As usual, a sermon never quite reads the way it “preaches” for a variety of reasons. With that in mind, here is my general manuscript for the message I preached this morning.
In 1962, a recording company executive heard about a new band coming on the British scene. He had serious doubts at the possibility of their success and said, “We don’t think the Beatles will do anything in their market. Guitar groups are on their way out.” Thomas G. Watson was the chairman of the board of IBM in 1943. With all the confidence in the world he once said, “I think there is a world market for about five computers.” A man named Lee DeForest invented the cathode ray tube in 1926, and when asked about the possibilities for that invention he remarked, “Theoretically, television may be feasible, but I consider it an impossibility – a development which we should waste little time dreaming about.”
Each one of these men looked at their current situation and assumed that was pretty much the end of the story. In a way, I can’t blame them. Their read of the data, their read of the situation, simply didn’t seem to suggest any other possibilities. World history is full of dreamers and scoffers. We know stories of countless optimists who dream about an unknown future and see possibility when the situation seems to call for skepticism, and we know countless pessimists who feel that we shouldn’t waste our time with dreams, visions, or thoughts about the future. To make matters even more complicated most of us are not fully one or the other! Most of us have no difficulty moving from one extreme to the other!
The story we find in Genesis 37 is one of the most important parts of the story of Joseph, one of the greatest dreamers of all time. Joseph’s history is enough to make a good soap opera. His father Jacob worked for his future father-in-law for seven years to win the hand of Rachel in marriage. After all that time, he was tricked into marrying her older sister Leah. And even though he ended up married to both Leah and Rachel, Leah was the wife who gave birth to six sons before Rachel ever became pregnant. Joseph was the firstborn of the beloved wife Rachel. Eventually, Jacob fathered twelve sons in all, and as you might imagine there was just a little bit of sibling rivalry between Joseph and his brothers. After all, Jacob doted on him. The coat of many colors we’ve heard about over the years was a symbolic mark of distinction and favoritism that generated all kinds of jealousy.
It certainly didn’t help matters that Joseph was a dreamer who couldn’t keep his dreams quiet. In between the verses we’ve heard read this morning, Joseph tells of a dream he has in which he and the family are out in the wheat fields. His wheat sheath stands up and all the others gather around and bow down to it. Of course, they are all a little outraged. “Do you mean to tell us we’re all going to end up bowing down to YOU?” Not understanding diplomacy or tact, Joseph says, “Well I had another dream too. In that one, the sun, moon, and eleven stars are all bowing down to me.” At this point, they’d all had enough and went off into the sheep pasture, probably to get away from Joseph and all of his annoying dreams.
Jacob, who may not have been the sharpest tool in the shed, sent his youngest out check on his eleven brothers wearing his fancy “I’m-better-than-all-of-you” coat. Well when they see him off in the distance, they are not happy. You can almost see the brothers seething with jealously and hatred as they see him coming off in the distance. So, they plot to kill him. By God’s grace, somewhat more reasonable minds prevailed and Reuben the oldest brother says, “Maybe we shouldn’t kill him outright, let’s just throw him in this pit here,” thinking he might rescue him later on. So they strip off his coat to trick their father, and throw him into the pit. But like any good angry mob, things kept spiraling and they decided on a different plan. They ended up selling Joseph to a foreign caravan of traders on camels heading to Egypt. And the last thing we see in this passage is Joseph heading off to Egypt.
Now this is the point where I hope you’re thinking, “OK, so Joseph is an annoying little brother with big dreams and he gets thrown into a pit and sold to foreign traders and hauled off into Egypt. How inspiring!!” I hope you just might be wondering why that is where the story stops this Sunday. I believe that it’s an important place to stop reading because it shows us something profound. Even the most optimistic, hope-filled, forward-thinking dreamers sometimes end up in a pit. It doesn’t matter who you are or how bright and cheery you are, there are simply times in your life when everything seems to crash in on you. I know this happens to you, because it happens to me! You lose loved ones, things get complicated in your family or in relationships, things change at work or at church, financial problems develop, you deal with unexpected losses, someone swerves into a parking space in front of you at Wal-Mart (ok, maybe that’s not so bad), but there are a hundred things that can begin to test even the most optimistic hope-filled people in the world. These things happen to the pessimists among us too! The only difference between an optimist and a pessimist is that the pessimist assumes the worst before the fact so they don’t have to face risking disappointment! Trust me, I come from a long line of pessimists and the pessimists’ motto is, “If I assume the worst, anything positive is icing on the cake.” No matter if you’re an optimist or a pessimist, there are simply times when you think the pit, the struggle, and the bad news is the end of the story. I imagine Joseph felt that way as he was tied to the back of a camel and led down into Egypt.
In 1993, the Buffalo Bills of the National Football League were in a pit. They were playing the Houston Oilers in the AFC wildcard game. Midway through the 3rd quarter, they were down 35-3. They were in the pit. It would have been easy for them to give up. They could have looked up at the scoreboard and looked around at the long faces and said, “Well, this is the end of the story. We’re bound to lose.” But that wasn’t what they did. They realized that the end of the story hadn’t happened yet. They were just in the middle of the story. Frank Reich, the backup quarterback who was playing in place of their injured starter had been in tight spots before. He had led the Maryland Terrapins to one of the greatest comebacks in college football against the Miami Hurricane, so he knew that it wasn’t over until it was over. He confidently led the Buffalo Bills up and down the field never giving up. At the end of overtime, the scoreboard read 41-38 as the Bills upset the Oilers in one of the greatest upsets in NFL history.
Joseph could have looked at the scoreboard and seen brothers 35, Joseph 0. He could have thought about his ripped up coat and the long trek to Egypt and said, “It’s over.” But he didn’t. He was a dreamer. He knew that by God’s grace, this was just the middle of the story. Those of you who know the story realize what ended up happening. Even though things got even worse in Egypt, Joseph eventually became the right hand man of the Pharoah in Egypt, overseeing all the grain production in the entire land. Using his gifts for dreaming and vision, he stored up grain before a long famine and eventually even ended up saving his own brothers and family. By God’s grace, Joseph’s story was transformed from despair to victory.
An interesting map is on display in the British Museum in London. It’s an old mariner’s chart, drawn in 1525, outlining the North American coastline and adjacent waters. The cartographer made some intriguing notations on areas of the map that represented regions not yet explored. He wrote: “Here be giants,” “Here be fiery scorpions,” and “Here be dragons.” Eventually, the map came into the possession of Sir John Franklin, a British explorer in the early 1800s. Scratching out the fearful inscriptions, he wrote these words across the map: “Here is God.”
Like Joseph in the pit, we don’t know what the future holds. But like Joseph we do know the one who holds the future. We know the Giver of all good dreams, we know the One who provides our vision, and we know that in whatever future we all move into, God is already there. As Corrie Ten Boom once said, “Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.” No matter where you are or what you’re facing, you’re just in the middle of your story. You may look into the unknown future and say, “there be giants,” “there be dragons,” or “there be pits,” but by trusting in the One who holds that future you can look straight into the unknown and say, “There is God.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.