This is the sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost. The sermon text is: Genesis 50:15-21. The sermon theme is: Here is the Written Sermon.
How Can I Forgive?
Sin gives birth to sin. You know this from your own lives: sin likes to multiply. If a child pushes another child on the playground, the child that is pushed pushes back. If you call me a bad name, then don’t be surprised that I can you two or three bad names in response. Sin always likes ot multiply. We see it in our own lives. And this morning we see it in the life of Joseph. One sin gives birth to another. Joseph was the favorite son. He even had a cloak of many different kinds of cloth to show that he was the most favorite son of his father. And because Joseph was spoiled by his father he was hated by his brothers. And they plotted to kill him. Instead of killing him they sold their brother off into slavery.
That was what took place before these words are spoken in chapter 50. When we read these words in chapter 50 Joseph has found his brothers and he has forgiven them. But there’s a problem. The problem is that their father, Jacob is dead. Maybe Joseph will use this as the opportune time to get even with his brothers. And so we read in Genesis 50, starting at verse 15: “15 When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” 16 So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: 17 ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept.” (Gen 50:15-17 NIV)
Jacob is dead. But as we read these words there is something that is very much not dead. Their consciences are not dead. The guilt all these brothers carried for so many years at selling their brother off into slavery is not dead. And even though Joseph had promised to them that their sins were forgiven, they could not believe it. And Joseph cries. He weeps with so much pain. But he doesn’t as much weep that he endured so much pain from them. Instead he weeps for them. Because even though he was willing to forgive them, they couldn’t forgive themselves. They couldn’t let go of their guilt. They couldn’t let go of their pain.
When we read these words in that context, we so quickly find ourselves in their shoes, don’t we? If we ask the question, “How can we forgive,” the first person we need to ask to that to is ourselves. I had a pastor once who said, “you’re going to do things between the ages of 18 and 28 that will keep you awake when you are 58.” And he was right. We look back at the stupid, selfish sinful things we have done that have destroyed relationships and filled our hearts with pain and we say to ourselves, “How can anyone forgive my sin?”
And my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, that voice that says those thoughts is wretched, sinful pride. For Jesus died for your sins-all of your sins, just as he has died for the sins of the entire world. The same Savior who said, “whoever hates his brother is a murderer” and “whoever looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart”-he is the one who has won your forgiveness by dying in your place on the cross. And he is the one who has clothed you in his own righteousness in those waters of baptism so that you would know that your sins are forgiven-all of them.
How do you then forgive yourself? Through this gift of faith we cling to Christ’s promise. And our Savior doesn’t lie. We may remember our sin. We may still feel its stabbing pain. But in Christ it is forgiven. Even our prideful sin of not thinking that God can forgive our sin-that too is washed away in those waters of baptism.
That is what Joseph’s brothers needed to hear. They needed to hear that they could forgive themselves because God had forgiven them. But that leads us to another question. If we ask “How can I forgive myself,” the other question we need to ask is “How can I forgive others?” And so we read: “18 His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said. 19 But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? 20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Gen 50:18-20 NIV)
It is a prideful sin to conclude that the blood of Jesus can’t cover your sin and forgive it. But it is just as much a sin to pretend that you are God. And that’s exactly what is going on when we would like forgiveness for ourselves but don’t want to forgive others. Jesus died for that sinner. Jesus declared that that sinner’s sins were forgiven. What Joseph said is true: “Am I in the place of God?” If you don’t forgive, you are pretending to be God. And that’s why Jesus speaks so violently against this sin in the gospel for this morning.
But my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, there is a context in which both these words are written-both in Genesis 50 and in Matthew 18. The context is that the person admits their sin and wants to be forgiven. Drag back into your brains these words from your catechism days:
A Christian congregation with its called servant of Christ uses the keys in accordance with Christ’s command by forgiving those who repent of their sin and are willing to amend, and by excluding from the congregation those who are plainly impenitent that they may repent.
Where people say that they are sorry and then struggle to show that they are repentant, we forgive them. But when they neither say nor struggle to show that they are repentant, we do not forgive them. But please listen to me very closely. When I say that we do not forgive them, what I mean is this: WE aren’t the ones who are cutting them off from forgiveness. No, instead, they are the ones who are cutting themselves off from the forgiveness that is already theirs in Christ. And when we say “I do not forgive you,” what we are doing is acknowledging the fact that they don’t want the forgiveness that Christ is sharing with them through us.
And yet, even with this proper understanding of forgiveness, it’s hard, isn’t it? This too is a sin that we need to confess. Not only have we carried with us the pride of not letting go of sins that Jesus has paid for on the cross and washed away in our baptisms, but we also carry with us this pride that we will forgive the people in our lives who earn it. And that is the opposite of grace. We pray that Jesus would forgive this sin. And out of his grace-his undeserved love does exactly this.
And with this wonderful appreciation that our sins are forgiven by Christ there on the cross and in his word, we can now come back to this question: how can I forgive others? The answer is this: Just as we cling to the promise that Jesus has forgiven us when it comes to our own sins, we also cling to the promise that the Holy Spirit will move us to forgive others. And that’s why it’s so good for us to go back to these sinners and saints in the Old Testament. How long did Joseph’s anger burn against his brothers when he was in prison? How long was it before he saw his own sin? How long was it before he yearned for his own forgiveness? How long was it before he was able to share the Lord’s forgiveness with his brothers? We don’t know when. But we do know that he forgave them. And the Lord gives us this example to show us that the same is true with us. We will be able to forgive those who have sinned against us because that is the work the Holy Spirit does. And there’s even more to this promise. In the last verse of this section we read: “So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.” (Gen 50:21 NIV)
We have the promise that not only will we be able to forgive others when they sin against us, we have the promise that we will continue to do so. There was not just once that Joseph forgave his brothers. No, what these words show us is that he told them, “I forgive you just as the Lord forgives you” again and again. And every time we confess our sins at the beginning of the service; every time we say the Lord’s Prayer; every time we receive forgiveness in the Lord’s Supper with the promise that we are receiving Jesus’ true body and blood along with that bread and wine-whenever this happens we have the promise that not only are our sins forgiven, but we also have the promise that we will be able to forgive others…again and again.
And so we ask, “How can I forgive?” I can forgive myself because Christ has promised that my sins are forgiven. I can forgive others because the Holy Spirit promises to move me to do so. Amen.