Over the past four weeks, we have been following the wonderful story of Joseph which we find in the Old Testament book of Genesis. It’s a narrative that is described in so much detail that it takes 14 chapters of Genesis to tell it – the lives of few other biblical characters get so much attention in scripture. And what a story it is! As I said in a previous sermon – Hollywood couldn’t have dreamed up a better plot! And like all truly satisfying movies, it’s a story with a happy ending – “all’s well that ends well!” I suppose that’s why we love the story of Joseph so much!
This morning is the final sermon in our series, and so we will be reflecting on that happy ending – the restoration of the relationship between Joseph and his brothers. Few scenes in scripture are more powerful or poignant than those we have read as our scripture lessons this morning – a broken family restored to wholeness because of the extension of grace and the offer of forgiveness. Certainly, there are lessons each of us can learn from Joseph, as we deal with the broken relationships in our lives – relationships that need to be restored by grace and forgiveness.
But before we can understand the events we have read in our two scripture lessons, we need to refresh our memories about the details of this fascinating story. It’s a complicated plot with so many twists and turns that it’s easy to get lost along the way. So, bear with me as I give you’re the Cliffs Note version of the story of Joseph. Just sit back and let me review just exactly how we got to this point in the story.
You’ll recall that Joseph was one of 12 sons, the sons of Jacob. Jacob had children by four different women, two wives who were sisters (Leah and Rachel), and two concubines (we may find that arrangement odd, but bigamy was accepted practice in those days). That means that the sons were born to four different mothers – the first 10 sons were born to Leah or one or the other of the concubines. Now, Rachel was the love of Jacob’s life, but sadly, she was barren for many years – until finally, she gave birth to the 11th son, Joseph. Later, Rachel became pregnant again, but died in childbirth. Thankfully, son number 12 arrived safely – his name was Benjamin.
Now I tell you all that detail about birth order and parentage because it plays a key role in the unfolding of our story. Because Joseph and Benjamin were born to his beloved Rachel late in his life, Jacob loved them more than the others and doted on them – much to the consternation of the other sons. You will recall that Jacob made matters worse when he presented Joseph with a very special and expensive coat of many colors, making the brothers even more jealous. The spark that lit the fuse of their anger was the way their bratty little brother bragged about the dreams he had had that predicted that one day, he would rule over his brothers. Needless to say, they were livid.
All that hostility came to a head when one of the brothers, Judah, suggested to his brothers (not including baby Benjamin, of course) that they murder Joseph. The other brothers were willing to go along with that crime, but Ruben suggested that, to avoid having blood guilt on their hands, they instead sell Joseph to slave traders, which they did. While poor Joseph was being dragged down to Egypt, the brothers took Joseph’s beautiful coat, smeared it with the blood of a goat, and convinced Jacob that Joseph had been eaten by wild animals. As you can imagine, Jacob was beside himself with grief. And from that moment on, the family lived with the lie, and the brothers wrestled with the guilt of what they had done to Joseph.
Now the story shifts to Egypt. Joseph was sold to a military officer in charge of the palace guard, a man named Potiphar. You will remember from one of the sermons, that Potiphar was so impressed by the administrative abilities of his young slave that he put him in charge of his household and all his business interests. Joseph excelled at everything he did.
All was going well for Joseph until Potiphar’s wife, who lusted after the young Hebrew slave, falsely accused him of attempting to rape her. So Potiphar threw him into prison, where he remained for two full years.
Then, in a remarkable turn of events, Pharaoh sends for Joseph to interpret his dreams. Joseph foretells seven years of bountiful harvest, followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh is so impressed with Joseph’s wisdom that he makes Joseph his prime minister, assigned to administer all of Egypt so that the kingdom would be prepared for the coming famine. And so, in the span of one day, Joseph went from being a slave in the dungeon to becoming the ruler of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself!
And that sets the stage for the drama we are considering this morning.
You see, the famine that hit Egypt also affected Canaan, as well. Jacob and his family were struggling to survive. So Jacob sent his sons (all, that is, except precious young Benjamin), to go to Egypt to purchase grain. As foreigners, they had to make their request before the prime minister – Joseph himself. Of course, they had no idea that they were standing in the presence of the brother they had treated so badly.
And imagine how surprised Joseph must have been to look up and see his brothers walking into the room! What a flood of emotions must have washed over him! Joy, anger, longing, resentment. How should he react to seeing them again? I’m sure his first impulse was to tell them who he was right away. But then Joseph reconsidered. He wondered if his brothers had changed after so many years. He had to find out. So Joseph came up with a plan to test them – and to have a little fun at their expense, watching them squirm! (After all – they were brothers, and you know how brothers are!)
So Joseph accused them of being spies. Then he threw them all in prison for three days. I’m sure those three days in jail gave them lots of time for soul searching! On the third day, he called them back before him and told them that he would sell them the grain they asked for, but to prove they weren’t spies, they would have to leave one of the brothers in prison as collateral while they went back to Canaan. Then they were to return and bring their youngest brother, Benjamin. If they did so, that would prove they weren’t spies, and he would release their brother from the dungeon.
Before they set out on their journey, Joseph provided each brother with the sack of grain they had bought. But he gave his servants orders to also put in the sacks the money they had used to make the purchase.
So Simeon stayed behind in the dungeon as his brothers left Egypt. When they arrived in Canaan, they had a lot to share with dear old dad! Why was Simeon locked in the dungeon of a powerful Egyptian official? And how would they convince their father to allow his beloved Benjamin to travel to Egypt to win Simeon’s release, putting Benjamin in jeopardy of suffering the same fate? Jacob was distraught all over again – he had lost Joseph, and now Simeon. Would Benjamin be next? Finally he gave his consent, but only after Judah vowed to personally guarantee that Benjamin would return to his father safe and sound.
When they opened their sacks of grain, what a shock to discover that the money they had used for the purchase was still in their sacks! How did it get there? When they go back to Egypt, they will be accused of stealing! So Jacob sent them with the money they originally took, PLUS more money to buy more grain. Perhaps that will convince the Egyptians they are not thieves.
So, when the brothers arrived back in Egypt, they appeared before Joseph’s servants and tried to explain the situation – that they had discovered the money in their sacks and had no idea how it got there, and so they were returning it, plus more. But Joseph had his servants tell them that the debt had already been paid, even suggesting that God had given them the money, so they should keep it. Strange! But then, things were about to get even more bizarre!
The brothers had anticipated being accused of stealing, and were bracing themselves for the Prime Minister’s anger. But instead, Joseph ordered that his servants prepare a great feast. And what’s more, he had his servants seat the brothers in order from the eldest to the youngest. The brothers must have been mystified – how is it possible that this prime minister of Egypt knows their family so well that he can seat them in the proper birth order!
When Joseph arrived for the banquet and finally laid eyes on Benjamin (his only full brother whom he hadn’t seen since they were children) he was overcome with emotion. He had to excuse himself so he could find a private place to weep. Then, when the meal was served, Joseph made certain that Benjamin got portions that were five times as large as the other brothers. But he still didn’t tell them who he really was. There was one more test.
Before sending them on their way, Joseph ordered his servants to fill a bag with grain for each of the brothers, just as he had done on their first visit. This time, however, he handed his best silver chalice to his servant and instructed him to plant it in Benjamin’s sack.
As the brothers were leaving the city to set out on their journey, Joseph sent his guard to catch up with them and accuse them of stealing his cup. Dumbfounded, they were dragged back into Joseph’s presence. Each sack was examined, beginning with the eldest brother’s. One by one the sacks were opened. What a shock the brothers had when the cup was discovered in Benjamin’s sack!
Now was the moment of truth! How would the brothers react? Would they turn on their little brother to save their own necks? Would they leave Benjamin in Egypt to rot, just as they had done to Joseph? Or had they changed?
Joseph declared that Benjamin would be kept in Egypt to serve as his slave, but that all the others were free to go. That’s when something amazing happened – all the brothers said that they shared Benjamin’s guilt, so they all should become the slaves of the Prime Minister. Joseph must have been impressed! But Joseph refused their offer – saying, only the one who was found guilty would be punished. With that Judah speaks up.
Now remember – Judah was the brother who had wanted to murder Joseph, and would have, if it hadn’t been for the intervention of Reuben. And, it was Judah who had just promised his father that Benjamin would be returned safe and sound to him. Now it is Judah who is offering to take the place of his brother Benjamin – asking that the prime minister might accept Judah as his slave, so that Benjamin could be returned to their father.
That proved it – a dramatic transformation had taken place in the hearts of Judah and all the other brothers. They were not the same men they were.
That’s where our first lesson comes in. In a flood of emotion, Joseph reveals his identity, and the brothers are finally reunited! Joseph was able to let by-gones be by-gones, and he readily forgave his brothers. A remarkable scene, indeed! It seems, “All’s well that ends well.” But is it?
Put yourself in the place of the brothers. You had thought you had been dealing with an Egyptian official, a foreigner who held your future in his hands. With each strange turn of fate as they traveled back and forth to Egypt, the brothers had begun to wonder out loud if God was punishing them for their sin against their long-lost brother. But they didn’t have the slightest inkling that the man they had been dealing with was Joseph himself. What a mix of emotions they must have felt when Joseph unmasked his identity – Amazement? Joy? Apprehension? Fear? No doubt their minds flashed back to the dreams Joseph shared with them so many years before, that one day he would rule over all of them all. And now the prophecy had come to pass.
They knew their guilt. And they knew that they were at the mercy of the brother they had wronged, who now was the second most powerful man on earth. Yes, they had good reason to be fearful.
But Joseph tried to assure them that all was well. God had been at work through the events of their lives, placing Joseph in his position so that he could save his family and all of Egypt. They should not fret – they would have nothing to fear from Joseph.
So Joseph tells his brothers to go back to Canaan, and bring the entire Jacob clan to settle in Egypt in the land of Goshen, and that is precisely what happens.
And again, it seems “all’s well that ends well.” But is it? If that is the “happy ending” to the story, then why does Genesis continue on for five more chapters? Even after the reunion scene in chapter 45, there is unfinished business between these brothers.
Our second lesson tells the rest of the story. After living together for some time in Egypt, the patriarch of the family, Jacob, dies. Joseph and all his brothers take Jacob’s body back to Canaan for burial. But once Jacob has been buried, old guilt and fears resurface.
Now that Jacob is out of the picture, would Joseph be as forgiving of his brothers who had harmed him so? Was Joseph’s gracious forgiveness offered to the brothers only for the sake of their father? And now, with dad gone, would Joseph finally retaliate? Forgiveness has been given – but, has it really been received?
So, in the 50th chapter of Genesis, Joseph finally hears his brothers confess their sin against him, and plead for mercy; These were their words to Joseph: “Before your father died, he instructed us to say to you: ‘Please forgive your brothers for the great wrong they did to you for their sin in treating you so cruelly.’ So we, the servants of the God of your father, beg you to forgive our sin.” What sweet words those must have been to Joseph’s ears!
But Joseph has already forgiven them. He made that clear on the day they were reunited. Joseph had forgiven. But, the brothers were having trouble forgiving themselves. So, for a second time Joseph extends grace to his brothers and assures them there are no hard feelings. Finally the gift of grace is received. And now, finally this broken family can truly live “happily ever after.” “All’s well that ends well!”
Isn’t that an amazing story! The power of grace and forgiveness to restore broken relationships. It’s no wonder that the church has recognized Joseph as one of the greatest figures of the Old Testament, and one of the biblical personalities whose personal qualities actually foreshadow those of Jesus himself! We should all strive to be like Joseph.
When reflecting on this powerful story, there are many lessons we can learn. Of course the most obvious lesson we can glean from our scriptures for this morning is the importance of forgiveness. The only reason the story of Joseph’s family has a happy ending is that Joseph was willing to extend grace and mercy to his brothers. By forgiving his brothers, everyone in the story was liberated from the guilt and resentment they had lived with so long – negative obsessions that robbed their lives of joy. Joseph’s forgiveness made reconciliation possible. It is the power that drives the story, and makes it possible that “all’s well that ends well.”
You and I can’t read the story of Joseph, and not be led to reflect on our own relationships that have been broken by sin – hopefully not as serious a sin as the brother committed against Joseph. But, it doesn’t take a huge sin to cause relationships with family and friends to be strained to the point of breaking.
Take a moment – think about your own family – as well as your relationships with others.
Are any of your relationships strained or broken because of some wrong done to you – or some wrong you may have done to them?
What is the status of that relationship today?
Why has it remained broken?
Chances are the reason relationships in our lives remain broken is because you and I are waiting for the one who has done us wrong to confess their sin and ask for our forgiveness (am I right?). If they would just do that, and if we think they are sincere, we might grant them our forgiveness, and enter into relationship with them once again. You and I may be convinced to go through the motions of forgiveness, but, more often than not, we continue to nurse our grievance. We will put our anger and bitterness into our back pocket just in case . . . We hold on to our resentment, ready to pull it out and use it against them if they hurt us again. Isn’t that true?
That’s where we can learn wisdom from Joseph. Joseph’s forgiveness was given freely and without strings. His willingness to forgive was not dependent on his brothers’ willingness to repent. In short, his offer of grace was freely given, just as God’s grace is freely given. Let me try to explain:
We Christians love to sing about grace as being free, without conditions. Amazing Grace… And of course, it is freely given. But most of the time we Christians live as if grace is conditional. We hold back forgiveness until the one who has wronged us repents, and once they have made their confession, then we give our grace as a reward. To justify our actions, we point to a verse from the Apostle John (1 John 1:9), which reads: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” We say, “See, that’s the order of how grace works: first we have to confess, then God will forgive, and finally relationships are restored.” According to that verse, repentance is a prerequisite for grace.
But what if we have misinterpreted that verse – forcing it to suggest a cause and effect relationship. I say that, because as we look at the entirety of the scriptures, typically it’s the other way around: Forgiving Grace is given without conditions, which leads to repentance and the restoration of relationships.
That’s the way it played out in the Joseph story, isn’t it? Joseph had decided to forgive his brothers as soon as he saw them arrive in Egypt. Sure, he wanted to verify that they had changed, but he didn’t withhold his grace until they owned up to their sin. Instead, over and over, he assured them they had been forgiven. It wasn’t until very late in the story that the brothers actually repent. They confessed their sin in response to having already been forgiven, not in order to receive Joseph’s forgiveness.
That has huge implications for the way we should relate to those in our lives who have wronged us. We tend to want to withhold our grace and forgiveness until they own their guilt. But if the lesson we learn from Joseph is right, we have it backwards. We are to forgive, regardless of whether they own their sin, or not. We are to offer them grace, because it’s what God expects us to do. Perhaps, once they have experienced undeserved grace, they might then be convicted of own their sin, and maybe even confess it. If so, wonderful, because then the relationship can be restored. But even if they never confess, we are still supposed to forgive. It all begins with grace.
And isn’t that the Gospel message? Isn’t that what the cross is all about? “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…” Did you hear that? God extended undeserved grace to a world full of sinners, people like you and me. He didn’t wait for us to own our sin before He sent his Son to take away the sin of the world on the cross of Calvary. God gave his grace freely, with the hope that once we had experienced such amazing undeserved grace, we might own our sin – not so that we might deserve to be forgiven – but so that our relationship with God might finally be restored. It all begins with grace!
Joseph forgave those who had hurt him, and his broken relationships were restored. If it worked for Joseph, it will work for you as well. Extend grace where it’s not deserved and see what happens.
I dare you!