The Work of Reconciliation - Joseph Trades Revenge for Mercy (Sermon Notes)
I really like hearing people tell their stories. That is, as long as they do it honestly. It's really encouraging to hear how God has sorted things out for people, particularly when they’ve been through some deep strife. But sometimes we can glamorise this and that also creates problems.
A couple of weeks ago I took a group of 3 young university students from England up to Arthurs Pass. As we shared our spiritual journeys in the car, one of them said, "I haven’t got a story. I honestly can’t really remember anytime when I wasn’t a Christian. I haven’t got any dramatic events to relate." She said it so apologetically that I felt sorry that she was almost wondering if her experience was valid. Sometimes we can emphasise the dramatic so much that when we’re confronted with genuine faith in the midst of ordinary life we fail to see it.
Testimonies are smoothed out by the benefit of hindsight and selected memories. They’re compressed so when the punchline comes it all seems to work out so easily. We want to celebrate the birth, but who wants to remember the anguish of labour or the morning sickness? But if we don’t, only part of the story is being told and we leave other people really ill prepared to face some of those harsher realities that we haven’t talked about. As we come to consider the end of the story of Joseph, I think the punchline only makes sense if we do remember the anguish.
We left Joseph in prison where he had languished for a number of years and not through any fault of his own, but because he had done exactly what God wanted. This after he’d already been threatened with death and then sold into slavery by his own brothers, and then dragged off to Egypt as just a seventeen year old. He clearly demonstrates remarkable resilience and leadership skills as first of all in the house of Potiphar and then in the prison itself Joseph rapidly gains huge respect and ends up running things.
There are a variety of themes that we could pick up here that we haven’t: The significance of dreams and their interpretation; An exploration of what those leadership qualities that others found so admirable in Joseph look like and how we can develop these ourselves; Lessons about dealing with disappointment and surviving crises and unexpected reversals and transitions and career changes; And working for bosses who aren’t believers and taking on major responsibilities in a pagan environment and hanging on to your faith and living it out with integrity even when you’re just a minority of one. If our faith doesn’t talk about these things then faith becomes just an optional extra that has to do with a set of theoretical beliefs and how we spend our leisure time, but not a fundamental shaping influence in our lives. So let’s thank God the Bible is so full of down to earth realities, that it is about a faith central to our everyday lives and touching every part of life. Then Steve Muir would like us to discuss Joseph’s relief programme. Was it really just the way that God planned it? Because what offered immediate relief actually led to these people becoming slaves because Joseph bought their flocks and land in exchange for food and then they ended up so much in debt they had to sell themselves. It’s a very interesting case study for looking at development principles.
There are so many different angles that the story of Joseph can be read from, but it's just two that I want to emphasise strongly this morning. The first one jumps from last week to the end of the story in Genesis 50:20. The brothers of Joseph were worried about their fate now that their father was dead. They wondered if here at last Joseph will take his revenge on them for treating him so badly when they sold him into slavery. For Joseph now confronts them as the emperors second in command, a man who just has to say the word and they are dead. Joseph has leapt from being a prisoner to becoming prime minister. It’s a stunning reversal when we think about those years languishing in jail that we reminded of last week. Joseph interpreted the emperors dream that warned of seven years of famine ahead, and more than that also came up with a plan explaining how in the 7 good years prior to this food could be stored so that Egypt would be saved from devastation. So the emperor immediately elevated Joseph from prisoner to his second in command to ensure that the job got done. And that’s where he stood when his brothers came to Egypt to beg food as Canaan was also devastated by the famine. How Joseph dealt with the urge to exact revenge on his brothers I want to pick up in the second part of this mornings sermon.
But for now just the words of verse Genesis 50:20.
"Even 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."
It’s a wonderful statement about what Joseph has learned about the sovreignty of God, and Joseph’s willingness to live with discomfort for the sake of God’s wider purposes. In God’s economy something even more important is being worked out even when we cannot see or understand this.
It's also an affirmation of belief in a God who we can trust is seeking the best for us even when it doesn’t look like that nor feel that way. This is no light reflection then, but a foundational belief forged on the anvil of suffering, of which Joseph knew plenty: betrayed by his brothers, dropped in a pit, threatened with death, dragged off as a slave into exile, thrown into years in prison - all this for a boy who was sure that God had given him dreams of significance and success, but who had to live for some 13 years with very few reassuring signs that any of this was going to come true. He said, "Even 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."
We talked last week about how do we continue to nurture our faith in the face of dreams deferred and how we need to feed on some of these stories to remind ourselves how God has been there for others sustaining them in those dark nights of the soul. There are plenty of sentimental words of reassurance from those who haven’t suffered, but they sound hollow. But when they come from Joseph or Jeremiah or the apostle Paul, that’s different, because we know something about where they have been and the depths that they have been forced to plumb.When Jeremiah says "I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope" in Jeremiah 29:11, we know that this is something that he has held onto and that has sustained Jeremiah in the midst of circumstances that would long ago have crushed most of us.
It's the same thing with Paul when he says in Romans 8:28 "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose." Most of Pauls theology was penned in prison and forged in the face of severe persecution. These particular words don’t come from prison, but they are written in the context of real suffering and struggle. That’s plain because the words that immediately precede this verse say:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:22-23)
For those of you who are struggling at the moment with disappointment or anxiety or dreams deferred, or who are caught up in the middle of conflict that you would rather run miles away from, these words are for you to grasp hold of. They are backed up by lives that have proved they are true.
For long years that must have been full of a lot of confusion, Joseph had to hang on to his dreams with not much to go on. How close to the end of his tether he came we don’t know. We only know that in spite of the circumstances, at the end of the day he could say God intended it for good.
These passages don’t answer all our questions about how and why. They don’t explain exactly how much God deliberately plans what we go through and how much he just permits us to go through difficult times but still works these into his transforming purposes. What they do say is that whatever our circumstances, God is with us and will work his good purposes out with our best interests at heart.
And so we come to think again about the encounter between Joseph and his brothers. I want to explore it from another angle, because it is not only the culmination of Josephs story but in fact the climax of the whole story of Genesis.
The first week we looked at the stories of the families of the other patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In one sense it was quite reassuring to read about families that seemed to show so many dysfunctional characteristics but God still used in his purposes. Some of these stories make even some of the worst moments at our place look quite normal. Maybe God can still use the Mackenzies after all. But in spite of this assurance, they are still quite alarming - especially the conflict between brothers that seems to go from one generation to the next and then when you think about it right down to today as Muslims and Christians and Jews trace a common ancestry right back to the family of Abraham.
Indeed, conflict does not originate in the stories of the patriarchs. All the way through Genesis - even in the very first family - we find Cain killing Abel out of jealously in Genesis 4. In the midst of this recurring theme of brother versus brother we ask: Is there no end to this? Is there no way out of these ever recurring and ever escalating cycles of conflict and violence? In this context, the confrontation between Joseph and his brothers assumes epic proportions. Will it end up in sweet revenge and just another round of hatred and violence, or is there the possibility of something else happening?
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?” So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, ‘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. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even 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. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them. (Genesis 50:15-21)
There is another way, but only if someone will back away from their desire to get revenge and act in mercy. Someone must deal with their hatred and extend the hand of friendship with a genuine offer of forgiveness and love. Something decisive has to happen to break these recurring cycles by someone taking the risk of being vulnerable and doing the unexpected, often putting their lives on the line in the process. Joseph is frequently seen to be a figure who engages in an act of reconciliation that looks forward to the coming of Jesus for its fulfilment.
As Paul says in Romans 5:8 "God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us." Then further in 2 Corinthians 5:18 we read “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation."
Right now we live in a world teetering on the edge of war, but for me more worrying than the threat of war itself is the fact that God’s name has been brought into play so often. I fear that generations of Muslims in particular will not be able to distinguish the difference between Christianity and American political agendas. Muslims and Christians and Jews share the same religious roots but the fight between brothers continues and even we who proclaim most loudly what we call a gospel of reconciliation seem unable to take it seriously. What I do feel convinced about is that, whether it is before the fighting starts or only afterwards, the only way towards a just and lasting peace will inevitably require an approach that is no longer dependent on repeating acts of violence and revenge. Because resentment once grown can only be overcome by acts of goodwill and mercy.
In that regard I give America credit for doing some very good things following World War II to help enemy nations back on their feet economically. They knew then that leaving nations poor and desperate would only be a formula for continuing resentment and future conflict, and surely that same understanding holds true now. If we can’t learn to love our enemies we will just become like them. Unless we deliberately choose another way we will become just what we hate, because we end up retaliating with the same violence that has been inflicted on us.
That’s not only true in international relations but also in families and personal relationships. Repeating cycles of violence and abuse and conflict need to be interrupted, and I don’t mean just by us rolling over and submitting. Violence and abuse does need resisting, but with the sort of tough love that works for restoration and redemption rather than revenge.
Certainly from the point of view of Jesus, he understood that its in each of us that something has to change and that this struggle to counteract violence and abuse and conflict has to start in our own hearts and minds and be dealt with in our own homes first. So often that’s exactly where it wages most intensely in the struggle between brothers and sisters and between parents and children, or maybe between flatmates. If we are honest, for many of us it is scarey how angry we can get and how bad we can feel even towards those we say we love the most. If we can’t deal with it here, we will not deal with it anywhere.
From the example of Joseph these are the lessons:
- Firstly, don’t pretend that you don’t feel this way. Nothing can happen so long as we are in denial.
- Secondly, try to catch a glimpse of God’s bigger purposes so that winning isn’t such a big thing. Being prepared to take a step backwards may seem worth it and save us from acting presumptuously.
- Thirdly, try to catch a glimpse of how different things might be if you can bring yourself to offer forgiveness and reach out a hand in friendship.
- Fourthly, remind yourself that this is how God has acted towards you and you are only being challenged to give to others what has already been given to you
- And fifthly, take the risk and do it!
- Sixthly, if you can’t ask for prayer and help.
What do you stand to lose compared with what you stand to gain? These destructive cycles must be interrupted, but nothing can really change until we are prepared to be changed. So let’s take some inspiration from Joseph, along with the help of the saviour that he points us to, and with a commitment to encourage each other to do together what we might not otherwise get around to alone.
Here at the very beginning of the Bible story, Joseph shows us the most powerfully redemptive way of responding to hurt even when every fibre of our being is crying out for revenge. Surely this is very close to the essence of our Christian gospel of reconciliation as the apostle Paul says in Romans 12:9-17
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.