25th Sunday After Trinity November 16, 1997
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 went 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.
In the name of our Redeemer, who has torn down the barrier of sin between us, Himself and each other, dear Christian friends, dear fellow redeemed.
Startling things can happen when people let conflicts come between them. We’ve heard the stories before. The disgruntled employee commits a violent act on his co-workers or his supervisor. Acts of violence and murder take place between family members. While there’s never a good reason to commit murder, we can usually trace the cause. A long-standing conflict brews and escalates, until the person blows up and does something rash. In the last couple of years, I have noticed seminars on the subject of conflict resolution. The social worker and the psychologist tell us that people must learn certain coping skills; they must develop the ability to resolve conflicts between themselves and other people.
I’ll be the first to agree: conflict resolution is a necessary part of life. But the mere effort of individuals will not get the job done. Methods of psychology do not account for the effect that sin has on human interaction. If conflict resolution is going to be successful, God must show us the way. He, after all, has resolved the greatest conflict ever between Himself and us. What Jesus did to remove our sin was more than history. It has power and influence in our daily life. In our text today, we see that Joseph found this power and put it to use. His example is good for us to learn and practice. Joseph teaches us to use…
When the Bible describes the lives of believers, it does not cover up the “low-lights,” the sins that they committed. We hear about Peter’s denial of Jesus, David’s adultery with Bathsheba, and his subsequent murder of the husband Uriah. The story of Jacob and his family falls into the same category. In his old age Jacob foolishly showed favoritism to his younger son, Joseph. The older brothers got tired of little brother and his dreams. As we heard in our Scripture reading (Gen. 37:12-28), they plotted to kill him. Thanks to the intervention of Reuben, Joseph’s life was spared. But even Reuben could not stop the others from selling Joseph into slavery. The psychologist would probably look upon this family and declare it to be dysfunctional. They were so consumed with jealousy and hatred that they sold their own flesh and blood, went home to Jacob, and told a cruel lie. To cover their own tracks, they said that the boy was dead. They let their father go through the trauma of losing a son, when in fact the son was alive. So much conflict, so much damage, all because of sins that were committed between family members.
It’s hard for us to imagine that Christians would act this way. But really, we shouldn’t be too surprised. Christians are not better than other people. They still have a rotten sinful nature to contend with. They have moments of weakness. We’re not going to use human weakness as an excuse. But we are going to agree that sin can get the better of any one of us. When sin happens between two people and one person victimizes the other, big trouble can happen in a hurry. Tempers flare. Words are said. Feelings are hurt. So what are we supposed to do when people sin against us, or we sin against them? Our fellow believer Joseph provides the answer. He teaches us to use the healing power of Christian forgiveness. In the way that he treated his brothers, he shows us the benefit of forgiving each other.
The event of our text comes much later than the event of our Scripture reading. When Joseph was taken to Egypt, he became the property of a man named Potiphar. Over the course of many years, he was a household slave, a prisoner in jail, and finally the top official in Pharaoh’s government. Because of his ability to interpret dreams, he became the second-most powerful man in Egypt. He was put in charge of a food-storage program that saved the lives of many people during a seven-year famine. Because of this famine, the brothers of Joseph traveled to Egypt in search of food. After years of separation, Joseph finally revealed his identity to them. Once he knew that they were sorry, he declared his forgiveness for what they had done. He said, “Do not therefore be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” (Gen. 45:5) He told them to get their father, return to Egypt, and live with him there. It would seem that all was settled. All was forgiven and forgotten. That was true as far as Joseph was concerned. But the brothers still had unresolved conflict. As long as their father Jacob was alive, they remained calm. But once their father passed away, they were very concerned that Joseph would seek his revenge. They said to each other, “Perhaps Joseph will hate us, and may actually repay us for all the evil which we did to him.”
He certainly had the power to do it. Some would argue that he had good reason to make his brothers pay for their terrible sin. Put yourself in Joseph’s shoes. Can you imagine being torn away from your family at the age of 17, betrayed by your own siblings, forced to live in a foreign country as the slave of total strangers? How would you feel toward the people who caused this suffering to happen? It’s easy to say that we would act like Joseph and be forgiving. But to actually do it! Our human nature would surely be tempted to feel angry, spiteful, and bitter.
Lashing out, getting “pay-back,” holding a grudge—it’s the typical reaction that people have when others sin against them. If we justify our reaction by saying, “He started it; he sinned against me first,” we are not solving the problem. In the heat of the moment, it is difficult to control one’s emotions and do the right thing. We need to have the right attitude before the trouble happens. We need to understand and adopt a guiding principle that will help us in every conflict and every relationship. God wants us to forgive. If we don’t forgive, we actually make the situation worse…worse for ourselves, worse for the other person, and worse for the relationship.
By forgiving the person who sins against us, we do something that is good for us. By forgiving those who sin against us, we keep bitterness from taking over in our own hearts. Let me tell you about bitterness. It robs you of peace and harmony. It consumes your time and energy. It makes you even more miserable than before. And worst of all, bitterness can have the spiritual effect of strangling your Christian faith. Remember the warning that Jesus gave in the parable from our New Testament reading: “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.” (Matthew 18:35) God threatens eternal punishment on all who continually refuse to forgive. How can this be? We have to understand the situation that Jesus was describing. If we refuse to forgive and never repent of that unforgiving attitude, it would have to mean that our faith was dead. The warning is certainly there. Don’t let bitterness take over your heart. It can cause you and me to become unforgiving, and that could bring about serious damage to our Christian faith.
We gain personal benefit by forgiving those who sin against us. Now what about the other person? Let’s also realize the benefit that we give to the guilty party. In the example of our text, the brothers were suffering from feelings of guilt and despair. Those feelings would not go away until they came to Joseph, confessed their sin, and heard him speak his forgiveness once again. If we let the other person stew in his guilt, we make a bad situation worse. Guilt is just as harmful as bitterness. It can easily turn into depression. Guilt can make the other person dysfunctional. You wouldn’t believe all the cases of alcoholism, drug abuse, and other destructive behavior, all related to issues of unresolved guilt. If we learn to confront the guilty party in order to forgive them, we’re actually doing the best thing for them.
And if there’s a relationship involved, we’re doing the best thing for that relationship. The family ties between Joseph and his brothers could never go on peacefully until the conflict was resolved. Once the sin was confessed and forgiven, the feelings of guilt could melt away, and the family could renew its love and devotion for each other. Notice how Joseph spoke to the men who sold him into slavery: “Do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.” He wanted to help them and be their provider. Such an attitude could only come from a man who learned how to forgive.
Are we any different? We have relationships where forgiveness is so necessary. Husbands and wives must learn to forgive each other, to seek that forgiveness and express it freely. The survival and quality of the marriage depend on it. Paul says in Ephesians, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you.” Not only marriages, but also parents and children, brothers and sisters, friends, fellow members of a Christian congregation—we all need to learn the fine art of Christian forgiveness.
It’s a healing power. It pulls us together and keeps us together. It brings real benefits to the person who forgives and the one who is forgiven. Now we could talk all day on the need for Christians to forgive each other. But turning the need into results, turning the words into action—that’s a different matter. Thankfully, God does not give us a bunch of rules without the power and the motivation to do what He says. As we learn from Joseph, we too can apply this forgiveness in our own relationships.
Really, it starts with our faith relationship to God. The way that we forgive others is really a side effect, a by-product of the way God forgives us. Again we think of the parable that Jesus told. We’re like the man with the “ten thousand talent” debt. No matter what amount of sin people do against us, no matter how often the sin occurs, it doesn’t even come close to the amount of sin that we commit against God. And to think that God forgave all this sin before we ever asked Him! He canceled the whole debt when Jesus paid the price of our sins on the cross. That’s where we need to start. If we go to the cross first and then go to our spouse, our family member, our church member after that, the motivation to forgive and make peace will be there.
If we confess our sins to God and receive His forgiveness, it’s a very important first step. But we should not stop there. If we have wronged another by something we have said or done, we need to be like the brothers. We need to go to that person, confess what we have done, and seek their forgiveness too. You’ve heard the old cliché: the two hardest words to say are the words, “I’m sorry.” That’s your human nature talking. God can lead you to think in a different way. He can help you say, “I’m sorry,” if you’re the one who’s guilty. He can help you say, “I forgive you,” if you’re the one who’s been wronged.
We cannot assume that the other person will automatically know that we forgive them. They need to hear it. They may need to hear it more than once. Isn’t that how God operates with us? He forgives us because of Christ and declares that forgiveness through His Word. How can we do otherwise? We know that God has forgiven the sin of that person, including all the sins committed against us. How can we overrule God’s verdict and not forgive the same sins? God has graciously and freely forgiven what we have done to Him. It’s the greatest power we could have to forgive each other and heal the broken relationship. So the next time conflict is brewing, let’s remember the lesson of Joseph. Better yet, let’s remember the sacrifice of Christ and the comprehensive forgiveness of our God. His mercy will help us use the healing power of Christian forgiveness. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.