15th Sunday after Pentecost – 9/13/2020
"What a world! What a world!" cried out the exasperated wicked witch of the west as she melted away in the familiar scene from the Wizard of Oz. Of course, her lament concerning the sad state of affairs in the world had only to do with her demise, with no thought that it was due primarily to her wickedness that the Land of Oz was in such travail.
Many today are echoing the wicked witch's lament about the state of affairs in our world. From television pundits to that member sitting in the pew frustrated with all the politics of the COVID-19 pandemic and the radicals rioting and looting across our country, they all seem to be hollering, "What a world we live in!" "Can it get any worse?"
I don't mean to downplay these legitimate feelings and fears, but what's new? Yes, the world is full of evil. But it has always been that way since the fall. The apostle Paul wrote two millennia ago, "(make) the best use of the time because the days are evil" (Eph. 5:16). His fellow apostle John wrote a few decades later, "The whole world lies in the power of the evil one" (I John 5:19).
Albert Einstein had an interesting take on our exasperation with the evil in the world. He says, "The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it" (BrainyQuote.com).
Indeed, you and I cannot hide from evil, nor can we rid the world of it. In fact, as a descendant of Adam, evil resides in each of us. The real issue is: What do we do about it? How do we respond to evil? Do we respond in kind? Evil for evil, as if the evil received justifies the evil in return? "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth?"
Everyone seems to be demanding justice when they or others affiliated with it are wronged, abused, or otherwise unfairly treated. We are still hearing loud cries demanding justice for George Floyd, the black man who claimed to have been murdered by police in Minneapolis last May. Of course, the protestors and rioters have other similar incidents of claimed police injustice toward black people to point to now from Kenosha, Wisconsin, and North Carolina to make their case further. Even if it can be proven that these incidents are the result of systematic racism among the police, they are being used by the more radical individuals and groups like Black Lives Matter to justify their ongoing rioting, assaulting and even murdering police officers, looting and burning down businesses, and doing whatever they can to disrupt civil society. They claim their anarchy and demands for reparations from even ordinary, totally uninvolved citizens are justified because the police and President Donald Trump have wickedly abused black people.
If there is one thing that Holy Scripture teaches, justice ultimately rests with God. In our Epistle Reading this morning, the apostle Paul clearly states, "Why do you pass judgment on your brother? "For we all will stand before the judgment seat of God." It is not the place of the judge to judge. God alone has the authority to judge as the Creator of all things. God alone is also truly just and right in all His ways. He alone, then, is worthy to judge.
At the same time, God is also the One who has established how governments, as well as individuals, are to respond to evil. In his letter to the Roman Christians, the Lord's apostle writes, "...rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad." Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. "For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer." (Rom. 13:3,4)
As a result, it is not a question of whether the duly established government will respond with force against evil. It is a matter of when and how. The government bears God's sword of wrath to punish evil. In earthly matters, God has delegated the role of judging to the government.
On the other hand, the same apostle, quoting the prophet Moses in Deuteronomy, writes concerning our demands for personal justice, "Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to doing what is honorable in the sight of all." If possible, and as far as it is within your power, live peacefully with everyone. Beloved, never avenge yourselves; leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing, you will heap burning coals on his head." "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Ro. 12:17–21).
As our Old Testament lesson from Genesis reveals, we find Joseph of old at this juncture of political and personal response to evil. His older brothers had wickedly treated him. For no fault of his own, they had thrown him into a pit, falsified his death to his father Jacob, and sold him to some slave traders, at whose hands Joseph eventually ended up in an Egyptian prison. But through a series of providential actions, God graciously brought Joseph out of the depths of the evil received and placed him on the throne of power in Egypt, second only to the Pharaoh.
The text's central question is how Joseph would use his authority to exact justice for those wronged him. Would he respond with the sword of the God-given power of the governing ruler or as a person whom the goodness, mercy, and grace of God had also visited? What place would he assume?
Joseph's brothers felt quite sure about how Joseph would respond. When their father Jacob died, they feared that all the wickedness they had done to Joseph would be avenged upon them. While Jacob was alive, they must have felt a certain sense of safety, knowing that for the sake of their father, Joseph would not dare to lift a finger against them. They feared they'd lost their safety net with Jacob's death!
Fearing the worst, they sent a very pointed and personal message to Joseph: "Your father gave this command before he died: 'Say to Joseph, please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.' And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father."
Whether Jacob gave such instructions or not is immaterial. Such a request would certainly not be out of character for Jacob, for he loved all his sons and was so happy to have Joseph back that he certainly would not have wanted his other sons taken away by execution for their evil. Joseph was to see—quite clear to us—that the brothers were genuinely afraid of Joseph's power and sincerely contrite over their sin against him. They were willing to call it what it is: "evil." They likewise felt its burden, pleading for Joseph to literally "lift it off of them," that is, forgive them.
That is what is so often missing from our confessions today. When our sin is exposed, we readily admit we were wrong, even if only to avoid punishment. And, yes, we are Johnny on the spot to point out that what others do is evil. But how often do we acknowledge our sin as evil?
Disobedience to God's commandments in any form, as well as failure to carry out God's will for our lives, are not simply mistakes or shortcomings. They are in willful defiance of God.
Every sin says to God, "I reject you in favor of another god." I put myself on your throne. "I know better than you what is best and right for me!" How, then, can our sin be considered anything but evil? Jesus has declared that all that comes out of our fleshly hearts is evil (Matt. 7:21–23). Before the flood, the LORD God continually judged all people's hearts as "evil" (Gen. 8:21).
If we cannot call our sin "evil," we will never truly repent or appreciate God's grace, which alone overcomes evil. If we see our sin as something less than evil, we still try to play God ourselves and define our sin by our standards, not His. We are usurping God's place!
Speaking of knowing where God is, Joseph found it necessary to take his brothers to school. They might have rightly understood their deeds as evil, but they did not know when it came to understanding God's place of justice or grace or how that grace controlled His justice and that of their brother Joseph.
Moses states that Joseph "wept" when they spoke to him. "What sort of tears were these?" Were they tears of relief that his brothers had finally admitted their guilt for what they had done to him? I don't think so. For years already, Joseph had been enjoying a restored relationship with his brothers. He had brought them and their families to Egypt and provided for their needs. He had embraced them years before, comforting them with these words: "And now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for... God sent me before you... to keep you alive by a great deliverance" (Gen. 45:5, 7).
I'm convinced that Joseph wept because it was now clear that his brothers still, all these years later, had not fully comprehended his forgiveness of them. As a result, they were still afraid of ultimately receiving the justice they deserved.
So great was their fear and lack of understanding about Joseph that, in their plea for him to forgive them, they tried to appease him to be merciful to them for their father's sake. They said: "Forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father."
How sad it is when people do not know and enjoy forgiveness, whether it is God's, yours, or mine. Sin and wickedness do not destroy relationships between people. If they did, we would not have any connections with anyone. Every relationship—that of husband and wife, father and son, mother and daughter, neighbors across the fence, fellow members of the congregation—is each wrought with all sorts of sin and evil. But what makes the relationship bond strong, lasting, enjoyable, and secure is not the punishment of the guilty but the forgiving of the guilty. Only where such forgiveness is indeed extended and believed can there be peace and no fear.
Joseph said to his panic-stricken brothers, "Do not fear, for am I in place of God?" "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring about that many people should be kept alive as they are today."
Joseph's brothers had no cause to fear him. Joseph was not about to encroach upon God's place to execute vengeance. "Vengeance is mine," says the Lord (Deut. 32:35). Joseph recognized that even though God had given him the power of the sword to punish evil in Egypt, that power was not for him or any other ruler to use for his vengeance. God has the authority to punish the wrongdoer. Besides, when God executes His punishment, you can expect it to be carried out more severely than anything you and I can devise.
You and I do not have the right to treat badly, speak harshly toward, give the silent treatment to, or otherwise punish those who sin against us. We insist that we are justified in the face of the evil done to us. Vengeance, however, belongs to God alone! When you and I act as judge, jury, and executioner toward those who have hurt us, we are wickedly usurping the place of God. He has not given us that place. He reserves it only for himself. Instead, God tells us, "Love your enemies; do good to those who persecute you; overcome evil with good."
Of course, this does not imply that you and I should put ourselves in danger or, in other words, sit idly by and become someone's punching bag. In the Gospels, we see Jesus escape several times from the hands of those who sought to kill him. After all, He wanted to be the one to choose the time and place to give His life as a ransom for sinners and not let evil decide. When God tells us to turn the other cheek, He also tells us not to seek revenge. We don't need to. That's his place.
What is so wonderfully ironic about this entire story of Joseph and His Brothers is that, as adamantly as Joseph refused to take God's place of vengeance, he eagerly embraced God's place of forgiveness. The further assurance of his forgiveness came with these words to his brothers: "So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones." Then Moses said, "Joseph comforted them and spoke kindly to them." In word and deed, Joseph made His forgiveness clear.
How could this man, who suffered so much because of his brothers' envy, hatred, and malice, forgive so completely and divinely? Joseph's God was so good to him. He had, in His grace, lifted Joseph out of the Egyptian prison of a condemned man to the glory of the King's throne. Joseph had so freely given; how could he not likewise freely give? How could he not do the divine thing and forgive?
Jacob's and Joseph's God is your God. He reserves the right to execute vengeance on evil in His righteousness. But His true righteousness is most clearly revealed in His grace to forgive for His Son's sake. The holy apostle writes: "(We) are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith." That was to show God's righteousness. (Romans 3:24-25). In His love for you, God gave up His right to punish you for your evil and instead gave up His Son as punishment in your place by allowing Him to suffer all things, even death, at the hands of evil men. In Jesus Christ, God has set you free from all fear of punishment and retribution. His forgiveness has been lavished upon you in the waters of Holy Baptism, spoken kindly to you regularly through His servant in the word of absolution, and placed in your mouth through the holy bread and wine that are His body and blood given and shed for you.
You have heard the saying, "To err is human, and to forgive is divine." Your gracious and forgiving God rejoices to share this divine place with you. He is the King of Jesus' parable who forgives the enormous debt of His servant, that is, you. He expects you, then, to treat your fellow debtors in kind. He teaches you through His Son to pray: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." He says, "Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and slander be put away from you, along with all malice." "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you." (Eph. 4:31-32).
What a great place God has given you in Christ to occupy. He has lifted you from the prison of fearing His wrath to live in the security of His grace, where He also allows you to occupy His gloriously righteous place of forgiveness. He has blessed you by making you alive in this evil world. Instead of being an agent of retribution and vengeance, He has allowed you to be a part of His force of forgiveness that ultimately will conquer all evil. Amen.