I’m a casual fan of science fiction stories. So while I can’t say that I am an expert in the books and movies that mark the genre, I have encountered quite a lot of time-travel stories, as I’m sure, many of you have. Time-travel stories typically feature a few consistent themes, regardless of the differing worlds in which the stories are unfolding. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is the prototype time-travel story. Ebenezer Scrooge visits the past, present, and future in order to learn a hard lesson about the ways his selfishness and greed affect others. In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey has a very similar experience, although what he sees is the value his life has for others. Those kinds of time-travel ask the protagonist (and also the audience) to consider what kind of person they want to be, what kind of legacy they would be proud to leave behind.
Other time-travel stories explore the theme of being able to make changes (or not, as the case may be), in order to help or save others. In Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, the characters use time-travel to cross space and time in order to protect earth from a spreading evil. They are successful. On the other hand, Stephen King’s 11/22/63 is about a time-traveler’s attempts to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He is not successful. Kindred, by Octavia Butler, is the story of a modern black woman forced back into time to encounter the evils of the slavery that are a part of her own ancestry. While back in time she is forced to participate in the story of her own making. A perennial favorite time-travel movie is, of course, “Back to the Future.” It tells the story of the teenaged Marty McFly who is mistakenly sent to 1955 by his scientist friend Doc Brown. Marty accidentally keeps his parents from falling in love, threatening his own existence. He must find a way to help his teenaged parents fall in love so he can be born and get back to the future.
I think people like time-travel stories because they help us live out our “what-if” fantasies. What if things had gone differently? What if I could have stepped in? What if I had made a different choice? Our text this morning emerges from a story that hinges on one event, one decision, that if it had gone differently, could have changed things for a countless number of people.
We meet the character of Joseph in Genesis 37 as a 17-year-old. He’s his father’s favorite, despite being the youngest, and he’s a bit of a spoiled brat. You may remember that his father gives him a special coat and extra attention. Joseph has dreams of his brothers bowing down to him in servitude, which he tells them about. Anyone who has siblings could have told him that was a very bad idea. His brothers resent him, of course, for his father’s favor and his self-aggrandizing attitude. So, they decide to kill him. His brother Judah has a different idea though- instead of killing him, they could just sell him to some passing traders and be done with it. So, that’s what they do. And then they give their father Joseph’s special coat, covered in blood, and let him believe Joseph has been killed.
The Joseph story in Genesis reads like a novella and throughout it, Joseph rises and falls along with the action. He is on top of the world, his father’s favorite. He is down in the pit where he is sold to the traders and then into slavery in Egypt. He rises to the top of his master’s house as the overseer and then falls back into the dungeons of jail. His ability to interpret dreams raises him out of jail and high into Pharaoh’s service. Up and down Joseph goes, rising and falling. But he’s at the highest of heights when he once again encounters his brothers. Famine had swept through the area, and there was no grain to be had in the land of Canaan. Joseph’s father and brothers and all their people were in crisis. So, upon hearing that there was grain to be had in Egypt, Jacob sends his sons there to buy food and bring it back.
Because of Joseph’s wisdom and careful administration, there was food in Egypt, and he was in charge of how it was distributed. His brothers come into his court and bow before him, pleading for food. Joseph pretends not to recognize them and uses an interpreter to speak with them. His brothers don’t recognize him at all. And then Joseph toys with them for a while and sends them back and forth to their father, has them bring back their youngest brother Benjamin, whom he both loves and also messes with. He threatens to keep Benjamin in Egypt as a slave. But in a dramatic scene, Judah, who once sold Joseph into slavery, now begs for Benjamin’s life, and offers to stay in Benjamin’s place.
Joseph is overcome- and this is the reading we had earlier today. Joseph is undone by Judah’s willingness to protect Benjamin from the very fate he created for Joseph. He sends everyone away and weeps so loudly that even those in other rooms heard it. “I am Joseph,” he says and tells them everything.
One interesting and potentially important thing to recognize about the whole Joseph story is that God is not a visible, active participant in the story. The other patriarchs in Genesis generally have a direct encounter with God; God is a character in the story. Not so in Joseph’s story. We do not hear from God here. And yet… Joseph has a different perspective. Before we get there though, I want to spend a moment more with Joseph.
Terrible things happen to Joseph. Regardless of how bratty he was, being threatened with death and sold into slavery is horrific. Sent away from his home and everything he has ever known in order to live as one enslaved rather than a favored son is terrible. Despite his good work, he ends up in jail thanks to the cruel manipulation of Potipher’s wife. Joseph’s life is difficult. And yet he achieves incredible success! He is clearly a smart, capable, wise leader. He interprets dreams and works efficiently. He is successful in unthinkable ways. But notice this- Joseph’s success does not heal the pain in his heart.
Multiple times in the story, Joseph weeps. He cries for the younger brother he has never gotten to know, he cries for himself, he cries for the brokenness in his relationships. No amount of power, or wealth, or respect could fix Joseph’s broken heart. Only reconciliation and peace could do that. Only reconnection with his brothers, and ultimately, his father, could give him what he needed.
It’s tempting for us to believe that we could heal the aches in our hearts by material means. If I just had enough money in savings, if I just had long-term job security, if I just had a little more control, perhaps I could be at peace. We pursue things that may be good, but they are not necessarily healing. Joseph’s story reminds us to keep the right perspective on our relationships. Power and success are not the remedy for broken relationships. Only peacemaking, reconciliation, and forgiveness can offer us what we desire. Genesis 45:14-15 say, “Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.” You can almost feel the peace that is made between the men.
When Joseph is reunited with his brothers and reveals his true identity, he shares with them how he has viewed all that happened to him. He offers a gracious perspective, saying, “And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life…God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, “Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay.”
Notice that Joseph still puts the burden of the choice on his brothers- “you sold me here,” he says. But he also clearly sees God’s hand in the situation. He believes that God sent him and God has made him what he is now. Later, in Genesis 50 we read, “Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, ‘We are here as your slaves.’ But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’ In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.”
What you intended to do harm, God intended for good, Joseph says. It may make us wonder if God orchestrated all of this hardship in order to get Joseph in the right place at the right time. Personally, that is not my belief. I don’t believe that is consistent with what I understand to be a loving God. However, I can see Joseph’s wisdom in trusting that all of the terrible things that brought him to this moment have worked together to give him what he needed to lead and serve others in this moment. It is, in story form, what we read in Romans 8:28- “we know that all things work together for good for those who love God who are called according to his purpose.”
I’m not willing to go so far as to say that whatever bad things that happen to us are worth the lessons we can learn from them. For some, the pain is too much, the suffering is too real. But I do trust that God can bring good from anything, even if we can’t see it. I trust that when Paul says that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with signs too deep for words” it means that God is with us in whatever hardship we face.
I mentioned earlier that God is not an active participant in Joseph’s story, at least not as far as we can tell. But is not God present with Joseph both in the highest of highs and the lowest of lows? Does not God give him perseverance, protection, opportunity, and wisdom? Is not God shaping Joseph into the mature, generous, and good man who is able to see that however he got to this position, he can now help others? No, God is not speaking to Joseph or manifesting physically in the ways his father, grandfather, and great grandfather experienced God. But clearly, God was present with Joseph. In his rising and in his falling, God was present with him, just as God is present with us.
So, given a time-traveling DeLorean and plenty of plutonium, would Joseph go back in time to prevent himself from being sold into slavery? I don’t know. He seems at peace with the way his life has unfolded, both for evil and for good. He is reconciled to the past that has led to his present. Joseph has acquired a holy perspective. Friends, I don’t know what has happened to you, or if the suffering that brought you here was worth it. But I can say this: it is what it is and God has been with you in every moment. Until we invent time travel and can go backwards, the only path forward is acceptance, forgiveness, and healing. May God transform our mistakes, wounds, and brokenness into something hopeful and whole. Amen.