Sermon: Joseph in Prison

If you have a Bible with you, turn or scroll with me to Genesis 40, beginning in verse 1. If you don’t have a Bible, don’t fret. Just open your ears to hear God’s Word this morning. This summer we are spending our time listening to God speak through the story of Joseph. This is a story of God’s faithfulness when life is in the pit, when life is in the dark places where it seems like God’s promise is farthest from coming true. So far, Joseph has been stripped and sold into slavery by his brothers, bought by a man named Potiphar, only to be falsely accused by his wife and thrown into prison. And it is here, with Joseph in prison, that we pick up the story this morning. It’s Genesis 40, beginning in verse 1. But before we hear God’s word, please take a moment to pray with me. 

Lord, set our ears to hear your word and set us free by your gospel. As we hear the story of Joseph in prison, may we fix our eyes on you, our great redeemer. In Jesus’ name, Amen. 

Some time after this, the cupbearer of the King of Egypt and his baker offended their lord the King of Egypt. Pharaoh was angry with his two officers, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, and he put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, 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 they both dreamed – the cupbearer and baker of the King of Egypt, who were confined in prison – 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. So he asked Pharaoh’s officers, who were with him in custody in his master’s house, “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.”

So the chief cupbearer told his dream to Joseph and said to him, “In my dream there was a vine before me and on the vine there were three branches. As soon as it budded, the blossoms came out and the clusters ripened into grapes. Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand and I took the grapes and pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup and placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.” Then Joseph said to him, “This is its interpretation: the three branches are three days. Within three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your office, and you shall place Pharaoh’s cup in his hand, just as you used to do when you were his cupbearer. But remember me when it is well with you; please do me the kindness to make mention of me to Pharaoh, and so get me out of this place. For in fact I was stolen out of the land of the Hebrews and here also I have done nothing that they should have put me into prison.”

When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was favorable, he said to Joseph, “I also had a dream: there were three cake baskets on my head, and in the uppermost basket were all sorts of baked food for Pharaoh, but the birds were eating it out of the basket on my head.” And Joseph answered, “This is its interpretation: the three baskets are three days. Within three days Pharaoh will lift up your head – from you! – and hang you on a pole and the birds will eat the flesh from you.”

On the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday, he made a feast for all his servants, and lifted up the head of the chief cupbearer and the chief baker among his servants. He restored the chief cupbearer to his cupbearing and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand. But the chief baker he hanged, just as Joseph had interpreted to them. Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him. 

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

About eight years ago, Olga and I spent some time in a Mexican prison. It was voluntary, don’t worry. But we had to surrender our passports at the entrance and there were armed guards with assault rifles and riot shields at the entrances and exits. We were there to visit and play basketball with inmates who were part of a prison church. I remember being terribly out of shape and losing badly at basketball. But I also remember the feeling of giving up my passport and entering the prison. It was terrifying, but the only comfort I had was that I knew when it was over, I would get out. 

This morning, we are spending time with Joseph in prison. Like much of the Joseph story, this is life in the pit. But in our time together this morning, I want us to notice three things: a word about gifts, a word about timing, and a word about power. 

First, a word about gifts. Even in prison, God is equipping Joseph. Even in the prison, in the pit, God is preparing Joseph for what lies ahead. 

Joseph was thrown into prison because of the false accusations of Potiphar’s wife. Joseph gains the favor of the chief jailer and is put in charge of the prisoners. It is interesting to note that the prison where Joseph is confined is Potiphar’s prison, his master’s prison. Potiphar is called the captain of the guard, and we are told that Joseph is being kept in the prison in the house of the captain of the guard. Potiphar’s moves Joseph from being second-in-command over his house to being second-in-command over his prison. 

Even with the favor of the chief jailor, this is still a miserable position. Joseph is in prison. His life is still in the pit, still cast down in the dark. As miserable as modern prisons can be, they have nothing on prisons in the ancient world. This was a dark and miserable place. 

But even here, God is equipping Joseph. Even in the prison, in the pit, God is preparing Joseph for what lies ahead. 

One day, two high profile prisoners are brought in. The chief cupbearer and chief baker of Egypt. These are more than just a butler and a chef. In ancient Egypt, the cupbearer was often an advisor to the king, sometimes even sitting as a judge in court. He not only placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand, but had his ear. The chief baker certainly made food for Pharaoh, but some suggest he was charged with the distribution of food for the empire. These men were close to Pharaoh, providing him food and drink, and they were powerful men.

Yet, they had somehow offended Pharaoh. It could have been for something as petty as a bad glass of wine or a speck of sand in Pharaoh’s bread. It could have been something more sinister, but we don’t know. Whatever happened, they have roused Pharaoh’s anger and he throws them into prison, the prison where Joseph is kept. 

Joseph, being in charge of the prisoners, begins to serve them. Even though he is second-in-command of the prisoner, Joseph serves. He attends and cares for them. Far from prison hardening Joseph, he manages to be filled with care and concern for others, even while he is in the pit. 

One night, both these VIP prisoners have dreams. In the morning, Joseph notices them looking sad and, out of concern, asks about it. They tell him they have had dreams, but there is no one to interpret them. 

Nonplussed, Joseph responds, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me.”

Even here, God is equipping Joseph. Even in the prison, in the pit, God is preparing Joseph for what lies ahead. 

The men have dreams and God gives Joseph the ability to interpret them. Joseph who has consistently show immense worldly talent has now been given by God an otherworldly one. He interprets dreams because God grants him the ability to do so. Interpretation belongs to God and Joseph has been given the gift.

The cupbearer dreams of a vine with three branches that ripen into grapes. He squeezes the grapes into Pharaoh’s cup and puts it in his hand. Joseph, rightly, interprets the dream as meaning Pharaoh will restore the cupbearer in three days. The baker dreams of three baskets on his head, full of food for Pharaoh, but instead of giving it to Pharaoh, the birds are eating out of the basket. Joseph, rightly, interprets this as meaning Pharaoh will hang the baker in three days. 

Two dreams and two right interpretations. Joseph, who has been waiting for years for God to fulfill the dream given him is now given the ability to understand the dreams of others. 

I have seen people try to apply modern and ancient dream interpretation methods to understand how Joseph knew that this was what the dreams meant. However, I think this misses the point. Joseph can understand the dream, not because he is smart, but because of the work and gift of God. Egypt, along with Babylon, was the center of dream interpretation in the ancient world. They had whole textbooks and guilds dedicated to the science of understanding dreams. They were the worldwide experts in this area. Yet, in the end, they know nothing. These men sit downcast before Joseph because they could not understand the dream. They could not understand the dream because they do not know the LORD of the dream. They do not know the one who sent it. These men are stumped until the man of God comes and by the power of God interprets what God has sent. There is a power Egypt and Pharaoh do not know. There is a gift that all the talent and intelligence of Egypt cannot match. 

Even here, even in the pit of prison, God is equipping Joseph for what is ahead. Joseph, who has been filled with worldly talents is now being given an otherworldly one. But we have been saying that God equips Joseph for what is ahead, because right now this gift, this talent, doesn’t seem that helpful. 

He interprets the dreams, but the cupbearer forgets Joseph. He uses his gifts, one person dies and the other lives, but the one who lives forgets him and Joseph is still left in the prison. Joseph uses his gift, the very gift God has given him, and it does nothing to change his situation, nothing to bring him out of the darkness of the pit. Joseph tells the cupbearer, “For in fact I have been stolen out of the land of the Hebrews and here also I have done nothing that they should have put me into the dungeon.” Yet at the end of this chapter nothing has changed about Joseph’s situation. The only thing that has changed is Joseph himself.

Even here, even in the pit of prison, God is equipping Joseph for what is ahead. 

God gives him a gift, and though he uses it now, the reason for the gift is not truly evident until later. In the next chapter, it is Pharaoh who will have a dream and the cupbearer will remember Joseph and Joseph will be lifted out by the hand of God and placed before Pharaoh to interpret his dreams. But not yet. Right now, he is simply being equipped. He uses his gift to help others – to share the truth with them – but this is a season of preparation for Joseph. 

Even here, even in the darkness, even in the pit, God is equipping you, us, for what lies ahead. Sometimes God places us in seasons of preparation as well. Perhaps my biggest frustration of COVID was not the quarantine or the need to change my routine of shipping or wearing masks, but the loss of momentum. As we were beginning to see growth and vitality and change in our congregation, suddenly we were thrown for a loop and cast into a very different place. Suddenly, like Joseph, we found ourselves in a pit – unable to meet together, unable to invite or welcome guests, unable to talk to strangers or even figure out how to share our faith. I spent many nights wondering and had many conversations with other pastors wrestling with just what we were supposed to being doing in the season of COVID. 

But even here, even in the pit, in the darkness, God was equipping Joseph for what lay ahead. He gave him the exact gift he would need for when God called him out of this and into the court of Pharaoh. Perhaps we can trust that God is doing the same with us, with the church, with you. Even here, even now, even as the world comes lurching and stumbling out of isolation, God is equipping us for what is ahead. Even if right now our gifts, our service, our dreams don’t seem to change much about our situation, we can trust that God did not give them by accident. God did not lead us to a dead end. 

Just as Joseph was being prepared in the pit for what lay ahead for him, I believe that God is working even now in us, in our congregation, to equip us for what he has prepared for our future. Just as Joseph didn’t know then other than the dream, we don’t know exactly now other than the promise of God in his Word. Yet, we do know that God is faithful, all the time. 

If the first word is about gifts – that even in the pit of prison God was equipping Joseph and even in our pits and valleys, God is equipping us for what is ahead, the second word is about timing. 

God’s timing is not our timing. Joseph spends a long time in prison, he spends a long time in the dark pit. Joseph was thrown into prison and verse 1 tells us, “Some time after this” the cupbearer and baker are thrown into prison. Then, Joseph waits on them and they continued in custody “for some time.” Then after the cupbearer is restored, Joseph is forgotten and remains in prison. Spoiler alert, but it is a whole two years before the cupbearer remembers Joseph again. Joseph’s time in Potiphar’s house and in prison will total 13 years. 

This is not a quick stint in the can for Joseph, but a long time in the dark. God will bring Joseph out, but on his schedule, not Joseph’s. I don’t know why God lets him stay there as long as he does. Why so long? It’s a question I ask throughout the Bible. Why so long for Abraham and Sarah waiting on a baby? Why so long for Joseph laboring under Laban? Why so long for Israel under the yoke of Egypt? Why so long before the Messiah came? Why so long for the man born blind, the woman with bleeding, the millions of martyrs whose blood shed for the sake of Christ? I have looked and my own life and asked the same question: Why so long in our suffering – cancer, alzheimers, chronic pain? We enter seasons of darkness or hardship and wonder just how long we will have to live that pit, in that dark place. 

The truth is that Joseph spent a long time in the prison. God’s timing is not our timing. God is not cruel or vindictive. God is not forgetful or lax in caring for us. But we are simply not told when we will be brought out of the pit or even always why we were in it in the first place. 

Instead, like Joseph, we are called to patient trust, to perseverance. Joseph did not know when God would bring him out, but the promise of the dream meant God would do it. We do not know when we will be brought out of the darkness, it may even have to wait until the sounding of the trumpet on the last day, but we do have the promise of God that it will be so. 

God’s timing is not our timing. But it is good. In speaking to his people in exile, in that pit, God gave these words to the prophet Isaiah: 

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

    neither are your ways my ways,”

declares the Lord.

“As the heavens are higher than the earth,

    so are my ways higher than your ways

    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

As the rain and the snow

    come down from heaven,

and do not return to it

    without watering the earth

and making it bud and flourish,

    so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,

so is my word that goes out from my mouth:

    It will not return to me empty,

but will accomplish what I desire

    and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

You will go out in joy

    and be led forth in peace;

the mountains and hills

    will burst into song before you,

and all the trees of the field

    will clap their hands.” (55:8-11)

God’s timing is not our timing. Yet in the same breath that God tells us his thoughts and his ways are higher than ours, he also says we will go out in joy and be led forth in peace. 

So in the pit, in prison, God was equipping and preparing Joseph for what was ahead, even though Joseph did not know the timing of when God would lead him out. The last thing we need to see this morning is a word about power. 

Where are we at the end of this story? Joseph is handsome and good-looking. He is on the cover of Egyptian GQ. Joseph is talented in a worldly sense and in an otherworldly sense. He is on the cover of the Egyptian Forbes. Yet Joseph is still in prison. No matter how good Joseph is, he cannot save himself. 

Joseph is powerless to rescue himself. He must be raised up from prison and he cannot spring himself. We end this chapter of Genesis with Joseph supremely talented and capable and supremely powerless to rescue himself. 

This is our situation as well. There is no amount of talent, no amount of money, no amount of effort, that you can muster to rescue you and lift you out of the pit of your sin. The bondage and prison live in – both to sin and as a result of sin – is something we cannot get out of our on own. 

There can be no human engineered prison break. We, like Joseph, are trapped no matter how strong or weak we are, no matter how good we look on the outside, no matter how many good deeds or good intentions we have. For all his good looks and talent, Joseph could not get himself out of prison. 

He needed God to lift him out. He was powerless, but God was powerful, mighty to save. We, in our sin, cannot lift ourselves out. We cannot work ourselves into right relationship with God, we cannot be good enough to erase our past sins, we cannot do anything to get ourselves out of the prison of sin and death. Instead, we need God to lift us out. 

In this way, Joseph sitting in prison points us to our need for the cross of Christ. Jesus Christ is the one who through his death and resurrection sets us free from the prison of death, lifts up out of our bondage, and calls us to use the gifts he has given us for his glory. It is Jesus Christ who breaks the prisons free, sets the former captives to dancing to the praise of the LORD. It is Jesus Christ, who through his death causes our chains to fall off so that we can rise and go forth in the joy of the LORD. It is Jesus Christ who has dealt with sin and broken the bars of the prison. 

Joseph could not get himself out. The most talented man in Egypt and he was powerless. The same is true for us, whether talented or not, whether put together or falling apart, we cannot save ourselves. Instead, like Joseph, we need a saviour, we need Jesus Christ who will lift us out of our prison and into his arms. 

When Olga and I entered the Mexican prison, we were told to stay together as a group. After passing scores of men looking hard and miserable, we came to the church. And then we saw it. The cross sitting in the little chapel. The men who gathered here and would soon embarrass me in basketball were different than those we had passed before. Like every person in there, they were locked up, they were in the pit, but they were free. Those men who gathered around the cross, even in the prison, were free in the truest sense of the word. A freedom that transcended and even defied their current condition, a freedom that lasted through the darkness of prison, a freedom that would never fade. They had found freedom in Jesus Christ, who died to set them free. As John 8:36 says, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” 

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

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