Follow Me – Biblical Practices for Faithful Living
“Forgive: Build a Bridge”
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
November 20, 2022
Prayer for Illumination
Gracious God, by the power of your Spirit, open again your Word to us that we may hear it anew. Through this ancient story may we also hear our own story, that we may open our hearts not only to forgive those who have wronged us, but also, as far as it depends on us, to build a bridge of reconciliation; through Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.
They carried Jacob to the land of Canaan and buried him in the cave of the field at Machpelah, the field near Mamre, which Abraham bought as a burial site from Ephron the Hittite. After he had buried his father, Joseph returned to Egypt with his brothers and all who had gone up with him to bury his father.
Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?’ So they approached Joseph, saying, ‘Your father gave this instruction before he died, “Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.” Now therefore, please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.’
Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, ‘We are here as your slaves.’ But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’
In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Consider this… there is nothing that you can do that is outside of the possibility for God to forgive. Likewise, there is nothing anyone else can do that is outside the possibility for God to forgive. As we seek to follow Jesus, God gives us the grace and strength to forgive, just as we have been forgiven, and the grace and strength to build bridges of reconciliation.
(Adult Reflection Guide, Follow Me: Forgive, p. 48)
A singer-songwriter once claimed that authors really only have three subjects about which to write – God, love, and death. If you peruse recent bestseller lists for books or top television series, some combination of those three subjects will be prominent. The story of Joseph in the book of Genesis covers all three – God, love, and death.
Joseph faced the ever-present threat of death by violence or starvation. Even after years of separation and harsh mistreatment, Joseph loved his brothers still. And in the background of Joseph’s story – ever so subtly – hovers the providential hand of an inscrutable God.
Joseph’s story reminds me of a country song by Darryl Worley. Some of you may remember the song “Awful, Beautiful Life”? Worley sings about staying up too late on Saturday night, barely making it through the Sunday morning service awake. In the second verse, Worley prays for his cousin in Iraq. In the third verse, he intones his worries about his younger brother who’s been arguing with his wife. After each verse, Worley repeats the refrain: “I love this crazy, tragic, sometimes almost magic, awful, beautiful life.”
As we look back on the height of the pandemic, those words may ring true for many: I love this crazy, tragic, sometimes almost magic, awful, beautiful life. Perhaps more than any other Old Testament character, Joseph knew all about a “crazy, tragic, sometimes almost magic, awful, beautiful life”.
Joseph is the great grandson of Abraham. Abraham had two sons, the elder, Ishmael, by Sarah’s maidservant Hagar, and the younger, Isaac, by his wife Sarah. Isaac arrived late in Abraham and Sarah’s life and would always be favored by Abraham. Years later, Isaac and his wife Rebekah would bear twins, Esau and Jacob. Jacob, the younger, would be favored by his mother, Rebekah.
Do you remember how Rebekah conspired with the younger Jacob to receive Isaac’s blessing? The birthright and blessing meant for Esau would go to the younger twin, Jacob. Jacob and Esau, Joseph’s father and uncle, never got along well.
They were different people. Esau was a man of the fields; Jacob a man of the tents. By the time the blessing was stolen, the rift between the brothers was already in place. They separated at a young age, each went their own way, and never lived in proximity to one another again.
This brokenness between brothers was Joseph’s primary model for familial relations. Joseph was about seventeen years old when his story in Genesis begins. Joseph was the 11th of 12 sons of his father Jacob; the descendents of these sons would become the twelve tribes of Israel.
Continuing the family dysfunction that had separated the earlier generation, Jacob favors Joseph, the son of Jacob’s most beloved wife, Rachel. Jacob shows partiality towards Joseph by fashioning for him a “coat of many colors,” also translated as “a long-robe with sleeves.”
This special robe was considered the attire of a wealthy man, not the clothes of a worker. By giving his 11th son the robe, the father elevates younger brother Joseph above his brothers who daily toiled in the fields and with the animals.
The elder brothers were filled with envy, and they began to hate Joseph. To add fuel to the fire, young Joseph begins tattle-telling on his brothers when they do something wrong or do not work hard enough.
This familial strife worsens when Joseph begins sharing his dreams. His first dream indicated that one day his brothers would bow down to him, which, of course, kindled his brothers’ anger.
His second dream indicated that not only would his brothers, but also his mother and father would one day bow before him, which infuriated them further. They didn’t understand him and they didn’t like him. And it seems that young Joseph was mostly clueless about why he seemed so obnoxious to them.
One day, father Jacob sends young Joseph to the fields to check on his brothers, which opened the door for the brothers’ treacherous act. The brothers wanted to kill Joseph, but Reuben, the eldest, suggested a compromise, which was to throw Joseph into a deep well. When Reuben later returned to free Joseph, the boy had disappeared. For 20 pieces of silver, the going rate for a young slave, the other brothers had sold Joseph off as a slave. Some merchantmen from a camel caravan on the way to Egypt bought him.
The brothers told Reuben and their father Jacob that a wild animal had taken Joseph’s life. They even smeared his coat of many colors with lamb’s blood and showed it to their father. In God’s providential will, Joseph was bought in Egypt by Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard.
Separated from family and in a foreign land, sold off as a slave by his own brothers, young, vulnerable, afraid, the text claims: “the Lord was with Joseph” (Gen. 39:2). The narrator reminds us of God’s presence and promise, even when we discover ourselves far from home, even when alone, vulnerable, afraid, and separated from all that is familiar.
In no time at all, Potiphar made Joseph an overseer in his house, overseeing all domestic duties. Indeed, Potiphar delegated nearly everything to Joseph. Potiphar’s wife, perhaps bored and tired of her husband’s absence, tried to convince Joseph to “lie with her” day after day, but Joseph continually refused.
The scorned woman eventually accused him of assault, which led to Joseph being thrown into prison. Again, the text claims: “the Lord was with Joseph” (Gen. 39:21). Even when Joseph was at the lowest point possible, in prison, with no hope and no future, even when he was once again vulnerable, alone, afraid, with an ever-present threat of death, God’s presence and promise was with him,
Before long, Joseph, a bright and natural leader, becomes an overseer of the other prisoners, and he becomes known for interpreting dreams. Two years after interpreting a dream for cupbearer of Pharoah’s, Joseph is called before the king for an interpretation. The dream was related to agriculture, to the coming seven years of plenty, which would be followed by seven years of famine.
Pharaoh hires Joseph on the spot to help oversee the food supply, giving him his signet ring (a symbol of authority) and an Egyptian wife. This younger brother, who had been sold off into slavery, who had spent years in prison, had somehow become a powerful administrator in Egypt.
Back in Canaan, Joseph’s brothers began to suffer from the famine, so father Jacob sends the oldest 10 sons to Egypt to buy grain. Jacob kept young Benjamin home, not wanting to risk the loss of Rachel’s second son. In an ironic twist of fate, the brothers arrive in Egypt and they appear before none other than their little brother, Joseph, the one they had terribly wronged.
Joseph immediately recognized them, but they did not recognize him, at least not at first. On this first trip to Egypt to buy grain, Joseph spoke harshly to them, accusing them of being spies. He threw them in jail for several days, and caused them to fear for their lives.
After a few days, he released all of them but Simeon and sent them on their way. Joseph gave them instructions to return with their youngest brother, Benjamin, whom Joseph desperately wanted to see. Upon their return some time later to Egypt, with Benjamin, Joseph released Simeon, and invited the brothers to dine with him.
Finally, with great emotional distress, Joseph forgave his brothers. He sought to build a bridge of reconciliation with these men who had sold him into slavery. What you meant for evil, Joseph told them, God meant for good. As Paul would later proclaim in chapter 8 of his letter to the Romans:
“In all things God works together for good for those who love him, who are called according to God’s purpose.”
Pharaoh heard that his faithful servant Joseph had a large, extended family, and invited them all to move to Egypt, into some of the best agricultural land available. Back in Canaan, father Jacob could hardly wait to pack up and go see his long lost son. So Jacob and his many descendants moved to Egypt, and there the twelve tribes resided until much later, until the time of Moses, some several hundred years later.
Joseph’s “crazy, tragic, sometimes almost magic, awful, beautiful life” reminds us that nothing can separate us from the love of God. As Paul’s letter to the church in Rome states: “not hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword…Neither death, nor life, not angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39)
God is with us always….and God is with those who may be estranged from us. God is with those members of our families with whom we speak almost daily, and God is with those members of our families with whom we may not have spoken with in years. God is with your close friends, and God is with any old friends with whom you may be estranged. God is with your close loved ones, and yes, God is also with those who could be considered your enemies. No matter how far someone may have wandered from their families or their roots, no matter the depth of one’s slavery to sin, no matter how afraid we may be to face persons from our past, no matter how vulnerable one may feel, or how alone one has felt, no matter how deep the wrong done to you or how deep the wrong done by you, God, Emmanuel, is with us…forgiving us, strengthening us, and beckoning us to build bridges of reconciliation whenever possible to do so.
Regardless of what someone may have done to you, or what you may have done to them, God’s divine forgiveness overpowers sin. God’s desire for reconciliation overcomes our desire for revenge. God came to us in Jesus Christ, not counting our sins against us, but reconciling us to God and reconciling us to one another in Jesus Christ. Into the midst of this “crazy, tragic, sometimes almost magic, awful, beautiful life”, God sent his Son to make all things new, to renew all relationships, and to grant his powerful ministry of reconciliation to us, his disciples, his church.
Consider this once again:
there is nothing that you can do that is outside of the possibility for God to forgive.
Likewise, there is nothing anyone else can do that is outside the possibility for God to forgive.
When we consider the challenges of family life, that is a powerful statement.
When we consider the political and racial and economic divisions in our country, that is a powerful statement. When we consider the warfare raging in Ukraine and the long term negative impacts of war, that is a powerful statement.
For those who seek to follow Jesus, God will give the grace and strength to forgive, just as we have been forgiven. God will give the grace and strength to name our own sin, and then, and only then, to name the sins of others. God will give the grace to open our hearts in order to embrace the forgiveness of God, and then to open our hearts to others.
By God’s grace, we are enabled to forgive, just as we have been forgiven. And this holiday season, 2022, by God’s grace, you and I will be strengthened in mind, body, and spirit to build any needed bridge of reconciliation. Whether with an estranged family member or a lifelong enemy or a neighbor who has harmed us, God will enable us to walk with courage into a new and hopeful future, a future formed by the power of forgiveness. (Adult Reflection Guide, Follow Me: Forgive, p. 48)
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Brueggemann, Walter. Interpretation: Genesis. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982.
Buechner, Frederick. Peculiar Treasures. New York: HarperCollins, 1979.
Chaignot, Mary Jane Chapin. Biblewise.com