Faith in Trials
Genesis 37, 40-47
I use my computer a lot and sometimes when I do, I press a key and nothing happens. My reaction is to press more keys and before I know it, I have gotten myself into a mess. If I had been patient, the expected reaction would have happened. Instead, I make problems because I don’t trust the computer to do what it is supposed to do and I make problems.
The other day someone asked about making dough using yeast. They were having less than satisfactory results. When told that they needed to allow the yeast to rise in a warm place, they suddenly realized what they had done wrong. They didn’t trust the yeast to do its job and didn’t know that you just had to wait for it to react.
Those of you who farm know all about waiting and trusting the seed and the ground. I often look at the black fields in spring and wonder if anything will ever come up. If a farmer planted a field and then went out the next day and decided to reseed because the crop wasn’t up yet, we would suspect he was not a farmer, but a city dweller.
Yet we have a similar lack of trust in God many times. We expect God to act, but when he doesn’t act as and when we expect, we begin to doubt God and we go out and act on our own. Yet the Bible encourages us to “wait on the Lord” and promises us that He will act.
This morning, we will look at a very encouraging story which helps us understand the need to trust in God. Joseph’s story is one which teaches us that if we have patience and trust in God we will see how God will work.
I. It’s A Tough Life!
All of us go through hard times in life. Joseph had some significant hardships in his life.
A. Joseph’s Hardships
1. Sold by his brothers.
We are introduced to Joseph when he was 17 years old. He was the second youngest of Jacob’s children. Because he was Rachel’s son, he became his father’s favorite and that did not sit well with his other brothers. Genesis 37:4 says that they hated him. He did not endear himself to his brothers when he mentioned to them that he had a dream in which their sheaves of grain were bowing down to his sheaf. Genesis 37:5 says, “they hated him all the more.” After a second similar dream in which 11 stars and the sun and moon bowed down to him, it says that “they were jealous of him.”
One day, his father sent him to see how they were doing with the flocks and when they saw him coming, they plotted to kill him. Reuben, the oldest brother, prevented them from doing so. Instead, reasoning that it would not be good to be guilty of murder, that they could perhaps make some money and that he was, after all, their brother, they sold him to a group of Ishmaelite traders.
I cannot imagine what it would be like to be sold into slavery, much less to be sold by your own brothers. Family bonds are strong even in dysfunctional families and such an action speaks of a powerful rejection. It must have been frightening and devastating for Joseph!
2. Life as a slave.
Joseph was taken to Egypt by the traders where he was sold to Potiphar who was the captain of the palace guard. He was not hired as a manager, nor given the freedom to choose his career or get an education. He was sold as a slave and lived and worked as a slave. He had no freedom. Joseph was the favoured son of his father. Although we have often thought of the coat that Jacob had given him as a multi-coloured coat, the Hebrew does not necessarily support that translation. An alternate translation is that it was a long sleeved coat, which could suggest the garment of a person who did not work. The fact that he was sent to inquire of his brothers makes one wonder why he was not shepherding with them and this supports this kind of an interpretation. What a great change from favoured son to slave.
3. Falsely accused
Last week we looked at the story of Joseph in Potiphar’s house and how Potiphar’s wife was trying to seduce him. When he refused to give in and had to flee, she accused him of trying to abuse her. One wonders why the servants, who probably knew, did not say anything. One wonders why such an offence that was punishable by death resulted in a prison term instead. Did Potiphar know his wife was guilty? Nevertheless, this man who had a strong reputation for trustworthiness, was accused of a crime he never committed and there was no legal recourse, no way of convincing anyone he was innocent. And so Joseph languished in jail. He went from favoured son to slave to falsely accused prisoner.
After some time in prison, two of Pharaoh’s servants were put in prison. One night, each of them had dreams which disturbed them greatly. They wondered what the dreams meant. In that society, dreams were taken seriously. Some dreams are obviously the result of something we have eaten, but some dreams are clearly messages from God. They had a sense that these dreams were. Joseph was responsible to take care of these prisoners and when he saw them, they mentioned the dreams to him. He indicated that God could interpret dreams and when they told him their dreams, he was able to tell them what they meant and they happened just as he said. The baker’s dream indicated his death, but the butler’s dream indicated his reinstatement. Joseph asked him, in Genesis 40 “when all goes well with you, remember me and show me kindness.” But when the butler was released and reinstated, he forgot all about Joseph and Joseph spent another two years in prison.
The total time of his slavery and imprisonment was approximately 13 years. Genesis 37:2 indicates that Joseph was 17 years old and later in Genesis 41:46 says that when he began to work for Pharaoh he was 30.
What a long time to hold on to hope! What a long time to trust that God is at work! What a difficult life! Joseph must have felt what the Psalmist expresses in Psalm 13:1, “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?”
B. Life’s Hardships
Sometimes life is like that. The Psalms express life’s hardships very well. Sometimes we live with hardships of our own making. Psalm 38:5,6 says, “My wounds fester and are loathsome because of my sinful folly. I am bowed down and brought very low; all day long I go about mourning.”
One chapter later, in Psalm 39:5,6, we have an expression of hardships that are a part of life - illness, loss, trial. There we read, “You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man’s life is but a breath. Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro: He bustles about, but only in vain; he heaps up wealth, not knowing who will get it.”
Then two chapters later in Psalm 41:5,6 we have expressions of hardship imposed on us by others. “My enemies say of me in malice, ‘When will he die and his name perish?’ Whenever one comes to see me, he speaks falsely, while his heart gathers slander; then he goes out and spreads it abroad.”
Which of these hardships do you identify with? How does it feel?
C. Living With Hardship
1. God Is With You
Sometimes we say to a person in the midst of trial, “God is with you.” It is interesting how many times this phrase is spoken in the story of Joseph. In Genesis 39:2,3, 5, 21,23 we read over and over, “The Lord was with Joseph.” But how could that be? How did Joseph experience that? How could that be when he was hated and almost killed by his brothers? How could that be when we was a slave? How could that be when he was falsely accused and put in prison? Did Joseph believe it? Do we believe it when we are in the midst of trials??
2. It Doesn’t Feel Like It
Sometimes we look at a person who lives by faith in the midst of trials and we think, it must be easy for them, they are so strong and solid. Joseph appears like that - strong and solid - but that is only the outward impression. There are a number of things which tell us that it was hard for Joseph. When he interpreted the butler’s dream, he indicated how hard it was for him. He didn’t just shrug it off. He was deeply wounded by what had happened to him and these expressions indicate that he did not understand why. He says in 40:15, “…I was forcibly carried off from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing to deserve being put in a dungeon.”
After he was lifted up and became second in command of the land of Egypt, the remembrance of his difficulties was still in his mind. We see this in the names he gave to his children in Genesis 41:51,52. His first born was named Manasseh, which sounds like the Hebrew word for “forget” and indicates that he had troubles to forget and a family to forget. His second son was named Ephraim which sounds like the Hebrew for “twice fruitful.” His reasoning for the name is that “God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.”
Although the Bible indicates that God blessed him, Joseph did not always feel blessed and always remembered the difficulties of his life.
3. Joseph Remained Faithful
Yet, as we saw last week, even though Joseph experienced great difficulty and felt the difficulty greatly, he remained faithful. The text says that the Lord was with Joseph, but we also see something in Joseph in that he remained faithful to God. His behaviour in Potiphar’s house, his diligent and faithful work, his trustworthiness all reveal that in spite of all these strikes against him, he was true and continued to trust God.
One wonders if the dreams he saw as a young man kept him hoping in God, but whatever it was, he continued to trust God even when there were times when there was very little evidence that God was with him.
II. Faithfulness Vindicated
However, when we look at the whole story, we see that his trust was vindicated. Jacob trusted God because he believed that God was doing something in his life and beyond. As we continue to read this story, we see that this was absolutely true.
A. God Saved Israel
1. Joseph Elevated
After 13 years of being in slavery and prison, Pharaoh himself had a dream and suddenly the butler whose dream Joseph had interpreted earlier remembered what Joseph had done. Joseph was sent for and interpreted the dream of Pharaoh. The interpretation of his dream was that there were going to be 7 years of plenty followed by 7 years of famine. Joseph not only interpreted the dream, he also advised Pharaoh that he should set aside a certain amount of grain each of the years of plenty so that there would be enough for the years of famine. Throughout this interview with Pharaoh, Joseph was constantly pointing to God. We see the faith and humility of Joseph in Genesis 41:16 when he responded to Pharaoh’s request to interpret the dream by saying, “‘I cannot do it…but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires.’” Then in the following verses, Joseph continued to say things like, “God has revealed to Pharaoh” in 41:25 and “God has shown Pharaoh what he is about to do” in 41:28. One writer says, “The vale of tears has proved to be the valley of soul making.”
Joseph was promoted by Pharaoh to be second in the land and responsible for the management of the years of plenty and also the years of famine.
2. Brothers Come
So for 7 years, Joseph managed the resources of Egypt collecting taxes from all the people and they gathered so much grain that they couldn’t even keep track of everything they had collected. Then came the years of famine and they extended beyond the borders of Egypt and even to the land where Joseph’s father and brothers lived. Soon, his family began to feel the effects of the famine as well. They heard that there was food in Egypt and 10 of Joseph’s brothers took money and headed for Egypt to try to buy food. When they arrived, they were told to see the man in charge, who happened to be Joseph. They bowed down before Joseph, fulfilling the dream Joseph had had when he was 17 years old. Joseph recognized them, but they did not recognize Joseph and he did not immediately make himself known to him. He did not know if they still hated him and he needed to test their hearts. He quizzed them about their father and their family to try to discern what was going on in their hearts. He pretended to accuse them of spying and indicated that they would not get more food if their youngest brother did not come with them. At this point, they said to each other “Surely we are being punished because of our brother.” Joseph heard this and turned away and wept. However, he still did not reveal himself to them and kept one of the brothers, Simeon, in prison while the rest were given food and told to return home. Joseph’s servants were told to put their money back into their sacks. When they left Egypt and realized that their money was in their sacks, they were horrified and feared what would happen to them if they went back to Egypt. Jacob was also upset that they would not be allowed to go without his favoured son, Benjamin.
For a long time, they did not return, but eventually hunger won out and they returned to Egypt. There is more to the story and I encourage you to read it from Genesis 40-46, it is a great story. This time, Joseph revealed himself to his brothers. When he did, they were terrified. All of a sudden their hatred of Joseph, their desire to kill him, their selling him to the Ishmaelites came back to haunt them. But Joseph’s faith in God’s work is revealed in this encounter. Joseph told them clearly, what God’s perspective was. He says in Genesis 45:5-7, “And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. 6 For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping. 7 But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. 8 So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God... ” It is clear that God has been at work through this whole time.
3. Israel moves
After the meeting, Joseph invited them to come and live in Egypt so that they would be spared from the famine. Now this is curious. In Genesis 26:2, Isaac had been told, “do not go down to Egypt.” Earlier, we saw that when God told Abraham to go to the promised land, he saw that as a sign that he should not ever move back to where his family had grown up. When God told Isaac not to go to Egypt, there may be a similar kind of thinking in the family that they should not go to Egypt, but stay in the promised land. As Jacob pondered the possibility, God gave his affirmation and told him that he should go down to Egypt. In Genesis 46:3 God said, “I am God, the God of your father,” he said. “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there.” Many years previously, God had said to Abram in Genesis 15:13, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years.” These themes come together in the story of Joseph. God’s promise to Abram that he would have many descendants and be a great nation in the promised land is carried forward in the land of Egypt where the 70 people that go to Egypt will become a great nation and after 400 years return to the promised land. So Jacob moved to Egypt.
In all of these events, we see the hand of God. The 13 years of suffering for Joseph were necessary to fulfill all that God had in mind. A few years later when Jacob died, the 10 brothers who had sold Joseph into slavery became afraid again and they went to Joseph to beg his forgiveness. Once again, we see the faith of Joseph when he said to them in Genesis 50:20, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” He did not know why God had allowed him to become a slave. He did not know why he was falsely accused, but after 13 years of imprisonment and 9 years of being chief ruler of the land, it finally all came together and he understood the purpose of his suffering. God had always been at work and the trust he had manifested during all those years was vindicated by God’s mighty act.
B. God’s Promises
Nothing has changed. Our trust in God will always be vindicated! The same promise and hope are active in our life today. Paul makes the powerful promise in Romans 8. He assures us, “28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose… 31 What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? …37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The only question is, will we live and walk in faith even when we go through years of trouble and trial? May the example of Joseph encourage us to realize that God is at work.
God knows, not I, the reason why
His winds of storm drive through my door;
I am content to live or die
Just knowing this, nor knowing more.
My Father's hand appointing me
My days and ways, so I am free.
Ella Wheeler Wilcox:
I will not doubt, though all my ships at sea
Come drifting home with broken masts and sails;
I shall believe the hand which never fails,
From seeming evil worketh good to me.
And, though I weep because those sails are battered,
Still will I cry, while my best hopes lie shattered,
"I trust in thee."
Jeanette Strong tells the following story:
When my son was a toddler, washing his hair was always a problem. He would sit in the bathtub while I put shampoo on his hair. Then, when I poured on the water to make a lather, he would tip his head down so that the shampoo ran into his eyes, causing pain and tears. I explained that if he just looked straight up at me, he could avoid getting the shampoo in his face. He would agree; then, as soon as I started to rinse his hair, his fear would overcome his trust, and he would look down again. Naturally the shampoo would run into his face again, and there would be more tears.
During one of our sessions, while I was trying to convince him to lift up his head and trust me, I suddenly realized how this situation was like my relationship to God. I know God is my Father, and I'm sure He loves me. I believe that I trust Him, but sometimes, in a difficult situation, I panic and turn my eyes away from Him. This never solves the problem; I just become more afraid, as the "shampoo" blinds me.
Even though my son knew I loved him, he had a hard time trusting me in a panicky situation. I knew I could protect him, but convincing him of that wasn't easy, especially when all he could see was water coming down. His lack of trust hurt me, but it hurt him more. He was the one who had to suffer the pain. I'm sure my lack of trust hurts God very much, but how much more does it hurt me?
Often in the Bible, we are told to lift up our head to God when problems come. He knows how to protect us if we remember to listen to Him. Now, when I find myself in a situation where it would be easy to panic, I picture my son sitting in the bathtub, looking up at me, learning to trust me. Then I ask God what I should do. Sometimes the answer may seem scary, but, one thing I'm sure of--He'll never pour shampoo in my face!
James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, 1988), p. 479.