Will any dream do?
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.”
That was Martin Luther King in his famous “I have a dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial back in 1963.
What about you. Do you have a dream?
Some people are driven by their dreams. People like the X Factor star who ever since they were a spotty teenager dreamed of fame and fortune.
Others are haunted by their dreams. Like Abraham Lincoln, who apparently just days before he was shot dead at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC had a dream about his assassination.
What about you? Are you driven by your dreams or haunted by them?
And, in the immortal words of Andrew Lloyd Webber, will any dream do for you?
Well, this afternoon, we’re going to be looking at 3 sets of dreams from Genesis chapters 40 and 41. And we’re going to see how these dreams from over 3,000 years ago have profound things to teach us today.
1. Dreams of Judgment – 40:1-23
So let’s kick off with the first set of dreams in vv. 1-23 of chapter 40 – dreams of judgment.
As we saw last week Joseph, having spurned the lustful advances of Potiphar’s wife, is thrown into jail. It was viciousrevenge on a man who was simply seeking to do what was right.
But verse 21 of chapter 39 tells us that the Lord was with Joseph. And God grants him favour with the prison warder who puts him in charge of all the other prisoners.
Which sets us up for v. 1 of chapter 40 and the arrival of the cupbearer and baker.
Now, I’ve always felt really sorry for the baker. I’d always assumed that Pharaoh was acting like a crazy despot in this chapter, randomly locking up two of his senior courtiers and having one of them executed and the other released. And frankly, I felt sorry for the baker because clearly he worked much harder than the butler. I mean the baker would be upevery morning - 5am sharp to bake the 57 varieties of bread that were popular in ancient Egypt. Whereas all the cupbearer had to do was this …
But actually there’s more going on here. And the jobs the two men do give away the background – the reason they’d been slung into jail. You see, both men had intimate access to Pharaoh. They delivered his food and drink to him.
And it seems likely that Pharaoh had got poisoned – perhaps it was an accident – these things happen - but maybe it was intentional - a plot to kill him. So Pharaoh throws the prime suspects in prison pending a full investigation.
Now do you see why the baker and the cupbearer woke up in a cold sweat.
They’re in fear of their lives. And they desperately want to know if the dreams can give any insight into their fate.
Now look at Joseph’s response in v. 8. He doesn’t jump in saying, “Don’t worry. I’ve got it. I’m the dream master!”
No, he has an immediate God reflex – verse 8: “Do not interpretations belong to God?”
Now we need to understand how confrontational this response was. Ancient Egypt had a whole system whereby people were trained to interpret dreams: seers, magicians, wise men. It was an art that could be learned. But Joseph says: “All that’s nonsense. Only God knows the future because only God controls of the future.”
Joseph puts God first.
Anyway, the cupbearer relays his dream and it all sounds very positive doesn’t it. I mean the cupbearer’s back in the presence of Pharaoh, squeezing out the grapes and passing the cup to the king.
And sure enough Joseph’s interpretation is a happy one.
Spurred on by his friend’s interpretation, the baker shares hisdream.
The number 3 is again significant. This time 3 baskets insteadof 3 branches. But Pharaoh is not present and instead birds – the word used here is used elsewhere in the Old Testament forflesh-eating birds – vultures sweep down and eat the bread from his head.
The three in each dream stand for 3 days. In three days time, judgment will come.
And there’s a play on words here. When Pharaoh passes judgment - both men will have their heads raised. The cupbearer will have his head lifted in restoration. The baker in execution and impalement.
It’s a grizzly picture isn’t it? Judgment will come. The guilty will be punished; the innocent restored.
And at the end of the chapter, we’re left asking: “Will justicecome for Joseph as well?”
Back in v. 15, he recounted his plight to the cupbearer: how he’d been people-trafficked out of Canaan and thrown into a dungeon for a crime he didn’t commit. The cupbearer’s release gave him hope at last:
“Please remember me” Joseph pleaded, v. 14, “and mention me to Pharaoh”.
And as the sun set on the third day, I can well imagine Joseph peering out from the bars of his prison cell, dreaming of his release. Longing for that messenger from Pharaoh to appear. But no one came.
Verse 23: “The cupbearer did not remember Joseph; he forgot him”.
2. Dreams of Disaster – 41:1-36
For two whole years, verse 1 of chapter 41. Which brings us to the second pair of dreams: dreams of disaster.
The scene shifts from the prison to the palace.
Pharaoh has woken and he’s in a state - pacing the corridors –haunted by not one but two dreams.
Now unlike the prisoners who had no one to interpret their dreams, Pharaoh’s got hundreds of so called “experts”. But they’re baffled, flummoxed – v. 8. They can’t make head nor tale of the dreams.
At which point, the cupbearer amnesia passes. He remembersJoseph. And verse 14, Joseph is summoned from the dungeon.
After a quick shower and shave – unlike Hebrews, Egyptians were always clean shaven –Joseph presents himself before Pharaoh.
And notice, v. 15, that Pharaoh repeats the cupbearer’s error about who can interpret dreams: “I have heard that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.”
Now look at Joseph’s response in v. 16: “I cannot do it”. That doesn’t quite do it justice. In the original Hebrew it’s a single word – abrupt. “Rubbish”, “Nonsense” Joseph retorts. “But God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires.”
Notice again the God-reflex. Joseph knows that he is not in control. And nor is Pharaoh. Only God.
And so Pharaoh begins to relay his dreams. Numbers are again important. This time it is the number 7: 7 cows and 7 ears of corn.
Joseph begins his interpretation in v. 25. The number again stands for time. Seven years of bumper crops – v. 29; will be followed by 7 years of devastating famine. Disaster is coming.And it is absolutely certain - verse 32 - that’s why Pharaoh had two dreams.
It cannot be avoided so what’s needed - v. 33 - is forward planning. Joseph proceeds to set out a masterplan involving the appointment of a project manager who will overseecommissioners setting up storehouses in each of the regional cities.
It’s an ingenious plan.
And it only leaves one question: “Who could be this man?” Exactly the question Pharaoh asks in v. 38.
3. Dreams of Salvation – 41:37-57
Which brings us to our third set of dreams – dreams of salvation – vv. 37-57.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “Where’s the dream in this section, Ralph?” Joseph simply gets promoted to the rank of Prime Minister of Egypt. There’s no dream.
But there is.
In fact, there’s another double dream; just flick back with me to Genesis 37, p 41 of the church Bibles. And look at v. 5.
Right at the start of the account of Joseph, he has two dreams. One of his brothers’ grain sheaves bowing down to him, vv. 6-7, and the other of the sun, moon and stars, v. 9, representing his family honouring him. It’s a dream that Joseph will rule and reign.
Now flick back to Genesis 41. Look at what happens in vv. 41-43. Joseph’s brothers are not yet bowing down before him, we have to wait until the end of the book for that. Sorry for the spoiler!
But Joseph gets elevated to the status of second in the land.
The one who had his technicolour dreamcoat ripped from him and was thrown into a pit is lifted out of a pit and dressed in robes of fine line again – v. 42. And people honour him – v. 43.
Joseph’s dream from chapter 37 is being fulfilled. But here’s the thing I want us to see.
Despite what his brothers thought - it wasn’t really a dream of personal exaltation.
When I was a Law Lecturer I had a colleague who was a real pain in the neck. He was determined to get to the top. He became Dean of the Faculty and desperately wanted to become Vice Chancellor. And he didn’t care who he had to step on to get there. People really didn’t like him. It turns out that his parents had been really harsh on him when he was growing up. They always compared him with his older,smarter brother - putting him down. And that drove him to long to be honoured, no matter who got hurt along the way.
Now that’s not the dream that Joseph had back in chapter 37. It was not a dream of exaltation at the expense of others. It was a dream of exaltation for the sake of others.
Just flick back with me to one more passage - I promise this will be the last. Genesis 22 on page 22.
Abraham has just demonstrated that he is willing to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, and God has provided a ram as a substitute. Now look at what God declares to Abraham in v. 17:
“I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me."
Now look back to Genesis 41 on page 46.
Do you see the echoes of Genesis 22 here? Verse 49. “Joseph stored up huge quantities of grain”. What were they like? They were as numerous “as the sand of the sea”.
And look what happens at the end of the chapter. Famine spreads throughout the whole country and throughout the whole world so that, verse 57, “all the world came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph”.
Do you see the echoes on Genesis 22 and Genesis 12 there?All nation will be blessed. All nations are saved from famine through Joseph – through a descendant of Abraham.
Joseph’s dream of exaltation begins to be fulfilled but it is a dream of world salvation - through Joseph’s exaltation.
So those are the three sets of dreams. Dreams of judgment, dreams of disaster and dreams of salvation.
But what on earth have they got to do with us? I mean they happened more than 3,000 years ago in ancient Egypt.
Well three points I’d like us to grasp today.
1. The dreamer’s humility and faithfulness
Firstly, notice Joseph’s humility and faithfulness.
Have you noticed how both adversity and success often uncover what’s really going on in our hearts?
A couple of weeks ago, on the morning I was due to fly back from the United States, I bent down while packing and tweaked my back. And it has been really painful ever since. The overnight flight probably didn’t help. Now that pain, that adversity has been exposing. Ever since I’ve got back, I’ve been grouchy, overly negative, lacking patience with my children.
Adversity exposes our hearts. It’s not that those things weren’t there before. It’s just that adversity exposes them. Have you experienced that?
Finding your emotional compass by your circumstances. When things are going well; when you’re excelling in your work, enjoying your relationships. When the sun is shining – a rare event in Manchester; you’re going well. But when trouble hits you’re doing terribly.
Well it wasn’t like that with Joseph. Adversity exposes a heart of humility and faithfulness in Joseph. Whether it was being sold into slavery by his brothers, being maliciously accused and slammed into prison by Potiphar’s wife, or being forgotten by the cupbearer. Joseph’s response was never self-pity or a desire to lash out. It was a God-reflex – we’ve seen it again and again. A radical trust in the sovereignty of God.
But it’s not just adversity that exposes our hearts is it. It’s success too.
Someone has said that success is like watching a jockey ride past you on a race horse. It looks really exciting and you think “Hey, I’d like to give that a go”. But the reality is very frightening and a significant pain in the rear.
I wonder whether you have experienced success like that. Five years into my career as a lecturer things really took off for me. I wrote a couple of books that got good reviews and organised a conference that got me international recognition. Instead of me asking editors to let me publish articles in their journals they began asking me to write articles for them. I was getting paid big fees for training barristers and teaching at overseas universities. I was a success.
But it fed my pride. I started thinking that the success was down to me: my intelligence; my hard work, my achievement. And oddly that caused me to develop what’s sometimes called imposter syndrome. Have you ever had that? The thought that you’re not really up to the job you’re doing. That your just hours away from being found out. Success exposes your heart and it can be ugly
Well, my experience was in stark contrast to that of Joseph. When Joseph hits the big time in Pharaoh’s court, his God-reflex kicks in again. He receives success, and then he seeks to humbly steward it; doesn’t let it go to his head. Did you notice that?
He’s willing to dress like an Egyptian, shave like an Egyptian, even marry an Egyptian. But when his sons are born, he gives them Hebrew – Jewish names. God comes first.
And notice the name of his second child. Verse 52: Ephraim;meaning “God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.” Joseph knew where his success came from.
Whether he was experiencing adversity or success, Joseph remained humble and he remained faithful.
What enabled him to do that? Well our second point of application.
2. Any dream will not do.
Any dream will not do. Andrew Lloyd Webber got it completely wrong in the title song of his musical.
Dreams of exaltation fail us. If your dream is one of personal success and exaltation then one of two things is likely to happen. Either you’ll not achieve your dream and be crushed by a sense of failure and disappointment. Or you’ll will achieve it but still be left feeling hollow and empty. That seems to be the universal experience of sports stars and pop idols, doesn’t it?
And nightmares of failure or belief that God has got it in for us will fail us too. They’ll mean that we forever see the worst in situations and never see the fingerprints of God’s grace in our lives.
The only dream that will do is Joseph’s dream - the dream of salvation.
This past week I learned of two people who’d been diagnosed with cancer.
The first was a famous footballing WAG, Claudia Nainggolan, wife of Belgium international midfielder Radja Nainggolan. Writing on Instagram she shared her devastating news:
“I’ve been waking up in the morning for the past month and I’ve realised that I live inside a nightmare. I hoped this day would come as late as possible, but it wasn’t to be. The days have flown by, as has my happiness...”
It’s simply heart-breaking to see how Claudia’s dream of success has been swallowed up by the nightmare of cancer.
The other person I heard about is Tim Tinsley. Tim is a friend of City Church and preached here back in April. He’s been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and started chemotherapy on the same day as Claudia. Listen to Tim’s heart:
“Please pray for peace, healing, courage and a long life of serving King Jesus. Why is Jesus allowing this? He is taking us deeper into His glory as we serve Him with abandon. He suffered, died, and was raised in glory to His Father’s right hand to intercede for His people. Should Christ suffer while we walk through life in silver slippers? He is our greatest joy and His presence is our heaven!”
What’s the difference? Tim is dreaming the dream of salvation.
And that has the power to keep us humble, faithful and hopeful whether we live in adversity or success.
Which brings me to my final point of application.
3. Only one dream fulfiller
There is only one dream fulfiller.
Joseph’s dream from chapter 37 is beginning to be fulfilled. The one who was rejected and thrown into a pit and then into prison has been exalted. And through his exaltation the world is being saved from disaster.
But if we know our Bibles well, this is all starting to sound rather familiar.
There’s another son of Abraham, another son of Jacob who is yet to come. Like Joseph he would be rejected by thoseclosest to him. Like Joseph he would be falsely accused. Like Joseph his clothes would be stripped from his back. And like Joseph he would be clothed by a pagan ruler. Except instead of a robe of fine linen, Jesus would be clothed with a Roman cross.
And you know, like Joseph, his exaltation on a cross made available salvation – for the whole world.
It is that dream of salvation that keeps Tim going in the nightmare of cancer. And it is that dream of salvation that will keep you and I humble and faithful whatever life throws at us.
But as I close, can I speak to those of you who are not yet Christians and return to the first set of dreams that we looked at– the dreams of judgment.
The baker and the cupbearer woke up from their dreams trembling with fear. Why? Because they knew judgment was coming and that there was nothing – nothing at all – they could do about it.
The Bible has given us a dream of judgment. It’s a picture of us having turned our backs on the God who made us and loved us. Instead of living for God and our neighbours we have lived lives of self-centredness and rebellion. And there are consequences.
Judgment will come.
But here’s the promise of Genesis 41. The dream of salvation has been fulfilled. Jesus died on the cross taking your judgment in your place.
He was hung on wood just like the baker was. So that through his resurrection and exaltation you might be saved. Will you make that dream – that reality – yours today.
Let me pray.