Genesis 45:1-15; 50:14-22
9th Sunday after Pentecost
Elizabeth M. Deibert
Today’s scripture lesson is about forgiveness. It is a fascinating look at God’s sovereign protection, even in direst circumstances. Today’s story shows us that those who put the past hurts behind them can get on with life, as Joseph did, because there’s no need to hold grudges when you know God is bringing about good in your life, despite the harm that you have experienced from others.
Let’s get on board with the whole story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph, the braggadocios favorite son of Jacob, seventeen years old, drives his brothers crazy with his arrogant dreams of greatness. They sell him into slavery, allowing their father to believe that he was killed by a wild animal. But the Lord was with Joseph and he did well and impressed his master, Potiphar. Potiphar’s wife, is attracted to Joseph (after all, the scripture tells us he was handsome and good-looking) but when he resists her inappropriate offer, she falsely accuses him, and he is cast into prison. But again God is with Joseph. Despite every unfair situation into which Joseph is thrown, we learn that God is with him and that God is making him do well in spite of his circumstances.
God rescues Joseph not by miraculous means but by employing the talents that Joseph has. By being fascinated by dreams, Joseph had offended his own brothers. By being fascinated by dreams, Joseph works his way out of prison and into the most powerful position in Pharaoh’s Egypt. Interpreting dreams is Joseph’s gift. It can bring disaster or reward. We are like Joseph, with gifts that can be used for ill or good. When we use our gifts to serve self alone, it can bring about disaster and ruin, but when we use our gifts to serve others, then we ourselves are lifted up to a higher place. When Joseph used his dreams to tell his half-brothers he was more important than they, his prideful behavior landed him in a slave trade as good as dead.
When he used dreams to interpret for others, he not only helped them but helped himself too. Because Joseph was so grateful for God’s rescue, he named his sons, Manassah, which means “God has made me forget my hardship” and Ephraim, which means, “God has made me fruitful in the land of misfortunes.” You see, Joseph does not develop a victim’s mentality. No self-pity parties for Joseph. He moves on to make the most of the current situation with God’s help.
And what a blessing he was to the entire region, not just Egypt, when he used his gifts to rightly interpret Pharaoh’s dream. He was able to help an entire nation prepare for famine by saving grain for seven years before the seven years of famine hit. When it did, everyone came to Joseph to buy food, even his own brothers from the land of Canaan. Now Joseph truly wielded power over his brothers, who did not recognize him in such a high position. He toyed with them over a period of time, seemingly wanting to punish them for their abuse of him as a boy. He accused them of being spies. He asked them inappropriately personal questions. He made them leave Simeon in prison while the rest returned to Canaan to bring young brother Benjamin. He planted his own silver cup in their bags and accused them of stealing it. He threatened to take his favorite little brother Benjamin from them, but they pleaded with him.
At last Joseph could not maintain the charade any longer. He finally confessed to his brothers his true identity and that’s the point at which our text begins.
Genesis 45:1-15. 50:14-22
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, "Send everyone away from me." So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. 2And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. 3Joseph said to his brothers, "I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?" But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence. 4Then Joseph said to his brothers, "Come closer to me." And they came closer. He said, "I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.
9Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, 'Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. 10You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children's children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. 11I will provide for you there-- since there are five more years of famine to come-- so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.' 12And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you.13You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here." 14Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin's neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. 15 And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him...
After he had buried his father, Joseph returned to Egypt with his brothers and all who had gone up with him to bury his father. 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. 22So Joseph remained in Egypt, he and his father's household; and Joesph lived one hundred and then years. (NRSV)
Hear these key words again. Joseph says to his brothers, “Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.” Joseph’s perspective is that no matter harm human beings are doing to one another, God is ultimately in control. God can redeem any situation.
Imagine how life might be different for us if every time someone offended us, we could remember Joseph’s words: “Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” God intends it for good. Even when others betray us, hurt us, abandon us, reject us, God turns it to good. Romans 8:28 which we read a few weeks ago says “All things work together for good to those who love the Lord.” All things. I don’t know what’s been happening in your life that’s unfair or painful or difficult, but I know that we believe in a God who is Lord over that life of yours. And God will turn your situation into something good, hard as it may be right now.
To have Joseph’s perspective is to accept your life’s circumstances not as a victim but as one who knows that God is sovereign. God can take whatever people have dished out to you that you don’t like and turn it into something better than you would have had otherwise. Joseph wasn’t perfect and neither are we perfect. Joseph was an arrogant young man. He should not have boasted to his brothers about dreams that set him above them. But he did not deserve to be cruelly discarded by his brothers and shipped off to a foreign land. He did not deserve to be falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife and sent to prison, but that is what happened. He could have had a big self-pity party, but he didn’t.
He could have become deeply embittered toward his brothers. He could have rightly held onto to his grudge. But He didn’t because he trusted God and he knew that God would make a way out for him. And God did. And no doubt God also gave Joseph an opportunity in the course of this hardship to grow in humility and wisdom.
If only we could maintain the perspective of Joseph, trusting God. Knowing that God is sovereign. Really believing that no matters what happens we are in God’s loving arms and we will be alright. Forgiveness is letting go of a better past. The past is done. You cannot get it back, but you have a future. You’re going to be alright. You really are. Let go of your fears. Let go of your pride. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Don’t waste your energy on being angry at those who did you wrong. Fred Buechner says that “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back--in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”
I’m one of those people who replays conversations in my mind. Do you do that? Instant replay can be helpful if we learn a lesson or remember something valuable that was said in a conversation, but the temptation in instant replay is to nurse our wounds, hold our grudges. That comment your spouse or ex or sister or father or co-worker or daughter made three months ago or three years ago, and you have not forgotten it. You keep replaying it, thinking you’re going to figure out why he or she said it. The replay of the memory again and again deepens the offense. The more you play that video in your head, then the more embittered you become toward the person, the more justified you feel in maintaining your anger.
But you have the freedom to release the bitterness -- because you know that despite that hurt and sometimes through it, God is weaving your life’s story into a beautiful work of art. Forgiveness is letting the captive bird free, only to realize that you have been the captive bird. C.S. Lewis once said, “To be a Christian is to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” Sometime we forget how much God has forgiven in us. All the major religions agree that forgiveness is a virtue. Gandhi said: “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong”.
Studies at the University of Wisconsin found the more forgiving people were, the less they suffered from a wide range of illness. The benefits included improved functioning of their cardiovascular and nervous systems. On-going anger and resentment will bring us nothing but trouble and unhappiness.
“How often do you forgive one person? Up to seven times?” Jesus Christ was asked by his disciple Peter. Jesus replied: “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven”. Jesus even asked God to forgive those who have crucified him: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray: “And forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”.
Forgiveness begins with God, in our relationship with God. With God, there is no need for grudges because with God we know we are forgiven and they are forgiven. With God, we can trust that all will be well. Those who know that all will be well are able to release themselves and others from the pressure of forcing the hurts of the past go away. The hurts heal only as we release them to God.
All will be well. Julian of Norwich, mystic theologian of the 14th century, first woman to write in English, lived through the bubonic plague during which half the people in the city died. Julian was an anchoress, a spiritual counselor who lived in isolation in a small room in the church. Jesus spoke to her in a vision just like Jesus is speaking to you today saying, “I may make all things well, and I can make all things well, and I shall make all things well, and I will make all things well, and you shall see yourself that all manner of things shall be well.