A sermon by Rev Richard Keith on Genesis 42-45 on Sunday 8 December 2019
Our lives are plagued by different kinds of problems. Job insecurity. Poor health. Financial stress. And yet our most serious problems are personal. Grief. Resentment. And loneliness. These are the symptoms of broken relationships. For what helps us get through our troubles, but the people we care about. They are meant to cushion the pain of the troubles we experience. With their support, we can do almost anything.
But our personal problems can make our life a misery, even when everything else is going right. Our other problems weigh heavily on our minds, but our personal problems burden our souls. As we see in the story of Joseph.
Last week we left Joseph with the beginning of a new life. He’d been sold as a slave by his own brothers. He’d been put in prison when he did nothing wrong. But the king of Egypt had had a dream. Seven thin cows ate seven fat cows but were still thin. Seven empty heads of grain ate seven full heads of grain, but were still empty. And only Joseph could explain to him what the dreams meant. Seven years of plenty followed by seven years of drought that would cause a famine that would bring the world to its knees.
Joseph suggested that someone should be put in charge to collect the grain in the good years and hand it out in the bad years. The king thought about it for about five seconds, and then made Joseph the governor of the whole country and in charge of the food collection. He got to ride around in a fancy chariot and even married the daughter of the powerful priest of On. Joseph’s new life would have more than made up for his years of misery if his real problems had not been his personal problems. He was far from home. His father probably thought he was dead. And his ten older brothers had sold his life and freedom for twenty lousy coins. When something happened to reopen those old wounds. His ten older brothers came to Egypt to buy food and they bowed down in front of him.
As soon as he saw them he recognised them. When they had sold him into slavery about twenty years earlier, they were already men. Some of them married. Some of them with families of their own. Here they were, a little older, a little greyer, a little fatter round the middle. But still the same men, wearing the same clothes, speaking the same language, doing the same job. We don’t know if Joseph was still angry with them or bitter. But we do know that he didn’t trust them. Because he pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them. “Where do you come from?”
“From the land of Canaan,” they replied. “We have come to buy food.”
Joseph’s ruse had worked. He recognised them, but they didn’t recognise him. After all, he’d only been seventeen the last time they saw him. A boy. Now twenty years later he was a man, dressed like an Egyptian and talking like one too. The second in charge of the world’s only superpower. And as they bowed down in front of him, Joseph remembered his dreams. His brothers’ eleven sheaves of wheat bowing down to his. The sun, moon, and eleven stars bowing down to him. And here they were. It was almost as if Joseph’s dreams had come true. Almost, because there weren’t eleven brothers there in Egypt. Only the older ten. One was missing. The youngest one, Benjamin, Joseph’s only full brother. His mother’s only other son. Where was he? How were his brothers treating him? Where was his father? Was he even still alive? Joseph had to find out.
So he said to them, “You are spies. You have come to see where our land is unprotected.”
“No, my lord,” they replied. “We have come to buy food. We are all brothers, sons of the same father. There are twelve of us. The youngest is with our father in Canaan, and one is no more.”
“You are spies,” Joseph insisted. And he put them in gaol for three days. Nothing like a taste of their own medicine. But on the third day, Joseph seemed to change his tune. “I will let you live, because I worship the same God as you. One of you will stay here while the rest of you go home and feed your families. If you are honest men you will come back and bring your youngest brother to me. If you don’t, you will die, for you will not see my face again without him.”
In the rest of chapter 42 we see the evidence of a family still in pain after 20 years. We see guilt and blame and grief. “We are being punished for what we did to Joseph.” “Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy? Now we must pay for his blood.”
Joseph held his second eldest brother Simeon and the other nine went home. When they got home, they told their father everything that had happened to them. And as they opened their sacks, they each found that the money they’d paid for the food had been put back. Their father Jacob wasn’t impressed. It seemed to him that everywhere these sons of his went, they kept coming back with one son missing and money in their pockets. And now they wanted to take his youngest son Benjamin as well.
Jacob said, “My son,” – did you hear that? My son, as if he only had one. “My son will not go to Egypt. His brother is dead and he is the only one left. If something happens to him it will kill me.”
This is the poisonous legacy of favouritism that has cursed this family for two generations. Esau was Isaac’s favourite. Jacob was his mother Rebekah’s favourite. Rachel was Jacob’s favourite wife and her son Joseph was Jacob’s favourite son. Now with Joseph gone, Benjamin is his father’s favourite. We can learn our biggest mistakes early in life and it can take generations to unravel them.
However, Jacob gave in when the famine got worse, and the food ran out. But he made his sons take double the money to pay for the food and to repay the money they found in their sacks.
When they got to Egypt, everything went smoothly. They explained about the money, but were told nothing was missing. They were reunited with Simeon. They presented Benjamin to Joseph. They were invited to lunch with Joseph and enjoyed themselves as his guests. Where Benjamin got a double helping like he was the favourite in Egypt just like he was at home. And the next day they were sent on their way with as much food as they could carry.
What they didn’t know was the nice and kind Joseph they met this time, was as much a mask as the cruel and suspicious Joseph they’d met the first time. For Joseph told his steward to put his silver cup in Benjamin’s sack and later to run after his brothers and to accuse them of the theft. Of course, they denied it. They hadn’t done it. It had been planted. And, of course, the cup was found right where it had been put in Benjamin’s sack.
So what was Joseph up to? Well, Joseph’s whole purpose was to test his brothers, by putting Benjamin in the same place that Joseph had been before to see if they would sacrifice Benjamin like they’d sacrificed him 20 years before. Because Benjamin had taken Joseph’s place in his father’s affections. When Joseph was a boy, he was his father’s favourite. Jacob had given him a special coat to prove it and had used him to spy on his brothers. Now Jacob thought Joseph was dead, he carried on like Benjamin was his only son. In a family of twelve. And he treated Benjamin like he was just a boy when he must have been at least thirty years old. And his brothers knew it. So did they hate Benjamin for it like they’d hated Joseph? Would they take the chance to get rid of him like they had got rid of Joseph? They had the perfect excuse for their father. The cup had been found in his sack. Even if it had been planted, they could treat it like there was nothing they could do. Who would blame them if they just walked away? Took the food to save their families. Or had they changed?
It’s important to stop right here for a moment, because we are sometimes too familiar with the Bible stories to get their true meaning. Take this story. Many of us know how it ends and it is possible to think that its true meaning is that whatever people do to you, you have to forgive them. Even if they throw you down a dry well. Even if they sell you as a slave. Even if they lie and tell your father you are dead. You have to forgive. And that would be wrong. Because this story has a second possible ending in which Joseph’s brothers have not changed. In which they were just as willing to sell Benjamin for a few bags of grain as they were to sell Joseph for twenty silver coins. After all, the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack. Even if they don’t believe it, they can’t deny it. They could have left Benjamin in Egypt. They could have walked away with enough food to feed their family.
And what would have been the result of that second possible ending? Joseph would have fed his brothers and their families and he would have rescued Benjamin from them. It would not have been a happy ending. But it would have been a right ending. It would have been a true ending. This story is not about putting up with your abusers whatever they do. It’s about loving your enemies. Not letting their evil destroy your good by feeding them when they are hungry. And forgiving them when they change.
So, did Joseph’s brothers abandon Benjamin? No, they tore their clothes and went back with Benjamin to face the music together. And Judah said to Joseph,
“If I go back to my father without the boy, my father will die. His life is bound closely to the boy’s and the news will kill him. I guaranteed the boy’s safety to my father. I said, “If I do not bring him back to you, I will bear the blame all my life. Now then, please let me stay here as your slave instead of the boy, and let the boy go home with his brothers. How can I face my father without the boy? Don’t let me see the misery that would come upon my father.”
If Joseph had any lingering doubts, they were all gone at that moment. The men who knelt before him in fulfilment of his dreams, weren’t the same men who had sold him twenty years earlier. They were sorry for what they’d done to Joseph. And their sin against him had poisoned their lives ever since. And given the chance to abandon Benjamin, they’d refused. They’d stuck together. Only then, when they had proven themselves, did Joseph tell them who he was. “I am Joseph,” he said, and he hugged them and kissed them and spoke to them.
You see, our most serious problems are our personal problems. Our most intense suffering comes from the guilt or bitterness we feel towards others. Joseph was rich. He was powerful. His life had turned around. But he couldn’t go home, because he couldn’t trust his brothers. From the moment he saw them bowing down to him, his life couldn’t be complete until he had tested them and when they had passed the test, forgiven them.
And look at his brothers. Their families were suffering because of the famine. But what was heavier on their souls? Their guilt for what they’d done to Joseph and for the grief they’d caused their father. And their lives could not be complete until that remorse bore fruit in forgiveness.
It would be a mistake to say straight away, “Joseph is just like me”, because Joseph is not like you as much as he is like our Lord Jesus. Jesus was rejected by his people, although he didn’t do anything wrong. But he didn’t just teach “Forgive your enemies” but he lived it too. He gave his life for the persecuted and their persecutors that in his name they would all find healing. And as he died, he said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
But since we are called to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, Joseph is also like us. And like Joseph and his brothers, our most serious problems are our personal problems. Whether we have sinned or been sinned against, we must love our enemies and if appropriate, we must make our peace with each other.
But that peace will only come if we have the courage to pay the price. Joseph had to find the courage to forgive his brothers. And his brothers had to find the courage to take responsibility for their actions.
Our personal problems are our most serious problems. We can get through anything with the support of our family and neighbours and friends. But even when everything else is going well, our broken relationships weigh upon our souls. Jesus Christ lived among us to heal these broken relationships. He bore our sin so that it may no longer count against us. He paid the price of forgiveness so that we might have peace with God and peace with each other. May God help us to love our enemies. May God give us the courage to forgive each other. And may he give us the courage to take responsibility and to seek forgiveness.