‘the Lord was with him […] and granted [Joseph] favour in the eyes of the prison warder.’ Genesis 39:21
Brothers and sisters, you may have heard a Christian say,‘God has a wonderful plan for your life’; in fact maybe you have said it before, and maybe you’re hoping it is true. As God tells us in the Book of Jeremiah: ‘I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’. As with all promises, though, what matters is what the person who makes it means by that promise. God does have a wonderful plan for your life, but what God means by wonderful, is not what the world often takes this to mean. If we imagine that ‘wonderful’ means, a life of ease, a life of comfort, well we’re in for a shock. For what God means by wonderful, is a life spent growing to be more and more like Jesus. And God’s chief way of ensuring this wonderful plan actually materialises, is to be with us at all times through good times, and through the bad times. The wonderful life God promises us, is being with Him now, and in the world to come, as we grow and become more fully the people He made us to be.
We are given the perfect illustration in the life of Joseph in Genesis 39. Here we see exactly what a ‘wonderful’ life looks like, what it looks like in reality, with a concrete, historical, real world example. This story is recorded so that Israel and the Church might read and learn. First the good times. Verse 2:
‘The Lord was with Joseph so that he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master.When his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did, Joseph found favour in his eyes and became his attendant.’
God is with Joseph in Egypt, and He ensures that Joseph’s work is blessed, and as a result Joseph gets promoted. Despite his predicament Joseph sticks with God, and God uses Him to witness to this Egyptian, Potiphar. Now, this was written down so that the Jewish people might learn about God, and learn how to be His people. What they are being taught is that it is important to be faithful to God in the good times. Being faithful to God, which means—for instance—regular prayer, working hard for your employer, being diligent with your finances, and being trustworthy in all things, will usually mean that things will go well for you; and what’s more, will people notice. Don’t be surprised if that faithfulness, integrity, and honesty means that you get on in your work, or at your school, or in your personal relationships. It is not guaranteed—as we will see—but generally living in a Christian way is viewed positively by those around us. Israel needed to learn this, they needed to learn that in the good times, they shouldn’t take God for granted, that they should work hard and stay faithful, and if they did, God would be with them. They also needed to know that the blessings of this type of life came from God and not simply from themselves. We need to learn this lesson too. How often, when things are going well, when we get that promotion at work, or a report card full of good grades, or have a great day with the family, do we forget to pray and thank God for His many blessings? If you are going through a good time now, then that is wonderful, and we should all celebrate with you, but make sure that you are thanking God for the blessings, and allowing those blessings to turn you more and more towards God. The true story of Joseph—and this chapter in particular--was written down so that God’s people—both Israel and the Church—might never forget that God causes blessings to fall on His people, and that in the good times He is with us. May we relearn and remember that this morning.
However, real life is not a Hollywood production. We all know that our lives are not fairytales, and that bad times come just when we don’t expect them. So let’s consider, second, those bad times. Look at verse 19: 'When his master heard the story his wife told him, saying, ‘This is how your slave treated me,’ he burned with anger. Joseph’s master took him and put him in prison’. Try telling Joseph at this particular moment that God has a wonderful plan for his life as understood in the worldly way! Try telling him that when his brothers tried to kill him, or when they sold him as a slave. Certainly the promise doesn’t stand up for a second if we understand it as an easy and comfortable life. Hard times come, and sometimes—notice—they come because we are faithful. How easy would it have been for Joseph to have given in, decided that he had a good job, and really it was best that he just went along with his mistress. Surely he could excuse himself, he is a slave after all. But Joseph knows what’s right and wrong. Joseph knows what God would want, and because he is faithful to God—and how God would want him to live his life—he is punished by his master and mistress. Sometimes it goes that way. Sometimes Christians lose jobs, and livelihoods because of their faith. Sometimes they are deemed too honest, or too committed to Jesus, and they are hounded or persecuted because of their faith. So where is God’s wonderful plan then? Well, remember His plan is to make us more like Jesus by being with us, and walking beside us through those difficult times. Notice verse 21: ‘the Lord was with him; he showed [Joseph] kindness’. Even in the darkest dungeon God is with His people, there is nowhere you can go, nowhere where people can send you, that will mean you are separated from God. God was with Joseph in prison. Oh how Israel needed to learn this lesson! During the bad times when they wandered in the desert for forty years, during the rule of the judges after the death of Joshua, or when King Saul was in charge. As Israel went through difficult times, they needed to remember—with the help of this story—that God is always with His people, and just because things are going badly, does not mean for a second that they have been abandoned by God. The wonderful life God promised—the life with God now, and in eternity—is as real in the bad times as in the good times. Israel needed to learn that lesson, and so do we. How quick we are when things go badly for us, to start thinking, ’oh, God has forgotten me’ or ‘if God is there why didn’t he stop this from happening’. How often when we hit times of trouble do we stop coming to church, stop receiving the sacrament. How quickly we turn from faithful attendance to grumpy attendance, from regular prayer to a grumpy quick prayer. We need to hear the story of Joseph in chapter 39 so that we might be reminded that God is with us in the bad times, as well as the good. That God is working with our best interests at heart in the bad times, as well as the good. That God’s wonderful plan for our life is still on track, in the bad times, as well as the good. Joseph needed this lesson. Israel needed this lesson, and we need this lesson, again and again. We need to be changed from the half-hearted believers that we are, into the full-hearted believers God longs for us to be, and God loves us too much to leave us unchanged. Brothers and sisters, where are your hearts this morning? Let them be on focused on the Lord—whatever your personal circumstances—and you will find that you will live a truly wonderful life, both now, and forever more. Amen. (from Fr Mike).