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This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.

Scripture: Genesis 39:1-23
Text: Genesis 39:5, 23

Sermon by Rev. John Ooms, Inglewood CRC, Edmonton, Alberta

The Joseph story this morning has all the ingredients we can find in our newspapers, movies and novels. There is power, glamour, sexual intrigue, heroes and villains, politics and prison. How up-to-date is that! How relevant! This is not another world. This is our world, the world we live in.

Do you know who it was that heard this story first? It was a group of people huddled around a mountain in a desert. The mountain was Mt. Sinai , and the people were the Israelites under the leadership of a man named Moses. These people had recently experienced the exodus out of Egypt . They had been in Egypt for 400 years, and though the first few decades were pretty good, things turned ugly when the Egyptian leadership changed. They became slaves and were brutally oppressed. But now they are free, and they are returning to the land of their ancestors.

Four hundred years in a place not your own can make you forget who you really are. It can make you forget your own story. It is gradually replaced generation after generation by the Egyptian story.

The book of Genesis introduces the people to their own story again. From Moses they hear how it all began and how it was that they came to be in Egypt . In the book of Genesis they are reintroduced to this God whom Moses keeps telling them rescued them from Egypt . This is their story. This is their family album. They need to learn again who they are and what they are to be about. They need to find themselves and situate themselves in a confusing and rugged world. They need to be instructed in the ways of God and how to walk in those ways in an unfamiliar world that for the most part will not welcome their existence. And this is not an uncommon task for God’s people of any age--- ancient or modern. This is also part of our story. This is our family album too.

This orientation to the ways of God and to their own identity includes the story of Joseph, the 17-year-old dreamer who ended up in Egypt , a long way from home, a long way from the land of promise. In Joseph the people see their own life mirrored.

The seduction story is a pretty famous one, I think, and we can easily spend a lot of time just looking at it. It’s a well written story that has a clear beginning. “Now Joseph was well-built and handsome, and after a while his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said, ‘Come to bed with me!’” (v.6, 7) Now that’s a line that will arouse some interest, don’t you think?

But what I want to point out to you is that the writer has book-ended this story with two paragraphs that both carry the same theme. The first bookend is the first 6 verses, and the other bookend is the last 3 verses of this chapter. The first bookend tells of Joseph the slave entering the house of Potiphar. He rises to a position of prominence and trust because the “Lord was with him”, and not only is Joseph successful but the house of Potiphar prospers too. The second bookend tells of Joseph the prisoner who rises to a position of responsibility and trust within the prison because “the Lord was with him”, and not only is Joseph favoured by the warden but things in the prison run pretty well too.

Chapter 39 is a rags to riches to rags story. The seduction story is the main movie, and the two bookend paragraphs are the screen writer’s notes. The movie is great, but to get the full benefit of what’s going on, you need to see the bonus features---the writer’s notes. The seduction story reveals something about Joseph’s character and his obedience to God and basic human decency. The writer’s notes reveal God’s quiet influence and the effect of divine blessing.

The Movie

The movie is pretty honest, giving the people of Israel huddled around the mountain a picture of what devotion to God looks like in the rough and tumble and sexual pressure of daily life. Joseph always has to react to the aggressiveness of Potiphar’s wife; he’s always on the defensive. Joseph is pretty important in Potiphar’s house, but the wife seems to have a fair bit of power and clout on her side too.

Her seduction plan does not get any marks for subtlety. Her first approach might be flattering; it certainly is startling. “Come to bed with me,” she said. Josephs gives an elaborate response which basically means “No,” but she doesn’t take “No” for an answer. So she resorts to a tactic of slow and steady erosion by every day reopening the closed question . “And though she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her or even be with her” (v. 10).

All right, that’s not working. So then she resorts finally to ambush . “One day Joseph went into the house to attend to his duties, and none of the household servants were inside” (v. 11). Now, you’ve got to be hearing all kinds of alarm bells go off with a sentence like that. Maybe she’s hiding just inside the doorway, maybe she jumps out of the closet, I don’t know. But she grabs Joseph’s cloak and spits out her one-liner: “Come to bed with me!” He wriggles out of his cloak and runs out of the house fast, very fast.

The wife is really ticked off now. If she can’t have him, then nobody will. Vengeance seethes within her because of rejection. She sets up her story by calling all the servants to show up right now. Using cloak in hand and a bit of racial profiling--- “Look, this Hebrew has been brought to make sport of us” (v. 14), and even shifting the blame a bit to her husband--- “That Hebrew slave you brought us… (v. 17), she makes sure Joseph is blacklisted as a thwarted rapist and destroyed. And he is.

The stakes were very high in the seduction attempt. Joseph is very clear that to give in would have been a major violation of the trust that Potiphar had vested in him. Personal integrity and common human decency were reasons enough not to fall into bed with this powerful woman. But Joseph identifies the real issue: this would be “a wicked thing and (a) sin against God” (v. 9). That’s pretty perceptive for a fellow in his late teens.

The Israelites hearing this story encounter a young man whose rather rapid ascension to prominence and power in the house of his master did not corrupt him. Joseph retained his devotion to God and his righteousness. In this matter you could say he was without sin. He did what was right. They encounter a young man whose sudden demise is cause by entrapment and false accusations landing him in prison.

You and I ought to meditate on this for a while. Joseph did all the right things, and did it ever get him into trouble. You’d think that it would be different. You’d think that if you do the right things, it should go well for you, right? We easily and just simply expect that since we are trying, after all, to be faithful, obedient, and devout, God owes us smooth sailing. Then when it gets rough for us, we can’t understand why us, and we conclude that God is not fair---not fair to our sense of cause and effect, not fair to all the work we’re putting into being Christian.

It is hard for us to hold on to the understanding that we do the right things in order to do the right things, and not so that we can have bargaining leverage with God to make him make sure everything goes smooth and well for us in this life.

The Writer’s Notes

Now I want us to look at the director’s notes that give us the context for the movie.

The writer tells us that Joseph the slave prospered. And because Joseph prospered, Potiphar & Company prospered too. Potiphar is an astute business man and he knows a good resource when he sees it. “That boy is such a blessing.” Potiphar doesn’t attribute it to God; Potiphar doesn’t believe in the God of Joseph. All that talk of the Lord is not Potiphar talking; it’s the writer talking about what’s going on. No, Potiphar makes a smart business decision and puts this young cracker-jack in charge of all his household and business affairs. Verse 5: “From the time he put him in charge of his household and of all that he owed, the Lord blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph. The blessing of the Lord was on everything Potiphar had, both in the house and in the field.” Indeed, the boy is such a blessing.

The writer tells us that Joseph the prisoner was successful. And wouldn’t you know it, the prison did well too. Verse 23: “The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care, because the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.” Indeed, the boy is such a blessing. The blessing goes from him to all with whom he comes into contact.

Yes, indeed he is a blessing, but the real star of the show is God. “The Lord was with Joseph.” That’s written four times; twice in the first set of notes at the beginning of the story, and twice in the second set of notes at the end of the story.

“The LORD was with him.” Really? Well then, if the Lord was with him, how come the Lord didn’t stop him from ending up in prison because of a lady telling a lie? That question doesn’t seem to bother the writer at all. The Lord was with him in prosperity, and the Lord was with him in prison. “The LORD was with him” does not mean that God acts as a protector from every distress, but rather that God is present even in the midst of every distress. The providence of God does not eliminate all trouble.

Do you think Joseph in prison knew where all this was going to end up? Not at all. You know the end of the story; he didn’t. He had his dreams, but nothing in his dreams showed anything about this. Being prosperous in Potiphar’s house was great; being successful in prison seems pretty pale in comparison. We’re not sure if Joseph the young believer in God was content in prison. We’d like him to be content so that we can use him as an example, but the writer’s notes don’t tell us anything about Joseph’s disposition. We do know that responsibility comes with its own anxieties and worries and dangers.

Besides, aside from the time in Potiphar’s house, things have not gone well for Joseph. His brothers hated him enough to throw him down an empty well. He was sold to slave traders, probably roped to a camel and forced to walk all the way to Egypt . He was sold again, this time in the marketplace and bought up by an Egyptian slave owner. And when things did seem to turn around for the better, Mrs. Potiphar gets to be all mischievous and frisky and he ends up in jail. How fair is that? Life’s not fair!

The good times that come to Joseph in the house and in the jail are not God’s compensations for the bad times. The story is a revelation to the Israelites huddled around Mt Sinai---and a continuing revelation to us--- of the effect of God’s blessing. Centuries earlier God had said to Abraham,

I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you;
I will make your name great and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.
 (Genesis 12:2, 3)

God’s blessing of the nations even comes through a 17-year-old. Israel sees her life in Joseph’s life and comes to understand that God will work through her to bless the nations. This will not be a safe life, but it will be a blessed life that is a blessing.

That Abraham-promise is active in all the stories of the Old Testament--- God working through ordinary and some-not-so-ordinary people to restore a fallen and broken world. It is a promise of blessing that crystallizes especially in Jesus Christ--- a man without sin, betrayed and falsely accused, handed over to be flogged and killed, the Son of God who said that he came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many people, and nations, and tribes, and languages. That Jesus is such a blessing, because the LORD was with him.

Somehow we have to find the purpose of our daily life in Jesus the Blessing. Somehow we have to find our mission in life in this Jesus. Sometimes the context of our lives will look like a prosperous house, and sometimes the context will look like a prison. God can bless in either context.

Stand in line, will you? The line of Abraham, and Joseph, and Israel , and Jesus Christ: blessed by God in order to be a blessing.




Order of Worship
(* - Please stand, if able)
God Gathers Us for Worship
Call to Worship: 1 Chronicles 29:10b-13
*Hymn #453 “Let All Things Now Living”
*God’s Greeting
*Hymn #238: 1,4,5 “We Come, O Christ, To You”
God and Us are Reconciled In Jesus Christ
Call to Confession: Psalm 32:3-6a
Prayer of Confession:
(Prayer begun by the leader, which leads into...)
Hymn #287:1,2 “Have Thine Own Way, Lord”
Silent prayers
Hymn # 287: 3,4 “Have Thine Own Way , Lord (unannounced)
Assurance of Pardon: Micah 7:18-20 and 1 Timothy 1:15-17
Hymn #260 “Not What My Hands Have Done”
God Gives Direction to Our Lives
Prayer for Understanding
Scripture Reading : Genesis 39
Message: “The Boy Is Such a Blessing!” – based on Genesis 39:5, 23
*Hymn of Response: #446 “If You But Trust In God to Guide You”
God Works in the World through Us
Congregational Prayer (Concluded with “Hear Our Prayer, O Lord” #624
or “Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying” #625)
Offertory Prayer
God’s Law for Abundant Life: Exodus 20:1-17
*Hymn #322 “God, the Father of Your People”
*God’s Blessing
*Doxology: #461:1,4 “Beautiful Saviour”

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