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When Everything That Matters Has Been Torn Away / Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

23So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the robe of many colors that he wore. 24And they took him and cast him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.

If I were to ask you what is the average size of an American family today, what would you say? We’re talking about the number of family members living in one household. According to statistics from 2022, the average American household has 2.5 people in it.

I feel a little sorry for that half-person, don’t you? For the last century, families have been shrinking in numbers. This trend is consistent around the world. According to U.S. Census Bureau data from 1850, it was fairly common back then for American families to have 6 to 9 children.

There’s an old story about a pastor who was visiting a large family in his congregation. He asked one of the sons, how many children are in your family? Nine, the boy replied. The pastor said, wow, so many children must cost a lot. Oh, no, the boy said, we don’t buy ’em, we just raise ’em.

Even our considerably smaller families can seem like a handful sometimes. A woman posted on Twitter: the great thing about having four kids is having four people to watch me bring in the groceries all by myself.

Our Bible passage for today is about the blended family of Jacob, Rachel, Leah, and Rachel’s and Leah’s handmaids, Bilhah and Zilpah. Altogether, they had 12 sons and 1 daughter, Dinah. And they didn’t buy a single one of them, they only raised them. Sadly, they didn’t raise their kids to support one another. Jacob made it clear that he favored Joseph above all his other children, even giving him a special robe to denote his favored status. And this caused his brothers to be extremely jealous. Verse 4 in our passage reads, when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.

We’ve seen this story before. The first human family was torn apart by jealousy. Cain envied Abel. The end result? Murder. Jacob envied Esau. The end result? Two brothers alienated from one another until finally Jacob humbled himself and asked for a reconciliation. Rachel resented Leah and Leah resented Rachel. The end result? Bilhah and Zilpah are forced to bear children for Jacob. And now Joseph, an innocent teenager, is the target of his brothers’ jealous rage.

A six-year-old child who was just learning the rules of punctuation said today I ended a sentence with two catastrophes AND a period.

Because of his brothers’ resentment, Joseph’s day is about to end with two catastrophes and a period. They strip him of his fine robes and throw him into a dry cistern, then sell him to a passing caravan who were on their way to Egypt.

And that brings us to the first question I have from the life of Joseph: Who are you when everything that matters to you has been torn away? When all that is left is this moment in front of you, this aching, lonely, bewildering moment when you have the choice to withdraw, explode, or trust in God?

In just a matter of hours, everything that mattered to Joseph, everything that defined his life, was torn away from him. His safety and security. His home and family. And his very freedom. He went from the favored son to exiled slave in the blink of an eye.

Loss of this magnitude strikes at our very identity. Loss of a loved one causes us to question who we are without them in our lives. Loss of a job causes us to question our competency, whether or not we have anything to contribute to the world. And when our pain causes us to turn away from God, we also lose the ultimate foundation for our identity and purpose and security. How do we regain our sense of identity?

So, who was Joseph when everything that mattered was torn away from him? He was still a child of God. The merciful God who had led his family for generations. The faithful God who had promised to make them into a great nation. Joseph was a child of that God. And so are we. It’s the one thing that can’t be taken away from us.

In his worst moments, when Joseph had lost control over everything in his life, he could still control one thing: he could honor God in his current circumstances. And Joseph displayed a godly, wise and trustworthy character while in captivity in Egypt. A government official’s wife tries to seduce Joseph, then makes false accusations against him. Joseph is thrown into prison, where he helps Pharaoh’s officials by interpreting the Pharaoh’s dreams. In everything, Joseph still trusted in God. Discipleship means to live by what I know about God, not what you feel about Him or yourself or your neighbors.

That’s what Joseph did. He made trusted, in the worst of circumstances, to live by what he knew about God. He didn’t let his loss or his circumstances define him. His godly integrity and wisdom impress the Pharaoh so much that eventually he appoints Joseph to be governor over the land of Egypt.

Joseph knew he was a child of God, and he knew God could be counted upon. He had implicit faith in God when everything around him had fallen apart. And his continued obedience to God under the worst circumstances led him into a position of great honor and power.

But that’s not the end of Joseph’s story. It gets even better. We’ll talk about that next week. But we can draw insight from this chapter of Joseph’s life in how he responded to his losses would determine not just his future, but the future of a nation.

A solder was serving his second deployment in Iraq when his armored vehicle triggered a roadside bomb. The powerful blast flipped the vehicle. He woke up in an Army hospital, on Christmas Day. He was missing most of his left arm and left leg.

He struggled with his injuries, but he struggled even more with the loss of his military career. His depression led to drinking and to a general decline in his life. But one day, he says, he walked out of his bedroom and saw his three children sitting on the couch watching TV. He realized that, to these two boys, he was showing them what a man is, and that’s what they’re going to become one day. And to his little girl, he was showing her how a man’s supposed to act, and that’s what she’ll look for one day. And that terrified me.

It was at that moment that he realized that he needed to make a change in his life. He began eating right and working out. He became a powerful athlete, competing in marathons and ultra-runs. He’s been featured on the cover of Men’s Health magazine and was chosen as the “Ultimate Guy” by the editors of the magazine. He’s also become an influential speaker and has started a charitable foundation. His life serves as a powerful example of how our response to our losses can create a new future for us and for all those in our sphere of influence.

When everything that mattered to Joseph had been torn away, he found the one thing that was bigger than his fears: his faith in God. Joseph remembered that he was a child of a merciful and faithful God, and he let that knowledge guide his perspective and his actions. And his faithfulness didn’t just affect his future, it affected the future of his family and a whole nation. Our God is a God of hope. Our God is a God who promises that in all things He will work for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose. (Romans 8: 28) Trust God and live as God’s witness in even your worst circumstances, and God will use your faithfulness to change your future and to influence the lives of others around you.