Not a Place Where We Can Be but God is Present There

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler

Scripture: Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 139:1-14

How closely does God care for us? Is God concerned with the intimate details of our lives, or just with some broader, overarching plan of redemption? Christians have varied in terms of how they understand God’s work in history and in daily human affairs. Sometimes, I have moved from one extreme to the other. I’ve thought of God as heavily involved in the most intimate and mundane details, or at least willing to care about them if I asked. God, please help me with this parking spot! God, I’m pulling my hair out—please help me find my keys. 

At other points in my life, I’ve focused my heart and mind on Jesus bringing wholeness and transformation to the broader world. I’ve emphasized the macro level, to the exclusion of the micro—thinking that God is still involved in the big picture of redemption but perhaps less intimately involved with me. And at some point I stopped praying for help with a parking spot.

I’m not sure how involved God get in things like parking spots. Regardless, I think it is mistaken to emphasize towards the individual or the macro to the exclusion of the other. When looking at scripture, I see that God is intimately knowledgeable and concerned with the details of our lives, and, at the same time, God is engaged in the overarching plans for wholeness and justice in the world. Both/and. It is not one to the exclusion of the other, even if my mind swings that way. 

 Our scripture readings today indicate both: God cares about the details of our individual lives, about our specific stories. God is working in us and through us as individuals, as part of a bigger plan to enact wholeness, justice, and reconciliation. We see in scripture that God values the uniqueness of an individual life and its connection to God’s plan. We also see God acting to preserve life, working for wholeness on a grand scale.

Our scripture passage today is Genesis 45:1-15, part of the broader narrative about Joseph. When I think of the book of Genesis, the story of Joseph is not something that typically comes to mind. God’s creation, Adam and Eve in the Garden, Noah, and the tower of Babel, followed by the Patriarch narratives Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: those are all what I think of in Genesis. Yet the story of Joseph covers almost 14 chapters. Despite the amount of time dedicated to Joseph, these passages are likely not texts that we have spent much time on—though some of us may have knowledge of a certain Technicolor Dream Coat (full disclosure: I’ve never seen it! But did YouTube a few minutes during sermon prep). 

The Story of Joseph (Gen 37, 39-35 recap)

When we meet Joseph (Gen 37), he is one of 11 sons, but the only son of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel, and born to Jacob in old age. Joseph is the favorite son and his dad, Jacob, blesses him with a special coat, most likely a coat that had long sleeves, which would have indicated that he was not regularly doing manual labor. Traditionally, this cloak has been mistranslated as a coat of many colors, which eventually morphed into a technicolor dream coat. Whether because it was colorful or long sleeved, Joseph’s brothers resent him for the special status indicated by the coat. 

Divisions and animosity were rampant within the family: Genesis 37 says that the brothers hate Joseph and cannot not speak peaceably to him (37:4). Resentment only grows when 17-year-old Joseph doesn’t keep quiet about some prophetic dreams, visions that basically foretold a time when people would bow down before him—including his brothers and his father. Needless to say, this was not a winning story at the family breakfast table, “So I had this dream where you bowed down to me…” Beyond the dreams, scripture also says that Joseph had given “bad reports” about his brothers and their flock-tending. 

Things go downhill for Joseph. His brothers, in charge of the flocks, are out in the fields and Jacob sends Joseph to catch up with them, about 50 miles away. Teenage Joseph is to bring back news of how the brothers were doing—with perhaps more tattling. When Joseph finally catches up with his brothers, they see him coming in the distance and plot his downfall. At first, the brothers seek to kill him but then one brother talks them down, saying, “Let’s just throw him in a pit.” They strip off Joseph’s special robe and end up selling him into slavery for 20 pieces of silver. The fancy cloak gets torn to shreds and covered in blood: the brothers make their father, Jacob, believe that Joseph was killed by a wild animal during his journey to his brothers. 

Joseph ends up in Egypt, sold to a man named Potiphar, the head of Pharaoh’s guard. Joseph proves himself to be reliable and faithful, and Genesis 39 says that is clear that YHWH is with Joseph, blessing his good work.  Joseph eventually becomes Potiphar’s personal servant. Both Potiphar and Joseph are blessed by Joseph’s work as a household overseer; everything prospers. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last—Joseph is falsely accused of approaching Potiphar’s wife and thrown into jail. 

Yet instead of languishing in prison, Joseph finds an opportunity to do good work. Genesis says that YHWH shows Joseph “steadfast love” (39:21) and helps him in jail, finding favor in the eyes of the chief jailer. Wherever Joseph is, his good work and faithfulness to YHWH help win people over. 

The story continues. Joseph interprets dreams while in jail, including the dream of a cupbearer who returns back to Pharaoh. This cupbearer doesn’t remember Joseph’s help, until he hears of Pharaoh having strange dreams. “Oh yeah, there was this funny Hebrew dream interpreter while I was jail.”  Joseph gives all the dream interpreting credit to God and, with God’s help, interprets Pharaoh’s dream. Pharaoh is impressed with Joseph’s interpretation and wisdom. Joseph becomes 2nd in command over Egypt, strategically placed to help manage Egyptian harvests and grain storage, preparing for an upcoming famine that will affect Egypt and the region beyond for years (as foretold in Pharaoh’s interpreted dream). 

The famine eventually comes and devastates the region. Due to Joseph’s advance planning, Egypt is well prepared. Genesis says that “All the world comes to Joseph to buy bread,” including Joseph’s brothers. With a new name, a new role, and courtly interpreters to serve as a buffer between them, Joseph’s brothers don’t suspect this Egyptian ruler’s true identity as their brother. 

Joseph tests the brothers, and he hears them discuss and anguish over their crime against Joseph, which has haunted them. Joseph learns he has another brother and ends up enacting a scheme which forces the older brothers to travel home and bring baby brother Benjamin with them to Egypt. There are chapters of fascinating intrigue, during which Joseph traps his brothers and sets them up to appear as thieves, forcing them to discuss their father, their father’s grief at losing Joseph, and the potential devastation that would come from losing Benjamin too. 

Joseph’s Reveal (Genesis 45:1-15)

Finally, we come to our passage, where Joseph breaks: he is not able to restrain himself in front of all the Egyptians attendants who were before him, so he orders everyone out, apart from his brothers. Joseph is alone with his brothers for the first time—thus far, he’d always had interpreters and attendants. I imagine that things feel ominous for the brothers, alone with this Egyptian leader. 

The text pivots and says that Joseph makes himself known, truly known, to his brothers. The Hebrew says that Joseph then, “gives his voice over to weeping,” such loud weeping that the Egyptians hear, and the house of Pharaoh hears. Everyone can hear him, though he’d cleared the room. It is huge, terrible, deafening sobbing—full body sobbing. I’m sure the brothers are standing there terrified. Then Joseph says to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But none of his brothers answer him, because they are too disturbed, dismayed, and terrified by his presence.

Joseph instructs his brothers, “Come closer to me,” so they draw closer—I think warily, only because they were commanded. Joseph says again, “I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold to the Egyptians. You should not be grieved, and you should not be angry against yourselves, for your selling me here, for God sent me ahead of you for the preservation of life.  There have been two years of famine in the land and still five remain where there will not be plowing or harvest. 

God sent me in front of you to place a remnant in the land, so that your lives would have a great deliverance. Surely it was not you who sent me forth, but God made me father to Pharaoh and made me ruler of all of his house, and ruler of all the land of Egypt. 

Now quickly and go up to my Father, and say to him, ‘Thus, said your son, Joseph, God placed me to rule over all of Egypt. Come down to me to take your place. And you will reside in the land of Goshen and you will live near me (in the midst of me), you and your kids and their kids, your flocks—everything. Tell my father all you have seen, who I am and my role in Egypt, and bring him down here to Egypt.’” Then Joseph embraces his brother Benjamin, weeping, and eventually includes all of the brothers in his weeping and hugging. The story continues, of course, but I’ll won’t go beyond our passage. 

God at Work in the Micro and the Macro

Reading Joseph’s big reveal, what struck me was God’s care and concern for an individual life. I saw it evident throughout the Joseph narratives and this passage. God cares for Joseph, walks with Joseph through devastation and loss, shows faithful love and provision to Joseph. God accompanies Joseph through the mundane work of household management or civil service in the Egyptian Department of Agriculture. God utilizes the particularity of Joseph’s individual life—the combination of his strengths, his gifts, his pain and loss, his misfortune. Joseph as an individual is loved and cared for by God, while he also a vital actor in God’s broader plan. 

God has an overarching plan of wholeness and redemption and God is at work in and through individuals. As I said earlier, I often think about God at work, but I’ve recently kept a more macro-level focus, forgetting God’s intimate and tender care for me. Yet the Joseph text reminds me, draws me down to the micro. Perhaps it is also because I happened to read Psalm 139 this past week, a psalm which emphasizes the intimacy of how God knows our patterns, our habits, our ways, our inmost being. There is no place where we can be that God does not accompany us. 

Joseph’s integrity and organizational skill, alongside the unique positioning he was in due to his pain and loss—these all prepared him to be an agent of God’s plan to preserve lives. When I read this, I couldn’t help but see God’s value of the individual. 

God values the uniqueness of an individual life and its connection to God’s plan. All of who we are—whatever gifts, talents, strengths, weaknesses, or loss we bring—can shape how we help carry out God’s multifaceted work in this world. Sisters and brothers, siblings in Christ, you are each beloved by God—God pays close attention to your life. 

Our text also highlights God’s providence. We see that God is the One who works to preserve life, who thwarts human plans for destruction and works for wholeness and justice on a grand scale. We see that human free will exists and pain is caused through it—yet God works to preserve life and transform violence. 

Joseph reframes his trauma and pain, articulating how God was able to transform the outcome of a horrific act into something that instead preserved lives. Joseph does this, not attributing the horrific act itself to something that God wanted (Joseph clearly still says, you all sold me into slavery), but that God was able to transform its impact by being with Joseph and using the opportunity to protect others. 

To be clear, Joseph is not saying, “God did this bad thing to me.” The bad thing is clearly still attributed to the brothers.  Later, in Genesis 50:20, Joseph says, “What you meant for evil, God used for good.” I see Joseph working to reframe his trauma so that it does not define him—because he can see that no one is bound to be defined by the pain, loss, and suffering that others have inflicted on them. With God, there is more in the story. 

The story does not always include reconciliation, as Joseph experiences here (that’s not always possible or even safe). We may never comprehend the direct impact our lives have on God’s broad plan for wholeness and justice. but we can trust that, like in the Joseph narrative, God values the uniqueness of an individual life and its connection to God’s plan. God is always at work, working to preserve life, to bring wholeness and a great deliverance. This, friends, is God’s story and the good news—the story of our scriptures is the story of the Creator working in people, in and through individuals, to make things whole and healed. AMEN.

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