Sermon on Genesis 45, preached at Cranmer Hall, 10th December 2020.
When I was very small, the story of Joseph was my brother’s favourite Bible story – and not for the reasons you think. After I was born, his little world – where all affection and attention belonged to him – was shattered, and he became very attached to the idea of sibling disposal: if you don’t like them, throw them away. He would often ask his friends, the rubbish men, if they could take me away with the bin bags, and was particularly keen on finding a large pit to put me in. Let this be a warning to the parents among us who think bible stories are helpful moral lessons for young minds. You never know which characters they might find sympathetic.
My brother was only two years old when I arrived, so perhaps he can be forgiven for not getting to the end of the Joseph story. If he had, he might have realised that it’s harder to get rid of your siblings than you might think. In this passage we are confronted with the hard question of what happens when we encounter those who have wounded us, or those we have wounded. As many of us will be painfully aware, those old hurts and sins that we wish to hide often appear again, unbidden. And when that happens, we are confronted with our own weakness, and our longing for peace.
An insightful Russian once observed that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and we’ve been journeying with this particular cocktail of favouritism, deception, violence, and bitterness for weeks. We’ve arrived at chapter 45, the big reveal of the Joseph story. We’ve been sitting with the dramatic irony of knowing who Joseph is while his brothers don’t, cringing as he walks them through repeated tests. In chapter 42 and 43 we imagined the brothers’ nausea as they first find the money placed into the top of their sacks, and their 20-year-old guilt re-emerges as fear. Then in chapter 44, they find the cup, and we grapple with the genuinely creative revenge Joseph takes; where once his brothers chose between living with an irritating show-off or selling their brother into slavery, Joseph forces them to choose between starvation or once again making their little brother Benjamin a slave.
But now, finally, all is made clear, and after the gradual build-up of many chapters, in this chapter mysteries are revealed, brothers reconciled, and loose ends resolved – as well as some theological commentary. You’ll be relieved to hear that in this sermon I don’t plan to offer an in-depth exposition on the doctrine of God’s providence, or on the nature of free will. But I do plan to come back to it at the end. Well – I plan to, but who knows what God has planned.
That was just a little providence joke for you. Let’s hope God doesn’t make me do that again.
Our passage this evening opens at the height of the drama: Judah has been pleading for Benjamin’s release, and when he invokes the name of their father it is finally too much for Joseph. He suddenly cries for the room to be emptied, leaving the brothers alone in front of the man who holds their family’s future in his hands – who can utter words of freedom or condemnation – who can forgive them for having the cup or can refuse to hear their sorrow. Little do they know yet the extent to which they owe this stranger their repentance and plea for forgiveness.
‘Joseph’ – even when the brothers hear him say his name, they are unable to answer. As we read verse 3, I imagine an awkward, horrible silence falling. Is this another trick? What’s more likely: that this wailing Egyptian governor is their dead brother, or that somehow he has found out what they did and is trying to frighten them with their past? Is this a ghost? But no – this is their brother, the one they betrayed, abandoned, and sold. And he is standing in front of them surrounded by his own armed guards and sobbing out a monologue. The brothers are noticeably quiet for most of this passage – they are not directing events. This is not a mutual exchange of stories. They are in Joseph’s hands. Perhaps caught up in the rush of relief that has come from revealing himself, or perhaps used to speaking and not being spoken to, Joseph directs the conversation. No doubt his brothers are still frightened. At any minute Joseph would be well within his rights to turn on them: a nagging anxiety that, as we find out later in the story, rests with them for years to come. In these chapters we’ve watched Joseph try to work out reconciliation in real time. And what we have discovered is that his capacity for forgiveness is deeply flawed. He has been torn between tears of longing and the pull of power. Betrayed by his brothers, he has betrayed them. And it is only when he has been convinced of real repentance that he is willing to reconcile.
Joseph, like all of us, is a product of his family – of the things he has been taught are normal. Truly his father’s son, even in this moment of reconciliation he still shows favouritism to Benjamin, whom he embraces first in verse 14, and who gets three hundred pieces of silver and more garments than the others in verse 22. And the effects of these limitations in this moment of reconciliation are real. For the purpose of this sermon series we’re treating this chapter as a sort of ending, with some kind of closure offered – but the book of Genesis continues to follow Joseph and his family for several chapters. In chapter 50, following the death of their father, it turns out that even after seventeen years in Egypt Joseph’s brothers do not know whether they are forgiven. Joseph has never said it. In chapter 50 verse 17, they tell Joseph they have a dying message from their father – that he begged Joseph to forgive his brothers. Either this means that their father has carried this wound his entire life, or the brothers – even at this stage – feel they have to manipulate Joseph in order to mend the relationship. My siblings in Christ, let us hear this as a warning. If there are people in your life with whom you have cautiously reconciled, but have not exchanged words of repentance and forgiveness, do so. Do not imagine that time will simply cover over those hurts.
Of course, the way Joseph behaves is understandable, and what’s more, it’s believable. Despite his knowledge of God’s faithfulness, he is still wounded. Despite his power as advisor to Pharaoh, he is still the little brother who was rejected. Despite the longing to reconcile, he and his brothers are strangers now, and that can never be fully undone. In Joseph, we see the hurt, anger, and longing for healing that we recognise in our wounds. And in the brothers, we see the shame, regret, and fear that we recognise from the times we have wounded others. We know that we must forgive, and receive forgiveness, and yet there are so many things that limit our hope to do so: abuses of power, bitterness, fear, regret, shame.
It is all too easy for us to confuse our experience of forgiveness with the forgiveness promised in the reconciling love of God. We imagine that because we are begrudging, and cautious, and limited, that God responds to us the same way. But while we might identify with Joseph’s flawed forgiveness, it is not like the forgiveness that we receive from God. My ability to forgive is like trying to hum a beautiful song I heard played by an orchestra, years ago – I am faint and faltering and I get notes wrong. But if I listen to the song again, and again, and again, my voice will strengthen, and grow more confident, and the notes will fall into place. But I will still not be able to recreate that triumphant, transcendent sound. My hum will never be an orchestra. As I pay attention to God’s forgiveness I can learn to better forgive, but my understanding of forgiveness will never be the same as God’s, and I mustn’t confuse the two. In Joseph, we see a longing to sing a song of reconciliation, and glimpses of its melody shine through. But it is a faint rendition of the song to which we are invited and will one day be able to sing fully:
Joseph, the brother and lord, was tempted by his power, and used it to his own ends. But Jesus, our brother and our Lord, gave up power to dwell amongst us.
Joseph sees that his brothers do not recognise him and hides his face from them, in order to trick them and test them. But Jesus knows us before we know him and does not hide his face from us or trick us. He reveals himself to us.
Joseph’s willingness to reconcile with his brothers relies on evidence of their repentance. But our Lord and brother does not wait for us to come to him. He comes to meet us.
Joseph invites his family to live nearby, though they are kept at arm’s length, forgiveness unspoken, anxiety lurking. But the welcome we are given is not just a nearby dwelling place. Jesus brings us into the presence of the Father, where we will dwell forever. Where our sins and hurts will not just be unspoken but removed, wiped away, forgotten.
In just a few weeks, we celebrate once again that mystery of His coming to meet us, which is a mystery of a love we cannot understand – that God gives up power to be with us. That God does not hide his face but reveals it willingly. That God does not keep us at a distance but comes as close as can be – even into the womb, into the manger, into the arms of humans in order that heaven’s arms might be opened to us.
I said at the beginning that I would talk about Joseph’s brief commentary on God’s providence at work in his life: in verse 7 he reassures his brothers that ‘it was not you who sent me here, but God’ – ‘to preserve life’, and to ‘preserve for you a remnant on earth’. God, Joseph insists, has been at work all along. And yet we know from Joseph’s suspicion and woundedness that he doesn’t really believe that his brothers are guiltless or were just helplessly compelled by divine instruction.
How do these hold together? In this Advent season I want to offer you this passage as a reminder that God’s providence and the free will we are given are both completely, mysteriously true – for Joseph, and for you too, amidst all the hurt you have received, and the hurt you have caused. And they are both completely true because this providence and this free will are both an outpouring of the love of God, who invites us to act, and love, and forgive, and at the same time enters with the greatest possible intimacy into the broken heart of this world: to become one of us, to transform the future we are promised, and to preserve life – and not just preserve it, but restore it, renew it, and offer it to us in all its fullness.
Like the brothers, we have failed and need forgiveness. Like Joseph, we have failed to forgive. But God does not meet us in the way we meet each other. God will never withhold forgiveness from you.
In the coming weeks, my prayer for you is that you once again hear and receive this song of God’s reconciling love. A song echoed by Mary, by angels, by shepherds, and sung in its fullness in the cry of the child, Emmanuel, who did not wait for us to seek him out but arrived suddenly, mysteriously, as our Prince of Peace.