Promises Promises

Promises Promises

As we turn to our text from Genesis this morning, we move to a story that will take up the remainder of Genesis. It’s a story that began how we heard during the children’s time. It’s a story of dreams and visions, of family behaving the best it can, and the worst. It’s a story of God’s continued promise to be with us. But it’s also a story of what happens to faithful people when things at times go wrong. Let’s take a look into this story from the life of Joseph…

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, and he became a successful man; he was in the house of his Egyptian master. His master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hands. So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him; he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had. From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field. So he left all that he had in Joseph’s charge; and, with him there, he had no concern for anything but the food that he ate.

Joseph found favor in Potiphar’s house. But that favor wasn’t a promise, like the promises that Noah and Abraham received from God. But in finding that favor from Potiphar, which will later become the favor of Pharaoh, Joseph found, and will continue to find, the fulfillment of his dreams.

But even for what seems like one of God’s most favored servants, life isn’t always that great…and at this point in our story, it looks like things might be getting worse for good old Joe…

Now Joseph was handsome and good-looking. And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, ‘Lie with me.’ But he refused and said to his master’s wife, ‘Look, with me here, my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my hand. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife. How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?’ And although she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not consent to lie beside her or to be with her. One day, however, when he went into the house to do his work, and while no one else was in the house, she caught hold of his garment, saying, ‘Lie with me!’ But he left his garment in her hand, and fled and ran outside. When she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled outside, she called out to the members of her household and said to them, ‘See, my husband has brought among us a Hebrew to insult us! He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice; and when he heard me raise my voice and cry out, he left his garment beside me, and fled outside.’ Then she kept his garment by her until his master came home, and she told him the same story, saying, ‘The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to insult me; but as soon as I raised my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me, and fled outside.’

I imagine Joseph, like David and Jesus after him, could have cried out like the psalmist, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Being wrongly accused is something that causes a person or community to cry out.

When we feel abandoned, when we feel like there is no one advocating on our behalf, when we feel most isolated, we cry out. Bonhoeffer writes: “The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us…Before God and with God we live without God.”[1]

Our life before God is one full of many emotions.

Henri Nouwen writes,

God is “beyond,” beyond our heart and mind, beyond our feelings and thoughts, beyond our expectations and desires, and beyond all the vents and experiences that make up our life. Still God is in the center of all of it.[2]

Joseph, the one who has dreamed about God using him to be a blessing, isn’t in the best of spots. Wrongfully accused by the second most powerful person in the house next to Potiphar himself. This might not end up so great for our pal Joe…

When his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, saying, ‘This is the way your servant treated me’, he became enraged. And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined; he remained there in prison. But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love; he gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer. The chief jailer committed to Joseph’s care all the prisoners who were in the prison, and whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. The chief jailer paid no heed to anything that was in Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.

What an interesting little tale that is part of our holy story… And where we see Joseph at the end, thrown into jail, isn’t much better than the slave trade he was sold out of at the beginning of the passage.

When I continue to ask questions of this passage, questions like “how can God let bad things happen to faithful people?” I often end up with more questions than I start with…

Was Joseph always the best example of how to live, not when he is tattling on his brothers, lying to them about who he is, and hoarding food during a time of famine when others are going hungry. But Joseph was human, just like us, and was wrongly imprisoned by Potiphar after being caught in that sticky situation with Potiphar’s wife. Joseph must have wandered about why bad things happened to him while he remained faithful to God.

“How does God let bad things happen to faithful people,” is a question that has haunted people throughout history. Woody Guthrie was so haunted by this question that he penned the text, God’s Promise. A number of years ago, Woody’s daughter Nora asked a number of songwriters to give put some of her fathers poems to music. Ellis Paul was asked to give a tune to God’s Promise. This is what happened…

Woody Guthrie/ Ellis Paul – God’s Promise (4 minutes)

I first met Steve Hayner during my first year at Columbia Seminary. Steve’s wife, Sharol, was also a first year student in the MDiv program. Steve was the new Professor of Evangelism, having served time in local congregations and para-church organizations, including over a decade as President of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. Steve and Sharol were wonderful additions to the Columbia campus.

In 2009, following the retirement of Laura Mendenhall, Steve was named Columbia’s new President. Steve was the ideal candidate, a bridge-builder, visionary, and humble servant, Steve was thriving in his new role.

This past spring, the seemingly unthinkable happened, Steve was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Past students, colleagues, and a whole denomination wrapped Steve and his family with prayer. But the cancer continues to spread, despite all the prayer, which begs that question, where is God in this?

On his caring-bridge site, Steve recently wrote to all of us who have been praying for his healing.

“There is a much bigger story of which this is only a tiny part. And it is God’s story of love, hope, forgiveness, reconciliation, and joy. We went into this journey choosing to trust God and to offer our fears to God. We’ve been so grateful for the freedom from fear and the abundance of peace that we have experienced. There are, of course, times of discouragement, grief, pain, and wonder. After all, there are a lot of unknowns ahead of us.”

Steve continues,

“Many are praying for one of God’s ‘big’ miracles. We are as well. But it is not how God answers prayer that determines our response to God. God is committed to my ultimate healing. But being cured of my cancer may or may not be a part of that healing work.”[3]

I think more than anything else, Steve would affirm what Paul says to the Romans, that God works for good in all that believe and trust in him. What God does not say, is that it will always be easy. There might be times when like Joseph, and Steve, we feel God’s presence a little differently than we normally do. But that might be alright…

Henri Nouwen writes,

When God, through the humanity of Jesus, freely chose to share our own most painful experience of divine absence, God became most present to us.[4]

However we feel God’s presence in our live, whether through prayer or time in creation, during our most difficult trials or heartfelt rejoicing, we are bold to proclaim that God is indeed with us. The promise from the beginning has been that God will be the bedrock of our life, individually and communally, and that promise still rings today.

Alleluia and Amen.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, p.360

[2] Henri Nouwen, Seeds of Hope, p.125

[3] Presbyterian Outlook Vol. 196 No. 19, “Columbia president affirms faith despite spreading cancer” p.15-16

[4] Nouwen, p.126