Sermon - September 14, 2014
Scripture Text: Genesis 50:15-21
15 Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?’ 16So they approached* Joseph, saying, ‘Your father gave this instruction before he died, 17“Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.” Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.’ Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18Then his brothers also wept,* fell down before him, and said, ‘We are here as your slaves.’ 19But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? 20Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. 21So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’ In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
I love how this text begins because the story is so familiar to my ears, and not because I read it before, but because I've lived the story... If you don't think God's people or His servants have a sense of sarcasm, at the very least, your not paying attention to the substance of the narrative. Today's text is one such text.
It text begins rather dramatically: "realizing their father was dead." Uh oh *gulp*... Jacob's dead and we're in for it. The noose begin to tighten.
'Joseph has no one to plead on our behalf now; we're dead meat' they think. 'No one will tell him that, we really didn't mean to try to kill him, sell him into slavery, fake his death, destroy his property. I mean seriously we may not have felt any remorse about the whole thing, but we are all fed now. We are a family again. Let's let bygones-be-bygones.' Jacob is dead; they are worried. And we know they have good reasons to worry.
Joseph's anger can, maybe should is a better word, burn righteously against them. If this story were not in the bible but told to us at Starbucks, we would expect Joseph to react in anger, to lash back at them- just as I think my anger would burn if I were in that circumstance. But that's not how the story plays out and I thank God for that because there are times when I have acted through my intentions just as the brothers of Joseph acted, and I am glad God does not punish me for those moments.
There are times when I have thought horrible things in my mind, or with my intentions, horrible things that seemed right at the time, and felt justifiable to do, but still things that God could not help but be angered at if I stopped to consult him. Just as I think that same is true for you, isn't it?
God, like Joseph in our story uses these acts we perform against him, and against each other, to teach us something about the power of forgiveness and the power of His love in us.
"To forgive is to make a conscious choice to release the person who has wounded us from the sentence of judgment, however, justified that judgment may be. It represents a choice to leave behind our resentment and desire for retribution, however fair such punishment may seem... Forgiveness involves excusing person from the punitive consequences they deserve because their behavior. The behavior remains condemned, but the offender is released from its effects as far as the forgiver is concerned. Forgiveness means the power of the original wound's power to hold us trapped is broken."
Forgiveness means to release, to let go of the other. Forgiveness is not denying our hurt. It is remembering that we all fall down some times but God in His rich mercy helps us get back up again and again- just as he was doing in the life of Joseph and his brothers.
Move 1- Grudges come first
Again, I love the honesty of the scriptures. The acts in the story can only be described as human behavior at its finest- manipulative and self-serving.
So is it any wonder that the children of Jacob's first thought was for the grudge Joseph would naturally hold over them. They did not think of forgiveness and/or reconciliation. Nothing positive was coming from this moment. They thought of the negative. They worried about a grudge. You can't imagine this stuff! Then there would be retribution, but the grudge was worse and it would come first in their mind.
Grudges, as the children of our church can speak about, are powerful. Every one of our children can tell you chapter and verse about a grudge a classmate, or a playground bully, has held over them and that power that act has. I can't even begin to tell you about the people I know who hold grudges against family members or friends. People who refuse to speak to another out of spite or hate. It is debilitating to the individual who holds these feelings in them.
The expectation of what would happen. What would Joseph do? What would he say? It could paralyze them. Would he look at us and with tears in his eyes say we broke our father's heart with what we did and that's why he died? Would he hate us? Would he live among us silently but never let us into his heart again? Isolation, a grudge without words- is that what happens next?
Would the silence of his heart at the death of his father, a father he just discovered was alive, be so painful it would break our spirits just watching the pain etched on his face? We didn't mean for things to go so far...but they did. And now we all worry about the grudge that someone else could hold over us.
Grudges hurt. They hurt long after the physical wound has healed since they are so personal. They hurt in ways we cannot explain accurately but in ways we feel in our souls that linger. They grip us as they gripped Joseph's brothers.
Move 2- then they try to cover themselves
After fretting over any potential grudge issues they could come up with, the brother move to the next logical step- self-preservation. Save our own skin! They look for something that will wipe away the wound. Let's just pretend it didn't happen so nothing calls for accountability from us. How many people do we know who work to cover themselves from accountability by covering themselves with a self-imposed sanction or punishment? Our character did.
Since they naturally knew Joseph would hold a grudge, because that is what they did and it caused them to do something terrible to their father's heart, next the brothers try to hide from the accountability in an act of self-preservation. They create a false reality to offer their younger brother; a reality where Jacob told Joseph to forgive them and restore them because they were really sorry and wouldn't that be enough? It won't happen again, Joseph. He told you to forgive us! But we've heard, or said, that justification before also.
Again you can hear the sarcasm and self-centered living. If I have good justifications for my sins and even better reasons to expect forgiveness and full restoration then God has no choice but to see things my way right and give me what I want? I'll be your slave God if you look past what's happening here. Isn't that how much of this society works?
But it is not how God's society works. God looks for a change of heart; he looks for an internal change from the person that admits their wrongdoings, does not hide from them, and leans un God's grace.
If they just came clean. If we just came clean. If they could see themselves now, they would see how silly this all was. God wants people who live in sin, like you and me, to acknowledge what we've done and ask, with no strings attached for his grace and mercy.
But moving toward forgiveness is hard because we may or may not be capable of seeing the destination. We may know where the conversation is leading but God does- and that's enough. We, like the remaining children of Jacob, may not see how the pain we have caused another will work for God's glory- but it will.
Forgiveness and restoration comes.
Move 3- the answer is forgiveness and acceptance
God has these misguided brothers of Joseph to work with. He has a plan not to force them to live as Joseph's slaves to pay him back for the years of suffering he endured. He has a plan to restore them, to rebuild the relationship, just as he has plan to restore you even if you have done terrible things either by action or by thought against God's kingdom and/or his people. He has a plan to restore them.
Once mercy is offered the proclamation is given: "Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended for good..." And in that moment, together, brother to brother, Christian to Christian, they weep for the good God is doing in them.
They weep because a grudge is not necessary. They weep because they do not have to punish themselves to make things right. They weep because they are the family of God, and like the prodigal son and father in Luke, they have come home in their hearts.
At the center of God's heart is a desire to forgive. It is written into the fabric of our relationship with him. We want to be forgiven and restored but yet we know the terrible lengths each of us will go to prove to ourselves and God that we are not guilty and we didn't actually do anything wrong.
We may create elaborate plans with layers of deceit and justification to ensure we will be forgiven- so far as the power lies in our hands. But in the moment, as Jacob's surviving children remind us, none of it is necessary. There will be no grudge; there will be no need for self-imposed punishment. There is just the opportunity of acceptance.
Joseph did not have to forgive the wicked children of Jacob for all they did to him. He did not have to look past all the pain they caused him, the years he was in the prison of Egypt before God raised him to a place of standing. I'm not even sure he could forgive it all in the moment. And I don't even think God asked him to do so.
Instead, God asked him, as he asks you now, to look past just the moment that has just occurred- don't worry about all the wrongs that have built up over time. Just focus on the moment you are in now. Look past the accidental hurts as you look past the deliberate ones. Look past what has happened between you and your neighbors, between you and that estranged friend/family member, and see the one who holds no grudge against you for what you've done.
He holds no grudge against the visible sins you engage in or the invisible ones you hide from us even though he would be justified in doing so. He forgives.
Then in that moment, when the gravity of what God has done in you is felt, weep with Him and weep each other at the mercy that he offers you. For God in his mercy forgives them as he forgives you. God in his mercy is there when we fall down just as he is there when we push another down. He is there to help us back onto the path of righteousness.
These wicked brothers would have to carry a double load from here on... They would have to know what they did to Joseph and how much it harmed him and their relationship with him. But more importantly they would have to remember God's mercy that was given to them. That lesson would stay with them for a long time- as it should.
Then when the time came, and it would come, it always comes, they would HAVE to duplicate the mercy in the lives of another who came to them with the same self-defenses expecting judgment and needing grace.
The time will come for you also, it always comes, when you too must duplicate the mercy you felt from God into the lives of another person. Hold them. Weep with them; just as your Father in heaven does.