Genesis 40:1-23 & Philippians 2:5-11

Ups and Downs

One of the most well known songs from the musical “Joseph and the amazing technicolour dream coat” is “Any dream will do.” Don’t worry, I’m not about to burst into song. It is usually sung at the beginning and end of the performance, as a frame for the story. Poignantly it sketches Joseph’s fall from grace, his uncertainty about what he thought he knew, and concludes that any dream will do. This evening, we’re continuing our series looking at Joseph’s story, that fall from grace, and the dreams along the way. But I think that I would like to suggest that in the Biblical story Joseph didn’t end up in a place of “any dream will do”, and neither do we.

We first meet him as a favoured and perhaps spoilt youngest son, with dreams of greatness – one step up.
Then his brothers attack him, stick him in a well and arrange for him to be transported to a foreign land in slavery – two steps down. He’s purchased by Potiphar, proves his worth and is entrusted with more and more of the household affairs – one step up. He’s preyed on by Mrs Potiphar, and when he refuses to lie with her, is falsely accused of rape and thrown into prison – two steps down. But, in prison, God is with him and he prospers again, he finds favour in the eyes of the warder and is entrusted with the charge of those in the prison – one step up. And so, we come to this evening’s reading, does the pattern continue?

Well, the descent of the cupbearer and the baker has not been back and forth at all, it has been direct and dramatic. From serving at the king’s side and at his table one day to the depths of his dungeon the next. Now, as Barney noted last week, it is the court dungeon, so it’s not entirely without creature comforts – they still have a servant to look after them, in this case Joseph. But they still don’t sleep well, they are downcast in the morning as they have been disturbed by dreams during the night. Joseph sees this, and asks what’s wrong. When they explain, Joseph, who has never been short of confidence, either in God or himself, offers to interpret what they’ve experienced.

So, they share their dreams of scenes beloved of Sunday school teachers and church drama teams everywhere.

The cupbearer, having gone first, receives a favourable interpretation. Joseph shares his story with him, and asks him to remember him when he is restored. Joseph has been shown something by God that is going to happen, and believes it enough to ask the person involved to do something when it has come about. Joseph can see a possibility of another step back up and asks for help in achieving it.

The baker, seeing this, is eager to share his dream, but the interpretation of this one is gruesome. Joseph doesn’t pull his punches though, doesn’t sweeten the pill – he shares what he’s been shown by God faithfully. Joseph has been given a glimpse of the future, and he believes it. He doesn’t bother asking the baker to help him out – he knows that the baker will never be in a position to do so.

This whole thing about dreams and their interpretation in Joseph’s story can be quite a challenge for us to get our heads around. So, let’s take a bit of a diversion to think about the three key dream sequences in the story.

The first occurs early on when Joseph has two dreams – one about sheaves of corn gathered by his brothers bowing down to the one that he had gathered and one about the sun, moon and eleven stars bowing down to him. In this case we’re only given the dreams, the interpretation isn’t given, but it’s clear from the reaction of his family that they didn’t need a special gift of interpretation to tell that these dreams suggested that Joseph would end up in a position where his family, including his father would bow down to him. There is no indication in the text that these were dreams sent from Go, but their inclusion at the beginning of the story implies that the following events are to be understood as a working out of how these, possibly prophetic, dreams came to be fulfilled.

The second set of dreams are the ones we’ve read today. In this case the meanings are obscure, and Joseph is given the interpretation, this time God is explicitly credited as the one who gives the interpretation of dreams, and by implication knowledge of the future.

The third set of dreams are in the next chapter, and again there are two dreams. This time, dreamed by the Pharaoh of seven thin ears of corn swallowing seven fat ears and seven bony cows consuming seven healthy cows. Again, Joseph is called on to interpret, and is even more explicit in pointing towards God as the interpretor of dreams. “I cannot do it, but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires” says Joseph.

A couple of things occur to me. Firstly, Joseph has been living a long time in the hope of the original dreams. Ever since then, the general direction of travel has been away from their fulfilment, and yet he has retained his trust in God. Since then God has given him glimpses into the future of others, but no further communication about his own future. He is living in the hope of a dream, whilst being called on to serve others in interpreting theirs. Secondly, God gave his man the gift of being able to discern the shape of the future in the dreams of others, but this is not a gift under Joseph’s control. He cannot pick whose future he sees or when, he is entirely dependent on God, and what God reveals and when.

What does this mean for us today? Well, I believe that God does speak to people through dreams still. I can’t say it’s happened to me, but I know that it has to my wife, Liz. It doesn’t seem to happen very often, but then it only happens three times in the whole of Joseph’s life, and only once to him. I believe that the interpretation of these dreams is in God’s gift alone. Modern psychology does give some insights into how our brain functions at night, and there are some common dreams, such as anxiety dreams, which are clearly linked to what is going on in our lives at a particular time. However, dreams that we think might be communicating something from God need to be brought to him in prayer, to the community of faith, and to the touchstone of scripture for discernment and testing. Some will be for the individuals, as in the case of the baker and the cup bearer, and some for the wider community, such as the ones that Pharaoh received.

Anyway, back to our main theme. Joseph is still in prison, has shared the interpretations of the dreams, and in the upcoming freedom of the cupbearer can see a possibility of another step up for him. At first it’s all looking promising. As predicted, the cupbearer is restored to his position, and the baker comes to a sticky end. Surely this is Joseph’s route out of imprisonment.

“The chief cupbearer, however did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.”

Hopes dashed, I suspect it felt a lot like two steps down. We know, because we’ve read the rest of the story, that this is the lowest point that Joseph reaches, that it is all up and back to the light from here, higher than he’s ever been before, but Joseph doesn’t know that. He might be holding on to the memory of those early dreams, but the reality is that it’s been down hill all the way. He’s in prison, in a strange land, forgotten.

When I was preparing for this evening, I looked at the readings that had been set and realised that we didn’t have a gospel reading, which strictly speaking we should at a communion service. I thought I was going to have to replace the second reading, but then I looked at what it was, and I thought, if that isn’t a gospel reading in the fullest sense, then I don’t know what is.

There are many riches in to be mined from these verses, but for me, this week, the resonances with Joseph’s story are the ones ringing out. The subtle hint of the three days of imprisonment for the baker and the cupbearer. The echoes of Joseph’s descent in Jesus’ submission to humiliation and death. The sustaining visions of future glory that kept both men focussed on God and trusting in God’s will and purpose through all the trials.

Joseph’s story may have been told first, but it is Jesus’ story that is the defining one. It is Jesus’ descent to the depths and ascending to glory that underpins and enables that turn for all other stories, both Joseph’s and ours.

I don’t know where you are in your story today. Whether it feels like you are on your way up or on your way down. If you feel like you are pretty much at rock bottom, or if you’re singing on the clouds of glory. Where ever you are in your story, Jesus has lived it too, and is with you now by the Holy Spirit. Joseph had a very particular vision of the future that he was looking forward to. You might have something similar. It might feel like it’s been a long time coming, and you can’t see how it’s going to be fulfilled. Keep your focus on God, and continue to trust God. It may still be on its way, or it may be that God has something else for you.

For all Christians, we have the promise of a glorious future with God, forever in the eternal Kingdom. However dark the deeps are today, and I don’t doubt that they can feel very dark, the promise is one of hope and light. And this is not a case of “any dream will do”, this is a case of a specific vision of the future that has been promised to us, and that we can hold on to. As Paul writes in the letter to the church in Rome, “ I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”

And as the Psalmist writes, “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing … Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me … surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

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