Unexpected Leader

Unexpected Leader

Genesis 45.1-15 – Joseph & his brothers Reunite

Unexpected Journey

Last week we met a young 17-year old Joseph with his bedazzling coat who has some God-given dreams about leadership. This young man has two powerful dreams about leadership that leaves his family confused and angry, angry enough to hate him …to kill him …to sell him into slavery. This young man’s father Jacob has been practicing favoritism amongst his children. His father makes a special coat for only one of his sons, which sets him apart from the others.

This beautiful coat becomes the focus for hatred from all of his older brothers – all 10 of them. I don’t know about you but you would think that at least one of 10 would have had some sympathy for Joseph. But not one of them swayed from their hatred. With so much jealousy and envy stirred up amongst the brothers they do a dreadful thing – they toss their 17-year-old brother into a dry well to leave him for dead then decide they would spare his life and they sell him into slavery.

As we finished our passage last week we are left with a cliffhanger ending awaiting our sequel today about Joseph’s reunion with his brothers. As I read our passage this week I couldn’t help thinking that we had by-passed all of Joseph’s trials and triumphs that transformed him into the Egyptian leader he is in our text today.

For us to fully grasp the meaning of this story we have to reach back into our history to the beginning. Here we are in the middle of this grand narrative of Genesis, the first book of the whole Bible. And, the first lessons taught from this instruction book is all about God’s hand in our character development and God’s hand in our leadership role in the family tree, and God’s hand in our position of authority in the world around us. If the first stories of the Bible are teaching about character development and leadership, I dare say that God is teaching a foundational truth here. And, the truth of the matter is that God is intentional about our character development especially when we are in hard times like Joseph.

In fact this whole story of Joseph’s life is rooted in the first three chapters of Genesis. In the beginning God created… then creation fell into deception. Eve and then Adam both found their character and abilities wanting. They were unable to lead one another away from harm, and their character needed further development. In fact the first story after the fall is the story of sibling rivalry that ends in death of a brother.

The main character in our story is Joseph who grows into adulthood in very trying circumstances. He has grown up as his father’s favorite son, and his father has not hidden his feelings for him at all …so much so that it becomes evident to Joseph’s brothers that their father plans to make Joseph the heir to the family estate. Joseph is asked by his father to “check on his brothers,” which places Joseph is a place of unwelcomed unexpected leadership as far as the brothers were concerned.

Soon Joseph finds himself displaced from his family leadership position, and tossed into a dry well at the crossroad city of Dothan. The good life as Joseph experienced in the family compound was over. He was sold into slavery, betrayed by his very own brothers, and taken to Egypt. And, his father was never told the truth, and assumed his son was dead – eaten by a wild animal.

An Egyptian leader named Potiphar purchases Joseph. Potiphar is Egypt’s chief officer and commander of the royal guard. While serving in Potiphar’s household, Joseph rose to power and was given a place of authority — second only to Potiphar himself. Although Joseph is not Potiphar’s son, Joseph is given significant responsibility. And perhaps that is why Potiphar’s wife approaches Joseph to gain his affection. While serving as supervisor over Potiphar’s household, Joseph finds himself betrayed once again. An accusation by Potiphar’s wife lands Joseph in prison. In the heat of the moment Joseph is removed from his position of leadership.

And, not only has Joseph been removed from his leadership role, he has been imprisoned. This is the second time that Joseph finds himself in a difficult position. Things have gone from bad to worse for Joseph. While in jail, Joseph once again becomes a leader among the people. The jail’s commander put all of the prisoners under Joseph’s supervision, and it was up to Joseph to determine everything that happened in jail. While Joseph was supervising the inmates, the King’s important court officials – chief baker and chief wine steward – were put in jail. These two important people have disturbing dreams while under Joseph’s care. As the story unfolds, this is the second set of two dreams that predict the future. Joseph doesn’t shy away from the interpretation – one dream restores the wine steward and the other dream predicts the death of the baker.

Since the first two dreams and interpretations didn’t turn out so well, I’m not sure how Joseph found the courage to speak on behalf of God when at this point in his life things have been very bad, and no where near the fulfillment of his God-given dreams. But Joseph maintains his integrity and his faith in God. From slavery to imprisonment Joseph keeps his moral compass in tact. All the while Joseph continues to discover how to excel in difficult circumstances. He never gives up on his God.

Sometime after the chief wine steward is restored to his position of authority, Pharaoh has two dreams. And, it is through the interpretation of these dreams that Joseph is given a place of authority and power. Here we have the third set of two futuristic dreams. God has offered insights for everyday living through dreams. And, God has given Joseph the interpretation of the dreams for the benefit of many people.

Pharaoh defines Joseph as intelligent and wise. In fact Pharaoh says of Joseph, “Can we find a man with more God-given gifts than this one? Since God has made all this known to you [meaning the interpretation of dreams], no one is as intelligent and as wise as you are.” Pharaoh proceeds to place Joseph in a position of authority second only to himself. He gives Joseph the power to rule over all Egypt submitting only to Pharaoh himself. Pharaoh gives Joseph a new name, more culturally sensitive to an Egyptian leader. Pharaoh appoints a woman to be his wife, and they eventually have twin sons. Eventually those tribes will become a significant part of Israel’s history. Joseph has quite an unexpected journey!

More than 11 years have passed before Joseph has an unexpected encounter – his brothers show up at his doorstep. Joseph’s brothers arrive in Egypt looking for help during the famine. And, there is a strange turn of events as Joseph tests his brothers to see if they have matured in their character and leadership skills. Joseph tests the hearts of his brothers to discern whether they can be trusted. Joseph’s leadership skills have become shrewd and deliberate. He’s not willing to lay his life on the line for these brothers just because they are family.

Not only is Joseph an unexpected leader in the plot, but Judah is also an unexpected leader among his brothers. Brother Judah becomes an important sub-character in this story. Judah is the one who actually talks his brothers into selling Joseph behind Reuben’s back. Judah has experienced significant loses in his life since he last saw Joseph. Two of Judah’s sons had died, and the experience surely humbled him. In fact it is through Judah’s relationship with his daughter-in-law that connects to Jesus genealogy. Perhaps his own life experiences served to develop his character and his leadership role in the family tree. Joseph eventually relents and reveals his identity when Judah stands up for his father Jacob.

Joseph is now second in command in all of Egypt. Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers and promises to provide land, food, and protection for the family during the famine and beyond in the best land in all Egypt, Goshen. This reconciliation is flooded with emotions that run so high that Pharaoh’s household heard Joseph weeping.

At the beginning of this story we could not have guessed at its ending. Who could imagine that God’s hand of provision would have allowed the actions of the brothers to place Joseph in slavery …or the actions of Potiphar to put Joseph in prison …or that dreaming and dream interpretations would be the vehicles by which God would bring Joseph to power in a land far from his home.

***

No doubt about it …Joseph became an unexpected leader. And along his journey he surely faced unexpected temptations. Henri Nouwen, a well-known author, in his book In the Name of Jesus points out three specific temptations that leaders face. And, Joseph surely faced these same temptations in his life. Perhaps the three greatest temptations he faced were the temptations to be relevant, the temptation to be great in the eyes of people, and the temptations to be powerful.

The first temptation is to be relevant. This is the very temptation that Eve faced in the Garden of Eden when the serpent asked her if she wanted to be knowledgeable about good and evil. This is a temptation we cannot afford to surrender to. Nouwen states, “The Christian leader of the future is called to be completely not relevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love (30).” Nouwen insists that God loves us simply because we are his creation, not because of what we do. All of our doing must rest in our faith and trust in God. No matter what Joseph did in his work, it was only through his God-given abilities that he stepped into his position of influence. And, he knew it!

As Christian leaders we are tempted to be great. Greatness is product of our imaginations – and we in America are quick to fantasize about greatness. We even create superhero characters and movies to help inspire us to greatness. We write about greatness. We write books that teach us to be our best selves. The world would have us live alone and isolated with our own ingenuity rather than being in mutual relationship within community. Joseph navigated the waters of greatness by giving God all the credit for his rise to power. He also gave God the credit for the choices the brothers made forgiving them for their decisions.

The last temptation is to be powerful. Nouwen suggests that the reason why power is so irresistible is because it is hard to love. Learning to love people depends on our relationships… relationships that move beyond the surface of things. Schedules are wonderful tools for our lives but sometimes schedules can be used to promote control over others. Our culture is in overdrive: hurry up and go. It is counterculture to slow the pace down. When we are able to slow down, we provide space for relationship building. Nouwen states, “Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead (79).” The key to successful relationships is the giving and receiving of love.

At the end of our story today Joseph illustrates the key to our success as leaders… the key is giving and receiving love. Joseph reveals himself to his brothers with weeping, hugging, and kissing. Again, this is the second story in Genesis where we’ve experienced an unexpected turn of events between brothers – first between Jacob and Esau at their reunion and now Joseph and his brothers at their reunion. But instead of what I expected – which was violence and hatred, I got what was unexpected – love and forgiveness, hugging and reconciliation.

The good news today is that we too can offer the unexpected gift of love. Yesterday we offered an unexpected gift of love through our Impact Prayer Parade. We intentionally offered our community prayers and blessings instead of judgment and condemnation. Although you and I might find ourselves tempted to want to be relevant to our communities, or great in the eyes of our neighbors, or even sought after because we have the power to change things, you and I now know we can’t surrender to those temptations. Through the story of Joseph, it has been made clear to us that we must remain faithful to God and love our neighbor unconditionally just like Joseph loved his brothers. Let us strive to be like Joseph to share the unexpected gift of love. Love. Love your God. Love your neighbor. Keep it simple. Keep it unexpected. Love. That’s what Joseph teaches us today.

***

Perhaps today you have found yourself tempted to be relevant, spectacular, or powerful. If you find yourself in a place of conviction today, there’s space here at the altar for you. If you find yourself in a place of wanting to get right with God, you can do that right in your seat or you can make your way to the front and I would be glad to pray with you. So often we leave church pricked by a sermon but we’re not sure what’s next. Our next step is confession, asking God to cleanse our hearts. We’re going to take a few minutes today to reflect on what we’ve heard from God. The altar is open.

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