Dr. Steve Lindlsey
(Genesis 40-41 (selected verses))
Today we conclude our summer sermon series, God’s Creative Connection, looking at various passages in the Old Testament book of Genesis. Delving into creation, but not just the actual story of creation. Instead, widening our view to see just how far this creative activity reaches. Like a lot of the sermon series that Rebecca and I preach, this one has wound up going in a slightly different direction than what we initially intended in our planning – and in this case I think we’ve both been surprised, pleasantly so, that in many ways the focus of our sermons, and where we’ve both felt the Spirit leading, has as much to do with the creative connection of humans as it does with God. Abraham and Sarah, Hagar, Rebekah and Isaac, Jacob – central characters in the Genesis story, a story about the creation of a people by their God, a God who is constantly giving order to the formless void.
It says something, I think, that one cannot look at the creative connection of God outside the very beings that God created. As we have certainly learned over the past few years, one experiences God not simply in a holy place but in the people – and it is the gathering of those people with their God that makes a place holy.
Which is why in our story today we’re able to experience places like an Egyptian prison and a Pharaoh’s court as holy, because of the creative connection between a whole host of people and a man named Joseph. Joseph’s saga takes up over a quarter of the book of Genesis and is so full of twists and turns and highs and lows that Andrew Lloyd Weber saw fit to make a musical out of it. Our passage today drops us into that part of the story where Joseph is in prison – and even there, Joseph is able to sense God’s creative connection at work.
With that, then, let us hear excerpts from Genesis chapters 40 and 41. Rebecca will read the scripture here and there throughout the sermon. And so my friends, listen to this:
One day the cupbearer of the king of Egypt and his baker offended their lord the king of Egypt. Pharaoh was angry and put them in the prison where Joseph was confined. The captain of the guard charged Joseph with them, and he waited on them; and they continued for some time in custody. One night the cupbearer and the baker both dreamed – each his own dream, and each dream with its own meaning. When Joseph came to them in the morning, he saw that they were troubled and asked, ‘Why are your faces downcast today?’ They said to him, ‘We have had dreams, and there is no one to interpret them.’ And Joseph said to them, ‘Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me.’ The cupbearer and baker told Joseph their dreams, and Joseph interpreted them. The interpretation was favorable for the cupbearer but not for the baker. The baker was eventually put to death by Pharaoh, but the cupbearer was restored to his cupbearing.
As our story begins, we find Joseph in prison. People in prison are not uncommon. Joseph is there for a crime he did not commit. This, too, is not uncommon. The story as it’s told sets the scene and his imprisonment up as a huge breach of justice – which it is. But not because it is uncommon. You may recall a story that made the local news last November about a man, Dontae Sharpe, who was granted a full pardon after it was discovered that he was not, in fact, guilty of a murder that put him in prison for over 26 years. Some studies have shown that anywhere between 2-10% of all incarcerated people in America are wrongly convicted – which may not sound like much, until you realize that our country’s prison population is approaching 2 million people. That’s a lot.
Joseph is soon joined by two others, the baker and cupbearer of the great Pharaoh, who had apparently offended their king in some way. We’re not told what the two did to earn Pharaoh’s wrath, but it is hard to imagine their offense truly merited imprisonment. Add two more to the list of the wrongfully incarcerated.
The creative connection moment in our story takes place when both have dreams one night – different dreams, of course; dreams that neither can make heads or tails of. Dreams can often be that way, the elusive acrobatics of our subconscious rarely making any sense. Still, these men are troubled by what they dreamed. When Joseph learns of this, he offers to interpret them. For the cupbearer, it is good news – he will be released from prison and restored to his position in three days time. The news is not so great for his counterpart the baker – in three days, Pharaoh will have his head. And as it turns out, both interpretations come to pass.
Do not interpretations belong to God? That’s the question that Joseph asks the two men when they tell him they don’t understand their dreams. Do not interpretations belong to God? It’s an odd question. We know God as many things, but dream-interpreter is not high on the list. That’s not to say we don’t think God has the ability, it just seems that God would have more important things to help these men with in prison.
So perhaps Joseph means something more with his rhetorical question here. Perhaps what he’s really highlighting is the fact that God’s creative connection underlies all of life – the waking and the sleeping, the conscious and subconscious, the obvious and the sublime. And even more – God’s creative connection underlies the court of Pharaoh and his prison, the highs and the lows, the ups and the downs. There is never a moment, an instance, where God’s presence and influence are out of reach. Even in prison, and even with something as elusive as dreams.
Now this might seem to be something obvious to our two dreamers, were it not for the fact that these men are Egyptian, not Hebrew; not at all familiar with the God of Abraham and Issac and Jacob, not at all familiar with the God who once told Joseph’s great grandfather that his people would number as many as the stars in the sky. It is that God who is with them right there, revealing truth. All Joseph does is shine a light on it.
I wonder – do we do the same?
Two whole years passed, and then one night Pharaoh had a dream. He dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, and there came up out of the Nile seven sleek and fat cows, and they grazed in the reed grass. Then seven other cows, ugly and thin, came up out of the Nile. The ugly and thin cows ate up the seven sleek and fat cows. And then a second dream: seven ears of grain, plump and good, were growing on one stalk. Then seven ears, thin and blighted by the east wind, sprouted after them. The thin ears swallowed up the seven plump and full ears. When Pharaoh awoke in the morning his spirit was troubled; so he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men, but no one could interpret them to Pharaoh.
Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, ‘I remember when I was in prison with the baker, a young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard, interpreted our dreams to us. As he interpreted, so it turned out.”
So Pharaoh sent for Joseph and told him his dream. And Joseph said, “God has revealed to Pharaoh what God is about to do. There will come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt. After them there will arise seven years of famine, which will consume the land. Now therefore let Pharaoh select a man who is discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt, so they may take one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plenteous years and keep it. That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine that are to befall the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine.’
Tell me something: if you had to choose who was the luckier one here – Joseph or Pharaoh – which would it be? The case could be made for Joseph – he gets his “get out of jail” card, he demonstrates once again his amazing capacity to “fall up” after a pretty devastating down. That’s pretty lucky. But you could also make the case for Pharaoh – he who gets his dream interpreted, he who is given a heads-up on the famine that’s about to befall his kingdom. Perhaps both men would be wise to count their blessings.
It is easy to focus on Joseph here because it is, after all, his story. But I actually find myself drawn to Pharaoh. I’m drawn to his presence in our story because, even though he’s a bit player in the Joseph narrative, he was in that time a man of immense power and privilege. And yet he is stuck – stuck with a dream that he knows means something, that he knows bears significance, and yet despite all the power and privilege at his disposal he cannot make heads or tails of it. And because of that he is powerless – a strange place for a man like him to be. I think of all of those in positions of power and privilege when they realize that there are some things outside of their ability to control, some things they cannot bend to conform to their will. How unnerving that must be. How vulnerable that must feel.
What must it be like to be Joseph here – to sit at the table of power and privilege that is not yours and reveal something not previously known; to bring meaning to confusion and method to the madness? The late Billy Graham was widely known for counseling fourteen U.S. presidents; and it did not matter their party affiliation or life experience, Graham had a unique way of letting the most powerful people in the world be nothing more than a person like any other, a person in need of insight and wisdom because none of us have all the answers, a person in need of compassion and care because every one of us has to have that, especially those with great responsibility.
The same God who came to three men in the depths of an Egyptian prison is the same God whose presence is desperately needed in the halls of power today among women and men of power and privilege. And not in the ways we are witnessing, not in a Christianity turned on its head and distorted so profoundly as to embrace and legitimize that power; but rather to serve as a check on any power that would benefit some at the expense of others. A famine was coming – do you think for a second that without prior knowledge of it, those in power would’ve shared the bounty with those who lacked it?
All Joseph did was interpret a dream, but in a very real sense he was being a prophet, because the main task of a prophet is to give voice to the voiceless. Is it not our calling, church, to do the same?
And Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘Since God has shown you all this, there is no one so discerning and wise as you. You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command; only with regard to the throne will I be greater than you.’ Removing his signet ring from his hand, Pharaoh put it on Joseph’s hand; he arrayed him in garments of fine linen, and put a gold chain around his neck. Moreover, Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I am Pharaoh, and without your consent no one shall lift up hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.’ Thus Joseph gained authority over the land of Egypt.
Joseph was thirty years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh king of Egypt. During the seven plenteous years the earth produced abundantly. Joseph gathered up all the food and stored up food in the cities. Then the seven years of famine came. There was famine in every country, but throughout Egypt there was bread. And the world came to Joseph in Egypt to buy grain, because the famine became severe throughout the world, but in Egypt they had bread.
If we had to pick a hero in this story, Joseph seems like an obvious choice, don’t you think? After all, Joseph is the one who interpreted dreams. Joseph is the one who enabled Pharaoh to see what was coming. Joseph was the one put second in command and prepared Egypt to not simply survive a devastating famine but thrive. The hero narrative is seemingly written with Joseph in mind – the comeback kid who keeps coming back, enduring hardship after hardship and still emerging on top. Joseph is a winner – and lord knows, we love a good winner.
But I want to share something with you. The more I consider this story, the ins and outs and depth of it all, I cannot help but wonder if the real hero might be someone else. I wonder if it just might be cupbearer. Think about it: after three harrowing days in prison, he finds himself back in Pharaoh’s good graces. He’s restored to his position of power and privilege in the king’s court. He gets his life back. There was every incentive for him to put his head down, do his job, focus on himself. There was no reason for him to get involved in the drama around Pharaoh’s dream. He was a cupbearer; his job was to make sure the king’s cup was always filled. That was it.
And yet, despite all that, he spoke up. He inserted himself into the equation. He remembered Joseph from years before, from that dark time of prison he’d just as soon forget. He remembered how Joseph interpreted his dream. He remembered and thought that maybe, just maybe, he could interpret this one too.
So he dares to step out of his lane in Pharaoh’s court – a risky proposition to be sure – and tells Pharaoh of Joseph. And we know how the rest of the story goes, a story that leaves us with this undeniable truth: that without the cupbearer, Joseph would’ve died in prison. Without the cupbearer, the people of Egypt would’ve suffered greatly from the famine.
Oftentimes the real heroes among us are not the ones out front, not the ones getting all the attention, but rather the ones flying below the radar who speak when something should be spoken, who act when action is needed, who take a chance when it would be easier not to get involved.
Sometimes the real heroes are those who see things in us that we may not see ourselves – gifts, abilities, possibilities – and brings them to our attention and to the attention of others. A family member endures a rough season and needs the support of their loved ones. A church seeks to grow into the possibilities that exist rather than be limited by their worst fears. A Trinity member gets a phone call from a member of the Officer Nominating Committee, asking them to serve as elder.
What would it mean, people of God, if we followed the lead of our cupbearer, recognizing the possibilities, lifting up the God-given potential that lies in us all? How might our future change for the better if we embrace God’s creative connection in all of those around us, imagining new possibilities for our own lives, for this world of ours, for this very church?
Let’s find out together, shall we?
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.