16th Sunday after Pentecost (Prop 19 – A)
September 17, 2023
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The text that I have chosen for this morning’s sermon is the Old Testament lesson from Genesis chapter 50.
While I don’t keep a tally, I can safely say there’s one question I’ve heard more than any other. It’s been raised in news articles, on TV, in books, you name it. I’ve both been asked and have asked this question. It’s one that is regularly brought up by both Christians and non-Christians. Do you know what it is? It usually goes along the lines of: “If there’s a loving God, why did this tragedy happen? If God is so good, why did He allow that to happen? Why didn’t God stop it from happening in the first place? Why is He still allowing it to happen?” I’ll bet those sound familiar to you; perhaps you’ve even asked the same questions. There’s no shame in wanting answers. The thing is though that you’re not going to get the answer you’re looking for, you’re just not. You can speculate, but speculation outside of the Bible is dangerous because it will lead to a mistaken opinion about God. Instead, the best answer isn’t really an answer, it’s a statement, a promise really, that God will always use what is meant for evil for good.
To understand today’s interaction between Joseph and his brothers you have to know Joseph’s back story. So, here’s the short version: Jacob had ten sons when he had Joseph, but because Joseph was the first born of his favorite wife, he spoiled him rotten, including giving him a beautiful coat of many colors. It should come as no surprise that this caused more than a little bit of family strife. Moses gives us a peek: “When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him.”
Jealousy and hatred eventually gave way to murderous thoughts, which the sons wisely ignored, and instead sold him to some passing businessmen. They in turn sold him to an Egyptian officer. The officer’s wife could help but notice that Joseph was a handsome young man, and made her move. Her advances rebuffed, she accused Joseph of assaulting her, which changed Joseph’s status from servant to inmate. While he’s languishing in jail, he interprets the dreams of two men, and he tells one: “Don’t forget me down here. Put in a good word with Pharoah.” I’ll bet you can guess what happened. Yep, Joseph was forgotten.
Two years later, Pharaoh had a crazy dream and that’s when the former prisoner finally remembered Joseph, who interpreted Pharoh’s dream. Pharaoh was not only impressed, he was also convinced the famine in the dream would come true. Joseph was appointed as the second most powerful man in Egypt and tasked to prepare Egypt for a seven-year famine. God used the evils done to Joseph to save Egypt and all those who came to Egypt looking for food – including the brothers who had done him wrong.
When the brothers first came before Joseph, they didn’t recognize him. Joseph had adopted Egyptian clothing and practices. When Joseph finally revealed his true identity to his family, it was a blessed reunion, and all was good. Until Jacob died. The brothers were convinced that now that dad was dead, Joseph was going to get his revenge for everything he suffered because of them. This brings us to today, where Joseph forgives them because as he said: “Do not fear, 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.”
Whew. You follow all that? It’s a bit of a soap opera or a dumb reality show. Schemes, intrigue, double-crosses, and doubt. There had to be some doubt, right? What could Joseph have been thinking when he’s sold as a slave by his family, unjustly imprisoned, and forgotten? Did he wonder why God let all this happen? I’ll bet he did. He was human after all. But what do we hear today? Not anger or regret. Not hatred or bitterness. Instead of punishing his brothers, which wasn’t his place (that was God’s place), Joseph makes the bold assertion that yes, their actions were evil, but God used them for good. That’s why Jospeh could forgive his brother for the evil they did.
I wonder how close our stories parallel Joseph’s. Hopefully you’ve never been unjustly imprisoned or hated by your brothers. On the other hand, you suffered ordeals Joseph didn’t and you’re enduring different things. Hard things. You’ve seen things around you, heard about horrible events and wondered. Things that made you doubt God’s love or His existence. Things that make you fear him. Things that make you hate him. Things that damaged you emotionally, mentally, physically, or all the above. Things that made you, and make you, question Him. What’s He doing? Why won’t He intervene? Why do bad things have to happen at all?
You could speculate and come up with sorts of explanations: God doesn’t love me or forgive me. God is cruel and enjoys making me suffer. God is powerless. God is a liar. God doesn’t care. God’s not real. Instead of speculating, I encourage you to go to the Bible where God shows that the evil you see and experience, will always be used for good. And to prove this isn’t just a cliché, let’s look at some examples.
Job, a faithful, God-fearing man, lost everything practically overnight: his children, his property, and his health. Life was miserable, and yet, he could have said to Satan: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” Job could say this because through prayer, wrestling with God, and help from a young friend, his faith was strengthened. And while he never got the answer to “Why?”, he got more than that. The Lord spent four chapters reminding Job, and each of us, that He is the one who laid the foundation of the earth, He’s the one who set the stars in motion, He is the one who knows the needs of every living creature. He is the creator and if the almighty God sustained Job, you can be sure that He will do the same for you.
King David was on the run to save his life, hiding in caves, stealing food, and living in a strange land, all because Saul hated him and Absolom his son wanted to be king. Even still, David could’ve said to his enemies: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” God used it for good because when David was in the cave fearful for his life, he learned God still heard his prayers. That even when his life was crashing in on him, he could have the peace and the assurance that God would rescue him. In Psalm 10, David prays in frustration and anger that the wicked persevere and are blessed while the righteous believers are ignored. But then, as he sees what the Lord does, David prays: “O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed.” God’s not deaf or blind, He delivers us according to His divine love and will.
Jerusalem and all its inhabitants had been defeated in battle. The capital and Temple destroyed. Civilians slaughtered and enslaved. And still they could say, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” God used it for good because they were brought to repentance over their sins. God used this defeat for good for as they sat in a foreign land, far from home, He reminded them of His promises and restated His vow to bring them home. They were afraid, broken, and lost and the Lord tells them: “O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you; you are my servant; O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me” (Isaiah 44:21). What a promise! He is their hope in the face of despair because He loves them and keeps His promises.
Saint Paul, in addition to being beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, imprisoned, and hated, also had a satanic thorn in the flesh. No one knows what it was. Three times Paul asked Christ to take it way and But Paul could say to Satan: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” because God sustained Paul. Christ says, “My grace is sufficient for you”, which means quite simply that no matter how badly the thorn hurt, he had pardon and peace, support and deliverance, comfort, strength, assurance, hope, joy, and every gift, all through Christ. His word of promise is a word of promise for you: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword…No! In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (Romans 8:35-37).
Saint John was imprisoned, whipped, and exiled to a barren island like a common criminal. He could tell the Caesar and the Roman guards: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” because he had a revelation into Heaven where he saw the glory of God. He saw the final victory for all Christians. He saw Heaven where there is no more sadness, no more pain, no more heartache, and no more evil! He saw that what awaits those who call on God’s name far exceeds the heartaches and miseries of this life.
Then there is Jesus. You know His story. He is the perfect example of God using evil for good. Jesus: hated, despised, beaten, whipped, forsaken, abandoned by His friends, huge spikes in His hands and feet could tell Satan, the Romans, the Pharisees, Judas, His haters, you and me: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” What a great good it is, the greatest good! The true evil done to Jesus delivers you from your sin, frees you from God’s condemnation. It also promises you that God is faithful, for as He promised, His Son didn’t stay dead. He abandoned His Son so you can trust that He’ll never forsake you. Jesus ascended into Heaven, not where He is out of touch, but where He constantly looks upon you and showers His grace upon you. Through the grace and sacrifice of Jesus you have pardon and peace, support and deliverance, comfort, strength, assurance, hope, joy, and every gift! And while your troubles and afflictions and miseries may push you to the brink, Jesus is your Savior who will use all wicked things for the good of those who love Him.
I can’t tell you what good will come out of the evil. I can only assure you that God made you a promise, and He keeps all His promises. The Lord uses these events to test us, to strengthen our faith, to make us witnesses to others, to lead us to repentance, to remind us that He is our source of mercy and peace and hope. While these events, tragedies, sorrows in our lives are used by Satan for evil, we have the Lord! The Lord is the one who turned the evil of Joseph’s brothers into something good. The Lord has done it for the saints who have come before you, and you can be sure, that there is no evil that Christ will not bend to His will so that it will be for your good.
Now the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen