The Story of Joseph: The Life of a Dreamer, “Dreams Going Astray”
by Pr. Cherie Johnson
Today, we begin a new sermon series, The Story of Joseph: The Life of a Dreamer. We have been concentrating on the time after Jesus’ resurrection and the possibilities that can make for our lives. One thing, I know for sure, the best way to understand what the writers are talking about in the New Testament is to be familiar with the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, or as the New Testament writers would have thought of it, the Bible.
We are moving way back, almost to the beginning. For the next several weeks we will be in the last section of Genesis, following the story of Joseph, the 11th son of the last of the Patriarchs.
The first of the Patriarchs was Abraham. God made a promise to him, a covenant, that he would be the father of many nations. He would have more descendants than grains of sand on the seashore, more descendants than there were stars in the sky. At this point, Abraham and his wife Sarah were already fairly “mature,” and long past the age when most people have children. Yet, eventually, together, they have one son, Isaac.
When he gets older, God reaffirms his promise with Isaac. He has two sons, fraternal twins, and they were competing before they were even born. Esau was considered the older, but the younger, Jacob was always trying to take advantage, trying and succeeding to trick his brother and father. One of the meanings of the name Jacob is “deceiver,” “trickster,” or “liar.” I’ve heard of some pretty embarrassing nicknames, but how would you like to go around with that one? “Hey look who’s coming up the street! It’s “Liar,” or “How are you doing today, Liar?” Did he earn his name, or was he convinced that he needed to live in to it?
Jacob’s final trick before running away was to disguise himself as his older brother, Esau, and receive his brother’s blessing. His brother was so mad that his mother advised Jacob to run away until Esau has a chance to calm down. As he’s running away to his uncle’s house, God tells him that this promise originally given to Abraham, continuing through Isaac, would move forward through Jacob. He is told his descendants will be like the dust of the Earth, but truthfully it isn’t looking too promising as it goes from individual to individual.
Jacob continues his journey, and finds himself as the one being tricked this time. Working for seven years to marry the love of his life, he finds out after the ceremony that he married the wrong sister. Watch out if there’s too much veiling on your prospective bride! So, Jacob worked another seven years for his beloved Rachel. By the time Jacob is ready to return home the possibility for many descendants starts looking more promising with 11 sons so far, and at least one daughter.
On the way back, Jacob has a wrestling match with God, and God renamed him Israel meaning “he struggles with God,” a name that he will pass down to his descendants, “people who struggle with God.”
After, he returns to the land of his father, Canaan, and settles down, His last son is born, and life rolls on. The narrative continues, and his sons take center stage. That is where our scripture reading begins today, in Genesis chapter 37.
The story of Joseph makes a departure from the rest of Genesis. Its style is similar to a novella. Before this we see God taking a lot of direct action with the Patriarchs. With Joseph’s narrative, God is more behind the scenes, being revealed in dreams and working through other people, bring good out of human evil.
Today’s passage is so rich. There are so many things we could talk about, so many lessons to be learned, from generational family dysfunction, sibling rivalry, to taunting, and more. We can think of it as a children’s story, but there is jealousy, hatred, conspiracy, selling one’s brother into slavery. Not really a pleasant story at all.
In this series, we are focusing on dreams, so we’ll begin there. This is the only time in the whole story that these are Joseph’s dreams. He dreams them, but he doesn’t attach any particular meaning to them that we know of. It is his brothers, and his father who interpret them, and they don’t like the meaning they see.
After this, other people will do the dreaming, and Joseph will do the interpreting. One thing is clear. He does have a unique gift in being able to receive communication from God. He may be able to receive these communications from God, but he is seventeen years old, and he hasn’t learned tact, yet. He still has to learn did about winning friends and influencing people.
He wore the special coat his father gave him. In our translation today, it is described as “an ornate robe.” You may be more familiar with the “Coat of Many Colors” or “The Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Apparently, the Hebrew wording it is rather tricky to translate, but one thing is clear. It was a garment to show favor of the father, Jacob. Perhaps, it was not helpful for Dad to give the coat to add to the sibling rivalry among the twelve brothers. Also, it was not helpful for Joseph to go around wearing it all the time.
Then, Joseph tells about his dreams to his brothers. Maybe, he’s not bragging. Maybe he’s sharing in his excitement, but did he consider for one second how they might make his brothers feel? Then, he does it again, and also tells his father. Maybe, he thought his father might be proud, but even Jacob couldn’t encourage Joseph in this dream or everyone bowing down to him.
Joseph certainly has to learn about tact the hard way. He probably had a long time to think about it at the bottom of that cistern and on the trip to Egypt.
One of the problems is that Joseph began, as we might say today, he began believing his own press. He was his father’s favorite son, sure enough, but with these dreams, he practically taunted his family. When Joseph went to check on his brothers, he didn’t have to wear the robe. He could have left it at home. When his brother saw it, all it did was serve to remind them of his elevated status conferred by both their father Jacob, and seemingly by God.
That can sometimes be the problem when we let others interpret events for us. Something similar happened to me when I began to respond to God’s call on my life to full-time professional ministry. From the time that I first heard the call, about 20 years ago now, I always regarded it as a journey with an unknown destination.
When God first call Abraham, he says, “Go to a land I will show you.” (cf. Gen 12:1) God doesn’t tell Abraham the name of the land, where it is, how far away it is, what it is like, or how long it will take to get there. God is simply says, “Go.”
That is very much how my call felt to me. I was in Charleston, South Carolina at the time. I simply heard the command to go. At that time it was to Odessa, Texas. I had no idea what I would find when I got there. I just had to go. I prospered, and it was good.
By the time I felt it was time to go toward professional ministry, I had a lot of people around me that wanted specifics about what that meant. They found the response of, “I don’t know. I’ll find out when I get there,” very disconcerting. Most of them decided that it meant I would be a pastor or a minister. I really didn’t know, but eventually I started believing them. I pursued that path, and I was devastated when after almost two years later the door was slammed in my face with a resounding no! At least that was the way I heard it at the time. In reality, it was, “Not yet,” but I still needed to follow that path that God set before me. I took a break at a “rest stop” for a while, as I recovered and tried to figure out which direction God wanted me to go. Once I came to terms with and remembered that I didn’t know the destination. I didn’t have to know the destination, I could resume the journey. I’m still on that journey. The only thing I know for sure is that this is the place that I’m supposed to be right now.
But getting back to Joseph, I think he was getting too caught up with his brothers’ interpretation of his dreams. He’s his father’s favorite. He’s basically being asked to supervise his older brothers. He has these dreams that are being interpreted as everyone in his family bowing down to him. His future seems pretty bright. He’s going to be rich and powerful. The next thing he knows, he sitting at the bottom of a cistern as his brothers plot how to kill him. He gets a reprieve from death by being sold into slavery, but goodbye to fame and fortune. What must he have been thinking?
We don’t hear a word from Joseph as his brother’s capture him, strip him of his robe, and throw him in the cistern. We don’t hear him pleading for his life, begging forgiveness. Is he so sure that God is on his side that he will be rescued? Did he see how he contributed to this mess he’s in? Is it that he is so stunned? Is he saying to himself, “This can’t be happening to me. I was supposed to be powerful. I was supposed to be the leader.”
He is rescued from death, but he is taken far away. His life will be very different than the one he imagined.
It reminds me of people who think that because they’re Christians, they won’t have any problems, and then there confused when they do. Or, they think that if someone else is having problems that person doesn’t believe enough or did something wrong. It’s true that sometimes we have to suffer the consequences of our own mistakes, but sometimes we are suffering the consequences of someone else’s mistakes, or something totally outside our knowledge and control.
Jesus does not promise us problem-free living, quite the contrary. In John 16:33, Jesus says, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
We will have trouble, but we can have hope because we know that God is always with us, will never leave us or forsake us, and we know the final result.
All of us are on a journey. Like Joseph at this point in the story, we don’t know where it will take us, all the twists and turns, and what the intermediate stops will be. Sometimes our dreams seem to go astray. We can, however, be sure of one thing, God will never let us go, and the Final Destination includes victory with Jesus!