The Joy of Reconciliation
We are covering the amazing story of the Old Testament character of Joseph in two Sundays. The actual story covers 14 chapters of Genesis. I urge you to read it on your own. It is a fascinating account of the worst kind of betrayal and the most amazing story of reconciliation. Last week we looked at the pain of betrayal: What happens when those you trust let you down, when those closest to you hurt you deeply? How can you survive it? Today we fast forward to the dramatic climax of Joseph’s story. How can one work toward reconciling and finding peace again?
Out of Joseph’s experience, I want to offer you three steps toward reconciliation:
1. Turn away from revenge.
This may seem evident, but it’s not easy. Our natural temptation when hurt deeply is to strike back if we can. We want to hurt the one who hurt us. There is that great verse that says, “Vengeance is mine, sayeth Kerry.” No, that’s not what it says. Vengeance belongs to God and God alone (Romans 12:19, Deuteronomy 32:35).
Joseph’s reconnect with his brothers didn’t happen overnight. The story unfolds over a couple of years’ time and is captured in chapters 42-45 of Genesis. When Joseph first saw his ten older brothers, we can only imagine the mixed emotions he must have felt. That old adage, “Time heals all wounds,” is not really true. Time only helps if, #1 you lose your memory and can’t remember what they did to you, or #2 you work toward forgiveness with God’s help. Otherwise, we’re pretty good at remembering and hanging onto every hurt.
We don’t know the full extent of Joseph’s forgiveness work, but we do get a clue that it’s in process, because he didn’t exact revenge when given the opportunity. When he recognized his brothers, he could have thrown them into a dark Egyptian prison cell and thrown away the key, or even executed them, but instead, he chose to continue the dialogue. Maybe he wanted to use them to reconnect with his youngest brother, Benjamin and his elderly father Jacob. But maybe he also wanted to see if they had changed. We see a clue in his tears. In chapter 42 he overheard the brothers talking in Hebrew, thinking that Joseph couldn’t understand. When he heard their admission of guilt, along with the oldest, Reuben, chastising them for their foolish action in selling off Joseph, he could tell God was working in their lives. And he quickly ran from the room to cry. His broken heart gives us a clue as to his desire for reconciliation over revenge.
Joseph didn’t forgive overnight. Sometimes deep wounds take time to heal. And he didn’t offer quick reconciliation either. Instead, his actions teach us something else on the journey towards reconciliation. We need to turn away from revenge, but we also need to:
2. Test for repentance.
Chapters 42-44 record two years of testing, where Joseph sought to see if his brothers had matured any over the last 22 years. Joseph had grown up. No longer was he this prideful, immature dreamer. He was “father to Pharaoh,” the right-hand advisor of the most powerful man in the world. Perhaps they had changed as well. Maybe they had given up their self-centered anger and pride.
Joseph first held his half-brother Simeon hostage, until the other nine brothers returned with his younger full brother Benjamin. When Jacob had lost Joseph believing him killed by wild animals, Jacob had shifted his favoritism toward the one surviving son from his favorite wife Rachel. Benjamin became Daddy’s new favorite. Like many grieving parents, Jacob over-protected his surviving son, so at first he wouldn’t let Benjamin go with the ten older brothers to this foreign land. Only the threat of starvation of his entire family finally forced Jacob to relent.
Over the course of these two trips, Joseph tested his brothers. He framed them with false arrests, to see how they would react. During the second trip, he chose the cherished brother Benjamin as the supposed culprit of the crime. The brothers were beside themselves. If they returned without Benjamin, their father would die of a broken heart for sure. Judah, who had initially led the scheme to sell off Joseph to slavery, now passionately offered himself in place of Benjamin. Joseph saw the change he was looking for. Whereas they had betrayed him out of jealousy, now they refused to act the same with Benjamin. On the contrary, they would do all they could—even at the cost of their own life—to ensure his safety.
The brothers in effect had re-earned Joseph’s trust, which leads to the dramatic unveiling of his identity in today’s reading. It is no surprise they found it hard to recognize him. They thought he would be dead for sure by now. And over 22 years, he had become fully enculturated into the Egyptian way of life. And if this was really him, their own lives were in danger. Yet, as he continued to speak with them in their native Hebrew—no longer using an interpreter—and as he asked them to come closer to him—which no Egyptian would ever do towards an unpolished Hebrew, and as he continued in kindness toward them, they began to recognize and trust him.
And Joseph modeled for us our third step. As we look for the joy of reconciliation, not only do we need to turn away from revenge and test for repentance, but we also need to:
3. Trust in God’s sovereignty.
Four times in chapter 35 Joseph spoke of this idea of God being in charge, working behind the scenes to bring about God’s will, regardless of the evil tendencies of humans. God takes even our sin and works it together for God’s perfect plan. In verse 5, Joseph said to his brothers, “And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.” In verse 7 he reassured them, “God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.” In verse 8 he said, “So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.” In verse 9, he gave them a message for their father, “God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; don’t delay.”
Joseph was able to forgive largely because he looked for God’s hand at work behind the evil conniving of his brothers. Joseph recognized the truth of Proverbs 19:21, which says, “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails. Joseph lived out the promise of Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
In Joseph’s worst memories of betrayal, he was able to draw on the fact that God is bigger than our problems. God has a longer-range plan than we do. Our scope is tactical; God’s is strategic. Our plans are finite; God’s are infinite. Our vision is near-sighted; God’s is far-sighted. We live fueled by past hurts; God pulls us toward a future with hope and purpose.
Joseph and his brothers were not some insignificant dysfunctional family. They would form the skeleton of a royal nation, a priesthood of believers, the nation of Israel, the people of God. Twelve brothers with wives and kids would number about 70 in their move to Egypt to survive the drought. And if you know the rest of the story, there would be a Pharaoh down the road who did not remember the name of Joseph, who looked on the Hebrews as a threat, not a blessing, who in his own insecurity would enslave them. And for some 400 years, these Israelites would wonder if God had forgotten them.
But God was busy forging a nation. And God would use a fellow named Moses, along with ten plagues and a river crossing on dry land. (Think Charlton Heston here!) And those 70 people over the course of 400 years would become over a million souls. A family had become a nation. And this nation would someday produce a Savior for the world.
What is interesting to me is that our Lord Jesus would be born out of the tribe of Judah. Judah is the son who made the passionate plea: “Let me take my brother Benjamin’s place. Send him home with his brothers to their elderly father. I will take all of our sins upon myself. I will pay.” And this event provoked Joseph’s third set of tears, for the first time crying publicly before his brothers. This was the moment Joseph was waiting for: the brothers had finally revealed a changed heart, a heart of sacrifice over selfishness, a heart of penitence over pride.
Out of Judah’s descendants would come one who was truly innocent but would be thrown into prison nonetheless; one who would die a criminal’s death; one who would take the place of all his brothers and sisters, so that we could be reunited with our father; one who would achieve at Calvary the greatest act of reconciliation ever accomplished: to bring a sinful people back to a holy God.
Because we have been reconciled, we also ought to offer reconciliation to those who have betrayed us. As we turn away from revenge, test for repentance, and trust in God’s sovereignty, God will help us. Let us pray:
Thank you, Lord, for this amazing story of 12 brothers. Thank you for your hand behind it all. So often we don’t understand why we are going through hard times. Help us to watch for your hand at work behind the scenes, and to look for opportunities to reconcile with each other as you have reconciled with us. For the one here today who needs to reconcile with you and enter your family of believers, help him or her to admit their sin to you, to turn to Jesus our Savior for forgiveness, and to enter your family forever. In Jesus we pray, amen.