Monday, August 13, 2018

The Final Test

August 12th, 2018     “The Final Test”        Rev. Heather Jepsen

Summer Sermon Series: Dreaming with Joseph

Genesis 44

         It’s been a few weeks since we thought about Joseph and his brothers so let’s take a few minutes to remind everyone about the story we have been following all summer.  Early in the story, Joseph was the favorite of 12 brothers, sons of their father Jacob/Israel.  In a jealous rage, Joseph’s brothers attempted to kill him, and then decided instead to sell him into slavery.

         Joseph languished in slavery and prison in Egypt for over a decade.  Finally, through the grace of God and his natural talents of interpreting dreams and understanding people, Joseph rose to power in Egypt.  As famine spread throughout the land, Joseph was in charge of collecting grain during years of abundance and then managing the selling of the grain during the years of famine.

         When we left Joseph last month, his brothers from Canaan had arrived to buy grain in Egypt.  Joseph recognizes the brothers but they do not remember him.  Through a series of tests, Joseph seeks to determine if the brothers are now trustworthy as they claim to be or if they are still full of wicked selfishness. 

         This is now the brothers’ second visit to buy grain, and they have brought Benjamin, Joseph’s full brother along on the adventure.  Joseph has been moved at the sight of his younger brother but still hides his emotions and his identity from his family.  When we left the story last time, Joseph and the brothers dined together in Egypt, eating at separate tables. 

         Before he feels he can reveal his identity, Joseph has one final test planned.  Let’s see what happens now as we continue “Dreaming with Joseph”.

         (Read Genesis 44:1-5)

          The next day it is time for the brothers to return to Canaan.  Joseph again orders that their sacks be filled with grain and again he refuses to take money from his family.  But, he has one more test of the brothers’ integrity planned.  He orders that his personal silver cup be placed in Benjamin’s sack.  He then orders that his officers overtake the brothers on their travels and accuse them of theft.  The use of the silver cup makes the theft a personal assault against Joseph.  The money in their sacks was a theft from the nation of Egypt but this silver cup is an insult to Joseph personally.

         Will the brothers stand up for the life of Benjamin, the new favorite son of Jacob, if he is accused of wrongdoing?  Or will they abandon him to a life of slavery, just as they did with Joseph so many years ago?

(Read Genesis 44:6-13)

The steward and officers catch up with the brothers and accuse them of stealing Joseph’s cup.  The brothers all deny the theft, again claiming that they are honest men.  They also unknowingly condemn themselves, as they promise death to the one who has the cup and slavery to the rest if the cup is found.

The steward reiterates the charge, slavery for only the one who has stolen the cup.  When the cup is found in Benjamin’s sack the brothers are speechless and tear their robes in their grief.  They know they are free to return to Canaan but they also know that they must not return without Benjamin.  And so, all the brothers return to Joseph in Egypt.

(Read Genesis 43:14-17)

The bothers come before Joseph and he again accuses them of theft.  He reminds them of the personal nature of the crime as this was his personal cup for divination.  Did Joseph really practice divination?  It’s possible.  It would not be uncommon for him to look for patterns in the liquid in his cup to discern messages from God, just as some traditions look for messages in tea leaves.  It is also possible that as a Hebrew he does not practice divination, but the brother’s don’t know that and the idea of him practicing such a thing just adds to the sense of his power over them.

Judah speaks in defense and declares that yes, they had the cup.  He says that God has found them guilty and the implication is that the guilt is for the sins the brothers committed against Joseph, rather than the sin of stealing this cup. 

Judah offers all the brothers as slaves, but Joseph again demands only Benjamin stay in slavery.  Joseph knows that they cannot leave Benjamin behind and so he is purposively tightening the screws in order to test the brothers further. 

(Read Genesis 44:18-34)

Now Judah steps forward to offer what will be the longest speech in the whole book of Genesis.  Judah recounts the story so far, all the visits and the questions about the youngest brother.  Judah shares details of life with their father Jacob, and for the first time Joseph hears of how his presumed death has been mourned by his father.  Judah begs for mercy declaring that the life of his father Jacob is directly tied to the life of this beloved son Benjamin.  If Benjamin were to die, so too would Jacob.

In the most significant moment so far in the story, Judah offers his life for the life of Benjamin.  It is a complete 180 from where we began.  Judah knows Benjamin is his father’s favorite, he knows that Jacob will not mourn him, Judah, the way he will mourn his youngest, Benjamin.   Judah knows that he is of less value to his father.  This same knowledge that motivated him to cast Joseph away to death in jealousy now motivates him to offer his life for another in love.  Judah decides to risk his own life to save the life of Benjamin.  It is a move he does not have to make and it shows that he has had a true change of heart.

Our chapter ends here, with Judah’s impassioned speech, but it leaves us in a place to consider our own hearts.  All throughout these chapters about Joseph and his brother, Joseph has been putting them through tests.  Have the brothers really had a change of heart?  Are they really sorry for what they did to him?  Or are they still moving forward in the same sinful directions?  Judah’s speech demonstrates that he has changed.  In admitting that God has found out his guilt, he admits that he is guilty of sin.  It is that admission, and his willingness to sacrifice himself, that will turn the tide in this story.

In our world, it seems like fewer and fewer people are willing to admit that they are wrong.  From politicians to movie stars, famous people to people on the streets, we see many examples of people who are caught in wrongdoing, or caught in a lie, who refuse to admit their faults.  People sin and then just go right along and sin again.  With behavior like this is it any wonder that our nation and our world are so divided?

We don’t have control over what other people do and say but we do have control over our own actions and our own hearts.  All of us have places in our lives where we have made poor choices and we have committed sins.  We may not be like Judah, leaving a brother behind as dead, but we certainly have stories of hurt and pain in our past.  Like Judah, we must face our past actions.  We must willingly admit our sins to God and one another, and we must try to move forward in grace and peace.  Like Judah and his brothers, only when we recognize our guilt will reconciliation be possible.

Of course, not only does our sin separate us from each other, it also separates us from our God.  God promises to forgive us our sins, but only if we confess our wrongdoing.  If we go about saying “I have nothing to confess, I have done nothing wrong” we lie to our God and we lie to ourselves.  Part of a life of faith is admitting our sins, admitting our guilt before our God and asking for forgiveness.

Today we gather at the communion table and this is a place where we celebrate the forgiveness of sins.  We can’t come here if we don’t first confess and cleanse our hearts.  And when we come here, we remember the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We remember the lengths that God will go to in order to reach out to us in our sin and bring us back into the fold of love.  This is a table of confession and this is a table of grace.  As we gather together today, let us do so with honest hearts.

And so today, we leave Joseph in what is the biggest cliff hanger of the summer.  Joseph has offered the final test, possible slavery for Benjamin.  Judah has offered an impassioned speech, laying his life on the line for the youngest brother.  What will Joseph decide?  The lives of Benjamin and Judah as well as the whole harmony of the family of Israel hang in the balance.  Come back next week to find out what happens next as we continue “Dreaming with Joseph.”  Amen.

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