God is with us – Genesis 39

11 x 8.5_Flyer.inddMartin Luther, the famous reformer, had a huge impact on world history, as he fought for important truths like the authority of the Bible, and the importance of faith in Jesus. Yet like all of us, he faced his own struggles. One time after experiencing a significant setback in his work, he became withdrawn and moody. He seemed so depressed that no words of counsel would penetrate his darkness. He would retreat to his study, only coming out to get meals, and ignoring his family.

After this had gone on for several days, he was helped by his wife, Katherine who showed both her wisdom, and a sense of humour. She came into his study dressed in black from head to toe. Luther looked at her and said, “Are you going to a funeral?”

 “No,” Katie replied, “but since you act as though God is dead, I wanted to join you in mourning.” [1] God promises his people he will be with us. God is with his people. Yet like Luther, we can often live and act as though God is dead, or against us, or not there at all.

The idea that God is with his people is clearly the big theme of Genesis 39. You can see v2 says the Lord was with Joseph, that’s repeated it in v3, the Lord was with him. That double repetition which begins the chapter, also ends it: v21, the Lord was with him, v23 the Lord was with Joseph. Joseph’s circumstances go up and down, but what does not change is that God was with him.

Stephen uses this exact phrase when he looks back on Joseph’s life: they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him (Acts 7:9). What does the idea of God being with us mean for modern people? What practical difference does it make if God is with us? Let’s ask that question and notice 4 things as we consider Genesis 39:

1. God’s presence in our loneliness

Earlier:  The LORD appeared to Isaac and said…Stay in this land for a while, and I will be with you and will bless you. (Genesis 26:2-3).

That night the LORD appeared to [Isaac] and said, I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; (Genesis 26:24). Later God appears to Jacob in a dream and says: I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go…(Genesis 28:15).

God’s invisible, he is Spirit, yet can be spiritually present with his people, watching over them, protecting them, directing what happens to them.  He’d promised to be with Isaac and Jacob in Canaan, but now Joseph, is a long way from the promised land, in Egypt, 100s of kilometres away. Many in that time believed in localised gods who would be with you in a certain geographical area, but here we see that the same God who promised to be with Isaac and Jacob in Canaan is now with Joseph in Egypt. God is not restricted to a region, he is able to be present with his people wherever they are.

It would be easy for Joseph to feel alone here, so far from home, so far from the father who loved him, no one who speaks his language here, no one follows his god, yet God was with him.

Loneliness is something all of us can face. In 1973 Rog was preschool age, Steve was a little older. I was, of course much younger!  In that year Billy Joel wrote Piano Man. It has a cheerful sounding chorus: sing us a song, you’re the piano man, sing us a song tonight, we’re all in the mood for a melody, and you’ve got us feeling alright. Yet in between that bright chorus are these sad, aching verses where he talks about the loneliness of the people who have come to the piano bar, ‘to forget about life for a while’.

There’s Paul who’s a real estate novelist, who never had time for a wife,
He’s talking to Davy, who’s still in the navy and probably will be for life.
The waitress is practicing politics, as the businessmen slowly get stoned
Yes they’re sharing a drink they call loneliness, but it’s better than drinking alone.

The song cries out with the loneliness of modern life. As modern people we can be very busy and have lots of things yet still often feel lonely. You can be lonely at any life stage: you can be lonely as a child or as a teenager, it’s so easy to feel left out of a group for some reason, but you can even feel lonely in the group. You can feel lonely if you’re single, but you can feel just as lonely in a marriage, you can feel lonely and isolated as a parent, or you can feel lonely and isolated as you age, you can have hundreds of Facebook friends or Instagram followers, yet still feel lonely.

It’s very practical to know that God is with us. Paul describes being a Christian: I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20). He has this real sense of Jesus love for him, and Jesus presence with him, Jesus lives in him.

One of my earliest memories of the time that I first became a Christian, first put my trust in Jesus, was a realisation that Jesus was now with me, that I could talk to him anytime, whether I was in a room full of people, or on my own. Sometimes you may feel very aware of Jesus being with you, other times even though you may not feel anything, it’s good for us to remind ourselves, that if our trust is in Jesus, God is with us, Jesus comes to live in us through the Holy Spirit.

Jesus promises us that as we carry out his mission of making disciples: God has said, surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28:20). Others may leave you, or let you down, but in Jesus God will never leave you, he will always be with you. Knowing that God is with us, frees us to love and serve others. We see that in Joseph, he’s not dwelling on loneliness, he’s getting living for God…

2. Integrity in our ordinary

At both ends of this chapter Joseph finds himself in terrible circumstances – he’s a slave in a foreign land, then a prisoner. In both situations it would be easy to become bitter, resentful, full of self-pity. Instead in both we find Joseph getting on, working, living a life of integrity, serving in the place God has put him. V4 Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned. Joseph was about 17 when he was sold into slavery, and he was 30 when he later began to work for Pharaoh. Given that he spent at least 2 years in prison it seems Joseph was a slave to Potiphar for about 10 or 11 years. He would have had to start at the bottom, learn the language, learn the customs, yet clearly he demonstrates to Potiphar integrity and hard work. It’s similar in prison: V22 the warder put Joseph in charge of all those held in prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there. Instead of bitterness and self-pity we see Joseph being recognised for his integrity and diligence.

Don Carson says this chapter demonstrates that sometimes God chooses to bless us and make us people of integrity in the midst of abominable circumstances, rather than change our circumstances. (Carson)[2]

Maybe you find yourself currently in awful circumstances, or just ordinary circumstances – perhaps you’re in a job you’re not enjoying, perhaps you’re out of work, perhaps you’re struggling with parenting, with your marriage, with illness or grief. Through Jesus, God is with us in all those situations. God can strengthen us and help us to be people of integrity, faithfully living for him where he has us.

3. Power in our temptations

Dave and Ryan were two men who had a lot in common. Both wept as they spoke to their pastor. Both were family men, both had a wife, and children, both had jobs, yet both stood to lose their families because they’d become enslaved to internet pornography. Both in tears said they were desperate to save their marriages.

Today some years later, only one of them has changed. One of them is reconciled to his wife and restored to a happy, porn-free life with his family. The other is divorced, separated from his kids, and tragically has even spent time in gaol because of how far he continued to go. Both of them shed tears when they met with their pastor because they’re wives were wanting to kick them out. For one those tears were tears of genuine repentance, they knew they had sinned against God, knew they needed God’s forgiveness and help to change, the other had tears of sorrow for being caught, and sorrow for the mess their life was in, but no real repentance.

When Joseph is faced with temptation here, you can see that he’s concerned not just about what a mess this might make of his life, but how much it would offend God – v9 how could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?

In his book, Finally Free, Heath Lambert tells the story of these two men. He says battling the temptation those men faced involves acting on three areas, which I think apply to many temptations i) Your desire, ii) Your time iii) Your access/ availability.  You could say Joseph takes steps in each area:

a) Your desire – notice that when Potiphar’s wife asks Joseph in v7 to come to bed with her, he calls this temptation for what it is, he doesn’t see it as merely a bit of harmless fun, a misdemeanour or even an affair – he calls it: v9 a wicked thing, a sin against God. Whatever short-term pleasure or attraction there might be in this temptation, it would only lead to pain, for him and others, but most of all he knew it was against God and his good ways. If God is with us, we can face temptation as he changes our desires, as more and more we learn to love and treasure him above whatever we are tempted by, and learn to hate the things he hates as we see the harm they will cause and the dishonour they bring to his name.

b) Your time –this temptation Joseph faces wasn’t just one-off, v10 says she spoke to him day after day. Some temptations that you might say no to initially, can wear you down over a period of time. It seems that one way Joseph counters that is by keeping himself busy with what he should be doing. He was in charge of the house, his master was away it would be easy for him to just slack off, but notice v11 says he went in to the house to attend to his duties. In the face of temptation, he keeps himself busy doing his duties. He doesn’t get lazy, or dwell on the temptation, or dwell on the sort of self-pity that might make him think he deserves a bit of pleasure after all he’s been through, he keeps himself productive.

c) Your access  – v10 says he refused to go to bed with her, or even to be with her. He doesn’t allow himself to be in a situation where he might be tempted further. When she tries to force herself on him, v12 he runs out of the house, rather than give in.

Whatever your temptation, whether it’s an adulterous relationship like here, a fantasy like pornography, or some other temptation, there are three practical areas God can help us all to work on: your desire, your time, and your access to that temptation.

There is no struggle for purity so intense that Jesus grace cannot win the battle. There is no consequence so steep that Jesus power cannot carry you through. Jesus grace to change you is stronger than [your temptations] power to destroy you. (Heath Lambert)

It would be easy to read this chapter, and think: Isn’t Joseph a great example? We need to be more like Joseph. The point of the passage is that Joseph is a great example because God is with him. Genesis 39 is about God more than it is about Joseph. That same God can be with us in Jesus.

No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13) 

4. Hope in our hardships

Joseph’s circumstances in this chapter seem to go from bad to worse. In chapter 37 his brothers ganged up on him, threw him into a pit, sold him to some Midianites or Ishmaelties who sold him to Potiphar, in Egypt. Then despite ten or so years of faithful service to potipar, he doesn’t get long service leave,  he gets thrown into gaol when he’s falsely accused.

In some ways this chapter is a great little snapshot of what life is often like for God’s people: sometimes things seem to be going well, other times we experience great hardship. Yet in all of these, God promises to be with his people.

Adoniram Judson was the first missionary to Burma. Baptists love him, because he was sent as a missionary by a church who baptised infants, but when he and his fellow missionaries got on the boat for their 6 month voyage, they just studied the Bible for the whole time, and by the time they got off at the other end they were convinced that the Bible shows baptism is only for believers. Baptists say, this shows that if it’s just you and your Bible without being influenced by all the errors of church history, you’ll always end up a Baptist!  But when he got to Burma, he struggled for years, seeing very little fruit in his early years, he suffered some great personal hardships, yet in the midst of huge difficulties, he had this great saying: The future is as bright as the promises of God (Adoniram Judson). Joseph alone in Egypt, he suffered unjustly, yet he had the promises of God, the promises we saw earlier given to Isaac and Jacob.

Earlier this year, one of Gloria’s cousins – Deb and her husband Darwin, sadly lost their young daughter Lizzie. She wrote some thoughts on her tumblr blog soon afterwards while she was away: As Im typing this, I am sitting in a beautiful hotel room, overlooking a busy harbour…the view outside is stunning – blue skies, dotted with white fluffy clouds, and a modern Asian landscape.  To get here, I sat in one of the best planes in the world, on one of the best seats money can buy.  I would trade everything that I have now, just to cuddle my Lizzie again…But the reality is this is our life now.  Theres no escape from reality. Darwin and I are grieving together… Lizzie was our third baby.  In 2008, after a year of trying I had a miscarriage at 12 weeks.  In 2010, after 2 years of trying, our baby John Dylan died at 19 weeks and 6 days, in utero.  On 4 July 2013 we lost our dear Lizzie, 19 months and 21 days.  This is our life now of double grief.[3]

It’s heartbreaking to hear of such grief. Even though we know suffering and grief are part of the Christian life, they are so hard when they come. Yet we have hope, because of God’s promises. On the same blog, she writes:  The alternative to trusting in Gods promises is utter darkness, bleak…My only hope is to trust in Jesus, to believe in the God that saves, our eternal God.  The God who always acts in love and never makes mistakes. (Deb Agahari)[4] God’s promises and his presence, bring hope in the midst of real suffering.

Genesis 39 is the third chapter in Genesis 37-50 which we are looking at this term. You could say there are two key markers at the two ends of this section. At one end in chapter 37 we have Joseph’s dream which tells of his family one day all bowing down to him. The dream shows us that right from the beginning God’s in control, he knows what his plan is for Joseph, none of the things that happen in this section catch God by surprise. That’s reinforced at the other end of the section, as Joseph looking back on all that has happened says to his brothers: You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. (Genesis 50:20). The ESV says: you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good. The wording is very clear. God intended it for good, he meant it for good, it’s not that something happens here that God isn’t expecting, and he’s able to still use it or turn it for good, it says right from the beginning, God intended or meant to achieve good out of this. He was always in control.

When Potiphar’s wife wrongly accuses Joseph, she’s acting perhaps out of spite or revenge or bitterness, she intends evil, but God intends it for good. God always knew Joseph was going to suffer for his integrity, God knew he was going to suffer unjustly and end up in gaol. God is so big, that even intended evil, can be used for ultimate good.

If you’re a Christian and you’re suffering, your suffering hasn’t caught God by surprise, he knew about it, and he always intended this for your ultimate good. We can’t always see or know all the good he’s doing when we suffer, but we can know that in all things he is working to make us more like Jesus.

That’s who Joseph ultimately points us to. God was with Joseph, but Jesus is God, he was given the name Immanuel – God with us.

Like Joseph, Jesus left the homeland of a Father who loved him, but unlike Joseph, Jesus went willingly. Like Joseph, Jesus was subject to temptation and did not yield, even though Jesus’  temptation was even more extensive. Like Joseph Jesus was unjustly accused, but suffered far worse, going not just to gaol, but to the cross.

It’s in seeing that Christ suffered for us, that we most clearly see that God is with us. As Paul contemplates the cross he says: What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:31-32).

In Jesus we can be confident that God is with us, God is for us. When we’re suffering, we may ask  why? Then we remember that the central symbol of Christianity has always been the cross. The cross shows us suffering is part of what it means to follow Jesus, the cross shows us that Christ suffered for us, the cross shows us that suffering for God’s people will one day end. The cross shows us God is with us.

Transcript of Sermon preached at MEC on 18 August 2013. Audio here

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