When the National Lottery was launched in 1994, it had the slogan ‘It Could Be You’. The chance of matching all six numbers and winning the National Lottery is 1 in 14 million, and the Euromillions it is 1 in 76 million. As a way of putting it into context, if you played the National Lottery every week, you could only expect to win a jackpot if you lived to be 300,000 years old.
Compare the odds of winning the lottery to other things:
- 1 in 3,000 chance of being struck by lightning in your lifetime
- 1 in 10,000 chance of being injured by a toilet this year
- 1 in 3.7 million chance of being killed by a shark
- And between 1 in 3,000 and 1 in 250,000 chance of dying from an asteroid or comet
But despite the odds, for the millions of people who do play the lottery, they have no doubt dreamt about what they would do if they won the lottery, and the difference it would make to their lives to suddenly come into untold wealth.
Joseph in our reading today, also experiences this sudden change in fortune, where in the course of just one day he goes from a forgotten prisoner, languishing in a prison cell, to the second most powerful man in all of Egypt. It is the ultimate rags to riches story.
Recaping the Story
Joseph was only 17 when he was betrayed by his brothers, and sold into slavery. He ended up in Egypt working for Potiphar, an important Egyptian official who served Pharaoh. Things seemed to be improving for Joseph, as the Lord blessed him and he found favour in Potiphar’s eyes and was put in charge of running the house. But this all came to a sudden end, when Joseph was falsely accused on attempting to rape Potiphar’s wife, and he was thrown into prison.
But despite the desperate circumstances, God was still with Joseph, and Joseph was put in charge of the other prisoners. There he met Pharaoh cupbearer and baker, who had angered Pharaoh and been put into prison. They had dreams which Joseph helped interpret, telling the bread maker than in three days he would be executed, but that the cupbearer would be released from prison and reinstated to his post. All Joseph asked the cupbearer was that “when all goes well with you, remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison” (Genesis 40:14). But the cupbearer forgot all about Joseph. In chapter 41 we are told that two full years passed since this incident.
Those two years must have been extremely difficult for Joseph, as the days became weeks, and the weeks became months, and it became clear to Joseph that the cupbearer was not going to remember him.
Joseph was now 30 years old, 13 years had passed since his brothers had betrayed him, 13 years during which time he had faced injustice and abuse. The Bible doesn’t tell us how Joseph coped during this time. Did he have moments where he despaired of ever regaining his freedom? Did he wrestle with depression? Did he ever feel as though God had abandoned him? Did he blame God for allowing these misfortunes to fall upon him?
If Joseph did experience any moments of doubt, he clearly came through it, because the Joseph we encounter in chapter 41, appears to be full of faith and confidence in God.
God can use us in all circumstances
The period he was in prison may have felt like wasted time, and it certainly wasn’t where Joseph wanted to be. But God used Joseph in the prison, in helping to serve other prisoners, including the baker and cupbearer, and the time in prison helped prepare Joseph for the tasks that lay ahead.
Paul in Romans 8:28 writes ‘we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’
There are times in life, when we find ourselves in places where we’d rather not be, or facing situations we would prefer not to have to deal with. For example, you may be in a job which is causing you a lot of stress, or not fulfilling you, or you may have health problems, or undergoing tests, or there may be tensions in your family life. We would not choose to be in these situations, but just as God was with Joseph in the prison cell, so God is with us in these situations. As God worked through Joseph in the prison, so we need to be open to allowing God to use in the situations and places we find ourselves. So if you find yourself in a difficult place at the moment, don’t just pray ‘God get me out of here’, but ask God to reveal Himself to you, and to show you how He can use you in this situation.
Joseph may have thought the cupbearer had forgotten all about him, but God hadn’t forgotten about him, and was in control of the situation, and most importantly in control of the timing. If the cupbearer had remembered his promise, and spoken straight away to Pharaoh about Joseph, it is unlikely that Joseph would have been called upon when Pharaoh had his own disturbing dreams which he could not interpret.
God’s timing is perfect. But most of us, myself included, find waiting one of the most difficult things to do, whether we’re waiting for a bus, a phone call or an answered prayer. We become impatient, and the more we want something, the harder it is to wait – and we even get impatient with God!
But in Proverbs we read ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight’ (Prov 3:5-6)
This was the lesson Joseph learnt in those 13 long years as a slave, but it prepared him for the even bigger task that God had install for him.
Learning to trust God is one of the most important lessons we can learn as Christians. The passage of Scripture that I always come back to, is the words of Jeremiah 29:11 which say 'For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.' Trust is built on knowing we have a God who loves and cares for us, and that God will work things out in your life if you trust him.
Everything that Joseph had gone through, was leading up to the moment when Pharaoh had two disturbing dreams, which none of Egypt’s magicians or wise men, were able to interpret. It was then that the cupbearer remembered how Joseph had interpreted his dream two years earlier, and finally told Pharaoh about it.
For Joseph, the day which would have started like every other day in the prison, was suddenly turned on its head, as his cell door was flung open and the guards said to Joseph, “Come with us, you’re going to see Pharaoh.”
After shaving and changing his clothes, Joseph was rushed into Pharaoh’s presence, and the king said to him, “I had a dream, yet no one can explain what it means. I am told that you can interpret dreams.” (Genesis 41:15).
What a moment for Joseph to capitalise upon. This was the moment where he could try and make a bargain with Pharaoh to secure his freedom. It could have been the moment when he let Pharaoh know about the injustice of his present circumstances, how he was betrayed by his family, and in prison for a crime he did not commit. But he does none of these things, instead his first concern is to give God the credit. “Your Majesty… I can’t do it myself, but God can give a good meaning to your dreams.” (Genesis 41:16)
Joseph goes on to explain the meaning of the dreams as well as instructing Pharaoh on what needs to be done to avoid the oncoming disaster. But never once does Joseph seek to promote himself. When he says “Your Majesty, you should find someone who is wise and will know what to do, so that you can put him in charge of all Egypt.” He’s not saying this in order to manoeuvre himself into this position, but he does this because he has proven himself to be honest and trustworthy, and because he was an able administrator.
Self interest was never part of Joseph’s character or conduct, but instead he had a humble spirit. Joseph’s concern was not to honour himself, but to bring honour to God, and because he does this, God in turn honours Joseph.
Then and there Pharaoh appoints Joseph to be the one to carry out this project, saying “No one could possibly handle this better than Joseph, since the Spirit of God is with him.” (Genesis 41:37) Pharaoh sees something special in Joseph, because of his relationship and knowledge of God. And so Joseph finds himself being elevated from a common criminal a nobody, to the second most powerful man in all of Egypt just like that. Pharaoh’s trust in Joseph was vindicated, as Joseph implemented the plan he put forward, which would ultimately lead to saving not only the people of Israel, but also the family that had betrayed him.
Lessons from Joseph
So what can we learn from the story of Joseph?
- PLAN: God has a plan for our lives - Joseph may have felt overlooked, and forgotten whilst he was in prison, but God had not given up on him, he had a plan for him. God does not give up on us either, instead he has a plan for our lives.
- PURPOSE: God can use us in any and every situation – Joseph didn’t want to be sold into slavery, or to end up in prison, but God used him all the same. We may found ourselves in situation’s we’d rather not be in, but God can still use us. We need to learn to be open to him, to trust him, and to ask God reveal to us in what way he would like us to serve him here and now.
- PRIMED: Joseph had no warning that he would suddenly be pulled from prison to be questioned by the king. Yet he was ready for almost anything because of his relationship with God. We need to be ready and primed for the opportunities God has for us, and we do that by getting to know God better, just like Joseph.
- PROMOTE: Joseph’s priority was always to serve and promote God, and to put God first, never himself. Our calling as Christians is to put God first, to make him know in the world. Joseph did that through what he said, as well as what he did. He was a man of honour and integrity, and because of this, people could see the Spirit of God at work in him. This is our calling too as Christians, so that others may be able to see the Spirit at work within us. And when we honour God by putting him first, God will honour us.
Joseph led a God dependent life and he lived it in the midst of great adversity. He knew his future rested in the hands of the Lord. Because of his dependence, faith and trust in God, God used Joseph to change history. Let us pray that we too may be history makers.