Living the Dream

Published: Monday, 22 January 2018

This sermon was preached by Geoff Pound at Ashburton Baptist Church on Sunday 21 January 2018.

Readings: Genesis 37: 2-11; Acts 2: 16-17

Study Guide

The third Monday of January in the United States is a holiday to celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Junior. Last Monday was the day this year, for encouraging people to advance the achievements of that Baptist preacher.

Some years ago, our family toured the American South, to retrace the steps and the story of King and the civil rights movement.

We visited the home in Atlanta where Martin and the King family had grown up.

We went to the Ebenezer Baptist Church and were deeply moved by the exuberant worship.

Our children swung on the trees outside the Dexter Street Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama where the bus boycotts were organised in the 1950s.

We saw the cell where King wrote his famous ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ in which he told church leaders why his people couldn’t wait.

We pondered those small beginnings when Rosa Parks defiantly took her place at the front of the bus believing that all people are precious in God’s sight.

We imagined the thousands who marched to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, and heard Martin Luther King Junior telling those people over and over again, ‘I have a dream’.

One of the great gifts is to be captivated by a God given dream.

To receive a compelling picture of the work to which we need to be giving our lives.

The Dream Given

We’re looking today at the story of another dreamer, as it’s told in Genesis, with 17-year-old Joseph, living in Canaan.

To his barren mother, he’s a gift, but to his brothers he’s an unwelcome addition.

For each day as he visited his brothers looking after his father’s flocks, he’d come home bringing reports about what his brothers were up to.

His father was caught up in ‘triangulation’, in which Jacob was loving Joseph too much, Joseph was being loved too much and the brothers were being loved too little.

The sign of Jacob’s favouritism was his gift to Joseph of a long, decorated robe.

This robe becomes the colourful symbol of what it means to live God’s dream.

We’re told:

But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.

Genesis 37: 4

Relationships must be in tatters if we can’t even pass the peace with someone and if we can’t even give the usual greeting, ‘shalom’!

Well it’s to this spoilt brother that God gives a dream. And instead of pondering it in his heart, he brags about it to his brothers. A dream about sheaves in the field all bowing down to him while his sheaf stands upright. And then to put salt in the wounds he tells another lofty dream about the sun, the moon and the stars all bowing down to him (verses 6 - 9).

His father says: “Layoff will you – the tension’s becoming unbearable around here!”

When God gives us a dream, we need to bear it with humility and wisdom.

But in a very real sense, the dreams that God gives are dangerous.

Dreams can divide families.

Dreams disturb faith communities.

Dreams threaten the existing order.

Because dreams point to new ways, not business as usual.

Rebelling Against the Dream

While his brothers are looking after their flocks, they spot Joseph coming in the distance. You can’t miss him, with his coloured robe billowing in the breeze.

They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him.

Genesis 37: 18

The brothers decide that the only way to kill a dream is to kill the dreamer. Fortunately, big brother is watching and Reuben softens his brothers’ demands. When Joseph arrives, they rip off his robe and throw him into the well.

They hate his special privileges, but they’re rebelling against the dream.

They are angry at the One who has given the dream.

On our American pilgrimage, we visited Memphis.

As we stood outside the Lorraine Motel we could see the room from which King had emerged. We could see the balcony railings upon which King had slumped when the assassin’s bullet hit him in the head. The plaque below his hotel door bears the words that formed the theme of Ralph Abernethy’s sermon at King’s funeral. Those words come from our text in Genesis:

“Here comes the dreamer, let us kill him.”

Genesis 37: 19-20

 

The night before he died, King addressed a mass rally in Memphis, where he told people of the threats to his life. He said:

“It really doesn’t matter now what happens to me… Like anybody, I would like to live a long life… but I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. God has allowed me to go up to the mountain top and I have looked over and I have seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you but I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the Promised Land.”

The dream didn’t depend upon Martin Luther King Junior.

The dream didn’t depend upon Joseph.

The dream doesn’t ultimately depend upon you or me because this is God’s dream.

Now, “Where do we find ourselves in this text?” Are you identifying with Joseph or his brothers? For sometimes we are the dreamer and sometimes we are the ones who try to kill the dream.

The brothers sell him to some travellers. When they return to their father they concoct a story about how Joseph was torn apart by wild animals. To make it authentic they dipped his robe in the blood of a goat.[1] The bloodied robe symbolizes the rebellion against the dream.

The Dream Shared

While the brothers console their father, we turn to the plight of the dreamer:

 

Now Joseph was taken down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. The Lord was with Joseph… 

Genesis 39: 1-2

This is the first mention of God in the whole story.

There are no more dramatic encounters when God appears to Abraham and God speaks to Isaac and God intervenes with Jacob.

All we’ve got is this: “The Lord was with Joseph.” No blinding lights. No remarkable miracles.

Isn’t that everything we need in this new year?

Just the quiet, solid assurance that God is with us.

Now there’s a rags-to-riches story. Joseph becomes Potiphar’s right-hand man. He’s put in charge of everything.

It’s as if Joseph enters this paradise where everything is his. Everything except Potiphar’s wife! She’s the forbidden fruit in this garden of Eden. Will Joseph be tempted to deny the dream?

The woman is attracted to Joseph.

Every day she tries to seduce him until in the end, her flattery turns to force. She grabs him. He runs outside. He escapes but he leaves his robe in her hands.

Throughout the story Joseph is trying to keep his robe on while everybody else is trying to strip his robe off. So, she comes to her husband, like those jealous brothers, and she cries ‘Rape!’

And Potiphar looks at the torn robe and believes the story just like Jacob had done.

Into prison Joseph goes to wear the rags of a criminal.

He’d passed the test magnificently only to be rewarded by losing his job and his freedom.

The life of a dreamer is never hazard free.

Sometimes like Joseph we bring suffering upon ourselves. His arrogance led to him being stripped and sold off. His pride led to his fall.

Other times we suffer because of the evil of others.

Like Joseph, our robe is smeared by the lies of others and torn because of the ambitions they crave.

How do we cope when our plans are overturned?

How do we respond when we’re dropped in a well?

What resources are we given when we are wrongfully locked up in a prison?

God’s dreamer is not protected against suffering.

God’s dreamer is preserved and strengthened in the midst of suffering.

All we’re told again is that:

“The Lord was with Joseph.”

Genesis 39: 21

But that’s not the end of the dream.

Joseph is eventually on the rise again because God is giving him success.

Joseph becomes the new prime minister.

He builds up the economy so much that when a depression strikes, Egypt is able to go into a foreign aid program. People come far and wide to get food to eat.

Here we see that God’s dream is not an end in itself.

God’s dreams are about bringing health and wholeness, peace and reconciliation.

Among the hungry are Joseph’s ten brothers. Like Jacob they’re blind to Joseph’s identity.

Joseph tests his brothers and keeps Simeon so the next time they will bring Benjamin. And what a time it is when they return and Joseph meets his younger brother for the first time.

But after they leave they find in Benjamin’s sack the prime minister’s precious cup.

This might be devastating! They’ll be accused of stealing.

The brothers are now tearing off their robes in sorrow.

They think that their sins must be catching up with them.

They return and Joseph demands that Benjamin stays. Why?

He wants to see whether his brothers have changed.

Would they do to Benjamin what they did to Joseph?

Only by recreating the earlier scene, where the brothers are in control again of a son of Rachel, can Joseph be sure that they have changed.

Fortunately, they pass the test. There’s a very moving scene.

Joseph can no longer go on hiding his identity. At last he burst into tears and says to them:

 

“I am Joseph. Is my father alive?”

Genesis 45: 3

His brothers are struck with fear and astonishment. But Joseph says:

 

And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.

-          Genesis 45: 5

God did it so I could rescue you and feed all these hungry people around. What a time of reconciliation and genuine shalom.

Before they set off for home Joseph gives them food and he gives them a gift and do you know what it was? A change of clothes! A robe!

Talk about overcoming evil with good.

And he gives to Benjamin five changes of clothes.

By this preferential treatment, he’s testing them again.

Would his brothers be jealous? Or have they learned the lesson?

The brothers return, bundle up their father and in Egypt there’s a great reunion before the old man dies.

In the final chapter, the brothers are still riddled with guilt. They wonder whether Joseph will change his tune now that their father is no longer around. They come pleading forgiveness.

But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? 20 Even though you meant it for evil, God intended it for good.”

-          Genesis 50: 19-20

Joseph resists the temptation to get his own back.

This story is about how God saved Israel from famine but it’s also the story of how Joseph and his brothers were saved as human beings.

“You meant it for evil but God meant it for good.”

You meant it – God meant it.

That is the great paradox.

This mystery is asserted but never explained.

Our lives are as if we are looking at a multi-coloured robe that is being woven on a loom.

There are so many jumbled threads and loose ends.

We can’t see any rhyme or reason.

We can’t discern any purpose or pattern in our lives.

All we can do is trust that the divine weaver has all the threads in His hand.

Only in the end, when we turn the garment over, will we, like Joseph, be able to look back with amazement and see God’s purpose and pattern.

Only in the end will we see how God has taken even our flaws and our failings and the evil of others and worked all these together for good.

Our God hasn’t abandoned the dream for justice, freedom and reconciliation.

God is looking today for men and women who will bear the dream that is relevant to our time and our generation.

If God could use young Joseph from Canaan, if God could use that Baptist pastor from Atlanta, then it’s quite possible that God could use you and me.

Prayer

O Lord, may you in these days pour out your Holy Spirit mightily upon us,

that young men and women would see visions and

old men and women would see dreams and that we together as your people might rise up with a new determination to see your purposes accomplished in this land and in lands throughout the world.

God don’t let us be daunted by our present difficulties.

Instead would you keep on testing us and assuring us that through it all, you are with us?

Because we know that for those who love you, for those who are called according to your purpose, you, the living God is working all things together for good.

So, we praise you and to you be all the honour and glory.

Amen.

 

[1] The robe now is used as a tool of deep deception. Isn’t it ironic that it happens this way to Jacob? Remember how Jacob had approached his blind father covered in the skin of a goat? Now he’s deceived by the torn robe that has been dipped in the blood of a goat! So, the one who robbed his brother Esau, is now robbed of his son and once again the favourite is shoved to one side. It’s not only the rivalry that’s transferred from one generation to the next but the twisting lies are passed on from father to sons.