Exodus 1:1-14; Isaiah 53:1-12; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; Philippians 2:5-11
It’s our third week now with Joseph, and we’ve already heard the story twice. First, we heard how Joseph started on top as beloved son, receiving a gift from his father Jacob: “Here’s my coat for you to wear—a token of my love.” Subsequently betrayed by his brothers—threatened with death, yet imprisoned. Finally redeemed by the power of Potiphar receiving a gift from Potiphar: “Here’s my authority for you to wear—a token of my admittedly pragmatic respect and appreciation.” And Joseph wears that authority and wields that power to Potiphar’s benefit, the benefit of Potiphar’s household, not to mention his own.
Then that ending becomes a new beginning and we hear the story all over again with Joseph back on top—wearing the authority and wielding the power of Potiphar. Subsequently betrayed by Potiphar’s wife—threatened with death, yet imprisoned. Finally redeemed by the even greater power of Pharaoh receiving a gift from Pharaoh: “Here’s my authority for you to wear.” And Joseph wears that authority and wields Pharaoh’s power to Pharaoh’s personal benefit, to Egypt’s benefit, to the world’s, not to mention his own.
As we observed last week, it’s not just that it’s the kind of success story sure to be a hit on Broadway, but that it’s also a perennially popular theology—as a story in which God works through those with power—constituting a virtual divine blessing of the existing power structure, right? Time and time again, God works through those with power to raise Joseph from the depths to the heights and to the benefit of everyone involved. What’s not to like?
So we wonder—we have to wonder—is this the culmination of the unfolding story of generations? Is this the promise of God awaited through the years now finally fulfilled? The promise first made to Abram and Sarai: “Through you—through your descendants—all the families of earth will be blessed.” The promise now realized through Joseph’s power—the power God gives him, as all the families of earth are blessed. And again, what’s not to like? You work hard, you stay true to yourself and to your God, and when you make it, from your position of power you help everyone less fortunate.
Now we did, last week, identify and track some fast moving currents beneath the calm, non-threatening-to-the-status-quo surface of this story. We did get the sense that there’s more going on than meets the eye—that the story does in fact raise questions about some of the very institutions and presuppositions it doesn’t appear to question at all. This story most definitely raises questions about the institutions and presuppositions of the patriarchal system—the place (or, more accurately, the non-place) of women within that patriarchal tradition. It does raise questions about those who win because others lose—about those who are included only because others are excluded—about the blessing of some within the family and the rejection of others. This story does raise some basic questions about relationships characterized by inequality in power.
It also raises questions about power—and about success. For the story notes that success does not equal shalom and that power cannot bring about shalom. This is a story affirming that shalom, God’s dream for creation, has to do with reconciliation—with the reconciliation of estranged members of one family. And however high Joseph rises, in the end it’s less Joseph’s power and more Joseph’s grace that restores the relationships within his immediate family—that then leaves us wondering what will—what can—restore relationships within the extended family.
So now what? Aren’t we through with the Joseph story? We talked about his having died last week, remember? And yet, repetition creates an expectation—of endings becoming new beginnings. And if we look to the next chapter, the next verse, sure enough—from a position of respect and power at the top, a Pharaoh who didn’t know Joseph comes to power and subjugates an entire people and we fall to the depths.
So what do we expect? As we move from Genesis to Exodus, what do we expect in the ongoing story? And as people who locate ourselves within this still unfolding story—this story of God and God’s people, what do we expect? On the one hand, we expect God to work through power to restore God’s people to prosperity, right? And right on cue, we have Moses, raised in the very seat of power—Pharaoh’s own household. And what does Moses do, but act in power, and as we’ve gotten used to, not any power he has. He receives the power of another, but this time, it’s not the power of Potiphar. It’s not the power of Pharaoh, but the very power of God! “Throw down that stick Moses” (Exodus 4:1-9; 7:8-10).
On the other hand though, don’t we have to be wondering? About those currents? About the questions raised below the surface? About power and about shalom? About reconciliation?
I’ve confessed to you before (and that’s the right word—confessed)—I have confessed to you my ambivalent feelings about some of the books (and movies) I enjoy—the action thriller ones that glorify violence, promoting a preemptive (yet always retributive) do-unto-others-before-they-do-unto-you kind of approach to the enemy. And it’s been absolutely fascinating to notice in the last several years that, more and more, the authors of such books are feeling the need to justify the actions of their protagonists. Any of you noticed that? They—these authors—will have a character acknowledge the explicit violence and then seek to justify it in the name of expedience or security or justice and usually disdainfully mock any questioning of such behavior—contemptuously dismiss any criticism of such behavior as the soft, liberal, rose-filtered blindness of those without the courage to face the world as it is.
But what do they see? These authors and characters, I wonder. Do they see the cycle of confrontation and conflict they promote? The cycle in which the one with the best strategy, the best weapons, the most soldiers or the most ruthless initiative in the right place at the right time wins, yet each win simply winds up the clock to countdown to the next time someone violently objects to the status quo. Do they see that every victory’s nothing but a Pyrrhic victory in what’s always a bigger conflict? And there can be no justice. Can there? There is simply everyone’s premise that they will win. And whoever wins gets to both define and claim justice and God’s vindication. Because power writes the end of the story.
And each success spawns a sequel involving an even more daunting threat and challenge requiring ever greater violence justified. Whether you name it the next thriller in the profitable series—whether you name it middle eastern foreign policy or our “war on terror.” I’m reminded of Albert Einstein defining insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Did you know that while we in the west read and watch James Bond, Russia has their own fictional superspy, Colonel Maxim Maximovich Isayev? And everyone’s “good guys” are someone else’s “bad guys.” And is it all really just a matter of perspective? And if we entrust the story to war, how do we justify saying it isn’t? If there’s nothing bigger to trust than who has the biggest stick. Really? That’s not what we teach our children at school.
And so, in the escalation of justification, sides eventually claim the ultimate power. God’s on our side. God’s power is on our side. What we do is divinely vindicated. So isn’t it interesting, that the magicians match Moses’ acts of power? They throw down their sticks and match God’s power trick for trick (Exodus 7:11, 22; 8:7), until in the ever escalating great acts of power and deliverance they couldn’t. And power apparently prevails.
We’re not actually going to spend a lot of time with Exodus. We’ve done that before. Though I would love for you to remember that before Moses even appears, it’s actually the midwives who resist the power of Pharaoh and who resist his power most effectively without further undoing shalom. Just as I would love for you to remember that before Moses becomes the leader and prophet of great power and authority, and long before the children of Israel under his leadership sought to conquer the natives of a foreign land (Ex 34:11), long before the children of Israel institutionalized strict prejudices against the natives of foreign lands (Deut 7:3-5), Moses married into a native family and the family of a Midianite priest at that! Long before the children of Israel engaged in practices of annihilation (Deut 2:34; 3:3; 7:2; Josh 6:17, 21; 8:24-25; 11:19-20), Moses engaged in a policy of conversation.
The depths of the story continue to shift beneath the surface. And we continue to query what exactly we’re to take from all this. And if we’re attuned to the depths, we begin to hear the story truer than the telling of it. We begin to hear a story intimated within the telling of another story. And in Joseph we begin to hear more than is said—the story reaching beyond itself to a greater truth than it can contain.
And if we listen—if we read more of the story—more of the stories—and probe their depths, what is it we begin to hear? We find ourselves considering those who know the depths—those who find themselves betrayed, threatened with death, imprisoned and in whose story God does not move in power circles to create prosperity—even as we continue to ask questions about power and success and conquest and shalom.
How does the story unfold in such circumstances? Does it continue to unfold in such circumstances? Because in the stories power writes, the losers’ stories don’t get written. Yet that’s precisely where the depths of this submerged story rise—in meaning beyond the apparent and often counter to it. The story of the deep that surfaces within other stories. The currents that mock the calm surface—that mock those who settle for rhetoric and appearance—that call into question what is, as only what appears to be—the truth of the currents of the deep that reshape the world.
As we find ourselves considering the ones who don’t end up on top—who don’t end up successful—don’t end up saved by power—who end up suffering—who end up on a cross—put there by power, yet even that ending, we believe, constitutes a new beginning. Because power does not write the end of this story—this story of the world inverted—turned upside down and inside out (Acts 17:6). We find ourselves considering the least of these. And, I tell you, we begin to hear the affirmation that raises us to unimagined heights. The assurance that no one can take from us regardless of circumstance—regardless of circumstance.
Joseph, you see, is a story fulfilled in Isaiah’s suffering servant. Joseph is a story fulfilled in the Philippian hymn and in the life of Jesus. These stories that seem to be the opposite of the Joseph story conform to its depths. And it’s not a story waiting for the New Testament to fulfill the Old. That’s not it at all. It’s rather, the story that’s truer than it knows it is. It’s the depths in which we hear affirmed our status as beloved children of God receiving a gift from our beloved God: “Here’s my love for you to wear (Colossians 3:12-14/15)—a token of my love and my expectation.” So when subsequently betrayed—when threatened with death, when imprisoned and not redeemed by anyone’s power, and yet never not redeemed—wrapped in the love no one can take from us.
What characters in those books and movies I watch don’t have the courage to admit, what their authors don’t have the courage to admit, what their readers may not have the courage to admit (what I may not have the courage to admit)—is that the true courage lacking in our world today is the courage to reject cyclical stories of power and to live into another story—the story of shalom.
Time and time again, we settle. We settle for a story not worthy of us—for stories not worthy of us. For stories too small—too limited—too exclusive—too short sighted. As individuals—as citizens of this country—as the children of God, we settle for the rhetoric—for the appearance of things. We settle for the surface of the Joseph story which only in its depths suggests the greater truth—the story in which you ultimately believe not in power—not in the status quo, but in faith—in hope and in love. Faith and hope that look ever to how we anticipate the story unfolding and love that’s the way we live in the meantime. And instead of who’s more violent—who has more military toys—who’s the better strategist—who’s willing to be more ruthless, we have before us the question of who will be more faithful—more faithful to a bigger picture—a bigger story not determined by power.
On the way to church this morning, I lost track of how many people I saw go by on bikes—exercising their bodies. And that’s a good thing. It was a beautiful morning for it. We gather to exercise our story: I have a story I know to be truer than I can tell. Week in and week out we gather to remind ourselves both of what we settle for and of how much more there is. We gather to ask each other, when you read the newspaper, do you think to yourself this is the way it is, or it’s not supposed to be this way? When we hear yet more posturing of politicians always claiming to speak for so many more than they do, do we think, these are our leaders, or this is what the world would have us believe constitutes leadership? We gather to ask each other, when we hear talk of the bottom line, what are the depths of which we think? What is our bottom line? We gather week in and week out to remind ourselves of the only story worth our living. Not the apparent story. Not the easy story. Not the surface story. But the story of God breathing over the surface of the deep—breathing the very depths of shalom into and onto the surface—rewriting, always, the scribblings of power.
Etymologically, you may or may not know, the name “Joseph” comes from a root verb meaning “to add” or “to increase.” And we who read these stories and perceive a deeper truth to them want more. We want more than the story the world tells. We want a story that’s more relevant. We want a story that’s more artistic. We want a story that’s more mysterious, more creative, more discerning. We want a story that’s more inspired even as it’s more inspiring. A story that’s more perceptive, more insightful, more fun. A story not deep and wide, but deeper and wider. We want a story that’s more innovative, more complex, more inclusive, more visionary, more imaginative, more grace-filled, more compassionate, more challenging, more transformative, more hopeful—a story more characterized by how we want the story to end.
That’s our prayer. May it be so.