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    Feb 14, 2010

    Experiencing God in the Hard Places

    Passage: Genesis 39:20-40:23

    Preacher: John Repsold

    Series: Are you hungry?

    Category: Old Testament

    Keywords: joseph, prisons, difficulties, god's presence, success


    This message looks at what God wants to do with us in the midst of life's "prison experiences" that we will all have through the story of Joseph's imprisonment in Egypt.


    Experiencing God in the Hard Places

    Genesis 39:20b-40:23—February 12, 2010



    I’ve got a proposal to make today.  How many of us would be interested in checking out an early retirement option that promised you wouldn’t have to make any more house payments, would give you free housing with a good solid roof over your head, serve 3 free meals a day, furnished warm living quarters, free TV, free medical care, lots of social interaction with other people if you want it…or 24-7 quiet and “alone-time” if you need it.  There are free utilities…and free clothing.  Anyone interested in at least checking out that possibility, maybe listening to the sales pitch for 30 minutes?


    If you are, feel free to come along with me some month here to the County Correctional Facility in Airway Heights.  Don’t be afraid.  Some of our brightest and most talented leaders here have joined me there…but for some reason, none of them have ever decided to sign up.  J



    • A little thing called loss of freedom.
    • The way you are treated by the guards.
    • The kind of people you’re often stuck with.
    • The boredom, regimen, drab surroundings.
    • Loss of relationships with the people you love.
    • Confinement.
    • Inability to make your own decisions free of a host of confines.

    There are lots of places in life we can probably hardly wait to go, but prison is not usually one of them. 


    My first experience in a prison was as a high school student visiting the Montana State Penitentiary at Deer Lodge, MT when about a sophomore.  I was there with a high school choir from our church that was touring during spring break. It was the first time I heard that unforgettable sound of cold, steel bars closing behind you as we walked through 3 or 4 different levels of security in that old, cold stone prison.  Since then I’ve been in different jails dozens of times…none of them against my will…yet.  From the electrocution death chamber in a national prison in the Philippines to the State Penitentiaries in the Pacific Northwest, jails are pretty much the same—not any place you want to be…at least for any length of time.  



    The fact is, there are lots of different kinds of prisons in life because there are lots of different experiences that come our way that are not of our own choosing.  Some of them are completely unfair.  Some are completely unexpected.  Most are imposed on us by unjust people…or unfair life circumstances…or the unexpected taking or end of something valuable to us.  Sometimes life prisons last for weeks, months and years. 


    Obviously, I’m talking about more than actual prison experiences.  I’m talking about the “prisons” of tough life experiences.  Just what are some of those?

    • Illness or poor health.
    • Loss of a loved one through death, divorce or some other ugly, life-stealing experience.
    • The prison of unemployment…
    • …or mental and emotional difficulties.
    • The prison of a financial melt-down, of poverty.
    • The prison of abuse.
    • The prison of aging.
    • The prison of injustice, bigotry, or prejudice.

    Prisons come in many shapes and sizes…and most of us will find ourselves in one at various times in our life.


    Prisons have been, through the history of God’s work with people, one of God’s most strategic training grounds for godly character.  They have also facilitated and been God’s tool to produce some of the biggest blessings for God’s people.

    • As we will see next week, Joseph’s prison experience led to the saving of the Hebrew people as well as ancient Egypt.
    • Daniel’s captivity gave us one of the Bible’s most important prophetic books.
    • Jeremiah’s prison experience produced one of the Bible’s most emotional, heart-felt books, Lamentations. 
    • The Early Church’s imprisonment produced a massive spread of the Gospel to the Gentiles. 
    • Paul’s prison experience gave us some of the most significant N.T. books in the Bible (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon). 
    • The Apostle John’s prison experience gave us the book of Revelation.
    • John Bunyan’s prison experience gave us Pilgrim’s Progress,
    • Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Nazi imprisonment produced a host of Christian classics.
    • Chuck Colson
    • Watchman Nee--China
    • Brother Andrew—Romania
    • Sudanese brother at Revival Conference in Oct.



    Today we come to the Bible’s first mention of a prison. It’s in Genesis 39 & 40.  But it is by no means the Bible’s last reference to prison.  Most of God’s best people usually spent time in prison learning what it is like to know God as a prisoner.

    And unlike most prisoners in America, the one in today’s passage is a man who really didn’t deserve it…really.  He got sent to the slammer because of his integrity. 

    That’s actually not so terribly uncommon in our sinful world either.  Thousands of people every year end up in rat-infested, hell-holes all over the world precisely because of their integrity.  Millions more end up in prisons because of their lack of it.  Either way, prisons often produce the most powerful God-encounters in life.

    In Joseph’s case, it was the false accusation of a married woman that sent him to jail. Joseph was in his prime.  He was probably a handsome, muscular, hard-working hunk of a guy.  But he was a “hunk” with integrity.  And if you were here a couple of weeks ago when Eric spoke, you remember that his integrity cost him his freedom.   



    We’ll pick up the story in Genesis 39:20-23.

    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. 22 So the warden put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there. 23 The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph's care, because the LORD was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.


    The phrases in this passage are virtually identical with the statements made about Joseph and God’s favor at the beginning of chapter 39, vs. 2 when Joseph was sold by the Ishmaelites to Potiphar. 

    “The Lord was with Joseph and he prospered…When his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did, Joseph found favor in his eyes and became his attendant.  Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned….with Joseph in charge, he (Potiphar) did not concern himself with anything except the food he ate.” 


    Tell me, WHO is doing most of the action in this passage?  Isn’t it GOD?  Sure, Joseph had to be working hard, making good decisions, demonstrating his abilities to manage and lead right there in prison.  But when Moses, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, talks about what is happening, he focuses upon what GOD is doing. 

    • Vs. 21—“the Lord was with him…”
    • “He showed him kindness…”
    • “…and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden.”
    • Vs. 23—“…because the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.”


    You know, it doesn’t matter to God where we are.  We can be in a ritzy multi-million dollar house, heading a Fortune 500 company, holding a place of political power…OR we can be in the bottom of a dried up well…or a cell in a dank prison…or a city garbage dump…or a work cubical in some forgotten corner of a skyscraper.  PLACE is no obstacle to God.  He’ll go anywhere in this world to BE WITH his children…to shower his love on us…to give us favor with the people we must answer to.  In fact,


    I’ll go a step further and say that God will take us into some of the least-likely and most-difficult of places just to show us how deep and wide his love is. 

    That’s a lesson Joseph needed to learn before he was given great authority and power in Egypt.  And it wasn’t a lesson that he learned in a couple of days. 



    On the outside that may look very much like one horrible “roller-coaster ride”. 

    UP:  daddy’s favorite son…special privileges, special love.

    DOWN:  siblings’ least favorite brother…special mistreatment…sold into slavery.

    UP:  bought by an important, well-to-do military man in Egypt, experiences great success in “everything he did” there; is promoted, promoted and promoted until he is second only to his master in the household.

    DOWN:  becomes the love-target of his master’s wife; holds his moral ground; is framed and falsely accused of attempted rape by an evil woman; is sent to Pharaoh’s maximum-security national prison to rot.

    UP:  Is blessed again by God; earns the warden’s respect, is made responsible for everything that goes on in the prison and is once again a proven success. 

    DOWN:  As we’re going to see in a moment, for the help Joseph gives to one of the Pharaoh’s inside-men, he’s going to be “forgotten” for 2 years more in prison. 

    UP:  Then, overnight, he will be made the #2 man in all of Egypt under Pharaoh. 



    Talk about a yo-yo life!  Why on earth does God send his kids through this kind of life? 

    I think it has something to do with the fact that God knows if we learn to walk with Him in the extremes, we will be able to walk with Him in in-betweens.  Walking with God when you’re at the bottom looking up is a real test of faith.  But for many, walking with God when you’re at the top looking down may be just as difficult or more so.   Developing a rock-solid faith and relationship with God whether at the top…or on the bottom…is what matters. 


    The text doesn’t tell us, but I’m pretty sure that Joseph was not all that different from us when he was caught in life’s down-drafts. 

    • I’m pretty sure that when he was almost murdered by his brothers and actually sold into slavery by them that he wrestled with the pain of it all. 
    • I’m pretty sure that the first night in Pharaoh’s prison after he had taken a stand for sexual purity and been falsely accused by an immoral woman, he felt no little amount of anger and bewilderment. 
    • I’m pretty sure that there were days during those 2 years of further incarceration after helping Pharaoh’s cupbearer get out of jail free, that Joseph struggled with believing God’s promise to him and walking by faith with Him. 


    But God’s word is equally clear that Joseph continued to cultivate an open heart towards God.  He continued to walk by faith when the bottom dropped out.  He continued to fight bitterness and hatred and the Enemy’s lies that God didn’t care about him anymore. 


    How did he do that?  Joseph kept his heart open to God…and God blessed Joseph with His presence, with his kindness, with his favor and with success right in the midst of the darkest days of his life. 

    Genesis 39:21 tells us that “there in prison, the Lord was with him.”  Prisons can be THE loneliest places in the world.  Prisons specialize in the art of solitary confinement.  Prisons isolate you from people you love.  They rob you of life you enjoy.  They leave you thinking you don’t have a friend in the world. Life blurs into one day after the next of monotonous routine survival. 


    Recent autobiography I read:  South Africa’s Nelson Mandella’s  imprisonment of 27 years.  Mandela talks of how years blurred and he only realized it when he received a visit from his mother after not seeing her for 6 years…or his youngest daughter at 16 when the last time he saw her she was 3!  Was not allowed to attend the funeral of his son or mother who died while in prison.  Cost him his marriage…twice.  Yet he became one of thee 20th century’s most ardent advocates of Christ-like forgiveness and was used of God to spare S. Africa from anarchy and civil war.  Go see Invictus. 


    That is why it is SO significant that God repeated what he did at the beginning and end of Genesis 39.  Joseph needed to learn some really important things in his prison experience.  They are the same things every one of us needs to really learn in every prison experience of life…and make our own in the deepest core of our being.



    1.  Vs. 21--“While Joseph was there in the prison, the Lord was with him….”  Do we believe our Savior when he says, “Surely I am with you unto the end of the world”??? (Mt. 28:20)  Do we believe our God when he promised in Deut. 31:8—“The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged."???

          Let’s be honest.  Isn’t it pretty hard to believe that God is even with us sometimes when we get thrown into some prison-experience of life?  Joseph let prison experiences inform and educate him about God, not discourage and distance him from God.


    2.  Vs. 21—“While Joseph was there in the prison, the Lord…showed him kindness….”  The Hebrew word for “kindness” here is “hesed”.  It is a strong word that God uses often in the O.T. to talk about his active, steadfast love and loyalty demonstrated towards his covenant partners to help us in times of need.  Joseph was part of God’s covenant people.  Even in the national penitentiary in Egypt, God wanted to make known his steadfast love.  In fact, it is especially in “times of need” that God wants us to experience his “hesed” love…his steadfast love.  As Paul says in Romans 8:35ff, “Who can possibly separate us from the love of Christ?  Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?”  “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

          Our prisons of life are where God wants his love to be felt the strongest.  Satan wants us to believe the lie that God isn’t even there and that his love certainly is missing.  Joseph refused to build up that wall of doubt in his heart.  As a result, he experienced the hesed steadfast love of God in one of the worst places on earth—a federal penitentiary.


    3.  “While Joseph was there in prison, the Lord…granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden….the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.”

          What kind of “success” can you have “in prison”?  So what you have “favor” in the eyes of some prison warden?  It’s still a prison…and you’re still a prisoner! 

          That’s one of our problems.  We don’t think life can be successful unless we’re doing just what WE want to do WHEN we want to do it.  We don’t think we can be a “success” unless it’s being successful at what WE want to do.  We need to redefine “success” by God’s standards, not ours.


    But Joseph learned life differently.  He somehow came to grips with the truth that, since God was there in prison with him, blessing him, that his definition of success needed to change. 

    • He wasn’t responsible for the family flock anymore.  He was responsible for his prison routine. 
    • He wasn’t responsible for the workings of Potiphar’s household any more.  He was responsible for the welfare of the other prisoners around him. 

    The unplanned events of life became, for Joseph, the planned assignments of God. 

    • He embraced them rather than despised them. 
    • He found out what he could do rather than focused on what he couldn’t do. 
    • He decided to experience God in them rather than exclude God from them. 


    We have that choice everyday too.  We can choose to be as responsible as possible for whatever is in our care and leave people’s opinion of us in God’s hands.  What God is looking for is faithfulness in the small things so that he can grant us success in those small things.  Then, whether we ever make it to the major leagues of not in this life, God will have a faithful son or daughter with whom He can entrust greater things in this life and the life to come.   


    Does God have you in some situation or place where life looks pretty limited, pretty confined, pretty insignificant or small?  God really doesn’t care if you’re in a prison-of-an-experience or a palace-of-an-experience.  He can bless you in either place as long as you have really surrendered control to Him and are most interested in life with serving him. 


    This is the spiritual foundation upon which Joseph’s experience of chapter 40 is built.  Listen to the word of God as it describes what God planned for Joseph next. 


    GENESIS 40

    1 Some time later, the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt offended their master, the king of Egypt. 2 Pharaoh was angry with his two officials, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, 3 and put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, in the same prison where Joseph was confined. 4 The captain of the guard assigned them to Joseph, and he attended them.
          After they had been in custody for some time, 5 each of the two men—the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were being held in prison—had a dream the same night, and each dream had a meaning of its own.

     6 When Joseph came to them the next morning, he saw that they were dejected. 7 So he asked Pharaoh's officials who were in custody with him in his master's house, "Why are your faces so sad today?"

     8 "We both had dreams," they answered, "but there is no one to interpret them."
          Then Joseph said to them, "Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams."

     9 So the chief cupbearer told Joseph his dream. He said to him, "In my dream I saw a vine in front of me, 10 and on the vine were three branches. As soon as it budded, it blossomed, and its clusters ripened into grapes. 11 Pharaoh's cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes, squeezed them into Pharaoh's cup and put the cup in his hand."

     12 "This is what it means," Joseph said to him. "The three branches are three days. 13 Within three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your position, and you will put Pharaoh's cup in his hand, just as you used to do when you were his cupbearer. 14 But when all goes well with you, remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison. 15 For 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."

     16 When the chief baker saw that Joseph had given a favorable interpretation, he said to Joseph, "I too had a dream: On my head were three baskets of bread. 17 In the top basket were all kinds of baked goods for Pharaoh, but the birds were eating them out of the basket on my head."

     18 "This is what it means," Joseph said. "The three baskets are three days. 19 Within three days Pharaoh will lift off your head and hang you on a tree. And the birds will eat away your flesh."

     20 Now the third day was Pharaoh's birthday, and he gave a feast for all his officials. He lifted up the heads of the chief cupbearer and the chief baker in the presence of his officials: 21 He restored the chief cupbearer to his position, so that he once again put the cup into Pharaoh's hand, 22 but he hanged the chief baker, just as Joseph had said to them in his interpretation.

     23 The chief cupbearer, however, did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.


    Then Chapter 41 begins with these words, “When two full years had passed, Pharaoh had a dream….”


    For TWO YEARS this ungrateful Cup Bearer let Joseph languish in prison.  “What a terrible waste of life,” we tend to think.  Not God.  In God’s eyes those were two years God was still loving Joseph.  Those were two years God was still with Joseph…giving him success… showing him kindness…and granting him favor in they eyes of the fellow-prisoners and prison guards around him.



    What was God waiting for?  Why didn’t he convict the Cup Bearer of his selfishness?  Why didn’t God keep him from sleep until he did right by Joseph? 

    We’re not told “why”.  But we do know that Joseph’s heart stayed open to God and his work continued to be quality work for those around him. 

    • Maybe God was waiting to align the weather patterns for 7 years of amazing harvests followed by 7 years of heartbreaking famine. 
    • Maybe God was working with Judah and his brothers back in Canaan.
    • Maybe God was working on Jacob’s broken heart and favoritism towards certain members of his family.
    • Maybe God was working on Joseph’s heart in prison.
    • Maybe God was waiting for Pharaoh to realize some dreams had significance and needed interpretations.



    Which brings up another important issue.  If I were Joseph, I’d have pretty much sworn off of this “dream thing” by now. 

    • It was dreams that almost got him killed by his brothers. 
    • It was dreams that got him sold into slavery and separated from his family for decades. 
    • It was dreams that got other prisoners set free…or killed …while he remained incarcerated for a couple of years more in that stinking prison. 

         God just seemed to keep using dreams to shape Joseph’s life in ways he hadn’t asked for.  But where I would have said to God, “NO MORE DREAMS!”, Joseph let God set the terms and determine the means. 


    Is there something you’ve said to God, “NO MORE OF THAT!??? Stop asking me to be open to THAT way of working in my life!”?

    • Marriage?
    • Friendship?
    • Job?
    • School?
    • Church?
    • Family?
    • Prison?
    • Gift?


    Back in 1998, I was praying with a group of Spokane pastors when we decided to encourage our churches to undertake 40 days of prayer & fasting during the Lent season.  God called us to pray and fast (off and on fasting) during those 40 days that year.  It was a very good God-connecting experience…until shortly thereafter.  That’s when all hell broke lose in the church for the next 2 years!  I frankly got gun-shy…or should I say “prayer-&-fasting shy”?  If that’s where extended prayer and fasting led, I didn’t want any more of that. 

          What would have been a better, more mature and faith-filled response?  To enter into it with greater wisdom and trust God that, even in the unexpected turn of events, God was there to grow me up, refine me at least, and pour out his presence, his love and his favor. 


    Don’t abandon the means God used to get you into some hard ‘prison’ in life so you would grow in some way HE thought important.  Let God choose the means and the timing in this amazing journey with Christ. 


    This past week I ran across something in preparing for the men’s 12-step group that I’m part of which caught my attention.  You see, pastors like me who tend to be addicted to ministry may look like we are very generous, very selfless, very hard-working and very God-serving in our ministry life.  But we may be doing much of it because we are so very self-centered.  I want to feel good about my life…and I use and control ministry to do that.  I want to feel significant.  I want to succeed in life…so I try to do everything I think will help make the ministry I’m involved in successful.  It’s really all about ME, but it may look like to others that it’s really very generous and selfless. 


    The dead giveaway that it’s my self-centeredness that is driving me is what happens to me when life doesn’t go the way I want it to?

    • What happens when God doesn’t answer my prayers the way I think he should?  If I’m still in charge, I get very upset at God.  I may stop praying...stop talking with God.  I may feel deeply hurt and take it personally like God doesn’t care for me.  Those reactions just reveal that I really haven’t surrendered my life to Jesus like I claim to have done.  Because true surrender of control leaves the outcomes with God, not me. 
    • What happens when ministry doesn’t develop or pan-out like I want it to?  Again, if I’ve really given over control of my life to Jesus, the results are up to him, not me.  His presence, his love and his kindness are all I really need to have in life, whether it’s in jail or on the top of the world. 


    I’m guessing some of you are like me:  you’d say you’ve given Jesus complete control of your life, but you’re still angry about a lot of life…you’re still depressed…or frustrated…or controlling… or experiencing some sort of unmanageable relational fallout in your life.  I think it took Joseph years to work this kind of stuff out in his heart.  I think it takes the same for many of us. 


    But I also believe that today God is inviting us to once again give over control of our lives to him…more of our lives…more control.  Because the truth is, we can’t control our lives well anyway…even when we think we are. It’s only as we learn to turn it over to God and begin to experience that God will never leave us, that he’ll never stop loving us, that there is nothing and no one who can separate us from his love, and that He is the one who will give us real success in life that we will ever learn to make use of life’s prisons rather than to make a mess of them. 



    • Call to embrace the presence and love of God IN whatever prison God may have you right now (something you don’t like going on in your life right now that is not of your choosing or within your power to change).
    • Call to faith in Jesus:  repentance of self-centered and self-directed life, put your faith in Jesus and surrender control of your life to Him. 



    • For surrender to God’s purposes in any of the “life-prisons” you may be in…and ask Him to show you his presence, everlasting love and give you success in the things He thinks are important.
    • For specific “prisons” people are struggling with right now:  health, emotional healing, family, marriages, etc.