August 23, 2023

Forgiveness Unleashed

Prayer for illumination:

Seeking unity, we come to the scriptures. Acknowledging our discord, we come to the scriptures. Realigning our lives with God, we come to the scriptures. We have come with open hearts O, let the ancient words impart. Amen.

Last week, I was corresponding texts and emails with a young woman, who just got married in April this year. But after living together for only 4 months, they filed for separation. The husband couldn’t forgive some of the mistakes she made and wanted to get separated, but she was not ready.

A friend of mine has not been talking to her sisters after they had arguments over little things. In the beginning, she thought that they would soon be able to forgive one another but as time went by, it became more difficult to initiate conversation. And they still have not talked or seen one another for over a decade.

Our family friend was very hurt by his brothers because they did not share their father’s inheritance with my friend. He sadly told me that he feels so betrayed by his own brothers that he doesn’t want to see them, at least not yet.

Most of us have experiences of betrayal, mistreatment, abuse, discrimination, or injustice. Some of the pains we don’t even want to bring up. We just bury them deep inside of us. It takes time to forgive and be healed OR be forgiven and be reconciled. Today’s Scripture lesson is a very famous story and one of the most powerful stories in the Bible - Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers.

In the book of Genesis, Joseph’s story covers chapters 37 to 50 - more than the creation story, more than Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob’s narratives.

A couple of Sundays ago, we studied Jacob wrestling with God at the Jabbok River before he went to meet his brother Esau with whom Jacob was estranged for 20 years. Fortunately, Esau forgave Jacob, but they were not really reconciled. Jacob then settled in the land of Canaan. Joseph was Jacob’s 11th son.

Joseph’s story begins when he was seventeen. Jacob loved Joseph more than his other sons and even made Joseph a multicolored tunic to show his love. Moreover, Joseph behaved like a spoiled child who tattletales, and brought bad reports about his brothers to his father, Jacob.

On top of that, Joseph had dreams that his entire family would bow down to him including his own parents. Who would be excited to hear such dreams from a younger brother? Joseph’s brothers hated Joseph greatly and were jealous of him because he was Jacob’s favorite son.

One day, when they were out in the field to graze the flocks, the ten brothers saw Joseph coming in the distance. At that moment, evil thoughts came to their minds, and they plotted to kill him. But Reuben the eldest suggested throwing him into a pit instead.

When Joseph came to them, they stripped him of his robe - the richly ornamented robe Jacob gave him - and threw him into the cistern. Then, by the recommendation of Judah the Fourth, they sold Joseph to Midianite and Ishmaelite traders who were going to Egypt even though he was begging for his life.

Upon arriving in Egypt, those who had bought Joseph sold him to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s captain of the guard. God blessed Joseph, and Joseph grew in influence and prominence until Potiphar put Joseph over his whole house.

Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph, but he fled to avoid the situation. However, she lied to Potiphar, falsely accusing Joseph of trying to take her by force. Joseph, absurdly, was thrown into prison. Yet, even in the dungeon, God looked after him. Even while imprisoned, Joseph prospered, and God gave him the gift of interpretation of dreams.

We don’t know exactly how long he was in prison, but when Pharaoh had a troubling dream, Pharaoh’s cupbearer remembered that Joseph had interpreted his dream accurately, and he told Pharaoh.

Joseph was summoned from prison, and he interpreted Pharaoh’s dream in such a powerful way that he was appointed second-in-command over all of Pharaoh’s house and Egypt. Joseph was 30 years old by then.

In the seven years that followed, Joseph led the preparations for the famine, and when the famine finally arrived, Egypt was prepared and people from all over the world traveled to Egypt to buy grain.

Joseph’s brothers also came to Egypt to buy grain. However, when they encountered Joseph, they did not recognize him, but Joseph recognized them. He treated them harshly, pretending that he thought they were spies. Joseph kept one brother in prison until the others brought their youngest brother, Benjamin, back to Egypt to prove they were not spies. Eventually, they brought Benjamin with them on a return trip.

So here he goes standing in front of all his brothers. Joseph was assured that his older brothers had been changed. Joseph could see that they really cared about the youngest, Benjamin, and had deep concerns for their father, Jacob.

Furthermore, unlike 20 years ago, Judah was begging to be a substitute for Benjamin, saying, “Now then, please let your servant remain here as my lord’s slave in place of the boy, and let the boy return with his brothers. How can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? No! Do not let me see the misery that would come on my father.” This is the context of today’s text.

Then, Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” When he was alone with his brothers, he finally revealed who he was to them. “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” speaking Hebrew.

If you had been one of Joseph’s brothers, how would you have felt when he revealed himself? - shocked, ashamed, afraid, relieved, or? The Bible says that his brothers were terrified. They were speechless and shocked by the fact that Joseph was alive, and he was the governor of Egypt who had the power to kill them for what they had done to him.

Seeing them frozen, Joseph called them closer, “Come close to me.” In ancient cultures, and in some Asian and Middle Eastern cultures today, to look somebody in the eye is considered a sign of disrespect. When you're in a superior’s presence, you lower your gaze; you don't look him in the eye.

Here, what Joseph is saying is that I may be the ruler of Egypt but come closer and look me in the eye. I'm your brother and I'm not angry at you; I love you.

He continued, “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.”

Joseph explained to them that it was not them but ultimately God Himself who had sent him to Egypt so that he could preserve their lives. He wanted them to see that he was not seeking judgment against them.

Indeed, he could have told a story about the experience of life in slavery. About being wrongly accused and sent to prison. He could have talked about years — YEARS — spent in jail. He could have let loose his anger. He could have told his brothers, “I told you so. Remember those dreams I had where you all were bowing down to me? Check it out.”

But he didn’t say any of those. He simply explained to his brothers why things had to happen the way they did – or at least how they turned out well in the end.

“Go back now, and hurry, get our father,” he said, “and come back here with your families and all your possessions, and make Egypt your new home so that I can take care of you in the hard days that still lie ahead.” Joseph’s compassion and generosity seemed to know no bounds.

Then he threw his arms around his brother Benjamin, and Benjamin also embraced Joseph, weeping together. V 15 says, “And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.” Maybe to them, Joseph’s forgiveness and mercy were inconceivable. Maybe for years, they were living in excessive guilt.

Even years later, after Jacob had died, the brothers still had some fear of retaliation. They came to Joseph and begged for his forgiveness. Joseph wept when he heard their appeal. Revenge was the last thing on his mind. Joseph said to them, “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.”

What do you usually do when someone hurts you? Lash out? Hold a grudge? Forgive and forget? Look to get even? Withdraw? Complain about them?

We may withhold forgiveness, believing the offender is unworthy of our mercy or waiting for an apology before we forgive. But waiting until justice is served or for an apology from the perpetrator is not a wise decision because neither one of these may happen.

Then, how could Joseph embrace his brothers after what they had done to him? Joseph was able to forgive his brothers because he recognized that God’s sovereign goodness overrides all. He was able to understand God’s big-picture plan.

When he looked at his life, he did not see a series of senseless tragedies. He saw purpose and meaning beyond the tragedies… God’s promises and Divine providence in the midst of the tragedies.

There is the “hiddenness” of God at work in our lives. And Joseph was able to see the ‘hiddenness’ and trust in God’s purposes even when he couldn’t “see” or understand them.

We also need to see the ‘hiddenness’ of God at work in our lives amidst brother’s rivalry, jealousy, hurtful words, injustice, unfair treatment, or discrimination.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that you are OK with the wrong they did and/or it gives them a free pass. Forgiving someone does not free the individual from responsibility for what they did; it does not mean the other person is right. Hurting others is not OK and never justified. And also it takes time. Joseph needed 13 years for him to truly embrace them.

However, God is able to make something good even in the most miserable and wrongful situation. In Romans 8, Paul said, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

Throughout his life, Joseph trusted God no matter his good or bad circumstances. Joseph experienced plenty of bad things: kidnapping, slavery, false accusations, wrongful imprisonment, rejection, and famine. But in the end, God brought things to a wonderful, life-affirming conclusion.

When we let our hatred, unforgiveness, and bitterness override us, our lives become thwarting, defensive, and limited. We cannot live wholly, enjoying the deep and joyous blessings of life God has given us. And, God has taught us that we can forgive, just like we have been forgiven.

Jesus Christ, the Son of God became a substitute for us. He came to earth to pay the price of our sins. Because of Jesus, we now have the opportunity to not only have our sins forgiven but will have eternal life with Him. Through Jesus Christ, forgiveness has been unleashed on us.

And we can unleash forgiveness just like we confess every Sunday, ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’ We can unleash forgiveness just like Joseph who was able to respond with love and forgiveness, being a blessing to those who had intended to destroy his life.

Brothers and sisters, if you have a severed or strained relationship in your life, what will it take for you to take the initiative and reach out in forgiveness as Joseph did? To whom does the Holy Spirit want you to unleash forgiveness?

It might be difficult if you try to forgive with your own strength but with the help of Jesus Christ who died for you, who gives you strength to forgive, who wants you to embrace God’s gift for your life, who has a greater purpose in your life, you can unleash forgiveness, proclaiming, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done.”

Let us pray.

Sovereign God, Thank You for Your grace You have given us through Jesus Christ Your Son. Thank You that even in the midst of life’s unreasonable situations, You are able to make things good. We confess that we sometimes do not want to forgive those who have hurt us with words and actions. But help us see the ‘hiddenness’ of God at work in our lives. Help us unleash Your forgiveness even to those who are unforgivable just like You forgave us our sins. Lord, shield my soul.