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Worship Theme: The Church forgives as God forgives.
Sermon Theme: Forgiveness is Our Way of Life
Seventeen years is a long time. Those who are of school age and have plans for college know what I mean. It takes seventeen years to go from Kindergarten through college, and that’s making it through in four years, which a lot of people don’t do any more. Even for those of us who are considered old, and who say, “The years go by so quickly!” seventeen years is a long time. It’s been seventeen years since the Department of Homeland Security began operation, seventeen years since the last old-style Volkswagen Beetle rolled off the assembly line in Puebla, Mexico, seventeen years since the one hundredth anniversary for Harley-Davidson with thousands of bikers leaving the party at Veterans Park when the surprise headliner was not a rock band.
And seventeen years had passed since the prime minister of Egypt had said to his frightened and famished fraternal siblings, “I am your brother, Joseph.” Seventeen years had passed since Jacob, having been invited by his son to shake hands with the Pharaoh, packed up his family and moved from famine in Canaan to feast in Egypt. Seventeen years had passed since Jacob planted his sandals on the sandy beaches of the Nile River and pounded tent stakes into the land o’ Goshen.
But now the funeral was over. Jacob had died. His remains had been mummified and carried to Canaan for a committal. Questions started buzzing in Joseph’s brothers’ brains, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him? Sure! He has treated us well since we arrived here. Certainly, he has been nice to us and given every indication that he would let bygones be bygones. But how horribly we treated him! Forty years ago, we were plotting his murder! OK, cooler heads prevailed, and we didn’t kill him. But selling him into slavery and lying to Dad that he was dead! That was … that was bad! What will Joseph do to us now that Dad isn’t around? Even if he ignores us, how will we deal with the guilt?”
How did Joseph deal with his brothers? You heard it in today’s first reading from Genesis chapter fifty. But this account is not just a happy story about brothers who learned to get along. It is meant for us, illustrating that God wants forgiveness to be our way of life.
It reflects God’s love to us
It’s easy to love those who are nice to us. But what about those who don’t seem to deserve forgiveness? Maybe your boss doesn’t acknowledge your efforts. Maybe your teacher gives you a grade which you think isn’t fair. Maybe your friend keeps talking about what he expects you to do and never asks what you want or need. We’re tempted to get angry and get even. We’re tempted to become frustrated and give up. “Why should I forgive them? They don’t deserve it.” If anything, we’ll offer forgiveness with strings attached. “I’ll forgive my boss if she gives me a raise.” “I’ll forgive my teacher if she makes the next test easier.” “I’ll forgive my friend if he offers to buy dinner.”
Do you remember when you first heard the Joseph stories? Did you find yourself identifying with Joseph? Maybe you pictured yourself picked on by your brothers, plopped into a water pit, hoisted out by a rope, handed over to slave traders, bound at the wrists, and bumping along on a camel to a strange land. Maybe you saw yourself working hard for the army commander and trying to do your best but getting falsely accused by that histrionic, lustful wife of his and getting dumped into the poky. And there you sat, scratching a line on the wall for each day that passed.
Joseph was a victim of his brothers’ evil, and when we hear his story, we want to identify with him especially because at every turn the little inborn demon inside is so quick to blame others for our troubles, “You’re a victim. If you’re not getting along at work, blame your boss for being unfair. If you have dirty thoughts, blame the media for glamorizing filth. If you were unfaithful and broke your marriage vow, blame it on your mother for being uncaring or your father for his being a poor role model.” But if we are going to identify with anyone in the Joseph stories, we need to be honest and admit that we aren’t so much like poor, picked on Joseph but more like his lousy, jealous, conniving brothers. If you or I have harbored in our heart one tiny bit of envy or jealousy or hatred, if we have ever been even a tiny bit self-centered, then join the club with those bad-guy brothers. We are the ones who deserved to be dumped into the devil’s dungeon. We are the ones who deserved to be stuck in Satan’s slime pit. We are the ones who deserved to be killed by God’s ferocious anger.
Joseph’s brothers did not deserve forgiveness from God or from Joseph. A glance at their past reveals a crooked path of sin and perversion. Reuben and Judah should have had a scarlet letter “A” for adultery woven onto the front of their robes. Simeon and Levi didn’t use Perry Mason or Arnie Becker but still got off from murder one. Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher had hatred and envy pumping in their veins. Joseph’s brothers were guilty of rebellion against God. If they had any intention at all of aiming at the bullseye of God’s perfect standards, they had missed the whole target. Add to that all the evil they had done to Joseph, and you have ten characters who did not deserve forgiveness. If you were Joseph, would you have been willing to forgive? With Jacob now dead, what a perfect opportunity to exact sweet revenge!
But forgiveness had become a way of life for Joseph, and he reflected God’s love to his brothers. He forgave them even though they didn’t deserve it. And did you notice? He didn’t attach any ifs, ands, or buts. He didn’t say, “I’ll forgive you if you act like gentlemen or if you serve as my slaves.” No! He wept when they came and threw themselves down before him, “We are your slaves.” He said, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
There’s a way to avoid anger and vengeance and frustration. Look at what God did for these conniving brothers. He forgave. Look at Jesus. See him dying on the tree. See him pour out his lifeblood to win forgiveness for you and me so that we can have life, real life without the burden of our own guilt, real life without anger and frustration, real life reflecting to others the love God has shined on us. Watch your God in action, and you will discover more and more that forgiveness is our way of life.
It results in God’s blessings for us
If I gave you a piece of paper and pen today, could you list the blessings of being a Christian? Of course you could. You would probably be able to fill up a whole sheet of paper with things like forgiveness of sins, the sure hope of heaven, peace with God, the privilege of prayer, the resources of his Word and sacraments. But every once in a while, we feel like we’re on the spot for a quick reply when someone asks, “What good is it being a Christian?” In cases like that, probably the easiest response to give is to quote the bumper sticker, “Not perfect, just forgiven.”
But what else is there? We can’t say being a Christian guarantees a fat bank account or a full-proof COVID-19 vaccine or good grades or a great job or a fancy house because there are plenty of people who could care less about Jesus who are rolling in dough, who live till they’re ninety, who are at the top of their class, who get the promotions, who live in seven thousand square foot mansions. The reality of being a Christian is that we must go through many [mask-wearing and social-distancing] hardships to enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22). So, what is it that makes being a Christian such an extraordinary blessing? Joseph helps us put our finger on additional blessings that flow from the fact that forgiveness is our way of life.
He told his brothers, “Don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. After this tender encounter Joseph and his brothers went on to live in harmony and unity, sharing the riches of Egypt God had provided. Without forgiveness among God’s people, bickering breaks out and factions form. God’s work through his church grinds to a halt. With forgiveness we can overcome obstacles, put the past behind us, and move forward together. Forgiveness as our way of life results in oneness.
Think of the impact this had on the Egyptians. We don’t know how many came to faith, but you’ve got to believe that many of Joseph’s workers knew very well the way his brothers had treated him and now saw the forgiveness he offered. Don’t you think there were many who said, “We want to be part of that. We want that way of life, too”? We probably won’t ever know the exact numbers, and who’s counting? But you’ve got to believe that there are hundreds, maybe thousands, who see the forgiveness we offer each other and who hear forgiveness flow from our lips, who say, “We want to be part of that. We want that way of life, too”? Forgiveness as our way of life results in witness.
Seventeen years is a long time. The guilt borne by Joseph’s brothers was just killing them. Of course, with that kind of guilt seventeen minutes would be a long time. That’s why God’s forgiveness means so much because it is so desperately needed by me and by you. We get a whole new outlook so that with each passing day, we can reflect his love and enjoy his blessings. That’s all possible because forgiveness has become our way of life. Amen.
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