “may he add.” So its not hard to see why Jacob loved Joseph so much. This was the long awaited first son of Jacobs first love, after so much anguish and disappointment.

Then suddenly Joseph and Jacob are really thrown into each others arms because as we read in Genesis 35:18 Rachel dies giving birth to a second son Benjamin. Jacob and Joseph find consolation in each other. Rachel got what she had yearned for for so long but then was suddenly denied the opportunity to enjoy it. The old man was grief stricken and Joseph was a living reminder of the one he had worked for so long and loved so much but now lost.

No wonder that Jacob lavished his love on Joseph then. But it was still a foolish thing to do if done at the expense of also loving his other sons. All our children need to know they are loved and special to us, even if it is in different ways for different children. We need to be careful because they are often so sensitive to unfairness, especially in these days of reconstituted families where the relationships get so complex and both parents and children feel pulled in different directions. Then again, they're not much more complex I suspect than the circumstances Joseph and Jacob lived in.

From this story, some lessons are very clear. Firstly, I would say forget polygamy. We'll leave the question of whether from a biblical point of view it can be justified or not to another occaision. Who wants to walk into the midst of the sort of competition for affection that Jacob found himself contending with? Not me anyway.

Secondly, there is no perfect family and we need to stop beating ourselves up because we don’t match up to some impossible ideal. With one notable exception, God’s work is not done through perfect people, just available people in spite of our imperfections. Some people seem to be trying so hard to be good parents that they would be better just relaxing and being human and letting their children be human too. It's not intensity that children crave, but intimacy and security - living in a safe and loving environment.

Thirdly, our children do inherit what we invest in their lives. On the positive side, I think this should provide us with a lot of reassurance, particularly in the area of faith journeys. It's so hard for us to know how much of what we think is important is really rubbing off on our children. We can get agitated about this, particularly as they go through those times of rebellion and asserting their own independent identities, and especially if they do it in a very determined and aggressive way as some are wont to do. It's so easy for us to think that all we have tried to do is wasted and had no effect. But its far too early to conclude that. I’m convinced that far more has been absorbed than is ever apparent at times like that. And moreover, it is often the fighters for whom those values will become most precious because they are the ones who really put them to the test.

In October I was involved in a series of seminars in Melbourne with a man called Alan Roxburgh. There was something he said there that disturbed me and I’m still thinking about. I’m sure there’s an element of truth in it, because to be honest its my own story too. He said “Kids who stay in church are boring. Kids who get out are bright and very interesting.”

He was talking about where the next generation of leadership is going to come from and who we should be looking to if we want it to be creative. I’ll leave you to ponder that. But my story says that we absorb far more of our parents faith than it seems at times. So parents don’t despair.

Also remember at the end of this chapter Joseph is just 17 and has been sold as a slave and is on his way to Egypt. How will his faith survive? There won’t be anyone in Egypt to reinforce it. What sort of deposit has been invested in him already? Well, as the story unfolds it turns out to be plenty. With God’s help it is more than enough. Not because he came from such such a remarkably model family - in many ways as we have already seen it was quite dysfunctional. I haven’t even mentioned the rape of Leah's daughter and all the murder that followed that, nor the fact that one of Josephs brothers ends up sleeping with his daughter in law because she dressed up like a prostitute by the side of the road. Gee there are some wild stories here and that one is the next chapter, Genesis 38.

But the point is this: there was all sorts of nasty stuff happening here, but there was also real faith too. God honours that, and we have to trust him that it does make a difference. Only then will we be free to let our children and young people find their own way without becoming excessively agitated and protective. That’s counterproductive with our attempts to control only pushing them further away. Sometimes we do have to learn to just let go and let God.

Right now as there are lots of students in the process of leaving home for the first time. There are also lots of parents anxious about these very issues. Some of those lessons about learning to let go aren’t easy. For those of you who are students, it is good to express appreciation for the homes from which you come and to know why parents worry, even as it also good that you do learn to find your own way in the world. Because family can be a mixed bag with another whole set of expectations and pressures that we need to set behind us. We are not only shaped by the best in our parents, but also by the shadow side: the compulsions and control mechanisms that try to bend us into shapes that we were never meant to be, and that cause us to act dysfunctionally, sometimes becoming just what we determined we would never be.

I hate those moments as a parent when you open your mouth to say something to your kids and it’s the voice of your mum or your dad that comes out of your mouth saying something that you once vowed you would never to say. Part of the shaping that we have inherited is the making of us, but another part will be the breaking of us if we don’t resist it. And resist we must where we hear the voice of Jesus calling us to become someone different to what the other voices say. Asking for discernment to recognise what the voice of God is saying among the clamour of other voices is one of the most important lessons we can learn. Otherwise we end up trying to live out obligations that have been heaped on us but without freedom or joy. Even when we realize this, it may require patience as some lessons take time to learn. It also requires courage when we are challenged to become someone we haven’t been before. It involves a struggle to break out of the straightjacket that we have found ourselves imprisoned in.

That’s where I think the other lesson from Joseph's story comes from: Nurturing a dream for a life of significance. I think that we all need dreams to live for. Jacob obviously encouraged in Joseph a sense of destiny. He treated Joseph as special and children need that although not in the sort of way that invites resentment from other members of the family as it did here. Joseph clearly dreamed dreams that reinforced this sense of being specially selected, dreams which he told his brothers about. You can certainly question the wisdom of this, especially when we’ve already been told in Genesis 37:2 that Joseph had got his brothers backs up by telling the father about the bad things they had done. Was he just a tell tale or did he have a precocious moral sensitivity? I’m inclined to think both. He clearly does exhibit a strong sense of right and wrong in the story that we will explore next week, and we can learn from that. But he was still pretty dumb in saying what he does to his brothers in Genesis 37:6-10

He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. 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.” 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.

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.” 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?”

People full of self praise are usually deeply wounded and in need of help if they go around broadcasting these sorts of dreams. Most of us probably have some sympathy with Joseph's brothers. The arrogant little so and so. He even got up his father’s nose too. But later events suggest that there was more to it than that. Joseph did have a gift for dreaming and interpreting dreams. He needed to know there was truth in this, because he would need to return to this in the days of anguish that lay ahead. Although it may have been quite naïve and very unwise to tell it the way he did, and we need to be careful about how much we talk about what we know to others, especially confidential things that other people have entrusted to us but also things that we think God has shown us, because if it's premature or not likely to be understood in the right way it's giving pearls to pigs as Jesus warns. But when it's young people dreaming big in their naivete. we have to be ready to forgive them their excesses. It's great that their idealism is intact and that they do dream dreams and approach life full on, even if it does seem so unselfconsciously self assured and lacking in humility and there is a hard and unbending black and whiteness about it at times. I would much prefer that in young people to a premature cynicism that has ceased to believe that we can make a difference any more, that’s lost all motivation towards change. Joseph had no such self doubts like that, just supreme confidence. Only time would tell if it was just delusions of grandeur or the real thing. He clearly still had a lot to learn about discernment and wisdom.

It is a dangerous business dreaming out loud.

I can’t help thinking about a pastor friend of mine who was convinced that God had given him a vision of what his church was to be like: many times the size it was then, with a huge staff and buildings to match and a theological school - a leading church in the whole country. When he told me, it made me nervous. I could see he was a man in a hurry to see that dream fulfilled. It was also clear that he had started to feel like he had a divine right to push people to fulfil this dream even when they weren’t sure that it was really their dream. When you start pushing people to fulfil your dreams, you’re in trouble, and he was.

So I was sad but not really surprised when I heard just a few months down the track that the congregation had forced him to resign. Was it really a God given dream just thwarted by his impatience? Or one person’s delusions of grandeur that caused him to act manipulatively?I’m not sure about this specific case, but what I do know is this: It is good to dream, but not all dreams are good, and even the good ones need dealing with wisely.

So I hope that this church will become a place where new dreams are birthed and old dreams are nurtured, and also where wisdom and discernment are prayed for and exercised. Otherwise, we also will end up creating unnecessary conflict and strife like Joseph. There was nothing to be gained by Joseph sharing his dreams, and plenty to be lost. You can read the rest of the chapter to see trouble it got him into, but fortunately God’s vision for Joseph transcended his teenage mistakes.

Joseph would desperately need those visions of what might lie beyond to sustain him in the tough times that lay ahead. We all need dreams that make the effort and expense of working at years of study worthwhile. We also need dreams that promise much more that than just security in a career - a sense of destiny that God is at work guiding us towards the highest and best use of our gifts and talents, and that something of eternal significance is being worked out, even in the midst of the most uncomfortable and the most mundane. Joseph is going to need to know that in the days ahead - we all do.