He has not spoken to his brothers for 20 years. Twenty years! That is 2019 to 1999. Twenty years covers the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush (2-terms), Barack Obama (2-terms), and Donald Trump. Today phones slip into pockets and purses; twenty years ago phones were mounted to walls and connected by wires. Today’s high-speed internet instantly zips from website to website and you can connect anywhere: in this church building, at a restaurant, in the woods. Twenty years ago you waited 10-minutes for America OnLine [AOL] to dial up. Twenty years ago, your grandchildren may not have been born. Your children may not have been born. You may not have been born. Twenty years spans about one-fourth of your entire life! That is how long it had been since Joseph last talked to his brothers. He has no idea if a brother got married. No news of newborn nephews and nieces. No clue what jobs his brothers have, where they live, if they even live. Twenty absolutely silent years because this is what his brothers want.
That’s right, his brothers. Ten scheming, conniving, bitter brothers. Remember Joseph’s teenage years? Sixteen-years-old and prized as his father, Jacob’s, favorite child. That favoritism is not Joseph’s fault; the fault belongs to Jacob. Of course, his brothers cannot lash out against their father; they need an inheritance! So, their hatred burns against Joseph. That hatred combined concocts a plan to kill Joseph (Genesis 37:18). To spill the blood they share. To eliminate Joseph’s future.
Think about this. This plan lingers in each mind. They look for the right moment. They examine the right opportunity. The plot the right setting— and when it appears, they strike! One brother seizes Joseph’s arms. Three others strip off his colorful coat. Two grab his legs, drag him through gravelly-soil, and toss him down a hole. Joseph screams: “Brother, help!” He sobs: “Someone, please help me!” He pleads: “Why is no one coming?” And the brothers just huddle around lunch. Can you imagine the conversation? “We need to drive the cattle over there later.” “Boy, it’s hot today.” “What are you doing this weekend?” Their younger brother cries for them. He wants them. He loves them. Talk about such dense hearts of stone! Joseph’s every cry warns the brothers to stop their plan, to spare his life, to save him.
The brothers pay attention… well, kind of. They do not kill him; killing only takes away. Instead, the brothers sell him! Selling gets you something and still removes him from your life! Do you know how much they sold their brother for? Twenty shekels of silver. That translates to roughly $200. You exchange another person’s freedom for the price of a small television. You sell your own flesh and blood for the cost of one month’s electric and heat bill. Do you think Joseph had to guess what his brothers thought of him?
And now, Joseph stands second in command over all of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. In fact, Pharaoh supports any decision Joseph makes. In our reading, those once-powerful brothers now stand in his land. They cower in his throne room They tremble under his authority. What do you expect to happen?
You see what the brothers expect. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence. Frozen stiff. Do you run? …cry? …beg? They expect that at this moment, in this room, nothing good will happen. Why? Because each brother knows what he would do if he stood in Joseph’s spot: He would get even.
That is what you expect, right? A friend trashes your reputation. She calls you snobby, cranky, stupid. That does not please you. So, you remember that crime— and you remember it so that you can control her. Stop talking. Ignore her existence. Just maybe your friend aches inside from loneliness— and it hurts worse than she made you feel. Or, you store up the past for leverage. The next time your husband brushes off your interests, give the silent treatment, threaten to stop helping around the house, threaten to divorce. Gain leverage so that you can control how he acts towards you.
You see, our hearts demand that absolutely no one controls you. That no one hinders your life. Instead, our hearts want to control others. If someone does harm you, then make them suffer.
No wonder the brothers shudder! Standing under Joseph’s powerful thumb, they only expect the worst. But that does not happen, does it? Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here.” Instead of wrath he speaks pardon! How can Joseph do something like that?
I am not sure about you, but when I read these words, it is utterly astounding that Joseph forgives. He never mentions the mental anguish his brothers put him through. He does not describe the trauma he faced— being ripped away from home, forbidden to return, cut off from his ailing father. He does not take away 20-years (or more!) from his brothers. He forgives.
Understand this: If all I do is marvel that Joseph forgives, then I have missed an important point. The most shocking, astounding part is not that Joseph forgives. The most shocking, astounding part is that I expect Joseph to get revenge. That reveals just how warped my view of forgiveness is. Quite honestly, if I seethe because a friend speaks so little of me, then God should rage when I speak little of him. If I bring up past wrongs to force my spouse to conform to my standards, then God should unroll the miles of my sins and force me to appease him. If I expect Joseph to get revenge, then I should expect God to get revenge on me— and he does not. God does what we do not expect.
God sent Jesus ahead of me and God unrolls my crimes. My conniving pride. My bloodthirsty revenge. My arrogant refusal to forgive— and he shackles each one to Jesus. Then God exchanges the faultless life of Jesus for my stained life. He sells Jesus into death in order to free me. And now, when I stand before God’s throne so weighed down with my guilt, so conscious of my crimes, I only hear: “Do not be distressed. Do not be angry with yourself. Jesus went ahead of you. Your guilt was shackled to him and he paid your crimes with his life. He rose again without that shackle. So now, there remains no shackle to you.” As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:12).
That sweet sentence changes my ideas about forgiveness. God pardons me. God does what we do not expect—and does this so that we might do the unexpected.
You (and I) live in a world that seeks revenge. Wrong someone and you expect repayment. That’s what Joseph’s brothers expect. Yet, Joseph shares God’s forgiveness with his burdened brothers. God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. First, God saved Joseph from slavery and set him second in command over Egypt! More importantly, God would save Joseph spiritually. He gives Joseph the wisdom to store up grain for a grueling famine. His starving brothers hike to Egypt for grain. Because of Joseph they live— including the brother, Judah. Since Judah lived, it meant his son lived. Because that son lived, it meant his son lived—and the son that came after and so on. God preserves Judah’s family tree in order to keep a promise: But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel… (Micah 5:2).Through Joseph, Judah lives. Because Judah lives, Jesus lives. Because Jesus lives, Joseph lives!
What do you think the brothers learned about their God? They could stop, look, and say, “Whoa. God preserved our lives— even though we wanted blood. God preserved us.” They had the chance to grasp God’s mercy.
Your world is a poor model of forgiveness. Politicians argue on television. The media only stokes division. Celebrities criticize leaders. Athletes lash out against owners. On social media you can say anything you want and no one (1) knows who you are and (2) can say something back to you. You live in this climate. That angry vengeance can soon affect you. Yet, what can you possibly learn about forgiveness from a society that knows nothing of God’s pardon? Nothing.
When our hearts are set on the fact that God forgives us—individually(!) our views on forgiveness properly align. (1) Your marriage may have tense moments. Friends say: “Protect yourself! Leave her! Divorce him!” Yet, God never divorced you. Touched by that love, you work together. It means that you evaluate your own heart first, identify your proud grudges, and ask forgiveness. Then, living opposite than before, you love your spouse— even when it is you starting the action. (2) You may lose money. Society says, “Get even! Sue! Demand retribution!” Jesus does not even with you. Instead, he loses his life to make you even with him. You are willing to suffer loss, knowing that God will avenge those who are unrepentant (Romans 12:19). (3) Society promotes selfish, self-centered division. The one person you may not care for is also a human being. God knit that person together in the womb. God sent Jesus to die for that person. That individual is a soul for whom Christ died. While you may not become close friends, you treat each other with the forgiving love God has shown you (Ephesians 4:32).
Forgiveness will be unexpected in our world. Why? Because the sinful heart expects repayment! Yet, God has cleansed your hearts. He has set you apart to do the unexpected—to forgive, just as God forgave you.
Jesus teaches: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luke 6:27-31). Does that sound fair? Does that sound repulsive?
We will struggle forgiving this side of eternity. The sinful heart still claws for revenge. Thank God that he does not act the same. God does what we would never expect. He kills the Innocent One so that we become innocent. He raises the Innocent One so that we may do the unexpected. God adjusts our view of forgiveness to meet his standard. You, touched by God’s love, it leaves you to ponder: What is Your Idea of Forgiveness?