Martin Luther once wrote concerning forgiveness: “If the great, sublime article called the forgiveness of sins is correctly understood, it makes one a genuine Christian and gives one eternal life. This is the very reason why it must be taught in Christendom without unflagging diligence and without ceasing, so that people may learn to understand it clearly, and discriminatingly. For to do so is the one, supreme, and most difficult task of Christians. As long as we live here below, we shall have enough to do to learn this article. No one need look for anything new, anything higher and better.”
Forgiveness is not something that comes naturally to fallen man, it comes naturally only from God above. To understand forgiveness is truly to understand the place of God. And so we spend some time this morning with perhaps one of the greatest displays of human forgiveness recorded in the Holy Scriptures. The story of Joseph and his brothers recorded in the last chapter of Genesis.
15When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.” Consider dear friends, the torment of a guilty conscience! The brother’s past sins weigh heavily on their minds. The possible consequences of those past sins were truly terrifying to them. After all, the person they had wronged was no ordinary fellow! Joseph is no longer just a young braggart in a fancy coat to be thrown in a pit and sold on a whim. He is literally the second most powerful man in the whole world. His word is not questioned. His every wish is ready to be carried out by armed soldiers or government officials! Forget the 17 years of kindness that Joseph had shown to them and their families since they had been reunited and brought to Egypt! Sin and an evil conscience are a most horrible evil and almost incurable wound.
But we all know this don’t we? We all have that wound that lingers after all these years. Those hateful words once spoken, those careless deeds once done. And no matter what time has come between, no matter what words and deeds have followed, where that sin has stained you there will always be that nagging doubt, that troubling fear that maybe just maybe, now it will come back to haunt you, to bite you, to drag you down like you so rightly know that you still deserve.
Can you blame the brothers in the torment of their souls that they might begin to imagine that Joseph had only restrained his true feelings toward them for the sake of their father? Would he now finally do to them what their hearts said they so rightly deserved? You’ve most likely felt the very same at one time or another!
Especially when you know that when you sin against another person – any person – it is no ordinary person that you wrong. They may not be able to call down soldiers or tax men upon you, but they are important none-the-less. As St. Paul declares in the Epistle: 4Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. 7For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. 8If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.
The hurtful words, the careless deeds, the self-righteous judgment against another the do deserve harsh punishment. They do deserve everything you dread and so much more. For they stand not only against your brothers and sisters, but against God Himself! To judge another as being less worthy than us, by hurtful word or careless deed, is to judge the God before whom they stand. It is to presume to stand in the very place of God. And that is not a safe place to be!
16-17So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died, ‘Say to Joseph, Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him.
And so it is that all these years later young Joseph’s dream that got him in so much trouble in the first place finally and perfectly comes true! But now the brothers don’t care. Has there been a true change in the attitude of the brothers? Probably, but what if even now there wasn’t? Would it change anything? NO! Forgiveness can never be handed out only to the deserving, or it isn’t really forgiveness is it? Where it is asked it is granted – period. Forgiveness is a gift from God, forgiveness comes from the place of God. Forgiveness is not ours to weigh or measure or control. To do so is to stand in the place of God, and that is not a safe place to be!
And why does Joseph weep? Because they would think such terrible things of him (and in effect question all of his past actions toward them)? Because of the fear and the burden and the pain his brothers were still bearing for no good reason? Because of the depth of their remorse and repentance? Yes, perhaps, and a hundred other reasons too!
Perhaps for you there are people or circumstances that still need forgiving, where only to think of them tweaks the heart, catches in the throat, or brings a tear to the eye. If you are blessed then you can probably remember a time or two where such forgiveness was achieved. The call for forgiveness and the response of forgiving are powerful, emotional, bringing up old hurts and resentments, and releasing them to healing all at the same time. It is not for the faint of heart. But nothing heals the heart faster or more completely.
18His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” And now the brothers show that finally they are ready to make restitution, to have done to themselves what once they so unjustly did to Joseph. They have learned to stop judging and are willing to start serving. This too is a gift that cannot come naturally from us, but only from the place of God! We are all servants, one of another, and all together of Christ. And this knowledge is the key to understanding both forgiveness and the place of God.
For God’s place is one of service. A service that brings forgiveness and healing. That’s why He sent His only begotten Son to earth and the cross. Not to bring a judgment upon us that we so truly deserve, but to grant us forgiveness – full and complete forgiveness – a forgiveness without any strings attached – by judging Jesus in our place. The place of God is right here in our place, upon our cross, inside our tomb. Taking all the evil we deserve that He might work the greatest good.
19-21But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. Joseph is unwilling to take vengeance where God has shown mercy. His own deep faith and his own experience of God’s grace move him to forgive the past and build for the future. Not only does he forgive, but he promise to provide for and protect his repentant brothers and their families.
And it is what God would have for us too. A faith that looks not to the hurts and the wrongs that others have caused us, but to the grace and mercy God shows even in the midst of such wrongs. A faith that stands gratefully in the place of God to receive God’s gifts and live a life of forgiveness through service! A faith that is able to see the Lord’s mercy and grace at work even through the most evil of circumstances and trust that God will turn evil to good for those who love and trust in Him.
The lawyer says “Let justice be done though the world perish.” A theologian says “Let sin be forgiven and the world be saved, for justice is not done, but sin is always done.” If the great, sublime article called the forgiveness of sins is correctly understood, it makes one a genuine Christian and gives one eternal life. This is the very reason why it must be taught in Christendom without unflagging diligence and without ceasing, so that people may learn to understand it clearly, and discriminatingly. For to do so is the one, supreme, and most difficult task of Christians. To do so is to understand the place of God – the work of God – the promise of God.