Charles Simeon was a pastor and preacher from the 18th century who is famous for a number of things. One of those things was the opposition that he faced. Not just opposition from outsiders, but from his own church. Many of his congregation didn’t want him to be given the position. And so they didn’t come to church when he preached.
Worse than that – it was a time when you could buy your own pew and then lock it – and so not only did people not come to church, they also locked their pews so that no one else could sit in them. Sometimes Simeon would get to the church and find the whole building locked so that he couldn’t come in and preach. (It’s round about now that I’m feeling the urge to thank you for never doing any of that). College students would interrupt his sermons and spread evil rumours about him.
You can imagine there must’ve been times when Charles Simeon felt like giving up. He must’ve felt like he’d hit rock bottom, like he’d been deserted by everyone.
God was with Joseph
As we come to Genesis, chapter 39, we find another man who is hitting rock bottom. It’s Joseph, the son of Jacob, whose life we have started to learn about on Sunday evenings. If you were here two weeks ago you’ll remember that Joseph was singled out by God to be something special. God had plans for Joseph. But since then he has been ganged up on by his brothers and sold as a slave to some Ishmaelite traders.
And that’s where we find him tonight. He’s being traded like livestock on the Egyptian market. So, things aren’t looking great for him. And yet in verse 2 we are assured that God hasn’t forgotten Joseph. The narrator tells us that the Lord was with Joseph... We need to pay attention to that phrase because it’s going to come up another three times in this passage. Joseph is still God’s man.
At times in this story, that would’ve been obvious to see. At times in his life, people who knew Joseph would’ve looked at him and said “Wow, God is clearly with him! Just look at how he’s being blessed!” One of those times was as Joseph was bought by Potiphar and put to work. Look with me from verse 2,
2The Lord was with Joseph so that he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master. 3When his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did, 4Joseph found favour in his eyes and became his attendant. Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned.
Joseph was an amazing success story! He was a bit like Handre Pollard in South African rugby. Two years ago Heyneke Meyer phoned up Dawie Theron – who was the coach of the Baby Boks – and said he should include Pollard in the side. He said, “You’ll win with him!” Since then Pollard has been on a meteoric rise, because everything he has touched has turned to gold.
Last weekend, at twenty years old, Pollard helped the Springboks to beat New Zealand – the number one team in the world – something we haven’t been able to do since 2011. In the match he scored two tries and added nine more points with his boot.
And that’s how it was for Joseph. Everything he did succeeded. And Potiphar noticed. Before long Joseph was living and working in the house. Then he was made personal attendant to the boss; and then he was put in charge of the whole household. Potiphar stopped worrying about a thing. He knew that he could pack a bag at a moment’s notice, get on a plane to Tahiti for the weekend, and his household would be in good hands; because God was blessing Joseph, and those blessings were overflowing to Potiphar.
So, at times in his life it was obvious to see that God was with Joseph. But at other times it was less obvious. At other times it might’ve seemed as if God had abandoned Joseph. One of those times is here in this passage, and is introduced with those words in verse 6, ...Now Joseph was well-built and handsome...
It seems that our Joseph was eye-candy. His face would’ve made it onto the cover of GQ magazine; his abs onto the cover of Men’s Health. But, as it turns out, being ridiculously good looking was about to get him into trouble; because while the boss was away, the boss’s wife wanted to play. She does her best to lure him into her bed. And even though he flatly refuses, she is not easily put off. Verse 10 tells us that she spoke to Joseph day after day. She just won’t let up, until eventually verse 11 says,
11One day he went into the house to attend to his duties, and none of the household servants was inside. 12She caught him by his cloak and said, “Come to bed with me!” But he left his cloak in her hand and ran out of the house.
Well, her allure has failed to work, so she changes tactics and simply jumps him. But that fails too. And at this point the old saying springs to mind... hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Potiphar’s wife calls in the other servants and tells them a vicious lie. Then, when her husband gets home, she repeats the story. And he gets mad. And Joseph – in spite of all his loyalty and his godly conduct – is thrown into prison.
What it means for God to be with someone
And the casual observer might look at him now and wonder whether God was in fact with him? If God was with him, wouldn’t he still be living the high life? That is how we’re tempted to think isn’t it! Someone who has a good life – lots of family, great friendships, a good job that easily pays the bills; someone who has good health into a ripe old age – that person has somehow found the sweet spot of God’s will. That person may look at their own life and think: somebody up there likes me!
But the person whose life is a string of tragedies – who always has a sad tale to tell – well, they don’t seem to have been stamped with God’s favour. It’s like the Old Testament character Job. His life was torn apart by calamity and heartbreak, and so his friends say to him: you must’ve done something pretty bad to be this far out of God’s good books!
And even we think like this don’t we? If you were to have a week full of troubles – let’s say the week begins with a meeting or an exam going absolutely pear-shaped. And then on Tuesday you have a big fall out with a dear friend; on Wednesday you discover that the company who you booked your expensive holiday through has gone bankrupt, and on Thursday your cat dies. If you were to have a week like that wouldn’t you be tempted to think: Gee... God, what have I done?
We might be tempted to think like that about Joseph – slumped in a prison cell for who-knows-how-long; all of his good things gone – perhaps God was gone too! But then we get that little phrase again – the Lord was with him, and again in verse 23, the Lord was with Joseph. And so we are forced to ask what it means for God to be with someone?
Certainly, as you wade through the Old Testament, it is not everyone that God is with. There are some, like Abraham, to whom God says, ‘I am with you’ and Joshua, and Gideon and Jeremiah. But none of those men suddenly start living trouble-free lives. Actually it’s quite the opposite. Abraham has to pack up his whole household and move to a place he’s never seen. Joshua and Gideon have to go to war. And Jeremiah, well, poor old Jeremiah has to publicly denounce the nations for being wicked. Life wasn’t about to get easier for any of those men.
But what they all gained was an assurance that God was on their side ...that he was for them. When God promises to be with someone he’s not guaranteeing them an easy life; no, he’s promising to have their back. He’s assuring them that he has favourable plans for them, and he’ll make those plans happen – by his own strength.
And if we need any more convincing of this, we need only look to the life of God’s own Son – pestered by opposition, ambushed by a mob, dragged before a murderous court, and sentenced to a gruesome death. As he hung on the cross – blood, sweat and excrement running down his body ...gasping for his next breath – do you suppose that people looked at Jesus and thought, ‘Wow, God must be with that man!’ No... they spat at him, and cursed him as someone unknown to God.
And yet we know that Jesus was favoured by God. At his baptism and again at the transfiguration God said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love!’ And in the book of Philippians we’re told it was because Jesus humbled himself and died on the cross that ...God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name... God was with Jesus. He was on his side, bringing about his plans, even though at times it did not look like it.
Now, I mentioned two weeks ago that you and I are not Joseph. God had a unique role for him to play and it’s not the role God has for us. And we can say with even more certainty that we are not Jesus. But the New Testament does ring out with the amazing news that God is with us. God the Son came to live in this world in the person of Jesus Christ. And before he returned to the Father he said to his followers, ‘Go and make disciples... and I will be with you till the end of the age.’
And now when someone turns to Christ – asking forgiveness for their sin – the Holy Spirit (the Spirit of Christ) comes to live in them. And so it’s with real excitement that we can say that God is with those who have turned their lives to Christ. God is with us. He is for us – you and me. He has got your back in this life. He has favourable plans for you which he will make happen ...not by your strength, but by his.
Now, we want to be clear on what that means, because some teachers and preachers, like the very famous Joel Osteen, will have you believe that God is promising you your best life now – a life of wealth and health and comfort. His wife, Victoria, has recently gone so far as to say that when we’re obeying God we’re not doing it for God, we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy.
This weekend I read an article about how many of the quotes that have been attributed to Winston Churchill were never in fact said by him. For example, it has always been told that Britain’s first female MP, Nancy Astor, said to Churchill, “If I were your wife I’d put poison in your coffee.” And he apparently replied, “Nancy, if I were your husband, I’d drink it.”
The thing is; he never said it. Probably those words were put in his mouth because someone wanted Churchill to have said it. It’s one thing to do that with Winston Churchill, but we must be very careful not do it with God. We must be very clear on what he actually promises. And as you read the New Testament what you find is the promise of a new life – starting now, but not being perfected until Jesus returns.
Looking ahead to that time the apostle Peter writes, ‘Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, so that at the proper time he may exalt you.’ There will come a day when we who have trusted in Christ will be exalted by God – it’s an amazing thought – but that day has not yet come.
Until then, Peter says, we follow in the earthly footsteps of Jesus. And what that means is that we will receive our share of suffering in this life; suffering for doing good. It’s not that we go looking for suffering, but that we get on with living a godly life; and as we do that, we can be sure that suffering will come. And doesn’t this story about Joseph teach us that very point?!
It’s not just a story about God being with Joseph. It is also an account of the godly example of Joseph. He will not go to bed with another man’s wife. And as he takes that stand he shows us how we ought to be living in a sexually depraved world. This passage could not be more relevant to our generation. This is our battle isn’t it! We live in an age where sexual temptation is at an all time high!
Never before have so many naked bodies been on display before us all the time – male and female bodies – on the internet, in magazines, on billboards, in movies. And each one beckons to us to come and lie with them. Can I ask you what you are doing about that barrage of temptation?
And it isn’t just sexual temptation, it’s sexual pressure. And that makes this story even more relevant to us today. Joseph was going to work every day with intense pressure to be in an ungodly relationship. And doesn’t our generation know how it feels to be pressured into having sex?!
From boyfriends or girlfriends ...from our peers, who think we are lame for being a virgin ...from society which tells us to be sexually liberal, to have as much sex as you can with as many people as you like. Whether you’ve realised it or not you are under pressure. So, the question is how are you holding up in this sexually steamy climate? We all need help, and tonight Joseph gives us both the right way to conduct ourselves and the right way to think. Firstly,
Does that describe you when it comes to sexual temptation?
The alternative is to flirt with it. We might think to ourselves, ‘This is harmless ...I’ll know when to pull out’ but when we do that we underestimate the power of sexual sin. And we underestimate our felt need for intimacy.
The trick is not to wait until you’re in the moment to figure out what to do. The trick is to work out now what to do...
...what to do about those parties that always end up with someone going home with someone else.
...what to do about your dating relationship which is getting more and more physical with every encounter.
...what to do about those porn sites that draw you in late at night.
You have to work out now what to do about that billboard you drive past every day – the one with the naked body beckoning you to come and lie with her/ or with him. You know exactly where it is on your route to work. But now is the time to work out what to do about it.
Will you flee temptation? Secondly,
When Potiphar’s wife first tries to entice him do you remember what Joseph said? He said, How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?”
He knew that sexual sin – like every other sin – is against God. Sexual sin doesn’t actually seem like it’s against anybody, because nobody’s getting hurt. But the consequences of sexual sin often surface at a much later date. They surface in the form of guilt, and distrust, and broken marriages.
But even worse than that, sexual sin hurts God. He has given us sex as a beautiful gift to enjoy in its right context. He has given it to us to handle with care. So, when we do with sex whatever we please, we are telling God, “Thanks for the gift, now get lost!”
Joseph knew that living for God meant bringing his sex-life in line with God’s ways. It is a radical way to live, but that is what God calls for from all believers. He calls us to live for him.
But when you do that, you will find yourself at odds with the world. You will find yourself on the pointy end of some barbed comments. You might become the joke of the class. You’ll probably be called old fashioned or narrow minded. You may find yourself being dumped by a boyfriend; or generally unfriended. In short, you will suffer.
But that suffering will not be an indication that God has deserted you. When you’re going through a struggle – whatever it is – you shouldn’t think that somehow God’s plans for you have been derailed. Actually you can know that it’s the opposite. Your suffering is evidence that God is working in you, preparing you for that day when he will exalt you. Charles Spurgeon wrote poetically about this. So let me close with his words. He says,
Dear believer, do you understand that God may take away your comforts and privileges in order to make you a stronger Christian? Do you see why the Lord always trains his soldiers not by allowing them to lie on beds of ease but by calling them to difficult marches and service?
He makes us wade through streams, swim across rivers, climb steep mountains, and walk many long marches carrying heavy backpacks of sorrow. This is how he develops soldiers – not by dressing them up in fine uniforms to strut at the gates of the barracks or to appear as handsome gentlemen to those who are strolling through the park.
No, God knows that soldiers can only be made in battle and are not developed in times of peace. We may be able to grow the raw materials of which soldiers are made, but turning them into true warriors requires the education brought about by the smell of gunpowder and by fighting in the midst of flying bullets and exploding bombs, not by living through pleasant and peaceful times.
So, dear Christian, could not this account for your situation? Is the Lord uncovering your gifts and causing them to grow? Is he developing in you the qualities of a soldier by shoving you into the heat of battle? Should you not then use every gift and weapon he has given you to become a conqueror?
Perhaps you feel as if you are in the heat of battle right now. Perhaps it is opposition from somewhere; perhaps it is some other struggle. The good news is that God is with you tonight. He has favourable plans for you. And he is working them out even now. It won’t be by your strength that you will get to the end – you may frequently feel very weak and defeated. But God’s strength will get you there. So keep on trusting him. Amen.