Okay, the backstory before today’s episode in Joseph’s story is that, remember, last week we saw him thrown into prison in Egypt. And while he’s there, two big-time prisoners are sent in, Pharaoh’s Cup-bearer and Baker. Joseph comes in one morning and sees that these two both look dejected, and asks them what’s up. They say, “We’ve both had these dreams. Can you interpret them for us?” And Joseph is bold to say, “Interpretations belong to God, tell me your dreams.” They tell him, and he interprets for the cup-bearer that in a few days he’d be released by Pharaoh. Good news. And Joseph tells him, “Remember me when you’re free.” The baker says, sounds good, what’s my news? Joseph tells him Pharaoh will soon come to put him to death. Not good. But both interpretations come true. And then did the newly freed Cup-bearer remember Joseph? No. That’s where we start today, Genesis 41 starts with, “When two full years had passed…” So, it’s been two years of Joseph being forgotten in prison.
Going on to read our episode in Genesis 41:1-36, after these two years we find that Pharaoh himself has had strange dreams, symbolic dreams. First of seven fat cows coming up out of the Nile that are eaten up by seven starving, ugly cows. Weirdness. Then the same thing again, a dream of seven healthy heads of grain, but they’re swallowed up by seven thin, scraggly heads of grain.
It thoroughly freaks Pharaoh out, he summons all the experts and nobody can figure it out. Just then the Cup-bearer remembers Joseph’s talent with dreams, tells Pharaoh about what had happened two years before, and they call him out of prison, shave him and dress him, and put him before the king of Egypt. Joseph goes on to interpret the dreams well, he says that they’re a sign that seven years of plenty are coming, but they’ll be followed by seven years of great famine that will eradicate the good years; and Joseph advises Pharaoh to appoint someone wise to plan during the good years to store away and prepare for the bad. After this passage, Pharaoh listens and appoints Joseph, as one certainly in tune with God and the truth. God is still with him, it plays out well for Joseph, but I’m interested in how he possibly persevered under these conditions, and continued in his call journey, to get to this good conclusion.
Because last week we considered the highs and lows of Joseph’s journey, and how he does well at losing big and winning big, and we can stand to learn from it. This week is a different but important point for us. I think it’s about how we respond in the neither high nor low but the average moments of life, the ordinary. After all, in some ways, the high highs and low lows may even provoke us to pursue God more than usual. When someone hits the lottery, what do they say? “HALLELEUJAH!” And that might be the longest conversation they’ve had with God EVER.
Our highest of highs can be so high that they make us very aware of how God’s blessed us, and we might be provoked to thanks. Our lowest of lows – hitting “rock bottom” like the old timey preachers preached – can provoke us to change and do better, to motivate us. Maybe the harder place is just in the middle. Because in the middle you know it could be better, but it could also be worse. And would we rather risk the present comfort for something better, or stick with what we’ve got lest we lose it to something worse?
That reminds me of the movie “Castaway” where Tom Hanks plays a character named Chuck Nolan who works for FedEx. He’s all about being timely, that every second counts; he’s a huge workaholic, carrying his beeper everywhere. And at Christmas dinner with the love of his life, he answers a page and has to fly off somewhere for the job. Like a fool, he goes, and the plane crashes. He is the sole survivor, and uses a life-raft to wash up on the beach of a small deserted island.
Talk about a roller-coaster. Right away, we see Chuck in a terrible low, the trauma of a freakin’ plane crash in the ocean. But then also right away, there’s a huge high — he’s alive. But then, right away the next low kicks in – he’s alone, and he has to figure out how to survive. Then the next high comes as he starts trying to survive, searching FedEx packages washing up from the wreck, finding food, etc. And after that one of the biggest lows comes when Chuck sees a light on the horizon from some vessel but has no way to signal them, so he jumps back in the rubber raft and paddles frantically toward the open water. But he finds that the island is surrounded by a reef and huge waves that tumble him back, destroy his raft, gash his leg on the coral, and wash him up again on the beach. At that point, he starts to realize (doing the math) – they may never find me…it’s thousands of square miles to search for me…I may never leave this place.
From that low he gains some ground again. Chuck still has a deep hope, in the form of a locket that has a picture of the woman he loves, the hope that if he stays alive and keeps breathing, he might see her again one day. Then there are big moments fighting for survival; developing tools, building shelter, and making FIRE!
Five Years Later…
As his survival skills sink in, the movie-makers use that common trick where they fade out and then fade back in, and at the bottom of the screen they tell us that some time has passed, “Five years later”. And we can tell time has passed because how does Chuck look? Lean and tan and a with a huge beard, spearing fish with great skill. His survival is down to a tee, and he looks like he could do this as long as necessary.
Think about that five years that the movie quickly blinks over. Five years of developing a survival routine, and getting good at living. Day in, day out, years passing by. That is about as “middle of the road” and ordinary as it gets. The highs and lows of his first weeks on the island are past, and he’s settled in to something in between. Now, he knows it can be far better – it’s what he hopes for, to one day be found or leave and find the woman and life he’s lost. But he’s also sure there’s worse, that’s not surviving. But then comes the decision point that challenges the status quo. One day he’s out and about and something special washes up outta nowhere. A giant piece of porta-potty. The two walls of a porta-john that form a giant plastic wedge, and it clicks for him that if he attaches this to a raft, he’ll have an awesome sail that might help him power past the giant waves that trap him.
Decision time. If I do this just right, and brave the breakers that almost killed me last time, if I leave all this behind, I might just make it to my hope against all hopes, back home, back to her.
Freeze things there. It looks to me just like Joseph’s situation. For one thing, when Joseph is presented to Pharaoh what did they have to do? Shave him and change his clothes. He was as raggedy as a castaway. More importantly, he’s had two years of prison routine. It’s not the worst place he’s ever been (nearly murdered by his brothers, a slave). It’s certainly not the best place he’s been. He’s still in prison. But he’s doing well, his glorifying God, he’s a leader, has authority, following the call, but I’m sure he still hoped to see his dad again, and get home again, or be free.
But into that middle-of-the-road place arrives a decision time in the form of Pharaoh’s cup-bearer and baker. One morning they hit Joseph with a word that is super-charged for him: DREAMS. They both had dreams. And what is Joseph’s history with dreams? Remember back to the start of the story, it’s having and interpreting his dreams as a boy that infuriated his brothers to the point of nearly killing him, and selling him into slavery. Dreams are a hot-button issue for Joseph. He might have just run for his life in the other direction. Decision time. And he asks them to tell him the dreams, he interprets them and he’s right. But does it free him? NO. They just forget about him for two more years. I’d be even more frustrated with dreams now. But then Pharaoh comes a-knocking one day (and no one denies Pharaoh), and he draws Joseph into his presence and says, “I’ve been having dreams, and I’m told you’re the one to talk to.” Dreams again, AHHHH! If I’m Joseph I think I’m taking crazy pills. And he still has a choice here, he can always bail out and ask to be left in prison. Indeed, by trying to interpret he’ll be taking a chance that if he screws up Pharaoh will just kill him. But he steps out and says, “God can interpret your dreams” and lets Pharaoh know about the coming famine. We see how it turns out for him, just like it did for Chuck Nolan, pretty well overall. They both found their freedom because they stepped out of the comfortable and ordinary; they risked a greater low for the chance at a greater high.
You and Me
And they show us why we can’t always settle for “okay” or the middle of the road. Now, be mindful, we don’t always have to demand the highest of highs, or yell at God when we don’t catch the breaks we want or have all our dreams fulfilled. We should certainly know how to be thankful for our current status, and enjoy the everyday middle. But, but, to cling to the middle, and hide there? Nah. I’d almost guarantee God will call us to step away from it sometime. What we once were grateful for, at some point we’ll probably be led to leave behind. I don’t think God’s call guarantees that the next step will be one into greater comfort, either, or success, or fame, or status. But it will be one where we find our truest selves, and our deepest fulfillment.
So, reflect on your highest of highs and lowest of lows. Reflect on where you are, and odds are it’s in-between. What does that “okay” or ordinary place look like? And then in what way does God challenge it, or call you out of it, or send some porta-potty your way to provoke a decision point? Then it’s time to respond.