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Sermon: Joseph: Where Is God When It All Goes Wrong? - Genesis 39-40

One of the most heart wrenching words in human language is the word "closed." Proverbs 13:12 says, "Hope deferred makes the heart sick."

One of the most heart wrenching words in human language is the word "closed." Proverbs 13:12 says, "Hope deferred makes the heart sick." You're 11 years old. It's summertime, and the little league baseball teams are starting to practice. “Daddy, can I play baseball this year?" You get a new glove. Dad pitches with you in the back yard. You practice with the team for two weeks. But there are too many players, and some have to be cut. The roster is read by the coach one afternoon and you're not on it. The coach says they will plan to have two teams next year. And you cry all the way home. Closed.
Maybe you’ve dreamt from the time you are 13 about the one you will marry, about the thrill of falling in love, the beauty of the wedding day, the utter release and peace of being held by someone who loves you above all others, but the door closes again and again.
Or perhaps you come to your mid-forties and step back and take stock of your life and what you hope to accomplish. You decide to stay with the firm and give it your best shot. And in five years, after hundreds of late nights and long weekends and working vacations, you're passed over for the promotion and the door closes on the dream-job of your career.
Or maybe all your career doors are open, and all the doors of your relationships are open, and you have made every team you ever tried out for, but now the doctor says you have cancer. And all the doors start to close. It is a heart-breaking, disappointing word, closed.
For us, It means we have been locked out, excluded, unwelcomed, opportunity disallowed, our dreams left in ashes. A closed door can feel so permanent, so conclusive, so final.
Back in 1976, Jerry Garcia sang a song which captures the feelings of the closed door and the end of a dream: “I was in the right place, but it must have been the wrong time/ I was sayin’ the right things, but I must have used the wrong line/ I was on the right trip, but I must have used the wrong car/ My head is in the right place, but I’m wondering what it’s good for.”
Joseph didn’t know that song, but he knew the feeling. I want to take you to three points in Joseph’s life where the door seemed to shut in his face.

Three Points of Injustice in Joseph’s Life


Obedient, but Hated

The first is when he was a teenager. Several weeks ago, we saw that despite growing up in a terribly dysfunctional family, Joseph walked with the Lord, so much so that God revealed to him a part of the future He had planned for him. Gen. 37 also tells us that Joseph’s father honored him by granting him the family birthrights though he was not the firstborn son, which made him the manager of the household under his father and exempted from daily work.
All the doors seemed wide open to him, until one day when his brothers acted in hatred and sold him as a slave. Joseph had done the right things. He had been obedient to God and his father, but it cost him his home and his inheritance.

Honorable, but Slandered

Fast forward now to another point in his life, eleven years later, when he was honorable, yet still was slandered. He is a young adult slave of 28 years, working in the home of a high official in the Egyptian courts named Potiphar. Somewhere along the line, Joseph had decided that if life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. So, as Gen. 39 reports, he honored the Lord and worked hard at what was assigned to him. He served Potiphar with integrity and industry, and when opportunity came, he would talk to Potiphar about Jehovah God.
The Lord was with Joseph and blessed everything he oversaw. Potiphar noticed this and promoted him to the highest position in his household. And we feel the rightness of this for Joseph. I mean, isn’t that how it’s supposed to turn out—If you faithfully serve the Lord, He will bless you, shield you, open doors for you?
Even when his godly character was severely tested, he shined. As we saw last week, Potiphar’s wife made it her goal to make Joseph her latest conquest. The Bible tells us that lust so gripped this woman that she threw caution to the wind, directly propositioning him to come to bed with her. Given her brazen forwardness, one might well imagine that as the days went by, she grew more daring in her seductions.
Finally, when none of these tactics had worked, she arranged for the house to be vacated except for herself and the man she had designs on. The unsuspecting Joseph walked right into her trap. She rushed at him wearing what we can only guess and grabbed him, presumably to drag him to her bed if she could.
With every rationalization known to man for having sex with this woman pounding his mind and body, Joseph chose to obey the Lord. He jerked free of her grip so quickly that he left his outer tunic in her hands as he ran out of the house to get away from temptation.
No one can escape admiring a man so set on glorifying God in his body that he refused the one thing he had no real hope of ever legitimately experiencing in his lifetime. But notice what happens to him in Gen. 39:13-20: As soon as she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled out of the house, she called to the men of her household and said to them, "See, he has brought among us a Hebrew to laugh at us. He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice.  And as soon as he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me and fled and got out of the house."
Verse 16-17 reports that she laid up his garment by her until his master came home, and she told him the same story. Look at v. 19: As soon as his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, "This is the way your servant treated me," his anger was kindled.  And Joseph's master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king's prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison.
Genesis doesn’t discuss the prison conditions Joseph faced, but we do find a description of how he was treated in Ps. 105:18: His feet were hurt with fetters; his neck was put in a collar of iron. Once again, Joseph did the right thing. He should have been honored for his virtue, and Potiphar’s wife shamed for her immoral pursuits. Instead, it is the innocent Joseph who is the one who gets hammered.
Put yourself in Joseph’s place. For the second time in his life, he had followed the Lord’s will and got a raw deal for it. His chains were no doubt ponderous, but they were made heavier still by the utter injustice of it all. In such times, the mind screams at the unfairness, the wrongdoing. But there is yet one more incident in Joseph’s life that will pound the abuse in deeper.

Used of God, but Forgotten

It comes some time later, after Joseph has been used of God, but then was forgotten. Gen. 39 closes by telling us that God was in that prison with Joseph. Verse 21-22 tell us that the prison keeper put Joseph in charge of the other prisoners. Verse 23 adds, that the keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph's charge, because the Lord was with him. And whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed.
This sets up what happens in Chapter 40, where two of Pharaoh’s officers wind up in prison, assigned to Joseph. The Bible reports that some time later, both of these men had a fitful night of dreams that troubled them the next morning. Joseph noticed this when he encountered them, and asked why. When he heard that they both had dreams that they didn’t know the meaning of, Joseph said in v. 8, Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me.
The chief cupbearer went first, describing his unusual dream. You can read about it in v. 9-11 along with Joseph’s God-given interpretation in v. 12-13, the bottom line of which was that within three days the royal cupbearer would be restored to the king’s service.
And it was here that Joseph made his plea in v. 14-15: Only remember me, when it is well with you, and please do me the kindness to mention me to Pharaoh, and so get me out of this habitation.  For I was indeed stolen out of the land of the Hebrews, and here also I have done nothing that they should put me into the pit."  You can almost hear the cupbearer saying, “Yes, sure I will. How can I not help the man who has helped me?”
In v. 16-19, Joseph gave the other officer a very different, but God-illuminated interpretation: within three days he would be hanged and left for the scavenger birds. Three days passed and sure enough, everything happened exactly as Joseph had said.
Notice Gen. 40:21-23: [Pharaoh] restored the chief cupbearer to his position, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh's hand. But he hanged the chief baker, as Joseph had interpreted to them. And here’s the stinger: Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.
The eagerly greeted days that immediately followed the cupbearer’s release made Joseph’s work easier. “Any day now, I will be pardoned.” But the days turned to weeks, then months, and all the lights went out for Joseph.
F. B. Meyer puts our questions in Joseph’s mind as the stark reality of his situation settles on his psyche: “Is it any use, then, being good? Could there be any truth in what my father taught me of good coming to the good, and evil to the bad? Is there a God that judges righteously in the earth?” And then Meyer speaks to us: “You who have been misunderstood, who have sown seeds of holiness and love to reap nothing but disappointment, loss, suffering, and hate—you know something of what Joseph felt in that wretched dungeon hole.”
    Source: Cited by James Montgomery Boice, Genesis, Vol. 3, p. 936.
But the intensity of Joseph’s losses is magnified by one more element: time. The very next recorded verse, 41:1, opens with After two whole years… Can you feel it, sinking in? You know, it's one thing to experience a sudden tragedy--like the loss of a child or the discovery of some dreaded disease in your body or being imprisoned for crimes you never committed. It's quite another thing to experience the relentless misery of that loss for months or even years afterward.
We have all heard stories of women have, in a rush of adrenalin, lifted automobiles off of their pinned husbands after an accident and then later collapsed under the shock of what's happened. There is a spiritual counterpart to this physical phenomenon. In the stunned moment of tragedy, many a Christian exhibits the grace to sustain the burden with genuine faith. But then later, under the relentless sequence of vacant chairs at the table or chronic pain, the Christian collapses in sobs of baffled dismay.
How did Joseph endure this without losing faith in God? How did avoid the conclusion that God wasn’t toying with him, raising his hopes only to crush them? How did he keep from becoming a bitter, vengeful, angry man as he faced the prospect of dying in a dungeon in a foreign country?

Iron Faith When It All Goes Wrong

Keep the conviction that God reigns over all the details of your life, from the greatest to the smallest. It is amazing that the most common means people use these days to solve the mystery of suffering never even occurred to Joseph or Job or Paul. These who suffered so for their testimony never once expressed any sense that God is limited in what He has control over. But that seems to be the first instinct in our day when tragedy strikes or injustice is done. “God couldn't have willed that sickness, or that explosion, or that wreck.” We create exemption clauses that we think protects God when hard things happen.
All through Joseph’s experiences, there is no indication that he followed this line of thinking. Instead, by example and by word, he held to the conviction that God reigns. I have said this before, but the banner that hangs over Joseph’s life is the NT verse from Paul, who was himself martyred for his faith: And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.  (Rom. 8:28)
Listen: that verse means nothing if God is not in absolute control over the events and details of our lives. His rule over all the details of my life is the ground of my hope, the assurance that justice will have the last word, and the promise that this life cannot compare to what He has in store for me in the next.
Job put it like this in Job 12:13-16: "To God belong wisdom and power; counsel and understanding are His. What He tears down cannot be rebuilt; the man He imprisons cannot be released. If He holds back the waters, there is drought; if He lets them loose, they devastate the land. To Him belong strength and victory; both deceived and deceiver are His.
Rest here. Stay here. Joseph did. David did. Isaiah did. Daniel did. This is the place of comfort, endurance, and hope. Let me give you a corollary to this:
Let your disillusionment with people turn you to the goodness and faithfulness of the Lord. Throughout Joseph’s short but eventful life, he had learned this truth well: People will let you down, but God will never fail you. Isaiah 2:22 says, Stop trusting in man, who has but a breath in his nostrils; of what account is he? Which is Isaiah’s way of saying, “Why bank your hopes on a creature who can only live by taking one breath at a time? If he misses the next few breathes, he dies! Trust in God, who is the eternal breath from whom all our little breathes come.”
People are going to fail you, disappoint you, leave you hanging out to dry. Let that drive you to God. Jeremiah 17:5-8 shows us the difference between the person who puts his hope in what people can do and the person whose confidence is in what God can do. Thus says the Lord: "Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord. He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.
"Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit."
Learn to wait upon the Lord. Isaiah knew well this truth, and gave us these great words: They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall soar on wings as eagles; they shall run and not grow weary; they shall run and not be faint (40:31). Joseph understood that God’s ways are not our ways. His timing is always perfect.
Ruth Calkin wrote a poem titled, In the Morning, that goes like this:
    Today, Lord, I have an unshakable conviction
    A positive resolute assurance that what you have spoken is unalterably true.
    But today, Lord, my sick body feels stronger
    And the stomping pain quietly subsides.
    If I must struggle again with aching exhaustion, with twisting pain…
    Until I am breathless
    Until I am utterly spent
    Until fear eclipses the last vestige of hope
    Then, Lord—
    Then grant me the enabling grace, to believe without feeling, to know without seeing, to clasp Your invisible hand and wait with invincible trust
    For the morning.
    Poem source: Quoted in The Trinidad Guardian, “We Must Never Lose Hope” by Clive Dottin.
Lloyd Stilley is pastor of First Baptist Church, Gulf Shores, Alabama. He is a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Leeanne and is the father of Joey and Craig.