It’s good to be back with you again. Several times this year I’ve been asked to lead services over in Aurora. Most recently they’ve been worshiping outdoors under the trees on the shore of Cayuga Lake. It feels like one of those early Christian services outside the synagogues. The early Christians often met in homes in small groups, sometimes outdoors or in courtyards. Congregations not much bigger than the group of us here today. So in this pandemic time we’re experiencing a taste of the early Church.
These are not only unusual times, they are difficult times. Things had been going so well for us for so long, we kind of forgot that life is generally full of problems. Scripture tells us that life here outside the Garden of Eden will be troubled. Both Old Testament and New Testament are filled with lessons on how to navigate the expected injustices, stresses and difficulties of life.
Our Old Testament lesson this morning puts us in the shoes of a person who has experienced contempt, mockery, attempted murder, slavery, false witness and unjust imprisonment. How does this person handle this? And how does this person deal with those who inflicted this cruelty upon him?
Joseph was a pain in the neck to his siblings as a child. He had been thrown into a pit by his ten older brothers, who planned to kill him. Instead, by chance, they sold him as a slave to a passing camel train on its way to Egypt. Joseph had it hard in Egypt, but by the intervention of God, he gets the ear of the Egyptian ruler. Rather than railing against the false sentence imposed on him, Joseph gave Pharaoh sound advice on how to deal with a severe upcoming problem. Pharaoh appreciated Joseph’s attitude and wisdom. He put Joseph in a position to implement the solutions he proposed, and appointed Joseph Governor and number two man in All Egypt.
The seven-year drought and famine predicted in Pharaoh’s dream happens on schedule. Now, in the middle of this world-wide famine, Joseph’s ten older brothers show up. They have come down from drought-stricken Israel to try and buy food to keep their families alive during the famine. The ten brothers who had sold their younger brother as a slave now appear hat in hand before the Governor of Egypt. They are here to beg to buy grain from Joseph’s massive storehouses. The brothers of course don’t recognize their pain-in-the-neck little brother, this grown-up, regal figure seated before them, controlling their fate.
If you were Joseph, with your murderous, betraying older brothers standing helplessly before you, not recognizing you; what would YOU do? Think about it for a moment.
Well, Joseph doesn’t do that.
Instead, Joseph clears the room of courtiers. Alone with his brothers, the Governor of Egypt unmasks. Ten jaws drop. Joseph reveals himself as the brother they sold as a slave.
He doesn’t gloat. No recriminations, no, “I’ve got you now, your mine, you rats!” Instead, Joseph unashamedly weeps for joy and immediately asks about his father. And he calms the ten frightened, shocked men, “And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.”
Joseph tells them to take it easy, don’t worry. Of course you have reason to be angry with yourselves for the grief you gave me and the pain you caused our father, but here’s the big news, God himself guided us in this so that I would now be in the position to work good for our family and for many others as well.
Joseph didn’t just refrain from revenge. Joseph demonstrated wisdom in action. He doesn’t belittle. He doesn’t make them feel small. He lifted them up. You know, he tells them, God’s hand is in all things.
The kindness he showed his brothers was just part of the picture. From the time he was sold as a slave, he acted with integrity and dignity. He kept his cool. He worked diligently, kept a good attitude and The Lord gave him success in everything he did. As a slave in Egypt, he worked hard. He became the personal servant of the Captain of Pharaoh’s guard. Trouble kept coming, and Joseph still kept faith. He refused the advances of the woman of the house and once again found himself in chains. In jail, the warden notices his demeanor and attitude and puts him in charge of all the prisoners. Joseph was in a position to overhear scuttlebutt about Pharaoh’s troubling dream, which Joseph was able to interpret. All this time, Joseph was convinced the hand of God was in whatever happened to him, good AND bad, and he was determined to keep faithful to God.
Joseph could easily have moaned, “Woe is me, where is God in all this, why didn’t my brothers love me, why am I now a slave, why has this woman lied and caused me to be thrown into a dungeon?” “I’m going to get even.” Think about it: if Joseph had wallowed in thoughts of vengeance, anger, hatred, bitterness, would he have been open to the dreams, the visions God sent?
Joseph accepted circumstance as just that, circumstance, not destiny. Most of what happens to us is just raw material over which we have very little control. As they say, stuff happens. What we make of it, that’s very much in our control. Does God cause the bad stuff to happen? Who knows? Maybe in some cases, sure. But in general I don’t think so. God uses whatever happens.
I have no doubt that God weaves whatever the world serves up into the beautiful tapestry he’s making. But it would all go better for us if we cooperated. Jesus asked Paul as he was on the road to Damascus, “Saul, Saul, why do you kick against the goad?" Why do you fight me when you can hear me calling to you, when you know better in your heart?
We might hear God speaking to us, saying, “Why do you hold on to that old grievance? Why can’t you let it go, let me dissolve it? Why can’t you forgive your spouse? Your old friend? Why live with a stuffed down anger? I have so much joy in store for you.” Sure we were hurt. Of course you were angry. It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right. One of the secrets the Bible reveals is this: God can use whatever circumstance unfolds. And along the way, God wants to heal your heart and replace your anger and resentment with joy. He’s got plenty. But we need to cooperate.
Joseph gave us the model. Bad things happened to Joseph. Maybe what was done to you was just as bad, or worse than being thrown into a pit, knowing your siblings planned to kill you. Maybe what happened to you was worse than being sold as a slave into a foreign country. Worse than being sold out by your own family. Worse than being thrown into jail when you were innocent. God knows what’s going on. God always has something in mind for us, no matter the circumstance. I think that’s why the story of Joseph is given to us. I also think God wants us to have the heart of Joseph, and know that God is in all this.
Towards the end of our story today, as Joseph was handed the opportunity to inflict pain on those who hurt him, God instead enabled him to weep for joy. One of the virtues of seeing God in all things, accepting God is in control, is that even when it’s in our power to wreak terrible vengeance on those who’ve wronged us, we are able to see the greater picture, take a “God’s eye view.” We are able to weep with joy.
The brothers didn’t get off. Their wrongs were exposed, justice was upheld. We know the brothers suffered terrible pains knowing they were in Joseph’s hands, powerless. Not only that, he piled good things on them. Think of the brothers on the long trip home, knowing their father Jacob would finally know the truth behind the lies they told, the evil they had done that day long ago. These are the hot coals that God piles on the perpetrator’s head when we leave room for the Lord’s vengeance. Not only does God cause the guilty party to suffer grievously, God can do something good for you. Once you forgive, once you’ve emptied your heart of that old bitterness and victimhood, God is able to fill your heart with joy so great you can barely contain it. Forgiveness is aligning yourself with God’s purpose, cooperating.
Vengeance? Embittered? Unforgiving? This is the ultimate idolatry: Seeking vengeance, holding on to our righteous anger is trying to play God. When we refuse to let it go, we are putting ourselves in God’s place. Leave a place for divine vengeance. Vengeance is MINE, God declares, I will repay.
It’s easy for us to want vengeance, it's human. But we know it's wrong. We often disguise our hunger for vengeance with cover words like “fairness”, “justice,” and a favorite, “he/she can’t get away with that.” Words that let us avoid the hard task of unpeeling justice and vengeance. Words that let us off from the hard work of forgiving, from cooperating with God.
Old Testament legal codes like “an eye for an eye” are often used to justify barbaric, vengeful practices. Incorrectly. We forget the Old Testament law was given at a time where the rules were; “Anything goes, Might makes right, I came, I saw, I conquered, You’re mine.” We forget that “An eye for an eye” was meant to LIMIT compensation. No longer were you permitted to kill someone who caused your ox to be lame. ONLY a tooth for a tooth.
Our gospel lesson tells of a Canaanite woman, a pagan whose daughter is being tormented by a demon. Jesus refuses her cries for healing, saying, “It isn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She really has cause to go away bitter and angry at this selfish healer who only heals Jews and insults her on top of it. But the Spirit that led her to Jesus also gave her the serenity to answer Jesus, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She found room for forgiveness, for cooperating with the Spirit of God. We too can release our hunger for vengeance, to offer forgiveness, to leave room for God.
Jesus healed the Canaanite woman’s daughter. She wept tears of joy. Let’s join her. Let it go.