A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on August 7, 2011.
Genesis 37:1-28; Romans 10:11-15
How many of your high school reunions have you attended? I’ve only done it once… my tenth. The class held another reunion a decade later, but I we were living in Georgia and wasn’t able to come back for it, and there hasn’t been one since. I’m told the ones who still live in my hometown of Paragould were saddled with the responsibility of managing these reunions, and they just didn’t want to do it anymore. Can’t say that I blame them. They’re a lot of work, I imagine.
I do recall that at the reunion we did attend, Janet and I were making our way through the dining facilities at the country club where the festivities were being held. I encountered a young man sitting there, and nodded to him. “Hello, Randy,” he said to me quietly. I thought that maybe he was the husband of one of my classmates, someone I had never met. So, I was a bit surprised when he spoke to me and called my name. “You don’t recognize me, do you?” he said. “I’m Lindy Highfill.”
Now, you have to know that Lindy and I not only graduated from high school at the same time, we grew up together. Went to the same church, stayed over night at one another’s house. His dad Bruce was a used car dealer, and my dad bought vehicles from him, including the Chevy BelAir I was driving when Janet and I were married (never did get all the rice out of it). Lindy and I had spent a lot of time together when we were growing up, and I had no clue whatsoever as to who he was just ten years after we parted. He had changed that much.
So it’s possible, I suppose, that after a number of years spent in Egypt, Joseph was not recognizable to his brothers, those very same siblings who, years earlier, had put him in that pit we read about earlier, and told their father Jacob that he was dead. It’s possible.
I’m getting a bit ahead of the story, of course. If you know the account of Joseph, you are aware that after being rescued from that pit Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt and circumstances eventually led to his becoming a major leader in the pharaoh’s cabinet, a confidant to the king. It wasn’t all peaches-and-cream, to be sure (Joseph did spend a little time behind bars), but he went from immature, cocky, privileged little brother to secretary of state. So, he not only changed physically, he grew up in many other ways as well… so much so that his very own brothers didn’t recognize him.
But he knew who they were. And don’t think he didn’t use that knowledge to his advantage.
Jacob’s sons represent the third generation of Abraham’s descendants. God had made covenant with Abraham that a family would come from his loins… but more than a family, a people, a nation. As we have mentioned before, they would outnumber the stars in the skies and the grains of sands on the beach. But God did not promise that it would be an easy trip, and it definitely was not that.
Look at your own family tree, and you’ll see that living on this little orb we call earth is never very easy. There are skeletons in every one’s closet, and stories to be told. I know that’s true of my family.
If I ever get to retire, I have a book project in mind. I want to tell the story of my family… how they got to be my family, how circumstances eventually led them to live in Greene County, Arkansas. I plan to novelize it a bit, have some fun with it, tell stories of individual family members who I am still learning about. I’m keeping a file, compiling information. It should be a best-seller!
For example, I am told that some of my ancestors on my dad’s side first landed in Greer, South Carolina. There is a building there, still standing, that was constructed by one of my great-grandfathers for the purpose of conducting baptisms… by immersion, don’t you know! On my mother’s side – and I learned this just recently – there are descendants from France known as the Huguenots. They protested religious intolerance in France, and in the eighteenth century, because of persecution, fled to South Africa and Albermarle County, Virginia. One of them has his signature affixed to a document, dated 1776, demanding religious toleration in the colony of Virginia. No, it’s not the Declaration of Independence, but it’s close! So, you see, it’s in my blood, my DNA, this dogged insistence of the separation of church and state.
But I have also heard of the brothers who made their way to Mississippi from South Carolina, only to feud with one another and part ways. Somewhere along the way there was a horse thief in the family. Word is, he was eventually hanged for his transgressions. I don’t know if that is true, or even if I have all my facts straight, but I hope to find out. And even if that isn’t exactly the way it happened, I may put it in my book anyway. As I said, I plan to novelize some of the stories.
Just goes to show that there is some dysfunction in all families. And if you stop to think about it, it’s that dysfunction that makes for the best stories. Otherwise, things get pretty dull. That’s certainly true of the story of Joseph.
The narrative of Abraham’s family is no novel, though it tends to read like one. One thing we can know for certain: it didn’t take long for them to start misbehaving. Just the third generation and because of their jealousy and hatred, they’re already throwing the kid brother in a pit and selling him to slavers, then telling daddy that he’s been killed by a ravenous animal.
There’s a sense in which their bizarre and sinful behavior is understandable. Look at it this way… their daddy, Jacob, has twelve sons. It is from these twelve that later the tribes of Israel will come. If you were present a couple of weeks ago when we considered the story of Jacob and Laban, then you know that Laban, Jacob’s father-in-law, tricked Jacob into marrying Leah, Laban’s older daughter, when Jacob thought he was earning the affection of Rachel, the younger, more beautiful daughter. Eventually, Jacob took both to be his wives, and in addition to the eight sons produced from those unions, Jacob fathered four more with the two servant women attached to his wives.
Did you get all that? Just goes to show it was a different day and a much different culture, because this was not considered to be all that abnormal for that time and place. Still, it led to a lot of problems. The youngest son in the family was Benjamin, Joseph’s only full brother. All the others were half-brothers. Rachel, Jacob’s beloved, died while giving birth to Benjamin. Jacob handled his grief by doting on his two youngest sons, especially Joseph, while basically ignoring the others. So, you can see why there is a strong sibling rivalry within the family.
I am the youngest of three sons, and there’s a bit of that in our family. Hugh, the oldest, is six years my senior and almost five years older than Steve, who is the middle son. Hugh’s role, as the eldest son, was basically to ignore Steve and me. But since Steve and I were so close in age – just seventeen months – we grew up together, played together, and competed against one another. Rivalries tend to come from such relationships.
In fact, Steve still thinks to this day that a number of my very valuable baseball cards are his. That’s not true, of course, but he still thinks that. In fact, he still brings up from time to time that he always thought Mom loved me more. And while that may have been true, my response is that it isn’t my fault. Yes, I got a bicycle the same Christmas he got one, but it wasn’t as nice a bicycle. The same was true with the BB guns.
It doesn’t take much for there to be a sibling rivalry. Those of you who grew up with brothers and sisters, you know what I’m talking about.
I still think that Steve’s feelings are a result of his imagination. That’s not true when it came to Joseph and his brothers. He was favored by his father, he was given privileges that placed him in a position of authority over his older brothers, to the point that he got to stay at home while his brothers were forced to work in the fields. Not only that, but his father put him in charge of checking on them, and when they did not act favorably, Joseph couldn’t wait to get back to daddy to tell him what his bad-behaving brothers had done. Joseph viewed himself as their supervisor, but in truth he was really more of a snitch. And nobody likes a snitch.
And then there’s that coat. We think of it as the coat of many colors, but truth be told, there’s no certainty as to just exactly what the Hebrew word means that is used to describe it. I think I can confidently tell you that the word technicolor is not there. But regardless of whether the coat was colorful or had elaborate sleeves or unique markings, there was something about it that made it special. Whenever Joseph wore it – and you can be certain he wore it when he was around his brothers – it just screamed his father’s favor toward son number eleven. Everybody knew he was Jacob’s favorite son, and Joseph rubbed it in their faces. This whole situation was an explosion just waiting to happen.
And it did. And it came about because of a dream. In truth, it came about because Joseph decided to share his dream with his brothers. Big mistake.
We used to do that in our family. At the breakfast table we’d tell one another what we had dreamed during the night. The discussion would always end with my dad telling us what he had dreamed. We already knew, of course, because Dad would tell us the same thing every time. He had dreamt, he said, that he was awake, and when he woke up he found out he was asleep.
Not Joseph. “Listen to this dream,” he said to his brothers who already would grind their teeth when he was in their presence. “There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.” It was Joseph’s way of lording it over them, revealing his superiority to them. “So they hated him even more,” we are told, “because of his dreams and his words.”
Some of them hated him so much they wanted to kill him. But Reuben wouldn’t allow it. Reuben was the oldest son of Jacob, first-born in this dysfunctional family, the son of Leah, Rachel’s older sister whom Jacob did not love but was tricked into marrying. There is little doubt that Reuben felt as much hatred for his kid brother as any of the others, but when the eldest speaks the others listen and take heed.
In 1995, Janet’s family was planning a trip. It was to include her father, but he died before we could make our journey together. We decided to go anyway, and honor his memory by being together. After debating and talking – some wanted to go out west, others to Europe – Mike, the youngest of Janet’s siblings said to everyone else, “It doesn’t matter where any of us want to go. We’ll go where Carolyn wants to go.” And sure enough, that is what we did, because Carolyn is the oldest.
Evidently, that kind of reasoning took place with Jacob’s sons. When Reuben, the eldest, chose to spare Joseph’s life, the others listened. Still, they threw him into a pit until they could figure out what to do with him.
One of the most telling things about this story may be a statement that seems so innocuous that you wonder why it was even included. Once they have thrown him into the dry pit, we are told, “Then they sat down to eat.” You can almost see them, can’t you, knocking the dust off their hands and saying to one another, “I’m famished. Let’s eat.” Joseph is kicking and screaming down in the bottom of that pit, and his brothers are leisurely biting into their corned beef sandwiches. When it came to the needs and concerns of their little brother, they just didn’t care.
There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the stories that tell of Joseph’s life – and this one is just the beginning – but one of the things we find out is that all of Joseph’s dreams do come true. He did come to lord it over his brothers. Still, no one likes to hear others tell stories where they’re always the hero.
Another interesting thing is that the brothers scheme to turn Joseph’s dreams into his worst nightmare. It doesn’t get much worse than being sold into slavery by one’s own brothers. But once again, we find, this kind of story is the perfect fodder for God to come along and turn it into good. Even though God is never mentioned, we know that somehow this story will turn in the direction of the Almighty.
There may be some sibling rivalry in your family. Or perhaps, for whatever reason, a simmering resentment in you that’s trying to reach the boiling point. You may associate yourself more with Joseph, and think that you find yourself at the bottom of the pit. That’s the most interesting thing about this story and others you will find in scripture. Without exception, we can find ourselves in them, and come to realize that we are much like those who came before us centuries before.
The question is whether we will let God take us in all our humanness and then make of us, and the experiences we have, what God wants us to be. It takes faith to believe that God will come along and reinterpret our personal stories in such a way that there is grace within them. The least we can do is seek to give God a hand in making sure that things turn out the way God wants and not the way we think they should be. After all, that’s what grace is, don’t you agree?
Lord, we all have our stories to tell and they are not all good. Take who we are and what we do, and remake us in your image. Fulfill your will through us, we pray, in Jesus’ name. Amen.