Sermon: Life in the Pit

This summer we are spending our time immersed in the story of Joseph. It is a story where God is everywhere active, but never audible. Unlike with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Joseph gets no direct words from God. Instead, he is given dreams and called to trust God based upon the words that have already been spoken, based upon what God has done and has promised. In short, Joseph’s story is much like our own. This morning we will begin the story in Genesis 37, beginning in verse 1. Feel free to turn there with me. Genesis is the first book of the Bible. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Genesis 37, beginning in verse 1. But before we hear God’s word this morning, please take a moment to pray with me. 

Lord, as we hear your firm and unchanging word, help us to trust in your faithfulness in a shifting and ever-changing world. Open our ears to your word and guide us into all truth. In Jesus’ name, Amen. 

Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. This is the story of the family of Jacob.

Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.

Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.” His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.

He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?” So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.

Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am.” So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron.

He came to Shechem, and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” “I am seeking my brothers,” he said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” The man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.

Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.

When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes. He returned to his brothers, and said, “The boy is gone; and I, where can I turn?” Then they took Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat, and dipped the robe in the blood. They had the long robe with sleeves taken to their father, and they said, “This we have found; see now whether it is your son’s robe or not.” He recognized it, and said, “It is my son’s robe! A wild animal has devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” Then Jacob tore his garments, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and all his daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father bewailed him. Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. 

I was walking with Jeff down College Avenue in Holland, Michigan. We were talking about vocation and how to know what God wanted us to do with our lives. Jeff, now middle-aged, reflected on the deep struggle he had when he was younger to know God’s will for his life. As we began to talk about trying to follow God when he felt distant, Jeff turned to me and said, “Sometimes in life with God you are on the mountain peaks and sometimes you are in the valley. When I was younger, I used to think that when I was in the valley, that meant there was something wrong with me, that I was somehow unfaithful. As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned that this is the normal pattern for our spiritual life. Peaks and valleys. Sometimes this is just the path God has set you to walk right now. You haven’t done anything wrong, you are just called to walk with God in the valley right now.”

Peaks and valleys. Joseph’s story is the story of God’s faithfulness in the valley. It is the story of God working when we do not hear him or do not see him, when life is in the pit, in the valley, again and again. In Joseph’s story, we see a window in what Paul was saying 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.

As we look more closely at the story of Joseph here in Genesis 37, I believe we will see more deeply just what it means to say, We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 

So let’s get started. Joseph begins as the beloved son, is sent by His Father to his brothers, who hate him, plot to kill him, and cast him into a pit, only for Joseph later to be lifted out again. 

The first thing we see is that Joseph begins as the beloved son. It’s verse 3: Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. 

Joseph was the beloved and exalted son. Jacob has twelve sons, if we assume Benjamin is already born at this point. Six sons by Leah, whom Jacob was tricked into marrying by her father Laban, two each by the maidservants, Bilhah and Zilpah, and lastly two by Rachel, the wife Jacob intended to marry. Joseph is the oldest of the sons of Rachel, though by far one of the younger brothers. Jacob loved Joseph more than this brothers. That does not mean that Jacob didn’t love his other children or that he mistreated or disliked his other son, but only that Joseph was favored above his brothers. 

Now, we could look at this and see nothing more than sinful favoritism: Jacob favors one son over the others and it causes strife. It is clear that Jacob did not quite grasp how his sons felt toward Joseph, but we are not told that this was sinful favoritism. 

Jacob signals Joseph’s favored role in the family by giving him a special piece of clothing. The NRSV says, ‘a long robe with sleeves.’ the King James says, “a coat of many colors.’ Honestly, this is a difficult phrase to translate, but what we do know is that this robe would have been a symbol of Joseph’s authority. Joseph’s position as heir and future leader was shown in his special robe of authority. 

This introduces a theme that will come up again and again in the Joseph story. Clothing is connected with authority. When Joseph is robed and when his robes are stripped off are deeply symbolic of his position and authority.

Joseph is the beloved and exalted son. He is treated as the heir of the house, which means he would report directly to his father and be trained in administering the family business. This explains why Joseph is not always in the field with the brothers, but is home with his father. It is not that he is being protected and sheltered, but he is being trained to manage the whole family and all their servants and flocks. 

But we have seen that Joseph begins as the beloved and exalted son. He is loved by his father, treated and trained as the heir to the kingdom, and his father dressed him accordingly. 

What did his brothers think of this? They hate him. Verse 4: But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peaceably to him. 

Even if Jacob was right to exalt Joseph and robe him as heir, his brothers hated it. They hated being passed over, as their father’s favor rested on Joseph and not them. And every time Joseph did the right thing, it only made them angrier. We learn in verse 2 that sometimes Joseph went out to shepherd the flocks with his brothers, but that once he gave a bad report on the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah – that is, Gad, Asher, Dan, and Naphtali. It’s possible that Joseph was a tattle-tale, but since his father sends him later to check on his brothers and send back a report, it could have been that Joseph was simply doing what his father expected. Either way, there is no indication that the report was false. The brothers did wrong and Joseph reported it to their father. 

But if they hated Joseph because their father loved him and he reported their misdeeds, it only gets worse when Joseph starts to dream. 

Joseph has two dreams. First he tells his brothers of a dream where they are binding wheat in the field and his brother’s sheaves bow down to his. Everyone rightly assumes the truth of these dreams and the brothers immediately know what is happening. They interpret the bowing down as a dream that the brothers will eventually serve Joseph. So they hate him more. 

The next dream he tells to his father and brothers. Now the sun, moon, and eleven stars bow down to him. Again, they immediately understand what the dream means. Not just the brothers, but Joseph’s father and mother will bow down to him. Here Jacob even rebukes Joseph. The brothers move from hatred to jealousy, but Jacob reserves judgment. 

At this point, we have seen a mounting tension in the story. Joseph is beloved and exalted. Whether this is completely right or there is some latent favoritism in this, Joseph has been given the position of heir to the household, received the favor of his father, has been given dreams by God in which his whole family will bow down to him, and has been robed with power. 

The response to the elevation and promised power of this beloved son is hatred. Hatred builds to more hatred, twists into jealousy and will soon give birth to a murderous plots. Maybe Joseph wasn’t prudent to tell his brothers his dreams, but this certainly does not justify their hatred. Joseph receives a dream, he receives power and responsibility, and he receives the love of the father, and the brothers hate him for it. They hate him not because he is bad or does wrong, but because he has been promised good things and has been blessed. 

Yet, Romans 8:28 says, We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. How? How can we say this when Joseph who has done nothing wrong is hated by his own brothers? Sometimes we suffer, not because we have done something wrong, but because we are following God. Joseph heeded the dreams, he wore the robe of authority, he listened well to his father, and was hated for it. He was hated not for his wickedness but for his righteousness. Sometimes we suffer the animosity and vitriol of others not because we are wrong, but because we are right. Jesus tells us to expect it when we follow him. Peter and Paul caution us to make sure we are suffering for doing right, not for doing wrong, but tell us to expect it all the same. Sometimes the reward for following God is hatred and struggle. I would love to be able to tell you today that if you follow God people will love you and things will always go right and that if life is hard it is because you are walking away from God. It would be simpler than the truth. However, the truth is that, like Joseph, following God before others does not always mean things go smoothly. It doesn’t always means people respond with joy. Sometimes quite the opposite. Sometimes when light shines in the darkness, things that prefer to hide are exposed and they hate us for it. 

At this point, Jacob shows that he really doesn’t understand what is going on with his sons. His other sons have taken the flock quite a few days journey from home to pasture them. In order to get an update, Jacob sends Joseph to them. After being redirected to their location, the brothers see Joseph at a distance and begin to plot. He dreams of ruling over us! Hard to do that when he’s dead. It wouldn’t even be that difficult to cover up. We can throw his body into a pit, an empty cistern. If there is no body, we can just say a wild animal did it. Dad will never know. 

Only Reuben cautions against murder. Only Reuben, the oldest of all the brothers and the firstborn of Leah, the only one who should truly be angry that Joseph is heir and not him, Reuben says not to harm Joseph. As an alternative to murder, Reuben suggests the simply throw Joseph into the pit, but leave him alive. 

The brothers agree and when Joseph arrives, he is stripped of his robe, symbolically stripped of how power and position, and cast into the pit. Joseph was sent my His Father to his brothers, who hate him, reject him, plot to kill him, and cast him into a pit. 

Then comes the most heart-wrenching line in the whole chapter. It’s verse 25: Then they sat down to eat. Joseph lying in the pit, Joseph stripped and cast down into the very depths they put him in, Joseph crying out and the brothers sit down to eat. They will later reflect that they heard Joseph’s cries, but didn’t listen. They sat down to a meal, they filled their stomachs and rested their bodies while their own brother cried out in fear, pain, and agony in the very pit they cast him into. The callous indifference to suffering of their brother. The lack of remorse. The audacity to serve yourself to a meal while closing your ears to your brother’s cries. 

If, like me, you have spent most of the morning finding yourself sympathizing with Joseph, thinking about the times you have followed God and suffered for it, it is important that we take a moment to consider whether we are not only like Joseph, but at times like the brothers. 

Whose voices are crying out that we refuse to hear? While we sit restless but comfortable in our homes, sitting down to eat, who is crying out that we close our ears to hear? 

It has been a painful two weeks for me as I watch the news coming from the States. It’s like a watching a family member slowly destroy herself. You may not live with her anymore, but it guts you to watch her do this to herself. George Floyd – dead. Suffocated to death by a police officer while cameras were rolling. The cries of pain of a black community who says, “Why does this happen to us yet again?” Year after year, decade after decade, our sons and daughters are killed and beaten, kept from opportunities and looked on as less, as little more than thugs. They cry out and their voices are not heard. They cry out and America sits down to eat, forgetting that it was they who threw them into the pit in the first place. Now the cries of pain mix with justified anger and swirl from protests into riots. They knelt and no one listened. They silently marched and no one listened. Now fires and destruction, tear gas and rubber bullets, national guard in armored vehicles enforcing curfew and patrolling the streets of my home town. 

As I have grieved and tried to find ways to talk to Olga or even begin to explain to my children what is happening, I have been haunted by this image of the brothers sitting down to eat beside the pit. 

Whose voices are crying out that we refuse to hear? While we sit restless but comfortable in our homes, sitting down to eat, who is crying out that we close our ears to hear?

In Canada, our history with race and injustice is a different story than that of our neighbors to the south. Yet, as grateful as I am to live here, we are not immune to the forces of sin. We, too, have voices that go unheard and privilege that goes unseen.  

Whose voices are crying out that we refuse to hear? While we sit restless but comfortable in our homes, sitting down to eat, who is crying out that we close our ears to hear?

For some of us, we may know what it is like to be Joseph, to try to cling to God and walk with him in the pit, to be faithful and find yourself cast down not just in spite of it, but because of it. Yet, it is also wise for us to take time to consider whether we are also like the brothers, sitting down to eat while our brothers and sisters languish. 

As the brother sat down to eat, a caravan of Ishmaelites comes by. Judah proposes a way to profit off of getting rid of Joseph. At his suggestion, they draw Joseph up and cast him down into a new pit – the pit of slavery. All that is left is the cover-up. Reuben was not in on this plot and is torn up by what they have done. The brothers take the special robe and dip it in goat’s blood to deceive their father. Jacob who deceived his father with goat skins and garments is now deceived by his sons with goat blood on a garment. Though the brothers don’t identify the robe, Jacob recognizes it immediately. He tears his robes and enters into mourning. Though all his family seeks to comfort him, Jacob stays in mourning until he meets Joseph again, alive all those years later. 

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. how is this true here? How is this true for Joseph and Jacob? Joseph ends up hated, cast into a pit, only to then be cast into slavery. Jacob has struggled with his brother all the days of his life, when he finally has peace, he sends his beloved son off to his brothers only to get a bloody garment in return. What does it mean for all things to work together for good here? 

To see the hand of God in this story, we have to look beyond this story itself. At this moment in the story, there is nothing but down, down, down. What happens to him is not good, but evil. However, when we look back in light of the whole story, we can see God’s faithful hand at work. This does not minimize the suffering and wailing of Joseph in the pit, nor trivialize Jacob’s bewailing of his son, but it gives us confidence in the faithfulness of God, when we cannot see him.

Joseph the beloved Son was cast down into the pit, into slavery. But he is sold into the house of Potiphar. In Potiphar’s house, Joseph will rise only to be cast down again into prison. Then he will be lifted up to the right hand of Pharaoh and bless the whole known world. Three times Joseph is cast down only later to be brought out again. By the end of the story, God has turned all these evil actions, including this hatred and betrayal of the brothers, in such a way that Joseph is a blessing to the nations. 

The very plot to destroy Joseph will end up being the brother’s salvation and that of the world. This is not an isolated incident. This is the way of God in the world. God takes evil and wickedness and turns it inside out and upside down for the sake of salvation. The story of Joseph going down only to be brought up for the salvation of the world points ahead to the story of Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the beloved and exalted Son of the Father. He is robed in majesty and his power and glory were predicted long ago. He was sent by His Father to his brothers, who hated him, rejected him, and plotted to kill him. Jesus is the one who, when asked what he was seeking, would echo the voice of Joseph, “I am seeking my brothers.” Jesus was cast into the pit of death only to be brought out again three days later. The plot to destroy Jesus ends up being our salvation. At his final exaltation, he brings blessing to the whole world. 

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. This is not a call to just put on a happy face, but a promise rooted in what we see here in the life of Joseph, that even the works of evil, even undeserved hatred and scorn can be turned by God toward his greater purposes in this world. It is a promise rooted in what God has accomplished in Jesus Christ, the greater Joseph, who went down into the depths of the deepest pit for us and for our salvation and God raised him from the dead. 

Jeff turned to me and said, “Sometimes in life with God you are on the mountain peaks and sometimes you are in the valley…Peaks and valleys. Sometimes this is just the path God has set you to walk right now. You haven’t done anything wrong, you are just called to walk with God in the valley right now.”

The God who lifted Joseph up from the pit, the God who raised Jesus from the dead, is the same God who is near to you in your valleys and promises one day that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. 

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