St. Aldhelm’s, Vulcan

Almighty God, you have broken the tyranny of sin and sent into our hearts the Spirit of your Son. Give us grace to dedicate our freedom to your service, that all people may know the glorious liberty of the children of God; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

And Joseph said unto his brethren, Come near to me, I pray you. And they came near. And he said, I am Joseph your brother, whom ye sold into Egypt. Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life.

May the words of my lips, and the thoughts and meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Introduction

When you are wronged, do you find it easy to forgive? When someone has really done something horrible to you, are you able to say you forgive them?

It’s easy to forgive when it’s something small. Easier when it’s a matter of someone just having been inconsiderate of you, and apologizes right away. Maybe it was a colleague at work who went out to Tim’s and got some doughnuts for everyone, but forgot that you’re only able to have the plain doughnuts and all they got were double chocolate and maple glaze, but when they got back to the office they realise their mistake, they apologize to you. That seems easy enough to forgive.

What if they don’t apologize, though? That might make it a bit harder, even for such a trivial matter.

What if it’s not just a small inconsiderate act, what if it’s something deliberate? What if it’s not a colleague but a family member: your spouse, parent or your child? What if rather than a small inconsiderate act, it is a deep and personal betrayal that turns your whole life upside down. Would you be able to forgive then?

The Story of Joseph

In our Old Testament lessons from last Sunday and this Sunday, we’ve gotten something of a précis of the story of Joseph, the beloved son of Jacob and Rachel. His is a story that touches on this question of what it means to forgive, and how we are called by God to respond to these types of betrayal.

Last Sunday, if you recall, we heard an introduction to the life of Joseph. He was the beloved son of Jacob because he was the son of Jacob’s old age,[1] much like Jacob’s father Isaac was the child of Abraham and Sarah’s old age. Jacob gives his son the now famous coat of many colours,[2] and Joseph begins to dream dreams, one of which is that his elder brothers will kneel before him to show reverence and honour to him.[3] All of this, Jacob’s seeming favouritism of Joseph, and Joseph’s seemingly proud dreams, combine to make his brothers despise him.

Last week we heard how his brothers plotted to kill him, and throw him in an empty cistern to die.[4] Then they have a better idea. “What does it profit us to kill him?” they ask.[5] Not a change of heart, though, just a further revelation of how much they had come to be alienated from Joseph. They sell him to some slave traders so they can profit directly from getting him out of their lives.

Our reading today picks up much further into Joseph’s story. Perhaps it is sufficiently well-known that people are expected to fill in their own details, but I will give you some highlights. Joseph, despite being sold into slavery, holds faith with God.[6] He never turns or loses faith regardless of his circumstances, which rise and fall over the years.[7] By the time our reading occurs, he is now at the height of his power. He has been made second in the kingdom of Egypt to the pharaoh.[8] The pharaoh had been having dreams, and Joseph was able to interpret them.[9] The meaning of the dreams was that there would be a long and severe famine in the land. By predicting this and organizing for it, under Joseph’s direction, Egypt was able to survive the famine easily, and people from all around Egypt are coming there because they have no food.[10]

Joseph’s brothers then arrive because the famine has extended to the land of Canaan where Jacob and his family all still live. They have come to buy food.[11] Joseph tests them in several ways, making them fear for their lives and trying to see if his brothers have changed at all from when they sold him into slavery.[12]

In chapter 44, just before our reading today begins, Judah, the brother who had proposed selling Joseph into slavery rather than leaving him in the cistern to be killed by wild animals, had been pleading to give his life for the life of his brother Benjamin,[13] who at that point Joseph had been threatening to have locked up, after having framed Benjamin as a thief.[14]

Then we come to our reading today. Joseph, who his brothers to this point have not recognized, admits to who he is.[15] We can see his faithfulness towards God show through when he introduces himself to his brothers, who even after he says who he is, don’t understand. He says, “And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.”[16]

Joseph made it through years of slavery and incarceration, but God now has fulfilled the dream that Joseph had back in chapter 37 that his brothers would bow down before him. He understands what had to happen, his being sent to Egypt, in order that the dream he’d had could be fulfilled. He forgives them, and we are shown no indication in this text, or anywhere else in the narrative of Joseph that this is anything other than full-hearted, honest and loving forgiveness.

For Us?

Joseph prayed, and received encouragement throughout his slavery and imprisonment, and surely that helped him to keep faith with God, and through that to be able to forgive his brothers for what they did. God was clearly with him, blessing him in all he did despite being in prison and a slave.

That’s all fine and good for Joseph, but as the phrase goes, it’s easier said than done. When everything we do doesn’t seem to be blessed by God, how are we to find encouragement?

What we have in the story of Joseph, though, is more than just a story of someone who made it through a difficult trial by God blessing him at every turn. This story shows the very heart of the Gospel. Joseph is betrayed by his brothers whom he loves, and is deeply wounded by their betrayal. Yet he is in power and they come back to him, he does not repay them with vengeance, but forgiveness, and indeed turns their betrayal to good, saving his family from famine by feeding them.

Are you starting to hear some similarities now with Salvation history?

God is betrayed by humanity, who turns from his love. God does not repay humanity with punishment. As St Paul tells us in our Epistle reading today, God does not by any means reject his people.[17] He turns the betrayal to good, offering the free gift of mercy and forgiveness to all, and offers us the Bread of Life, the Body of his only begotten son to feed us preserve us, body and soul, unto everlasting life, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it.[18]

Conclusion

I began today asking how hard it might be to forgive a close family member for a personal betrayal. But what if it was God who was the one betrayed, and he was betrayed by you. Would he forgive you?

Put another way, is there anything you can do that God will not forgive? To quote St Paul again, “By no means!” To think otherwise is itself the sin of pride. To think otherwise is to believe that there is something that you can do which is greater than the love God holds for you and all of creation.

CS Lewis wrote, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”[19] It is not always easy, but the story of Joseph tells us that by the grace of God we can do it, even in the case of that deep betrayal. St John tells us, “we love, because he first loved us.”[20] Love is at the heart of forgiveness, it is because of God’s love for us that he forgives us when we return to him.

Dear friends in Christ, be confident in God’s forgiveness. Be confident in his love for you, that whatever you repent of, no matter how great a betrayal it seems to you, his love is infinitely greater, and he will forgive you. When someone this week wrongs you, if you struggle to forgive, if you try to justify resentment or revenge, remember Joseph and the forgiveness he was able to offer to his brothers because his life was steeped in a faith in the goodness and love of God, and consider how that own love has been poured out in your life. Maybe not in the way that Joseph was blessed, but in the far greater blessing of forgiveness.

I have spoken to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Gen xxxvii. 3

[2] Gen xxxvii. 3; Some translations now render this coat with long sleeves based on the LXX.

[3] Gen xxxvii. 5-7

[4] Gen xxxvii. 18-20

[5] Gen xxxvii. 26, 27

[6] Gen xxxix. 2, 23, etc.

[7] Gen xxxix. 20

[8] Gen xli. 37-40

[9] Gen xli. 14-36

[10] Gen xli. 56, 57

[11] Gen xlii. 2

[12] Gen xlii. 18-25; Gen xliii. 2- xliv. 17

[13] Gen xliv. 33, 34

[14] Gen xliv. 2

[15] Gen xlv. 3

[16] Gen xlv. 5

[17] Rm xi. 1

[18] Canadian Book of Common Prayer, 84.

[19] CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 181-183.

[20] 1 St Jn iv. 19

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