The Power of a Dream
August 14, 2011
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
1 Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. 2 This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father's wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. 3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. 4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
Joseph had a dream, and when he told his brothers, they hated him even more.
"Listen to this dream. We were binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves bowed down to my sheaf."
He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, "Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me."
Even his father rebuked him.
One day, Jacob sent Joseph after his brothers, and they conspired to kill him. They threw him into a dry well, and when some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, and sold him for twenty pieces of silver. Then they slaughtered a goat, and dipped Joseph’s robe in the blood. They took it to their father, Jacob. They told their father, “Our brother Joseph was torn apart by wild animals.” Jacob recognized the beautiful robe he had made for his son. Then Jacob tore his garments, and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and all his daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted.
Meanwhile the Midianites had sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh's officials, the captain of the guard. He worked as a slave in Potiphar’s household. The Lord was with Joseph. Potiphar saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hands. Potiphar made Joseph overseer of his house.
Now Joseph was handsome and good-looking. And after a time his master's wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, "Lie with me." But he refused and said to his master's wife, "How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?"
One day, however, she caught hold of his garment, saying, "Lie with me!" But he left his garment in her hand, and fled and ran outside. She called out to the members of her household and said to them, "He came in to me to lie with me, and when he heard me raise my voice and cry out, he left his garment beside me, and fled outside." When his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, he became enraged. And Joseph's master put him into the prison, where the king's prisoners were confined. But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love.
It happened then that the cupbearer of the king of Egypt and his baker offended their lord the Pharaoh, and they were put in jail with Joseph. One night they both dreamed—the cupbearer and the baker. When Joseph came to them in the morning, he saw that they were troubled.
They said to him, "We have had dreams, and there is no one to interpret them."
And Joseph said to them, "Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me."
The cupbearer and the baker told Joseph their dreams.
Then Joseph said to the cupbearer, "Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your office. But remember me when it is well with you.”
But to the baker he said, “Pharaoh will lift up your head—and hang you."
Three days later, Pharaoh restored the chief cupbearer, but the chief baker he hanged.
Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.
After two whole years, Pharaoh awoke from a troubling dream. He sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men, but there was no one who could interpret them to Pharaoh.
Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, "There is a young Hebrew who interprets dreams.” Then Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was hurriedly brought out of the dungeon. And Pharaoh said to Joseph, "I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it."
Joseph answered Pharaoh, "It is not I; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer." Then Pharaoh told Joseph the dream, and Joseph told him what the dream meant: seven years of surplus, followed by seven years of famine. Stockpile the surplus, Joseph said, so that in the famine you will have grain.
Pharaoh said, ""Since God has shown you all this, there is no one so discerning and wise as you. You shall be over my house, and all my people." Pharaoh put his signet ring on Joseph's hand; and put a gold chain around his neck. He gave Joseph his daughter as his wife. He had him ride in the chariot of his second-in-command; and they cried out in front of him, "Bow the knee!" Thus he set him over all the land of Egypt. Thus Joseph gained authority over the land of Egypt.
So Joseph stored up grain in such abundance—like the sand of the sea. The seven years of plenty came to an end; and the seven years of famine began, but throughout the land of Egypt there was bread.
55 When all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread. Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, "Go to Joseph; what he says to you, do." 56 And since the famine had spread over all the land, Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe in the land of Egypt. 57 Moreover, all the world came to Joseph in Egypt to buy grain, because the famine became severe throughout the world.
The poet Langston Hughes wrote:
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
From the first breath he took, Joseph, son of Jacob, was the embodiment of a dream, the symbol of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. He was the living hope of God’s promise to Israel, and the beloved child of his mother Rachel, who had died after giving birth to Joseph’s brother Benjamin. Even though Jacob had twelve sons, it was as if Joseph were the only son, the prince of the family, dressed in a royal robe. His dreams, of the sheaves of his brothers bowing to him, of the eleven stars and even the sun and moon of his parents bowing to him, his dreams were gifts, promises, foreshadowing fulfillment in the future.
Even as his father tore his clothes and grieved inconsolably, Joseph was encountering the waking world, a world of power and empire, of temptation and privation. The dream lived within him, and God was with him. Even as he was imprisoned, and enslaved, even as he was unjustly accused, even as waited to be remembered by one whom he had saved, Joseph relied on God’s promise, and God was with him.
Somehow, in God’s providence, Joseph had the ability to interpret dreams. He was no ancient Freud, seeking out psychological symbolism, paving the royal road to the unconscious through the dreams of the cup-bearer and the baker. Whether it was divine gift or intuitive perceptiveness, Joseph could understand dreams.
The disgraced cup-bearer’s dream was of vines and drink: "In my dream there was a vine before me, and on the vine there were three branches. As soon as it budded, its blossoms came out and the clusters ripened into grapes. Pharaoh's cup was in my hand; and I took the grapes and pressed them into Pharaoh's cup, and placed the cup in Pharaoh's hand."
Joseph easily saw the meaning: in three days, Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you. Likewise, the baker’s dream related to his work: "… there were three cake baskets on my head, and in the uppermost basket there were all sorts of baked food for Pharaoh, but the birds were eating it out of the basket on my head." Again, Joseph easily saw the meaning: in three days, Pharaoh will lift up your head in a noose. When the predictions came true, the cup-bearer forgot his promise, forgot Joseph, until two years later another dream was told.
The Pharaoh was troubled by his dreams: seven fat cattle emerged from the Nile, only to be eaten by seven starving cattle; seven ripe stalks of grain grew up on a stalk, and were consumed by seven withered heads of grain. The young Hebrew, still languishing in prison, was brought forth.
God had remained with Joseph, and now, God would provide for him.
Joseph once again could reach into the dream world and extract meaning: seven years of bumper crops, followed by seven years of drought and famine. Not only could he see what God had told Pharaoh, he could recommend a strategy. “Appoint an overseer, and manage the surplus. Store it up against the day of famine. The oversupply will not last forever; there will not always be bounty. Prepare yourself for a time of shortfall and a time of need.”
Joseph was not recommending himself, merely advising the king on how to face the famine.
He had not succumbed to fear, or let his spirit be crushed by slavery, or fallen prey to seduction. He had not withheld his gifts or failed to help another, nor had he withheld bad news. He had held fast to the dream.
Now he stood at the fulcrum of faith and fear – on the one side, a retreat into worry, inaction and need. On the other side, an advance into confident action, and real work in the real world. And God was with Joseph. The dreams of God do not evaporate in the halls of empire, and God’s faithfulness does not vanish in hard reality of daylight. The dream lives within God’s people and cannot be vanquished.
If our consciousness were likened to an aquarium, our unconscious, the source of our dreams, would be like an ocean. In the depths of that ocean God moves within us, an endless current of hope and courage, a fount of faith, even in the face of drought, even when we wrestle with want, or the fear of want even when we feel our lives have become waking nightmares.
God’s dreams cannot be shattered, and cannot die. In faith we hold fast to them,
no matter what empire threatens to enslave us, no matter what forces might seek to seduce us, no matter what mysteries life brings us. In every circumstance, just as God was with Joseph, God will be with us.
The promise of the God of Israel is that when we hold fast to the dream, the Spirit works among us so that the captives are freed, and the hungry are fed, and the righteous are justified.
The promise of the God of Jacob, the God present with Joseph, is that God’s dream of justice will not die. The forces of the world may seek to harm you, empire may seek to enslave you, the dishonest may try to discredit you, but God will be with you, leading and guiding you.
Even as God was with Joseph, God will be with you.
That is the power of the dream.