Half Empty or Half Full?
(Based on a Recent Sermon at Sardis Presbyterian Church*)
Genesis 45:1-8; 50:15-20/John 1:5
What describes you – half empty or half full? Do you tend toward pessimism or optimism? Do you think of yourself as someone who sees problems or possibilities?
The Old Testament story of Joseph seems to lean in the ‘half-full’ category. Joseph practically emerges as the “poster boy” for living life with a half-full perspective. Much of Joseph’s story is anything but sweetness and light, including his dysfunctional family life. He grew up in a household with rivalry and contention. His brothers had no appreciation for him and probably very little for each other. Joseph’s father seemed to fan the flames by giving Joseph special gifts. Joseph himself inflamed the situation by telling his brothers of his dreams suggesting a future of greatness for him. All this worked to fill the brothers with envy and a desire to do away with Joseph as they concocted a devious plot. First, they threw him into a pit and then sold him as a slave to a caravan of Ishmalites traveling into Egypt, telling their father that Joseph was killed by a wild beast. No one was a winner after this deception: the father was overwhelmed with grief and the brothers experienced troubled marriages and other turmoil. Once in Egypt, Joseph was imprisoned after being unjustly accused of adultery.
Almost nothing had gone well with most of Joseph’s relationships, and if anyone had a right to be in a position to expect the worst, it was Joseph. But he didn’t expect the worst. He kept using a present that we come to realize was a God-given gift of dream interpretation – a gift that came to the attention of the Pharaoh. And, after Joseph was able to interpret the Pharaoh’s troubling dreams, he was released from prison and advanced to a position of great power. He predicted and helped plan for the famine which was to afflict the land, and then stood in the place of authority for aiding famine victims. Finally, Joseph has orchestrated events to reveal his identity to his brothers, who have come to Egypt for famine relief. When Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers they were filled with alarm, given their past treatment of this now powerful man. Joseph responded to their fear with the resounding affirmation: “Do not be distressed…because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.” Joseph had to reassure his brothers a second time, after their father has died. They were fearful that with Jacob dead, Joseph would exact revenge. But, he says again says, “Do not be afraid…even though you intended to do harm to me. God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”
If you are a half-full kind of person, the story of Joseph might be the vindication of your world view. If you are a ‘half-empty’ person this story may seem like a fairy tale for people who don’t seem to be payattention to what is happening in the world. While the story of Joseph might lean in the ‘half full’ direction, the story is far more than a confirmation that everything will end up as a simplistic interpretation that everything will just “work itself out” in the end.
It would be easy to say this passage means everything that happens is God’s will. Some might say it was God’s will that Joseph was kidnapped and nearly killed — or that it is God’s will that children die, famine plagues the land and people live in poverty.
But when we look at this passage, Joseph’s story it is the very opposite position. It tells us that everything that happens is not the will of God. There are events and deeds that are absolutely counter to God’s will, but this story affirms that despite what happens, God is never defeated. He remains with us and his sovereign purpose will find its way through and beyond any darkness. The word here that pushes the “half full” among us is that Joseph did not sit back with folded hands cheerily piping, “It will all work out, it’s all good…” No, Joseph got to work. Remember his words to his brothers: “Do not be distressed… because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.”
*Note: Special thanks to Pastor Jane Fobel, who used a longer version of this story as a recent sermon based on my positive approach to life. If you’re interested in the full sermon, let me know and I will send it to you.