What you meant for evil, God used for good (Joseph’s story)

Sermon preached 8/21/2011 at Burke UMC
Text: Genesis 45:1-15

How long does it take for the past to become water under the bridge? How do we handle bumping into people from our past who did things that still bother us today? I’ve been thinking about this question lately as I’m preparing to go to my fifteenth high school reunion. There will be some people there who treated me poorly once upon a time. Now the great thing about high school reunions for nerdy kids like me is that we tend to be more successful than the cool kids who bullied us. There’s an art to rubbing it in when you’ve got a pretty wife and a good job and you’re talking to a former bully whose life hasn’t turned out quite as well.

But the kind of bullying I dealt with in high school was really minor compared to, say, getting sold by your brothers into slavery. How do you forgive somebody who did something that evil to you? Joseph did. And he didn’t have to. Being the second-in-command over Egypt, he had the power to throw his brothers into slavery or have them killed. But also, it’s important to realize that Joseph really struggled with the process of forgiving his brothers. He was human just like we are. Our reading for this morning was the culmination of a long and messy process that takes up four chapters of Genesis. Let me give you the back-story.

When Joseph’s brothers first came before him, he recognized them even though they didn’t recognize him. It had been twenty-two years since they had sold him into slavery. They were much older and skinnier. They were in a place of desperate need. A famine had ravaged the land for two years, and Jacob had sent his sons to Egypt to buy grain. So they bowed down before Joseph, who was in charge of administering the grain, in a strange fulfillment of his childhood dream that he would rule over his brothers.

Joseph’s life had been such a strange journey. Sold as a slave to Potiphar, the captain of the pharaoh’s guard, Joseph won his master’s trust and ended up gaining responsibility for all within his household. Then Potiphar’s wife got sweet on him and tried to seduce him. When Joseph resisted, she accused him of rape. So he was thrown into prison where he met the pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker and interpreted their dreams. Years later when the pharaoh had a troubling dream, the cupbearer told his master and Joseph interpreted the pharaoh’s dream, correctly predicting seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. Because of Joseph’s foresight, the pharaoh appointed him as an overseer over all of Egypt in one of the most phenomenal rags-to-riches stories in the whole Bible.

So it was the second year of famine that Joseph’s brothers had come to him. Joseph summoned an interpreter so that no one could know he spoke their language. And then the games began. He started by accusing his brothers of being spies. They had no way to prove their innocence, so they told him their life story, how they used to be twelve brothers but the second youngest had been lost and the youngest had stayed home with his father. Joseph used their honesty to mess with them even further. “If you’re telling the truth and you’re not spies,” he said, “Then you’ll go home and bring your youngest brother back with you. And by the way, one of you needs to wait here in prison.”

The brothers were deeply troubled by this. They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us.” They didn’t realize that Joseph could understand every word they said. At this point, Joseph left the room to weep for the first time. When he returned, he had his brother Simeon bound in chains and led away to prison.

The nine remaining brothers went back home to their father Jacob to tell him what had happened. Jacob wouldn’t let them take Benjamin back to Egypt until they went through all the grain they had bought. Then Judah stepped up, the one who had convinced the others to sell Joseph into slavery years before. He told his father that if anything happened to Benjamin, he would take personal responsibility. So Jacob agreed to send them back.

When Joseph saw his brother Benjamin, the only other son of his mother Rachel who had died while giving birth to him, he had to leave the room a second time to weep. He held a banquet for his brothers. When he filled their bags with grain to take back home, Joseph had a silver cup placed in Benjamin’s bag. He then sent a servant to chase after the brothers on the road. When the cup was found in Benjamin’s bag, Joseph pretended to be furious and demanded that Benjamin be given to him as a slave for life. And in response to this, Judah stepped forward and offered himself in Benjamin’s place: Judah, the one who had betrayed Joseph more than any other brother, Judah, the scoundrel who Joseph probably hated the most of all. Something had happened to Judah. God had changed Judah’s heart.

This was the game-changer. After seeing that God could transform even Judah’s heart, Joseph broke down and revealed himself to his brothers. Notice what he says: “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.” It was the evidence of God’s work in Judah’s heart that compelled Joseph to prophesy about how God had been at work all along. Despite all the evil that he had done, Judah witnessed to the power of God without realizing that’s what he was doing and Joseph responded to Judah’s witness. God used both of them to write a better story.

Now I imagine some people are uncomfortable with the deterministic way that Joseph talks. What about the free will of Joseph’s brothers? Were they just puppets in God’s plan? Does Joseph excuse them of responsibility for their sin by calling it part of God’s plan? They don’t even get to apologize and Joseph never actually says I forgive you. He just declares that God has been the puppet-master all along. How does that resolve anything? I’d like to invite you to set aside the philosophical implications of Joseph’s statement for a moment, because I believe that having Joseph’s attitude towards God is what makes forgiving other people possible.

It doesn’t matter whether God controls everything or watches sadly while we wreck the world that He’s created. The best way to cope with the brokenness of living is to interpret the events of our lives as part of God’s plan. When we give God glory for every good thing that has ever happened and every good thing that we have ever done, when we find some way to declare God’s blessing despite every setback we have ever suffered, then we are looking at our lives in a way that allows us to forgive and be reconciled with those who have hurt us. The more that we come to view all our relationships in terms of God’s purpose, the more that we are able to form authentic human community with others.

The quality of my life has much less to do with its circumstances than it does with my interpretation of them. Joseph shows us a way to view our lives in which we rise above all the ugliness that Satan throws our way through the injuries and insults of other people. And Joseph was only a foreshadow of the One who was able to absorb all of the world’s hate on the cross and transform it into proof of God’s love. Jesus tells us in Matthew 25 that whatever we have done to the least of His brothers and sisters we have done to Him. Every time we have been rude to another person, every time we have betrayed a friend, every hurting person that we have ignored are all nails in the flesh of our Savior just like everything that has caused us pain is part of the pain that Jesus bears for us. Jesus absorbs the fury of the entire human race so that we can experience the gratitude of forgiven sinners that makes us capable of saying, “What you meant for evil God has used for good.”

So how do we find God’s blessing amidst the ugly things that have happened to us? There’s a way in which faith is a rebellion against all the ugly facts that seem to prove that God doesn’t care. We don’t have to be vengeful; we can be stubborn enough to insist that God loves us in spite of the hatred of others. When we trust that Jesus has conquered our sin and the sins of those who hurt us, it becomes possible to rewrite the story of our lives. As grateful and forgiven people, we can feast with our enemies, just like Joseph did, until our pain fades from our memory, and we forget how to talk about anything other than how good our God is.


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