Reading this story as an adult it seems strange to me that this was the first Bible story I knew as a child. For me it wasn’t Noah’s ark or the birth of baby Jesus; it was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, because, you guessed it, I saw the play. I guess it would be more accurate to say I knew the play first, not the Bible story, but the musical tells the story remarkably accurately for a stage show, albeit with a little more “color,” you might say. But still, I remember very clearly on the day I got my Bible in 3rd grade from Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Indialantic, Florida, flipping through the thin pages of Genesis to find the start of that one story I knew first and best, the story of Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob. It gets going only two chapters earlier than we read this morning, in chapter 37 if you want to go back to read the whole thing.
It is quite a dramatic story. Today’s television political dramas, like House of Cards and Scandal, with their racy subject matter, violence, and dramatic plot twists have nothing on Joseph’ saga. It starts with what amounts to an arms race of births.
Born to him later in life, the first-born son of his favorite wife, Joseph is his father’s favorite son. At the age of seventeen, with most of his brothers well into adulthood, Jacob gives Joseph the lavish gift of a coat - - many colors early Bible translations say, a long robe with sleeves later works report. We’re not exactly sure about the runway-readiness of this coat, but we know that it was precious to both father and son and a thorn in the side of the eleven other sons of Jacob. After the coat bolsters his confidence, Joseph begins to share with his brothers about some curious dreams he has been having. In one the bounds sheaves of the brothers in the field bow down to Joseph’s. In another, eleven stars and the sun and moon bowed down to Joseph direction. The coat, the sheaves, the stars - - all of these add up to no good in the minds of Joseph’s brothers. They plot to kill him, are persuaded by the eldest brother, Reuben to instead leave him in a pit, but in the end decide to make some money and sell him as a slave to some Egypt-bound traders instead.
I bet that’s not exactly how Joseph thought his dreams would play out. What good does it do him to have visions of his importance, his elevation over his brothers when he finds himself in a pit? What good does it do him to have what seem to be messages from the divine, if he is stuck in a hole in the ground? Being the favorite son, being called by God for something great is hard to hold onto when the dreamer finds himself at rock bottom, tied to the back of some Ishmaelite’s camel on their way to Egypt. As the song from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical says, “Poor, poor Joseph, sold to be a slave/Situation's grave, hey, sold to be a slave.”
Things start to look up a little when he gets to Egypt, however. Or do they? Joseph is sold to the household of the captain of the Pharaoh’s guard. Potiphar is his new master. Regarded well by Potiphar for his prosperous work, Joseph is given much responsibility and at least some freedom within the household. Maybe his dreams are finally coming true. Maybe this blessing of being the favorite, of descending from Jacob, and Isaac, and Abraham is finally paying off. It says t right there in verse 2 – “The Lord was with Joseph.” The Lord was with Joseph when he was at the top of his game, when Potiphar chose him and trusted him with his household. The Lord was with Joseph when the Egyptian household was blessed at his presence. The Lord was with Joseph when all the work of his hands prospered.
We say something very similar in worship most weeks. It’s an ancient liturgical greeting. “The Lord be with you.” And the response, “And also with you.” We declare it and hope for its truth for one another as we gather in the sanctuary to begin to worship together. We remind ourselves of it and ask for its reality again sometimes as we begin to pray together in the midst of our worship. But what are we really saying? What does it mean? How would we know if it is really true?
We can get a good idea of what we usually mean when we look at the other times we talk about God’s presence and blessing. We say it when we walk away from an accident. God was really with me today. We say it when surgery turns out to be successful. God blessed him today. We say it when there is an unexpected joyful surprise. The Lord is with her! She’s been blessed! We say it when luck goes our way. The Lord was with me that time. The Lord was really with me.
It is easy to talk about God’s blessing and God’s presence when good things are happening, and the risk we run is in thinking that the Lord is only with us when life is going smoothly. But Joseph’s story doesn’t always line up with that. The Lord is with him, but he is still a slave. The Lord is with him, but his master’s wife still tries to seduce him. The Lord is with him, but he is falsely accused of a violent crime. The Lord is with him but his integrity is called into question. The Lord is with him, but he is unjustly thrown in jail. The Lord is with him, but, but all of this, all of this complete non-blessing is happening to him, so how in the world can it be true that the Lord is really with him?
It’s true because that’s not how God’s presence works. It’s true because God’s promise has nothing to do with complete safety, with total protection. It’s true because God’s blessing doesn’t mean we’ll never have another bad day in our lives or we’ll never struggle with injustice
“The Lord be with you,” when we look at when we say it and what it promises is actually a very counter-cultural statement. We don’t say it just when times are good. I don’t do a quick survey before worship and find out who had a good week and who had a bad week, therefore only saying “The Lord be with you” to those for whom it seems true, or wish it only to those who seem to need it the most. Instead when we say this to one another, when we ask for its blessing and declare its truth we do so for the whole community, no matter where are or what we’re experiencing.
The Lord is with you when you are accused of wrongs you didn’t commit. The Lord is with you when your integrity is called into question. The Lord is with you when you are falsely imprisoned. The Lord is with you when you are in your deepest pits. The Lord is with you when you are abused. The Lord is with you when you are bullied. The Lord is with you when you are drunk or high. The Lord is with when your relationships are broken. The Lord is with you when you are mourning. The Lord is with you when you are depressed. The Lord is with you when you are struggling to make ends meet. The Lord is with you when you are angry. The Lord is with you when you are hurt. The Lord is with you. It’s not just that the Lord will or may be with you some day. The Lord IS with you.
Actually, Pastor Dennis Nelson, the former pastor of Bethel Lutheran Church here in Hudson, apparently changed the ancient liturgy to say just that. Instead of greeting worshipers or starting prayers with the tradition, “The Lord be with you,” he made a more declarative statement - - “The Lord IS with you.” There’s no question about this truth. There’s no doubting God’s promise. The Lord is with us.
God’s presence with Joseph didn’t make his highest highs happen, and it didn’t prevent his lowest lows. God’s presence doesn’t work that way. It does work, however, by promising that wherever we are, in the fields, in the pit, in a mansion, in jail, at home, at work, at school, at the store, at the park, at church, there is a chance for God’s blessing to work in us and through us, there is a chance for a divine transformation of even the most horrible situations. With God’s presence and God’s blessing we are promised a purpose; we are invited into the on-going story of how God is working the world. We are invited to let the Lord work with our hands, and this can make all the difference in the world.
In her memoir, Orange is the New Black, the book on which the hit Netflix TV show is loosely based, Piper Kerman, a young woman sentenced legally if unjustly and unexpectedly to time in prison talks about the influence of faith on some of her fellow prisoners. Not a woman of any religious beliefs herself, Kerman could still see something different in the lives and attitudes of those who held religious convictions during their incarceration. She writes, “I had long recognized that faith helped people understand their relationship to their community. In the best cases it helped women in Danbury focus on what they had to give instead of what they wanted. And that was a good thing. So for all my scoffing at "holy rollers," was it such a bad thing if faith helped someone understand what others needed from them, rather than just thinking about themselves?”
This is the faith of Joseph in response to the faithfulness of God. It is a faith that allows him to be used for God’s good purposes wherever he finds himself. It is a faith that helps him understand that as a recipient of God’s blessing he can be a blessing to others.
The promise of God’s presence means we are never alone. The promise of God’s presence means we’ll never be forsaken. The promise of God’s presence means that there is always a chance we can be a blessing to others.
Friends, this is the good news. The Lord is with us all.