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  • pastor4pocket

J is for Joseph




I knew from my parents that marriage was work, and there was going to be a lot of give and take. I knew there would be hard days. I knew there would be arguments. I knew we would have discussions that were uncomfortable. I just never pictured that mine would end. I never put the word “marriage” with betrayal.


When there was infidelity the first time, I was like, “okay, all right, we work through this, we will figure it out.” It's not easy to just walk away because you can't trust someone. There are children involved and there are finances involved. And at the time, it seemed like the best thing to do was to love one another through it. My thought was “okay, even if there are mistakes that he made, here's the part I played in the lack of communication or emotional intimacy. He's sorry, and I'm sorry. And here's how we work together to continue building a Christian home. We teach our children that we forgive, and we all make mistakes. God loved me despite my shortcomings, so I can love others despite theirs.


And while that is true, when there is a consistent infidelity or consistent betrayal, you rethink what you see as your picture of marriage. My picture of marriage changed dramatically.

Just because we're married doesn't mean that how I feel and what I think and my needs, and my thoughts, my desires don't matter. And just because I've been willing to give in to what mattered to me in the past doesn't mean I have to always be that way.


I finally said, “You have to choose. I can't keep doing this back and forth and one day, you're here, and the next day, you're gone. I don't know where you are, who you're with, I need you to choose.” And he looked at me, and said, “I don't know why I have to spell it out for you. You would think my actions would tell you that I don't choose you.”


That was probably one of the most painful conversations of my entire life. After 18 years of marriage, how do you look at someone and say, “I don't choose you.”? But he did. That moment was hard.


There was a long grieving process. The vision I had for my life didn't happen like I anticipated. There was grieving for a marriage that I thought would last forever.


I relied so much on this vision of what I thought a Christian home and a Christian marriage should look like. I was so determined to have this vision of what that may be. I lost my voice, and I lost what it really looks like to rely on God. I had so much faith and determination in this vision of what a Christian home was that I had lost the ability to really just trust God to help me create a Christian home. I was too wrapped up in what that vision should look like.


In the pit of despair, God never left me. God said, “He didn't choose you anymore, and that's okay. But I choose you.” It doesn't matter who my husband says I am. The ultimate voice is what does God say about who I am?


God says I was worth it. God says I deserve it. God says I am fearfully and wonderfully made. No matter what, no matter my size, no matter what I look like, no matter how tired I am, or the worst parts of my personality, the parts of me that fail, or drop the ball. God still says, “You are worth it. You are chosen.”

 

Last week, we talked about Jacob who became Israel, the father of what would become the Twelve Tribes of Israel. This week, we’re going to talk about those sons. Long before they were the “Twelve Tribes” they were just boys. Boys who played and worked and fought. Boys who hated that their father played favorites. Boys who disliked their younger brother. In fact, they hated him- so much that when Joseph, the 11th son, received a special coat (yes, that coat) from their father, it led to a chain of events that changed the lives of everyone, of the whole nation. Joseph was proud to be his father’s favorite (and God’s too, ultimately) and he was less than understanding of his siblings’ frustrations. He rubbed it in, and they hated him all the more for it. And when the opportunity presented itself, they sold him into slavery and told their father he was dead. Joseph was left alone in the pit of despair.

And for years his life was a long chain of ups and downs- progress, and then back down into the pit- hope, and then despair. He’s in a literal pit until he is sold into service. He works his way up to be a leader in Potiphar’s home where he is serving. But Potiphar’s wife makes false allegations that Joseph has attempted to sexually assault her. Joseph is thrown in prison as punishment. Because of his diligence and gifts for dream interpretation, he becomes respected in prison and ends up working for the Pharoah in Egypt. While working for Pharoah, Joseph anticipates a famine in the land after interpreting a dream. He makes preparations to ensure that the people of Egypt do not suffer during the famine. And it is then that he is reunited with his brothers.

The famine reached Canaan where Jacob and his sons and their families lived. We read in Genesis 42 that Jacob sent his ten oldest sons to Egypt to get food for their people. Of course, none of them knew that Joseph would be there waiting when they arrived. Jacob, you’ll remember, believed Joseph to be dead, and the last time his brothers had seen him, Joseph was being sold into service. Joseph recognized his brothers immediately, but he concealed his identity from them. We often leave out this part of the story, and skip to their reunion, but actually, Jospeh spoke unkindly to them and initially was less than helpful. He messes with them a little... or a lot, actually. We leave that part out because we ant to get to the happy ending quickly. But eventually, in a dramatic scene, Joseph’s heart is just so broken, he cries and weeps. He tells them who he is, and he tells them that God sent him to Egypt to preserve life- the life of the Egyptians and their lives. He asks them to go home and bring Jacob and everyone else down to Egypt where he can care for them.

And they do, and he cares for them, and they are all reunited. And when finally, at an old age, their father dies, Joseph’s brothers are afraid that he will suddenly unleash every bit of anger he had been holding against them since they first sold him. They come to him, apologizing. Everyone is crying, and Joseph speaks words of forgiveness over them. And he says to them one sentence on which everything hangs.

It’s translated differently among English versions, but I find Everett Fox’s translation helpful. He writes, “Now you, you planned ill against me, (but) God planned-it-over for good.[1] Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase is helpful as well- “Don’t you see, you planned evil against me but God used those same plans for my good.”[2] It really all hinges on one word. The Hebrew word is hashabah, and it means “planned” or “meant.”

This word, this sentence, can lead us into some dangerous theological ground. This text could be used to justify some genuinely evil actions- like “Hey, it’s okay this horrible thing happened! It all worked out, right?” or “Why are you so upset? You came out on top.” or “Oh, that’s ancient history. Why do you keep bringing it back up? Everything is fine now.” So, it’s important that we don’t allow Joseph’s words to become a permission slip for evil, for cruelty. An okay outcome does not erase the evils of the past. There is no need to be glad something horrible happened just because you survived it or learned a lesson. You don’t have to be grateful for the trials you have faced.

What Joseph’s brothers did, their choices and plans and actions, they were evil. Full stop. They did a horrible thing to their brother. When we do wrong, when we make plans and choices that harm other people, it is not okay, even if it works out. We are not off the hook, and we don’t deserve forgiveness just because everyone is still standing when the dust settles.

 And also, God took their horrible plans and made a plan B. God took their evil works and reworked it. God took Joseph’s troubles and turned them into triumph. It doesn’t excuse or erase what happened, but it was not the end of the story. God did not leave our story donor in the pit. God did not leave Joseph in the pit. God will not leave you there either.

In the conversation with the story donor that I shared with you earlier, she told me that during her divorce proceedings, her young son said something about how his life was ruined. And in that moment, God’s wisdom led her to share with her son that “ruined” means something is destroyed forever. “Ruined” is the end of the story. And their story wasn’t over yet. They were down in the pit of despair, but the rising would come. And yours will too.

You will be hurt. Life can be so painful. Things don’t work out how we think they will. We are disappointed and heartbroken and frustrating. People we love will be cruel. We will be cruel. There will be so much we must learn to forgive and so much for which we need forgiveness. There will be so many things that we can only understand by looking backwards. You will not hear me say "everything happens for a reason." I don't believe that. But perhaps we might say "everything is survived for a reason."

Joseph doesn’t jump straight to forgiveness. He isn’t ready. He doesn’t just “let go and let God” or “forgive and forget.” There’s some real “messy middle” stuff here. But ultimately, Joseph decides that he wants to be graceful, not vengeful. It makes me think that perhaps we too can decide who we want to be, and we can try and try again, until we figure it out, until we get it right. He helps his brothers, he forgives them, he loves them. And it isn’t simple or easy. But Joseph works to make the right choice. He claws his way back to making peace with the people who hurt him more than anyone else ever could.

I’m not going to say that the outcome justifies the suffering. It doesn’t. But Joseph chooses not to live in the suffering forever. He makes the decision to forgive, to move on. When given the opportunity to use his power to exact justice and vengeance on his brothers, he chooses, instead, to feed them. To shelter them. To demonstrate grace and forgiveness. Maybe you’re facing a similar decision and you’re ready to release the hatred and anger. Maybe you are very much in the messy middle and you aren’t there yet. Maybe you are the one who has caused harm. Right here in the midst of all of this, is life.

In just a moment we will sing “It is Well with my Soul,” a much beloved hymn. It was written by Horatio Spafford, a Presbyterian lawyer who lived in Chicago. His young son died, and then the great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed a great deal of real estate, and burned up his fortune. In November 1873, his wife and four daughters left on a transatlantic cruise with the plan that he would meet up with them shortly afterwards. But the ship carrying his family wrecked and sank in 12 minutes. Only his wife survived. He wrote “It is Well with my Soul” as he crossed the Atlantic to be with his wife.[3]

I have to wonder if it was, indeed, “well with his soul”? Or were these hopeful words that one day, he would have peace even though all of these terrible things had happened? Either way- it’s okay if it is not well with your soul yet. Life is still unfolding. God is still reworking, still making a plan B with all of life’s brokenness.

About Joseph’s story, Anna Carter Florence writes, “Happy endings have nothing to do with it.”[4] There are no happy endings in real life. That’s just not how it works, because the story isn’t over. There is more rising and falling and life goes on. We move forward. We find a way to live in the complicated reality of life. The author and podcaster Nora McInerny writes, “[I live in] the middle part of a Venn diagram that I’d caption ‘The Life of the Party Pooper.’”[5]

This is real life. You are wise and hurting. Growing and suffering, alone and not alone, broken and thriving, forgiving and not forgetting, graceful and angry. God is reworking, plan B-ing, redeeming. Your story is not yet over, thanks be to God. Amen.


[1] Carter Florence, A is for Alabaster, 2023, p. 42.

[2] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 41.

[5] McInerny, N., Bad Vibes Only, 2022, p. xvi.

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