The God who overrules - providence - Genesis 39
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
The theme which runs through the comedy programme, ‘My Name is Earl’ is that of karma. Earl believes that there is this cast iron law at work in life- so we do bad things and in return bad things come our way, but if we do good things, then good things result- Karma. It may not be philosophically accurate but it is a pretty good picture of the way many people view life which can be summed up by the saying, ‘What goes around comes around.’
But you know that stands in stark contrast to the picture the Bible presents of the way things really operate. Here we discover that there is in fact a personal, kind hearted and just Being who is actively at work in every twist and turn of human existence. The technical word used for describing this working of God is Providence, and that is just another way of saying that God provides. And as such it is down-to –earth and, as we shall see, immensely reassuring. And there is one story in the Bible above all others which illustrates God’s remarkable providence, working not only behind the scenes but within every scene and that is the story of Joseph.
This is such a well known and well loved story, that even a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber has been made out of it. I am surprised that Disney hasn’t got into the act as well! It begins in Genesis 37 with Joseph as a teenager, just 17 years old and a shepherd. Quite good looking too by all accounts and what is more he is a proper Daddy’s boy. And one day that favouritism was shown by him being given a remarkable robe by his father, what today would be a fancy tee-shirt, reaching down to the knees. So we have paternal favouritism at work. But when this is combined with youthful arrogance we have all the makings of a drama fit for reality TV, for Joseph, believe it or not, actually tells his 11 brothers that he had a dream which portrayed them bowing down in subservience to him. Not the best way to win friends and influence people is it? And so fuelled by jealousy his brothers hatch a plot to kill him. This is later transmuted to selling him into slavery as a group of Arab merchants just ‘happen’ to turn up at the right place at the right time. Well, eventually Joseph finds himself in the household of a rich Egyptian nobleman called Potiphar. Ten years later he is placed in overall charge-which is not bad going for a foreigner. Everything looks like it is turning out rosy, that is, until the mistress of the house tries to seduce Joseph, and having had her advances spurned, in a jealous rage she lies through her teeth claiming he tried to rape her. And so in a terrible twist of injustice Joseph finds himself in prison, where his dream interpreting gifts are used to predict the future of two fellow prisoners -the restoration of Pharaoh’s cupbearer and the death of his baker. Promising to put in a good word for him when he is released, the cupbearer promptly forgets all about him, and Joseph is left to rot. But then there is another twist in the story, as Pharaoh himself is plagued by the same reoccurring bad dream, and believing it is no accident he wants it interpreted- he feels that the gods are trying to communicate with him. No one can do it, and then the cupbearer remembers Joseph, the man of the moment. He is brought before the king and God gives him the power to interpret what the dreams mean, viz. that after seven great years of harvest there will be seven years of famine. What is more, Joseph offers some prudent advice as to what steps might be taken to alleviate the effects of the famine. Suitably impressed Joseph is made prime minister. And it is during the years of famine that unbeknown to them, Joseph’s brothers approach him for help. His father eventually makes his way to the palace, all this time believing Joseph to be dead and in one of the most heart rending, reconciliation scenes ever written, Joseph, and his family are restored. Not only are they saved from the famine, so is most of the country and then the whole family settle for a prosperous life in Egypt.
Now this is not just a story of the ‘they all lived happily ever after’ variety, because you have to look at within the wider setting of God’s plan of salvation for the world. You see, God had promised Abraham back in Genesis 12 that through his descendants, and one in particular, the whole earth would be blessed. He was talking about how he would bring about the world’s rescue from sin and judgement. Later on in chapter 15 God tells Abraham that for a while some of his immediate descendants would be living in a foreign land and be enslaved for four hundred years before God would restore them to the land he promised- i.e. they would be captive in Egypt before Moses would set them free. But the crucial question is this: what guarantee is there that this would happen? Was it possible, for example, that someone might come along and upset God’s plans? Or we might put it another way: Does God ever take risks?
The answer the Bible gives is: no he does not. God’s plans cannot be thrown off course. And what guarantees that God will achieve his loving, saving purposes for you and for me and all his people, is the character and nature of God himself. Three great truths about God stand out like Atlas Mountains in the Bible. First, that God is all knowing -so he is not caught unawares saying ‘Whoops, I didn’t quite see that one coming.’ Second, that God is all powerful, and so is able to weave every event, every human decision freely made, into a wider purpose which is his; and thirdly that God is all wise and therefore always does the right thing. That is the basis for providence. And to help us understand a little more clearly what this is and what difference it makes to our lives, I want us to look at two parts of the Joseph story, starting at the end and then moving to nearer the beginning.
First of all, we have the principle of providence 50:19-21.
Here is the scene. With their father Jacob dead, the brothers are terrified that in true Mafioso style Joseph will use this as an opportunity to take revenge and so they grovel. But Joseph’s character is not like theirs, he sees things differently and more generously: v19, ‘Joseph said to them, “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 then, don’t be afraid, I will provide for you and your children.’ Isn’t that remarkable? Can you imagine yourself saying and doing that after what these blighters have done to you? What an amazing man.
Now notice what Joseph does not say. He doesn’t say, ‘Because of a momentary lapse on God’s part, you sold me into slavery but God has turned it around after the fact.’ As if God were simply in the retrieval business. Neither does he say, ‘ God intended to get me to Egypt all right, in a first class chariot, but you messed it up for him, however, he muddled through somehow.’ If he had said that, God would not have been all knowing and all powerful. No, he says, ‘You intended to do me harm, but God intended it for good.’ Two parties are involved acting with two different intentions in the same event. The brothers acted and their intentions were evil, God also acted and his intentions were good- and they both came together.
Now what does that tell us about providence?
Well, first that providence is personal- ‘God intended’. He is the one overseeing and superintending every single millisecond of our lives. He doesn’t take an occasional look to see what is going on, and at odd times intervenes- he is there at every moment, before, during and after whatever is happening and he is intimately involved. I don’t know about you but I find that deeply reassuring-God cares that much about me.
Secondly, providence is purposeful. ‘God intended it for good.’ The things that happened to Joseph were not accidental, lacking meaning and significance, they were all part of God’s design to bring about good ends. And there were several goods which came out of all of this. You can’t deny that it was good for Joseph that he secured such an influential position, second only to Pharaoh- well, God intended that. It was good for the brothers, not only in reforming their character but also in saving their lives from starvation- God, as it were, by his providence providing for them through Joseph. It was good for pagan Egypt and the surrounding nations because God had brought Joseph with his gifts and wisdom at this point in time to this place, and so many lives were saved. But it was also to produce goods beyond the lifetime of the characters involved in the drama, because this was the means whereby God preserved the 12 sons of Jacob from which were to come the 12 tribes of Israel from which came Jesus Christ the Saviour of the world. God in his infinite wisdom and omnipotence is able not just to kill two birds with one stone, but millions for he is able to hold all events-great and small, all human decisions, all options and know all possible outcomes in his mind at the same time and ensure that his will is done for our good and his glory. This is the God we worship.
But thirdly, providence is all embracing. You see, God was not just working in the life of Joseph; he is at work in life of everyone. He is involved in the whole interconnecting web of every event and every decision. The fact is every single detail of our life, from our genetic make up to who we happen to meet on the way to the shops, is, to a larger or lesser degree, significant in shaping not only who we are but what we will become. Just think of all the details that have gone to make up this story which if they had been just slightly different would have produced a totally different story and a different outcome. The buying of the coat of many colours, the relating of the dream, the oafishness of the brothers, the kindness of one of them ,their jealousy all of which led to the selling of Joseph into slavery- take one of those links out and the whole chain falls apart. Just think: Had the Arab merchants not come along, would have meant no Joseph in slavery in Egypt. Or then again, no Potiphar, no position of responsibility. No Potiphar’s wife, would have meant no prison, which in turn would have meant no meeting Pharaoh’s cupbearer, which in turn would have meant no meeting Pharaoh, no premiership, no saving people from famine, no 12 tribes of Israel, no fulfilling of God’s promises to Abraham, no Jesus Christ, no Saviour of the world and no St John’s Newland. That is how everything is connected with everything else in God’s world and so God has to be at work in every link in the chain do you see?
But fourthly, providence does involve human responsibility. God does not override our choices, he knows them, he uses them and he holds us accountable for them. The brothers still did evil-they can’t be let off the hook by claiming they were fulfilling God’s plans, they had no such intention. God uses our choices, he doesn’t abuse them.
And all of this is borne out in that account of Joseph in the household of Potiphar and in prison which is the evidence of providence- chapter 39.
Now tell me, if you were Joseph, at what point would you have said: ‘God is really with me?’ Wouldn’t you take as a sign of God’s blessing that you had landed a pretty good job with Potiphar? On the face of it that is what the narrator of our story seems to be saying- v 2 ‘The LORD was with Joseph and he prospered, and he lived in the house with his Egyptian master.’ So is it right what some Christians today would claim that God wants us to be prosperous, having a good family, plenty of money, a great job and an all round good life? That is when God is really with us! Well, take a look at the end of the episode in v20b ‘ But while Joseph was in there in prison, the LORD was with him.’ I don’t know about you, but I would be tempted to have thought- ‘Yes, sure God was with me in the palace, but he had abandoned me in the prison.’ No. The LORD was with Joseph in both places. He is not just the God of the good times but the God of the hard times as well. So let me say that if you are finding things especially difficult at the moment and you are a Christian believer, don’t take that as a sign of God abandoning you, any more than Joseph took his jail sentence as a sign of God abandoning him-he does not. God was there using this experience as well. So let me ask: What lessons do you think Joseph learnt? He must have learnt something for it seems that the cocksure young man of chapter 37 with his great dreams of grandeur has given way to a very different and more pastorally sensitive and caring man in chapter 50. When do you think the character formation started? No doubt on his long journey to Egypt bound in chains. You bet he did some thinking and praying on many a lonely night in Potiphar’s house. How do you think he felt when there was a glimmer of hope when the cupbearer was released and said, ‘Yes I won’t forget you, I will put in a good word’, and promptly didn’t? Devastated, I would have thought. And yet, and yet at each step of the way God was using such circumstances to make Joseph into the man he wanted him to be in order to fulfil the plans he designed. If times are good, bless God, if times are hard, God can still be blessed and trusted-he has not left us.
But this raises a question: How did Joseph reach the conclusion that, ‘God intended it for good?’ Well, it wasn’t simply a matter of trying to read it off from the circumstances. How can you conclude that God is achieving a good purpose by being sold into slavery? How can you take comfort from being thrown out of the house, unjustly being accused of rape when all you tried to do was to keep God’s law in not committing adultery- v9- that this is for the good of many? You can’t. I guess you could read it lots of ways, that God isn’t in control, that the devil is in charge and so on. No, the only reason why Joseph could believe what he did and say what he said was because God had revealed it, a revelation confirmed by hindsight in experience. You see, Joseph would have known something of the LORD. His Father was Jacob and he had had plenty of revelations of God- one night he wrestled with him by a brook. Jacob too would have had stories passed on to him by his father Isaac and he in turn by Abraham. And so Joseph would have known of God’s promises, his work in the lives of his forefathers and he would have thought long and hard on those things, especially when he was lonely and things weren’t seemed to be going right. In other words he would have been walking by faith not by sight.. And towards the end of his life as he looks back he can see part of the picture, what God has achieved. But it was only part of the picture. He hadn’t the slightest inkling of the wonderful goods which God was going to bring about and especially that eventually another shepherd boy would be born, called David, a shepherd King. And that from this shepherd King the Shepherd King would be born, Jesus who was also to suffer a grotesque act of injustice and betrayal, imprisoned, beaten and then impaled on a cross. But God also intended this for good and ‘the saving of many lives’- the souls of people like you and me.
We may not be a Joseph but we, like him, are in God’s good purposes nonetheless, so even though in the midst of circumstances we may not be able to discern God’s immediate purposes, we can believe they are not accidents. There may be times in the future when, like Joseph, we can look back and say, ‘Now I see it, now I understand’ that is what he was doing’, But there will be many times when we will simply have to say, ‘I don’t know, I don’t understand but God does and I will trust in him anyway.’
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