A Report on the Sermon
This evaluates a November 6, 2016 message delivered at a local IFB sect. It is a lengthy post and comes late in the day. So it will stand for two days. I’ve taken more time for this because basically, this post required me to write the sermon I believe pastor ought to have produced.
Fundamentalist preachers are renowned for their condemnation of those who take part in the mixed multitude. But this fundie preacher gave us a ‘mixed multitude’ message. The message could have been much worse; but then it could certainly have been better as well.
Text: Ge 39:13-23
Title: Making the Best of a Bad Situation
Some attention was given to the context, and the message did attempt to derive points from the text. The opening compared Joseph’s circumstances to hardships and calamities in our lives. A job loss, collapsing health or an auto accident were presented as circumstances similar in kind to what Joseph experienced in Potiphar’s house. But that doesn’t express all of the pastor’s thoughts. Later, he did better by drawing attention to the pivotal role of Yahweh’s Presence in Joseph’s story with this reference.
‘But the LORD was with Joseph and extended kindness to him, and gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer’ [Ge 39:21].
This is a turning point in the narrative. To his credit, pastor noted this. He stressed the point of YHWH’s Presence at various parts in Joseph’s story.
‘Making the Best of a Bad Situation’ misconstrues the intent of the text. As already noted, pastor knows better than this. The use of this title introduces a touch of ‘narrative misdirection.’ Related to this is the absence of a central metaphor to unify and sum the message.
Later, pastor said that God can bring order out of chaos. This is a good point that should be heard. But had he really nailed this, it would have shaped his message in helpful ways. A message on God’s inscrutability or divine mystery [think ‘Eucharist’] might challenge people to seek God’s presence in the midst of his seeming absence.
This could also lead to a message on faith as the substance of things not seen. The mention of God’s Presence in Joseph’s circumstances was good. But it needed more attention than it received in the message.
This message was predicated on a serious flaw. That flaw made for fallacious exegesis, two competing homiletic strategies. and bad theology.
Pastor said early on that Joseph was ‘a cut above’ his brothers. His dreams showed that he was destined for greatness. This led to moralizing on ideas more indicative of pastor’s own thinking than the Biblical text.
Joseph rises in each situation because of his personal and spiritual quality. Rather than reacting to opposition with anger or bitterness, he shows resilience and focuses on being a blessing. God expects us to flourish. We should be the best [most industrious and productive] employees with the best ideas for improving their work environment. In this way, we — like Joseph — rise to the top in any situation.
Undoubtedly, Christians are to seek to be a blessing to others. But pastor contextualized this in a works-based theology. He also implies a Christian duty for workers to acquiesce to ruling class demands in today’s capitalist system of ownership and exploitation. If this came up in a Bible Study, I’d ask pastor if he’d considered the possibility that Joseph’s ‘blessing’ was in an example to fellow Potiphar slaves to refuse to be degraded to bemuse their owners. More on that later.
So while Yahweh’s Presence in the Joseph story is duly noted, it is clear that two, very different systems are at work — one work, and one grace.
Pastor’s ‘cut above’ Joseph seriously misrepresents the family dynamics at work in this story. In reality, Joseph was the typical favored, protected and utterly spoiled brat of a doting father whose favoritism was clear to all.
In Hebraic culture, age and order of birth mattered greatly. When Samuel was to anoint Jesse’s son, the youngest [David] didn’t even come to mind.
Joseph’s ‘dreams’ [which his brothers likely assumed he invented] were not only delusional but profoundly disrespectful. That he could do this under Jacob’s protection was socially outrageous. Was daddy grooming the obnoxious little taunting brat to displace them as he did uncle Esau?
Far from being ‘a cut above’ those around him, Joseph resembles their father ‘Jacob’ [trickster, heel-catcher] closely. And Jacob’s tolerance of his behavior appears to reward him for it. Certainly, the coat does that. And later, the other brothers show their stuff by deceiving the ‘trickster’ when they present that blood-stained coat to Jacob for his opinion on it.
Why it Matters for Pastoral Ministry
This pictures extreme family dysfunction. Relationships are broken. Issues cannot be discussed. Authority is abused and the worst behavior is not only tolerated but rewarded. And the situation is static. Every indication is that no change will come until the brothers themselves become agents of change through blind outrage and betrayal of Joseph.
The Joseph story is a wonderful opportunity to open up these deeply-hidden but broadly experienced family issues. And families need this, because similar because similar dynamics bestride our families profoundly to this day. That opportunity was lost because of faulty exegesis, and a homiletic strategy broken two competing theologies. And many issues in the lives and homes of families represented did not benefit from this.
Initially, Joseph was someone his brothers couldn’t respect. He used the power he had for his own gratification [ironically, as Mrs. Potiphar meant to use him]. He showed the harm of dysfunctional family relations work. But he must become someone his brothers will respect. He must learn to use his gifts NOT for self-gratification but to dedicate them to God and others. He will learn to embody what family is supposed to be. But will any of this change ever come in the house of Jacob?
Thus we see the work of God’s presence in the midst of seeming absence.
Potiphar’s Wife’s Eyes
If God’s presence in Joseph’s experiences received too little attention, Potiphar’s wife did receive attention. We were reminded that any woman who would attempt this seduction undoubtedly did so more than once. I won’t belabor this. You can guess where it went. And it is more important to follow the ‘look with desire’ motif in and beyond Genesis.
We see this in Ge 3:6, — the fruit pleased the eyes, and was desired to make one wise. In Ge 13:10, Lot ‘lifted up his eyes’ and saw the Jordan valley — like the Garden of God. It bears asking whether in Ge 39, there may be something more than what ‘meets the eyes’ happening.
Ps 123:1 says, ‘To you [Yahweh, the Lord], I lift up my eyes.’ But eyes are also lifted up to idols. And in Ez 18:12-13, those who do also oppress poor and needy people, rob them, and do not restore pledges. They are usurers. This connects very directly to many social justice passages that bear on practices of oppression, evil plotting against the helpless and the poor.
So is Ge 39 really about a woman’s blotched seduction and her wrath? Or, is this a call to reflect on unjust relationships and ways people who don’t have power, position or wealth are exploited and used by those who do?
Joseph’s position was not unlike Bathsheba’s. When David summonsed her, what choice did she have? To refuse was a sentence of death.
In fundamental preacher hands, Potiphar’s wife routinely symbolizes the practiced seductress of good men. That is demonstrably untrue to the text.
‘Shakab’ [lie with me] is a singular imperative form. That was no request. It was a direct order from a master’s wife to a slave. Joseph deliberately disobeyed. Her ire was very understandable in that day and place. Pastor erred to make it into a ‘hell knows no fury like a woman scorned’ thing.
Joseph’s refusal proscribed limits to Egypt’s institution of slavery. This challenged social and legal precepts under-girding Egyptian society. And once he refused the order, could Mrs. Potiphar under that system ignore this disobedience as if it hadn’t happened? Joseph’s refusal to be degraded on an owner’s whim is an extraordinary witness to watching slaves!
Where is the Cross
Joseph can be tied to Jesus’ temptation. Offered all the kingdoms of the world, he refused them to serve God. This is not to remake Potiphar’s wife as the devil. But through her Ge 39 does show how evil works in spheres of earthly relationships, power and influence [ironically recalling Joseph’s past abuse of power]. Joseph’s refusal of Egypt’s earthly system is what happens in Jesus’ temptation and in his death on the cross. That leads to the most grievous flaw in the pastor’s message and it is this.
The cross was missing in pastor’s sermon. As he finished, we the ‘Jesus talk’ came. But it was an appendix with no actual tie to Ge 39. While Ge 39 makes no reference to the cross, Joseph’s refusal to serve earth’s power system fights the same battle as did Jesus on the cross.
But where Joseph faced a small skirmish, Jesus disarmed and exposed to open shame not only Egypt’s power, but of all earthly systems by rising again [Co 2:15]. And earth’s power system must be ended finally. For in time, Egypt’s slave system would enlarge itself to enslave Joseph’s nation. But that is for another message.
Application for Today
Another point pastor missed: it was in and through Joseph’s hardship that he was a blessing to others. And the ability of the church to minister the healing of Christ is no greater than its ability to absorb earth’s wounds into itself. A church that cannot absorb the earth’s pain cannot heal it. It was only as Christ absorbed our wounds into his both that we are healed.
The cross stands with the Josephs and Bathshebas of the world. So we are called to stand by them also in our time and place. By reducing this story to one of self-gratification versus personal integrity, the cross is robbed of power and glory, and the passage is beggared and trivialized. This is not what Christians do with the cross.
Whether it is Potiphar’s wife or Pharaoh’s decree, we can say that…
‘All that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world’ [1Jo 2:16].
Writing from a Jewish perspective, Hillel I. Millgram’s skillfully crafted text, ‘The Joseph Paradox: A Radical Reading of Genesis 37-50′ raises some intriguing questions that we ought to consider. Consider these two:
What is the role of God in an apparently secular world? How are God’s people to exert a redeeming influence in a world of violence, tyranny and injustice?
As oppression enlarges and unrest against morphs into a permanent, public fixture, such questions assume profound import for God’s people. Have we a word from the cross proscribing limits to what the Pharaohs in our time and place can do? Have we a witness to the powerless who live as wage-slaves in the wealthiest nation on earth?
As a first step, can we address issues of family dysfunction where too many ‘Jacobs’ or ‘Mrs. Potiphars’ abuse their influence and position for trivial pleasure and self-gratification? Can pastors find pulpit courage to show how unjust power relations in our home, workplaces, pulpits and IFB sects imitate the earthly Pharaohs around us?
Finally, who are emerging as the God’s oppressed children in Egypt in our time and place? Can we identify and encourage those who are without power and desperately need support? Can we do so from the perspective that puts the cross and our witness to it front and central?
I feel that such questions are critical for good preaching. This is a way of continuing the conversation about the message after the service. Speaking only for myself, I would far rather that people come away from service with multiple questions about then text than to think that they had all the answers when they’d not heard many of the issues in the text.
In place of the sophistic choruses sung at the IFB service, here are two versions of the hymn, ‘If You But Suffer God to Guide Thee’ [music by Johannes Sebastian Bach]. If nothing else moved you, hopefully this will. I realize that sermon evaluations are not everyone’s cup of tea … 😉
The difference between great hymns and choruses is that the former sustain God’s people in the low points of our Christian existence. Here is the perspective of God whose Presence works in seeming absence.