To read this sermon from The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr. click on “Continue reading” below.
Life has its obvious defining moments: our birth, graduations, employment, falling in love, getting married, having children of our own, remembering loved ones who pass away, fighting illnesses, memorable trips, finding success, and experiencing failure to name just a few. From a very young age we search for something to define us. Whether we’ll admit it or not, all of us, to a certain extent, want our lives to be remembered. We want to define ourselves with something lasting. In short, we want to matter. The idea of leaving our legacy is a driving force behind so many of our decisions and actions. And yet as we zip through life trying to get to these defining moments, sometimes there are things that are painful that stop us right in our tracks. Joseph, son of Jacob, overcame a painful past. Yet he was able to define the moments of his life in a healthy way.
This morning I’d to like to share a reader’s digest version of the life of Joseph. Joseph was raised in what we would call today a dysfunctional family. Sibling rivalry filled Jacob’s household. Favoritism abounded. Hatred was a regular dish served on the family menu. Joseph was the youngest in his family and the apple of his father Jacob’s eyes. One day, Joseph’s brothers caught him, threw him into a pit, and discussed killing him. One brother intervened and convinced the rest instead to sell Joseph as a slave to traders headed toward Egypt. In Egypt, Joseph became the property of a man named Potiphar. Potiphar’s wife made some advances toward him. Frustrated by Joseph’s refusal, she falsely accuses him of a crime and he was imprisoned. While imprisoned, Joseph made friends with a baker and cupbearer. Each promised to pull their political strings and secure Joseph’s release, if and when they were freed. In time the baker was hung. The cupbearer was freed, but forgot about Joseph and went on with his own life. For two more years, Joseph remained in an Egyptian prison. One day the Pharaoh had a dream that no one but Joseph could interpret. This dream entailed that Egypt would experience seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. To reward Joseph for interpreting the dream, the Pharaoh gave Joseph charge of all the agricultural activity in Egypt. The years of plenty came and Joseph stored up the bounty of grain for the future survival of Egypt. Seven years later the famine hit. This famine was so severe that even people outside of Egypt came to buy food from Joseph. One day Joseph’s own brothers arrived. Joseph recognized them, but they no longer knew their own brother. Joseph sold them grain and he tricked them into coming back before revealing his true identity. From this point is where we pick up in our morning’s Scripture lesson. We learn that Joseph could no longer control himself before his brothers and he became so emotional that he ordered everyone out of his sight except for his brothers.
Upon revealing his identity the Bible says that Joseph wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of the Pharaoh heard it. Joseph wanted to know if his father was still alive but his brothers could not answer him, because they were so stunned at seeing him. Perhaps what was most stunning for his brothers was that Joseph was rejoicing at their presence and not seeking revenge. All they remembered was the pit and their bartering and selling their own brother. Perhaps they expected a call for the royal guards, and the punishment they deserved for the hostility they had shown their own brother. He had been betrayed by his own blood, sold into slavery, and imprisoned unfairly. But no retaliation comes. Joseph had made peace with a painful past. His own words indicate he had let go of any ill feelings he held against his brothers. Joseph says in verse five:
And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. (Genesis 45:5)
How was Joseph able to define the moments of his life? What was Joseph’s secret? First, Joseph practiced forgiveness. Potiphar’s wife, the cupbearer and his brothers had mistreated Joseph. Most of us can sympathize with that, because somewhere in our past others have mistreated us. When that happens like Joseph, we are faced with how to respond. Joseph could have struck back and felt the exhilaration that comes from getting even. Instead, Joseph chose to forgive. Joseph chose to live out the words of Jesus from our gospel lesson in Matthew. He chose not to judge his brothers and their evil actions toward him; he viewed their actions toward him as though they were merely a “speck” of lumber.
Forgiveness, while not the easiest, is always the wisest of our options. Until we forgive, the pain of our past will continue to be felt in our present. Forgiveness has been called the key that unlocks the door of resentment and the handcuffs of hatred. Forgiveness is a power that breaks the chains of bitterness and shatters the shackles of selfish retaliation. Forgiveness frees our heart. The first Christian missionaries in Alaska were Moravians. When thes Moravians began to minister among the Eskimo people, they quickly discovered that the Eskimos had no word in their language for forgiveness. So they composed a long, complex combination of words that is: IS-SUM-AGI-JOUJUNG-NAIN-ERMIK. Literally, it translates into English to mean, “not being able to think about it anymore” That is the essence of genuine forgiveness. It is choosing not to think about how others have hurt us. These guilty brothers never ask Joseph to forgive them. Neither does Joseph demand their apology. Genuine forgiveness doesn’t act that way. Like grace, it is freely given and freely offered. Joseph chose to forgive. But Joseph did something else also.
The second thing Joseph chose to do in defining the moments of his life is that he chose to live in the present. There is an old adage that says, “You can learn much about a person by noting what they say.” But the opposite is also true. You can learn much about a person by noting what they don’t say. After all he has been through, Joseph does not say much. He never mentions what it was like being a slave or losing years of his life in an Egyptian jail. Joseph never speaks of being thrown in the pit, what it felt like to be sold and bought like an animal. No, Joseph isn’t imprisoned by the bitterness of his past. Instead he is still living in the present with his eyes focused on the future. We see this in Joseph when he encourages his brothers to go back to their homeland to get his father and their own families. Joseph promises to take care of his family in the land of Goshen for years to come since the famine was expected to last another five years. Defining our moments in life might include choosing to let go of yesterday and living for today and tomorrow. For many people that is difficult action to take. Reliving and recalling the sorrows and pain of yesterday does nothing but prevent us from experiencing the wonders and potential joys of the present.
The third thing Joseph did in defining the moments of his life is that he saw the hand of God in the person he became. With all he had been through, Joseph came to realize that God, not his brothers, determined what Joseph would become. Three times in this chapter from Genesis, Joseph declares his belief that God’s purpose, not evil intentions brought him to Egypt. As we remember Joseph’s words about his brothers not being distressed or angry with themselves he goes on to say the following:
God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; (Genesis 45:7-8)
Joseph believed that for whatever reason, God was at work through all the events of his life, preparing and molding Joseph to be the person God desired. Remembering these words from the book of Romans:
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)
Our world is full of pain and heartbreak. These experiences if we allow them, can often become God’s classroom in our spiritual journeys. No book can communicate what a couple feels when a marriage is crumbling. No words can accurately express the hurt that results from burying a spouse or loved one, watching a parent slowly lose their battle with cancer or Alzheimer’s disease. Often in these experiences people of faith who have crossed those valleys in time will be able look back upon them and see God’s hand leading them through those dark places.
As we speak of guiding hands, there was a little boy who was spending his Saturday morning playing in his sandbox. He had with him his box of cars and trucks, his plastic pail, and a shiny, red plastic shovel. In the process of creating roads and tunnels in the soft sand, he discovered a large rock in the middle of the sandbox. The child dug around the rock, managing to dislodge it from the dirt. With a great deal of struggle, he pushed and nudged the rock across the sandbox by using his feet. When the boy got the rock to the edge of the sandbox, however, he found that he couldn’t roll it up and over the wall. Determined, the little boy shoved, pushed, and pried, but every time he thought he had made some progress, the rock tipped and then fell back into the sandbox. The little boy grunted, struggled, pushed and shoved. But his only reward was to have the rock roll back, smashing his fingers. Finally he burst into tears of frustration. All this time the boy’s father watched from his living room window as the drama unfolded. At the moment the tears fell, a large shadow fell across the boy and the sandbox. It was the boy’s father. Gently but firmly he said, “Son, why didn’t you use all the strength that you had available? Defeated, the boy sobbed back, “But I did, Daddy, I did! I used all the strength that I had!” “No, son,” corrected the father kindly. “You didn’t use all the strength you had. You didn’t ask me.” With that the father reached down, picked up the rock, and removed it from the sandbox.
Joseph understood that the hand of God was in the situations he had experienced, and shaped him into the person he became. As we leave here this morning, let us be assured that God’s presence and guidance is with us in our lives. As our closing hymn “He Leadeth Me” and its refrain so eloquently shares:
He Leadeth me, he leadeth me, by his own hand he leadeth me, his faithful follower I would be for by his hand he leadeth me.
The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr.
July 16, 2017