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A People Who Forgive and are Forgiven: Genesis 50
Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Genesis, towards the end of the book in chapter 50.
We’re towards the beginning of a series this morning on being Christian. What is it, exactly, that makes us Christians? I would argue it’s more than just belief. “Faith without works is dead,” so there are things we do, as well, which make us Christian. I grew up with Christian practice being defined mostly in the negative, for the most part: don’t do this and that—and they were good things to avoid, I don’t disagree. But a few years ago, after I had already started in ministry, I read Jesus’ words in Matthew 23, and, honestly, they began to haunt me, convict me, whatever you want to say. These are the words upon which this sermon series is founded:
 The greatest among you shall be your servant.  Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.  “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.  Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves…. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.  You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (ESV)
I don’t want to be a blind guide, and I don’t want God to need to humble me; I would much rather humble myself. And I want to share the gospel across the sea, but I want it to be a true gospel which will set the people free. And I’ll keep tithing, but out of joy, not out of duty, and I’ll build my life around the weightier matters.
Last week we talked about Baptism, specifically Jesus’ baptism which inaugurated the practice in the faith, and I don’t know of any tradition within Christianity which doesn’t follow the practice in some form. It is the gospel message proclaimed through action.
At the heart of Baptism is something we’re going to be talking more about this morning. Baptism, at it’s core, is about adoption, and what we’re discussing today, forgiveness. Jesus’ baptism shows us that. Jesus entered into the waters that day and joined our death and our curse in order to forgive the curse and raise us again to life as sons and daughters of God. And whenever you are tempted toward guilt or despair that God hates you or has forsaken you, you are able to remember your baptism, to remind yourself that you are adopted by God and forgiven your sins.
The forgiveness and adoption of God are so absolute that, even though baptism is one of our core rituals as Christians, we are meant to participate in it only once. Baptism is about God forgiving us. But as we pray every week here, we aren’t just meant to be forgiven as Christians, we are also meant to be about forgiving those who sin against us. So if we are meant to be Christians, we need to know what forgiveness really is and how to practice it day to day.
Go with me, Genesis 50, and I’m going to start reading in v. 15. [Genesis 50:15-21]. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
I remember the moment I first realized forgiveness was something which defines Christians and Christianity as a whole. I was taking classes away from my seminary in Boston (there is a program where divinity schools trade students), so not at a Christian school, and I was in a very diverse room. I was seated by a Tibetan monk, a woman who pastored an atheistic church, and several muslims. It was a class on forgiveness in literature, and the professor said this, I remember this because I was so shocked by it: he began the class by saying, “Forgiveness is a distinctively Christian concept.” I had no idea up until that point. I looked around to see if anyone was offended by this statement, but everyone was nodding their heads. This was common knowledge, and I was just ignorant, because this was something in which I had always believed. Those in the room who followed other faiths did not believe in forgiveness.
I started asking my classmates what they did when they or others made mistakes, caused suffering, and most of the answers surrounded the concepts of either justice or atonement. If you do someone wrong, they are allowed to seek recompense, or you can initiate, make some sort of atonement. Others in the room saw suffering as something to be denied and transcended. Christians are the only ones who teach confession and forgiveness, that you, when you sin, might make your relationship with God right again by confessing and repenting, or in other words, telling the truth about what you’ve done, and turning away from the sin. So, of course, forgiving other people is also a uniquely Christian practice. We forgive because we’ve been forgiven. And my main point for today is this: Christians, at their core, are meant to be a people who are forgiven and then forgive.
To be clear, Christians believe in atonement, but for us, atonement is singular. We talk about the atonement, meaning everything needed for us to be forgiven and to forgive others was accomplished in Christ’s death on the cross. He was the atonement which allows us to forgive others without asking anything of them. We are able to tell the truth, and in so doing, to forgive. Christians also believe in justice, but a justice arising from forgiveness, and we’re going to talk more about that in other sermons this year.
I’ve already hinted at this a few times; I want to say it outright: there can be no forgiveness without truth. You can try, but you’ll fail. Unless you can see clearly and state the truth of whatever suffering you’re dealing with, you’ll never land in a place of forgiveness. You’ll end up short in places of anger, bitterness, guilt, or blame. Never forgiveness. Truth and forgiveness are inextricably bound. As with salvation and adoption in the first place, you cannot be forgiven unless you confess, admit, that you are not righteous already. Truth first, then forgiveness.
In searching for a passage for this sermon, I thought about going back to where forgiveness began, east of Eden, when the Lord left paradise the first time to come out to his children while they were still on the road and wrapped robes around them and welcomed them back into his family. I decided instead upon Joseph, because even though forgiveness is enacted before this point, this is the first time anyone actually tries to put it into words, and I want us to learn from Joseph’s brothers here.
If you don’t know this story, we’re reading at the end of it. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery because they were jealous of how much their father loved him and despised them. And from slavery Joseph goes into prison, then, miraculously, he ascends to be the second most powerful man in what was probably the most powerful kingdom of his day. All this while his brothers face hardship. His brothers are farmers, and there is a famine in the land. They lose everything, so they go to Egypt, the one place they’re able to find help, and when they arrive, the only person in the world who is able to help them is the brother they sold into slavery.
If Joseph were to choose justice or atonement in this moment, it would be poetic justice. The brothers point out this truth, in vs. 15 and 18, of exactly what justice looks like in this scenario. They say “It may be that Joseph hates us and pays us back for the evil we’ve done to him.” Then they say, “We are your servants now, your slaves,” and they bow to him. Justice, poetic justice—the same evil they intended for him falls back on them. But Joseph decides instead to listen to the words of his Father Jacob, the son of the promise, and the first man I know of ever to try to put forgiveness into words.
Jacob’s message comes in v.17. He tells the truth of what’s happened, he says your brothers have done evil against you, but then Jacob suggests something unheard of, and the idea was born out of a father’s love for his sons: “Please” he says—and the next word is translated as forgive, because we have a word, a concept for what he’s asking. But this is, to my knowledge, the first time this idea of forgiveness has ever been put into words, so Jacob used a word that basically means to pick up, to take or carry. His message to Joseph is “Please will you pick up their evil and carry it with you?”
Which gives a picture—a beautiful picture, is it not?—a picture of what forgiveness looks like. Sin produces suffering in the world. Suffering may not always be something you can see, because it’s inside of people, like blood it only spills out with injury, and even then it changes color on exposure to the air, so you never see a person’s suffering for what it is until someone lets you in and you look very close. But suffering is something you can feel; it has a weight; it’s heavy to carry.
Suffering is a lot like power—it can’t be hidden, it does not degrade with time, it has to be bourn—someone or some thing has to carry it. Injustice is when someone who had no part in the sin bears the suffering of it. Justice—biblical justice, again, will be the next sermon series, so we’ll give an oversimple definition right now—justice is when the person who produced the suffering is made to bear the suffering, or a part of it. Forgiveness is when the person sinned against, of his own will, by his own choice, picks up and carries the suffering begotten by the sin, so no one else has to bear it.
You can see Joseph suffering in the passage. He’s weeping as he forgives his brothers, but he’s suffered long before this moment for their wrongs. I want you to notice that forgiveness has the power to change the past, because, again, forgiveness is a participation in something God has done once for all, so like God, forgiveness transcends time. In this moment of forgiveness, Joseph and the Lord, together, alter the decades of Joseph’s suffering injustice, making it beautiful. Joseph could have chosen to hand the suffering back to his brothers, to place that yoke of slavery on their backs now, make them carry it. But he decides to grant the request of his father, Jacob. He chooses forgiveness. Joseph chooses to pick up the suffering they created in the world and to carry it so they do not have to.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with justice. Justice is good and beautiful and we’re going to talk far more about justice and the relationship between justice and forgiveness, how the two might exist at the same time, but for now, in this sermon, I want you to see forgiveness for what is it and know that, through forgiveness, God is establishing two of the highest and best institutions we’ve known on earth: the family, and the church. God uses forgiveness to create family, then he brings others into it.
So again, forgiveness is distinctively Christian, and forgiveness is part of what makes us Christian. We are meant to forgive those who sin against us, because God, in Christ, has forgiven us. God became human to pick up and carry the sins of humanity because it was too heavy for us to carry.
Read v.20 again, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” That verse so beautifully expresses, so simply explains, why we are able to forgive, why we ought to forgive, when we can. Because God can use even the evil people intend toward us for his good purposes. Like a skilled artist, he can repurpose and incorporate into his work, even our mistakes and the wounds we’ve received from others.
Up until this point, I’ve been talking about forgiveness in the abstract, but Joseph didn’t forgive in the abstract and neither can we, so let’s be practical for a moment, and talk about what forgiveness looks like, acted out. With something that is distinctly Christian, we probably shouldn’t be surprised that forgiveness is ritualized. And since Christianity has had such a profound effect on our society, you’ll probably recognize the ritual. Tell me if this sounds familiar—you may have heard me talk about it before; it’s something I think about a lot, especially in terms of our kids.
What do we do to seek and give forgiveness? We start, as we must, with telling the truth. We say something like, I need to apologize for something, and then we tell whatever truth needs to be told. With me, about 90% of my apologies sound something like, “I’m sorry, Anne-Elise, I shouldn’t have said that thing I said to you last night. I was tired, and I should’ve waited to talk to you about it until the morning.” You can’t defend yourself, you have to put all of the weapons down. Any apology followed by “but you” isn’t considered an apology in our house. Then you know what happens next. The other person has to agree, in some way, that you’ve told the truth.
My wife will usually pile on, you know, agree a little too much with my apology, or she’ll admit her own fault. The last step in the ritual is repentance—you make a plan or a promise that something will change. We won’t live the rest of our lives this way, separated from each other, unable to speak about this thing without getting mad at each other and pulling up old hurt. And it has to be genuine. Empty promises are immediately found out and rejected as only the people who know you best can do.
The last step is reconciliation. The arms that were folded slowly are outheld. I make a joke about it and she allows herself to laugh, or she’ll say something that would sound like we’ve gone back to arguing about it if I didn’t recognize the tone as teasing. If two people in a relationship never argue, one of those people is being consumed or hiding. If two people in a relationship can learn to forgive each other, can determine never to let the separation stand, always to seek forgiveness, you can have family.
Now, that’s ideal; let’s talk about the in-ideal. Sometimes you can talk for days, years, and not come to an agreement on what the truth is of the matter. The larger or deeper the hurt, the more difficult it’s going to be to tell the truth of the thing. Especially if someone’s hiding something, because until they come out with it, truth can never be told, and you’ll always fall short of forgiveness. Or if what you’re trying to talk about isn’t the actual core of the matter. You’re arguing about politics, or respect, or that thing your husband does that your kid now does, and what you’re really scared of, upset about hasn’t even come up yet.
Some hurts are so large they’re societal, and decades old, and just telling the truth about them can take a long time. Sometimes an injustice is so complicated that it takes a while even to explain, and if people aren’t patient to listen, you never get to the truth. Sometimes you can’t reach agreement.
Sometimes you have to forgive someone and love them from a distance, meaning you have to exclude them from the process of forgiveness because they’re not able or willing really to take part. The abusive spouse or parent, for example. The addicted friend who will drag you down with her. If someone is only going to place the suffering they are creating in their sin on you over and over, then you need to create boundaries in that relationship. The point is, you can still forgive them for hurting you, even if reconciliation is probably not the best idea.
I would also advise you to avoid theoretical forgiveness. You can only embrace the people who are in front of you. You can’t hug someone you’ve never met, and what I mean is this: it’s possible to get so wrapped up in being forgiving as a Christian that you start forgiving everyone except for the people who are actually in your life. Theoretically, you’re an accepting and loving person, but actually when people get close to you there’s a wall there, and they can’t actually get to know you, or if they do actually succeed in getting to know you, the relationship is fraught. C.S. Lewis in the Screwtape Letters talks about a man who speaks publicly about world peace and then goes home and beats his kids. Avoid theoretical forgiveness. Practice forgiveness and acceptance with the people closest to you in your life, and that Christian practice of forgiveness will spill out into the rest of your relationships.
And I want to close by reminding us again that any and all forgiveness in our lives flows from first being forgiven by Christ. We are, ultimately, not strong enough to bear the weight of other people’s sin, but Christ is strong enough. When we were moving into our house last year, AJ helped me move a lot of our furniture, and my joke to Annie afterwards was that it was more help than was actually helpful. It probably took me twice as long to allow him to lift whatever he could, and I carried the rest. In forgiveness, our Father, God, is the one really carrying the sin we take up in our lives, our churches, our communities. He’s the one really carrying it, but trust me, he’s thrilled when we take part.
Joseph is a sign and a symbol of Christ. Joseph was lord over half of Egypt, and because of the love of his father, he took the suffering his brothers produced in their sin—he took it and carried it so they would not have to. Instead of justice and death they received a seat at Joseph’s own table, and welcome into his own house and family. So in him we see Christ, Lord of Lords, who wept for us, who, because of the love of his father, forgives us and calls us brothers. He bears the suffering we’ve produced, so instead of death we receive a seat at his own table, a place in his own family. Praise God.
I would invite you this morning into forgiveness, into the forgiveness of Christ for every false way in you, and into the Christian practice of forgiving those who have sinned against you. There is more freedom, more beauty in forgiveness than in any kind of superiority, and kind of revenge or bitterness. Forgive, because Christ first forgave you. Pray with me.