Joseph’s Grief Observed

A Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 45:1-15

“I will be with you.”  God’s promise to Jacob had not gone unfulfilled.  God had indeed been with Jacob, and now God was with Jacob’s offspring – in this case, Joseph.  But what was going through Joseph’s mind during the encounter in our reading from Genesis this morning.

Standing before him are his 10 brothers who betrayed him.  Because of their jealousy, they had faked Joseph’s death and sold him off into slavery, causing their father, Jacob, untold grief, not to mention the years of suffering Joseph endured.  And now, many years later, Joseph is ready to reveal himself to his brother, and, suddenly his emotions get the better of him, as we would say in the vernacular, he “loses it.”

Can we blame him?  I think not.  He weeps so loudly that the Egyptians whom he sent outside could hear him – not very dignified for a governor of Egypt.  You see, Joseph was wise during his first years in Egypt, inheriting perhaps some of his father’s usurping ways, and he had risen to prominence.

Now Joseph has the upper hand.  He is a ruler in Egypt.  He has influence and great power.  With one word, he could have his brothers killed.  He could have his revenge, but instead he has only tears.

Certainly he was tempted to seek revenge when he first met them.  They had come to Egypt looking for grain when a great famine struck the region.  They had not recognized Joseph, and so he tested his brothers.  We don’t have time to go into the story of the three tests this morning, but it is a remarkable story – he tests them for jealousy, for loyalty, and he awakens within his brothers a sense of responsibility.

What is important for our purposes here is this encounter.  In one of the most dramatic moments in all of Scripture Joseph reveals his identity to these brothers who had betrayed him, and, instead of revenge, he shows them mercy.  Not only does he show them mercy by not killing them, which he certainly could have done, but he makes provision for them, his family.  His first concern is for Jacob, his father.  They are literally speechless.

Joseph’s response at this point is critical.  He calls them close, a gesture that might have scared some of them, while in reality he is making himself vulnerable.  They far outnumber him, which had gotten him into trouble in the first place.  But here, his heart is full of compassion for them.  And Joseph has what we have come to call a “moment of clarity.”  “Now…I see” Joseph is saying.

Can you imagine the emotions that had brought Joseph to this point?  Years of rage, of anger, of feeling betrayed, perhaps feeling abandoned even by God – this God who had done such miraculous things for his father, Jacob, and grandfather, Isaac, and even his great-grandfather Abraham.  Joseph may have considered himself left out of God’s promises, exiled to Egypt.

Can you imagine what the brothers were feeling at this moment?  But Joseph tells them, “Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.”

I’ll admit that I’m a bit frustrated with the lectionary crafters this morning, because they stopped short, leaving out one of the most powerful and beautiful lines in all of scripture.  Joseph goes on to say to them about their betraying him into slavery, “You intended it for evil, but God intended it for good—to save many lives.”

There is great comfort in these words, but there is also great mystery.  This is the interplay of human free will and God’s purposes.  The brothers did not have Joseph’s welfare in mind when they sold him into slavery.  Yet despite their actions, God intervened to rectify the situation.  This evil on their part could not stop God’s good purposes from prevailing.  “God intended it for good—to save many lives.”

Joseph then sends for his father and the rest of the family.  They would survive the famine – Joseph would see to it.

If you get a chance, when you are in the commons, note the illustration of this story that Elizabeth Foster has on the bulletin board.  The caption is very poignant and emotional, the brothers are worrying, “Will Joseph have his revenge?”  But Joseph responds,  “I will provide for you and your little ones.”

In the face of this personal evil that had caused him so much pain and grief, Joseph saw the bigger picture.  God’s ultimate purpose was to save life, and Joseph’s journey into slavery made that possible.  The choice not just to forgive, but to bless – surely, this is not to Joseph’s credit alone, God’s fingerprints are all over this encounter.

Little did any of the men gathered in that room know, nor could they have known that this move to Egypt would end up plunging them back into the grasp of evil – and not just one member of the family, but all of their offspring would become slaves.  And yet again, God would bring one man, Moses, to redeem them all.

This interplay between God’s will and man’s evil is surely one of those subjects that have been debate since humans began to consider the “larger” questions.  We look for God in the face of tragedy.  Some immediately want to blame God for the evil – it was God’s will!  Others simply ask, “Why didn’t God stop it?”

These are hard questions, no doubt about it.  No, we don’t want to believe in a God who would make bad things happen.  That truly does seem out of the character of the God we worship here this morning.  The harder and less black and white option is to believe that God allows the evil that humans are capable of causing to affect all of our lives, but then to believe that God may bring ultimate good out of the evil.

C.S. Lewis wrote an entire book about it.  His wife, Joy, whom he had married late in life, died of cancer—a slow and agonizing death.  In the immediate aftermath of her death, he wrote the book, “A Grief Observed.”  If you haven’t read it, let me assure you, it is very difficult to read.

Lewis the greatest Christian apologist of his day was angry at God.  He accused God of experimenting on us like a scientist uses rats in a laboratory.  The book was so upsetting and raw that Lewis published it under a pseudonym so as not to upset his faithful readers.  Ironically Lewis later had to publicly acknowledge writing the memoir after so many of his friends and even fans sent him copies of the book to help him through his grief.

I read through some of the reviews it has received on Amazon.com, written by average people.  Some of them are quite touching.  This book continues to touch people’s lives, I believe, simply because of its brutal honesty.  If such a man of faith as C.S. Lewis could experience such doubt and grief and anger at God, perhaps our doubt and grief and anger at God aren’t so unique, so wrong.  Maybe they are even appropriate.

In the end, Lewis rediscovered his faith, but after much heart-wrenching doubt and grief.  And the faith he rediscovered was not the faith he had had before.  It was changed.  He had changed.  Lewis concludes, “God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality.  He knew it already.  It was I who didn’t.”

We certainly are not strangers to the pain that humans can cause to each other.  Many people asked, “Where was God on April 16th?”  just as many asked “Where was God on September 11th?”  The same answer applies in my estimation – do not look for God’s hand in the violence and the death – look for God’s hand in the aftermath.  Look for God in the wake of the terror and violence.

God purposes were being worked out in St. Paul’s chapel, just steps from the World Trade Center.  There the people of God made a miracle happen – rescue workers were fed and were able to sleep.  People had a space to grieve and pray.  God was there.  God’s will was being revealed not in Norris Hall, but in War Memorial Chapel and the Alumni Center.  God’s people reached out to each other and incarnated the love of Christ in the face of unspeakable grief and horror.  God was there.  That is where you will see God’s hand.  Just as Joseph, in his moment of clarity, saw God’s hand in the midst of the evil his brothers had done.

I believe God’s presence is often most keenly felt in the lives that must go on.

Joseph probably had many moments where he wondered whether God had abandoned him.  Joseph probably experienced the despair and doubt so many of us face.  And yet God turned these evil circumstances for good, despite Joseph’s doubt and his lack of perspective.  This scene in Genesis is so full of emotion perhaps because we are witnessing this epiphany in Joseph’s life.  He sees at last God’s purposes fulfilled – his suffering had not been meaningless or pointless.

Our ultimate example of this is, of course, the death of Jesus Christ.  Falsely accused, sold for a few pieces of silver, and then unjustly tried, Jesus is murdered.  Why didn’t God stop it?  Certainly Jesus questioned God’s purposes, if no place else but the garden of Gethsemane with hours of sleepless prayer in the face of evil.  Jesus himself was not afraid to question God.

Instead of clear answers, we are often left with mystery – God’s divine purposes.  But Jesus’ death was not the end of the story, and that is what we commemorate each time we receive his body and blood.  Life in the midst of death.  In the end we believe death itself was conquered because of Jesus’ own suffering and death.

In our limited perspective we have no choice but to trust God in the darkest of hours.  In the face of evil we may seek revenge, but Joseph didn’t.  Not only did he forgive, he blessed those who had done evil to him.    But Joseph’s journey had been a long one in response to evil – years…  We cannot expect ours to be any shorter.  Go ahead, rage, doubt, question God.  Joseph did.  So did Jesus.  God’s purposes will be accomplished, and God’s goodness will prevail.  Amen.

 

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