Text: Genesis 40:1-23; Jeremiah 29:11
(Interestingly, we had VBS Sunday BEFORE VBS because of Scheduling Issues. I’d never done it this way before and I hope I don’t do it that way again. You really lose some of the energy that comes from just having completed VBS)
Up until today, we’ve been preaching on the parables this summer. And, every week, as the sermon begins, I’ve been saying that stories are an important part of how we learn as human beings, not just Christians. And, since that is the case, it’s no wonder that Jesus used so many stories when he was teaching those around him. These parables, we’ve been saying, are “stories with a purpose.” They have a point.
But, you know, when it comes down to it, all of the stories in the Bible are stories with a purpose. All of these, from the very familiar to the very obscure were deemed important in the shaping of the people of God. Therefore, it was important for the stories to be taught again and again and again. It was important to tell it to your children and important to tell it to your children’s children.
It’s still that way today. And, in our culture it’s clear that one of the prime ways that children get introduced to the stories of the Bible is through Vacation Bible School. They come and they sing the silly songs and they shout and run and they make their crafts and they play their games…but through this, through all of this, they hear about our God…they hear about Jesus and what he’s done for us. And for some kids, not just here but all around the US, the few days they spend at the the local Vacation Bible School may be the only days they hear how much God loves them and cares for them…all year. It’s important to tell the stories.
I’ll admit to you that I struggle with some of the VBS themes out there these days. They have all of the right packaging and they have all of the right music…but sometimes they seem to stretch the story in a way that just doesn’t make sense to me.
Cokesbury, the United Methodist Publishing House, has a space theme this year. Their website says: “At Cokesbury’s Galactic Blast Vacation Bible School 2010, your cadets will voyage into outer space praising God.” It gets into creation and caring for the earth, but it seems a little contrived. I have good friends in ministry who have used this material and have loved it.
LifeWay Christian Stores, of the Southern Baptist Church, had one called “Arctic Edge” a few years back, “where daily excursions from Big Bear Lodge will have kids hiking across the tundra, exploring the seascape by kayak, and skimming the backcountry in a float plane.”
I’m sure these were FUN. But, if we get one shot to tell kids that God loves them, what better way than using some of the already very good stories and themes we have in the Bible? That’s what we’re doing at Girdwood Chapel this year as we look at Egypt and “Joseph’s Journey From Prison to Palace.” It’s a great story. And the fact that the theme is “Egypt” we have a build in coolness factor.
Anyone who’s seen “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” has been let into the story. But there are many of us who know the story well just because it’s a great story of what God can do. It’s a great story about perseverance. It’s a great story about family and sibling rivalry. It’s a great story about grace and trusting God. It’s got all of that. And it’s pretty much about one guy…Joseph.
So, for those who aren’t too clear about the story, let me get you up to speed here.
This is a whole story found in the book of Genesis and is one of the larger stories in Scripture. It begins with Jacob, one of the patriarchs, who had 12 sons. But out of all of them, Joseph was the favorite…because he was the first son of his wife Rachel. If there are 12 sons and just one of them is dad’s favorite, it had to make for some uncomfortable dinner time conversations.
These conversations were no doubt made all the more uncomfortable because of the dreams that Joseph had. He went up to his brothers one day and said, paraphrasing, “Hey guys, guess what? I had a strange dream last night that will blow your mind. There were 12 ears of corn, one for each of us and, all of yours were bowing down before mine. Isn’t that just crazy?” Or, again he came to them and said, “I had another dream. I don’t think you can read too much into this, but I dreamed I saw the sun, the moon, and eleven stars bowing down to me. I think I need to go easy on the roast lamb before bedtime if you know what I mean.”
Well, he brothers thought they knew what he meant. And they plotted to kill him, but thanks to Rueben, didn’t go through with it. “MUCH BETTER,” thanks to Judah, they made it look like he was killed so they could get some profit out of it. They smeared blood on the “coat of many colors” that Jacob had specially made for him and sold Joseph to some Ishmaelites who then take him to Egypt.
But, we’re still not to our place in the story yet. When the Ishmaelites take Joseph to Egypt, they sell him to Potiphar, an Egyptian, one of Pharoah’s officials and manager of the household. And Joseph is a smart young man, and good with money and pretty much everything else. Soon he was managing Potiphar’s whole household. Not bad for a kid whose brothers plotted to kill him, was sold into slavery, and whose father now thinks he’s dead.
But, it gets worse. Potiphar thinks Joseph is a great young man. But, so does his wife. When Joseph won’t return her advances, she lies about him making advances at her, and that’s the end of his rise in Potiphar’s house and he’s sent off to jail.
So, in just a few chapters of Genesis we have favoritism, dreaming, jealousy, violence, slave trading, lies, and prison. We’re a long way from those bowing ears of corn at this point, aren’t we Joseph?
That’s where we are at this point…prison. It’s rough. In the broadway play, it’s here that Joseph sings (I sang all of this in my most melodramatic voice):
Close every door to me
Hide all the world from me
Bar all the windows
And shut out the light
Do what you want with me
Hate me and laugh at me
Darken my daytime
And torture my night
If my life were important I
Would ask will I live or die
But I know the answers lie
Far from this world
A tad melodramatic? Yes. But you get the point that it’s rough for poor, poor Joseph.
However, in prison, that gift of interpreting dreams comes in handy for the kid. In prison with him are the king’s cupbearer and the king’s baker. Each had had dreams they couldn’t interpret and they go to Joseph to see what he could do with them. For one, the cupbearer, it was good news. In three days he was going to be back at work. For the other, the baker, it was not good news. In short, it involved beheading, and impaling, and birds.
And, three days later, it all came to pass just as Joseph had said.
It’s interesting that we’re talking about hope, here as we sit with Joseph in prison, singing, “Close every door to me…” It’s a situation that seems pretty hopeless to probably anyone but Joseph in the story.
And I think part of our problem with understanding this to be hopeful is our our understanding of the word HOPE in the first place. We often treat HOPE like a birthday wish. “I HOPE I GET A BIKE!” Or, “I HOPE I DO WELL ON THAT TEST.” Or, “I HOPE we don’t have pork roast for dinner again tonight.” Those aren’t necessarily bad wishes to have (the pork roast really wasn’t all that good. It was cooked fine but wasn’t a very good piece of meat). However they’re a pretty shallow understanding of HOPE.
Hope goes deeper than this. Hope is the thing that gives you strength when you’re feeling bad and when things aren’t going your way.
If you’re a kid, then perhaps HOPE is the encouragement that you get from your parents when your best friend doesn’t act like they like you anymore. Perhaps it’s the friend who comes to be by your side when you break a bone at the beginning of summer and you think you’ll manage to make it through…even just barely (more melodrama).
If you’re a grownup, then perhaps hope is your spouse who tells you that they are sure you’re going to find a job. Perhaps it’s that look you get from your kid that tells you, you’ve done a good job raising them, but it’s time to let them head out on their own. Perhaps it’s that prayer which is offered even in this place when it seems like the whole world is crashing in around you. It lets you know that it’s all in God’s hand. It lets you know YOU’RE in God’s hands.
There’s a picture by George Frederick Watts from a century ago which is called “HOPE.” You can see it on my blog. The picture is interesting because it’s a lady sitting on top of the world, playing a harp. And, at first glance, one might think, “Well, it’s easy to be hopeful when you’re sitting on top of the world playing a harp, with everyone listening to your music.” When I’m on top of the world, when things are going my way, when the kids are behaving, when I know where all of my money is going, when my sermon is not just mediocre but is OUTSTANDING, well, I am very HOPEFUL..that it’s going to continue that way. It’s good being on top of the world!
However, upon closer examination of that young lady, sitting there on top of the world, you will notice that the world is not bright and sunny. It’s dark. It’s worn. Probably more like our world really is. We have hunger in Africa. We have war in the Middle East. We have totalitarian governments in Asia. We have homeless people sleeping in parks in Anchorage tonight. Our world, too, has problems.
And that lady is in tattered rags. She is blindfolded.
And that harp of hers? It’s just got one string. Can it even play music anymore?
According to London’s Tate Museum, perhaps the piece is more appropriately entitled “DESPAIR.”
But, isn’t that the precise moment that hope comes? Isn’t there some fine line, some boundary that we get to in our troubles, when we could very easily turn to despair and regret and resignation, but our God comes to us and tell us that there is more, there is better, there is God?
This is the first day’s lesson of Vacation Bible School. As opposed to most Vacation Bible School Sundays, we’re having this BEFORE VBS because of scheduling. And the Bible Verse the kids (and adults) are learning today is the verse from Jeremiah 29:11 as God tells the exiles in Babylon that he will release them after seventy long years in captivity: “For I know the plan I have for you…to give you a future and a hope.”
Last Sunday we had Shane Claiborne here in the evening, and it was AWESOME. We had over 140 folks show up…most of them young people. There were great stories. That was at 6 o’clock. Earlier that day, at 4 o’clock I married off two folks up at Raven Glacier Lodge…discovering that the brides’s father is _____________, with whom I was in Lions Club a few years ago. But, before that, a little after 2 o’clock I was holding onto and praying with an elderly woman who had just watched her husband die.
I think, maybe I bring that up because I was there for a while, and it was kind of traumatic for me. But, mores, I bring it up because, in the midst of that trauma…perched on a broken world in tattered clothes with a one-stringed harp…in prison, as a sold slave, dead a family…in those times, I do believe that God enters in and will pull us out. And I have hope that God will do so, not just in the “Sweet By and By” when we all get to heaven, but will do so in the world, in your life, in my life today.
God gives us hope. God gave hope to Joseph. In that prison cell, he knew it. He had hope that God had something better in store for him. And, over the next several chapters of Genesis, the kids this week will see just how God blessed that prisoner Joseph all the way to the palace.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.