Bruce Van Blair
Sunday, May 1, 2016
Joseph in Prison
CHILDREN'S STORY AND SERMON
JOSEPH IN PRISON
Almost everybody has heard of Joseph because he was Jesus’ father. However, there was another man named Joseph who lived almost two thousand years earlier, and he is even more famous. There are lots of fascinating stories about this earlier Joseph. People still make movies about him and write lots of Sunday School books about him, and one Mann who won the Nobel Prize wrote about him. [Paul Thomas Mann won the 1929 Nobel Prize in Literature. His four-part novel Joseph and His Brothers was published in 1943 and took sixteen years to write.]
Recently I told some of you the story of how Joseph saved his brothers and his father from famine, even though his brothers had sold him into slavery. Do any of you remember? And lots of people remember Joseph’s coat of many colors, even though it was really a robe with long sleeves.
Joseph was the last great person in the Bible before Moses. He closed out the Age of the Patriarchs. He ruled Egypt, and he was the reason why the Israelites moved to Egypt. He was a great seer, a man of both wisdom and learning, an interpreter of dreams, and a man of prayer and meditation. But mostly, Joseph was a man of God. By that I mean that Joseph cared about God more than about all other things. He did not seem to care very much about his own life, his own desires, or his own longings; he cared some, of course, but not greatly. He wondered far more about what God was doing, what God wanted, and if there was anything he himself could be understanding or doing for God.
Today I want to tell you just a little bit about the middle part of Joseph’s life. It was not nearly as good as the end part, but you cannot get to the end without going through the middle. Funny how many people try to skip the middle anyway, but it just will not work. They put Joseph in prison, and for something he didn’t do. But it didn’t make any difference that he didn’t do it. He was in prison anyway.
Now, you remember that Joseph knew, from the time he was very young, that he was a special person with a special purpose in life – just like you are. He did not know what that meant yet, but he could feel that it was true. So all the time he was growing up, he thought a lot and prayed a lot and studied a lot, trying to get ready for whatever it was that God wanted him to do. And you remember that his brothers did not like him for it. They just thought he was stuck-up and self-centered. Their jealousy got pretty serious.
So when they had the chance, they sold him to a passing caravan, and that caravan carried him off to Egypt, where he was sold to a man named Potiphar, who was the Captain of Pharaoh’s guard. Pretty soon Potiphar trusted Joseph to be so wise, well-organized, and trustworthy that he set Joseph over all his affairs.
Unfortunately for Joseph, he was also good-looking as well as very interesting. Potiphar’s wife started thinking Joseph was quite special too, and she wanted him to make love to her. Well, Joseph knew that making love with another man’s wife was wrong, and making love with your boss’s wife was also stupid. So he refused, and he kept on refusing.
Nobody likes to be rejected, especially when they are wrong to begin with. So Potiphar’s wife was furious. She tore her clothes, screamed for the guards, and then pretended that Joseph had attacked her. In other words, she lied. But it got poor Joseph put in prison anyway.
Once in prison, it was not very long before the head jailer began to realize that Joseph was smart. So after a while, he had Joseph pretty much running the prison for him. In some ways, things were not too bad for Joseph. On the other hand, it is not much fun being in prison, being punished for something you did not do, being unable to have a life of your own, being unable to make plans or dream of a future of your own.
So I just want you to think for a little while and imagine what you would feel like if you were Joseph. Here you are, locked away. Year after year goes by. Nothing seems to be happening right. It looks like you will be stuck here for the rest of your life. And you did not do anything wrong. You remember all the dreams and visions you used to have about how your life would be special and how you would accomplish some great purpose. But here you are: stuck, stopped, lied about, wronged. How do you think you would feel?
According to the story, Joseph had a very special kind of patience. He did not get bitter or fill his life with blaming. He did not stop thinking or praying or growing. He just went on living each day the best way he could and doing the best job he could at whatever came along. He always watched for any opportunity that might come along. And he kept hope during a time when, for most people, there would not have been any hope.
Do you know why I wanted to tell you this story? Sooner or later you are going to need Joseph’s kind of patience. I wanted you to know about it, get ready for it, and start practicing it so that you will not give up on the life God wants for you just because sometimes it looks difficult or impossible or very far away.
It is not my purpose to undo, lighten, or ruin the story of Joseph – certainly not to minimize his sterling faithfulness by seeming to trivialize it. But it does seem to me that there are applications for every one of us in Joseph’s story.
It is not a new thought, and I don’t mean to present anything very new, but there really is more than one kind of bondage. I suppose it is inevitable that beings as physically based as we are would be most impressed by physical bondage. And I do not have a big need to change your mind about that. I am very glad that none of us are in prison this morning. It would seem a horrendous thing to me if any of us had to go to prison, and I have been terribly dismayed when friends of mine have gone to prison. I certainly felt helpless and powerless when it has happened.
Without feeling any need to do so myself, and without inviting you to engage in any fruitless comparisons of one kind of bondage to another, it is nevertheless true that there is more than one kind of bondage. Is it not also true that everybody here has wrestled with some kind of bondage? Is it perhaps also true that everybody here still experiences at least moments when life feels bound up, stuck, put on hold?
Somehow I suspect that Joseph is not the only one who has looked out upon a world that does not have all the parts or pieces which are supposed to be there; who remembers promises from the sometimes clearer vision of youth; who has said, without reference to idle desires or personal ambition, “This is not the life I am supposed to be living.” There is more than one Joseph sitting right here this morning.
Some prisons are made out of steel and mortar. Some prisons are made out of food or drink. Some prisons are made out of security or comfort. Some prisons are even made out of the approval of others, who would rather have us doing what they appreciate than what God would lead us into.
I have known people in the past who were stuck in jobs that were not right for them or stuck in families they did not belong in – staying in ruts and life patterns that had long since grown sterile and lifeless. When that happens, sometimes waiting is what we must do (waiting upon the Lord) until we have new wisdom and new bearings – fresh instructions from the Spirit. Sometimes we must come back to earnest patience (hope and believing) in the midst of our waiting. Even after that, we must sometimes watch very carefully for every tiny opportunity to make our way back out of bondage.
Jesus has the power to free us. We are His community of faith, and part of the very essence of that is the redemption of those who live in such a community (healing, restoring, freeing).
Without forgetting who has the real power; without taking it all into our own hands; without haste or bravado; without forgetting where we are, or confusing the standard brokenness of this world or our innate loneliness with the realities of a bondage that is not rightfully ours – nevertheless we must never settle for the prisons that keep us from our rightful destiny. Sometimes they are the temporary timing and strategy of the Spirit – as with Joseph. Sometimes they are the result of our losing our way. Either way, it is our task to go patient, to watch and pray, and to help each other out of bondage – in the power and by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, whom we serve.
I just thought it was time to remind us again. Jesus Christ came to save us from sin, death, the Devil, and the Law. And He will. But we want to get more and more cooperative.
* * *
That’s all I need or want to say, and I hope we will all take it to heart. But sometimes it’s fun to play, even with a Bible story. So I remind you of the law of correspondences: Principles that apply to an individual can also apply to a group. Controversy on a third-grade playground can show characteristics similar to a summit meeting or a world at war. The laws of chemistry at work in a microscopic drop of liquid in some school laboratory are also operational on Pluto and on the farthest star.
Therefore, the story of Joseph may illuminate interior life as much as exterior life. Here comes my usual warning: Keep Joseph as a real story in the real world too, and keep wanting to know what influence he had on the real people of Israel. But after that, you might also want to take the entire story inside and see what happens – that is, for just a little bit, all the characters and stages of the story are interior parts of you and your life. It will fit some of you better than others, but that’s because I am describing it. (Sorry; just translate as needed.)
PHASE ONE: So you are young Joseph, and you know you are special. You cannot prove or describe it; you just know it. But very quickly the world around you tries to take away this awareness of your special identity: Don’t be different. If you want to excel, do it when and in the ways the group approves. Don’t make others jealous. To be thoughtful and loving, you must cut back some of your gifts, or at least not mention them or let them show.
Also, there are abilities within your own nature that will complain and hate you if you develop your own best gifts.
PHASE TWO: Even if you are careful not to offend and careful to hide your real identity, eventually you will be rejected. The group will forcefully show you that conformity and approval are worth killing your dreams for. If you do not easily learn this, you will be killed or sold out of the group. Another story calls it “kicked out of the Garden.” At this point, usually we lose both God and the group. The harshness of rejection destroys our awareness of our identity, and the effort to hold on to our unique importance has already cost us our belonging in the group.
Also, the highest gifts within us are put on hold or locked away while we try to develop the lesser traits we have been given. It leaves us feeling empty inside.
PHASE THREE: Out of the Garden, sold into Egypt, we have to go to work. But it is not our real work. It is for others and about others, but it is not directly connected with our own true task – our destiny, our vocatio. Even so, often the skills we learn during this time will be necessary and helpful later. But at the time, it is sheer drudgery, however much it may help others. There is no real meaning or satisfaction for us.
PHASE FOUR: About this time, some nonintegrated part of the self (usually connected with the inner child) [for Jungians: anima for males, and animus for females] will try to seduce you. That is, it will try to get you to settle for personal pleasure or satisfaction within the context of the slave task – the function you are doing for others. You understand, then, that Potiphar’s wife is not just on the outside.
PHASE FIVE: If we reject the seduction, we will get betrayed. The inner child (Potiphar’s wife), which is often connected with the muse or the creative or playful side of us, will have nothing more to do with us. Often we get depressed or lose the connection that made us most effective, and we go into drudgery. At the same time, Potiphar, who represents the taskmaster within who is determined for us to be successful in a secular career, will also betray us. So we lose the job or stop getting promotions, or we lose our inner confidence. One way or another, if we reject the seduction, we end up in prison. We still work, but it is even further from the true task, it is less rewarding, and it is without any personal joy, vision, or hope of a better future.
By the way, Potiphar’s wife does not make a good, lifelong mate – as you know. She demands more and more, and she ends up betraying us far more deeply and more devastatingly if we go with her. But this story does not tell that side of life because Joseph does not go along with her. So if you are depressed and everybody is disgusted with you and trying to find some quick fix for you, maybe there is not as much wrong with you as you think. Maybe you just decided to be Joseph instead of Samson. Samson went with the seduction. His prison was at the end of life instead of in the middle, and he was bound and blinded – a far deeper and more devastating prison than Joseph’s. Samson went with the seduction – and God still redeemed it!
PHASE SIX: Sometimes the time spent in prison is not very long, but it always feels like forever. You work hard but it is drudgery. Others may feel you are effective, but there is no personal satisfaction and no chance for creativity. Joy is gone; playfulness and pleasure have departed. It is the hardest and most important time to be faithful – to study, wait, and pray without ceasing – and to watch for every possible glimmer of a chance or a way to get out of there. Timing and the guidance of the Spirit are essential; you cannot just run at the bars. (Though a lot of your friends, and even some professional counselors, will tell you to do that.)
PHASE SEVEN: The interior baker and cupbearer are fascinating, and I feel most shaky with understanding this phase of the story, probably because it is my own weakest phase. My suspicion is that they represent an interior choice between two major gifts or two major directions in which you could serve. And partly the function of the prison period is to make you choose which one you will go with. Restore one to its former position and kill the other – meaning, allow it no more time or development in your life. One of the hardest things in life is to let go of a gift or a direction that we like and that we are very good at. But we cannot do everything. There is nothing wrong with being a baker; being a cupbearer is not superior. You just cannot be both.
PHASE EIGHT: It is not usually instantaneous. For Joseph, the big test comes two years later. Can you interpret the dream? Do you understand The Vision (do you know who the grail serves)? If so, you are brought back to your true task on a whole new level – maybe even for the first time (of any magnitude) in some ways. And now you work, perhaps as never before, only there is joy and creativity and the unspeakable thrill of knowing you are doing what you were designed and created for.
By the way, the story says that then redemption and restoration of some old important relationships can also start to happen – not as the central focus, but just naturally, along the way.
Copyright 2016 by Bruce Van Blair. All rights reserved.