The Story chapter 3
Hebrews 11:17-22, 39-40
John 14:1-3, 18-20
Once upon a time, there were 3 stone masons. They were working side-by-side, doing the exact same work, with the hot summer sun beating down upon their backs, and their heads swarmed with flies.
You ask the first one: “what are you doing?”
“Laying bricks in the burning sun.” And that’s true.
You ask the second one: “what are you doing?”
“I’m building a strong wall, to protect against the elements.” And that’s true, too.
You ask the third one of these same men, standing side by side, doing the same work, “what are you doing?”
He replies, “I’m building a cathedral to the glory of God.” And he is.
As you’ve read this weekend the tangled story of Joseph, I want us to think about our vocation, and how we live to God’s glory in the world.
Vocation in the Story of Joseph
We’ve been raised to think of “vocation” as ‘what you do for a living’. But that’s only partially true. Up until the late 1800s, vocation was an entirely religious word, and I think the Church would do well to keep that in mind.
“Vocation” comes from the Latin word “vocare”, which means “to call”. It’s the word used throughout Church history to speak of those who are called to any work or ministry for God, done in, with, and through the Church as the community of the faithful, whether that’s preaching the Gospel, raising kids, or washing dishes and waiting on tables.
Every person, made in the Image of God, is called – has a vocation – to live to God’s glory in the world.
And the point of saying that everyone from the business person or landlord to the cashier or retiree has a vocation is this: vocation isn’t about what is done, it’s about how you do it.
Vocation is about perspective. It’s about being willing to trust in the Master Builder’s plan; even when, as the hot sun beats down on our backs, it looks like all we’re doing is laying bricks. It’s a statement of faith that, though I may not live to see it, and though there are real, painful, and lasting consequences for greed and impatience and pride in the world, yet God will keep his promises.
A Matter of Intention
The key phrase for me in all of Chapter 3 came right at the end. It’s Genesis 50, verses 19-20. Joseph, who was sold as a slave by his jealous brothers, now finds himself as a prince over Egypt, second only to the Pharoah on the throne. And those same jealous brothers are now fearful that, as a final act in his old age, Joseph will get his revenge. Just as Joseph dreamed as a boy, now his brothers bow down before him, offering themselves as slaves to the one they sold as a slave. But what does Joseph say?
“Don’t be afraid… You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good…, to accomplish the saving of many lives. Don’t be afraid”.
It’s a delicate message, and we have to balance it carefully. No, everything doesn’t happen for a reason. That’s ridiculous.
- Did God intend for Abraham’s offspring to be dysfunctional? No.
- Did God intend for brothers to be jealous of each other? No.
- Did God intend for the Ishmaelites – whom you now know to be Joseph’s cousins, as Ishmael and Issac both came from Abraham – to be slave traders and purchase the son of their second cousin? Not at all.
- Did God intend for Potiphar’s wife to be a lustful, adulterous liar? Certainly not.
- Did God intend for there to be a drought? No, you remember that, at the beginning, God intended for people to live in a perfect relationship with Creation providing food freely from the ground.
The message isn’t “everything happens for a reason”. The only ‘reason’ behind any of this is sin!
No, the message is this: what the world, the flesh, and the devil intended for evil, God intends for good. Or, we can take heart in what Paul writes to the Romans: No, the world is not as it ought to be, “but God works all things together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose.”(8:28)
We all share that calling, that vocation. But how do we live it?
Joseph as an example.
I want to suggest that in Joseph we see three ways we are called in a broken and twisted world; three ways to live with God’s big plan as our perspective, to trust that we are building cathedrals, not just laying bricks.
First: we must be willing to do the work we’ve been given to do.
Now, let me be very careful. I’m not saying “bloom where you’re planted”. That’s another religious-sounding phrase used to keep Christians from using their gifts.
I’m saying the opposite.
When God has given you a gift, you have to assume it’s not for your sake. Many parts, one body, right? Joseph had the gift of the Holy Spirit to be a prophet, yet he was born into a family of wandering shepherds.
Joseph could have had an easy, happy life, tending flocks, moving the herd from pasture to pasture, all he had to do was keep his mouth shut. It would have been an easier life… at least until the famine came. And then just imagine the guilt and shame that would have come, as Joseph watched his family starve and he knew he was receiving visions from God, but chose to keep them to himself.
No, we must do the work we’ve been given to do.
There’s no such thing as unemployment in the kingdom of God. There’s only under-employment, not using our gifts; being happy laying bricks, being happy as a slave in the field when God has planted a vision of his bigger plan, and has called us to work towards that vision of a redeemed humanity.
Not that we all need to be rulers of Egypt. Washing the dishes and making your loved ones a meal can be great if it’s done to the glory of God. But each of us are invited to be part of God’s Upper Story, the unfolding of his great plan, and we need to share that vision, share that understanding of how each action plays out in our lives day-to-day.
And, in that, we learn from Joseph that we must have character.
Everyone around Joseph was lying. There was jealousy, there was adultery. There’s the heartbreaking story of God’s chosen patriarch, Jacob, living a life weighed down by grief as 11 of his sons conspired against their father, unwilling to come clean about what happened that day in that field.
But Joseph showed integrity – and we should note, he even showed integrity when it made no sense, when any reasonable person would say “just keep your mouth shut”, he wasn’t willing to compromise, even when it cost him dearly. And, because of that, we hear that God was with him, whether as a slave, or thrown in prison, or as ruler of Egypt.
And finally, Joseph reminds us that sometimes we have to run away.
I’ll remind you that standing firm in the wrong place is the opposite of the Christian life. Yes, we’re to stand firm in faith, but the life of repentance is a whole life of turning around, of changing direction, of realizing you’re not where you should be.
It’s nice to cling to those couple of verses that tell us to stand firm… but how many more times does scripture tell us to flee what is wrong? When Joseph realized what Potiphar’s wife had in mind, it was like a Bugs Bunny cartoon – he took off so fast that his cloak fell off!
Joseph knew he was created in the Image of God, to reflect God’s glory, to inherit God’s promises to redeem a fallen world, and he was ready to change course and run the opposite direction – even if it meant prison time – rather than compromise his own beliefs and integrity.
What are we building?
My friends, what are you building?
Are we going about our days, labouring, toiling, wearing ourselves down laying bricks? Or, have we caught the vision for what God is doing in the big picture?
I can guarantee that the experience and the blessing of even the most unpleasant tasks will be entirely different when you come to see that, yes, you are part of God’s big plan.
You may never see it. You may never see my grandkids freed from addiction and broken relationships. You may never live to see that broken home restored, you may never see how that one word of truth or honesty spoken in the checkout line at Kaeser’s might be a word from God that changes a family for generations to come.
But, if I recognize that, yesterday, today, and forever, our God is in the business of reaching out, that even now, Jesus is building a mansion with many rooms for you and for me, that big-picture perspective unlocks your vocation here and now.
What the world intends for evil, God intends for good. And he invites you to be a part of that, and all for his glory. May God give us grace to serve him faithfully in the world. Amen.