Scripture: Genesis 50:4-21
I want to make three points in today’s sermon. Point Number One: We who are in Christ always enjoy God’s favor. Point Number Two: We can never fully see things from God’s perspective. And Point Number Three: We are often being pruned to bear more fruit.
But Point Number One: We Christians always enjoy God’s favor.
What I’m about to say may sound silly to you, but I think you’ll be able to relate…
As many of you know, I am passionately interested in pop and rock music. I talk with Connie Gaines at WNEG about this frequently … And you may also know that singer-songwriter and Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan is my favorite musician. And so you might imagine how thrilled I was recently to become Facebook friends, not with Bob Dylan… yeah, right… But I have become a genuine Facebook friend or acquaintance of Bob Dylan’s bass player from the mid-’70s. His name is Rob Stoner. He played on a few Dylan albums. He toured for three years with Dylan. He also acted as band leader and helped arrange some of Dylan’s songs from that era.
But even if you don’t share my love for Bob Dylan, as I’m sure many of you don’t, you all love Rob Stoner. You’ve heard him before: He plays bass and sings the harmony part on the Don MacLean classic song, “American Pie.” Everyone loves that song!
So I’m a little starstruck that this very important and powerful and influential person—as far as I’m concerned—is willing to condescend to engage with me, to answer my questions, to interact with little old me, at least online. This powerful and influential and very important person has shown me his favor, and that makes me feel good about myself!
Again, I know this is silly…
But speaking of knowing powerful and influential and “very important” people, imagine how Joseph felt! He was, if not close personal friends, at least the closest, most trusted advisor to the most powerful and important person in the world—the Pharaoh of Egypt! Look at verse 4 of today’s scripture. To put it in context, Joseph’s father, Jacob, has just died. And Joseph is asking permission of Pharaoh to leave Egypt and return to his homeland of Canaan to bury his father. He’s following the proper royal protocol and asking members of Pharaoh’s household to ask Pharaoh. But Joseph begins his request, saying, in verse 4, “If now I have found favor in your eyes…”
“If now I have found favor”… And it’s clear that Joseph did find favor, not only with Pharaoh’s household, but with Pharaoh himself!
Earlier, after Joseph successfully interpreted Pharaoh’s dream of seven years of prosperity followed by seven years of famine, Pharaoh showed Joseph his favor by releasing Joseph from prison and promoting him to prime minister of Egypt. Later, when Joseph reconciled with his brothers, Pharaoh showed Joseph his favor by insisting that Joseph’s father and extended family come live in Egypt—and live on the best land for grazing their livestock. And earlier in this chapter, after Jacob dies, Pharaoh showed Joseph his favor by calling for his nation to observe unprecedented 70-day period of mourning for Jacob. And in today’s scripture, not only does Pharaoh show Joseph his favor by letting Joseph return to the land of Canaan, but look at verse 7: “So Joseph went up to bury his father. With him went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of [Pharoah’s] household, and all the elders of the land of Egypt.”
And look at verse 9: “And there went up with [Joseph] both chariots and horsemen. It was a very great company.”
We all remember last year’s funeral in Britain of Queen Elizabeth. Pharaoh made sure that the burial of Jacob would be a lot like that. To say that Pharaoh gave Joseph “the royal treatment” would be an understatement!
So Joseph found favor with Pharaoh—the most powerful, important, and influential ruler in the world at the time—but as great as that was, that wasn’t really the point here: the point is not that Joseph found favor with the most powerful, important, and influential ruler in world; the point is, Joseph found favor with the all-powerful Creator and Sovereign Lord of not only the world but the entire universe—and everything within it!
It’s because Joseph found favor with almighty God that God made Pharaoh show Joseph his favor!
And if we go back and review Genesis chapters 37 to 49, which tell the full story of Joseph’s life up to today’s scripture, we see so much evidence that God’s favor rests on Joseph. If you’ll forgive the analogy, it’s almost as if Joseph were radioactive with God’s favor… It’s like, he so radiates the favor of God that Joseph blesses everyone in his path—he can’t even help himself: In these chapters, pagan people, idolatrous people, people who don’t even know Yahweh, the God of Israel, find themselves being blessed simply because they are in close proximity to Joseph.
Listen to what happened to Potiphar in chapter 39, verses 5 and 6. Joseph worked in Potiphar’s household as a slave. Listen to the way Joseph blesses him:
From the day Joseph was put in charge of his master’s household and property, the Lord began to bless Potiphar’s household for Joseph’s sake. All his household affairs ran smoothly, and his crops and livestock flourished…. With Joseph there, [Potiphar] didn’t worry about a thing—except what kind of food to eat!
Of course, that doesn’t end well for Joseph, because he gets falsely accused of a crime and is sent to prison. But even in prison, listen to the way Joseph blesses the warden—in chapter 39, verses 21 and 22:
But the Lord was with Joseph in the prison and showed him his faithful love. And the Lord made Joseph a favorite with the prison warden. Before long, the warden put Joseph in charge of all the other prisoners and over everything that happened in the prison.
And then, of course, Joseph blesses Pharaoh’s royal cupbearer by rightly interpreting his dream. And as a result of that, he blesses Pharaoh by rightly interpreting his dream. And as a result, he blesses all of Egypt and all of the surrounding area—by saving millions from the devastating effects of famine.
God did that for Joseph! God showed Joseph his favor! And God’s favor changed not only Joseph’s life, but the lives of so many!
God’s favor in Joseph’s life got things done! God’s favor in Joseph’s life opened doors! God’s favor in Joseph’s life radiated out into the world and changed lives for the better!
Joseph enjoyed all of God’s favor!
And friends—I’m going to say something that some of y’all will have a hard time believing… But if we are in Christ, if we are born again, if we are put into a right relationship with God through faith in Christ, if we are adopted into God’s family as his beloved sons and daughters through faith in Christ, if we have the Holy Spirit—the very Spirit of Christ—residing within us because of our faith in Christ, we enjoy all of God’s favor, too!
That thought should blow us away!
I mean, as I said earlier, I feel starstruck that some famous rock musician shows me his favor. Big deal! That’s nothing. What is a rock star in relation to our sovereign Lord?
The Lord of the universe shows us his favor.
Or maybe you don’t believe me?
Remember Luke chapter 2—the Christmas story—shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel shows up and announces the birth of the Messiah in nearby Bethlehem. Then a host of angels—an entire army of angels—shows up, singing a song with these words:
Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests. 1
And who are these people on whom God’s favor now rests?
They are none other than we Christians. Through Christ, we are now “highly favored” by God.
Think about what that means!
I want to share one of my favorite promises in scripture with you. And when you hear it, you’re going to think, “Well, what’s the big deal with that verse?” I promise I’ll explain it. The promise comes from Isaiah 59:1. These are words that the the prophet Isaiah speaks to God’s stiff-necked, rebellious people in Judah: “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear.”
In other words, God is telling these disobedient, idolatrous, sinful Israelites, “Don’t think that because I’m not rescuing you right now from your enemies; don’t think that because I’m not saving you from all the trouble that you’re facing because of your sin; don’t think that because I’m not preventing you from being conquered by the Babylonians and sent into exile; don’t think that my apparent “failure” to act is because I don’t hear all of your prayers. I know far better than you do exactly what’s going on in your lives, and I hear every single one of your prayers. No, contrary to what some people are saying, I can hear just fine.
“Moreover, just because I’m not rescuing you right now from all your trouble, don’t think for a moment it’s because somehow I don’t have all the power at my disposal to rescue you. I do! And if I wanted to rescue you right now, I would. And since I’m not rescuing you right now, you need to trust me that I have my good reasons, that I have my good purposes. But it’s not because I don’t hear you. And it’s not because I don’t have the power to rescue you.”
Friends, if we are in a saving relationship with God through faith in Christ, we are never in the same position that ancient Israel found itself in Isaiah! In other words, unlike with ancient Israel, we Christians can be absolutely confident that God is never punishing us for our sins.
Because he’s already punished his Son Jesus for our sins… on the cross… And God has clothed us with the perfect righteousness of his Son Jesus! Unlike with ancient Israel, God never lets us experience his anger. Because he’s not mad at us! Never ever!
We Christians are like Joseph, but even more so! Because through Christ, God has done something for us that he did not do even for Joseph: We have been adopted into God’s family as his sons and daughters! Joseph wasn’t adopted into God’s family. We have been!So if you’re a parent, think of how you love your children! What can they do to make you stop showing them your favor? Nothing at all! What can your children to do to make you stop acting in their best interest? Nothing at all! What can they do to make you stop loving them with a love that absolutely melts your heart? Nothing at all!
My point is, the favor that we Christians enjoy with God is unconditional; like a human parent’s love for his child but even more so, because unlike with us sinful human parents, God loves us perfectly, to the fullest extent possible! And God our Father is always, always, always acting in our best interest out of a love for us that we simply cannot comprehend! And God will never take his favor away from us—his children… Never ever ever…
Are you a child of God through faith in Christ? Then you can be sure that God’s favor rests on you! If you haven’t yet surrendered to Christ as your Savior, or if you have so backslidden that you no longer believe in Christ, that’s a different conversation.
But for the rest of us… getting back to Isaiah 59:1, “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened that it cannot save, or his ear dull that it cannot hear.” God knows what we, his children, need better than we do; he always hears our prayers… And God has all the power in his mighty hand to give us precisely what we need, when we need it.
“Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear.”
And that’s Point Number One… We who are in Christ are always enjoying God’s favor.
But Point Number One raises a potential problem: If we are so “highly favored by God,” why is life often so hard? And this leads us to Point Number Two: We are unable to see things from God’s perspective.
To answer the question, why is life often so hard? I’m tempted to jump immediately to the very famous verse 20—one of the most beloved verses in the entire Bible… I’ll get there soon enough. But first I want to direct our attention first to verse 19, where Joseph tells his brothers, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God?”
He says this because his brothers are afraid—for no good reason—that now that Jacob their father is dead, there’s nothing stopping Joseph from exacting revenge against them. And so Joseph wants to reassure them: “Am I in the place of God?”
Joseph is a righteous man who knows that personal vengeance is out of the question. As the apostle Paul says in Romans 12:19: “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” 2
Joseph knows that we humans are simply not in a position to see into a person’s heart and know how or to what extent someone ought to be punished for their sins—so we leave decisions about punishment to God. Of course, as Paul says in Romans 13, God has ordained a state’s judicial system to seek justice, however imperfectly, but… God’s Word says that you and I as individuals are not in a position to judge: “Am I in the place of God?”
In other words, “Can I begin to know what God knows? Can I begin to see things from God’s perspective? Can I begin to see things from God’s vantage point?”
And the answer is, No. We are not in a position to judge other people… and know why they do what they do.
But if that principle applies to judging other people, how much more does it apply to judging God?
Think about Joseph: His jealous brothers first wanted to kill him, and throw him down into an empty cistern, before deciding, finally, to sell him into slavery. They lied to their own father, and told him that Joseph had been mauled by a wild animal. They did great evil and caused great harm to Joseph and their father.
And if you read chapters 39, 40, and 41, you’ll see that Joseph continues to endure great suffering and injustice… for 13 long years… until Pharaoh appoints him to his exalted position. Thirteen long years!
And during those 13 long years, who would have blamed Joseph if he had angrily said to God, “The way you’re treating me, God, is not fair! I should not be going through all this! You are wrong to make me endure this great suffering!”
Joseph might have said that something like that… except… guess what?
He understood the truth expressed in verse 19: “Am I in the place of God?” He was simply not in a position to understand all the reasons that God could have for allowing him to endure these difficult trials.
In his wonderful book Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, the late Tim Keller discusses something in physics known as “chaos theory” and the famous “butterfly effect”: that—as hard as it is to imagine—a butterfly flapping its wings in China “would be magnified through a ripple effect so as to determine the path of a hurricane in the South Pacific. Yet no one would be able to calculate and predict the actual effects of the butterfly’s flight.” 3
No one except God, that is… Keller writes,
Now, if even the effects of a butterfly’s flight or the roll of a ball down a hill are too complex to calculate, how much less could any human being look at the tragic, seemingly “senseless” death [for instance] of a young person and have any idea of what the effects in history will be? If an all-powerful and all-wise God were directing all of history with its infinite number of interactive events toward good ends, it would be folly to think we could look at any particular occurrence and understand a millionth of what it will bring about… Certainly many evils seem pointless and unnecessary to us—but we are simply not in a position to judge.” 4
As Joseph suggests, we are not in the place of God.
So even when we’re in the midst of sometimes intense hardship and suffering, will we trust that our heavenly Father, who’s always “for us,” 5 always “on our side,”6 always “working all things for our good” 7—will we trust that he’s working out his good plan for us?
Listen: I’m not diminishing for a moment that we do suffer evil; that we experience great pain; that bad and evil things really do happen to us—and our heavenly Father allows these things to happen, by all means. But when he does, God’s Word says it’s always only because he’s working out his good plan in our lives!
And we’re supposed to trust him.
When Joseph’s brothers threw him down into a pit—into that empty cistern back in Genesis 37—intending, at first, to leave him to die and then sell him into slavery instead, Joseph could have no idea the chain of events that his brothers’ evil actions would set into motion. But in verse 20—now that Joseph sees that his brothers’ evil actions were used by God to save the lives of millions—would Joseph disagree that God was justified in allowing this?
Of course not!
Imagine Joseph, at 17 years old, being given a choice: “You can endure some difficult trials for the next 13 years and in return save the lives of millions… or you can live a life of relative comfort and ease tending to your father’s livestock and getting into petty arguments frequently with your jealous brothers.” Which will it be?
What do you think Joseph would choose?
My point is, we who are God’s highly favored children, who, like Joseph, enjoy God’s favor… we should have the same attitude as Joseph toward the difficult, painful trials that come our way. “Am I in the place of God?” No. Therefore I’m going to continue to trust in him!
And I get it! That’s hard to do, but what’s the alternative?
I sometimes say, in all seriousness, that I am a “recovering angry person.” And in saying that, I hope you don’t think I’m minimizing the sins of alcoholism and drug addiction, I’m not minimizing the plight of people who are in recovery for those terrible sins. But I am saying that anger is usually no less of a sin than alcoholism and addiction—it’s just that anger is a more “respectable” sin than the others. We get away with being angry without intervention from loved ones.
And for too many years I coddled that sin in my life. I told myself it wasn’t a big deal. I minimized it, instead of exposing it to the light of Christ and his sanctifying Spirit.
And when I say I’m a “recovering” angry person I’m also not suggesting for a moment that I’m cured. I may be tempted to “fall off the wagon” at any moment, as, indeed, I too often do! And I hate it, and I confess it as a serious sin.
The closest thing to a “cure” for my anger—the only thing that I’ve found that helps me overcome the sin of anger in my life—including its manifestations of bitterness, resentment, cursing, self-pity, depression… the only thing that helps me heal from this sin—and I’m only talking about myself and my experience—is reminding myself, again and again, that God is in control of whatever I’m going through. And if I am facing something in life that I don’t like, that causes me pain, that makes me suffer,ultimately it’s because God wants me to face that difficult thing—for reasons that I usually don’t understand at the time… but I can trust that God has got his good reasons.
So that’s what I want for you! Because I know I’m talking to many other “recovering angry people”!
But this is Point Number Two: We who are God’s “highly favored” children are not “in the place of God.” We can’t see things from God’s perspective. Therefore we must trust, even in the midst of difficult trails, that God is working out his good plan for our lives.
And that brings us to Point Number Three—and remember, here’s where I always talk about Jesus—God is always pruning us in order that we bear more fruit…
Let’s turn our attention to a promise that Jesus makes in John chapter 15. This is something he teaches his disciples in the upper room on the night of the Last Supper. He says these words, which will be familiar to many of you:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit… 8
Among other things, Jesus says here that all genuine Christians bear fruit. That’s good news! Fruit is something that other people notice… that other people enjoy. Remember earlier, I talked about Joseph radiating God’s favor in such a way that he can’t help but bless people. Throughout the story of Joseph in Genesis, we see other people—Potiphar, the warden, Joseph’s fellow prisoners, Pharaoh, Joseph’s brothers—enjoying the fruit that Joseph bore.
The same will be true for us!
And we know from the apostle Paul exactly what that fruit looks like. Galatians 5:22-23:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control.
Inasmuch as our lives are characterized by “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control,” don’t you think the people of Toccoa, Georgia, would notice this fruit and be blessed by it?
Of course they would! Like Joseph, we would be a blessing to others!
And that sounds great, but… Jesus tells us something else about us “fruit-bearing” Christians. I don’t like this as much: “every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”
To which we may say, “Ouch!” Pruning sounds painful…
When I was talking about my anger earlier, you can be sure that God has often let me suffer the painful consequences of my anger. It hurts when he does. But what my heavenly Father is really doing is pruning me.
God’s pruning is painful, to be sure, but its purpose is to produce greater fruit in our lives.
Your heavenly Father may have a thousand-and-one reasons for the difficult trial that you’re enduring right now, but you can always be sure that one of those thousand-and-one reasons—one good thing that God intends for your painful trial—is that you would produce more fruit.
And, yes, in order for that to happen, we’re going to sometimes experience pain.
But don’t you want more love in your life? It’s going to hurt sometimes, but this is what it takes: your heavenly Father is pruning you.
Don’t you want more joy in your life? It’s going to hurt sometimes, but this is what it takes: your heavenly Father is pruning you.
Don’t you want more peace? It’s going to hurt sometimes, but this is what it takes: your heavenly Father is pruning you.
Don’t you want more patience? but It’s going to hurt sometimes, but this is what it takes: your heavenly Father is pruning you.