How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, "Send everyone away from me." So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, "I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?" But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence. Then Joseph said to his brothers, "Come closer to me." And they came closer. He said, "I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, 'Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children's children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.' And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here." Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin's neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
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Joseph was born into the blue blood family of the Old Testament—they were direct descendants of Abraham. They were the first family of God's hope for the salvation of the world. Joseph's father was Jacob and Joseph's mother was Rachel. Joseph had 11 brothers. Have you ever known a large family that had a favorite child? Such was the source of the conflict in Joseph's family. Joseph was his father's favorite son. That fact became painfully obvious to his brothers after their father gave Joseph a beatiful technicolor coat. That coat set Joseph's brothers against him. The brother's envy of Joseph only increased after he told them about a dream he had in which they all bowed down to him as if he was some kind of royalty. Envy is the motivation which led to the brother's crime of first throwing Joseph into a pit and then selling him into slavery and finally telling their father that a wild animal had killed him.
In Genesis chapter 45 we learn that Joseph has grown up to become the virtual ruler of all Egypt, having survived threats to his life and well-being that are familiar to everyone who learned this story in church school. There was a murderous plot by his brothers who then sold Joseph into slavery. There was an attempted seduction by the wife of a powerful Egyptian. There was the royal cupbearer who swore to help Joseph get out of jail but forgot to keep his word.
The story takes place against the backdrop of a famine that has ravaged Egypt and also desolated Palestine, so that Joseph's brothers, in their efforts to find food, have come face-to-face with the brother whom they earlier had sold into slavery. Now Joseph, with one wave of his hand, may now avenge the terrible wrong done to him so long ago by snuffing out the life or the liberty of these trembling sons of Jacob.
But that is not Joseph's way, because that is not God's way, and Joseph is—first, last, and always—God's man (notice v. 8). Joseph's virtual collapse in the presence of his brothers reveals his awareness of God's role in his life as much as it reveals his humanity. Only the Egyptians are meant to be excluded from this catharsis, lest they misinterpret Joseph's tears for weakness.
The emotional energy displayed by Joseph is countered by the awestruck dumbness of the eleven. Are they unable to speak simply because they find this revelation hard to believe, or is it out of terror over what might soon happen to them at the hands of their long-lost but now powerful brother? Probably both, but it is their terror-for-their-lives that Joseph addresses by attempting to calm them (v. 5).
The reason for comfort that Joseph extends has nothing directly to do with his own emotions, although his concern for his father (v. 3) would doubtless have ruled out any violence against his brothers, even if Joseph had been so inclined. His brothers are to be at peace because "God sent me before you to preserve life" (v. 5). Notice that the phrase "God sent me" (or its equivalent) is repeated 3 times (Gen. 45:5, 7, 8). Here we have the whole point of the narrative: behind all the events of Joseph's life, God was at work to bring good out of evil.
As the blood still races with excitement over Joseph's startling self-disclosure, but Joseph pushes forward to other things. After urging the inclusion of their father in this new life, Joseph outlines to the eleven what kind of life it will be. In spite of the five years the famine has still to run, theirs will be a time of peace and plenty under Joseph's personal protection.
Their families, including children and grandchildren, will be secure, even their flocks and herds. Only then, after Joseph has hugged and kissed them all, are the brothers' tongues unlocked and they begin to talk to him (v. 15).
It is as difficult for us as it was for Joseph and his brothers to believe that God is at work even in the dark and destructive moments of life. One of the great struggles of faith is that, no matter how hard one tries, it simply is not possible to identify grace or redemption in so many human experiences. Sometimes it seems that God is not there in the midst of our suffering and defeat. But the Joseph stories lead us to a different conclusion, which is that, in spite of the awful tragedies from which God seems absent, the divine economy is managed by a caring friend and will ultimately have a friend's way.
So, in the Joseph stories, Joseph is an example of what the grace of God can do in human life: transform a curse into a blessing. But Joseph is also more—he is a metaphor for God: the One who has every reason to reject a wayward human family, but who instead loves them even to the point of participating in their suffering.
This story could have been written a dozen ways. What it shows us is an honest picture of how hard it is to mend what is broken—something we all know from much experience. We know what betrayal feels like: the alcoholic parent who disappoints the family time and time again; spouses who find that love cannot withstand the pressures of life; siblings (like these) or dear friends who abandon a beloved or a friend when the need is greatest. We have been betrayed and we have betrayed others.
That is the human reality.
This story could seem almost naïve. We could be tempted to dismiss it as a fairy tale, except for the fact that it is God's story. I said that Genesis is the book of beginnings. You may remember that in the beginning, there was a family—Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. The first story of this family is that Cain murders Abel. It is no accident, I think, that Genesis ends with a story of attempted murder and miraculous reconciliation. The text does not say so explicitly, but I think it is clear: this is God's work. Yes, God planned to save Israel from famine. But God also planned to save the family, to mend what was broken.
Jesus stated flatly, "I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw everyone to me" (John 12:32). What that means is that, if you allow that magnet of the cross to draw you toward it, you are going to find yourself standing shoulder to shoulder with some people you had not anticipated having to stand that close to.
If you let this centripetal force work on you, you are also going to discover how much more joy there is in unity than there is in disunity, how much more encouragement and support there is in fellowship than there is in isolation, how much more security there is in cooperation than there is in conflict. You are going to understand what the writer of Psalm 133 meant when he exclaimed:
How wonderful it is, how pleasant, for God's people to live together in harmony!
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The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church on May 29, 2011.