Pastor Steven Pagels
In the name of Christ Jesus, dear friends:
Unless you are a lover of 18thcentury British poetry, the name Alexander Pope probably doesn’t mean all that much to you. Even if you don’t know anything about his life, you are probably familiar with some of his writings. In fact, next to William Shakespeare, Alexander Pope is the most quoted writer in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.
Of all of Pope’s famous quotes, the last line of this passage from his Essay on Criticism is probably the most famous of all: “Ah ne’er so dire a Thirst of Glory boast, Nor in the Critick let the Man be lost! Good-Nature and Good-Sense must ever join; To err is Humane; to forgive, Divine.”
To err is human; to forgive, divine. These are not just quotable words, memorable words, beautifully poetic words. For Christians, they are deeply spiritual words that express an equally deep spiritual truth, a glorious truth that shines through in all three Scripture lessons today, a truth that was put on display in the life of Joseph and remains important and relevant for every child of God…
FORGIVENESS IS TRULY DIVINE
When was the last time you cried? Better yet, when was the last time you cried so loudly and uncontrollably that news of your sobbing spread throughout the neighborhood? You might not be able to remember if or when something like that has ever happened to you, but that very thing happened to Joseph. And it was an experience he would never forget.
So what was it that caused Joseph to become so emotional? To answer that question, we need to go back about twenty years in his life. Joseph was a teenager, the favorite son of his father Jacob. Joseph had also found favor with God, and the Lord had given him the unique ability to have amazing dreams, dreams that gave him a glimpse into the future.
And Joseph’s ten older brothers hated him for it. This was much more than a case of sibling rivalry. Joseph’s brothers despised him, so much so that they began plotting to kill him. It was only divine intervention and a last-minute change of heart that led them to spare his life and sell him to some slave traders who were headed to Egypt.
I wish we had time to take a closer look at the rollercoaster ride that was Joseph’s life as a slave in Egypt, but we don’t. Instead, here is the Reader’s Digest condensed version. By his faithful service Joseph distinguished himself and was elevated to the top position in the household of one of Egypt’s top officials. But then his boss’s wife accused him of sexual assault and his boss had no choice but to put him in prison.
Joseph distinguished himself again in prison, and again the Lord gave him the ability to interpret the dreams of some fellow prisoners. It took a couple years, but one of those prisoners remembered what Joseph had done for him when the ruler of Egypt was having some pretty strange dreams of his own. To make a long story short, God allowed Joseph to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, dreams that predicted seven years of bumper crops to be followed by seven years of famine. To express his gratitude, Pharaoh elevated Joseph from imprisoned slave to the second most powerful ruler in all of Egypt. And Joseph received this unbelievable promotion when he was only 30 years old.
Just as Joseph had predicted, the seven years of plenty were followed by a severe famine, not just in Egypt, but also in the countries surrounding Egypt, including his homeland of Canaan. Jacob (Joseph’s father) sent his sons down to Egypt to buy food for the family. As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them. But because of his different appearance and because he was speaking a different language, they did not recognize him.
Joseph then proceeded to put his brothers through a series of tests to see if they had changed. It would be well worth your time to read Genesis 43 and 44 and review what those tests were and how they responded to them. But if Joseph was looking for the answer to this question: Have my brothers changed? The answer was a clear and emphatic “Yes!” They were motivated by love for their father, not hatred toward their brother. One of the brothers (Judah) even offered to sacrifice his own life to save the life of his youngest brother (and Joseph’s full-blooded brother) Benjamin.
That was more than Joseph could take. He ordered all his attendants to leave the room. And as soon as he was alone with his brothers Joseph burst into tears. He was so overcome with emotion that he had to reveal his true identity. Fighting through the tears he declared: “I am Joseph! Is my father still living” (3)? And Joseph’s brothers were absolutely terrified. Terrified as they went back in time over twenty years and remembered what they had done to him. Terrified as they stood in the presence their long-lost brother, now the king of Egypt’s second-in-command, and imagined what he would do to them.
Because they were in shock, because they were literally speechless, because his brothers were scared to death, Joseph spoke again: “Come close to me. I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! 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…God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God” (4-5, 7-8a).
You won’t be able to find the exact words anywhere in these verses, but if you look closely they are there. With these words of assurance Joseph was telling his brothers: “No matter what you did to me, no matter how terribly you treated me, that is all in the past. Look at me. Listen to me. I want you to know that I love you…and I forgive you.”
How could Joseph do that? How could he just forgive his brothers? How could he act like nothing had happened (when a whole lot of bad stuff had happened)? It wasn’t because Joseph had resolved in his mind to be the bigger person. And it wasn’t because those things had happened two decades earlier, and time heals all wounds. The reason Joseph gave his brothers sounds like a cliché. Sometimes well-meaning Christians will use similar words when they don’t really fit, but here they fit perfectly. Joseph was willing and able to forgive his brothers, and it was much easier for him to forgive his brothers, because he recognized that all the good and all the bad and all the blessings and challenges in his life were part of God’s master plan to save lives.
If you are a seasoned sermon listener, you might be anticipating where this sermon is headed. Joseph trusted in God. Joseph was forgiving. I trust in God. I should be forgiving too. But if you aren’t there quite yet, if your sinful nature is feeling a little feisty this morning, you might object: “That’s not really a fair comparison because Joseph had the benefit of hindsight. Joseph could look back on his life and see how God used the ups and downs of his life to bring about a great deal of good. And I don’t have that perspective. If I am in the middle of the storm, I can’t see anything. If another person is making my life miserable and I can’t see how God is making that work out for my good, that makes forgiveness really, really hard.”
I get that. On a certain level, I might even agree with that. So let’s change the comparison. Let’s try to relate to someone else who was treated unfairly. Let’s compare our situation with another person who was persecuted by his brothers even though he had done nothing to deserve it. I am not talking about Joseph, but his name does begin with a “J.”
In the gospel lesson for today Jesus talked about how to treat others who mistreat you. But unlike Joseph, Jesus was not looking back. He was looking ahead. And because Jesus is God, because Jesus knows all things, he knew what awaited him. Jesus knew what his own people would do to him. He knew that his enemies would slander him and torture him and ultimately kill him. And what was his advice for his followers? What was his spiritual counsel for his disciples?
“I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:27-31).
And if someone wants to object, if after reading those words someone would complain to me that what Jesus is asking us to do is impossible, I would say: “You are absolutely right. It is impossible…for sinful human beings. But nothing is impossible with God. Everything, including forgiveness, is possible with God.
The real comfort in these words cannot be found in the words themselves. The comfort comes from the one who spoke them because the man who spoke those words was more than a man. The man who spoke those words also perfectly fulfilled them. He loved his enemies. He prayed for the people who persecuted him. They stripped him of his clothes. They stripped him of his dignity. But the more they took from him, the more he was willing to give. Jesus was even willing to give up his life.
Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice on the cross because he understood that forgiveness is divine. We can strive to do better. We may vow to work harder. But our best efforts fall far short. Want proof? The theme for today is forgiveness, so let’s use Jesus’ words as a scorecard. Do you love your enemies? How often do you pray for your enemies? Are you able to forgive and forget, or are you still holding on to some grudges that go back months or even years?
If you didn’t score very well, if you are feeling guilty, if you feel like a failure, here is something that God will use to make you feel better. If Jesus loved his enemies (and he did), that means he loves all people. And if Jesus loves all people, then he most certainly loves sinners like you and me. And the people our Savior loves, he forgives. Because of Jesus there is no doubt that we are forgiven. Because of Jesus there is no doubt that we can be forgiving too.
And that brings us back to Joseph. There was a time when Joseph’s brothers hated him. They came about this close to killing him. If God could soften Joseph’s heart to forgive them, if God could remove from Joseph’s heart any thoughts of revenge, if Joseph’s reunion with his brothers resulted in all of them shedding tears of joy, imagine what God can do for you.
No, let’s not just imagine it. Let’s personalize it. I want you to put a real face on it. I want you to think of a person who has hurt you, someone who said something to you or did something to you that has left a lasting emotional scar. Maybe it was years ago. Or maybe it happened last week. You are struggling to forgive that person. You are having a very difficult time letting go. Remembering the example of Joseph, and taking to heart the words of Jesus, I ask you to join me in praying this prayer:
Dear Jesus, when I compare your Word to my life, I am forced to acknowledge my many weaknesses. And when I review the account of Joseph forgiving his brothers, I am reminded of how unforgiving I can be. There is an individual in my life who needs to be assured of your forgiveness (and my forgiveness too): ______________________. Help me to remember that every person I meet is a blood bought soul you died to save, and help me to show that person the same kind of unconditional love and forgiveness you have shown to me. In your holy name I ask it. Amen.