Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 20, 2023
Genesis 45:1-15 Commentary
After chapters and chapters of third person narration, reading Joseph’s story through someone else’s lens, we might come to this chapter eager to hear how Joseph makes sense of the unfolding events. At last, Joseph lets his brothers know who he is. He tells his own story.
He could have told a story about a brother violently abused by his older brothers. About the experience of life in slavery. About dodging Potiphar’s wife’s advances, being wrongly accused and sent to prison. He could have told about years — YEARS — spent in jail.
He could have boasted of his own cleverness and how, even though he was a slave, Potiphar trusted him with his whole household. Even though he was in prison, he interpreted dreams for some high ranking officials. Even though he was a foreign nobody, he interpreted the Pharaoh’s dreams and became next-in-charge over all Egypt.
He could have let loose his anger. He could have boasted of his success as vindication. He could have told his brothers, “I told you so. Remember those dreams I had where you all were bowing down to me. Check it. I told you so.”
It matters how you tell the story and Joseph could have — truthfully — told the story that way. So it is remarkable that, once the story is in Joseph’s own words, he tells it this way.
First, he drops his guard. Whereas in the past, he swallowed his sobs or excused himself from the room, this time he lets his tears overwhelm him. He orders everyone else out of the room and, rather than hiding behind his learned Egyptian culture and language, he speaks to his brothers in his native tongue. He tells them who he is and then he asks, “Is my dad still alive?” The vulnerable humility of a grown man still hoping his dad will find out he’s done all right and be proud of him. Then Joseph tells his brothers, “Come close to me.” He throws his arms around Benjamin, weeping and kissing him according to custom. He does the same with all his brothers.
Second, he works to bless his family. He offers them land on the outskirts of Egypt. “Come live with me and I’ll take care of you!” Pharaoh hears about it and sends carts and goods to go collect Jacob in Canaan. He tells his brothers to tell Jacob the good news — but, inherent in telling him the good news — they would also need to confess what they had done all those years before. The reconciliation couldn’t stay between brothers, it would need to restore every generation of the family.
Third, he speaks the truth, wrapped up in God’s loving intention. He tells his brothers not to be afraid. He doesn’t shy away from saying “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt!” That’s the truth part but then there’s this: “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.” The truth: this has been difficult. It came about through harmful circumstances that you initiated. AND wrapped in God’s loving intention: all of this happened because “God sent me ahead of you.”
“God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.” All of the pain and the sorrow of the intervening 20 years have been for a reason, toward a purpose. Joseph never says it wasn’t painful and sorrowful but he is able to put the pain and the sorrow in a context. Joseph drops his guard, he works to make it right and he tells the truth wrapped in God’s loving intention. “God sent me ahead of you.”
God’s faithfulness to all generations is a story of God sending one generation ahead of another, ahead of another, ahead of another. “God sent me ahead of you.” And that is how the story is told. With vulnerability, with a desire to make things right and with the truth wrapped up in God’s loving intention.
Every family, church and community has stories like this. Telling the truth with vulnerability and an eye toward reconciliation, we remember that any human endeavor (even or especially one as holy as building a church) will be marked with seasons of difficulty, of things not turning out the way we’d hoped, of disagreements and disillusionments. How we tell these stories, choosing to tell the truth wrapped in God’s loving intention, matters deeply.
Can we, like Joseph, tell our story such that (as one commentator put it) “The hand of God is seen, not only in clearly miraculous interventions and revelations, but also in the working out of the divine purposes through human agency, frail and broken as it is.”
Can we, like Joseph tell the our family’s, church’s or community’s story of faults, of failures, of faithfulness and opportunity and growth as a truth wrapped up in God’s loving intention.
Can we celebrate all those God has sent ahead of us?
If your congregation is comfortable with offering testimonies, this would be a wonderful Sunday to tap a few individuals to tell a story of God’s faithfulness in their lives because of who God sent before them.
If your congregation is comfortable with participatory elements, you might consider passing out small paper placecards (placed in their bulletins or in baskets to be passed down the rows). At the end of the sermon, you could invite them to write the name of someone God used in their life to bring them to church or strengthen their faith in a difficult time. They could bring these forward, placing them on the altar, communion table or whatever makes sense in your worshipping space and tradition.
Or, in a more formal setting, take the opportunity to share stories from the church’s history: when the church began, when the building was purchased, different ministries and ministers along the way. Don’t forget to include mention of the difficult times too but always with the reminder that we are where we are today because of, through or despite that season too.
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