God in the Empty Places: Sermon for August 13, 2023

If the stories of the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs were turned into a made-for-cable reality series, today would mark the beginning of the fourth season. And what would make these stories intriguing as a series? They tell a story, an epic saga so real, so complete, it’s startling! What makes these stories so fascinating is that they are family stories. Today, we meet Joseph, a young man with a dream of greatness.

Children have recurring dreams just like adults do. And like our adult dreams, common themes invade our nighttime brain activity. Some are frightening, some stir up massive, frightening fears or anxieties about abandonment or losing someone we desperately need. “Common enough” we assume.

But there’s also a different category of dreams some children have known as inflationary dreams. They are dreams in which we’re working hard to develop our ego and to find our place in the world. An inflationary dream is how the unconscious struggles to deal with self-acceptance and the possibility we might have something to give to the world. Joseph had an inflationary dream where he imagined himself in an exalted position of importance.

But before his dreams could come true, Joseph was hijacked to the wilderness. His life narrative of being the favored son changed when he was sold by his brothers to slave traders who transported him to the slave markets in Egypt far, far from home.

The brothers planned this thing out in a premeditated way even if they disagreed about how to do it, they agreed something needed to be done. They were unified in their anger toward this youngest brother they despised. Their original impulse was simply to kill him but apparently they didn’t quite know what to do next. They had no plan and no one stepped forward to dictate to the others what they should do. With no one to lead them, they deferred to leaving him in the well as a form of “passive murder.”

My two brothers and I have a library of stories of growing up together. But I don’t ever remember a time my older brother and I wanted to kill our younger brother. We didn’t throw him into an underground cistern, likely because we didn’t have one in our neighborhood. Neither did we come across a camel caravan of slave traders floating by as we were contemplating how we would get rid of this loud, pestering brother. What we could have done was likely blocked more by a lack of opportunity than by any innocence we might have had.

Ever found yourself carried on the capricious winds of circumstance? Ever feel as though your life is guided by that whimsical feather blowing in the warm wind carried aloft above the treetops where you might land who knows where? Life is a like a box of chocolates, mind you, no telling what you might get. Maybe it’s as simple as being in the right (or wrong) place at the right (or wrong) time, or meeting someone who steers you in a new but unpredictable direction. It could be as simple as an unexpected good fortune (maybe you hit the lottery with your pool) or it could even be an unfortunate accident or tragedy.

Often our lives are given direction by the mystery of the slender threads that occur. The slender threads are any unplanned gift or curse of circumstance that alters the trajectory of your life. Slender threads are the counter-melody to your wish to intentionally direct your path through the decisions you make, or they are the steps you take that you mean to create and control your future. The slender threads are those happenstances you don’t control but that control you.

Even though we think it’s our willful determination that guides our lives, life has another wisdom afoot and we are somehow inspired, guided, or managed (even mismanaged) by unseen forces outside our control. Even though we exert our free will and make plans and set goals and proceed with full confidence as though we are in control, it also seems true that there is a larger hand at work in directing us through life.  Call it fate or blind luck, call it destiny, or call it the hand of God. Call it what you will, but know, “slender threads are at work bringing coherence and continuity to our lives (and) over time they weave a remarkable tapestry.”[1]

As the slender threads would have it, the brothers spotted a group of wandering traders headed south towards Egypt. They flagged the caravan down and the brothers cut a deal for twenty pieces of silver selling Joseph off for the slave markets in Egypt. It wasn’t the death penalty but it was the price Joseph paid for all the little acts of favoritism they resented since Rachel had given birth to this little late-life favorite.

Please realize when Joseph was hauled out of the pit, his life was spared. And in that slight turn of the story, everything changed. All of us are brought into the story knowing a delicious irony that the lives of Jacob and the eleven brothers were spared as well.

I’ve already used the phrase, “as fate would have it,” as a robust way of observing that sometimes we twist and turn on the events that occur in our lives recognizing that sometimes they are good events and sometimes they’re tragic. But on occasion, more often than we can know, even the tragic events of life have a tendency to act positively in our regard.

Sometimes we make the smallest imperceptible turn and our lives are spared. Sometimes our lives are put in the deepest of despair. A job is offered or a job is taken away. We get a phone call and with it our lives are changed. Inexplicably our lives take a turn here, or a twist there, and the arc of our lives unpredictably shift and twist in a new direction.

Joseph was as far from his dream as a young man can get.

St. Hilary, one of the early Christian leaders of the fourth century, observed, “Everything that seems empty is full of the angels of God.” There’s a profound realization that when we are immersed in the emptiness of some loss, we discover we are not alone. There, in the emptiness of our desert experience, we discover God has been waiting for us to arrive.

This story helps us understand God was there all along as the silent partner in Joseph’s life. He had to confront the reality of the circumstances that had fallen his way and to recognize he was still in the hands of God who controlled the larger stage on which his life was being lived out. God may or may not have been micromanaging the story, but God was in the wings setting the stage for future events.

Where was God in all the turns of Joseph’s life? Right alongside him, listening to his cries in the night, and encouraging him not to give up. God was there all along whispering to him (and to us all): “People of faith, don’t give up! I will take the broken pieces and will use them in your life.”


© Dr. Keith D. Herron 2023

[1] Robert Johnson with Jerry M. Ruhl, Balancing Heaven and Earth, A Memoir of Visions, Dreams, and Realizations, New York: HarperCollins, 1998, xi-xii