Dr. Steve Lindsley
Genesis 45:3-11, 15

I try to imagine myself in Joseph’s shoes, and if I’m honest I don’t know that I would’ve done what he did. The pain from all those years ago; the trauma of being abandoned by your own brothers, mad with jealousy, selling you into slavery and passing you off for dead….. I mean, if I were Joseph, I think the pain would’ve won out in the moment. And the minute they showed up on my doorstep, I would’ve revealed who I was, for sure; but revealed in anger and rage and fury, not reconciliation and forgiveness, and certainly not passing it off as some “you meant this for harm / God meant it for good” thing.

Emotions are running high in our story today, if you hadn’t noticed. Joseph’s brothers are hungry and anxious. Hungry because of the famine. Anxious because of the strange behavior of this Egyptian leader when all they did was just ask for food. Prior to our passage this Egyptian leader vacillated between treating them with grace and kindness and treating them with contempt and scorn. An odd request to go home and return with their younger brother. A strange inquiry about the well-being of their father. They return with their younger brother as asked, and they are on their way home when the soldiers confront them and find the Egyptian leader’s prized silver cup in the sack of the youngest brother, so they’re all brought back to Egypt to face the music.

And how was Joseph in all of this? Well, he is understandably an emotional wreck. He’s known for a while now that these men were his brothers – he recognized them from the very start And he has not known what to make of himself in all of this. He is torn – torn between a longing to reunite with his family, a family he has not been part of for a lifetime now; and the very understandable human reaction of anger and hate and vengeance. So yeah: he’s an emotional wreck.

Jill Duffield, former editor of the Presbyterian Outlook, says of this scripture: “We’ve got grief, anger, relief, frustration, love, fear – the roiling gamut of human feelings are woven into this story, and I find this messy display a relief. God utilizes our whole selves, our whole lives, all our complex feelings and relationships to make manifest divine truth and will.”

And so we wonder: is that what this story is about – “divine truth and will?” Is that what you and I are meant to take away from this climactic ending to the Joseph saga in the book of Genesis? It’s a reasonable question. Joseph does tell his brothers that “God meant this for good” – “this” being the heinous act the brothers committed against their own flesh and blood years before. We have a word for this way of understanding the world: we call it providence. It was John Calvin, after all, who famously wrote,

Providence means not that by which God idly observes from heaven what takes place on earth, but that by which, as keeper of the keys, God governs all events.[1]

Providence – a God who is active and involved in the world, who engages the world, who is at the center of all things in the world. It is a tricky doctrine, this providence, because sometimes it is unwittingly used to explain away the unexplainable – where is the providence of God, for instance, in the hurricane that devastates a coastal community? A question for another sermon, perhaps. But here, in our story today, in this moment of revelation and recognition, Joseph assures his brothers that God was at work in this all along.

Which is not untrue, of course. God was at work, as God always is. But to say this passage is exclusively about the providence of God seems to be selling both God and providence short There is more going on here than just providence.

So – what else is it? Love, perhaps? Is this story about love? Sure, it’s about love. And love, as we learned in last week’s sermon, comes in all kinds of flavors. Sometimes love is easy. Sometimes it comes naturally. I’m home sitting on my couch, and our cat Bindi crawls into my lap and looks up at me with those lovely green eyes of hers. Easy love. I talk to my parents on the phone, I drop my oldest off at college, I enjoy a dinner out with my wife. Easy love. I gather with good friends, friends I’ve not seen in years because a pandemic has kept us apart. Easy love.

But there are other times when love is a chore, when love is a burden, even. There are times when love goes against every grain in our body, every instinct we have, every rationalization we can conjure. And often it happens to be the very time our love is needed most. That is when love is hard work; the kind of work that requires things like intentionality, fortitude, humility, and letting go. That is when choosing to love is most difficult.

Joseph chooses love in our story today but it is hardly an easy choice, nor is it an instantaneous one. As Rebecca shared in her introduction, it comes in fits and phases. Elation one moment, tears another. He expresses concern for them, then accuses them of being dishonest. That’s the thing. Love is hardly ever a straight line. Love is complicated. This story of Joseph reuniting with his brothers is certainly about love. But it is about something more than love.

How about forgiveness? Is this story of ours today about forgiveness? Of course it is. But note that forgiveness in this story is not one-dimensional: it is certainly Joseph choosing to forgive his brothers (and let us always remember that forgiveness, like hard love, is a choice, it is rarely something we instinctively do). But that is not the only forgiveness going on here, for it is also the brothers who are having to forgive themselves – which happens to be the hardest kind of forgiving. As serious a roadblock as hate is to forgiveness, the even greater roadblock is shame. And the brothers were undoubtedly filled with shame for what they did to Joseph all those years ago; they were still carrying the weight of that choice they made, a weight that even Joseph could see in their faces when he says to them: do not be angry with yourselves.

Joseph chooses to forgive his brothers and invites them to forgive themselves; and through this we come upon another thing that story is about, and that is reconciliation. Reconciliation is the end goal of forgiveness. It is what forgiveness is always striving for, working toward. Reconciliation recognizes that the harmful and hurtful act of one against another creates brokenness in both. It was not just Joseph who suffered from being sold into slavery and passed off for dead. His brothers suffered as well. It tore at all of their souls. And so if forgiveness is the work of healing the brokenness, reconciliation is the work of restoring right relationship.

One of my favorite stories of reconciliation is told by Don Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz, when he recounts an experience he had as part of his campus ministry at Reed College, a liberal arts school in Portland Oregon not known for being welcoming of organized religious groups. The campus ministry wanted to make their presence known at Ren Fayre, an annual weeklong festival with quite the party reputation. Someone suggested that they set up a confession booth.

Most laughed at the idea, but not the one who suggested it. He had a different kind of confession booth in mind. For in this confession booth the partygoers would not be making confessions but receiving them. Receiving confession from the campus ministry students who’d confess that, as followers of Jesus, they had not been very loving. They had not lived lives honoring Jesus. But more than that: they would apologize for the Crusades, for televangelists who steal people’s money, for neglecting the poor and the lonely, for centuries and centuries of damage done in the name of Jesus.

The campus ministry group set up their confession booth right in the heart of that huge campus party, and for days it saw a constant flow of participants who were genuinely moved. All of the people who visited the booth were grateful and gracious, Don Miller writes. Many wanted to hug me when we were done. I was being changed through the process. And I think those who came into the booth were being changed too.

Reconciliation, you see? And along with our passage today, these are instances of the transforming power of not just letting go of the past – forgiveness – but allowing that letting go to become a catalyst to change the present. Breaches mended, bridges built, brokenness healed. Starting over again.

But my friends, this story in the 45th chapter of Genesis is about even more than that. And so if the reunion of Joseph and his brothers is not just about providence, and it’s not just about love, and it’s not just about forgiveness and reconciliation, then what, pray tell, is it about?

The English mystic Julian of Norwich penned these words around the turn of the 15th century:

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 thing well
And I shall make all things well
And I will make all things well
And you will see yourself
That every kind of thing will be well.

Fancy words, huh? It’s important to note the context out of which these words came. These words were penned right in the heart of the Black Death plague that ravaged Europe and left a hundred or so million souls in its wake. Julian of Norwich was a Benedictine nun during that time who herself was mortally ill. It was during her illness that she had visions and wrote them down, including these words.

Imagine writing “all things well” in the midst of the world’s most deadly pandemic, in the midst of knowing that your own death was inevitable. These words were not cheery optimism or some smiley-button faith. They were a testament to a God who works in all circumstances to bring about love, to bring about forgiveness, to bring about reconciliation, and out of all of that, to bring about something new. Something new. In the midst of so much darkness, when death seemed to be the only script around, Julian of Norwich flipped the script and wrote a new narrative of life for the future.

The moment had come for Joseph to live into love, to choose forgiveness, to embrace reconciliation. And in order to do this, he had to shed the vestiges of his Egyptian identity. So he sends away all the court hands so it’s just him and his brothers. He comes down to their level. He weeps openly and loudly – he makes himself vulnerable. And he says to them, “I am Joseph” – which is his name, of course, and the revelation of his identity as their long-lost brother. But more than that it is a statement of promise and hope. That’s because the word itself in Hebrew, the name “Joseph,” literally means “he will add.”

For his entire life Joseph had been a living embodiment of his very name, adding new chapters, new trajectories to the story of his life. Sold into slavery, he worked his way up as servant. Accused of an indiscretion he didn’t commit and thrown into prison, he forged relationships and connections. Given an opportunity to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, he was made second in command. And now, confronted with his brothers who didn’t even recognize him, an opportunity he could have used to exact revenge – which was the expected script – Joseph chooses instead to flip the script. He chooses to reunite the family after years of separation and bring them all to Egypt where they would never go hungry again. He chooses to mend the brokenness in both himself and his brothers that had eaten away at their souls for far too long. He chose something new.

Noted Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says of this passage: The power to create newness does not come from detachment, but from risky, self-disclosing engagement. How true. For if we are motivated by love, if we long for forgiveness, if our aim is reconciliation, then we cannot create newness by following the tired old script. No, we have to shed our pretense. Let go of our hangups. We have to take a risk and be our most vulnerable selves in order to chart a new course for us and for everyone else.

For we all know what the script was supposed to be that day. We can recite the lines as if from memory. We very well may have said them before ourselves. Brothers, I am Joseph. The one you wronged so long ago. The one who now has power over you. The one who has not forgotten. And it is clear that God has sent you here for a reason. It is time that you get what you’ve had coming all along.

Love, forgiveness, reconciliation all compel us to say something different:

Brothers, I am Joseph. The one you wronged so long ago. The one who understands that what you did to me, you also did to yourself. And it is clear that God has sent you here for a reason. So do not be afraid. Do not remain imprisoned one moment longer to the shame that has held you captive for so long. It is time that you get what you’ve had coming, what we all have coming. I am your brother. Let’s build a new future together.

In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 202.

[2] Don Miller, Blue Like Jazz, 125.

[3] Feasting On The Word, Year C Vol. 1, 364.

[4] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, 345.

* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.