Joseph’s Always-On Ethics Came From Knowing God’s Character (Sermon Notes)

Sermon Notes / Produced by Individual TOW Project member
Sermon on joseph ethics

Its good to be back here again, preaching on faith at work and the life of Joseph. It's such a great story of a young man dreaming of doing something of real significance for God, but then having to deal with serious conflict and disappointment. Joseph's story touches on a lot of lessons for the workplace: How did he practice the presence of God at work in prison for example? How did he see how God might be using him in the face of some awful reversals? What unusual circumstances God used to get him just where he wanted in ways that Joseph could never have seen clearly at the time! Today, the part of Joseph’s story that I want to look at is about ethics at work.

Just before the events I am going to read about Joseph had really upset his brothers so that as a result they sold him to some slave traders who were on their way Egypt. This is where we pick up the story in Genesis 39:1-18

Now Joseph was taken down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man; he was in the house of his Egyptian master. His master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hands. So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him; he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had. From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field. So he left all that he had in Joseph’s charge; and, with him there, he had no concern for anything but the food that he ate.

Now Joseph was handsome and good-looking. And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Look, with me here, my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my hand. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife. How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” And although she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not consent to lie beside her or to be with her. One day, however, when he went into the house to do his work, and while no one else was in the house, she caught hold of his garment, saying, “Lie with me!” But he left his garment in her hand, and fled and ran outside. When she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled outside, she called out to the members of her household and said to them, “See, my husband has brought among us a Hebrew to insult us! He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice; and when he heard me raise my voice and cry out, he left his garment beside me, and fled outside.” Then she kept his garment by her until his master came home, and she told him the same story, saying, “The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to insult me; but as soon as I raised my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me, and fled outside.”

Most often preachers use this chapter to teach us lessons about how to deal with temptation. Particularly sexual temptation: dealing with our own lust and pressure from other people and our highly sexualised culture. Certainly Joseph did find himself in a very difficult situation here knowing how to respond to the seductive advances of Potiphar’s wife and her persistence in pursuing him and her unwillingness to take no for an answer. Clearly he was an attractive hunk of manhood and she was a sexual predator, much more aggressive than most of us have to cope with. Even in our more regular circumstances, learning to live with our sexuality in an environment that is continually bombarding us with alluring sexual images and that has learned to manipulate our feelings so cleverly is a real challenge.

As we saw last time, Joseph had developed a pretty acute moral sense from an early age. He wasn’t always sensitive in the way he went about reporting the sins of others, especially his brothers, and it did make him appear rather arrogantly self righteous. But in the end it is apparent that this is because he had a clearer vision of God than most people, the One whose character defines what love and holiness and justice look like. So it’s interesting that when Joseph tries to explain to Potiphar’s wife why he has to resist her advances and say no, it’s not just about Joseph’s fear of violating Potiphar’s trust, or even the threat of what bad consequences might follow if he is found out. For Joseph, it is his deeper understanding that his relationship with God is at stake here. Genesis 29:9 says, "How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?" This is not just about keeping the ten commandments, for although the rules may help to define the bottom line, for Joseph it is more about keeping your eye on the topline. The top line is God himself and defined by God’s character. The challenge for us to echo God’s love and justice and holiness in the way we live.

I have done some research exploring the relationship between church going and people’s ethics based on the New Zealand values surveys done by Massey University. On the positive side, these show that church going does help to shape distinctive ethical perspectives for Christians. Churchgoing does make an ethical difference. But on the negative side, it only makes a difference in a very few areas, in particular to do with lust, greed and stealing. Christians are largely preoccupied with sexual issues and warnings against accumulating wealth and stealing, but when it comes to broader business ethics issues or environmental issues or other social justice concerns, mostly we just echo the ethical standards of the rest of the population. I think this is mainly because there are only a few issues we talk about most of the time in church, and these are mostly warnings about the dangers of sex outside marriage and not being generous enough with our money. So we tend to focus on a few sins and forget most other dimensions of ethical discpleship.

For me, one of the most sobering reminders of this has been looking at the stories of the CEO’s of Enron and Worldcom, those two huge companies that one minute were on the covers of TIME magazine as the epitome of success that we all should aspire to emulate, and then the next minute were there again being denounced for cultures of excess and deceit and corruption that had made them appear something that they weren’t and suddenly led to their collapse. In the year 2000 Enron’s annual turnover was 100 billion dollars, and this was twice its previous years turnover to give you some idea of its rapid expansion. It was ranked the sixth largest energy company in the world. At their highest point at the end of 2000 Enron shares were worth $90 a share and yet less then 1w months later by November 2001 they had fallen to 26 cents and were dropped altogether from the Stock Exchange just two months later. Kaput in just 12 months. It is estimated that the combined failures of Enron and WorldCom cost the United States economy 40 billion dollars in reduced gross domestic product. I think that is about one and a half times more than New Zealand’s total gross national product. This was the biggest bankruptcy in American History.

Why am I telling you this? Because the CEO’s of both Worldcom and Enron were devout Christian people who even after all these events still protested that they had done nothing wrong - that somehow their hands were clean. Worldcom’s founder and chief executive Bernie Ebbers was known as a very generous man and a church deacon. He taught a Sunday School class for young married couples. His pastor said he was admired in the community and he was a man with a very good heart. When he proclaimed his innocence in church he received a standing ovation. The trouble is that the congressional committee that investigated Worldcom said in its findings: This was a case of pure theft, of insiders stealing from their own investors.

The story of Ken Lay, the CEO of Enron, is very similar. He was the son of a Baptist minister and remained a very active Christian involved in his church and enjoying good standing there. He helped to support a number of important ministries. I know there are lots of players in this story who all need to own some responsibility, and I’m not trying to lay it all at the door of Ken Lay and Bernie Ebbers although its hard to deny that the moral leadership that is offered from the top certainly does influence the culture of companies and other organisations. My point is that these were fine Christian people in one sense, and I’m sure very sensitive to some ethical issues probably including sexual morality, but also clearly with a very limited moral vision that failed in any wider sense to understand what the love and justice and holiness of God might require of them in the marketplace.

The messages of biblical prophets like Amos and Micah say our worship means nothing if it is not accompanied by acting justly and mercifully and walking humbly with God. If Ken Lay and Bernie Ebbers heard these words there is not much evidence they understood. Their God was far too small and boxed in some compartment far removed from their business practice and it showed. Those who really know God operate as partners trying to imitate God all the time.

The first thing we note about Joseph is that he had a very clear vision of God that included the character of God and ethical consequences that applied to all of life. I say that because it is actually not talk about sex that dominates the first part of Genesis 39.The first six verses that cover the largest period of time in this story are not about Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. There’s no mention of sex at all. Instead there is lot about how Joseph led the sort of exemplary life that invited Potiphar’s admiration and trust.

Its all very well to talk about how Potiphar’s wife tested Joseph’s faith, but the fact of the matter is that Joseph’s faith and integrity was being tested all the time and all the time Potiphar was watching. Most of that time Potiphar was very impressed with what he saw. Despite his young age, Joseph was given more and more responsibility until he was running all of Potiphar’s household and business affairs as well. We are told that not only did things go well for Joseph and Potiphar, but even Potiphar could see that it was because Joseph’s God was involved.

Christian ethics is not just about solving a few major ethical dilemmas, and it is certainly not just about sex; it is about integrity being expressed through the habits of a lifetime. It about what shapes every decision we make, especially the ones we hardly have time to think about at all. Most of the decisions we make every day are decided by who we are and the influential models and companions and forces that we have allowed to shape our character over time. Most of what we do, we do without stopping to think. It is our character that decides what happens; it's character that really decides how Christian our choices are.

When I did some intensive survey work trying to understand what issues Christians found themselves struggling with at work, I was surprised by the fact that so many people said “what I wrestle with most in my work is the other Christians I work with.” For some it is because of the super-spiritual approach of workmates who take their faith very seriously but not their work and so are despised by others. But for others it is because of those who identify themselves as Christian but then consistently exhibit sub-Christian behaviour and lack of concern for ethics. I was horrified by the stories of companies that promote themselves as Christian led organisations but are also known for their ruthless business practices and lack of integrity and failure to pay bills on time and the brutal way they deal with both their staff and other businesses.Where is the sort of Christian integrity that invites trust? Fortunately, that is there to, but we need a lot more of it because there are also a lot of examples of Christians contradicting this.

Joseph lived with a combination of competence and consistency that Potiphar couldn’t help but admire. People of true character and integrity stand out and invite our trust. It's clear that Potiphar came to trust Joseph big time, so I can’t help wondering what really happened in this story from Potiphar’s side. Was his immense trust in Joseph really just dispelled in this moment? Or was he a man in a bind forced to choose between his slave Joseph and his wife? We don’t know what he really thinks, only that he is furious. It might be because he feels his wife has been violated, or it might be because he finds himself caught in such a trap. How much does he sense about his wife’s lack of faithfulness, we don’t know. We only know that he has to be seen to believe his wife or he will be in even more trouble.

Sometimes we find ourselves victims of circumstances that are stacked in a way that we just can't win even if we are the party in the right feeling terribly manipulated and misunderstood. Certainly that’s how it was for Joseph, and it contradicts the idea that if we just do the right thing by God things will immediately turn out all right for us too. Sometimes doing the right thing is very costly. We don’t do it just so we can prosper; we do it because it is the right thing no matter what, because living with integrity matters.

I hope integrity has a positive face that is not just defined by what we don’t do. Often Christians are known more for what we don’t do than what we do do. We find ourselves constantly caught on the back foot protesting against stuff we don’t like. We are often identified as the people who don’t drink, who don’t smoke, who don’t swear, who don’t dance, who are against sex and who often don’t seem to have much fun. Is this really what we want to become known for - all the stuff that we don’t do? Or is it the good things we do stand for?

Jesus was criticised because he seemed to be having so much fun with sinners that people trying desperately to maintain a pretence of holiness got worried. That’s why when it comes to talking about ethics at work, I don’t want it to be just Joseph dealing with sexual temptation here that becomes our focus. Although it is the decisive way that Joseph deals with sexual temptation here that has such significant consequences for him, in fact the way that Joseph responds is the product of a consistent life of integrity. Joseph's character was formed from the knowledge that God is the Lord of all of life. There is a repeating pattern in Joseph’s life of trusting God, being trustworthy, being Tested, and being proved true. Joseph had an awareness of God that gave rise to a very clear ethical vision even from a young man.

In a moment I want to invite you to share what you think is required to help us act with more integrity in our working lives. Or perhaps you might want to tell us about what has helped you when you have felt tested, or how we can move from a more negative to a more positive stance as Christians and become known for what we stand for in a positive way. But first, thinking about Joseph my mind went back to a young Christian called Henry Olonga from Zimbabwe. You might remember how this 26 year old dread-locked Zimbabwean cricketer, along with his Captain Andy Flower, wore a black armband to protest against Mugabe's repressive regime when he played a World Cup game in Zimbabwe, even though doing so he was seriously jeopardising his future career chances, not to mention also risking his life. Mugabe is a mad keen follower of cricket and the top administrators of the sport were among Mugabe’s best friends. Eventually Olonga was forced to leave Zimbabwe, but it wasn’t just his courage in taking a stand that impressed me but also his reasons why. Olongo said this:

"I have thought about the costs of making a stand and I think Christianity transcends everything else. Christians are called to speak out against evil, to speak out against the things that are wrong and that are wicked. In the face of wickedness my stand is simply that I am merely doing my duty as a Christian. Many issues are thrown around in this nation, but the real issues get clouded. In my opinion it is not about white or black, its not about race. And its not even about money. Its about what is right and what is wrong......And everyone must realise that they have to make a stand for what is right."

What a wonderful thing for a young man to be so clear about, that even his career doesn’t matter as much as just knowing that he is standing where God stands no matter what the consequences, even if it meant ending up in prison like Joseph. These are people who know that it's God who writes the end of this story no matter how desperate or bad circumstances might seem, that even living in prison if you have a clear conscience is better than living free but held captive by a bad conscience, and that what the world needs right now at every level of life in the big stuff and the small stuff is people who know God and will stand where God stands. We hope people will stand with humility rather than arrogant presumption, but also with that combination of wisdom and courage that will make a difference, like Joseph and I suggest also like Jesus.

How will it be for you tomorrow morning?nWhat sort of vision of God will enable you to live with integrity tomorrow?mHow will you live in order to become more trusted tomorrow? How will you be tested tomorrow? What will you need to prove true tomorrow?