By Pastor Emmanuel Akatukunda
Genesis 39:2. The LORD was with Joseph so that he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master.
There are many things that I find surprising about God. This is not unexpected since He is God—infinitely wise and free—and I am a finite human being. I always find it intriguing that His presence is in unlikely spaces. Today’s sermon idea came as I was recently sharing with a friend who is going through a transition in life and ministry. He feels that the next step he is about to take is less than ideal but it is something he has to do. As we went on with our conversation, I realized that God is also present in less than ideal situations.
I am reminded of the story of Joseph the son of Jacob. I think that for many Christians, we have a romanticized version of Joseph’s story. We easily gross over his pain and struggles because we know how the story ends; and it ends very well. We forget that it is a story of a teenager who was abducted by his own brothers and trafficked abroad as a slave. We forget that it is a story of a young man whose young adult life was wasted—something that had nothing to do with himself. For close to thirteen years he went from misfortune to misfortune; from betrayal to betrayal. Life could not have gotten any worse. I guess he was wondering what had become of his childhood dreams of greatness as he was sold and resold to different slave masters and finally landed in prison for a crime he never committed.
There is no single incident whereby God appears and speaks to him the way he did to his patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God seems to be absent or at least silent throughout this horrific drama. Perhaps He is watching from a safe distance, unbothered by what is going on in the life of this poor young soul. Yet God is not absent. He might seem to be silent but He is actively involved in Joseph’s life. Twice, we are reminded that God was with him.
Genesis 39:1-2. 1 Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. Potiphar, an Egyptian who was one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him there. 2 The LORD was with Joseph so that he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master.
Again, in Genesis 39:20-21 we read, 20 Joseph’s master took him and put him in prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined. But while Joseph was there in the prison, 21 the LORD was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden.
He might have been a slave, but God was with Him. He might have been in the cruelest of prisons, but God was him. God was with him, suffering along with him, sustaining him, watching over him, guiding him and causing Him to be successful in whatever Joseph did.
If there is anything that the Covid-19 pandemic has done, it is to expose our vulnerabilities. It has pushed many of us to the edge of the cliff—whether it is financially, emotionally, relationally or even spiritually. Like Joseph, we find ourselves wondering whether we will ever come out of this in one piece. Joseph’s words to a fellow prisoner resonate with many of us: “I was forcibly carried off from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing to deserve being put in a dungeon” (Genesis 40:15). I can hear many people say, “I don’t deserve to be here. How will I ever get out of this situation? Where is God in all this? Does God even care?” Let me say that these are all legitimate questions. God is never embarrassed by our honest questions.
I am reminded of an experience that I went through many years ago. One day I left home and traveled hundreds of miles to Kampala City. I was supposed to join college but there were a number of things that were not yet lined up. I actually left home before I secured an admission to college. Also, I did not have any contacts in Kampala. I had not made any arrangements about where or with whom I would stay. There were no mobile phones then. As you can tell, this was a reckless move at the very least.
Reaching Kampala bus terminal, I did not know what to do next. I was basically stranded. Not knowing where to go next, I kept roaming about the city with my small bag I came with. Thank God Kampala was not as congested and disorganized as it is now. But time was not in my favor. As it approached evening time I started to panic. I prayed a short prayer asking God to help me. A few steps further I randomly saw a dirty piece of paper that had been trodden on by the passersby. Somehow, I was moved to pick it up. It turned out to be a Christian newsletter. In it was an article with the title “do not let go of the rope ” or something close to that. Basically, the message was about not losing hope no matter how desperate the situation you are going through seems to be. I knew that God was speaking to me through that article in a dirty, torn and abandoned newsletter. God was with me in this unlikely space. The hours, days and weeks that passed proved that. God opened doors for me that I could never have imagined. I was able to find a very kind and generous host, I was enrolled in college and as they say the rest is history. The situation was undesirable. Looking back, I could have made mistakes. But God never abandoned me.
If there is anything we can learn from Joseph’s story, it is that God is always with us no matter where we find ourselves. He may not be the cause of our circumstances but He is the God who suffers along with us. He is not an impotent God—as though He cannot help us out of our circumstances. But He sometimes allows some things to happen for a greater good. We can now appreciate Joseph’s story because we know how it ends. Remember that Joseph was in the story. He did not have the privilege that we have to know that it would end well. While he was in that deathly dungeon, He probably thought that his dreams of greatness were now dead. But God was with Him.
When God is with you, He causes you to bloom where you have been planted regardless of whether you are a slave in a foreign master’s house, a prisoner in a cruel dungeon, living in one of the dangerous slums in your city, or going through times of depression. God is with you. The flourishing that the presence of God brings about may not be like what the world expects. It may come as unexplainable peace in your heart, unexpected provision, the grace to endure the pressures of life or the wisdom to navigate the complex circumstances you encounter.
I think one of the acts in history that best describes how God comes into unlikely spaces is the incarnation. In Jesus Christ, God became human and shared in our humanity. When Jesus was born under the most ordinary and lowly circumstances, God did express His heart for the unlikely—especially people on the margins. God became a suffering God. God, the Immanuel, the God who is with us is a suffering God. He is the God of the underdogs. He is the God of those on the margins. He is with those who feel rejected, abandoned, invisible and edged out by the powerful and privileged. God is with you, to help and sustain you. Do not let go of the rope.