August 14, 2011
The story so far:
In a few minutes we will read the climax of the story of Joseph, eleventh of Jacob’s twelve sons. It’s much too long a story to read the whole thing in church today—Genesis chapters 37 to 50—and I want to set the stage for you before we hear today’s scripture. I highly recommend it to your sabbath afternoon reading, though—the details are perhaps not what you have come to expect from the Bible.
Jacob, whose name
was changed by God to
continued for Joseph in
surrounding his rise to power were dire, though. He interpreted some dreams that Pharaoh had,
and accurately predicted seven years of abundance, followed by seven years of
famine. He put into place a system of
production, preservation, and distribution to store food during the good years so
that the country could survive. Today’s
reading happens during year two of the seven years of famine. It’s easy to see why Joseph is so
People all over
the region were suffering, even as far away as
Imagine the surprise Joseph must feel the day he walks into his office for another busy day of grain distribution—and encounters the family he has not seen in at least 22 years. Hated and betrayed by his brothers, sold into slavery, imprisoned, and now in a position of great power, suddenly he is face-to-face with these grown men whom he thought never to see again. Of course, they don’t recognize him. Why would they? Nobody in the room thought there would ever be any hope to make right what had gone so terribly wrong nearly a lifetime ago. But here it is, and Joseph has to decide what to do.
them intensely, securing details that assure him that these are, indeed, his
brothers. But he isn’t sure what to
do. He accuses them of being spies,
throws them in jail, then sends them home, keeping Simeon as a hostage, and
tells them to return with their remaining brother, Benjamin. He orders their sacks filled with grain, and
returns their money to them. When they
discover this, they are terrified that they will be accused of stealing if they
return. But they eat all the grain, and the
family will starve if they don’t go back for more. So they convince Jacob to let them return to
Joseph prepares an elaborate feast for them, which worries them even more. Are they being set up? He sends them home again with grain, and their money. It’s very confusing—it seems to me that Joseph just doesn’t know what to do. Punish them? Reward them? Reveal himself? This time Joseph plants his own special silver cup in the top of Benjamin’s pack.
The brothers are still clueless—they don’t know who Joseph is or why his is making all these strange requirements. But you know how it is with government offices—you do what you have to do to get what you need. Joseph sends his soldiers after them, hauls them back as thieves, and demands that Benjamin stay on as his slave. The brothers know that their father would never survive the loss of his second favorite child, and they beg Joseph to let them stay instead.
After all the scheming and conniving, after framing his brothers for crimes and desperately trying to get back at them for what they had done to him, Joseph realizes that they will never make any progress—there will be no hope for reconciliation, a future for the family—unless he reveals himself. (870 words)
V V V
Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel. Ephesians 6.1
V V V
You might know
that I just got back from a visit with my brother and his family in
The first night I got there this week, Mark was out back grilling for my welcome party, and I was sitting on the porch swing nearby. I said, “Hey, remember how we used to fight?” He remembered, all right. I said, “What did we fight about?” Neither of us had any idea. But I remember that neither of us had ever been willing to let the other one get away with anything. Our first decade and a half together was non-stop I’m-gonna-tell threats and retribution.
And then somehow, we just stopped. Neither of us can remember how, but we stopped. Maybe we just got tired of fighting. Maybe one of us let something go just once, and the other one was so grateful that we stopped pushing the same old buttons. Maybe it didn’t matter any more. But something broke the cycle.
That is grace. And today’s scene from the end of the Joseph story is pure grace. Joseph, who holds all the power and has every reason to use it against his brothers, decides not to. The big question is: Why? I’m going to lead with the punch line—because he turns his eyes toward God instead.
At the beginning of this passage, Joseph sends all the Egyptians out of the room, leaving him alone with his still-clueless brothers, who are sure they are in big trouble. Crying inconsolably, Joseph tells his brothers everything—who he is, what happened after they sold him into slavery, how he came to this position of power. He asks again about his father, and clings to his brother Benjamin.
His brothers are stunned. Stunned, full of fear and shame. So many years of brokenness and lies. They don’t know what to do. How can there be forgiveness and reconciliation after all that hurt and pain? Good relationships are built on years of commitment, compromise, and respect—which is the exact opposite of what has happened here.
This is also true of many relationships in our lives. I imagine we can all think of relationships that are strained or broken, some that seem irretrievable. We all know it’s best to build healthy relationships and work respectfully through conflict, but what when we don’t? What do we do when communication is twisted, trust is broken, and relationships are severed? What then? Can there ever be healing?
If God can fix this family, I say there’s hope for everyone. It would have
been good, of course, if Jacob had taught his family how to communicate
honestly, to discuss their problems and resolve their conflicts. And it
would have been good if Joseph was reprimanded for his selfish behavior and if
Jacob had treated all his children the same. It would have been good if
Joseph’s brothers had expressed their anger using words rather than actions,
and worked through the pain instead of using violence. They could have
run after the caravan that took Joseph to
But there are glimpses of promise wherever God is at work. God is in the business of creating possibility where there is none. Even in the bleakest situation, we can hope for healing because we belong to a God who takes the most painful, ripped-up parts of life and, impossibly, stitches them back together.
What breaks the cycle of pain and retribution in this story? It is grace—and Joseph’s decision to accept it. He holds all the power and has every reason to use it against his brothers—and decides not to. How does he do it? He turns his eyes toward God instead.
A few chapters later (50:20), reflecting on what happens here, Joseph says,
Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.
Joseph sees God at work. He chooses to break the cycle, and God blesses the situation beyond his wildest dreams. The family is restored, and they live in peace and prosperity, burying their father together years later, as he desired.
Wherever there are signs of life instead of death, reconciliation instead of estrangement, these signs underscore this ridiculous hope to which we cling. God makes possibilities out impossibilities, hope out of hopelessness, and peace out of pain. But we have to accept it. We have to let go of our desire for retribution, our clenched-teeth insistence that things be fair—as we define “fair,” of course.
And so we tell the story of how Joseph and his brothers finally found each other again, how they broke the cycle of misery and guilt, and we remember that our God can bring healing into even the most hurt-filled places of our lives.
We long for this kind of healing, don’t we? Is there anyone in your life that you’re cut off from? Is there a situation that needs your acceptance of God’s hope and God’ healing? It is waiting for you—if only you will let God in, accept God’s love, and offer it to another. Turn your gaze away from the ways in which you have been wronged, and look to God. I am not suggesting that you let people abuse you. Let God guide you about what you should speak up about—and what you should let go. Like Joseph, we may have the chance to break the cycle of hurt and pain, and make way for God’s healing and reconciliation. Amen.
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. 2 And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. 3 Joseph 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.
4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.”
And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into