Learn to Forgive (February 24, 2019)
Learn to Forgive
Genesis 45:3-8, 15
You’ve probably heard of Joseph. Not Joseph of Nazareth, husband of Mary, belonging to the house and line of David. But Joseph, owner of colorful robe. Joseph, dreamer of dreams and interpreter of dreams. Joseph, second youngest of 12 sons. We are perhaps familiar with some of these details, but how familiar are we with the whole story – where things all started, where they ended up, and what all happened in between? It’s an important story. One that impacts you directly. It’s also a story that you could probably put yourself right into at one time in your life or another. Joseph was one who experienced all-time highs, and all-time lows. And handled it with such grace that couldn’t be attributed to his own character alone.
As Joseph, the second youngest of 12 brothers, you might think that you would simply be lost in the shuffle. Afterall, you weren’t the oldest son. That’s Reuben. You weren’t the baby of the family. That’s Benjamin. You were one of 10 middle children. At least 10. The Bible doesn’t really mention the daughters. But despite how things normally worked, you were your father’s favorite. Now that might sound like a good thing, but in reality, it wasn’t. Yes, things were very good between you and your father. He even made you an ornate robe of many colors. But out in the pastures, with your 10 older brothers, you got nothing but envious glares and jealous actions. In fact, when they saw you coming in the distance, they planned to kill you and say you were eaten by a wild animal. Thankfully, your oldest brother had a heart in that moment and convinced the others not to kill you, but to throw you into a cistern, a well.
So, there you are. Sitting in a dry cistern, looking up at the sky walled off by earth. You could probably hear your brothers making fun of you and plotting further harm as they ate lunch not too far off. Then ropes are lowered. You allow a hesitant wave of relief to wash over you as you hope they’ve all had a change of heart. Instead, when you finally make it out of the pit, you are greeted by a trade caravan. Your hands are bound with those same ropes that meant freedom just a moment ago. And you see your brother Judah counting the silver he had just been given for you. You were dragged to far off land and sold to a man named Potiphar. Yet even when things started to look up and you found yourself in charge of all of Potiphar’s household, suddenly you hit rock bottom once again. Falsely accused of trying to mistreat your master’s wife – when really it was the other way around. You were imprisoned in a dark dungeon and forgotten.
Finally, through a miraculous turn of events, you are brought straight from the dungeon to pharaoh himself to interpret strange dreams that had been keeping him up at night. And when God revealed to you that these dreams meant 7 years of plenty followed by 7 years of famine, and you told Pharaoh the interpretation, you were put in charge of the whole land of Egypt. Only with respect to the throne was Pharaoh greater than him. Talk about a rags to riches story in the blink of an eye! And finally, after the 7 years of plenty, when the years of famine had just begun, you finally received the icing on the cake! Your brothers… standing before you… bowing down to you hoping to buy grain.
It had probably been 20 years since that fateful day your brothers threw you into a cistern and set into motion a long series of terrible events! And now, here you stand, there they bow. You having everything they need, and they don’t even recognize you! What are you going to do? What would you have done in that moment? What have you been plotting and planning for 20 long years for them?
Joseph forgave! He could have had an angry argument with his brothers. He could have pinned them to the wall with their guilt and sin. He could have thrown them into prison. He could have resurrected his old God-given dreams of ruling over his family – now fulfilled because of all that has transpired. But instead he forgave! So utterly unconcerned with getting revenge, his first question actually had nothing to do with past history. Rather, he asked about present circumstances. “‘I am Joseph! Is my father still living?’ But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence” (Gen 45:3). Even after 20 years or so, their cruel actions still haunted them. It seems as though the brothers assumed Joseph was no longer alive. Now, they are confronted with not only a living Joseph, but a Joseph who has great power and authority over them. And although he had every right – humanly speaking – to enact his revenge, to punish them, he forgave!
That’s the thing with sinfulness. It has a tendency to wrong. And when wronged ourselves, we hold on to the wrong until an opportune time to get revenge or to teach a lesson. We feel that it is our duty to make the other person pay for their wrongdoing – for their sin. And forgiving?! Well, that’s out of the question. Forgiving makes it as if it never happened. Forgiving means I wasn’t bothered by it. Forgiving means it wasn’t really wrong. That’s our attitude, isn’t it. If I forgive, then the person who did me wrong gets off scot free and doesn’t learn anything from this whole ordeal. They may even go on to do it to me again!
Did we learn nothing from the cross? Did we learn nothing from Jesus who himself was wrongly handed over? Who was accused of crimes he didn’t commit? Who not only was crucified unjustly, but faced God’s wrath for all the sins of the whole world – that he never committed. And yet, he prayed for those who were mistreating him, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34). That’s letting go in a serious way. Because between you and me, it doesn’t really matter who wrongs who more. Jesus says very clearly, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Lk 6:27-28). “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36). But for God, there has to be vengeance. There has to be payment for sin. Because God is Holy, judging and punishing sin, there has to be a zero sum in the end. But because he is also merciful, he doesn’t punish you. He forgives. He let go of that wrath hung around your neck, and laid it all on his Son, Jesus.
That’s what forgiving means. Forgiving does not mean they didn’t do anything wrong. It doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt you. Forgiving is simply letting go. It’s saying that although I have every right to take my vengeance upon you, I’m going to let go of that right and let God handle it. And God did handle it. He punished every single sin, for every person who ever did you wrong. He punished that sin in Christ’s crucifixion. And do you know what else he took to the cross? He took your sin there. He took all of your wrongs, and all the times you have mistreated others. And rather than punishing you for your sin with the only just punishment – that is, hell – he forgave you, and punished Christ. Therefore, let go of your wrath, because that’s what God did for you.
“Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come close to me.’” (Gen 45:4). It wasn’t because they couldn’t hear him. It was to dispel their terror and fear. It was to embrace them in love. “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, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you” (Gen 45:4-5). All this time they thought he was dead. All this time that guilt hung over their heads. All this time they had to look at their father’s downcast and depressed face. And Joseph had every right to be angry with them. The truth is plain, they sold him here! But instead Joseph lets go of that anger, that vengeance, and covers over any past hostility with love and forgiveness. And such a joyous reunion it was because of that love! “He kissed all his brothers and wept over them” (Gen 45:15). Moreover, they could all see how events meant to hurt or harm were used by God to bring about his deliverance. Finally he could see God’s plan and declare, “God sent me to save lives” (Gen 45:5).
He didn’t see it right away though. He probably didn’t hear it in the rude and despising words of his 10 older brothers. He probably didn’t see it as he stared up at the sky surrounded by walls of earth on all sides as he sat at the bottom of a cistern. He probably didn’t feel it as he was bound and shoved into the hands of the Midianite merchants and dragged on tired feet all the way down to Egypt. God had abandoned him, he must have thought. Just as his brothers abandoned him – even worse, sold him – to a far-off land. I’m not even sure if the fog began to lift as he climbed the ranks in Potiphar’s house. Probably not the plan, but at least some of God’s favor was finally coming his way. Until once again he hit rock bottom, thrown into prison. It probably wasn’t even when Joseph rose to take charge of all of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh, that he really saw God’s plan. Only, when God used Joseph, after all of this, to preserve a remnant through a long and severe famine, to save lives by a great deliverance, did he finally see God’s plan.
So, what was the plan? Preserving a family from a severe famine, and many nations along with them? Yes, but more than that. Preserving the promise of the Savior through Abraham’s line? Yes, but more than that. Creating a remnant, a chosen people, to safeguard that promise until the time of its fulfillment in Christ? Yes, but even more than that. In all of this, God was preserving spiritual life, eternal life, through the Messiah, who would come from a specific people, preserved in Egypt, because of a specific promise. And so, it all comes back, once again, to forgiveness. If Joseph used his advantage over his brothers to treat them as he had been treated, the family would be lost. The line of the Savior would be lost. You and I would be lost. Only because of God’s plan could the brothers truly set aside their guilt and come close to Joseph. Because God had turned sinful plots into blessing.
So, although you may not see it now in the sinfulness of others who mistreat you. You may not hear it in wicked words spoken to you. You may not feel it as an undeserved measure of hate is poured out upon you. In those moments when your heart is filled with rage, your mind is set on vengeance, and your tongue is ready with a condemning word, stop. Look to the cross. Look to the cross because that is where the roles are reversed. It is God who should be filled with rage. It is God who should be taking vengeance upon you. It is God who could so easily speak a condemning word to you. But he didn’t. He forgave. He let go. And he laid it all on Christ. You can reveal this loving and forgiving Christ to others by forgiving them when you are wronged and loving them even when they don’t deserve it. And who knows, when the fog lifts from your life, who else will be able to trace their spiritual life to Joseph’s forgiveness, and to Jesus’ forgiveness, all because you revealed Christ in your forgiveness.