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The Stories from the Bible: Forgiveness in the Family

March 12, 2006

Genesis 50

Carole read for us the very first verse of the Bible, Genesis 1:1, a passage about the great God of all creation. The very first institution God created was marriage, followed closely by the family. We read that story in Genesis 2. By Genesis 3, the marriage is in trouble. The husband and wife are in disagreement, and they have disobeyed God. Genesis 4 then records the presence of violence in the family where one brother kills another.

Family living is hard. Family living includes many hurts. Regardless of where you turn in the pages of scripture, you will find examples of families engaged in conflict. We turn to the parables of Jesus and read, “A certain man had two sons…” We read about a family where a rebellious child leaves home, disobeys his father, and squanders everything he has. Look back again to the reign of King David in the Old Testament where he commits adultery with Bathsheba and where his own children, Absalom and Adonijah, rebel against him. Regardless of where we look in the Bible, we see families involved in clashes. We see ourselves, our own families, reflected in these passages of scripture. I appreciate the Bible’s truthfulness.

Today, we come to a case study of the family of Jacob. Throughout this story, we see hurt upon hurt among family members. We see not only a family that has trouble, dysfunction, but we also see how those difficulties are resolved. It is important for us to realize that the key issue in family living is not how to avoid conflict. My experience is that conflict is unavoidable. The real issue is what to do when conflict occurs. Cain strikes out against his brother Abel and kills him. David’s sons rebel, and they will not be reconciled. We see a different and more appropriate aspect of resolving conflict in the story of Jacob’s family, especially in his son Joseph.

I invite you to turn with me to Genesis 37, where this remarkable story begins. Jacob, perhaps you remember, sojourned with Laban, who was both his father-in-law and his uncle. Jacob worked for him for twenty years, during which time he took two wives. That is part of his problem. I have told you before that the Chinese symbol for trouble is two women under the same roof. With these two wives, Jacob had many children. His first wife bore him ten sons before his favorite wife, Rachel, had a child whom they named Joseph. Those first ten sons learned much about deceit watching the way their father and their grandfather schemed against one another. Each of these sons had a surly disposition. Each knew the ways of the world because he had watched these two men interact.

As the baby boy, at least until the birth of Benjamin, Joseph was immediately the favorite. He received a tangible expression of this favoritism from Jacob, a magnificent ankle-length coat with long sleeves. The Hebrew words that describe this highly ornamented garment of many colors really convey just one idea: a field hand would not wear this kind of coat. This garment was an indication that Joseph’s parents pampered him and did not expect him to work in the fields. Jacob, however, did expect the ten older boys to complete those menial tasks. The preferential treatment Joseph received from his father is part of the reason he had trouble with his brothers. Remember that Jacob had learned about partiality in his own contention with his brother, Esau. Jacob had tricked his father, Isaac, into giving him the blessing; and he had schemed against his brother, by using a bowl of pottage, in order to receive the birthright. Jacob passed this ability to manipulate others on to his sons.

Some of Joseph’s problems were of his own making. He had dreams that were quite grandiose and egocentric, dreams that placed him at the center of attention. He dreamed that his brothers’ sheaves of grain were bowing down to his sheaf of grain and that the sun, moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to him in another dream. Joseph had the poor taste to tell his dreams before breakfast. Listening to these dreams just made his brothers mad.

I cannot imagine what was in Jacob’s mind when he sent Joseph into the fields to find his brothers. When they saw him coming toward them at a place called Dothan, they said, “Here comes the dreamer” and immediately began scheming. We see the Cain and Abel story once again. “Let’s kill him and throw his body in a pit. We’ll take the bloodstained coat back to our father and tell him that wild animals ate Joseph,” one suggested. Reuben, whom I like to say is the one for whom the sandwich was made, stepped forward and said, “Guys, let’s be more reasonable about this. Let’s just put him in the pit and decide what to do with him.” The brothers lowered him into a dry cistern and began eating lunch under a tree. When a caravan of Ishmaelites approached, Judah proposed, “Let’s just sell him into slavery. We’ll be done with him and get a little money to boot.” Sold to the slave traders, Joseph was shackled in chains and taken to Egypt. The brothers then took that magnificent coat, soaked it in the blood of a goat, and presented it to Jacob, saying, “Look what wild animals did to your favorite son.” Jacob experienced much grief, and his family was unable to console him in his loss.

Joseph’s story continues in Egypt where he became the slave of Potiphar, the chief of the guards for Pharaoh. Potiphar’s wife, seductive and perhaps unfaithful to her husband on other occasions, wanted to seduce Joseph. When he resisted her attention and pulled away from her, she grabbed his garment and later presented it to her husband, crying, “Look what your slave tried to do to me. He tried to molest me.” Potiphar must have thought that his wife might have been stretching the truth because he could have put Joseph to death. Instead, he imprisoned Joseph in the dungeon. As always, Joseph rose to the top like cream. He became favored, even in prison.

Joseph was imprisoned with Pharaoh’s baker and cupbearer, men who had dreams. Because Joseph, a dreamer himself, could interpret dreams, he told the baker, “Your dreams mean that you are going to be put to death.” To the cupbearer, he explained, “Your dreams mean that you are going to be restored to your former place of responsibility.” Those events happened just as Joseph said they would. As the cupbearer left prison to return to his position, Joseph said, “Please don’t forget me. Remember me to Pharaoh.” Contrary to his promise, the cupbearer forgot him, and Joseph languished in prison for a while longer.

When the Pharaoh himself started having unsettling dreams and needed someone to interpret them, not one person in his court was able to help. Finally, the cupbearer remembered Joseph’s ability and said, “A Hebrew in prison correctly interpreted the baker’s dream and mine as well. Maybe he can understand your dreams, Pharaoh.” So Pharaoh sent for Joseph, now about thirty years old. Joseph came into the presence of Pharaoh and interpreted the dreams, saying the land would have seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh was so confident in this young man that he decided to elevate Joseph to the position of secretary of agriculture and assigned Joseph the enormous task of storing as much grain as possible for the next seven years of plenty so that people would have food during the seven years to follow. Joseph was about seventeen when his brothers sold him into slavery; but now at age thirty, he was the second most prominent person in Egypt. Sure enough, when the famine came, not only was enough food available to take care of the people of Egypt, but food was available for starving people from other parts of the world.

Among those who came to buy grain were Joseph’s brothers. Of course, thirteen years or so had passed since they had last seen Daniel. When they came into his presence, they did not recognize him. They expected him to be faraway somewhere in slavery, maybe even dead by now. They certainly never expected him to be a well-respected individual serving in such a high-ranking position. In many ways, Joseph had become Egyptian though he did not forsake his Hebrew heritage. He looked like an Egyptian. He had shaved his head as other Egyptian men did and wore Egyptian clothing. Joseph recognized his brothers immediately, but he still felt the hurt of betrayal. Just try to imagine what this man must have felt during these thirteen years. Many people had hurt him, including these brothers, who, in their hateful way, had started this. They had sold him into slavery. He served as a faithful slave to Potiphar but was charged with adultery and thrown into prison where he remained because the cupbearer he had helped forgot about him. Joseph had many reasons to be bitter and angry.

Look at Chapter 42:18. Joseph played games with them at first, accusing them of being spies. He said, “If you are honest men, let one of your brothers stay here in prison while the rest of you go and take grain back to your starving families.” Simeon was chosen to remain behind while the others returned to their homeland to get their younger brother. The brothers talk about the response they receive in Verse 21:
They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come upon us.”
Reuban replied, “Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn’t listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood.” They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter.
Because he recognized them and knew what they were saying, Joseph “turned away from them and began to weep.” All of that bitterness, all of that hurt, started coming to the surface.

Joseph sent the brothers back to the land of Canaan with saddlebags full of grain. When they opened those saddlebags, they found that the money they had paid for the grain had been placed in each of the saddle. Finding that money made them afraid that they would be charged with thievery. Jacob, in distress, lamented, “I have already lost one son, Joseph. Now Simeon is in Egypt, being held as a hostage, and they want Benjamin. How many sons am I going to have to lose?” The family delayed the trip back to Egypt as long as possible, but the famine persisted until the brothers had to return, taking Benjamin with them.

Joseph may have wanted to continue the games when they appear before Joseph, but he could not. Chapter 45:1-8:

Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it.

Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence.

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “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. For two years now there has been a famine in the land, and for the next five years, there will not be plowing or reaping. But 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.”
Do you see what has happened? All of that hurt and bitterness in Joseph’s heart has been transformed.

Jack Dodds sent me an e-mail this week. He did not know, of course, that I would use it in today’s sermon. A mother and daughter were going to bake a cake together. The daughter, who could hardly wait to taste the cake, kept trying to get her mother to hurry along the cake preparation. Finally, her mother asked, “Why don’t you get three tablespoons of cooking oil and drink them?”

The daughter answered, “Oh, mother! That would be yucky!”

The mother asked, “Why don’t you just get two raw eggs and eat those?”

The daughter replied, “Mother, I don’t want to eat raw eggs.”

“Okay, here, eat these two cups of dry flour.”

“I don’t want to do that.”

The mother asked, “What about eating a stick of butter, a little baking soda, or a cup of sugar?”

“No, mother, I don’t want to do that.” The daughter did not want to eat those ingredients.

The mother explained, “We mix those items in this batter, put it in a cake pan, and let it bake. We must wait until the right time before we take it out of the oven. Only then will it taste delicious.”

Think about the “ingredients” in Joseph’s life. He was sold into slavery, charged with adultery, tossed into prison, neglected, and forgotten. He had every reason to be bitter, but Joseph could see that God was mixing these events together for a purpose. It really is true what Paul said in Romans 8:28: “All things work together for good to those who love God and who are called according to His purpose.” Joseph could see that God had used all of those events that had hurt him so badly, all of the reasons he could have been bitter, for God’s purpose. “It was not you who sent me here,” he told his brothers. “God sent me here for a reason.”

I know that someone you love has hurt you or that you have hurt someone you love. It is the nature of family living. Parents hurt children. Husbands and wives hurt each other, sometimes unintentionally. Children hurt parents. My grandmother used to say, “When children are little, they step on your toes. When they get big, they step on your heart.” When members of our families hurt us, the greatest temptation in the world is to hold a grudge, to latch onto that bitterness, to remember the offenses, to hold onto the hurt. I have known people who have fought over sticks of furniture after their parents’ death. I have known people who were so bitter that they carried wounds, terrible bitterness, and anguish in their hearts, even twenty years after a family member had died.

A number of years ago, a woman came to me after she heard a Father’s Day sermon and said, “I have to get rid of the hurt and anger I have had for my father who abused me so terribly. He died twenty years ago, and I have carried the anguish so long.” Finally, her relief came when she was able to stand at her father’s grave and say to him as if he were listening, “You have hurt me terribly, but I want you to know that I forgive you.” In that moment, peace began to break the hurt in her soul.

When your soul, heart, and mind are full of bitterness, you do not have any peace. The bitterness just grinds on you constantly. Peace only comes through forgiveness. Forgiving is so hard to do. I was preaching a sermon one time about forgiveness in a state mental hospital. Right in the middle of the sermon, one woman stood up and asked, “Well, preacher, what if you just ain’t got in you to do that?” I know that forgiving another person is so hard, but I also know it is the only way. Sometimes people will ask me, “What makes a good marriage? What makes a family strong?” Those questions have many answers, but certainly one necessary ingredient is forgiveness, the ability to forgive people who have hurt us.
Forgiveness is not easy, but Joseph did it. After Jacob’s death, the brothers thought that Joseph might still have revenge in his heart and want to hurt them. Look for a moment at Chapter 50, Verse 19:
But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.
How can we forgive others? A man told me one time that in the process of forgiveness, the person who must take the first step is the one who can. Who can take the first step towards forgiveness? Those who are Christians can take the first step. The courage to forgive comes because we know that we have been forgiven. Are you having trouble forgiving someone? Go to the cross, and look up into the face of Jesus. Hear him say to you, “Father, forgive Kirk.” Hear the Lord Jesus Christ speak words of forgiveness directly to you from the cross. When you realize that our Savior has forgiven us, you and me, it gives us the courage to forgive others. We pray it in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Paul wrote about forgiveness in the New Testament: “Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32). Because Christ has forgiven you, you have the courage to forgive. It is not easy. Jesus said we are to forgive others seventy times seven, not 490 times. It takes a long time because the process of healing is long and slow. Let the healing begin by taking the first step toward forgiveness. Ask God, who has forgiven you, to enable you to forgive those who have hurt you, especially those you love so much. It may be that you may never be reconciled, but you can still forgive the person. You can have peace.

This peace begins when we acknowledge Jesus as our Savior, when we receive his forgiveness. Have you ever done that? If not, could I invite you to ask the Lord Jesus Christ to forgive you? He will. He is standing ready. Some of you have other decisions to make, perhaps a decision about church membership. You know the decision that God has laid on your heart. We are going to sing together our hymn of invitation, Number 279, “O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee.” As we sing, would you please respond?

© 2006 Kirk H. Neely

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