Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, January 22, 2022
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Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Genesis 45:1-15

 I always think the story of Joseph is such a refreshing change when I read through Genesis.  He is, to me, the bright spot in the book.  I mean Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, there are some moments in their stories when you smile and think, “That’s great.”  But there are also a lot of moments when you think, “Why did God choose these boneheads!?”  But Joseph seems to be the kind of character that I can say, “Yeah, follow his example.”  

 Joseph is one of the 12 sons of Jacob.  And he is the favorite.  That’s not his fault.  He was not the oldest son.  He was the favorite because he was the first child born to Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel, who has died by this point in the story.  Jacob had four wives, which tells he wasn’t the smartest guy.  

 At the start of his story, Joseph may not have been the brightest light in the harbor either.  He seems to be kind of blissfully unaware that he is the favorite or how his brothers think of him because of that.  And then he starts having these dreams about how he is going to be lord over his brothers.  And then he’s dumb enough to tell his brothers all about them.  That wasn’t smart.

 His brothers cook up this scheme to get rid of him, to murder him.  Reuben, the oldest of the twelve, so he’s the responsible one, says, “No, no, we don’t want to kill him.”  And Judah says, “Hey, let’s make some money off of him.  We’ll sell him as a slave.”  And that’s what they do.  

 Joseph is sold to a caravan and taken to Egypt where he becomes a slave in the household of Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guards.  Things seem to take a turn for the better when he becomes the manager of Potiphar’s household.  And then he runs into Potiphar’s wife.  She makes advances toward him.  He honors God and his master and refuses her.  Eventually, she grows tired of him, makes false accusations, and Joseph is thrown into jail.

 In jail, Joseph again earns the favor of others and is put in charge of the prisoners.  Everywhere this guy goes he ends up being put in charge.  It’s like God was getting him ready for something.  Eventually, he is released from prison when he interprets Pharaoh’s dreams about the great famine to come.  And then, again, Joseph ends up being put in charge, this time becoming the viceroy of Egypt.  In that position, he saves Egypt, and many others, from the time of famine.  

 Eventually, his brothers back in Canaan run out of food and are forced to go to Egypt to buy grain.  And then we have this little cat and mouse game between Joseph and his brothers.  I guess it might be seen as he is just toying with them, but it certainly seems to me that his aim in the whole thing is to see what has become of them since they sold their own brother into slavery.  Do they regret it?  Have they grown up?  

 So they come to Joseph to buy grain, and of course, they have no clue who he is.  First, Joseph accuses them of being spies and throws them all in jail.  Well, I should say he throws ten of them in jail, because Benjamin, the youngest, the other son of Jacob’s favorite wife, has taken Joseph’s place as the favorite.  So he didn’t make the trip to Egypt.  Joseph releases nine of them to go back to Canaan, but only on the condition that they return later with Benjamin.

 Jacob is reluctant to let Benjamin go, but finally the famine forces his hand and he has to send them back to Egypt.  This time Joseph sets them up and makes it appear Benjamin has stolen from him.  He has them all dragged back to Egypt.  Benjamin will never be allowed to leave.  He will be made a slave.  

 At this point, Judah speaks up.  Remember, Judah is the one who had the idea to sell Joseph as a slave in the first place.  Judah volunteers to take Benjamin’s place.  He has seen the grief and pain it caused to Jacob to lose Joseph, and he tries to spare him that a second time.  

 That brings us to the climax of the story here in chapter 45, where Joseph finally reveals his identity to his brothers.  He forgives them for their actions and he receives them again as his brothers.  

 He says to them, “Don’t be angry with yourselves for what you did, for it was truly God who did it.”  Now that is an interesting claim!  Was it God?  Or was it his brothers?  Or was it both?  

 One of the most persistent questions in theology is, “What is the relationship between God’s sovereignty, that is his control over the creation, and human freedom?”  And of course, as you would expect from theologians (or politicians), they disagree.  

 On the one hand you have a group of theologians who come down on the side of divine sovereignty.  God is in control of everything.  God causes everything to happen. 

God knows the future because God creates the future.  You and I are not free.  We can only do what God wants us to do, what he predestined us to do.

 But other theologians come down on the side of human freedom.  We are free to act.  God may know the future, but we are still free.  God might know what we are going to do, but we still choose it freely.

 Which group is right?  I would say the answer is both of them.  You see, the question is presented as an either/or proposition.  This is because so much of Christian theology is built on Greek philosophy, and in Greek philosophy, you have that emphasis on either/or thinking.  On the other hand, in Hebrew thinking, it’s more the sense of both/and.  God is sovereign and human beings are free.  And I think you can see that in this story.  Joseph’s brothers freely chose to sell him into slavery.  But it was God who gave Joseph the dreams that spurred their jealousy.  God’s hand was in it, even if it was their choice.  I find that Hebrew way of thinking both/and to be much more satisfying.

 Of course, that theological debate is not going to be settled today.  And it’s not really the point of the story, either.  The point of the story is to show the power of forgiveness and reconciliation, and it’s one of the best stories in Scripture to show that.

 Why should we forgive?  Why should we be reconciled to each other?

 First, and certainly foremost, because that is God’s example to us and God’s command for us.  God has forgiven our sins and commanded us to do likewise.  In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “Forgive us our sins/trespasses, as we forgive those who sin/trespass against us.”  In Matthew 5, Jesus told us to be reconciled with those who are angry at us, and in Matthew 18, he told us how to go about being reconciled with someone else when we are angry at them.  Also in Matthew 18, he told the parable of the unforgiving debtor, which is a pretty stern warning to those who would hold onto their grudges.  The same instructions continue in the rest of the New Testament.  Ephesians 4 says, “Get rid of all bitterness and anger.  Be kind to each other, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.”  In Colossians 3, it says, “Make allowances for each other’s faults, and forgiven anyone who offends you.  Remember the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others.”  

 Second, we should forgive because people are more important than pride.  I think if we’re honest, pride is a major factor in our anger and bitterness when we have been offended.  “How could they possibly have done that to ME?!”  Perhaps it gives us a little

sense of how God feels when we reject him!  But if our pride is more important to us than other people, then we have not yet been conformed to the image of Christ.  Philippians 2 tells us to follow the example of Christ, and it includes this word about pride:  “Be humble, thinking more of others than you do yourselves.”  If we truly think more of others, then we consider that person more important than our wounded pride.

 And third, we should seek forgiveness and reconciliation because relationships are more satisfying than revenge.  Revenge is our “natural,” that is our sinful, urge when we are offended.  But the truth is that revenge doesn’t really satisfy us.  Relationships are far more satisfying.  Unfortunately, I can think of times in my life when I’ve lost out on the joys of relationship because either I or the other person was unwilling to be reconciled.  Fortunately, I can also think of times when the joy of relationship was restored after forgiveness and reconciliation.

 Before we finish up, let’s move on to the end of Joseph’s story.  Joseph’s family comes to live in Egypt and they are spared from the famine.  But eventually, Jacob dies, and when he does, we find out that his brothers still fear Joseph has it in for them, and he’s just been waiting till Jacob dies out of respect.  They cook up this scheme to convince Joseph that Jacob wanted him to forgive them.  But they find out that Joseph really meant it when he forgave them.  

 That part of the story points to the reality that forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing.  Forgiveness is one-sided.  You can forgive a person without them receiving your forgiveness or being restored to relationship.  But reconciliation is two sided.  It requires both sides to lay aside anger and to be restored each to the other.  And that means that while forgiveness is totally our responsibility, reconciliation is not.  

 The Bible recognizes this.  Romans 12 says, “Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.”  Jesus recognized the same thing in Matthew 18 when he said that if a person was unwilling to be reconciled, then we should treat them as an unbeliever or tax collector.  That doesn’t mean we’re free to hate them, because of course Jesus loved the unbelievers and the tax collectors, and he told us to pray for our enemies. But unfortunately, it does mean that while we always can and should forgive, we can’t always have reconciliation, because that doesn’t just depend on us.  

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