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When an Old Story is Not

Text: Genesis 50:15-21

15 Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” 16 So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, 17 ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18 Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” 19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? 20 Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. 21 So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.

Ever since I announced that I am teaching a new study class on the Book of Genesis, a few folks have asked me, “Why Genesis?” They go on to argue that Genesis is old news and people want to hear new news today. What they often don’t say, but really don’t need to, is that Genesis opens what Christians call the “Old” Testament and ever since Jesus arrived on the scene we Christians have been glued mainly to the “New” Testament and have left the “Old” Testament to gather more dust.

The whole notion that there is a First Class and an Economy section in the Bible makes me crazy, but nonetheless that notion is alive and well in the church today. I could give you a list longer than this sermon will be about why we are foolish when we characterize the “Old” Testament as an ancient, irrelevant relic of the past. But rather than doing so, I invite you to listen to an “old” story from the “Old” Testament and after you do, if you do not think it is a story alive and well, even a “new” story that needs to be heard in 2023 then please feel free to skip my class.

The lead character in the so-called “old” story is a dashing young lad named Joseph. Jacob is his father and Joseph is his father’s favorite son even though every book on parenting advises otherwise. Joseph knows he is dad’s favorite and he is beyond obnoxious as he preens about in a coat of many colors while his brothers wear their drab second-hand apparel. I hate to confess it but I almost cheer for the brothers when they conspire to get rid of Joseph and then lie to Jacob about what has happened to his favorite son.

Before Joseph’s story even gets its legs, we encounter a dysfunctional family in which parents play favorites with their children. One member of this family is treated with special preference all the while acting as though he deserves everything he has. We also meet a host of jealous family members who act in an awful way and then make matters worse as they lie to Jacob about the death of his beloved child.

Since most families are normal today and nothing like this dysfunction happens in families today, people must be right when they tell me that Genesis is full of “old” stories, old news, and has nothing to do with our lives or our families today. Or are they?

Through a long and twisted road, Joseph travels to Egypt, has success in working for Potiphar, captain of the Egyptian guard, only to find himself in jail when he is falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife of seducing her. While in prison Joseph nabs a “Get Out of Jail” card for telling the Egyptian head of state not what he wants to hear but what his dreams actually mean. Then, in a series of events that no one could ever see coming, Joseph becomes the second most powerful leader in Egypt – and unbeknownst to everyone in town, he is a foreigner, an immigrant.

Surely this “old” story about political intrigue, seduction, and an immigrant speaking truth to power has nothing “new” to say to us today. Or does it?

While Joseph rises to power in Egypt, his father and brothers try to survive a tremendous famine back home. Finally, the brothers travel to Egypt in search of food and work. When his brothers arrive in Egypt, initially Joseph keeps his identity secret and toys with his brothers, tricking them not unlike their father Jacob had once tricked their Uncle Esau out of his birthright.

Finally, unable to keep the secret any longer, Joseph blurts out to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” (50:3). At this point, Joseph not only reveals his identity to his brothers, but to his Egyptian friends and colleagues. For years, he has been “passing” as an Egyptian, no one knowing his true identity, for who wants to hire an illegal immigrant?

How many people do I know who “pass” as someone other than who they really are in order to be accepted or in the case of a refugee or immigrant in order to survive? In another “Old” Testament story, Queen Esther faces a similar choice to end her years of “passing” as someone she is not and to reveal her true identity at the cost of her power and prestige.

Surely these “old” stories from the “Old” Testament cannot possibly have anything “new” to teach us today.

As we reach today’s part of the story, Jacob has died and the brothers are not at all sure that Joseph will keep them safe as he has promised. After all, they hardly kept him safe as a boy. The story invites us to overhear a conversation between the brothers who ask, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” A fair question. A reasonable fear.

So, to save their own hides, the boys decide to embellish the truth and say to Joseph, “Your father gave us this instruction before he died.” Notice it is not “our” father but “your” father. Even now the brothers treat Joseph as step-brother at best. Then they tell Joseph how good ole dad wanted Joseph to forgive his brothers for almost killing him and then selling him into slavery.

After their concocted speech, Joseph weeps. I am not sure if he is weeping in grief over the death of Jacob or weeping in disbelief that the scheming of his brothers never seems to end. To finish their repentance play-acting, the brothers bow before Joseph and announce that while he was once a slave now they are willing to be slaves to him.

Now, a good friend of mine who happens to be an “Old” Testament scholar thinks I am too hard on the brothers at this point. He argues that the brothers here genuinely give up their lifelong anger toward their favored brother and repent of all they have done to him. I think that is being far too gentle with this group of scoundrels.

Whether his or my reading of this part of the story, thank God that you and I do not need to worry about family division and favorites today. Thank God every “I’m sorry” echoed today is genuine and ever intended to get us off the hook.

Whatever the brothers’ true intent, as Davis Hankins observes, “Joseph does not do what they ask, does not forgive them, and does not accept their service. Neither does he tell them that their deed does not matter, that only the outcome matters. He responds, ‘Do not fear. Am in in the place of God?’ (Feasting on the Word, A, 4, p. 54).

Joseph is the one person finally willing to speak hard truth to his cowering kin. He tells his brothers, “You intended to do me harm, but even your intentional evil cannot thwart the providence of God.” Joseph has every right to lash out in anger toward his brothers, but he recognizes that if God intends to work good out of evil deeds then he can do no less.

“God intended it for good,” is the truth Joseph tells his terrified brothers. Really? Who could possibly be naïve enough to believe such pious fluff in 2023?

Every single soul who is an Easter Christian. Not the Easter of bunnies and brunches and egg hunts. No, the Easter that happens even after the religious leaders intend evil for Jesus, even after Pilate and Herod intend evil for Jesus, and even after the once loving crowd intends evil for Jesus. The brothers intended to get rid of Joseph once and for all. All the key players in Palestine intended to get rid of Jesus once and for all, but somehow God had a different intention in mind in both stories. Somehow the “old” story of Joseph and the “new” story of Jesus is by God’s grace, one story – our story.

It is a story not only of how God behaves in the face of evil, but how you and I are to behave in the face of evil. It is a story of redemption and transformation that begins on page one of Genesis and that God is still writing on our hearts today. It is a story that I look forward to teaching for all who want to join.

Yes, it is an “old” story but by God’s grace, it is a story that is forever “new.”


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