Presented on The Lutheran Hour on January 19, 2020
By Dr. Dean Nadasdy, Guest Speaker
Copyright 2020 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Genesis 40:1-23
In the Name of Jesus.
We are in Genesis 40 in our series of sermons on the book of Genesis. If you haven't noticed, about a quarter of the book of Genesis focuses on Joseph, the son of Jacob. More attention is given to Joseph than anyone else in the book except God, of course, who is the real mover and shaker in Genesis.
Many of us remember the story of Joseph, and there's a special irony to that because Joseph at the end of Genesis 40 is left forgotten in prison. So far in Genesis we have seen Joseph thrown in a pit by his brothers, then sold into slavery, then bought as a slave in Egypt. He then rises to a position of responsibility in the house of his mater Potiphar, captain of Pharaoh's palace guard. Joseph's story is one of many dramatic turns and just as many times of waiting in between when the outcome is uncertain.
In chapter 39 we watched Mrs. Potiphar unsuccessfully seduce Joseph and then falsely accuse him of rape. Potiphar sends Joseph to prison, where in chapter 40 he meets Pharaoh's chief cupbearer and chief baker. Both are in prison for having offended Pharaoh. Joseph shows kindness to them and asks why they are so downcast. We pick up the story in Genesis 40:8.
8 They said to him, "We have had dreams, and there is no one to interpret them." And Joseph said to them, "Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me."
9 So the chief cupbearer told his dream to Joseph and said to him, "In my dream there was a vine before me, 10 and on the vine there were three branches. As soon as it budded, its blossoms shot forth, and the clusters ripened into grapes. 11 Pharaoh's cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes and pressed them into Pharaoh's cup and placed the cup in Pharaoh's hand." 12 Then Joseph said to him, "This is its interpretation: the three branches are three days. 13 In three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your office, and you shall place Pharaoh's cup in his hand as formerly, when you were his cupbearer. 14 Only remember me, when it is well with you, and please do me the kindness to mention me to Pharaoh, and so get me out of this house. 15 For I was indeed stolen out of the land of the Hebrews, and here also I have done nothing that they should put me into the pit."
16 When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was favorable, he said to Joseph, "I also had a dream: there were three cake baskets on my head, 17 and in the uppermost basket there were all sorts of baked food for Pharaoh, but the birds were eating it out of the basket on my head." 18 And Joseph answered and said, "This is its interpretation: the three baskets are three days. 19 In three days Pharaoh will lift up your head—from you!—and hang you on a tree. And the birds will eat the flesh from you."
20 On the third day, which was Pharaoh's birthday, he made a feast for all his servants and lifted up the head of the chief cupbearer and the head of the chief baker among his servants. 21 He restored the chief cupbearer to his position, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh's hand. 22 But he hanged the chief baker, as Joseph had interpreted to them. 23 Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Please pray with me. O, Lord of the times in between and Lord of the future we cannot see, Lord of dreams and forgettings and remembrances, O Lord, when we are forgotten or cannot remember, then, Lord, just then, remember us. Amen.
Standing out in this chapter, almost as an afterthought, is verse 23. "Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him." How could he, this cupbearer, this chief butler to Pharaoh? Joseph had showed him amazing kindness. He had interpreted the cupbearer's dream with the good news that he would return to Pharaoh's service in just three days. And Joseph had asked the favor that the cupbearer simply remember him before Pharaoh. As Joseph put it, he had been kidnapped from his home and thrown unjustly into a pit and now it was the pits again, another unjust low point in his life. "Remember me," Joseph had asked, and the cupbearer? He forgot him. How long Joseph had already been imprisoned to this point we're not told, but it would be two years more before the chief cupbearer would finally actually remember him.
Joseph wanted to remember. Driving much of what we do, our productivity, our creativity, our service, driving all of that can be a deep desire to be remembered. In quiet moments perhaps we wonder, "In 100 years will anyone remember me? Will anyone know my name, how I lived, and how I loved, how I died?" Thomas Hardy's poem, "The To Be Forgotten" shows little sentimentality on the subject of living only to be forgotten. With stark realism, Hardy wrote:
"We here, as yet, each day / Are blest with dear recall; as yet, can say. We hold in some soul loved continuance / Of shape and voice and glance. But what has been will be — / First memory, then oblivion's swallowing sea; Like men (and women) foregone, shall we merge into those / Whose story no one knows."
Psychologists have a name for it, for this fear of being forgotten: athazagoraphobia. That's the word. Athazagoraphobia. I know, it's a mouthful, but just the fact they've named it says this is something many of us face—the fear of being forgotten.
One of the saddest things I have seen as a pastor comes as dementia steals away the memory of a loved one. A couple spends 30, 40, 50 years together and then comes this devastating moment when one looks into the other's eyes, and it's clear, there is no recognition. Lovers have become strangers. The joyful memories of falling in love, getting married, raising children together and seeing their grandchildren grow—they're gone. It hurts to be forgotten. To the one whose mind cannot remember the beloved, there is this fear of forgetting oneself, failing to remember who I am. Perhaps that's the greatest fear of forgetfulness, not remembering oneself: the worst form of identity theft.
So Joseph said to the cupbearer whose dream Joseph had interpreted with good news: "Remember me when it is well with you, and please do me the kindness to mention me to Pharaoh, and so get me out of this house." Yet, we're told, "The chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him."
It's one thing to be forgotten in 100 years or to be forgotten by someone whose ability to remember is gone. It's another thing, though, when you're in the midst of life, in a time of transition or uncertainty, and someone who can help you simply forgets you.
I think of Boucan Ferdinand a little remote village in southeastern Haiti that calls itself "the forgotten village." They lost their only road to a nearby Haitian village to the floods in 2004. Then in 2010 the hurricane hit and devastated the village. For almost a decade they have waited and waited for help, for food, for the rebuilt road, but no one has come. Many villagers have left for the Dominican Republic. Those that have stayed struggle against hunger and disease. They wait for relief; they wait to be remembered in their forgotten village.
It's waiting for a job and wondering if those interviews will be memorable. It's waiting in prison for a new trial. It's waiting for a promise of help to be kept. Why doesn't the phone ring? Have they forgotten me? Does anyone even know what this feels like? Where are my friends, the ones I thought cared?
So Joseph is left in prison for two more years, waiting and hoping that the cupbearer will remember him. You and I may know how the story will turn for Joseph, that the chief cupbearer will at last remember him when Pharaoh has a dream and needs an interpreter. We may know that Joseph will be recalled to interpret Pharaoh's dream, and almost in an instant he will not only be freed from prison but also elevated to prime minister status, second only to Pharaoh in Egypt. We may know that, but Joseph didn't, not while he was serving time with no sure end date. We know this is a transition to amazing success for him, but Joseph didn't.
There is much to admire in Joseph as he waited in prison to be remembered. Amazingly, even there he rose to leadership. He showed concern and kindness to his fellow prisoners, noticing how downcast they are. Though jailed unjustly, he had confidence in the Lord. When asked to interpret the dreams of the butler and baker, he said, "Do not interpretations belong to God?" In other words, if he would interpret their dreams, the interpretation would have to come from God. In his transition, Joseph didn't forget God.
But there is something else, even more important here than Joseph's relentless faith and strong character. We can see it as we track Joseph's life. Yes, this is Joseph's story, but even more this is God's story. God didn't forget Joseph. Joseph's time in prison and our stories of feeling forgotten must be placed into the greater story of a God who simply will not let us be forgotten. Repeatedly in the Joseph story in Genesis, we hear the phrase, "The Lord was with him." Think about it. Look back at your own life story. A look over your shoulder will see God at work, what you maybe couldn't see along the way. So it goes with the twists and turns of the Joseph story, Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers led to his landing in Egypt. His landing in Egypt led to his serving in Potiphar's house. Serving Potiphar led to his unjust imprisonment. That led to meeting the cupbearer and the baker and interpreting their dreams. Then two years of waiting in prison led to Joseph being called on to interpret Pharaoh's dreams, which led to his being elevated to prime minister of Egypt, which led to a reunion with his family: what God wanted all along. "The Lord was with him" all right. We can see it in our own stories in the look back, how it makes sense, how the times of feeling forgotten were not permanent but transitional, how God always remembered us.
Joseph's story reminds us that in times of in between, when we feel forgotten, the Lord is still with us. Children may forget to feed their pets, familiar faces and names may be forgotten by faltering memories, parents may forget their child waiting to be picked up at preschool, but God does not forget. God remembers. In Isaiah 49:15, God says, "Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you." The Bible is the good and grand story of God remembering His people. God remembers you. You are more than a memory to God, though; you are loved, you are forgiven, you are God's child never to be forgotten. To God, you are simply unforgettable!
You can believe that today because in the greater story there was another One like Joseph, falsely charged and arrested. His in-between time was full of suffering and painful dying. He was forsaken, left alone to die. "The wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). He took your sentence of death, for your sin and made it His own. He died in your place, never forgetting who He is and why He was there. Jesus died for you, forsaken but not forgotten, and not forgetting. He died, calling God, "Father."
Next to Jesus on another cross, a thief to His right was going through his own horrific transition. Facing his sin with repentance, he pleaded, "Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom." In faith, you ask that of Jesus, too: "Remember me." And He does. He has never forgotten you. A love so rich does not forget the one for whom it dies.
And three days later, God did not forget His Son. God raised Him to life. The prison doors swung open, and just there, right there, you and I are freed from sin, freed from death, and freed from the fear of being forgotten. Our names are written in the book of life. Your name. Say it right now, your name. That name is written like a reservation. You are unforgettable to God.
This greater story, the story to which all the stories of Genesis point, says that as we remember Jesus in faith, we are never forgotten. Ours is a faith of remembrance. "Do this in remembrance of Me," Jesus said. The whole Christian life of worship and witness is a matter of remembering Jesus Christ. And even should our memory fail, His grace will never forget us!
Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel in the prologue to his book, The Gates of the Forest, shares an old Jewish folk tale about failing memory. When the great Rabbi Israel saw misfortune threatening God's people, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate and pray. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished, and the misfortune avoided.
Years later, when his disciple, the celebrated Rabbi Magid, for the same reason, prayed for his people, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: "Master of the Universe, listen! I have forgotten how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer." And again the miracle would be accomplished.
Still more years later, Rabbi Moshe, when his people were threatened, would go into the forest and say: "I have forgotten how to light the fire. I have also forgotten the prayer, but I know the place, and this must be sufficient." It was sufficient, and the miracle was accomplished.
Then it fell many years later to another Rabbi Israel to address the misfortune of his people. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: "I have forgotten how to light the fire and I have forgotten the prayer. I cannot even find the place in the forest. But I do remember the story. I can tell the story, and this must be sufficient." And it was sufficient, and the miracle was accomplished.
As Elie Wiesel put it so well: "God made man because God loves stories."
God loves your story. At every turn in the plot and in every transition, God remembers you, just as God remembered Joseph, just as God remembered Jesus. In every prison, even in the prison of a faltering memory, the greater story of Jesus continues to be told. Your story is His story. God remembers us. We are unforgettable to God, and that makes all the difference.
A verse from Mary Louise Bringle's tender poem, "When Memory Fades," comes to mind, as we pray. "When memory fades, and recognition falters, when eyes we love grow dim and minds, confused, speak to our souls of love that never alters; speak to our hearts by pain and fear abused. O God of life and healing peace, empower us, with patient courage, by Your grace infused." Amen.
O God, our great Remembrancer, you know our faltering memories. When we feel forgotten, bring us that grace which remembers the greater story of your love. In the precious name of Jesus. Amen.
Reflections for January 19, 2020
Mike Zeigler: I have joining me today in the studio, Professor Joel Biermann. He teaches at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. He's the author of the books Wholly Citizens. That's whole, as in like all the way, completely, citizens.
Joel Biermann: Correct.
Mike Zeigler: And A Case for Character. Thanks for joining me Dr. Biermann.
Joel Biermann: Great to be here.
Mike Zeigler: Dr. Biermann, you have been my professor, and I actually have a paper here that you graded. It's about 12 years old now, and you can see there's lots of red at the end here. I got ...
Joel Biermann: Yeah, but none through the middle of it.
Mike Zeigler: That's right.
Joel Biermann: Which is really good, because that means your grammar is perfect.
Mike Zeigler: Okay, good. A couple of missed commas here. But my wife proof read all my papers, so she helped me with that.
Joel Biermann: Okay, all right.
Mike Zeigler: But you gave me an A- on this paper, and I got to tell you, 12 years ago, I was pretty heartbroken. But so the paper, the assignment was for us to construct a dialogue with a hypothetical Muslim. And we were supposed to explain the Christian view of God through the dialogue, and it was supposed to be faithful to the biblical understanding of God. And so in your comments on my paper, you said two things that stuck with me. The first was, "Too much, too fast." I think I was ready to try to baptize the Muslim after the first conversation. So, that was good advice, basically forgetting that these things take time to sink in sometimes. And the other one that really stuck with me was at the end you say, "Let the story lead." So why is that important for the Christian understanding of God?
Joel Biermann: The whole idea of let the story lead, simply means God has this wonderful narrative of the whole entire world. Basically, it's His story. It starts with creation. It starts before creation, when He envisions the whole thing and has it in mind, and has us in mind, and elects us for salvation before He even speaks a word of creation. And so then He creates with this wonderful plan and everything's unfolding according to His plan. And so to see this grand sweep of God's narrative story unfolding is kind of encouraging. Because then we begin to see ourselves fitting into that.
So when I used the phrase, "Let the story lead," the idea is, instead of trying to align up propositional truths to convince somebody of something, or trying to give really good rational arguments for why you should believe in God—which is kind of the intent of this paper—don't do that. Don't start with "Here are three bullet points. This is why you need to believe in a Christian God." No, you just let the story unfold. And when people see how God has been at work in this whole story, this whole process, and how Jesus is the culmination of it, you can't help but say, "Whoa, Jesus is what it's all about. He's the linchpin, everything hangs there." It's self-authenticating. It just, there it is!
Mike Zeigler: Yeah. It has its own persuasive power.
Joel Biermann: Exactly.
Mike Zeigler: That short propositions don't.
Joel Biermann: Exactly. And it does far better than we could ever do in trying to line up our reasons. And this is why I am a little hesitant about people who get all excited about apologetics. Yeah, they have their place, and I enjoy a good mental challenge as much as anybody. And I love a good argument as much as anybody. But ultimately the best apologetics is simply the story of Christ coming to redeem, resurrection, all the fulfillment. That's what convinces. That's the persuasive thing.
Mike Zeigler: So in his message that we just heard, Dr. Nadasdy said that Joseph's time in prison and our stories of feeling forgotten must be placed into the greater story of God, who will not let us be forgotten. What dangers are there for us if we fail to let the story lead, if we fail to tell the stories of the Bible?
Joel Biermann: The story of God, it has all these millions, literally millions now, billions of sub-stories in it, because every person's life is a part of that story. And these little sub-stories. And the value of knowing the biblical narratives, the stories of Adam and Eve and Gideon and Joseph. The value of learning these stories is they help us see the continuity of how God is at work, and we see ourselves so readily in these stories. I'm always reminded of my professor, Dr Hummel, he used to have his pat little phrases. One of them was, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." And he's told this all the time in class, and it's so true. People are the same. The situations we face are the same. The way we respond is the same. And so the biblical narratives help us to see our own selves and better understand what we're all about and what God is doing in us. And they just give us the right perspective to keep living the life that God gives us to live.
Mike Zeigler: It helps me see my life in the proper light.
Joel Biermann: Absolutely.
Mike Zeigler: Proper frame.
Joel Biermann: And I think it also gives us kind of a good dose of humility.
Mike Zeigler: For sure.
Joel Biermann: It's been done before, and you're not the first one to face this, and you're not the first one to come up with this kind of great idea. It's there before. Stanley Howerloss, another guy who's influenced me a lot, likes to say that when you have a new idea, it just means you forgot where you read it. And I think he's kind of right about that.
Mike Zeigler: So thinking about your other comment on my paper, "Too much, too fast." It reminds me of something else that you said that stuck with me and it's, "You can't say everything all at once." How does that fit in with this, as you described it, this narrative understanding of the Christian life, seeing that my life is just part of one of those many sub-narratives of the biblical story, the story of Jesus, of life with God and His creation? So how does that relate to this "too much, too fast" caution?
Joel Biermann: Yeah. Sometimes when we're working with people who are new to the faith, or have questions about God, and we get all excited because we're going to tell them everything we know, well, there's a lot to tell. And that's where you have to be a little patient and let the story unfold. And you talk about what needs to be talked about today. I used to get really frustrated and a little disappointed. Like boy, there's so much you need to know. But you don't have, we don't have time for this. And I've learned to be a little more content with, God will unfold what needs to be unfolded for the person. And we can be patient with that, and we can trust God's timing. And we tell them enough. We tell them what they need to hear.
Joel Biermann: Last night I was talking to somebody who needs to hear so much. But you just give them a little bit, you give them what they can handle. But it's all a part of God's story, and it all fits into that story. So that's where the too much, too soon, too fast. you don't need to give it all at once. Just be patient. And even when there is an inadequate understanding of something, that's okay, too. That will come with time. That will come with maturity.
Mike Zeigler: Very good. Thank you so much for joining me.
Joel Biermann: Yeah.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"The Only Son from Heaven" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)