Joseph’s story opens in Genesis 37 and it’s a long one. Joseph was one of 11 kids, the youngest son. In Genesis 37, the story says, “Now Jacob (Joseph’s dad) loved Joseph more than any of his other sons because he was born when Jacob was old. Jacob had made for him a long robe. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him and couldn’t even talk nicely to him.” Sibling rivalry, jealousy, family drama—maybe a little too familiar for some of us.
Just when you want to feel bad for Joseph, show him sympathy, “Poor kid—he can’t help that he’s the favorite,” Joseph makes himself quickly unlikeable. When Joseph’s head hits the pillow at night, he has vivid dreams about the future, dreams where he rules over his brothers. In one of these dreams, he’s in the field working with his brothers. They each tie a bundle of grain together…I imagine it like a hay bail. His bail rises up, towering and floating in the air above the others, while each of his ten older brother’s bails of hay, bows down to his bail, as if he’s ruling over them like a king. What’s worse—he didn’t keep his mouth shut about his dreams. Nope. He went ahead and announced them at the dinner table. When I imagine this scene, I’m reminded of the importance of friends. He seriously needed a friend to say, “Dude, listen, you have some dreams where you’re awesome and your brothers treat you like a king. They hate you, man. Keep your dreams to yourself.” Joseph lacked such a friend, so he bragged about his dreams—that combined with his fancy North Face jacket that Daddy bought for him only and the favoritism their dad showed him, brought his brothers to plot about how they might rid themselves of this pesky brat forever.
Joseph’s brothers considered killing Joseph, but they settled on kidnapping him and selling him into slavery instead. That way, they wouldn’t have his death on their foreheads, without having to put up with him anymore. They took Joseph’s fancy coat and destroyed it, making it look like a wild animal killed Joseph. This they showed to their father, so that he would assume that Joseph was dead; their dad would never suspect they had any part in his disappearance.
Meanwhile, Joseph was taken off to Egypt where he worked as a slave. Though he did well there and followed all the rules, he became a victim for a second time, when his master’s wife accused him of a crime he didn’t commit. Over a period of 13 years, Joseph worked as a slave and spent years locked up in prison. After a series of unlikely events, some terrible and some remarkable, Joseph rose to power and became the king’s right hand man, his adviser.
With the king’s blessing and support, Joseph led his country in preparing for a famine, putting food away on reserve during seven years of plenty. When a famine struck the land, Egypt was in a good position, able to lean on the reserved food that Joseph had put away. The surrounding lands, including Joseph’s homeland, had to lean on Egypt for food or else they would starve.
The need for food drove his brother’s to Egypt and brought about unlikely family reunion. Joseph was managing the store where people came to buy grain and he recognized his brothers immediately. But some 20 years had passed, so they didn’t even recognize Joseph. After giving them the run around and deciding what he should do with them, Joseph has them all for dinner and reveals his identity. “I’m your brother Joseph! The one you sold to Egypt. Now, don’t be upset and don’t be angry with yourselves that you sold me here. We’ve already had two years of famine in the land, and there are five years left without planting or harvesting. I have saved so many lives by helping Egypt prepare for the famine—I’m saving your lives with this food!”
Joseph shows his brother’s enormous generosity. He has them go home, pack up and move their entire family, including their elderly father Jacob to Egypt to be near Joseph. Not long after making the trip to Egypt and being reunited with his father, their father, an elderly man at this point, Jacob dies.
And the final chapter of the story opens. Jacob is dead. Their father is gone. Now what?
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[b] 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,[c] 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.
Fear is a powerful force. Fear motivates and fear paralyzes.
There was a TV show that aired in the early 2000’s: Fear Factor! The premise of the show was that contestants would go on the show motivated by the appeal of winning money if they were able to conquer their fears or withstand periods of time in horribly frightening or disgusting circumstances. At the beginning of each episode, the host would say, “I’m Joe Rogan, and this is Fear Factor. The stunts you are about to see were all designed and supervised by trained professionals. They are extremely dangerous and should not be attempted by anyone, anywhere, anytime.” First, contestants would do physical challenges, like hang from a helicopter or jump from one building to another. The second challenge would be mental and almost always gross, like eating live bugs or immersing your head or body in a box with snakes or mice, something like that. The final stunt would be some kind of action stunt, like something from a movie, like driving a car into a river. People signed up for this craziness! The final contestant, who survived all the stunts, was the person who wasn’t paralyzed by the fear of the challenge at hand. The host would say, “Evidently, fear was not a factor for you.”
At the close of Joseph’s story, fear is definitely a factor for Joseph’s brothers. Their father is gone. They hardly have a chance to put his body in the ground before the fear washes over each of them. “What if Joseph was only keeping us alive for Dad’s sake?” they wonder. “What if he still bears a grudge against us for kidnapping him, selling him into slavery, and lying to our father about what happened to him?” They are so scared, in fact, that they approach Joseph with what seems like a made-up and manipulative story from their father. Dad told us to tell you, to give you this message: “Forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you. Please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.”
It’s a little funny how they phrase the words of their father. The brothers put a great deal of distance between themselves and Joseph. Instead of saying, “Our father told us to tell you…” they say, “Your father to us to tell you…” They distance themselves from Joseph and from the message that their dad supposedly gave them to pass along.
And then, they do it again. “Please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father,” his brothers say. They refer to themselves in third person—“the servants of the God of your father.” It’s not “our crime” that “we committed,” but the crime of these others.
They aren’t speaking directly to Joseph—they aren’t directly confessing or owning up to what they’ve done. But they’re also not directly asking for forgiveness. Fear prevents all ten brothers from coming face to face with their crimes and face to face with the one brother they have wronged. Their plea for his forgiveness is indirect and complicated, motivated not by reconciliation or the hope of a good relationship, but by their fear of Joseph’s power, their own insecurities, and how things might change now that their father is gone. Perhaps they don’t even ask for forgiveness directly for fear that Joseph won’t offer it, that he’ll respond by saying, “No, I don’t forgive you.”
Fear not only keeps them from confession, fear also keeps them from receiving forgiveness. They are scared for their lives the moment their father breathes his last, but haven’t they already been through this conversation with Joseph? At the dinner table, when Joseph revealed his identity to them, he tells them not to worry. “It’s ok. Yeah, it was awful, but look where I am! Look at how God has used me to help save those who would be starving now. I’m even saving you!” Joseph has already offered them forgiveness, but they haven’t fully received it. They haven’t believed what he’s said. Perhaps their views of themselves were so low that they didn’t see themselves worthy of forgiveness. Maybe they’ve carried the guilt for so long about what they’ve done, they fear what life will be like without it. It’s become so much an engrained part of their identity, they don’t know who they are apart from the guilt of what they’ve done. They fear receiving Joseph’s forgiveness. They fear forgiving themselves.
To the plea of the 10 brothers, to this made-up, manipulative, last cry for safety, Joseph has two responses. First, he weeps. His weeping—his display of vulnerability and emotion—causes his brothers to begin to weep also. There they are, 11 grown brothers, weeping on the floor of the house. Why did Joseph begin to weep? The story doesn’t say. Let’s notice, brothers and sisters—the road to releasing fear and offering and receiving forgiveness may not come without weeping.
Joseph doesn’t only cry. He also speaks back, responds to their plea. He begins his response with the powerful words, “Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid”
Fear is a powerful force. Fear is an excellent motivator—moving us to do particular things and act in particular ways. But fear not only motivates, it can also paralyze, cause us to freeze right where we’re at, accept things for how they are. This final chapter begins with the brothers saying to one another, “What if…?” What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us…? Fear finishes the sentence, beginning in the words, “What if…?” Fear finishes the sentence. What if…he still bears a grudge against us? What if…we confess our evil to Joseph and he says that’s the end of us? What if…we ask for forgiveness and he denies it—if I say, will you forgive me, and he says, “no”?
“What if’s” sneak into our minds and hearts.
What if…I never get out of here?
What if I fail as a parent?
What if I don’t belong?
What if no one notices I’m gone?
What if I stand up for what I believe is right and it costs me my reputation?
What if I make a mistake at work and lose my job?
What if I risk opening myself up to someone and get hurt or betrayed again?
What if my body fails me?
What if I can never accept that the past can’t change?
What if I’m not worthy of God’s forgiveness or the forgiveness of those I’ve wronged?
What if I can never forgive myself?
you fill in the blank.
Fear motivates. Fear paralyzes.
To his fearful brothers, Joseph says, “Do not be afraid!” The refrain, “Do not be afraid” is repeated throughout the whole of Scripture. Before crossing the Jordan River, Moses tells the Israelites, “Do not be afraid!” Before Joshua takes his troops into the Promised Land, he beckons them, “Do not be afraid.” Through the prophet Isaiah, God says to fearful Israelites, “Do not be afraid.” When the angels meet the shepherds to announce Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, they cry out, “Do not be afraid.” When the disciples are on a boat and see Jesus walking towards them on the water, Jesus calls out, saying, “Do not be afraid.” When the women go to visit Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning and find it empty, an angel comforts them, saying, “Do not be afraid.”
We do not have to live in fear. We do not have to be motivated or paralyzed by it. Look at the God that we serve! Joseph explains how God has been with him. He says to his brothers, “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.” Does this mean that God wanted or desired Joseph’s brothers to kidnap him, throw him into slavery and ruin his life to avenge their jealousy? No. God doesn’t desire that jealousy and revenge rule our lives. God doesn’t will for us to do evil or to harm other people. Rather, God is able to overcome evil and transform it. God can overcome evil! When Jesus was captured, tried as a criminal and sentenced to death, God overcame death, raising Jesus from the death.
Do not be afraid! God’s plans for good and for life trump the plots of fearful motivated actions. God’s plans for good and for life trump our wounded hearts. God’s plans for good and life restores movement to our fear paralyzed bodies. God’s grace creates the space for forgiveness, for living beyond fear. God interrupts our “What ifs” before we can finish the sentence. God interrupts with the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
when through the rivers, they won’t sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire, you won’t be scorched
and flame won’t burn you.
Do not be afraid, I am with you.”
This post was adapted from my sermon preached at Butner Federal Prison on September 14, 2014.