March 29, 2020
Here is the first attempt at coming up with a new format for our weekly churchless church service. It’s basically a shortened version of the Sunday service that you are already familiar with. I thought it important to include a few prayers and music suggestions in addition to the sermon. About half the church will be receiving this by email and half by regular mail. Please let me know which format you would prefer. In the coming weeks there will probably be a third option: that of watching some kind of “live” recording at your own convenience through the vehicle of Facebook or You Tube.
I’ve decided to put Bible Study on hold because of the huge amount of time that I’m spending with people on the phone. In order to keep up our on-going dialogue around things Scriptural, I’ve included some reflection questions after the sermon. I thought it would be fascinating to post several responses each week. If you would like to participate in this “Bible Study Based On the Sermon,” please send your responses to me via email or regular mail.
OPENING READING (Julian of Norwich, 1342-1419)
And so our Good Lord answered to all the questions and doubts which I could raise, saying most comfortingly: I may make all things well, and I can make all things well, and I shall make all things well… And you will see yourself that every kind of thing will be well…And in these words, God wishes us to be enclosed in rest and in peace.
PASTORAL PRAYER (Angela Ashwin, Contemporary)
I place my hands in yours, Lord, I place my hands in yours.
I place my will in yours, Lord, I place my will in yours.
I place my days in yours, Lord, I place my days in yours.
I place my thoughts in yours, Lord, I place my thoughts in yours.
I place my heart in yours, Lord, I place my heart in yours.
I place my hands in yours, Lord, I place my hands in yours.
SUGGESTED MUSIC “It Is Well With My Soul” by Audrey Assad on You Tube
We continue our new sermon series on the most important texts in the Bible from Genesis through Revelation. The last sermon, given on March 15th, introduced us to the young Joseph, favorite son of Jacob. We saw how the deadly combination of his own pride and the jealousy of his brothers led them to sell Joseph into slavery. God is with him through this ordeal, and he rapidly rises to become head steward of pharaoh’s captain-of-the-guard, Potiphar. Rejecting the advances of Potiphar’s wife, she flies into a rage and denounces him to her husband, who has Joseph thrown into prison. Realizing that he can choose to lose himself in resentment and plans for revenge or work with God to become a better person, he chooses to become a better person.
This brings us to Genesis, chapters 40 through 45, our text for today. These chapters (and chapters 37 and 39) are considered to be one of the great treasures of world literature, not just of the Jewish and Christian traditions. I encourage you to read them for yourself. He is a brief synopsis of what happens in those chapters:
Joseph is still in prison. Pharaoh’s baker and cupbearer are thrown into prison as well. Each of them has a dream and Joseph correctly interprets their dreams. Eventually his skill at dream interpretation brings him to the attention of pharaoh himself, who has a very disturbing dream, which Joseph sees as a warning to prepare for a great famine. Pharaoh is so impressed with Joseph that he makes him second-in-command of all of Egypt. After seven years of plenty, the famine hits, and it hits Canaan, the area where Joseph’s family is still living, as hard as Egypt. Joseph’s brothers, with the exception of Benjamin, the youngest, go down to Egypt in search of food. They do not recognize Joseph with his shaved head and fluent Egyptian, but he recognizes them, and puts them through a series of tests. These tests are designed to grow them into persons of character, empathy, and depth. First, he accuses them of being spies, and holds one of them – Simeon – hostage while the others go back to Jacob with the order that when they return to Egypt they are to bring Benjamin with them. They do so, only to have Joseph plant his best silver cup in Benjamin’s sack, and then falsely accuse him of being a thief. Judah intervenes on his behalf, offering himself as hostage in his place. At this point Joseph breaks down and reveals his true identity to his brothers. Their first reaction to this is one of terror. We need to remember that at this time the reigning moral principle was “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” It was only to be expected that Joseph would do to them what they had done to him – condemn them all to life-long slavery. But this is not what happened!
Copyright 2020: Rev. Paul Wrightman
THE TRANSFORMATION OF JOSEPH’S BROTHERS
Genesis 40-45, with an emphasis on 45:1-5 3/29/2020
Our last sermon ended with Joseph still stuck in jail.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the “ranch” being the land of Canaan, where the rest of Joseph’s family lived, his brothers were facing a huge famine.
On the one hand -- given the fact that at this time in history God was seen to be the direct cause of everything -- they were plagued with the notion that the famine must be punishment directly inflicted upon them by God.
On the other hand, it is precisely this famine which precipitates a chain of events which empowers them to develop some moral depth. Thus, what was perceived as their greatest curse becomes – through God’s guiding hand – the source of their greatest blessing.
Surely each of us has already experienced a similar pattern in our own life: something which was horrific to us at the time turns out either to be a blessing in itself or sets off a series of events which lead to blessing.
If this has already happened to us in the past, there is good reason to believe that it will occur again in the future. The scriptural connection between suffering and blessing is so strong that it would not be going too far to say that, from a biblical perspective, our present suffering undoubtedly contains the seeds of future blessing. The only condition for receiving this blessing is that we see our own particular “testing” through to the end. In other words, the only condition is our own faithfulness, not God’s. God promises to strengthen us through suffering, to transform our suffering into a blessing.
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph – each of these ancestors of our faith was powerfully blessed precisely because they went through what they had to go through to attain their own unique version of moral and spiritual depth. Each could have “bailed out” at some point along the way. We find ourselves in exactly the same position today.
God had a real problem on God’s hands with these low-minded, low-principled brothers of Joseph. How was God to move them from point A (almost totally lacking in morality) to point B (persons suited to help found a people who were to further God’s own plan of salvation history)?
The question is sometimes raised as to how Joseph can possibly be so “Just” and “Wise” (his two main character traits according to Judaism) when he purposefully puts his brothers through so much pain. On the surface it looks like he’s able to withstand the temptation of getting even by killing, but that he certainly indulges in the pleasure of revenge through prolonged terror.
But is this what’s really going on? Joseph surely doesn’t seem to be enjoying himself very much in these chapters. For someone who supposedly takes such delight in revenge, he’s constantly weeping, and seems continually on the verge of “throwing in the towel” and prematurely revealing his true identity. The game plan, in other words, doesn’t really seem to be his, but someone else’s, Someone who is determined to move these brothers from point A to point B for their own good and the good of the world.
In this context, Joseph’s commitment to God’s plan for his brother’s moral reformation is actually the supreme test for himself, as well as for his brothers. To personally inflict this kind of suffering on people he loves is the hardest thing he’s ever had to do, much harder even than being sold into slavery, falsely accused, and thrown into prison.
The apparent cause behind all this pain appears to be none other than God. What kind of a God is it, we may ask, who can come up with such a devilish series of tests and then use Joseph (who, after all, has been through enough suffering of his own without adding this to the list) to inflict this scheme on his own brothers?
A God, we may answer, who loves so strongly that God refuses to settle for anything less than real conversion and real reconciliation.
Prior to World War II the German Lutheran pastor/theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer – one of the few Christians to take a stand against Hitler -- coined the phrase “cheap grace.” By this he meant the superficial, easy, unreal “solutions” which so many Christians of his day (and ours) proposed for so many of life’s profound problems. God’s way, he insisted, was not the way of “cheap grace,” but of “costly grace,” grace which, when necessary, embraces pain, suffering, and sacrifice as the road to salvation. In other words, “costly grace,” God’s way, is often the way of the Cross.
It would have been easier and less painful if God had allowed a reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers to take place immediately. But it would have been a “cheap” form of forgiveness, a reconciliation without any real depth or meaning. God wanted and demanded more. God knew that it would take a prolonged and painful series of tests to bring these hardened criminals around. But God also knew that it was only by means of these trials that Joseph’s brothers could achieve a real change of heart, could experience a conversion through which a reconciliation worthy of the name would be possible. So God chose the way of “costly grace,” and demanded it of Joseph and his brothers, just as God demands it of us.
Let us now turn to the biblical text itself and see firsthand how this costly grace unfolds.
Joseph’s instant recognition of his brothers when they arrive in Egypt seeking food betrays the fact that he had been on the lookout for them. Likewise, his immediate assumption of his particular role in the rather forced drama which is to follow betrays the fact that he has been hard at work practicing his part (42:6-7).
The first step in the raising of his brothers’ moral consciousness is to revive the memory of what they had done to him some fifteen years before. Accordingly, Joseph accuses them of spying, probably the same “crime” of which they had accused him earlier (remember that the young Joseph did have a tendency to play the tattletale – see 37:2b). The brothers plead their case, but to no avail, just as Joseph had pleaded his case to them. The “We are honest men” of 42:11b is an irony of which only Joseph and the reader are aware at this point. Given their gross mistreatment of Joseph, they are anything but honest men. Even more ironic for Joseph must have been their casual remark concerning his disappearance: “the other one is gone” (42:13b).
It is not by accident that the biblical author has included these little, but significant, details in the narrative. It is a way of clueing the reader into the fact that Joseph’s brothers are still deeply lacking in morality, and richly deserve the treatment they are about to receive, being unjustly cast into prison, which corresponds to Joseph’s being thrown into the pit (42:14-17). Also not accidental is Joseph’s twofold mention of the word “test” in these verses. What he is doing is not some arbitrary whim or act of revenge, but a carefully thought-out program for their moral reformation.
It should be clear by now that Joseph’s initial encounter with his brothers in Egypt is an almost point by point replay, with roles reversed, of what they had done to him so many years before. The correspondence of details is uncanny. Just as his “sentence” had been mitigated (from death to slavery), Joseph lightens his judgment, requiring that only one of his brothers remain as hostage (42:18-19).
God’s harsh tactics (as exercised through Joseph) are beginning to pay off. For the first time, in 42:21, we have an honest admission of guilt and sorrow:
“Alas, we are being punished because of our brother. We saw the anguish of his heart when he pleaded with us, yet we paid no heed; that is why this anguish has now come upon us.”
Jarringly, this is immediately followed by Reuben’s self-righteous “Didn’t I tell you not to do wrong to the boy? But you wouldn’t listen!” (42:22), a statement which, however, provides Joseph with a telling bit of information.
At this point Joseph just about cracks under the strain of this necessary charade, and has to turn aside and weep (42:24a). How he must have wanted to reveal himself and spare his brothers and himself the agony of the tests to come! But he knew that his brothers’ repentance must (given the shortness of time and the relative mildness of their trial up to this point) be only skin-deep. So he steeled himself and went on with the ordeal.
His next move (42:24b) is a surprising one given the customs of the time, but shrewd considering the fact of what he has just learned. Reuben, as first-born, would have been the logical choice to stand as hostage. Instead, Joseph has Simeon bound. Again, his action is intended to make them remember and to challenge them to think: in this case to come up with the connection between Reuben’s unexpected reprieve and his earlier compassion for Joseph.
Bearing in mind that the brothers by now must be frantic with anger and fear (the same wrenching combination of emotions that Joseph himself experienced in the pit into which his brothers had thrown him), his return of the money they had given him to buy food is hardly an act of benevolence, but the final “turn of the screw,” calculated to keep them in a state of agonizing confusion. Just as Joseph had had to learn to overcome his anger and fear, and had been forced to grow precisely by choosing to work through his own personal hell, now the brothers are being forced to work through theirs.
God’s “medicine” seems very harsh, but we can be sure that it is the only medicine capable of healing the patient.
So, just before his brothers left Egypt for their home in Canaan, to keep them guessing, Joseph has all the money they has paid for provisions secretly replaced in their sacks. He tells them not to come back unless they bring their youngest brother, Benjamin, with them.
Presented with this demand, Jacob refuses.
But the famine becomes worse through its continuance, eventually compelling Jacob to consent to Benjamin’s accompanying the rest of his brothers to Egypt. This time it is Judah who takes the moral lead and offers himself as security for Benjamin (43:9). As we shall see, it is Judah who becomes the spokesman for the collective moral development of the brothers.
Immediately upon their return to Egypt the brothers are treated to more of Joseph’s challenging tests. They are still quite unnerved about the return of their money, and the first thing they do is to try to settle the issue with Joseph’s steward. In the process of resolving this particular issue, however, the steward, obviously under Joseph’s instruction, hints at an unexpected happy outcome to their ordeal: “You have no need to fear.” (43:23)
Upon seeing his beloved brother Benjamin, Joseph once again nearly fails his own test of testing his brothers. It is obvious from his emotional response of having to leave the room to go off and weep by himself, that he would give anything in the world to break the pretending and embrace his family (43:30). But he is under higher orders and forces himself to go on.
So he submits to the Egyptian custom of not eating with “foreigners” (43:32), and goes on with the banquet. The meal itself is a test. Seating his brothers in chronological order (43:33) is calculated to add to their confusion. And Benjamin’s receiving a fivefold portion is not just a simple act of affection on Joseph’s part, but a blatant expression of favoritism designed to arouse their jealousy. The test is clear: are they going to reject Benjamin in the same way that they rejected him, or have they matured to the point of being able to take life’s built-in injustices in stride? This little test at the banquet table sets the stage for Joseph’s final test of his brothers, which again revolves around their treatment of Benjamin.
As the brothers prepare to leave for Canaan with the food they had just purchased, the secret return of their money is repeated, this time with the addition of Joseph’s silver chalice to Benjamin’s sack. Joseph’s line for the steward who accuses them, “Why did you repay good with evil?” (44:4b), is double-edged, calculated to remind them of the day when they repaid the good of Joseph’s visit to them in the fields with the evil of selling him into slavery.
This time the brothers are sure of their innocence and eagerly take the steward on (44:6-9). Their remonstration gives the steward the opportunity to offer them an easy way out, namely, handing over Benjamin for slavery (44:10), an offer which Joseph himself takes care to repeat in 44:17. This is the ultimate test of the brothers’ change of heart: will they do the expected, forsaking their brother to save themselves? Or will they do the unexpected and dangerous alternative of standing by Benjamin no matter what the consequences?
God’s strong medicine produces the intended results as soon as the brothers reencounter Joseph. The strategic timing, the false accusations, the uncanny hints, round after round of bewildering happenings, have done their work of transformation and given birth to a situation in which real reconciliation is possible. Judah, speaking on behalf of all his brothers, confesses their collective guilt (44:16).
Not only this, but he expresses the brothers’ decision to stick with Benjamin, even if it involves their own slavery. Joseph refuses their offer, insisting that he wants only Benjamin (44:17). This refusal is, of course, the final test of their sincerity, and triggers Judah’s impassioned plea on behalf of their aged father Jacob (44:18-34), one of the most moving appeals in the entire Bible. It is significant that Judah’s speech culminates in his offering himself to take the place of Benjamin (44:32-34).
Here we have tangible evidence of the tremendous moral growth which has taken place in Judah, and presumably all the brothers, as a result of God’s demand for “costly grace.” What God found Godself with at the beginning was a bunch of moral and spiritual dropouts, persons totally unfit to partner with God in God’s plan for salvation. What God has now is a powerful group of leaders who have the moral and spiritual strength necessary to carry out their calling.
Once again Joseph breaks down and weeps (45:1), but this time he can do it in the presence of his brothers because his weeping celebrates his own release from the torture of having to administer these tests to them, and his joy at the real reconciliation which could now take place.
His brothers, of course, are speechless. Not knowing (this awareness would probably dawn on them later) that these strange goings-on have constituted their trial – a trial in which they have brilliantly acquitted themselves by responding to the promptings of God’s grace – they are immobilized by a potent combination of fear, joy, and disbelief.
Joseph quickly reassures them, and his reassurance (45:5-8) is not only a magnificent expression of forgiveness, but a profound exposition of the meaning of divine providence:
“But now do not be distressed, and do not reproach yourselves for having sold me here. It was really for the sake of saving lives that God sent me here ahead of you. For two years now the famine has been in the land, and for five more years tillage will yield no harvest. God, therefore, sent me on ahead of you to ensure for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So it was not really you but God who had me come here…”
Joseph (and the rest of the Bible, for that matter) understands God’s providence wholly in the positive sense of God’s will to save. While modern theologians would want to refine verse 8’s overstatement of God’s being the direct cause of Joseph’s enslavement, they would certainly not disagree with the substance of this teaching, which is that God is present in all events (even terrible ones), seeking to bring a blessing out of a curse, wholeness out of brokenness. In this perspective, the history of salvation from Genesis to Revelation and beyond is simply the history of God’s relentless efforts to bring life out of death.
(Please send me any part of your responses to these questions that you wouldn’t mind being shared with our congregation as a whole. I’d like to use your name, but will also honor “Anonymous” contributions. This is one way of doing Bible study together during this time of sheltering in place.)
What past tests has God allowed to happen in your life to bring you to a place of deeper faith?
How is the present coronavirus crisis testing your faith? How might it bring you to a place of deeper faith?
What does the distinction between “cheap” and “costly” grace mean to you?
What has Joseph learned about God considering the way that things have worked out for him and his family?
What parallels do you find between Joseph and Jesus?
CLOSING PRAYER (St. Augustine, 354-430)
God of our life,
there are days when the burdens we carry
chafe our shoulders and weigh us down;
when the road seems dreary and endless,
the skies gray and threatening;
when our lives have no music in them,
our hearts are lonely,
and our souls have lost their courage.
Flood the path with light, we beseech Thee;
turn our eyes to where the skies are full of promise;
tune our hearts to brave music;
gives us a sense of comradeship with heroes
and saints of every age;
and so quicken our spirits
that we may be able to encourage
all who journey with us on the road to life.
SUGGESTED MUSIC: AI Josh Groban Children Choir from Africa –
“You Raise Me Up” on You Tube
Patiently and persistently God loves.
Relentlessly and unconditionally God loves.
Now and forever God loves.