August 20, 2017
This is our last Sunday following the lectionary readings in the book of Genesis. We've tried to cover the 45 chapters so far in eleven weeks; there are 50 total chapters in Genesis. But there is so much material the lectionary skips over. Last week we ended with Joseph being sold to the Medianite traders. Lots happened to Joseph between then and today's reading. That's why we postponed the Old Testament reading so I could catch everybody up on the life of Joseph in Egypt.
When the traders got to Egypt, they sold Joseph to Potiphar, one of the Pharaoh’s chief officials. And Joseph had great success and rapidly moved up in position in his household until he was made overseer of the whole household of Potiphar. But Potiphar's wife had an unholy interest in David and when David refused her advances, she accused him of making advances on her and Potiphar threw him into jail.
Now in prison, once again Joseph was successful and the jailer put him in charge of the whole prison; still a prisoner, but with responsibilities to care for the others. One day, he interpreted dreams for two prisoners...I won’t go into detail, but his interpretations came true. Pharaoh's cupbearer was freed as his dream showed he would be, and he left with a parting request from Joseph, I quote, “keep me in mind when it goes well with you and please do me a kindness by mentioning me to Pharaoh, and get me out of this (prison).” The man got released... and forgot all about Joseph.
Two years later, Pharaoh had a dream that none of his magicians or wise men could interpret, Then the cupbearer remembered Joseph and he was called from prison to interpret the dream. Joseph shared the interpretation like this, from chapter 31: “28 God has shown Pharaoh what he is about to do. 29 Seven years of great abundance are now coming throughout the entire land of Egypt. 30 After them, seven years of famine will appear, and all of the abundance in the land of Egypt will be forgotten. The famine will devastate the land. 31 No one will remember the abundance in the land because the famine that follows will be so very severe.”
Then Pharaoh put Joseph in charge of handling the famine; he stored up grain for seven years and when the drought hit, they were ready. The famine also hit Israel. Jacob and his sons were starving and so Joseph's brothers were sent to buy grain, but Benjamin stayed home as he was now Jacob's favorite son. When they got to Egypt, quote, Genesis 42, 6 “As for Joseph, he was the land’s governor, and he was the one selling grain to all the land’s people. When Joseph’s brothers arrived, they bowed down to him, their faces to the ground. (remember his dreams in last week's reading?)7 When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he acted like he didn’t know them. Joseph recognized them, but they had no idea it was Joseph.”
Joseph kept his identity secret and sent the brothers back to get Benjamin, holding Simeon hostage. There is a scene played out where the Joseph set his brothers up as thieves and they were fearing for their lives. Finally, he is ready to reveal his identity and here is David with today's Old Testament lesson:
Let's look a bit at the brothers of Joseph as that's kind of who we are in the story. I can imagine they were living with various degrees of guilt. After all, they had sold their brother and had no idea if he was dead or alive. But years had gone by, they probably no longer dwelt on their terrible betrayal of their brother. They really didn't show much remorse; plenty of fear of what Joseph would do, but remorse isn't shown. In fact, after their father dies, they are convinced Joseph is still planning revenge so they take steps to head him off. Here, from Genesis 50: “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “Perhaps Joseph will hate us, and may actually repay us for all the evil which we did to him.” 16 So they sent messengers to Joseph, saying, “Before your father died he commanded, saying, 17 ‘Thus you shall say to Joseph: “I beg you, please forgive the trespass of your brothers and their sin; for they did evil to you.” 18 Then his brothers also went and fell down before his face, and they said, “Behold, we are your servants.” See, there is no clear recognition of their guilt; but there is fear of punishment. They had rejected Joseph and now he had the power to save or condemn them.
Now we may not relate to their level of fear or even guilt. In fact, fear is not the primary reason we come to God; it is God's grace that draws us as God seeks us. Joseph had plenty of reason to want revenge, most of them wanted to kill him, they made it clear they hated him; they sold him as a slave and lied to their father that he'd been killed. I think we can understand why the brothers were afraid for their lives. They knew how they'd react...they'd already shown that violence; revenge was their reaction to being “mistreated”. They couldn't understand grace. It was all about their feelings, their rights, their privilege. We sometimes struggle with the truth that God offers us forgiveness even when we don't deserve it. And sometimes we don't even recognize that we need it.
Scriptures make it clear that Jesus was to be a suffering servant; suffering seems to be a part of the plan of salvation. Joseph's continually changing situation brought him into suffering he would never have chosen. Threatened, sold, made a slave, thrown into prison, forgotten; his rights as a human being were being denied again and again. But his suffering led to salvation for many; life here on earth, for his family and the nations of the world. Jesus chose the path of suffering and his suffering leads to salvation, life eternally, for those who have been adopted as children of God.
A little sidetrack here, but something that needs to be considered. Our country faced another violent reaction to questions about rights and privilege in Charlotte last weekend. I think we can all agree that the feelings and beliefs of the white supremacist groups don't align with the Christian gospel of love, grace, and forgiveness. It can be difficult to put ourselves in the place of those outraged...on both sides. Julie and I spent time in Gettysburg earlier this year. The statues and war memorials were very meaningful. We recognized true heroism and patriotism in them. And while the south was fighting for a cause unworthy of a Christian nation, most of the regular army were following their understanding of their faith the best they knew how. 150 years later, we should understand how wrong they were. But some of us don't; we hold on to the illusion that the nation is healed, that divisions are gone. The fact of the matter is, most of those confederate statues were put up during the Jim Crow years and were intended to intimidate the African Americans seeking to live life as free people.
My attempt to find some semblance of sense from all this comes from Winston Churchill, he said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing - after they've tried everything else.” And that's where we are, still trying the everything else as we stumble along trying to get race relations, political divisions, violence, civil rights right.
It does relate to the situation Israel found themselves in in Egypt. We will read next week what happened to the nation of Israel there. After the brothers return and brought their father Jacob with them to Egypt, Joseph saw to it that they got a portion of some of the best land in Egypt, the land of Goshen. They settled in, Joseph watched out for their needs and protection and life was good as they survived the final years of the seven-year famine. But listen to the first line from next Sunday's lesson which occurs several generations down the line, “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” And if you know the story of Moses and the Exodus, you realize that that life-saving trip to Egypt resulted in 400 years of slavery for the Israelites. Yeah, the Egyptians saw themselves as the “Master Race”. They saw the Israelites as less than fully human. This led to violence, the struggles for freedom, the inhumane treatment of one human to another all because they are a different race... and we see that the world hasn't changed all that much in 4000 years.
Julie gave us a feel for where we are and what we need to do as a nation in this morning's prayer of confession, “We cringe at how we have mistreated, abused, discriminated... O God, we seek your help in bringing about reconciliation.”
The solution? We confess, we make amends, we pray. We can't change the world by ourselves, but we can certainly learn to love our family and our neighbor with the love of Christ. The greatest commandment is love. And it was love that lead Joseph to forgive his brothers. It was love that lead God to send Jesus to forgive us. Joseph saw God's love in how his life had played out. He told his brothers, “God sent me before you to preserve life. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God.”
And it is not our good sense that brings us to God. It is not our goodness, our good works, our words, even our initiative that saves us. It is all Christ. He was sent to preserve our lives; eternal life with God through faith by grace. It was an amazing gift of forgiveness that Joseph gave his brothers. But it cost him little in truth. Our forgiveness cost Jesus his life. And he went willingly, John tells us in his gospel that Jesus said, “I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” (John 10: 17-18) But laying down his life for us was not the end of the story. Jesus laid down his life then took it up again; he rose so that we too may rise to life eternal. Amazing. Not technicolor forgiveness, but amazing forgiveness. And just as those brothers did nothing to earn their forgiveness, we come to God just as we are; receiving forgiveness as we trust in the Savior's grace to cover our sins. May we learn to forgive as Joseph did; as Jesus taught. And may we recognize and receive the forgiveness offered by Jesus; forgiveness that is free, that is amazing, that will pardon, cleanse, relieve. Let us come to the Lamb of God who takes away our sins. Let's sing our Hymn: Just As I Am 370 PH