Today we are going to conclude our preaching series focusing on forgiveness. This all important aspect of our lives that leads us to incredible freedom or never ending bondage. Throughout this series we have looked at forgiveness as it plays out in various situations and relationships always focusing on forgiveness through its two dimensions; our willingness to ask for it and how we receive it; and our willingness to extend forgiveness to others. Our first week, we came together and looked at the forgiveness we seek from God and the forgiveness that God offers us. The next week, we focused on the forgiveness that we must ask for and offer to everyone else, including our enemies. Last week, we looked at forgiveness as it plays out in our intimate relationships with each other. Today we are going to focus on the aspect of forgiveness that is necessary within our families.
The First Forgiveness
With that mind, a good place to begin today is with the story of Joseph, a story that spans 13 chapters in the book of Genesis. If you have read this story or seen the production Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, you are familiar with this story. You know that this family has enough issues to keep a therapist busy, full time, for the rest of their lives. And I believe that this is the best place to begin when we talk about forgiveness within families, because this is the first place in Scripture where the word that we translate into forgiveness is used. This story can teach us something about how we can offer forgiveness and what God can do with the pain that we cause each other.
To understand the meaning of this story we first need to know the story. Joseph's great-grandfather was Abraham and his great-grandmother was Sarah. Abraham and Sarah begat Issac and Isaac and Rebekah begat the twins, Esau and Jacob. These people are the patriarchs of Israel, the founding figures of the faith of the Bible. Despite this fact, they were by no means perfect. They each had their own challenges in their families. Just as each of us have our own challenges today. Nobody, no family is perfect. Therefore, due to our imperfection, the only way families can stay together is for us to learn how to forgive one another.
This includes Joseph's family. Joseph's great-grandfather, Abraham, had two sons, Ishmael and Issac. When Ishmael was about 10 or 11 years old Sarah became jealous of Ishmael's role in Abraham's life, mostly because she felt it came at the expense of her son Issac, and she sent Ishmael away, never to come back. Then Issac and Rebekah had sons, Esau and Jacob. Now Issac had learned from his mother and father that when it comes to children, you always pick out a favorite. Issac made his favorite Esau, while Rebekah's heart leaned towards the second born of the twins, Jacob. Therefore, the parents were always competing with each other trying to secure the best for their favorite. What a family life! Now Jacob, as he got older, decided that he wanted to marry a girl named Rachel. Scripture tells us that Rachel was very beautiful, so Jacob goes to her father to pay the dowry for her. However, on the wedding day the girl behind the veil was not Rachel, but her older sister Leah. Jacob agrees to place himself in the service of Rachel's father to pay another dowry, so that he can eventually marry Rachel. Jacob does eventually marry Rachel so now he has two wives, one he loves and one he does not. Leah being the only one of the two to be able to have children, felt that if she gave Jacob a child he would fall in love with her as well. Rachel, not wanting to be looked down upon, gives her maidservant to Jacob so her and Jacob could have a child. Leah increasing the competition gives her maidservant to Jacob so they can have more children and now Jacob finds himself with four wives and thirteen children. Can you imagine? The chaos, the betrayal, the dysfunction. What a mess! As you can see these people may have been patriarchs, but they were by no stretch perfect.
But it continues, because Jacob continues the pattern of picking favorites, and out of his thirteen children he picks Joseph as his favorite. Can you see the how the sins of the father are passed down to their sons and their daughters, to the third and the fourth generation? This means that Joseph was the one to get special treatment and favor over his siblings, including his very expensive, very colorful, coat. Joseph began to buy into this favoritism and this brewed animosity between Joseph and his brothers. Joseph then began to have dreams about how his brothers would bow down to him, and still suffering from his over inflated ego, his announcement of these dreams did not go well. It went so bad that his brothers plotted to take care of Joseph. To kill him. One brother speaks up and says rather then kill him, let's just sell him into slavery, take his coat make it look like animals got a hold of it, and say that Joseph was killed and eaten by those wild animals. This will get Joseph out of their hair and make them some nice money in the process.
Joseph was sold into slavery, taken to Egypt, and eventually imprisoned all because his relationship with his brothers was so strained. There is decades of time that passes in this story. Decades where pain and hurt and feelings of betrayal can swell and grow, unchecked. This is a perfect place for the first use of the word forgiveness to appear in Scripture.
Let It Go!
During this series, we have looked at forgiveness as our relinquishing any right we may have against another for retaliation; letting go of those wrongs against us. The other lens in which we have defined forgiveness is the verbal communication of forgiveness to the other person.
The first understanding we have talked about is essential. We have to able to let go of some things and give them over to God. Or it is like us drinking poison hoping the other person gets sick. When in reality we are the ones getting sick and living in turmoil. We are the ones giving them power over us. However, if we can let go, if we can love them, not necessarily a warm and fuzzy type of love, but as an intentional action doing as God commanded us, then we can be set free.
The other part is to verbally communicate a pardon for them. When we can do that, then we are extending grace and mercy to them and allowing a form of healing to begin. However, sometimes when we do this, it simply enables them to continue hurting us. Therefore, this verbal pardon is not always necessary. But we do have to pray for them and forgive them for us, for our well being.
Over the last several weeks, we have talked about those wrongs committed against us like rocks in our backpacks of forgiveness. For the small things we talked about the acronym RAP. The “R” helps us to remember that we also do things that irritate people. Remember, when you are feeling angry and betrayed, I encouraged you write down five things you do that constantly irritate others, level the playing field a bit, and that might help you let go of some of the anger you might feel towards others. The “A” reminds us to assume the best of others, to attempt to understand why they do what they do. And the “P” reminds us to pray for God's blessings to come to other people. When we follow this process, we sometimes find it easier to let go of the small stones in our backpack.
Now for the medium stones, repentance is helpful but does not always come. With these medium sized stones those walls between us can grow much more easily. The separation is much more likely. One way to tear down these stones is for the other person to recognize their wrong and ask for forgiveness. That is why communication is always important and the ability to speak with other is paramount. But if that repentance does not come, we still have to find a way to forgive. Otherwise the burden will become to great. God still calls us to forgive, for our sake, and for our relationship with God. This way is not easy, it is not instantaneous. But it can happen, and prayer is a wonderful place to start.
But what about those big stones? Those things, those acts that alter our lives, change our outlook, and really affect us down to our cores? I want to offer you several ways I have found to help you deal with the large stones, especially within your family.
One way is through therapy. Work with a licensed counselor to help you sift through your emotions and better understand what it truly bothering you. Sometimes when you have a person help you gain a clearer picture of what you are dealing with, the ability to work through it becomes easier. If a therapist is not going to work, you can also work with your small group. The group approach to chipping away at your hurt can also be very beneficial.
Another method you can use is through confrontation and/or writing letters. If you write down everything that you feel, how their action made you feel, and how this rift is affecting you, sometimes that can bring incredible release and begin the healing process.
A third method is prayer. When you pray to God for help in dealing with something, try giving that situation over to God and have faith that God can bring good from it, and that you can help bring healing to others because of it.
Joseph as Example
That is what Joseph did. Joseph was dealing with some pretty big rocks. Joseph was sold into slavery, by his brothers. He is then falsely imprisoned. I cannot imagine Joseph, in the midst of all of this saying, 'Thank God for my brothers!'. Some of you have dealt with betrayal, with hurt, with feelings that leave you feeling much the same way Joseph did. But Joseph used this time to grow to change. He developed a more loving character. He began to considers others above himself. His dependance on God deepened and his integrity rose. Despite being betrayed by his brothers, despite being sold into slavery, despite being falsely imprisoned, Joseph found a way to pray to God and express to God, I cannot change the past but please reshape the future. We do not know those were his exact words, but I have to think they were pretty close.
Then, because of this change in attitude, he was not only released from prison, but he became Pharaoh’s right hand man. He also correctly interpreted Pharaoh's dream that not only saved that nation from famine, but the nations surrounding them, including the nation where his own siblings lived. Through Joseph's ability to forgive and trust God, God was able to use Joseph to bring about good though a horrible situation. Joseph had been sold into slavery, falsely accused by Potiphor's wife and sent to prison. But Joseph was able to look at this, see God at work through this, find forgiveness for what had happened for his siblings, and allow God to work good through it. Bit by bit, piece by piece, Joseph found a way to forgive and trust in God. He lived what the Apostle Paul describes to us in our second Scripture lesson today, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all” (Romans 12:14-17, NRSV). When we do this, then we open ourselves up to God, who can make all things work together for good for those that love him and are called to his purpose.
Forgiveness is giving up the hope for a different past and taking on the hope of a different future. We cannot change the past, but we can trust God to make something good, and to bring something redemptive out of it.
Joseph eventually crosses paths with his brothers, and just as predicted in his dream long ago, they are bowing before him. Once Joseph reveals himself to them, they become certain he will kill them. But Joseph replies, “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. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’ In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them” (Gen 50:20-21, NRSV).
Joseph was not about revenge, but about reconciliation. He was not about retribution, but about forgiveness. You have the opportunity today to follow suit. Joseph lived a very trying and unfair life, and through God, through prayer, and through forgiveness, was able to love again. You can do the same today. Let Jesus make something good out of the stones you carry today. Jesus was a stonemason by trade, a carpenter that brought good out of the stones he shaped. Let him shape your stones today and make something good come out of them.