October 6, 2013
World Communion Sunday, Peacemaking Sunday, Habitat International Day of Prayer
“Joseph and the Dreams”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
14 Then Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was hurriedly brought out of the dungeon. When he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came in before Pharaoh.
15 And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.”
16 Joseph answered Pharaoh, “It is not I; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.”
17 Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “In my dream I was standing on the banks of the Nile; 18 and seven cows, fat and sleek, came up out of the Nile and fed in the reed grass. 19 Then seven other cows came up after them, poor, very ugly, and thin. Never had I seen such ugly ones in all the land of Egypt. 20 The thin and ugly cows ate up the first seven fat cows, 21 but when they had eaten them no one would have known that they had done so, for they were still as ugly as before.
Then I awoke. 22 I fell asleep a second time and I saw in my dream seven ears of grain, full and good, growing on one stalk, 23 and seven ears, withered, thin, and blighted by the east wind, sprouting after them; 24 and the thin ears swallowed up the seven good ears. But when I told it to the magicians, there was no one who could explain it to me.”
25 Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, “Pharaoh’s dreams are one and the same; God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do. 26 The seven good cows are seven years, and the seven good ears are seven years; the dreams are one. 27 The seven lean and ugly cows that came up after them are seven years, as are the seven empty ears blighted by the east wind. They are seven years of famine.
28 It is as I told Pharaoh; God has shown to Pharaoh what he is about to do. 29 There will come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt. 30 After them there will arise seven years of famine, and all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt; the famine will consume the land. 31 The plenty will no longer be known in the land because of the famine that will follow, for it will be very grievous.
32 And the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about. 33 Now therefore let Pharaoh select a man who is discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt.
34 Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land, and take one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plenteous years. 35 Let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming, and lay up grain under the authority of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it.
36 That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine that are to befall the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine.”
Here we are again in the story of Joseph and pastor confession, I didn’t realize there would be two more weeks of Joseph when I preached last week so I sort of covered the whole story, or at least gave away the ending. But I didn’t cover this part – Joseph in jail and the pharaoh’s dreams.
To bring everyone up to speed, we first encounter Joseph as a seventeen year old boy. He is second from the youngest in a family of 13 children, but all the children were born fairly close together over a span of six or seven years from four different mothers.
Joseph is the favorite son and this pattern of favoring the unlikely sibling has been a destructive pattern in Joseph’s family for generations – Abraham choosing Isaac over Ishmael, Isaac favoring his son Esau but his wife Rebekah favoring Jacob, the younger child, Jacob favoring the younger sister Rachel over the older sister Leah, and favoring Joseph most of all out of all of his children.
And it rips the family apart. Joseph, at seventeen, is given authority over his brothers, he is given this very distinctive garment of authority, a sign that dad truly does love him best, and he is given the birthright after Reuben, the eldest son, loses it.
Beyond that he has these dreams that tell him that one day his entire family will bow down before him. So is it any wonder that his brothers are so eaten alive by anger and resentment and fear that when they get Joseph alone that they rip that coat right off his back and try to kill him.
They end up selling him into slavery and he is eventually sold to Potiphar, the captain of the guard, and Joseph quickly rises to power within the household – everything prospers in his hands. But when he refuses to sleep with his master’s wife, she gets him thrown in jail.
Even in prison he is successful and the chief jailer puts all the other prisoners under Joseph’s care. And that’s where we find him when we pick up our story. It has been thirteen years since he was almost murdered and sold into slavery, and over two years that he has been languishing in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
Let’s try to imagine what Joseph is like as a person. Some commentators like to imagine him as this whinny upstart who tattles on his brothers when they do a bad job managing the flocks. Others say that he must have shown some definite gifts of leadership for his father to put him charge of his siblings and the flocks (his father isn’t going trust the family’s economic well-being to just anyone).
He was probably charming and entertaining. Jeffery Kluger, author of The Sibling Affect, talks about how birth order impacts personality and that often younger or youngest siblings develop skills of entertaining others or making others laugh because they are less likely get punched that way.
Voltaire, one of the best satirists, was the youngest of five children. Stephen Colbert, a modern day comic and satirist, is the youngest of eleven children.
So Joseph was likely charming, possibly a natural leader, the apple of his father’s eye, and fairly naive. And then he has these life experiences that teach him about the power of fear and hatred, that teach him about success and failure, that teach him about injustice and oppression, that test his convictions.
And when we pick up the story he has been treading water in an Egyptian prison for over two years. He threw a Hail Mary pass to try to get out of jail when he interprets the dreams of two prisoners and his interpretations come true and he says to them, “Remember me when you are free, and get me out of this place because I don’t deserve to be here.” But it is still two years before Pharaoh has these disturbing dreams that he can’t find the answer to and Joseph is finally remembered.
And the dreams say that there will be seven years of great plenty in the land – a booming harvest for seven years – and then seven years of famine so severe that no one is going to remember any of it. God has presented the problem through these dreams – people are going to starve to death and they have no idea it is coming. And not just Egyptians, it turns out that this famine affects all the surrounding nations as well.
Now here’s the interesting thing: God reveals the problem – Joseph becomes the solution. The dreams don’t say how to solve the problem – Joseph makes a bold proposal all on his own.
And his life completely changes – in an instant he is lifted up from prison to being the prime minister of Egypt second only to Pharaoh. It is one of those moments when God interrupts your story line and you discover exactly what you were made for.
Jen Hatmaker is a young, up-and-coming author. She is the daughter of a pastor, married to a pastor, and she and he husband were serving a big church (and she lives in Texas so it was probably pretty big) with all their hearts.
And she was stuck – she felt spiritually dry but she felt like she was doing everything right- but all she felt was exhaustion and apathy. And she writes, “Let me paint the picture . . . : I was driving home with my kids. It was not a holy moment. It was not some silent, sacred encounter with the Spirit. There was no fasting or meditating happening. As my kids were squawking in the back, I prayed a one-line prayer (and I strongly advise against this prayer unless you are ready for God to take you seriously and wreck your life): ‘God, raise up in me a holy passion.’ That was it. Nothing before or after it, except me immediately telling my sons if they didn’t stop fighting, I was giving their Christmas presents away to poor kids.” Let me tell you what I intended by that prayer: I meant ‘God, give me happy feelings.’ I was not seriously asking for an intervention that would require anything of me. Hardly. ‘Holy passion’ meant ‘pull me out of this funk with your magic happiness wand.’ Was that too much to ask? Can’t a girl get some cheery feelings about her wonderful, prosperous life? Evidently not. Because what happened after that prayer was so monumental, so life altering, nothing will ever be the same.”
So Jen began reading John 21 where Jesus is asking Peter, “do you love me?” And she heard the Spirit speaking through those words saying, “Jen do you love me more than anything?” And she writes that she felt a little insulted, only because she really loves Jesus. “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” “Feed my lambs.” And she didn’t understand – she felt like she was feeding sheep spiritually – in fact she could do with a few less sheep to feed. She told God, “I thought I was feeding your sheep but I’ll try harder.” And this is what she writes, “And from the depths of heaven, this is what I heard: ‘You do feed souls, but twenty-four thousand of my sheep will die today because no one fed their bellies; eighteen thousand of them are my youngest lambs, starving today in a world with plenty of food to go around. If you truly love me, you will feed my lambs.’”
And she tells of this pivotal moment where she and her husband were attending a small simple Easter service (after a weekend of razzle-dazzle big Easter productions at their church) and the preacher asked everyone to take off their shoes and leave them at the altar, and leave their socks too, and all of it would be given to the homeless. God had revealed the problem, a homeless population in Austin, Texas, that needed food and clothing and companionship and hope, and Jen and her husband caught the vision for a barefoot church, that rips it socks and shoes off every chance it gets for those who need help. God interrupted and changed the course of their lives, and they discovered what they were made to do – to leave everything behind, sell their house, move to South Austin, and begin a church with a new mission.
The preacher that they heard that Easter evening who asked them to leave their shoes behind, was Shane Claiborne, who had his life interrupted. He writes in his book Irresistible Revolution about how he was just sitting in his college cafeteria complaining about the food as usual when someone walked up to their table and showed him a newspaper article about a group of forty homeless families who were being evicted from an abandoned cathedral in North Philadelphia. The forty families had been living in a tent city that was overrun by rats and flooding and they saw all these abandoned buildings so they took refuge in a church. So he and some friends decided to go down and check it out, and ended up casting their lives with the homeless families, risking arrest along with them. And they went back day after day and week after week, worshipping on Sundays and dealing with needs every other day. And that’s how God called him and changed the course of his life.
God reveals the problem, and we become the solution. This pattern doesn’t just apply to other people and it doesn’t just happen in old stories. How is God telling you about problems in the world: through the passion of a friend, a newspaper article, a post on facebook, a dream, a conversation, a phone call, an email, or something you have seen with your own eyes. What is the tug on your heart? When is it that you say to yourself, “That shouldn’t be – that’s not right”? What is that thing you’ve felt like you should do but you haven’t? What is it? Is it offering friendship, foster care, food? Is it mentoring, job training, shelter? Is it advocating for those who cannot advocate for themselves? It doesn’t have to mean uprooting your whole life (though sometimes that is what it means), but it should mean a change – a change of passion, focus, time, energy.
The story of Joseph is not just a nice story – the needs of the world are great, and you have been divinely placed in this moment, rehearing this story with new ears. You have been placed in your life, you are educated, you have experiences, you have gifts that are ready to be used. God reveals to us through a variety of ways the great needs of the world. And you are exactly what is needed to make a difference. You were made for this.