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Stories for Children and Grown-ups: The Boy with a Colorful Coat

January 9, 2011

Sermon: Stories for Children and Grown-ups:  The Boy with a Colorful Coat
Text: Genesis 37:3-4

Recently, I crawled into a “tent,” which is a glorious way of describing a card table with a cloth draped over it, and read a Bible story to our grandson, Ben.  As I read, I realized that the story, written for a child, did not just have application to a child.  It also had application to me, an old codger.

I started thinking about some other stories I had read to my grandchildren.  When I told Clare that I would like to look at some Bible storybooks, she produced about eight or ten from our shelf in our parlor.  I was surprised that Clare still had the book from which her mother read Bible stories when Clare was just a little girl.  Even more surprising was the fact that Clare had the Bible storybook from which my mother read when I was a little boy.  I opened the front cover and saw my name written in my mother’s handwriting.  Many memories of these wonderful stories that we so often identify as children’s stories came flooding back to me.  These stories are for grownups, too.

You will hear some of our children reading several verses of Scripture each Sunday during this series entitled Stories for Children and Grownups.  Today, we come to the story of Joseph, “The Boy with a Colorful Coat.”  The Hebrew form of the name Joseph is Yossi.  The name of the rabbi who lives here in Spartanburg is Yossi.  His name is really Joseph.

I have told you before that the Chinese symbol for trouble is two women under one roof.  At the time of this story, Jacob, Joseph’s father, had eleven sons by two wives, Leah and Rachel.    The rivalry within this family was indigenous.  Though Leah had born Jacob nine sons, Jacob loved Rachel more.  She was the mother of Joseph and later Benjamin, with whom she would die in childbirth.

As this story begins, Joseph is Jacob’s favored child.  Jacob had expressed his favoritism by giving Joseph a beautiful, spectacular coat.  It is difficult to know the exact meaning of the Hebrew adjective used to describe this coat.  It could mean a long coat, a richly ornamented coat, or a multi-colored coat.  Regardless, the coat was elaborate and luxurious.  It symbolized the fact that Jacob favored Joseph, but it also had a deeper implication.  It meant that Joseph was not expected to work in the fields like his brothers.  The coat itself became an object of ridicule that created intense sibling rivalry.  Genesis 37 tells us that Joseph’s brothers hated him.  Poor Joseph.  Not so fast.

Joseph flaunted his coat with arrogance.  Knowing he was the favored child, he strutted around like a little Napoleon.   Several dreams, which he shared with his brothers, only increased the intensity of the deep sibling rivalry.  Joseph had the poor taste to tell his brothers about the dreams before breakfast.  Joseph told his brothers that he had dreamed they had gathered bundles of grain.  In his dream, their bundles had bowed down to the bundle of grain he had gathered.

A few days later, Joseph shared another dream:  the sun and the moon and eleven stars had bowed down to Joseph.  This dream angered the brothers and Jacob as well.  These dreams provoked further contention, and the older brothers began scheming against Joseph’s life.

Jesus’ earthly father, also named Joseph, comes across as a bit player in the Christmas story.  You can see as the story unfolds that he was a dreamer, too.  God spoke to him through his dreams.  God had a special place in this world for that Joseph, too.

One day, Jacob sent Joseph to check on his brothers in the Valley of Hebron toward Shechem.  I do not know why Jacob did this.  Surely he knew what was going on in his family.  When Joseph reached Shechem, the brothers were nowhere to be found.  A stranger, who saw him wandering around in a field, revealed that his brothers had gone to Dothan.  Joseph traveled in that direction in search of his brothers.

The brothers recognized Joseph and his coat approaching at a great distance.  “Here comes the dreamer,” they said.  “Let’s kill him.”

Reuben, the oldest son, intervened.  The oldest child is supposed to take more responsibility.  I was actually punished several times when my younger brothers got in trouble.  Whether parents assume that the oldest is to take more responsibility, the oldest child thinks he is in charge, even when that is not the case.  Reuben encouraged, “Let’s not kill him.  Let’s just throw him in an empty cistern and decide what to do with him later.”  The angry brothers agreed.  They removed Joseph’s coat and threw him in a cistern.

I believe Reuben wanted to set Joseph free.  While Reuben was away, however, the other brothers took over the responsibility of choosing Joseph’s fate.  They saw a passing caravan, which actually consisted of their grandfather’s half-brother’s grandchildren.  These men were Ishmaelites, something like third or fourth cousins once or twice removed, whatever that means.  Maybe a better way to understand it is that they were distant kinfolks.  You remember the story of Ishmael and Isaac.  Bad blood already existed between them and the sons of Jacob.  That conflict continues to this very day.

These brothers decided to sell their younger brother into slavery.  The Ishmaelites were glad to have Joseph.  It would not hurt their cause one bit to have a slave to sell when they reached their destination of Egypt.

Before the brothers returned home, they covered Joseph’s lavish coat with goat’s blood.  They showed it to Jacob, explaining that a wild beast had torn his son to pieces and shredded his coat.  The Bible says that Jacob cried for many days because his son, he thought, had been killed.  Down in Egypt, however, Joseph had been sold into slavery to a man named Potiphar.  Poor Joseph.  Not so fast.

Somewhere along the line in this experience, Joseph got his comeuppance.  I do not know whether it was while he was in the bottom of the pit, while he was riding a camel across the desert, or while he was standing on that block to be sold.  At some point, Joseph realized that a good bit of his trouble had been of his own making.  He assumed responsibility for the way he had provoked his brothers.  It was as if he had taken the Dale Carnegie course and learned how to win friends and influence people.  He learned a way of relating to people that was different from the way he had communicated with his brothers and even with his father.

Joseph could see that in his new position as slave, he would have to work hard.  As he worked, he became beloved and trusted.  He gained the confidence and trust of Potiphar, his owner.  Within a short time, Potiphar made him the head of the entire household.  Joseph was up to that challenge.

In his Dale Carnegie course, Joseph did not learn how to resist an aggressive woman, at least how to resist in a tactful way.  Potiphar’s wife was a lonely, aggressive woman.  When she set her eyes on something, she had to have it.  The Bible says that she fixed her gaze on Joseph and decided in her heart that she was going to have him.  She put her intentions on that effort and tried repeatedly to seduce Joseph, who was young, strong, and handsome.

Joseph resisted.  Common sense told him that having an affair with Potiphar’s wife would not be a good idea.  More importantly, he knew this relationship was a violation of God’s law.  He tried to have nothing to do with this woman.  As you know, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.  In a time when Joseph was alone with her, Potiphar’s wife grabbed him by the coat.  He pulled away, leaving the coat in her hands, which she used against him as Exhibit A.  This fellow’s clothes got him in trouble time and time again.

When Potiphar returned home, she said, “Look what that Hebrew slave has done!  He tried to have his way with me, make sport of me.”  The Scripture said that Potiphar, who burned with anger, reacted in an unusual way.  He could have had Joseph put to death on the spot.  He could have had Joseph thrown into an ordinary prison.  He did neither.  Instead, Potiphar had him jailed in the king’s prison.  It is as if Potiphar knew that whatever hanky-panky had gone on, his wife had about as much to do with it as Joseph did.  Maybe he was a little suspicious of his wife.  Maybe she had been up to these antics before.  Potiphar went easy on Joseph by throwing him into the king’s prison when he could have done much worse.  Poor Joseph.  Not so fast.  Joseph has a way of rising to the top.

Pharaoh must have had a quick temper.  He was quick to blame servants that did not suit him.  In the same prison with Joseph were the king’s cupbearer and baker.  After a while, these two men had dreams.  They did not know what the dreams meant, so Joseph served as interpreter.  The cupbearer received good news.  He was going to be restored to his previous position.  The baker, however, received bad news.  He was going to be executed.  That is exactly what happened.

Before the cupbearer left prison, Joseph told him, “Listen.  Do not forget me.  When you go back to work for Pharaoh, remember me.”  No sooner had the cupbearer been released than he forget all about Joseph.  Poor Joseph.  Not so fast.

One day, Pharaoh had a dream that was very disturbing to him, one he could not interpret.  He called everyone in the court to interpret the dream, but no one was able to do that.  It was then that the cupbearer remembered Joseph.  He offered, “I knew this guy in prison who interpreted dreams.  He was right on!  You ought to call him and see if he can interpret your dream.”

The Pharaoh sent for Joseph.  He explained, “I had this crazy dream about seven fat cows and seven really skinny cows.  The skinny cows ate up the fat cows.  What do you think that means?”

Joseph answered, “Your dream means that we are going to have seven years of prosperity followed by seven years of famine.  If we are not prepared, the famine will completely wipe out all the prosperity of this kingdom.  During the years of prosperity, we must get ready for the famine that is to come.  Times are going to get hard.  We must save up for the future.”

Needing a special man to see that this plan was carried out, Pharaoh appointed Joseph as secretary of agriculture for the entire land of Egypt.  Joseph prepared the kingdom for what was to come.  During those first seven years of prosperity, Joseph stored up a surplus of grain.  When the seven years of famine came, food was available not only for the people in Egypt but also for people in the surrounding countries.

One day Joseph looked up and recognized his own brothers standing before him.  They had traveled to Egypt to purchase food.  Joseph chose not to reveal his identity at this time, and the brothers did not recognize him.  He had probably shaved his head, which the customary practice of high officials.  He also probably wore clothing that was not like anything the Israelites had seen.  Joseph made sure that his brothers got plenty of grain.  He made sure that the money they paid for the grain was secretly returned to them.  He also made sure they would return.  When they were about to leave, Joseph said, “I want you to bring your younger brother back.  I will keep your brother Simeon here until you do as I say.”

When Jacob learned of the request, he feared that he had lost Simeon.  He did not want Benjamin, his youngest son, to go, but in time relented because their grain supply was gone.   When the brothers returned to Egypt, Joseph gave them a big meal, placing Benjamin in the seat of honor.

When the brothers were ready to leave, Joseph’s assistants searched their saddlebags and found Joseph’s silver cup in Benjamin’s bag.  Joseph said, “He is a thief!  I am going to keep him here.”

The brothers, very upset, cried, “You cannot do that to us!  Our father will die if you keep Benjamin.  Our father will not live.  He will lose all hope.”

Joseph was so moved by his brothers’ remarks that he finally broke down, weeping.  He then revealed the secret of his identity, embracing them and making them promise that they would return to Egypt with Jacob.

When father and son were reunited, Jacob said, “My son, I can now die in peace for I have seen your face again.”  That is pretty much what happened.

After Jacob’s death, the brothers were worried about what punishment they might receive from Joseph.  The law in the ancient Middle East was called Lex talionis, the law of the talon.  The law said, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life.  You hurt me, I get to hurt you.”  The law was actually intended to keep conflict from escalating.  “If you put out one of my eyes, the most I can do is put out one of yours.  If you cut off my hand, the most I can do is cut off one of your hands.”  The brothers had hurt Joseph, and they were sure he would seek retribution.  Would he act like a mafia godfather and get his revenge?

Joseph made possibly the most important statement in the entire book of Genesis to his brothers: “You meant this for evil, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:21).  What an attitude!  He could have had his revenge, but he offered forgiveness instead.  This story about Joseph and his family is not just for children.  This story offers a lesson for grownups, too.

I read a lot of children’s stories now.  Kids get locked in on a favorite book.  They want to hear it over and over and over again.  How many times have I read Goodnight, Moon recently!  Our oldest son, Mike, had a favorite book, Watty Piper’s The Little Engine that Could.  Mike got locked in on that book, and I read it over and over and over.  Sometimes I tried to skip pages because I was so tired of it.  Mike would not let me skip a page.  He told me, “No, Daddy!  No, Daddy!”

The Little Engine that Could is about a little engine that thought he might be able to do what all the other engines in the roundhouse said they could not do.  Much bigger engines would not even attempt the task of pulling a train over the mountain.  That little engine became hooked to that long train.  Repeating, “I think I can.  I think I can.  I think I can,” he successfully pulled that train over the mountain.  This story is really about the American dream:  If you try hard enough, you can accomplish anything.  More than that, the story is about a person – or train, anthropomorphically speaking – who does not quit.

The Little Engine that Could is the story of Joseph.  Down and out, Joseph rises.  Down and out, he rises again.   Down and out, he rises again, just like cream rising to the top.  That story is for children, but it is for adults, as well.

From childhood, Bob May was different.  He never seemed to fit in with others.  Small for his size, he was too little to compete in sports.  Other boys bullied him, often calling him names he did not want to remember.  One year when Bob was an adult, he was depressed and broken-hearted because his wife had died of cancer.  His little four-year-old daughter was crying at Christmastime, wondering why her mother could not be with them.

Bob wanted to give his child a present for Christmas.  Because he did not have any money, he decided to write an autobiographical story as a present.  Bob wrote a story about an unusual reindeer.  Like himself, this reindeer, which Bob named Rudolph, was different.  Rudolph was an outcast because he had a red nose.  Other reindeer bullied him and would not let him play reindeer games.  By the end of the story, Rudolph had become admired and respected.

Bob’s brother-in-law, a fellow named Larry Marks, put the story to song.  Both Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore received offers to record it, but they both turned the offer down.  Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, accepted the offer to record Bob’s story, “Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer.”  Montgomery Ward, where Bob worked, had the book printed.  They then gave it to their best customers.  When the book was put it on sale, it sold six million copies in the first year.  The CEO of Montgomery Ward gave Bob all the royalty rights.  That one little story turned Bob’s life around.  This story about a reindeer who found his place is also the story of Joseph in some ways.

What do we learn from this boy with a colorful coat?  What do we learn as grownups from a story that we think of as a children’s story?  First, God has a plan for every life – for yours, for mine, for Joseph’s, for Bob May’s.  Jeremiah 29:11 says, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘plans to do you good and not hard, plans to give you hope and a future.’”

Second, we learn that life is hard for everyone.  No one gets an exemption.  Everybody has their ups and downs.  You see in the life of Joseph that he keeps getting knocked down, but he gets right back up.  Everybody has hard times in their life, but God has a way of using those for good, Scripture tells us in Romans 8:28:  “God works all things together for good for those who love him and who are called according to his purpose.”  Like cream rising to the top, people of faith keep struggling to overcome:  “I think I can.  I think I can.”  God is absolutely faithful.  God is able to make a way where there seems to be no way.  We say God is able every single time.

Third, we all need someone who believes in us.  Jacob, Potiphar, and Pharaoh all believed in Joseph.  We have a God who believes in us.  He loves us so much that He sent his Son into this world to tell us how special we are.  His love is better than a coat.

Fourth, if someone has hurt you, forgive them.  Give up harboring bitterness.  Release the bitterness.  Holding a grudge will not help.  Let Joseph be your example:  “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”  We are able to give other people forgiveness because we have been forgiven by the Lord Jesus Christ who died on the cross to save us from our sins.

Do you believe that?  Do you believe that Christ Jesus gave his life for you?  If you have never accepted him as your Savior, this is the day.  We invite you to make that decision.  You know what the Lord has laid on your heart.

Kirk H. Neely
© January 2011

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