E100 – August 27, 2017

“No Fair” – Genesis 39-41

Pentecost 12 – August 27, 2017


Introduction: Life’s Not Fair

Most decent human beings have a sense of sensibility and fairness in life. That’s been the topic of some recent conversations I have had with others, not being able to understand people who – for no good reason – choose to intentionally take the lives of others (and sometimes their own) in a meaningless act of violence. We look at the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia or in Barcelona, Spain and we say that it was no fair that many families are mourning the loss of loved ones.

There are other events that we can place into that “No Fair” category. Kira Short’s cancer is a prime example. Had she done something to deserve the suffering, the medical procedures, the agony she endured for some two years? Had her parents done something to merit losing a daughter before her 7th birthday? It was “No Fair” in virtually everyone’s eyes. For those who trusted the purpose for and the people behind the Church Extension Fund, its collapse a couple of years ago seemed to be “No Fair.” For those who lost their savings and their pensions in the stock market losses almost ten years ago, it was a case of “No Fair.” Even though you’ll admit you’re not perfect, if you’ve ever had a girlfriend / boyfriend or even a spouse leave you for no really good reason, that’s a matter of “No Fair.”

Life isn’t always fair, as we deem fairness. God doesn’t promise that, because fairness is a subjective human concept that can have different angles depending on your background or perspective. In a month’s time, our Gospel reading will feature the “No Fair” parable that Jesus told about workers in a vineyard who got paid the same amount even though some worked the whole day and others worked just an hour or two. Because this was a kingdom of heaven parable, we would even accuse God, Himself, of being “No Fair.”


  1. Joseph’s “No Fair” Life

Today we pick up the Joseph story in Genesis, and see how “No Fair” was the motto of the middle part of Joseph’s life.


a. Brothers… No Fair

Last Sunday, when we first met Joseph, he was an egotistical teenager who deliberately irritated his family. Yes, he was father Jacob’s favourite son. Yes, he had that coat of many colours to prove it. Yes, he did have dreams that indicated that he would, in some way, rule over his brothers. But he didn’t have to flaunt it. That’s what led to the Jacob Family Feud. We heard how Joseph was tossed into a cistern and then sold into slavery by his brothers, who also deceived their father into concluding that Joseph was killed by wild animals. The brothers believed that Joseph got what was coming to him. Joseph looked at it a different way. No Fair!


b. Potiphar’s wife… No Fair

In Genesis 39, we find Joseph in Egypt in the service of Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials. Despite his status as the second youngest son and as dad’s favourite, he must have picked up some good work habits. As Potiphar’s servant, he worked hard, he succeeded in the things that he did, and soon Potiphar put him in charge of the entire household, and entrusted to him everything he owned. With Joseph managing, Potiphar was satisfied that all was well.


And all was well… until the day that Potiphar’s wife noticed that he was not a scrawny teenager anymore. “Well-built and handsome” is the way the Bible describes Joseph. “Come to bed with me” is the way the Bible describes her advance toward him. Her invitation was pretty forward and straightforward and unmistakeable and tempting. But Joseph politely declined, explaining his role in the household and her husband’s own trust in him. This woman’s enticement was relentless. The Bible says “she spoke to Joseph day after day, but he refused to go to bed with her or even be with her.”

She would not give up, so one day when there were no other servants in the house, she grabbed Joseph by the cloak and repeated her desire, “Come to bed with me!” He squirmed out of his cloak as he left the house and this risky situation. Snubbed by his refusal, Potiphar’s wife turned the tables on the story and accused Joseph of wanting to seduce her, leaving behind his cloak when she screamed. Potiphar had no choice but to believe his wife’s story, and Joseph was thrown into prison. When you hear the whole story, you understand that it was “No Fair.”

c. Cupbearer… No Fair

But this “No Fair” episode had a sequel in Joseph’s life. In Genesis 40, Pharaoh’s chief baker and chief cupbearer experienced their own “No Fair” incidents. For some reason, Pharaoh became angry with them and threw them into the same jail as Joseph. After some time, each of those two men had dreams – dreams with a meaning, dreams that left them dejected. The next morning, Joseph noticed their sad faces and asked them about it. They had been in jail long enough that those were no longer just “I’m sad that I’m in jail” faces. The dreams were disconcerting and they had no one to interpret the meaning. Joseph, you may remember, had experience with dreams… that’s what got him into trouble with his brothers in the first place. Both the baker and the cupbearer told Joseph their dreams, and Joseph explained what the dreams meant.

The cupbearer’s dream was good news – he would be restored to his position in three days. Joseph asked the cupbearer, when he got out of jail, to mention him and his situation to Pharaoh so that Joseph, too, could get out of jail free.

The baker’s dream was not good news – he would be hanged by the Pharaoh in three days!


Both dreams came true just as Joseph interpreted, but the cupbearer, in his delight at being released from prison, forgot all about Joseph, rather than urging the Pharaoh to let him go. That’s “No Fair.”


  1. Joseph’s Coping Mechanism

How did Joseph cope with this apparent unfairness in his life – sold into slavery by his very own brothers, falsely accused by a spurned woman, unjustly thrown into prison by his boss, and forgotten about by a fellow prisoner? There were two simple things that were the anchor of his hope in the midst of these situations of obvious despair.

a. God at the center

The first thing is that Joseph put God at the center of his life. We don’t really hear this in the early story of Joseph’s life. But when we join Joseph in Egypt, we read that “the Lord was with Joseph” and that implies that Joseph was also with the Lord. In fact, four times in Genesis 39 we read the phrase that “the Lord was with Joseph.” It begins the story of his service in Potiphar’s house. Then Potiphar, himself, recognized that in Joseph. Later in the story, when Joseph was in prison, that same phrase is used and God’s kindness and favour was shown through the prison warden. Finally, at the end of the chapter, we read that again the prison warden did not worry about anything under Joseph’s care because the Lord was with Joseph.

What does that mean? He would have worshiped God, prayed to Him, just dedicated his life and service to God and others. Having God at the center is explicit also in a couple of things that Joseph actually said. When Potiphar’s wife first made her advances toward Joseph, his response included this question: “How could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” He understood that this potential adultery would not just be a sin against Potiphar’s wife, it would not just be a sin against Potiphar, but ultimately it would be a sin against God. All sin – of thought, word and deed – is first and foremost sin against God. That’s First Commandment stuff – You shall have no other gods before me. God was at the center of all of Joseph’s life, including what he did with his body. Joseph knew that, in the end, he was accountable to God for all his actions.

The other comment that demonstrated that God was at the center of his life, was his remark to the other two prisoners. They told Joseph that they had had dreams, but no one could interpret them. Joseph replied, “Do not all interpretations belong to God?” They told him their dreams and he explained the meaning, as God gave him the wisdom. Joseph presented himself as God’s agent through whom God would make known the revelation contained in their dreams. Joseph could not have interpreted those dreams had God not been at the center of his life.

God being at the center gave Joseph hope for the future despite the “No Fair” events that took his life on unwelcome turns.

b. Trust in God’s control

The second anchor for Joseph’s life in the midst of those “No Fair” events was an unwavering trust in God’s control and God’s plan. On the surface, Joseph’s life was a mess – family feud, attempted seduction, false imprisonment – but below the surface God was in control. That four-fold refrain of the Lord being with Joseph was not just an abstract reality. There was something concrete and obvious that resulted from God’s presence and control. Genesis 39 tells us that Joseph actually prospered. As a servant in Potiphar’s home, everything went well, so much so that Potiphar elevated Joseph to be the manager of the entire household. God gave him success in everything he did. In the same way as Potiphar trusted Joseph over his household, Joseph trusted God over his whole life. He trusted God to properly and accurately reveal to him the meaning of those dreams. And that dream interpreting would, in the next part of the story, get him out of prison, for he would interpret the dreams of the Egyptian Pharaoh, himself. And then Joseph would become not just the manager of a household, but the manager of the entire country.

God’s plan was unfolding. The jealousy of Joseph’s brothers and his being sold into slavery in Egypt were the events which would pave the way for all of the descendants of father Jacob / Israel to escape the Palestinian famine of the day and to spend some identity-building years in Egypt until, under the leadership of Moses, the Israelites returned to the promised land. I mentioned this last week, and I’ll say it again. At the end of the Joseph story, he clearly understood the plan of God, the control of God, the working of God through everything that happened. Commenting on the actions of his brothers, he said to them, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish… the saving of many lives.”

  1. The Saving of Many Lives

And last week I commented, too, on that saving of many lives in the context of Jesus. Jesus lived an exemplary life – no Joseph arrogance, no Joseph’s brothers jealousy, no Jacob favouritism. Jesus helped people. He healed people. He paid attention to the little guy – Zacchaeus, the children. He welcomed the outcasts and the sinners. He loved the unlovable. He called all kinds of people His friends. Jesus was well into adulthood, and He had not sinned, not even once, but He died as a sinner, as a lawbreaker, rejected and accused and condemned by His own people. He was executed by the Romans without the benefit of a legal trial. We would all agree – that’s “No Fair!”


We, on the other hand, are a bunch of sinners. We exhibit the same arrogance, jealousy and favouritism as was evident in Joseph’s family. We lie, we cheat, we steal. We are lazy. We focus on ourselves. We ignore God. But when Jesus died, He died with our sins as whip marks on His back and as nail holes in His hands and feet. He died for our sins – that’s Jesus version of Joseph’s phrase “the saving of many lives” – but on the other side we come out clean and righteous and holy. It really is “No Fair!” But it’s a good “No Fair” from our perspective. The way Paul summed it up in 2 Corinthians 5:21 is: “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” “No Fair” for Jesus, and “No Fair” for us, but God’s grace and love and salvation is written all over that story.


  1. Our Response

We want to respond in the same way as Joseph. When faced with tempting situations or opportunities we want to ask Joseph’s pertinent question: “How could I do such a thing and sin against God?” No matter what is happening, no matter whether life is fair or not, we want to keep God at the center of our lives. That means every day, and in every way – God’s Word, prayer, worship, spiritual conversations, God-pleasing words and actions. God at the center.

We also want to look for God’s involvement in our lives, kind of step back and see His plan unfolding, recognize that He is in control. Times of crisis will enable us to deepen our relationship with God. (Hopefully such times of crisis will not involve prison time, like in the Joseph story.) Times of joy will enable us to be a blessing to others. (That may not involve interpreting dreams, but it will certainly imply seeing things clearly.)

It was time to upgrade my vehicle this summer, so I advertised my 2008 Nissan Rogue on AutoTrader and Craigslist. Last Sunday morning I received an inquiry text, expressing interest but saying that their family budget was some $1500 less than I was asking. I invited them to come and have a look at it and we’d negotiate a price. After last Sunday’s service, this young couple with two children arrived, telling me their story that, ten days earlier, their vehicle had been in an accident, and completely written off by ICBC. They couldn’t afford what my Rogue was worth. Oh, and they were Christians. In fact, she said she prayed before they came to our house. After some discussion with them, I talked to Deanna privately and we decided to sell the vehicle to them basically at the price they could afford.  Sometimes it’s not about the money, it’s about the people, it’s about the opportunity to bless someone. Maybe it wasn’t so fair to me, but it was more than fair, it was gracious, to this couple. And that’s OK!

God at the center, God in control, God gracious to us, and through us. Amen.

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