Scene: two toddlers stand facing each other at the insistence of an adult nearby1. One of the kids has been crying and is still visibly upset. The adult talks to the other one. You hit him and took his toy away, and now it’s time to say you’re sorry.
The child hesitates a moment, but then: Sorry. The adult turns to the other one and says, Ok, he is sorry, what do you say? The answer comes: I forgive you. The adult only has one thing left to say. Give each other a hug and you can go back to playing. And that’s just what they do. The kids give a quick hug, then run back to play. The hitting-and-toy-taking incident is never mentioned again. End scene.
If you’ve spent any time around young kids, this story won’t be surprising to you. Of course kids are going to hit or take things or otherwise hurt other kids. Of course they’ll say sorry when they need to. Of course the kids will “make up” and go back to business as usual. This is how it’s supposed to work.
Did you ever notice how much harder this process is the older people get? It’s much more difficult, even with older kids, to get that initial sorry said. The forgiveness might not be expressed very often. And the hugging and going back to play, well, that’s probably the first thing to go.
As adults, we’re supposed to get better at things as we get older. We’re supposed to improve. But it doesn’t always work that way, because we’re still sinful. We sin every day. We hurt others. We make mistakes. Not only that, plenty of people sin against us and make mistakes that hurt us.
So with all that sinning, with all that hurt, you’d expect to see all sorts of scenes like the ones I mentioned before with the kids, except with adults. One says, I’m really sorry I said those things to you. The other, I forgive you. They hug. Wouldn’t that be great?! It’s not that things like this never happen, but I think they’re more rare than they should be considering the things wrong we do every day.
Instead we tend to let our problems fester and grow. If we hurt someone, maybe we’ll apologize — or maybe we’ll just not bring it up and hope it goes away. If someone hurts us, well, we’ll just see how they act to us in the future. Maybe we can just ignore them. Maybe we can just be rude to them, see how they like it. And forgive them? Well, if they are good enough, if they can make it up to us… maybe. But they’re going to have to earn it.
Friends, I want you to realize today that forgiveness isn’t something you earn, it’s something you need. Without forgiveness as a gift, our relationships become prisons. We lock one another up with our past mistakes. We’re locked in the cells of anger and grudges. The only way out is forgiveness.
Forgiveness sets you free! True forgiveness can never be earned. It’s a gift. God showed us that. He proved it in the free forgiveness Jesus won for us. His forgiveness sets us free from hell itself. It gives us eternity. And, it lets us show forgiveness in our lives. So don’t stay locked up in guilt and anger. Forgiveness sets you free.
Our text takes us to the end of one of the best pure stories in the Bible. The full story of Joseph and his brothers spans many chapters through the book of Genesis. If you’ve never actually read it all the way through, it’s worth doing. It’s that good of a story. That’s why there have been movies and even Broadway musicals made out of this story.
Our text happens at the story’s end. 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?” (Gen. 50:15) You can see the themes of forgiveness and sins and grudges are all involved here. It’s worth remembering again why Joseph’s 11 brothers had good reason to be afraid he would hold a grudge against them.
You might remember that out of his twelve sons, Joseph was dad’s favorite. His dad Jacob gave Joseph a special (and no doubt expensive) coat that none of his brothers had. He allowed Joseph to get out of the hard work while he supervised his older brothers doing that work.
And Joseph didn’t exactly do himself any favors. He had dreams where it seemed like his brothers (and even his parents) were bowing down to him. Joseph didn’t hesitate to share those dreams with his family, and let’s just say it didn’t make him too popular.
He was so unpopular, in fact, that many of his brothers had reached the point where they wanted him dead. So when the perfect opportunity came along, they acted on it. They threw him down a well and then ate lunch. Eventually, they decided against killing him, so they did the next best thing instead: they sold him as a slave.
Think about how cruel this was. Yes, killing him would’ve been horrible, but think about what selling him into slavery would do. This wasn’t going to mean working as a butler for a wealthy family. This would mean a potential lifetime of back-breaking labor and possible abuse. Instead of killing him themselves, the brothers opted to kill him slowly as a slave for the rest of his life.
Yet, God blessed him. He flourished as a slave. The brattiness that he had shown with his family seemed to be gone. He worked his way up under his master Potiphar, in Egypt. He had a setback, though, when Potiphar’s wife falsely accused him. He actually wound up in prison this time, through no fault of his own. Hmm, I wonder if it ever occurred to him to be angry at his brothers for getting him into this mess as he suffered in prison?
But even there, God was with him. He actually did so well in prison that he helped out the warden. He worked his way up, even behind bars. And while he was there, God allowed him to interpret some dreams for a couple of prisoners. And that’s when things started to change drastically for him.
One of those prisoners whose dreams he’d interpreted was able to tell Pharaoh himself, the ruler of Egypt, about it. Because the Pharaoh had had his own dreams, he needed Joseph’s help. And guess what? Joseph did help. A lot. God allowed him to interpret the dreams and to solve Pharaoh’s problem of a famine coming for the entire world. God let Joseph come up with a plan that would keep everyone fed with plenty to spare. It all went so well that not only did Joseph get out of prison, but Pharaoh appointed him as second-in-command of the whole nation. Joseph would be in charge of keeping everyone with enough food during the famine.
Keeping everyone with food eventually meant helping his own family. They didn’t recognize him at first but Joseph’s own brothers came for food. He could have taken revenge on them right there. But he didn’t. He gave them their food. He eventually told them who he was, and he didn’t attack them, but he helped them. He told them to bring their families to Egypt, including their dad. He had them all live in the best place they could. He showed them love and forgiveness in every way.
Which brings us back to our text. Their dad has just died. The brothers wondered, Is now the time when Joseph will change? Did he just not want to do anything bad to us while dad was still around? Well, they weren’t going to wait around to find out.
They sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘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.” (Gen. 50:16-17) It’s almost funny when you think of the lenghts that the brothers went to here. We can’t know for sure whether their dad Jacob actually said the things that the brothers report here, but I doubt he did. I think the brothers were scared. They knew Joseph still had power over them, power to even kill them. They knew how badly they had sinned. That knowledge had them trapped in a prison of fear.
Joseph, for his part, had plenty of reasons to be mad. Plenty of reasons to hold a grudge. He could’ve been nursing that grudge for years. He could’ve been just waiting for the right time to strike back. He could’ve taken his chance, after dad had died, to pay those brothers back in blood for all their sins. He could have been trapped in his own prison of anger and thoughts of revenge.
But he wasn’t. He didn’t do any of those things. He forgave them. Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. (Gen. 50:20-21)
Forgiveness sets you free. Even if he had stayed in prison or a slave, Joseph’s forgiveness set his heart free from anger and hate. When he made it clear, again, that he’d forgiven his brothers, he set them free from the fear and guilt of their actions.
It’s one thing to talk about this, but I think you all know it’s another thing to do it. When someone has hurt you, our sinful nature wants to hold onto that. That sinful part of us wants that hatred and anger to stay there. But it only ends up hurting us. Our anger toward someone else can actually hurt our relationships with many other people, along with God himself.
I don’t mean we should let people walk all over us. I don’t mean that people’s actions don’t or shouldn’t have consequences in our lives. Sometimes someone could do something that gets them put in jail, and that might be for the best. Sometimes unfaithfulness will destroy a marriage and it won’t be put back together. Sometimes someone will break a trust and the solution might be to not trust them so much in the future. But if we don’t forgive, if we don’t let that hurt go in our hearts, we’re only hurting ourselves.
How can we do this? How is forgiveness possible, with such big hurts in this world and in our hearts? It’s only possible in Jesus. The only possible source of forgiveness we can find for others is the bottomless forgiveness that Jesus has given to us. The only way we can let go of the hurt that others have done to us and forgive them is to see how Jesus held on to our sins, the ways we’ve hurt others, our every mistake. He held onto them at the cross, and he took them away forever.
See, we hurt him. It was your sins that brought Jesus to the cross. It was my sins, too. He came to a world that had turned its back on him. But instead of revenge, instead of letting us rot like we deserved, instead of punishing us with hell itself, Jesus forgave us. He let himself take the punishment. He allowed God’s wrath to slam into him instead of us. He took the death we owed and he gave us the life he won.
That forgiveness sets you free. It sets you free now as we live in this sinful world. We see glimpses of it now as Jesus’ love enables people to put the hurts down and be set free in forgiveness, even when — especially when — the other person doesn’t deserve it. We will see the final perfection of that forgiveness in heaven. There, we’ll be with people we hurt and who hurt us, but that hurt will be gone. There, we will stand before our God in joy and peace, forgiven, restored. Forever.