Posted by: Johnold Strey | October 12, 2011

Sermon on Genesis 50:15-21

“I FORGIVE YOU!”

  1. Words that relieve a lifetime of guilt
  2. Words that reflect the love of God

 Text: Genesis 50:15-21

 Introduction*

The topic would be perfect for Jerry Springer: “Siblings Who Sell Each Other into Slavery.”  Picture Joseph’s brothers on stage, a line up of coarse and questionable characters who openly admit to selling him as a slave.  And they’d have good reasons!  “We hated him because dad loved him best.”  “That fancy robe drove us crazy.”  “We had to stop him from getting carried away with those dreams.”  And then they’d explain how they pulled it off.  “We thought about killing him, but Reuben said no.”  “Stripped his robe right off, tossed him in a pit, and then these Ishmaelites came along.”  “Yeah – so we sold him for 20 shekels.”

Finally, Jerry brings out the surprise guest – Zaphenath-Paneah, the prime minister of world powerhouse Egypt—otherwise known as their long-lost brother, Joseph.  Jerry provokes the brothers a little bit, “Well, guys, what do you have to say to your brother now, or should I say, to the ruler of Egypt?” as Joseph strides in wearing gold jewelry, royal make-up, and flanked by hulking body guards.  Gasp!  The audience oooohs.  Once the brothers recover from shock, the dread sinks their hearts and hangs their heads.  A member of the audience hollers, “Revenge!”  Jerry sees a brawl coming.  The brothers drop to the ground in desperation and bow just like the sheaves of grain in young Joseph’s dream.  Joseph stands over them, and with a tear in his eye lifts up each one with an embrace and says, “Brothers, don’t be scared.  It’s okay.  I forgive you.  God has taken care of everything and brought us together again.”

That’s not the turn of events you’d expect on the Jerry Springer show, but that is the turn of events that took place in today’s First Lesson.  But…really?  Joseph says, “I forgive you,” and that’s it?  What about the miserable life they caused him to have for so many years?  What about the terrible things they had done to him?  Wasn’t it time for revenge?  Jerry Springer’s audience would say “Yes,” but Joseph said, “No.”  Joseph said, “I forgive you.”  And this morning we are going to see why those words of unconditional forgiveness are so remarkable, so miraculous, so amazing, so powerful.  “I forgive you.”  Those are words that can relieve a lifetime of guilt, and they are words that can also reflect the love of God. 

I.

Let’s set the context: let’s review what Joseph’s brothers had done to him in the past and what happened to Joseph as a result of their actions.  Joseph came from a family of twelve sons, born to Jacob, the grandson of Abraham who was the father of the nation of Israel.  Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son; his brothers knew it—and they hated him for it.  Jacob had even given Joseph a special coat of many colors that revealed his love for his favorite son.  As if that wasn’t enough for Joseph’s brothers to be upset with him, Joseph also had some unusual dreams about his future, dreams that said that one day all his brothers would bow down to him.

Well, that was it.  His brothers couldn’t take it anymore.  They staged his death and sold him as a slave to some foreigners traveling through their homeland.  Joseph ended up working for Potiphar, a government official in Egypt.  Things started to look up.  He gained his boss’s trust, and soon Potiphar had Joseph running most of the details of his household.  But then things took an even worse turn than before.  Potiphar’s wife noticed what a good looking man Joseph was and tried to have an affair with him.  Joseph did the right thing; he wouldn’t give in to her.  But since she didn’t get her way, she made up a story that Joseph came on to her, told her husband, and he threw Joseph into prison.  While he was in prison, God gave him the ability to interpret the dreams of some of the others who were in prison with him.  One of these men happened to be one of Pharaoh’s officials.  That official was later released from prison and returned to work for Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt.  When Pharaoh had his own strange dreams, that official told him about Joseph, the young Hebrew man he had met in prison.  That’s when Joseph first met the ruler of Egypt.  Joseph told Pharaoh that he could interpret his dream, only because God had given him the ability.  And then he proceeded to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, dreams that forecast seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine.  Pharaoh was duly impressed, and soon Joseph went from Hebrew prisoner to Prime Minister of Egypt.

Then those years of famine came.  Joseph’s family came to Egypt looking for food because that’s the only country that was prepared for a seven-year drought.  And that’s when Joseph’s brothers discovered that the annoying little brother they sold off into slavery was now second-in-command of the world’s most powerful nation, Egypt.  Not only does this sound like the perfect topic for the Jerry Springer show, but it also sounds like the perfect scenario for one of those old Southwest Airlines “Wanna get away?” commercials.  Joseph was in the perfect position to seek revenge—but Joseph wasn’t even remotely interested in revenge.  Instead of revenge, he arranged to have all of their families move to Egypt so that they could survive during the famine.

Now we get to today’s First Lesson.  Jacob, the father of the family, had died.  And the first thing Joseph’s brothers thought was, “Uh-oh.”  As long as their father was still alive, it seemed to them like the surveillance cameras were on Joseph.  It wasn’t likely that he would retaliate against his brothers if his father would learn about it.  But now that their father had died, the brothers were worried sick that Joseph was finally going to give them a long-overdue taste of their own medicine.  “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?”  So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph:  I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’  Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.”

We don’t know if their father actually spoke these words, or if the brothers made up this quotation so that Joseph would go easy on them.  Regardless, it seems obvious that they were expecting a full-blown retaliation now that dad wasn’t around anymore.  Even after they sent this plea to Joseph, they showed up at his place and begged for mercy.  “His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him.  ‘We are your slaves,’ they said.”  Decades earlier they had sold him off into slavery, and now they were ready to taste their own medicine, if only Joseph would be kind enough to spare their lives.

How long had they felt like this?  How long had they carried this guilt?  Decades?  Most of their life?!?  They were dealing with a lifetime of guilt!  And now, at the death of their father, this lifetime of guilt all comes out.  A veteran pastor I know once talked about the way he ministered to people on their deathbed.  All he did was ask, “Are you ready to see Jesus?” and it was like a damn opened up.  So much guilt, so many fears, held in or buried or hidden for years and decades came bursting out nearly every time he asked that question.

Maybe you’re not in a place in life where past guilt haunts you, but it’s bound to happen at some point.  Let’s face it.  There’s not a single person here who would want his or her life’s complete biography read for all to hear, because that biography would reveal plenty of sin and shame and shortcomings.  And quite honestly, most things that people would try to tell you won’t make you feel much better.  “Oh, everyone makes mistakes.”  “Ah, it’s alright.  There are far worse people in this world than you.”  But there is only one sentence that can really address that guilt and those fears, and that sentence is simply this: “I forgive you.”

God has already declared those three little words to you: “I forgive you.”  Jesus Christ made those words possible nearly two thousand years ago on a hill outside Jerusalem.  The perfect Son of God, who did not need forgiveness for himself, went to the cross to win your forgiveness, to endure the punishment your sins deserved, and obtain forgiveness every last sin from your record.  When the Holy Spirit brought you to faith in Jesus, he emptied your heart of sin’s guilt through Jesus’ death, and he emptied your grave of its power through Jesus’ resurrection.  And now, through God’ Word, through Holy Baptism, through absolution, and through Holy Communion, God says to you, “I forgive you!”  What beautiful words!  What precious words that relieve a lifetime of guilt!  When your conscience is burdened with thoughts about the shameful ways from your past, then listen to God as he forgives you in his Word and Supper, and see how he relieves your soul from a lifetime of guilt in an instant.

II.

Joseph’s brothers had been walking around with a lifetime of guilt, and that guilt clouded them from seeing God’s hand in this unique situation.  But Joseph understood that God had been in control of the situation even when it seemed like it was out of control.  “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.  So then, don’t be afraid.  I will provide for you and your children.’ And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.”

In today’s Gospel, we heard Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant.  We heard about someone who refused to forgive his neighbor even though he himself had just been forgiven.  In this reading, we see Joseph take the exact opposite role.  We see Joseph reflect God’s love by forgiving his brothers.  And Joseph’s words were not empty words.  He didn’t sit there on his throne with his feet on his footstool, wave his hand and say, “Hey, guys, don’t sweat it.”  No, with tears, with the deepest sincerity, picking his brothers off the floor after they threw themselves at his feet, he stood with them, looked them in the eye and said, “I forgive you.  It’s erased.  It’s gone.  I don’t hold it against you.  Don’t be afraid.”

“I forgive you.”  Years had gone by, but Joseph’s brothers weren’t sure if that was true or not.  But what an opportunity for Joseph!  What an opportunity to be the reflection of God’s love for hurting souls.  And what an opportunity you and I have to reflect God’s love toward the hurting souls in our lives.

What do you think of when you hear the word “confession”?  A small, dark, creepy closed room where someone admits their sins to a priest who is unseen on the other side of a screen?  Would it surprise you if I said confession is a Lutheran practice?  The front of our hymnal has short rite for confession that a pastor might use in a counseling situation.  The formal practice of private confession can be a useful thing, but it shouldn’t stop there.  It shouldn’t stop with a formal rite and a set schedule or a pastor’s office and a counseling appointment.  Confessing our sins and announcing God’s forgiveness should permeate our existence.  It should be a part of our everyday life!  When Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses, he said in the very first statement, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

We sin every day, and we are also sinned against every day.  When someone who has wronged us asks for our forgiveness, you and I have the unique privilege to reflect the love of God into their hearts and minds.  When the pastor stands before you each week at the start of the service, or when you come for pastoral counseling, and you hear the words, “I forgive you your sins,” it is as if the pastor is taking a mirror and reflecting the light and warmth of God’s forgiveness into your soul.  When husbands and wives, parents and children say, “I forgive you” in your homes, you are speaking words that reflect the love of God; it is as if Christ himself were standing there and announcing forgiveness to the sinner.  This is not some sort of command from God we need to fulfill.  This is a precious privilege we have to reflect the forgiveness Christ won at the cross to those who long to hear it applied to them.

Conclusion

“I forgive you.”  Sometimes I think that phrase is even harder to say than, “I’m sorry.”  But that little phrase is packed with Christian power.  It’s packed with the power of Jesus’ blood that washes away a lifetime of guilt.  It’s packed with the power of God’s Word that makes it as valid as if God himself announced his forgiveness with a thundering voice from heaven.  You know how much those words mean to you.  Let’s share those words with the people in our lives who need to learn how much it means for them!  Amen.

*The illustration in the introduction of this sermon was taken from a sermon originally preached by Pastor Daron Lindemann of Grace Lutheran Church in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1999.

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