A two part message preached
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
Order of Worship
[note, the first message is intended for that portion of the service when the children are involved, before they leave for choir practice or pre-school playtime. It is "amble and ramble" format, spoken to everyone, but especially to the younger ones. The second message comes later in the service.]
"a brotherís sorrow"
When I was growing up, there were two brothers who were comedians. Their names were Tom and Dick. They were known as "the Smotherís Brothers." Any of you remember them? Now, I donít recall which was the older of the two, but I do remember a line they would banter back and forth in their routines, a punch line that involved their mother. Anyone?
"Mom always liked you best!"
How they said that line, and when, made it very funny. For those of us who had grown or were growing up in a home with more the one child, that joke helped us laugh at something which might otherwise make us cry or get angry. Every sibling has feelings like that at some time or another. "Mom always liked you best!" Laughter is definitely better than some of the alternatives, isnít it!
Let me tell a story about some other brothers. In this tale, there arenít two, but twelve brothers. They donít all share the same mother, but they all have the same Dad. Now, the whole story is much longer than I want to share right now. Iíll only tell a portion of it. Youíll find it, by the way, in the very first book of the Bible. The twelve boys in this tale are the sons of Jacob, also known as Israel.
Now, eleven of this fellows could definitely say of the twelfth, "Dad always liked you best," and it would be true. Only for them it was no laughing matter. Jacob definitely did favor his second to youngest son. No doubt this had something to do with the fact that Jacob loved this boyís mother much more than the mother of any of the other sons.
What was this favorite sonís name? Joseph. Thatís right. Along the way, Jacob gave to Joseph a special gift, something he didnít give to any of his other children. It was a beautiful coat, a coat of many colors. It was painfully obvious how much Jacob loved Joseph - much more than he loved any of his other sons. Donít you suppose they all got pretty jealous of their next to youngest brother?
It didnít help that he either was oblivious to what his brothers were feeling about him, or knew and liked to rub it in - as sometimes siblings do. I imagine the word "brat" (or its equivalent in the language they spoke) was spoken often in that family about Joseph. He didnít hold his tongue, thatís for sure. In fact, he went so far as to share his dreams with them, which they didnít like. Iím sure youíll know why when you hear them.
In the first dream there were twelves sheaves of grain (letís see, twelves sheaves - twelve brothers, doesnít take a rocket scientist to figure that one out). Eleven of those sheaves gather around and bowed down to one of them. You can well imagine the reaction of Josephís brothers to that one, canít you?
The second dream was more of the same. Joseph himself was in it, and the sun, moon and eleven stars were bowing down before him. Gee, I wonder what a Psychiatrist might have to say about that one. From the brothersí perspective, things were getting out of hand, beyond "father always liked you best." Of course, as events turned out, the dreams came true - but thatís beside the point for now.
The brothers had had enough of this brat! Jealousy raged within them. They plotted all sorts of mischief. Youíve never struggled with anything like that, have you? Youíd never consider wringing someoneís neck, would you? You love your brother or sister, right? Truth is, sometimes the ones we love the most are the ones we want to kill (or something). Well, thatís what those other brothers wanted to do to Joseph. And they wouldíve, had not the oldest one, Reuben, encouraged them just to throw him in a deep hole and leave him there. Like many oldest siblings, Reuben had a streak of responsibility in him, and he planned to go back later and rescue his little, bratty brother out of that hole.
Only, he didnít get a chance. The brothers grabbed Joseph, took his coat, and threw him in the hole, as planned, but when Reuben was away, a caravan headed to Egypt swung by. Somebody had the brilliant idea of making some money of this venture, and before you knew it, Joseph was on his way to a place far from home, sold as a slave. It was too late to change things when Reuben came back.
How would they tell Dad? A light bulb went off in someoneís head and they took Josephís coat, tore it up, splatter blood on it, and told Jacob that a wild animal mustíve gotten hold of Joseph - thatís all they of him. Their father recognized the coat, and tore his hair out, beat his chest, cried and cried and cried over his dead son, whom he loved the most.
Now, Iíve entitled this story, "a brotherís sorrow," but what brother am I talking about? Was it Joseph? He certainly had plenty of reasons to feel sorry, didnít he? Headed to Egypt, a slave, torn from those he loved. Wouldnít you be filled with sorrow if you were he?... Was it Jacob? He was a brother, also, though not one of these twelve. If the truth be told, some of his struggled with his older brother Esau might be behind some of his own sonsí problems. Esauís brother, Jacob, was definitely filled with sorrow. He lost the son he loved the most - Joseph.
Are either of these the "brotherís sorrow" Iím talking about? Maybe the brother is not one but many - the other eleven. What they did to Joseph came back to haunt all of them. Later in the story, they were very sorry for what they had done. Jealousy, and what we do with it, can tear us apart - as some of you know very well.
There is yet another brother, an unspoken character in this story from my perspective, though his story is told much later in the Bible. This much loved son of his father, experienced a great deal of sorrow. You might say he was thrown into a much bigger hole than Joseph. He was killed for his dream. But you know what? With Godís help, he got out of that hole, and because of that he helps everyone who turns to him get out of the hole in which theyíre stuck - even people lost in the pit called "jealousy."
This brotherís name? ... Jesus.
(followed by a time of confession)
"I am your brother"
We return to the story of Joseph and his brothers - a long, convoluted tale of broken relationships and a series of dreams in search of meaning. Along the way of this journey, which is not just the path of some distant Old Testament characters, we shift to the other side of forgiveness. For every person in need of being forgiven, there is someone who needs to forgive. Neither road is an easy one, not if we travel it with integrity. You see, this story of Joseph is our story for, in a way, we are children of Israel, also.
For those of us not as familiar with this biblical saga, let me share the "Readerís Digest" version, only even more abridged. Joseph was, indeed, torn from his home and family and carried off as a slave to Egypt. However, at every corner God awaited, to shift events ever so slightly. The apostle Paul later put it this way, "...all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28). Thatís too much of a mouthful for those stuck in the middle of rotten situations, who canít see out of the hole in which theyíve been placed. Such words are better spoken after-the-fact, even though, by faith, we try to live them out in the "middle of the muddle."
At the end of the story, Joseph essentially says the same thing in a conversation with his brothers. Yes, I did say, "his brothers." "Even though you intended to do harm to me," he said to them, "God intended it for good..." (Genesis 50:20) But weíre getting ahead of ourselves.
Once in Egypt, Joseph ended up with a fairly comfortable job in the house of a fellow named Potiphar. As a trustworthy worker, Joseph became the overseer of the place. Poitpharís wife saw something desirable in this young man and, like in the worst of soap operas, went after him. Unlike in the soaps, Joseph ran away from a situation that could only get worse. The short-term result of his integrity was jail time. She accused him of making advances on the bossís wife.
Joseph not only dreamed big dreams himself, he was gifted in interpreting the dreams of others. Eventually (weíre talking years here, not just days), this ability brought him in contact with the ruler of Egypt, who was plagued by a recurring dream he couldnít understand. There mustíve been something about Joseph that inspired trust. Perhaps it was a sense of humility not seemingly in evidence back when his brothers heard his dreams of grandeur. Joseph told Pharaoh, point blank, that it wasnít through his own wisdom that dreams made sense. God was somehow involved. Pharaoh liked that.
The dream was about an upcoming famine and, amazingly, Pharaoh placed Joseph in charge of preparing for it, with wide discretionary power. From the bottom of a pit to being an overseer; from prison to a position of great power - do you see what I mean about God "tweaking" with the picture? Does this same God "tweak" with our pictures? I guess we each have to decide that for ourselves. Is it true that "...all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose" or, as Joseph put it, "Even though (it was) intended (for) harm, God intended it for good..."? It makes you wonder.
When that famine hit, Josephís family, the brothers who had sold him into slavery - they were hit as hard as everyone else. Like refugees of any age, they sought food wherever they could get it, and apparently Egypt was the place. Jacob sent his sons, all but the youngest, to trade for grain. So, as the story goes, one day they appeared on Josephís doorstep. Not recognizing him, they reached out to him for food, that their family might survive.
Now, tell me, what would you have done had you been Joseph? Perhaps you have faced similar junctions in your life, where you must decide what to do with garbage from the past. Will you let it go and move toward forgiveness? Itís an age-old question, isnít it? - one that most of us will probably encounter not just once, but many, many times in the course of our lives. The toughest cases involve those we love the most, donít they? Along the way we have let these persons into our inner "holy of holies." A stranger cannot do as much damage there as someone we love and trust. That certainly was true for Joseph.
Did he welcome them with open arms, immediately proclaiming his kinship with them and showering them with loving care? Get real! The Bible isnít a fairy tale, just like our own lives. It involves flesh and blood people who struggle to do whatís right, and Joseph is no exception. He toys with his brothers. Thatís right, he makes them runs through several hoops. Why? Not hard to figure. Is this a prescription for what we should do - toy with people needing the bread of forgiveness? I donít think so. Still, weíre human - like Joseph.
"Youíre spies," he told them. "No, no, no, sir," they replied on their knees. Letís see how low they can grovel. How about a test? Toss them in prison for three days, then make a deal. "Leave one of you here with me and the rest go home and bring back the youngest son." That was the "plan" Joseph presented to them, which they accepted. Brother Simeon was bound and gagged before their eyes and they were sent on their way. Memories of what they had done to Joseph flooded their minds, haunting their thoughts, even though they didnít recognize him standing right before them.
When they returned home to Dad, they had to explain the loss of yet another son. On top of that, Joseph had put in with the food theyíd bought the money theyíd used to buy it. When they discovered it, they were not as overjoyed as you might think. Instead they imagined the fate of those accused of stealing.
Eventually the food ran out, and choices needed to be made. Would Jacob allow them to return with his youngest son, Benjamin? Judah, the son who had thought of the idea of selling Joseph into slavery, persuaded his father. "If I donít bring him back, let me bear the blame forever." With this, they took off for Egypt.
Once there, Joseph arranged a meal for them, but he was not smiling through it all, imagining what would happen once they realized who he was. He was dying inside. Forgiveness is not an easy process. We fool ourselves when we think otherwise. Just as it takes time and effort to come to the place of asking, truly seeking forgiveness - apologizing for the past, so it takes time and effort to let go of the past and forgive. Three times in the story as we have received it, Joseph wept, overwhelmed by a flood of emotions.
Finally, to make a long story short, we come to the moment recalled in this morningís scripture reading. Make no mistake, however, that the process of forgiveness is so easily abridged. In response to a plea from brother Judah, who lays it all on the line, Joseph is deeply moved. Please note, however, Judah never asks forgiveness nor confesses his part in what happened long ago. Sometimes it doesnít happen that neatly, and we must decide whether to forgive, or to allow the pain to continue by staying in a pit of our own making.
It says, "Joseph could no longer control himself ... he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it." Amid his tears, he made himself known. "I am your brother..." He had to repeat it, for they didnít really hear him the first time. It takes time for forgiveness to sink in.
Now, please note - at no point, either, does Joseph say "I forgive you." Its more than a matter of words, isnít it? He does, however, place everything in the context of a larger picture. It wasnít merely a matter of brothers harming a brother. No. "God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors," Joseph told them. "So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt."
Forgiveness is hard. It is also a messy process - its stepping stones often obscured. Without the hand of the Lord, we would all be lost in the pit of our own sin - those desperately needing to be forgiven and those desperately needing to forgive. Behind the scenes, God is at work - this I believe with all my heart - shifting desperation into hope. Fresh starts are possible in him who fiercely loves us more than we will ever know how to love. Yes, as Joseph later spoke, "even though you intended to do harm to me God intended it for good..." Yes, as the apostle Paul much later wrote, "...in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose."
Well, the story goes on. I have not told it all, by any manner of means - the story of Joseph and his brothers, as well as our story. May we be revealed as brothers and sisters in Christ, loved and called to Godís purpose.
(followed by hymn - "Heart with loving heart united")
©2001 Peter L. Haynes
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