JANUARY 18, 2009

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            For a number of years I used to go on a silent retreat to Mount Michael in Elkhorn just west and a little north of Omaha.  Most of us know Mount Michael as a Benedictine high school, but it also has a monastery with roughly thirty monks in residence.   In the fast pace of life, I found the monastery at Mount Michael to be a quiet place for reflection, silence and prayer, especially on the weekends when the students were gone.  I also went there because the spirituality of the Benedictine monks’ intrigued me.

            I would never become a monk, no way, but there is something about their commitments and lifestyle that would set me to thinking and those thoughts were somewhat contradictory.  On the one hand their lifestyle challenged me to a consider a more serious kind of discipleship, and on the other hand, after spending time with them I wound up wondering if they have the same kind of blood flowing through their veins?

            In case you were not aware, a Benedictine monk makes four vows.  Three are common to most, if not all Roman Catholic religious orders: the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.  In other words, they promise to abstain from money, sex and power.  In addition to those three vows, however, a Benedictine monk takes another, the vow of stability, that is, they commit to live at Mount Michael for the rest of their lives.

            I mention all this today because it seems to me we run the risk of viewing Joseph’s behavior here, particularly his strong stand against temptation, as being as foreign to our experience as that of the monks living at Mount Michael.  When it comes to temptation most of us identify Oscar Wilde rather than Joseph.  Remember Wildes words?  “I can resist everything but temptation!”  We run the risk of reading this story, becoming impressed by Joseph’s behavior but also secretly thinking to ourselves, “I could never be that strong.  Such strength and commitment are only possible for a special few, not for an everyday, normal person like me.”

            After all, yielding to temptation is very normal.  Everyone, except for Christ, has  yielded to it and that includes some the heavyweights of the Bible like Moses, and David, and Noah, and the Apostle Paul.  Before us today, however, is a sterling example of a person who resisted temptation’s alluring and persistent offer.  Although he could have enjoyed its warm embrace, although he could have inhaled its heady perfume, he staunchly refused to give into it. 

            And my hope for today is we will see Joseph as one of us, not like some strange alien life force.  I hope we will l look to him as someone like us, someone with whom we can identify and relate, and in seeing him in that way leave here believing we too can stand strong in the face of temptation, in whatever form it may take in our lives.  And believe me, we live with temptation daily.  It comes to us in all sorts of forms, with all sorts of faces.  Some of it obvious like a nice big piece of chocolate fudge, and some not so obvious like the temptation to settle for niceness instead of holiness.  So, let’s take a closer look at our friend Joseph, what’s he’s been up to since saw him last, and what we can learn from his example.

            As we turn to this story today, I want to begin by saying that two things are conspicuous by their absence.  One, is the time.  We have no idea how long Joseph has lived in Potiphar’s home.  Therefore, we have no idea how much time has passed since we left Joseph two chapters ago, after his brothers sold him into slavery.  For someone like me, who feels that time is very important, beginning on time and ending on time, and never being late, for someone like me for whom time is very important, this omission disappoints me.  As a result, we have no idea how old Joseph happens to be at this point.  All we know is Joseph was in his late teens when his brothers sold him into slavery.  How old he is now, we can only guess.  If I had to venture a guess, I would say that he is in his early or mid-twenties at this point.

            The other thing missing is the author says nothing about the adjustments Joseph had to make after coming to Egypt from Canaan.  If you have been here one of the past couple of Sundays, you know that Joseph came from a rather protected and honored position in his family home.  He was the product of an aging and doting father.  He was the favored son who lounged around in a “life of leisure” coat, a special gift from his father, and the only brother in the household to be so honored.  And from this environment he was dumped into a pit and sold into slavery, yet we hear nothing of the adjustments Joseph had to make in going from pampered son to slave.  Nothing.  Zip.  If I had written the story, I would have included that information.  I would have related something about Joseph’s internal struggle.  I would have told about what was happening in his gut, his feelings toward his brothers, his thoughts during this crisis time in his life, but the author of Genesis did not include any of this.  Instead, we skip over all and find that Joseph is now the apple of God’s eye and the apple of his employer’s eye.

            Even with those two omissions, however, this is still a great story filled with drama and intrigue and heroes and villains and temptations and lust and injustice and courage, and imagine the scene.

            Our hero, Joseph, has two things going for him makes him very appealing to his master’s wife.  First, he was very good at what he did.  Listen to this, verse 3.


            His master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hands.  So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him; he made his overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had.


            Joseph, due his success, also found favor with Potiphar’s wife.  We still see that today.  We often see a very attractive woman on the arm of a very ordinary looking man, and what’s the attraction.  He is successful at what he does.  Success and achievement often is an aphrodisiac.

            The other thing Joseph has going for him was his looks.  He was not an ordinary looking man.  Note the middle of verse 6.


            Now Joseph was handsome and good-looking.  And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph.


            Any of you ever happen to buy People magazine’s top 100 sexiest men in the world?  Who’s number one this year.  Hugh Jackman?  Who have won in previous years?  Matt Damon, Matthew McConaughey George Clooney.  Brad Pitt.  Well, if there were such a list in the Bible, Joseph would have been on the list, and likely in the top ten of the sexiest men in the Bible.  He was drop dead gorgeous, a “hunk-a-hunk of burning love.”  He would have been right there with King Saul, King David and Samson.  Furthermore, not only was he handsome and well-built, but also, he probably worked around the house wearing one of those outfits we see in Egyptian hieroglyphics, with the short kilt and no shirt.  That would have been normal dress for working hours in such a hot climate, and such attire turned up Potiphar’s wife’s thermostat, and she set her eyes on Joseph.

            And note the strategies she employed to woo Joseph.  First, she tried the direct approach.  Verse 7 ... “Lie with me.”  Nothing subtle about that.  You can’t get much more direct than that, and she sounds a little like a modern day “cougar,” an older woman preying on a younger man, and it may sound a little forward to us, but remember that Egyptian women were considered to be the most liberated of the time.

            When that didn’t work, she switched to tactic number two: persistence.  Verse 10,


            And although she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not consent to lie beside her or be with her,


            She propositioned him day after day.  That’s not a bad strategy and it’s one that often works.  When younger our children would often try that strategy on Trudy and me, hoping to wear us down.  It worked for our daughter, Jenn, on the subject of pierced ears when Trudy finally gave in to her persistent requests.

            But that did not get the job done for Potiphar’s wife either, so she resorted to strategy number three:  physical attack.  Verse 11,


            One day, however, when he went into the house to do his work, and while no one else was in the house, she caught hold of his garment saying, “Lie with me!”  But he left his garment in her hand, and fled and ran outside. 


            Are you familiar with William Congreve’s words?  I’m sure you are.  He wrote, “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned!”  Congreve may have had this woman in mind when he penned that line.  Potiphar’s wife was furious, and she falsely accused Joseph of rape in order to get back at him, and our hero winds up in prison.

            One last comment, however, before we look at what Joseph modeled for us concerning resisting temptation.  Note that Potiphar did not put Joseph to death for what Joseph was accused of doing even though this was an offense punishable by death in Egyptian law.  Instead, Potiphar sentences him to prison.  Now, there could be a couple of reasons for this.  One is, despite the offense, Potiphar had grown fond of Joseph and thought he should be punished, but did not want him put to death, or two, Potiphar, knowing his wife, questioned whether or not Joseph was really guilty of the offense.  So, as sort of a compromise, to appease his wife, he had Joseph put in prison rather than having him put to death. 

            Next week we will see what happens to Joseph while in prison, for today, however, we are going to turn our attention to what he teaches us about resisting temptation.  This morning I want us to highlight three things Joseph does to resist temptation.

            First, in resisting temptation note how Joseph called it by its right name.  He called it for what it was ... wickedness.  Listen to what he says.  I’m reading from verse nine.


            He is greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife.  How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?


            Joseph sees the temptation for what it was and did not call it something else.  Joseph could have said something like, “This is natural and everyone else is doing it,” but he didn’t.  He could have said something like, “After all I’ve been through, being sold into slavery, being away from family, I deserve a little female comfort.”  But he didn’t.  No, he called it what it was ... wickedness ... and the faster we give temptation its proper name the better off we will be. 

            Number two, Joseph looked beyond the temporary satisfaction to the long-term ramifications.  Again, verse nine.  In verse nine Joseph expresses two long-term concerns.  One, how it will affect his relationship with Potiphar, and two, how it will affect his relationship with God.  He says, “How ... how could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?”   After considering the long-term impact if he gave into temptation he found it was not worth risking these two relationships that were so important to him, his relationship with God and his relationship with Potiphar. 

            Imagine a hot chocolate chip cookie out of the oven.  The chocolate chip cookie beckons you.  It’s aroma caresses your nose.  You want to have it, but you have just come home from church, and you have heard this message, so you say to yourself, “I know you would taste good.  I know I would enjoy you little “chippy,” but I would have to work out for another 10 minutes if I ate you, and I would start beating myself up for not exercising willpower, so I’m not going to eat you.”

            Third, Joseph avoided the temptation to the best of his ability, even going so far as to run from it.  I love what Martin Luther said in this regard.  He said, “If your head is made of butter, don’t sit near the fire.”  I love that statement and it is true.  “If your head is made of butter, don’t sit near the fire.”