Aug 18

The Tears of Joseph

            The scene is tense. The sons of Jacob stand before the throne of Egypt’s most powerful prince. They are tired and hungry—they are desperate. Already they have been before this throne and sent away. Now their youngest brother, Benjamin, has been detained and accused of stealing the prince’s silver. If they had anyplace else to turn, they would have done so, but they are poor, and they need this prince’s help. Their family will starve without it.

            The prince, for his part, has been toying with the sons of Jacob. He knows something they don’t. He has helped them bit by bit, but he hasn’t decided yet what he’ll end up doing. Will he get his revenge for his brothers’ betrayal? Or will he turn away from his anger and hurt in order to help out his family, Jacob’s family? For the prince, as we know, as he knows, and as his brothers only learn in this morning’s story, is Joseph, son of Jacob, brother of Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher.

            A lot has happened to Joseph since Genesis 37, which we read last week. He has been put through the wringer in Egypt, but it has worked out for the best for him. His dreams, which got him into so much trouble back home, make him a trusted advisor to the Pharaoh in Egypt. Meanwhile a famine has struck the region. Egypt, because of Joseph’s dreams, is prepared for the famine and has good stores of grain and food. But the wandering sons of Jacob have had no such fortune. This famed Egyptian prince, whom they did not know was their brother, was their last chance. The big reveal—that this prince, on whom they depend, is the brother they tried to kill, the brother they sold into slavery—the big reveal is not exactly good news for the sons of Jacob!

            Ah, but the big reveal is not really that the prince is Brother Joseph. The real news, the good news, in this morning’s story is that God has sent Joseph to preserve life. Jacob’s sons had thought they were in charge when they tossed Brother Joseph into the pit. But God had sent Joseph to preserve life. They were sure power (and money, of course!) was in their hands when they sold him to their Ishmaelite cousins. But God had sent Joseph to preserve life. And now, face to face with the brother they had betrayed, Jacob’s sons found themselves emptied of all their power, convinced that Brother Joseph, this prince of Egypt, now had all the cards. But God sent Joseph to preserve life.

How like God it was to choose this young brother, this nobody, to become the salvation of his people. The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone, indeed! How like God it was to make Brother Joseph, abused and mistreated most horribly by his brothers, the herald of good news for Jacob’s family. Despised and rejected by others, a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity, cut off from the land of the living—this was our Brother Joseph.

You see, Joseph is not just the story of a younger brother in an ancient Semitic tribe God happened to rescue. Joseph’s story, the last story in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, Joseph’s story sets up a pattern that God follows over and over again. The pattern of Joseph’s story is the pattern of King David’s story, the pattern of the prophet Jeremiah’s story, the pattern of the story of the people of Israel. The pattern of Joseph’s story finds its fulfillment in the story of Jesus, the unexpected Savior who is despised, rejected, and crucified for the salvation of Israel—and the whole world.

Up to the moment he disclosed his identity to his brothers, I don’t think Joseph himself knew that God was working in his life for the good of Jacob’s family, that God had sent him to preserve life. I’m not sure he had yet decided whether he was going to help his brothers or return their evil deeds tit for tat. Joseph had to take a risk—the risk of being a peacemaker. The risk of choosing reconciliation over revenge, love over hatred, peace over violence. It may not have been an easy decision. But once Joseph committed to the path of reconciliation, he set himself on a journey with God toward a more peaceful future.

It’s interesting—the Bible does not say, at this point, that Joseph forgave his brothers. The journey toward reconciliation begins here in Genesis 45. Not until Genesis 50, after Jacob has died, do the sons of Jacob seek forgiveness from Brother Joseph. Forgiveness even at that point is not inevitable—Joseph’s brothers fully expect their request to be denied and even offer to become Joseph’s slaves. But Joseph does forgive them and reassures them that though they “intended to do harm to [him], God intended it for good” (Gen 50:20). In this case, starting down the path of reconciliation leads to forgiveness, but there are no guarantees.

There is, however, a cost. Even at the start of his journey with God to reconciliation with his brothers, Joseph cannot turn to his brothers in love without weeping. He doesn’t just shed a few tears. He sobs. He wails. His weeping is so loud, the household of Pharaoh hears him. Over and over again, Joseph weeps. He weeps as he turns down the path of reconciliation. He weeps as he embraces his brother Benjamin for the first time. He weeps over the other sons of Jacob as he offers them the kiss of peace.

Joseph’s tears are the salve, the healing balm, the anointment desperately needed for the wounds separating him from his brothers. They are tears of sorrow over being separated from his family for so long. They are tears of joy for the reunion that has finally happened. They are tears of lament over the evil deeds of his brothers. They are tears of relief from the burden of anger and revenge that has weighed on Joseph ever since he was thrown into the pit. Joseph weeps, and his tears are the beginning of Israel’s salvation.

If only we would learn to weep like Joseph! If only we would have enough faith in God to risk reconciliation with those who have hurt us. If only we would learn to shed tears as Joseph does in Egypt, and as Jesus does on the road to Bethany and in the garden of Gethsemane. If only our tears could mark the beginning of the path to forgiveness and healing! Do you not yearn for the faith of Joseph as I do? Do you not wish to weep as he did? Pray that God would heal our hardened hearts.

Sadly, like the sons of Jacob, everyone but Benjamin, we watch Joseph’s tears in dumbfounded silence. What do we say? What do we do?

All of us—whether as individuals, as a church at Centre, as the body of Christ—all of us have a Brother Joseph, a friend, a relative, a neighbor whom we have harmed, someone who owes us nothing more than the evil we have committed. Today, for those of us Christians who happen also to be white Americans, our Brother Joseph is Michael Brown and every other black teenage boy who cannot leave his house without fearing for his life, either because of the ghettos this country’s policies have created or because of the anger of an insane vigilante, or because of the prejudice of a militarized police force.

If our lives have been preserved thus far, it is not so that we can lord God’s grace over those around us. It is so that we can seek forgiveness and mercy from our Brother Joseph, in the hopes that we might yet be saved.

It turns out that it wasn’t really Jacob who favored Joseph more than all his other sons; it was God. And God’s faithfulness and love for Joseph went ahead of him to the pit, into the bonds of slavery, and up to the throne of Egypt’s Pharaoh. God did not love Joseph in order to spite the other sons of Jacob. He loved Joseph in order to save all of Israel—and the whole world. As Christians, we benefit from God’s love for Joseph thousands of years later. God’s love for Joseph spared Israel and prepared the way for the birth of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. When we claim the benefits of this love, however, we must realize that this love of God makes a claim on us as well. We must flee to our Brother Joseph to seek his forgiveness and mercy. We must learn from our Brother Joseph to weep for reconciliation with those who have hurt us. For if we would claim Jesus as our Lord, we must always remember that Joseph is our brother.
Aug 11

Brother Joseph

Starting today, and for most of the next fourteen weeks or so, our sermons here at Centre are going to be based on the Old Testament lesson. We are going to pay careful attention to God’s covenant love with Israel, starting this morning with Joseph and continuing through the birth of Moses and the Exodus to the entry into the Promised Land under Joshua. Along with the story of the life of Jesus Christ, this long story is the core story of our Christian faith.

            Now, when I say, “The Old Testament,” what do I mean? Well, the Bible, our Scripture, is divided into two unequal parts. The second part is the New Testament, which has the gospels, Acts, and letters of the early church. The first and longer part is the Old Testament—sometimes called the First Testament, the First or Old Covenant, or even the Hebrew Bible—because most of it (though not all) was written originally in ancient Hebrew. We share the books of the Old Testament with Judaism. The Old Testament is in four parts: the Five Books of Moses, Genesis through Deuteronomy; the histories, Joshua through Nehemiah; the literature, Esther through Song of Songs; and the prophets, Isaiah through Malachi. The sermons over the next few months will take us from the end of Genesis into Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Joshua.

            Over the centuries Christians have struggled with the Old Testament. For the writers of the New Testament, the Old Testament is“the Bible.” Jesus quotes it, Paul refers to it, and when 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is inspired by God,” it means the Old Testament. But it didn’t take long for problems to crop up. Some people thought they saw a difference between the God of the Old Testament and the God of Jesus Christ. They wanted to get rid of the Old Testament altogether. Others thought that God was done with Israel and that the Old Testament was only meaningful in reference to Christ. Many Christians today have gone their whole lives without reading the Old Testament.

            We Methodists, joining with Christians of various stripes from across the globe and across time, believe that God is the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rachel, Moses and Miriam, David and Bathsheba—and the God of Jesus Christ. In fact, one of our Articles of Religion (the standards of United Methodist doctrine) says that “The Old Testament is not contrary to the New; for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ… Wherefore they are not to be heard who feign that the old fathers did look only for transitory promises… [and] no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.”

            Now, please forgive the language, which is more King James than Facebook. What this article means is this. When we read the Old Testament, we need to read it on its own terms. That means, first, that we listen to the stories, psalms, and prophecies for what they have to say on their own. If we have trouble with them, we keep reading, searching for God’s presence in these passages. Then, we can listen to the stories for Christ’s silhouette and for what God is saying to us today. You see, Israel—the people of God in the Old Testament, not the modern nation-state created by the vestiges of Western colonialism—is whom God loves. God never gives up his love for his people Israel. Jesus Christ is the ultimate sign of God’s love for Israel, not the end of it.

            Let’s turn our attention to this morning’s Old Testament lesson. Here we are introduced to the story of Joseph. Joseph is one of the sons of Rachel, Jacob’s wife. Jacob is the son of Isaac, who is the son of Abraham. Confused yet?

            Genesis tells us that Jacob favored Joseph more than his other children. In the ancient near East, this would have been a scandal; the oldest child was the one who was to be given preference. But already in Genesis there has been a pattern of turning this on its head: God prefers the younger Abel’s gift to that of the older Cain; God chooses the younger Isaac instead of the older Ishmael; Jacob cheats his older brother Esau out of their father’s blessing; and now, Jacob loves his young son Joseph more than all his other children.

            The Bible does not praise Jacob for giving Joseph preferential treatment. In fact, Jacob’s love for his young son gets Joseph into trouble. Joseph’s brothers are jealous and plot against him. Of course, Joseph’s dreams don’t help, either. We skipped over that part today, but Joseph’s dreams are all about how his brothers will serve and bow before him. Not the kind of thing that might cool down a simmering sibling rivalry. Joseph’s brothers decide to kill him. They band together and grab their unsuspecting little brother, tear off the beautiful coat Jacob gave him, and throw him into a pit. Only the intervention of Reuben, the eldest brother, prevents the others from murdering their own flesh and blood. Instead they sell him to caravanning Ishmaelites—distant cousins—and Joseph becomes the first Israelite slave in Egypt.

            It’s a depressing tale, all the more so because it is so familiar and so—common. After all, for the first hundred years the U.S. depended on slave labor for its economic success. At first slavers traded in Africans—distant cousins. When the Middle Passage finally closed, however, slaves were still bought and sold—the children of other slaves. Because a master owned the body of his women slaves, often the slaves he bought and sold were his own children, or, when the elder master had passed, were the stepbrothers and stepsisters of the new master. Every slave bought and sold was a Joseph, a brother or a sister done wrong by another brother or sister. Sadly, slavery did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation. The sins of our slaveholding forefathers have been visited on generation after generation. And new forms of slavery, legal and illegal, continue to grip our world. We live in a land where the cries of so many Josephs still echo from the pit.

            Joseph is not just the brother of Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher. He is my brother and yours.

            We read of slavery ancient and modern, new and old, and we ask, “Where is God in this?” We hear of brothers throwing brothers into pits, of loved ones turning on each other over petty grievances, and the world asks us, “Where is now your God?” The text in Genesis 37 is silent; God’s name is not mentioned in this story. But we know the answer. Where is God? God is in the pit.

            Joseph was stripped of his blessing, his coat and his father’s love, thrown into the pit by his brothers, and sold into slavery in Egypt. Jesus was stripped of his seamless garment, betrayed by his friends, hung on a cross, and thrown into the pit right next to him. And if we would claim Jesus as our Lord, we must never forget that Joseph is our brother. Amen.