Monday, March 05, 2012

March 4, 2012 - Ancient Stories and Timeless Truths: A Story of Redemption

What comes to mind when I say the word family?  Is it an image of togetherness around the dinner table, sharing a meal and good times?  Is it family outings and vacations?  Do you imagine your family as fitting for a Norman Rockwell painting?  Or is it conflict and difficulty, causing even Dr. Phil to raise his hands in defeat?  Families are an interesting mix of many things, but even in our most strained of moments it is unimaginable what took place in the family in today’s text.

As we continue our series Ancient Stories and Timeless Truths we come today to the story of Joseph. 

Everyone is familiar with the basics of the Joseph story.  The story of Joseph even made it to Broadway with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  Joseph is the fourth and final of the Old Testament patriarchs and his story spans fourteen chapters in Genesis – the longest story in the book of Genesis.
The story of Joseph is a fascinating story.  It is also as tragic as it is fascinating, as his brothers sell him into slavery and tell his father he was killed by a wild animal; the false accusation against Joseph by the wife of Potiphar that led to his imprisonment; the interpretation of dreams that led to his release from prison; his rise to being the second most powerful person in Egypt; the famine that led Joseph’s brothers to Egypt; Joseph’s toying with his brothers before finally revealing himself to them; the reuniting of Joseph and his father; and finally, his death, which closes the book of Genesis.  With all the twists and turns, the intrigue, the adventure, the rise and fall and rise and a surprise twist at the end, it’s no wonder the story has attracted so much attention.

Of the many parts of the story, I want to focus on just one this morning – redemption.  The story of Joseph is really a story of redemption – redemption for a family torn apart by conflict and hatred.
You probably know the basics of the story but I’ll review them quickly.  The story begins with Joseph announcing to his brothers his dream in which they bow down to serve him.  Genesis has already informed us of how the brothers hated Joseph because he was their father’s favorite (37:4) and the telling of this dream causes them to hate him even more (37:5).  This is really not the best way to endear yourself to your already estranged brothers.  And even though Joseph is the favorite of his father, his father rebukes him for sharing this dream with the family (37:10).

The next stage of the story is Joseph coming to his brothers in the fields, where they were far away from their father and tending the flocks, and it is then that his brothers see their opportunity.  Their first instinct is to kill him and tell their father he was attacked and killed by a wild beast.  Reuben comes up with the idea not to kill him but to throw him into a dry cistern. 

Notice what the brothers do next.  After casting him into the well they sit down to eat a meal (37:25).  How cold-hearted is this?  They throw their brother into a hole in the ground and then casually eat a meal, as though nothing has happened.  Could they hear his shouts and pleas for rescue while they casually ate their meal?  Did they laugh at his predicament?

Abandoning him to this hole in the ground is bad enough, but his brother Judah has an idea that makes matters worse.  A caravan was passing nearby and Judah decides they should at least profit from Joseph, so they sell him for twenty shekels of silver to this caravan making their way to Egypt.  A shekel contained about 15 grams of silver, so 300 grams of silver at today’s price of a little over $35 an ounce it would come to a little over $340 in today’s value.  When that amount is divided between the brothers it is a very small price for the life of their brother.  No price, certainly, would be acceptable for selling another human being, but it underscores the coldness of Joseph’s brothers in their actions.

Have you ever wondered what life was like for Joseph’s brothers after they sold him into slavery?  Have you ever wondered how that money was spent?  I wonder what went through the minds of those brothers when they spent the money.  I wonder if they enjoyed the things purchased with the money.  It was blood money, and every single day over the years they must have wondered what happened to their brother Joseph.  What became of him?  Was he still alive? 

Reuben, the oldest, was absent when the others sold Joseph, and he is beside himself when he returns to the hold and finds Joseph missing.  He then leads his brothers in crafting the lie that a wild beast killed Joseph.  The brothers must then live for years with the knowledge they had sold their own flesh and blood into slavery and then lied to their father, allowing him to live with the agonizing belief that his son was dead.  Reuben must live with the truth that if he had not been absent for a time perhaps he could have spared Joseph from being sold.  And Judah; Judah must face the reality that it was his idea to sell Joseph, condemning him to a life of slavery. 

What kind of people commit would commit such an act?  Not enemies – a family.  Do you think your family has problems?  If so, this is a family that should make you feel better.  But it is also a family that demonstrates what people are capable of doing to one another.  People can be cruel and heartless, and that includes “righteous” people.  This is not just any family – this is a family of one of the four great patriarchs of the Hebrew people.  This is a family that knew better than to engage in such atrocious behavior.

Through a combination of adventures Joseph rises to the position of the second most powerful person in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself.  And then one day his brothers show up in Egypt looking to buy grain.  The drought that Joseph had predicted when he interpreted Pharaoh’s dream had indeed come to pass and devastated the food supply.  Joseph’s brothers, hearing there was food available in Egypt, came to buy food.  When they arrive in Egypt Joseph recognizes them, but they do not recognize him.  He accuses them of being spies and keeps his brother Simeon in custody and commands the others to go home and to bring back their brother Benjamin.  Right away the brothers recognize they are facing justice for what they did to Joseph (42:22).  Reuben even turns on his brothers to say Did I not tell you, ‘Do not sin against the boy’; and you would not listen?  Now comes the reckoning for his blood.  Obviously, what they had done to Joseph was still very much on their minds and consciences.

The brothers return home and tell their father what happened and there they also discover their money in the bags of grain, and they become greatly distressed.  And then Reuben makes his father a promise that he will protect his now favorite and youngest son, Benjamin.  Reuben tells his father that he can put to death his own two sons if he does not bring Benjamin safely home (42:37), but Jacob refuses to let Benjamin go.  So the brothers do not return to Egypt, allowing Simeon to sit in prison, wondering about his fate.  But the food eventually runs out and the brothers recognize they must return to Egypt and take Benjamin with them.  This time, Judah, the one who had the idea to sell Joseph into slavery, offers himself as surety for Benjamin’s safe return.

The brothers buy more food, and this time Joseph not only places his brothers’ money in their bags of grain but has his cup added to the bag of Benjamin.  After the brothers leave Joseph sends his men after them and finds the cup in Benjamin’s bag and he is accused as a thief.  Then Judah steps forward and offers to be kept as a slave in the place of Benjamin.  Isn’t this an amazing piece of irony?  Judah, the one who urged his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery now must offer himself as a slave to his brother Joseph.  I’ll tell you again – don’t ever let anyone tell you the Bible is boring!

Joseph toys with his brothers for a while, perhaps in an effort to make them think about what they had done, perhaps as a way of exacting a bit of revenge.  When we are hurt, it’s hard to avoid payback, isn’t it?

And then in chapter 45 the whole charade is over.  Joseph can no longer hide his identity from his brothers and there is this tremendous reunion between the brothers.  It’s really a beautiful scene, this reunion of estranged brothers being brought together.  And Joseph does a beautiful thing.  The pride and arrogance of his younger years, which so angered his brothers, is now gone.  In its place is a spirit of forgiveness and redemption that reunites this family that for years has been broken asunder.

Joseph not only forgives them, but even finds God’s hand in all of these events.  He tells his brothers not to be grieved or angry with themselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life…Now therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his household and ruler over all the land of Egypt (45:5, 8).

Isn’t that an amazing spirit to have, after all that Joseph had experienced?  And think about his brothers – all the years of guilt and wondering what had become of Joseph – now they are reunited and he extends a hand of forgiveness.  Amazing, isn’t it?

Families really are strange creatures, aren’t they?  I have known families estranged from one another for years over the smallest of matters.  What a tragedy.  Life is too short, and families too precious, to live in estrangement and brokenness. 

I sometimes joke with people that I have learned a twofold lesson by living away from my family for so many years.  The disadvantage of being away from your family is, you are away from your family; the advantage of being away from your family is, you are away from your family.  But I will also share with you from my experience, which is different from many, because many of you have family nearby, but my family does not.  Tanya and I have raised our children while living hundreds of miles from our families.  When your family is near, it is a great a precious gift, and don’t ever take that for granted.  Grandparents, when your grandchildren are down the road or across the street don’t ever forget what a blessing it is to have them close.  I know you don’t forget, but that’s just a reminder.  And when your parents are close, your grandparents are close, your siblings are close – give thanks to God because it is a great gift.  If you haven’t thanked God lately, do it right now.

Perhaps you have estrangement somewhere in your family.  God healed the family of Joseph, and he can heal any brokenness in your family as well.  Joseph had every right to be angry with his brothers and could have made their lives very difficult, but he didn’t.  He laid down any anger and offered them the gift of forgiveness and redemption.  If there is brokenness and estrangement in your family, don’t allow it to remain another day. 
Perhaps the estrangement is in your spiritual family.  Perhaps there is a relationship that needs to be healed.  Don’t wait another day.  Seek out healing and restoration and redemption today.  Let go of your hurt, let go of division, and let God bring redemption today.

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