January 19, 2014
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE BIGGEST LOSERS: JOSEPH
The pattern has been established. We don’t go straight to the Bible in this “biggest loser” series of sermons. We start with one of us telling a loser story on ourselves. We start with one of us confessing to a time when we felt so low we had to look up to tie our shoelaces. That’s pretty low. We’ve all been there. This week the lucky person to share his story is Dennis Parry.
(Dennis Parry story)
Some of you know the Bible real well. You might have wondered how Joseph qualifies as one of the biggest losers of the Bible. Because Joseph wasn’t a loser. He was a winner. I remember my grandmother telling me the story of Joseph when I was small, to encourage me to grow up to be like Joseph. Don’t give up. Trust God. Work hard. Always do the right thing. Never get discouraged. And eventually you will be a big success. Rags to riches. The original Horatio Alger story. In Joseph’s case, from the pit to the palace.
But it’s a rare person whose trajectory in life tracks only up and never down. In fact, I doubt if anyone has ever lived who hasn’t fallen at least once, and hit the ground pretty hard. Joseph did, several times. Today we read about one of those times. He is in prison.
Sometimes people literally spend time in prison. The Bible specifically tells us to visit those who are in prison. Other times people find themselves trapped in a life situation that feels very much like prison. That big door has slammed shut. There is no way out. You are humiliated. You feel lower than low. It might be a lost job. Maybe a lost marriage. Rumors might be spreading about you. Could be a bankruptcy. Or a medical diagnosis. Maybe your kids hate you. Or maybe your kids love you, but for the wrong reason. You feel like nothing more than a checkbook.
There are many kinds of prison. Maybe you’re in one right now. Maybe you’re holding on to the prison bars of bitterness and depression and spitefulness and fear and anger. You can’t let go.
You can’t get out. If it were a real prison, at least someone might visit you. But in your prison, you are all alone. You feel utterly rejected and forsaken.
Our son is 17. That’s the age Joseph was when his brothers sold him as a slave. They couldn’t stand him. They wanted him out of their lives. So threw him into a pit. That gave them time to think about whether or not they would kill him. Maybe just leave him there to die a slow death. And then along came a caravan of camels. These traders were happy to buy Joseph and take him to Egypt where they could sell him at a profit.
A 17-year-old slave in a foreign land. Looks pretty hopeless for Joseph. But things take a turn for the better. He is sold to Potiphar, a very important person. An official who works for Pharaoh, the King of Egypt. Joseph is a hard worker. His life is tracking upward. Then Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce him. He rejects her advances. She is not used to being rejected. It makes her so angry she falsely accuses him of being the seducer. It’s his word against hers. And Joseph is thrown into prison.
But even in prison, Joseph does not give up. He decides he’ll be the best prisoner he can be. And the head jailer notices and gives him special privileges.
God was still with Joseph: He reached out in kindness to him; he put him on good terms with the head jailer. The head jailer put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners — he ended up managing the whole operation. The head jailer gave Joseph free rein, never even checked on him, because God was with him; whatever he did, God made sure it worked out for the best (Genesis 39:20).
This loser Joseph just can’t lose! It’s an amazing story of bouncing back from one adversity after another. Except Joseph hadn’t quite bounced back. He is still in prison. He has gone from the pit to the palace, and now he’s back in the pit. He’s making the best of a bad situation, but it’s still a bad situation. Two times in that passage we just read, it said that God was with Joseph. Even in prison, God was with him. But the question has to be asked, if God was with him, why is he still in prison?
That question is answered in Genesis 40. It’s a strange chapter, as you noticed. Joseph gets two VIP cellmates. One is Pharaoh’s cupbearer and the other is Pharaoh’s baker. It doesn’t say what they have done, but it must have been pretty bad for Pharaoh to have thrown them in prison.
They both have strange dreams. Joseph then tells them what their dreams mean. Dreams are a theme through this story of Joseph. He had a dream when he was a boy that made his brothers mad. That was one reason they hated him. Now we have these dreams in prison that he interprets. Later he will interpret Pharaoh’s dream about a coming famine.
The cupbearer gets good news. His dream means he will be released from prison. The baker gets bad news. His dream means he will be put to death. In both cases, Joseph is spot on in his prediction. And in the case of the cupbearer, he gets something back for the good news. Joseph gets a promise from the cupbearer to remember him to Pharaoh. To try to convince Pharaoh to let Joseph out. Things are looking up! Until we get to the last verse that we read today: “The chief cupbearer, however, did not remember Joseph. He forgot him.”
And that is why Joseph is still in prison. Somebody forgot him. A promise was broken. Not deliberately broken. It was just forgotten. It was carelessness. It was thoughtlessness. And as a result, Joseph is still in prison.
Eventually, Pharaoh’s cupbearer did come through. It took him two years, but he finally did remember Joseph. Pharaoh had a dream and was desperate to have it interpreted. That’s when the cupbearer remembered his cellmate, Joseph. The one who could interpret dreams.
That was Joseph’s big break. Pharaoh sends for Joseph, and Joseph rapidly rises to become the second most powerful man in all of Egypt. The loser has become a winner. He has gone from the pit to the palace, back to the pit, and now finally back to the palace again. His brothers end up being ruled by him. God uses Joseph to save, not one, but two nations.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. We’re talking today about that time when Joseph was still in prison. That time that felt to him like it would never end. What got him through? What kept him from giving up? How was God able to use him, even in the lowest moments of his life? Here is a short answer: Joseph was able to see himself as a vessel, not a victim. He didn’t feel sorry for himself. He didn’t blame himself or anyone else. God helped him to understand that he was a vessel of grace, not a victim of sin.
The next time you are in prison, literally or figuratively, remember three things:
First, God is with us, even in prison. Look at Joseph. Locked up for something he didn’t do. No money, no friends, no power, no connections. Well, one connection, but that one let him down. And here’s the irony: Joseph is closer to God is the prison than he was in the palace! God is with him. We’re told that two times in this prison narrative. When things got really tough for Joseph, he didn’t turn against God. He turned to God even more.
He had to hold on for two years before he got out. But here’s the thing: he had no way of knowing it would be two years! For all he knew, he would never get out. And if he had never gotten out, I think it’s pretty clear from what we know of Joseph that he would have still done all the good he possibly could do in prison. He would have woken up each day with a positive attitude, trusting God, seeing himself as a vessel, not a victim.
God is with us while we are passing through temporary trials. And God is with us when the trials are not so temporary. Wherever you are, God is there. It’s not your location that matters, it’s your motivation, and motivation comes from faith. God makes it possible for you to bloom where you are planted, wherever that may be, for however long that might be.
Second, we have a cupbearer. Joseph had one. But Joseph’s cupbearer forgot. We have a cupbearer who remembers. That thief on the cross next to Jesus had a dying request. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Jesus didn’t forget. Jesus remembered. He said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus is our cupbearer. When he makes a promise, he’s not going to blow it off. He will remember. We can count on him.
Some of you Bible scholars will remember that the night before Jesus was crucified between those two thieves, he said something about a cup. A couple of times. Once was at the Last Supper, when he shared a cup of wine with his disciples and told them that it represented his blood that would soon be spilled. The other time was later that evening, alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he prayed that agonizing prayer: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me, yet not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
As it turned out, the cup was not taken from Jesus. He had to drink it. He had to suffer. He had to die. It was a bitter cup, because it was full of sin. Our sin. But he drank it. That cup is now empty. There is nothing left to drink. Jesus drank it all. And that cup has now been refilled. It has been refilled with joy. It had held condemnation. Now it holds liberation. It is now a cup of blessing. It is a cup of hope. It is a cup of joy. And Jesus, our cupbearer offers it to us.
(1) God is with us, even in prison. (2) Jesus is our cupbearer who will not forget us. And finally, (3) Jesus invites us to be vessels of grace. Jesus is the cupbearer for us and Jesus calls us to be cupbearers for others.
Here’s where we have to fast forward in the story of Joseph, which I hate to do, because there is so much here. The story of Joseph does not lend itself well to a single sermon. Nor does the story of Abraham, by the way. It takes 13 chapters in Genesis to tell Abraham’s story. It takes 14 chapters to tell Joseph’s story. I encourage you to read the whole story. Even if you have read it before, read it again. I promise, this part of the Bible will not bore you.
But without retelling the whole story, we skip to the end. I suppose I should give a spoiler alert. But I don’t think it will ruin the story even if you haven’t heard it before. The story ends with Joseph reunited with his brothers. The same brothers who threw him in a pit and sold him to the Egyptian slave traders.
The brothers came to Egypt out of desperation. There was no food in Canaan. There was a terrible famine all over. Even in Egypt. But due to Joseph’s strong leadership and careful planning, food had been stored. So in Egypt, there was plenty of food. There was plenty to share. Joseph’s brothers heard about this and they travelled to Egypt. They stood before the second-in-command under Pharaoh begging for food. They didn’t realize they were begging from their brother Joseph. They didn’t recognize him, but he recognized them.
Joseph was a victim of sin. Their sin. They had done something horrible to him when he was 17 that could have and by all rights should have ruined his life. They had never been punished for their crime. This was Joseph’s chance. He was a victim of sin. But that wasn’t how he saw himself at all. He saw himself as a vessel of grace. He was a cupbearer to extend that grace to others, even to his brothers.
So we find this incredible verse at the end of the story of Joseph. His brothers have figured out who he is. His brothers are waiting for him to exact revenge. They are terrified. But Joseph surprises them with these words of grace:
Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So do not fear, for I will provide for you and your little ones” (Genesis 50:19-21).
We have a cupbearer. His name is Jesus. And we are called to be cupbearers. We are called to be vessels of God’s grace, even to those who have done us wrong.
We are all imperfect vessels. “Jars of clay” is how Paul put it
(II Corinthians 4:7). We are crackpots. Cracked pots. That just means we all have cracks. We all are broken. And yet God uses that very brokenness to deliver grace in a way that is even better than if we had no flaws.
It’s an old story. A water bearer in India had two large pots. He carried them both, each one on the end of a pole. One of the pots had a crack in it. The other was flawless. The one with the crack leaked. He’d get to his master’s house and half the water would be gone. The other pot was as full when he reached his destination as it had been when he first filled it. So each day, he would get two pots full of water at the stream, but he would deliver only a pot-and-a-half to his master.
The cracked pot was ashamed. It wished it could be like the other pot, the one with no cracks. So the water bearer had a conversation with the cracked pot. He asked a question. “Have you noticed that on your side of the path, there are many beautiful flowers but on the other side, there are none?” Yes, the cracked pot had noticed that and had been puzzled by it.
“Well,” the water bearer explained, “I have known about your flaw so I took advantage of it! I planted flower seeds on your side of the path. Every day as we walk back from the stream, you have watered them. So I always have fresh flowers to set on my master’s table. Without you being just way you are, that would not have been possible.”
We are vessels of grace. Cracks and all. Just the way you are, God can use you.
Thank you God, for those who have faced adversity and who have triumphed over it. Who have triumphed in spite of it. Who have triumphed maybe even because of it. Thank you for stories like the story of Joseph in the Bible. Thank you for the stories of those who remind us of Joseph in our day. Help us to remember that even when our lives feel like prison, you are there. And that because you are there, nothing can prevent us from being filled with your grace and then carrying your grace to others. In Jesus’ name, Amen.