Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity September 9, 2001
464, 412, 32, 52
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
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. So they sent messengers to Joseph, saying, Before your father died he commanded, saying, 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.” Now, please, forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of your Father.” And Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept and fell down before his face, and they said, “Behold, we are your servants.” Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you meant evil against me: but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive. Now therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.” And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. So far the Word.
In Christ Jesus, who has forgiven us, and for whose sake we forgive others, Dear Fellow Redeemed,
“To err is human. .to forgive is not our policy.” That’s what it said on a sign above the door of a lending institution. In times past, as well as times present, “to forgive” is not the policy. The policy is to call in your markers, to hold a grudge, to break off relations, to seek revenge. To forgive is seldom anyone’s policy, because it is such a difficult thing to do.
A woman writes to Ann Landers: “I haven’t spoken to my brother’s wife in seven years. It would take the entire newspaper to tell my story, so I’ll just say that she did me such unbelievable dirt that I will never be able to forgive her.”
Why is forgiving such a hard thing to do? Because real forgiveness involves more than mouthing the words, “I forgive you.” It also involves corresponding action.
Forgiveness is the subject of today’s sermon. For, as Christians coming to the Lord for forgiveness today, we want to be assured that we have it. We also want to extend that hand of forgiveness to our fellow men. Our text for today will help us to review:
The text under consideration offers one of the most beautiful examples of forgiveness in all history, Joseph forgiving his brothers. Consider the situation:
Joseph, a young man of the age of 17 or 18, arouses the hatred and jealousy of his brothers. He has the annoying habit of tattling on them. Also, he is the favorite son of their father Jacob, a fact that does not sit well with the rest of the boys. To top it off, he’s a dreamer. He dreams that one day his father and brothers will bow down before him.
Hatred sets in. It becomes so intense that a plan is contrived for his murder. He would be dropped into a desert pit and left to die. Cooler heads prevail, however, when an Ishmaelite caravan happens along, and the brothers rid themselves of Joseph by selling him as a slave for twenty pieces of silver. Through the course of events he winds up in Egypt serving in the house of a rich man named Potiphar. But then, more trouble. Joseph’s forced to flee from the sexual advances of Potiphar’s wife, and for this he is thrown into prison. There he languishes—a forgotten man, destitute of family and friends. Untold suffering. all because his brothers had done him dirt!
But Almighty God intervenes. Through a strange sequence of events he is given the wisdom to interpret several of the Pharaoh’s dreams. He predicts seven years of plenty followed by another seven of famine. For this he is promoted to second in command in all of Egypt. What a remarkable turn of events! And it is here that our story becomes especially interesting. Joseph’s brothers are suffering from the famine. They learn about the food in Egypt, and must come down to buy bread. They make several trips. Finally Joseph reveals to them his true identity.
What a moment it is for Joseph! Now the tables are turned. Now he has the upper hand. He can think about the years of separation from home and family. He can ponder the months he spent in prison and all the awful things he encountered—all because his brothers had betrayed him. Is it any wonder then that after their father is dead, the brothers are frightened of Joseph? “Perhaps Joseph will hate us,” they say to each other fearfully, “and may actually repay us for all the evil which we did to him.” They have only one alternative: to plead for Joseph’s mercy and forgiveness. So, they took this last desperate chance. First they sent messengers to him, then appeared in person saying, “Please forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of your father. Behold, we are your servants.”
Now was Joseph up to that? Could he put the past behind him and forgive? Or would he seize the moment and deliver a crushing blow of revenge?
Historians tell us that in his younger days, the mighty leader Julius Caesar was captured by sea pirates. Within their camp, he taught them, played their games with them, read to them, and for a while lived a comfortable life in their community. History records that Caesar—“with a smile”—swore that once he was set free, he would have them all crucified. And Caesar lived to carry out that vow. However, to prove he was “merciful in avenging his wrongs,” he had the pirates throats slashed before they were hung on the crosses. That was Caesar’s method of showing forgiveness and mercy.
The moment was ripe for Joseph to avenge himself on his brothers. He could have stared his brothers in the face and gloated. After all, the shoe was on the other foot now, wasn’t it? He might have said, “What is it to me if you and your children starve to death?” But, listen to what he actually said, “Do not be afraid. You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good—to save many people alive. I will provide for you and for your little ones.” And note the concluding remark: “And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.” It was forgiveness of the highest order. Not just words, but action!
You and I have received just that kind of forgiveness. Our situation is very similar to that of Joseph’s wicked brothers. To our God we have dealt unbelievable dirt. We’ve betrayed Him. By nature we’ve hated Him. We’ve disobeyed His will. We’ve used His name carelessly. We’ve been ungrateful, unfaithful, and untrusting. We share a part in the guilt that sent His Son to suffer and die. What other option do we have, except to plead for His mercy and forgiveness? To get on our knees and cry out, “Behold, we are your servants”? But is God up to that? Will God repay evil with evil? Can He put our filth and corruption out of sight? He. can do it and He has done it! Listen to the Good News of the Psalmist, “As far as the East is from the West, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.”
God’s forgiveness is the true kind. It’s more than just words. He acted it out, thoroughly. On the dusty streets of Palestine our Lord Jesus exercised His forgiveness toward us. He carried it to the extreme limit, and suffered torture, death, and hell itself, in order to forgive us. And so it was that Isaiah could say, “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed.” (Is 53).
The brothers of Joseph expected revenge. They got mercy. They waited for retribution. He extended the hand of reconciliation. Why? When Joseph heard their words he was so moved with loving compassion that he couldn’t keep back his tears. He cried! His heart was overcome with mercy. So it was that our Savior spoke to the sinful Zacchaeus, the adulterous woman, the marauding soldiers who nailed Him to the cross—and so our Lord has spoken to you and me! “Father, forgive them.”
Forgiveness does not flow from arrogant, pride filled hearts, but from hearts smitten by the tragedy of their sins, and melted by the beauty of the Gospel. To be a genuine forgiver, you have to have tasted the sweetness of forgiveness yourself, first hand. You and I know what it’s like to be forgiven—may this move us to forgive also those who sin against us.
They’re out there, of course—the people who need our forgiveness. Whether they know it or not. Whether they even want it or not! In the home. At work. At church. Even in our casual acquaintances. The opportunity to forgive confronts us every day. Forgiven we are—forgiving may we be!
There is an old proverb about revenge—“Revenge,” it says, “is a dish best eaten cold.” To us Christians, however, it is a dish best not eaten at all. In fact, it is forbidden food to us! “‘Vengeance is mine—I will repay,’ says the Lord.” It’s not easy for us to forgive the nasty lie, the cutting remark, the word aimed at scarring our reputation. No, our inclination is to get back. But God, who forgives the blackest sins we commit against Him, also gives us the power to forgive those who sin against us. God, who ignores the beam in your eye also gives you the capacity to overlook the speck in the eye of your brother. Truly, “To err is human, and to forgive…” well, finding strength in the forgiveness Jesus offers and given the help of the Holy Spirit, “to forgive” can and will indeed be our policy!”
I a sinner come to Thee,
With a penitent confession
Savior mercy show to me—
Grant for all my sins remission.
Let these words my soul relieve:
Jesus sinners doth receive! AMEN.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the King James Version.