Feb. 21, 2016 “God’s Place” – Genesis 50:15-21
February 21, 2016 – Second Sunday of Lent
They came begging forgiveness. We dream about moments like this. We want a person who hurt us, that ex-spouse or that cruel boss or that ungrateful child to come crawling back, repentant and humble and totally in our power. What satisfaction, what pure, green delight to have the offender at our mercy. And wouldn’t we all be like to be Joseph, filled with lofty graciousness, ready to forgive and forget and pardon those miserable jerks?
As you might guess from the way I’ve framed it, there is more to forgiveness and more to Joseph’s act of pardoning his brothers than the not too virtuous sense of vindication one might have in such a scene.
Not that Joseph did not deserve vindication. His brothers sold him into slavery to traders bound for Egypt because they were jealous of how much their father loved him. They covered it up, lied to their father Jacob, told him Joseph was killed by a wild animal.
Those other sons of Jacob never expected to see Joseph again, but with God’s help Joseph went from slave to second-in-command in Egypt. When they went down to Egypt to buy grain during a famine they met but did not recognize the brother they betrayed. But Joseph recognized them, gave them what they needed, revealed who he was and brought the whole family to live safely in Egypt. That’s in Genesis 45.
Now here in Genesis 50, it’s seventeen years later, as we’re told in chapter 47, and Jacob has died. Joseph and his brothers have just buried him with a huge and splendid funeral. And a family dynamic I’ve seen before came into play.
When a patriarch or matriarch of a family dies you often find that he or she was the glue holding everyone together. Out of respect for that parent, adult children got along with each other, worked things out, kept the peace. But when that key person is gone it all falls apart. All the old animosities and jealousies and fears toward each other arise and the family disintegrates. That’s what could have happened between Joseph and his brothers.
Back in chapter 45, seventeen years earlier, Joseph was reconciled to his brothers, especially to young Benjamin whom he loved. He embraced them and talked with them and treated them very kindly. But there was no mention of forgiveness for what they had done, other than Joseph telling them that with God’s help all turned out O.K.
With their father gone, the brothers in verse 15 were afraid Joseph had been holding back his revenge all those years for Jacob’s sake, not wanting to upset his father by harming his brothers. They were worried Joseph might feel it was time to get back at them, like Michael Corleone in the “Godfather” ordering his brother Fredo’s death just after their mother’s funeral. So they came asking for forgiveness.
The brothers’ plan in verses 16 and 17 was still to use their father for protection. They came to Joseph saying Jacob told them to tell Joseph that he was to forgive his brothers. It was probably not true. If you read the previous two chapters, 48 and 49, you hear Jacob speaking many last words to his sons. He gives them all blessings and warnings, with the most of all to say to Joseph. If he really had some wish that Joseph forgive his brothers, he almost surely would have said it directly.
Nonetheless Joseph did not dispute the truth of what his brothers told him. Instead, at the end of verse 17 we read that “Joseph wept when they spoke to him.” He wept to know that they were still frightened after all those years, still anxious about his attitude toward them. In verse 18, the brothers also weep and do something they had not done back in chapter 45. They fell down at his feet and humbly declared themselves his slaves.
This was literally Joseph’s dream come true. Long ago as a boy in chapter 37 he had dreams of his brothers bowing down to him. If he had held onto that dream and his grudge all those years, this might have been the ultimate satisfaction, brothers who had mistreated him crawling back asking for forgiveness. As I suggested at the beginning, who wouldn’t enjoy that feeling of vindication?
Joseph did not choose to enjoy it. He didn’t revel in his victory or order their deaths or even rub their noses in what they had done. Instead, in verse 19 he spoke words that God or His angels often speak in Scripture, “Do not be afraid!” But his next words are, “Am I in the place of God?”
What did Joseph mean by that rhetorical question? The answer is obviously no, but what was he saying? What is God’s place in these situations? What is God’s place in the act of forgiveness?
The first and obvious answer is one the Bible teaches over and over. It is God’s place to judge and avenge wrongdoing. In Romans 12:19 Paul quotes what God said in Deuteronomy 32:35, “Vengeance is mine.” God’s people are not to seek revenge. That’s God’s work. That’s God’s place.
One of the reasons Joseph forgave his brothers is that he knew it was not his place to judge, to seek revenge for the wrong done to him. That teaches us about forgiveness. We must see here that Joseph did not deny that something wrong had been done to him. Even in mentioning that it was God’s place to avenge and punish his brothers he implied that they had done evil, something deserving of God’s vengeance.
As we think together about forgiveness this Lent, we want to recognize several things that forgiveness is not. This is the first of those. Forgiveness is not covering up a wrong or pretending it did not happen. Joseph knew that. Even as he affirms in verse 20 that God brought good out of what his brothers did to him, he says “you intended to do harm to me.”
That’s essential to real forgiveness. You’re not forgiving someone when you get bumped on a crowded airplane and brush it off because that person meant you no harm. No, you are only forgiving when you know that a person meant to hurt you and you choose to offer them grace and kindness anyway. That’s how it was for Joseph. He knew it was God’s place to avenge what his brothers did, but he also knew what they did was evil. He forgave them, but he did not brush off the hurt.
My wife Beth likes to point to Jesus as our example in this. In John 18:22 after Jesus is arrested and as the high priest questions Him, one of the guards strikes Him. In the next verse Jesus declared His innocence and asked, “why do you strike me?” letting His attacker know that He knows something wrong has been done.
The very act of offering forgiveness is also an indictment. You know what it’s like to try and forgive people who think they’ve done nothing wrong. They throw your forgiveness back in your face because to accept it would be to admit what they’ve done. But real forgiveness has to be offered for a real hurt, whether it’s admitted or not.
Forgiveness, then, is not ignoring hurt or acting as if it didn’t happen. It’s acknowledging hurt and then refusing to seek revenge, refusing to hurt back, leaving all of that to God. That’s what Joseph did for his brothers. He refused to put himself in God’s place as avenger, as judge.
Joseph also, secondly, refused to take God’s place in giving order and meaning to his own life. Verse 20 says, “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.” When Joseph was put in a pit by his brothers and then into prison by his master and then into power by Pharaoh he had no clue what the plan was. But God did. It was God’s place to direct and order and guide Joseph to where He wanted him to be.
That’s the next lesson for us on forgiveness here. When we look at what has happened to us, all the wrongs and hurts we’ve been dealt by others, we are not in the place of God. We cannot see it all from His perspective. It may be years, like it was for Joseph, until we recognize how God was able to use our pain and troubles to accomplish something good in us or in others. It does not mean that the evil we received was good, but it does mean that God can use it for good in ways we don’t expect.
In the short run, knowing that God knows what’s going on even when we don’t can help us forgive. We don’t have to seek revenge because we trust God to care for us and see us through the hurt into a better place. It is God’s place to reconcile evil and wrong with His plan for us, to heal it by His love and grace. We don’t have to control events ourselves, make things turn out right by getting the right response from the person who hurt us.
Letting God be in control takes us back to the first point, that it is God’s place to avenge wrong. I haven’t seen “The Revenant,” and I doubt I will, but I hear that’s it’s a brutal, ugly picture of what happens when we try to take God’s place, to remain in control and seek our own vengeance. Fellow trappers kill Hugh Glass’s son and leave him for dead and he embarks on a horrible odyssey of fear and revenge which leaves no one happy, no one at peace, no one even alive.
God offers us, like He did Joseph, a different kind of plan, a plan that leads to better things. Here in our text Joseph told his brothers twice not to be afraid. His forgiveness ends the fear for both him and them and brings peace. That’s what forgiveness does for us.
I need to say here something else that forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not staying in relationship where abuse will continue. Joseph was able to make peace with his brothers because they repented and changed. They humbled themselves and didn’t try to hurt him any more. But if you are being abused and your abuser does not repent, and, more importantly, does not change, you can forgive but you must not stay.
There’s lots more to say about that. We can talk about it next Sunday. For now let me say that if anyone here is experiencing abuse then you don’t need to stay in that situation. Please come talk to me. I will keep your confidence. Your church will help you escape. It’s not forgiveness to keep getting hurt again and again. God has a different plan for you.
Which brings us to the third way in which Joseph could not be in God’s place in relation to his brothers. God calls us to forgive, but as I said last week, forgiveness begins with God. This week let’s add that only God can completely forgive. Only God can offer a forgiveness that removes all guilt and transforms the guilty person into someone new. We’ve got forgiveness wrong if we think it is our place, our forgiveness which is going to save a person and make them better.
In Psalm 51 verse 4 David sang, “Against you, you alone, have I sinned and done what is wrong in your sight.” That’s very strange because he was speaking to God. But right at the top of that psalm we’re told that he wrote it after he had sinned with Bathsheba, taken another man’s wife and then murdered him to cover it up. He hadn’t, we might think, sinned only against God but against others, several others, maybe against his whole kingdom, against all the people who trusted him. Maybe it’s Uriah and Bathsheba and the people of Israel he should be asking for forgiveness.
David knew what Joseph knows here about his brothers. Even if all the human beings involved offer forgiveness, something more is needed. Only God can offer complete forgiveness, only God can do something about the guilt and ultimate consequences of sin. Only God, as I said last week, is always ready to open His arms and welcome and forgive the sinner. That’s what Jesus said to the whole city of Jerusalem in the Gospel from Luke 13 today. God’s love is the only love which can gather us all in and forgive every sin.
So complete forgiveness is God’s place. Our forgiveness is always going to be less than perfect. Sometimes we know that. Sometimes we are hurt so bad that the only thing we can think, the only thing we can say is, “I’ll never forgive you!” We are failures at forgiveness just like we are failures at so much else.
We’re like Hamlet in Shakespeare. He can’t forgive. He is so bent on revenge against his Uncle Claudius that he doesn’t want him to be forgiven even by God. In one scene he finds Claudius alone and vulnerable, but he’s on his knees praying. Hamlet won’t kill him because he doesn’t want his uncle to die forgiven by God. He will kill him later, with his sins unconfessed and unforgiven “that his soul may be as damned and black as hell, whereto it goes.” That scene is powerful because it’s often you and I that feel that way.
Ultimate forgiveness is God’s place. When we accept that then it may be possible to offer some kind of forgiveness of our own. When we realize that the eternal destiny of that other person does not depend on our forgiveness, when we admit that we may never be able to forget and “let go” of the memory of our harm, then we are free to offer the lesser forgiveness we can give. We let God have his full place in it all, to avenge the wrong, to deal with the outcome and to totally forgive the one who hurt us.
Our forgiveness of others starts when we begin to do what Joseph did here. Verse 21 says he promised to care for his brothers and to speak kindly to them. That’s the forgiveness God asks us for, not a wiping of the slate which goes forward as if nothing happened, but a willingness to turn in kindness rather than hatred toward someone.
Human forgiveness takes all sorts of forms, but it begins as Joseph did. Let go of revenge. try to do good to the person who did you hurt. Thursday afternoon coach Monty Williams of the Oklahoma City Thunder did that at his wife’s funeral in front of hundreds of NBA players, coaches and staff. At the end of a seven-minute eulogy for his wife, he offered forgiveness to the 51-year-old woman who was driving over 90 miles-per-hour with her dog on her lap and crossed the center lane head-on into his wife’s car.
Williams could have talked about that other driver’s carelessness or just ignored her. But he said,
In my house, we have a sign that says, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” We cannot serve the Lord if we don’t have a heart of forgiveness… Life is hard. It is very hard… but we hold no ill will toward the Donaldson family. And we… should be praying for that family, because they grieve as well.
Life is hard. So is forgiveness. But when God is in our homes and in our lives, then it is possible. Let God be there, in His place, and He will gather you home to that place with Him.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj