September 13, 2020 Sermon—The Heart of the Matter
Scriptures: Genesis 50:15-21; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
If you have participated in more than one of our Zoom worship meetings, you’ve probably heard me mention (maybe way too many times) that I have a granddaughter. And I am expecting a grandson to be born in a few weeks.
Having lived and looked at the rigors of sibling relationships all my life, I’m trying to help her parents get my toddler granddaughter ready for “the new boy in town.” She and I are talking about being kind and gentle because he will be “her” baby and she will have to be the big helper. So the other day we were reading through her Bible picture book, and I was trying to find a story that showed someone being kind. Of course, we flipped right by the picture of David throwing a rock and hitting Goliath in the head! Why would you put that in a children’s book?
Anyway, turning the pages, we finally came to a picture of a boy and a dad. The boy is wearing a brightly striped coat and pulling a little cart and walking away from their home. The dad is smiling and waving after him. And the caption for the page says, “Jacob loved Joseph.” If only it had been that simple.
But the book goes on with a rhyme about the story: “Old Jacob had 12 special sons, but gave a coat to only one. Joseph dreamt he would rule one day, so his brothers sent him far away. But with hard work, he did succeed, and helped people who were in need. Pharaoh dreamt that famine would come, but Joseph’s plans saved everyone!” I don’t read that page out loud. Every time I look at it, I’m tempted to write the editors and say, “If you can’t tell the story right, don’t tell him at all.”
Because it really raises the question: Why do we read Bible stories, especially Old Testament ones? Most people, certainly in children’s literature, read them for the moral of the story, what we’re supposed to learn about how to behave. But I believe God wants us to see so much more in the story of Joseph and Jacob and the 12 sons and the special coat.
It’s one of the longest Bible stories focused on an individual. It spans 93 years of Joseph’s life, until he dies at the end of Genesis. So the story deserves a good look and a correct telling. Some of what the children’s book said is true. Jacob did love Joseph because Joseph was the first son born to Jacob’s favorite wife. Jacob made no secret of his favoritism. That’s always a mistake.
Being the favorite went to Joseph’s head, and it went to his brothers’ hate. So one day, when their father sent Joseph out to check on his brothers as they are pasturing the flocks, the brothers saw Joseph coming from a distance and plotted to get rid of him. At first, they thought to kill him but eventually were persuaded by the oldest brother, Reuben, just to throw him into the empty cistern in the middle of the desert. Passive fratricide.
But once evil gets a hand in, it always ups the ante. So Judah, the second oldest brother, says, “Wait a minute. How is this benefiting us? We’ll be rid of Joseph, but we could make some money on this deal, too. Let’s sell him as a slave to this merchant caravan who’s coming by.” So they sell their brother into slavery for 20 shekels of silver, and the caravan moves on, taking Joseph with them to Egypt. For their part, the brothers dip Joseph’s coat in goat’s blood and take it home to their father, as evidence of his fate. “Some ferocious animal has devoured him” (Ge 37:33). Not a story about kindness.
The story goes on. We follow Joseph into Egypt where he has a series of “adventures”—to put it mildly—in which it was not Joseph’s hard work that brought success but rather, as Scripture plainly says, “The Lord was with Joseph and he prospered” (Ge 39:2). As a slave, Joseph found immediate favor with his owners and was eventually promoted to authority over all Egypt, second only to the pharaoh himself. An amazing rise to power!
God was working in Joseph’s life. He had always worked through dreams to communicate with Joseph. So when God gives Pharoah a dream, Joseph interprets the dream for Pharoah: It warns of a great famine coming in seven years. God directs Joseph to prepare by having the nation set aside food in advance so that Egypt will not starve. Far away in the land of Canaan, Jacob, his sons, and their families don’t get the warning from God. So when the famine hits there, they have to travel to Egypt to buy food. And wouldn’t you know God brings the brothers to bow down to their little brother Joseph.
It takes awhile to sort things out. At first the brothers don’t recognize Joseph, but he knows who they are. When he reveals his identity, Joseph also reveals the hand of God: “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! Now, 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” (Ge 45:4b-5).
You see, God did not prosper Joseph as a reward for having been ill treated by his brothers. God had a bigger plan in mind—not only the salvation of the Egyptians and Israelites from starvation, but even more the salvation of all humankind through selfless love.
I have heard it said that “character is what a man is in the dark.” True, very true. Joseph’s older brothers revealed their character “in the dark,” so to speak—Dad wasn’t around when the teenaged Joseph reached them in the fields, no one to run home and tell on them. So they sold Joseph to be a slave, probably to die. And they lived with that guilt for years, not knowing what happened to him. In their private moments, they admit their guilt: “We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen” (Ge 42:21b). They know what they deserve. And they expect payback. That’s where we meet the brothers in today’s Old Testament reading.
Not long after they reunited, Joseph forgave his brothers because he understood that their actions were used in God’s plan. But they didn’t trust his forgiveness. That may be the worst consequence of sin. It so distorts a person’s outlook that he can’t trust grace, much less to be blessed by it.
For the older brothers, life was transactional. Self-interest was the name of their game. And it was a zero-sum game, which means that for them to gain, someone else had to lose. They had sold Joseph into slavery for money and their father’s love. Joseph had lost and they had gained.
So now, with Daddy dead, they’re terrified that they will finally get what they deserve. Beyond their wildest dreams, Joseph had gained power and prestige, so they expected to lose: “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil which we did to him.” So they go to Joseph and try to leverage their father’s memory to convince him again to forgive them.
But if character is what a man is in the dark, character is also what a man is when he is in power. Joseph could have had every one of them slaughtered on the spot. But listen again to what he said: “‘Fear not, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Thus he reassured them and comforted them” (Ge 50:15-21).
Oh, how we need that—how our world needs that—men and women who look with eyes of God’s love on those who have wronged them—not seeking to terrify and punish them, but instead to forgive and restore! Too many times, we humans have elevated and worshiped values that, when exalted
and pursued without the leavening of God’s love, become idols that invite evil. All around us, we see people striving after justice but without a commitment to mercy. The result is nothing more than vengeance. We exalt individual rights and freedoms without yielding to humility. What do we get? Nothing more than arrogance and pride on parade. We clamor for law and order, but we forget about grace. Only the love of God encompasses and comprehends all that is worth spending our lives on without tipping the scale toward self.
Joseph was an instrument of God’s goodness and grace—a type of the One we now see triumphantly bearing the banner of love with the message: Jesus has won and all have gained.
You know, sometimes you get inspiration from an unlikely source. As I was seeking God’s wisdom for this sermon, an old rock song kept playing in my mind. The setting is a man singing to a woman after their breakup. But it could be Joseph singing to his brothers. It’s not what you might call a “Christian song.” It doesn’t mention Jesus or quote Scripture. But the singer is voicing the cry of every human heart—for the grace that comes only from the heart of God, flowing in the selfless love of Jesus Christ. The name of the song is “The Heart of the Matter.” Some of it goes like this:
I’ve been tryin’ to get down to the heart of the matter,
But my will gets weak and my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it’s about forgiveness, forgiveness, even if you don’t love me anymore
These times are so uncertain; there’s a yearning undefined, people filled with rage.
We all need a little tenderness.
How can love survive in such a graceless age?
There are people in your life who’ve come and gone.
They let you down; you know they’ve hurt your pride.
You better put it all behind you ‘cause life goes on.
You keep carryin’ that anger, it’ll eat you up inside.
I’ve been trying to get down to the heart of the matter
Because the flesh will get weak and the ashes will scatter.
So I’m thinkin’ about forgiveness, forgiveness, even if, even if you don’t love me anymore.
All Contents (except quotations) Copyright 2020 Beverly C. DeBord.
All Rights Reserved.