This summer we are working our way through the story of Joseph, exploring how God is faithful when life is in the pit. This morning we are beginning in Genesis 43, verse 1. We have walked beside Joseph as his life is in the physical pit of the cistern, slavery, and prison and seen God’s ever-present faithfulness. Now, Joseph is out of that pit, but he is still not reconciled to his brothers. Last week, he put them to the test, to see whether they would treat their brother now the same way they had treated him back then. Joseph, second-in-command in Egypt, had sent them back home with grain, but kept Simeon in prison, requesting only that the brothers bring Benjamin down to see him in Egypt. But their father Jacob refused to let Benjamin go. That is where we pick up the story this morning, but before we hear God’s word, please take a moment to pray with me.
Father, may your word be our rule,
Your Holy Spirit our teacher,
and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.
Now the famine was severe in the land. And when they had eaten up the grain that they had brought from Egypt, their father said to them, “Go again, buy us a little more food.” But Judah said to him, “The man solemnly warned us, saying, ‘You shall not see my face unless your brother is with you.’ If you will send our brother with us, we will go down and buy you food; but if you will not send him, we will not go down, for the man said to us, ‘You will not see my face unless your brother is with you.’” Israel said, “Why did you treat me so badly as to tell the man that you had another brother?” They replied, “The man questioned us carefully about ourselves and our kindred, saying, ‘Is your father still alive? Have you another brother?’ What we told him was in answer to these questions. Could we in any way know that he would say, ‘Bring your brother down’?” Then Judah said to his father Israel, “Send the boy with me, and let us be on our way, so that we may live and not die – you and we and also our little ones. I myself will be surety for him; you can hold me accountable for him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame forever. If we had not delayed, we would not have returned twice.”
Then their father Israel said to them, “If it must be so, then do this: take some of the choice fruits of the land in your bags, and carry them down as a present to the man – a little balm and a little honey, gum, resin, pistachio nuts, and almonds. Take double the money with you. Carry back with you the money that was returned in the top of your sacks; perhaps it was an oversight. Take your brother also, and be on your way again to the man; may God almighty grant your mercy before the man, so that he may send back your other brother and Benjamin. As for me, if I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved.” So the men took the present, and they took double the money with them, as well as Benjamin. Then they went on their way down to Egypt, and stood before Joseph.
When Joseph saw Benjamin with them, he said to the steward of his house, “Bring the men into the house, and slaughter an animal and make ready, for the mean are to dine with me at noon.” The man did as Joseph said, and brought the men to Joseph’s house. Now the men were afraid because they were brought to Joseph’s house, and they said, “It is because of the money, replaced in our sacks the first time, that we have been brought in, so that he may have an opportunity to fall upon us, make us slaves, and take our donkeys.” So they went up to the steward of Joseph’s house and spoke with him at the entrance to the house. They said, “Oh, my lord, we came down the first time to buy food; and when we came to the lodging place we opened our sacks, and there was each one’s money in the top of his sack, our money in full weight. So we have brought it back with us. Moreover we have brought down with us additional money to buy food. We do not know who put our money in our sacks.” He replied, “Rest assured, do not be afraid; your God and the God of your father must have put treasure in your sacks for you; I received your money.” Then he brought Simeon out to them. When the steward had brought the men into Joseph’s house and given them water and they had washed their feet, and when he had given their donkey’s fodder, they made the present ready for Joseph’s coming at noon, for they had heard that they would dine there.
When Joseph came home, they brought him the present that they had carried into the house, and bowed to the ground before him. He inquired about their welfare, and said, “Is your father well, the old man of whom you spoke? Is he still alive?” They said, “Your servant our father is well, he is still alive.” And they bowed their heads and did obeisance. Then he looked up and saw his brother Benjamin, his mother’s son, and said, “Is this your youngest brother of whom you spoke to me? God be gracious to you, my son!” With that, Joseph hurried out, because he was overcome with affection for his brother, and he was about to weep. So he went into a private room and wept there. Then he washed his face and came out and controlling himself he said, “Serve the meal.” They served him by himself, and them by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, because the Egyptians could not eat with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination to the Egyptians. When they were seated before him, the firstborn according to his birthright and the youngest according to his youth, the men looked at one another in amazement. Portions were taken to them from Joseph’s table, but Benjamin’s portion was five times as much as any of theirs. So they drank and were merry with him.
Then he commanded the steward of his house, “Fill the men’s sacks with food, as much as they can carry, and put each man’s money in the top of his sack. Put my cup, the silver cup, in the top of the sack of the youngest, with his money for the grain.” And he did as Joseph told him. As soon as the morning was light, the men were sent away with their donkeys. When they had gone only a short distance from the city, Joseph said to his steward, “Go, follow after the men; and when you overtake them, say to them, ‘Why have you returned evil for good? Why have you stolen my silver cup? Is it not from this that my lord drinks? Does he not indeed use it for divination? You have done wrong in doing this.’”
When he overtook them, he repeated these words fo them. They said to him, “Why does my lord speak such words as these? Far be it from your servants that they should do such a thing! Look, the money that we found at the top of our sacks, we brought back to you from the land of Canaan; why then would we steal silver or gold from your lord’s house? Should it be found with any of your servants, let him die; moreover the rest of us will become my lord’s slaves.” He said, “Even so; in accordance with your words, let it be: he with whom it is found shall become my slave, but the rest of you shall go free.” Then each one quickly lowered his sack to the ground, and each opened his sack. He searched, beginning with the elders and ending with the youngest; and the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack. At this they tore their clothes. Then each one loaded his donkey, and they returned to the city.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Sometimes it takes a lot of pain before we will get moving. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I have had a conversation that went like this. I’m sitting with someone after knee surgery – it is usually the knee, sometimes the shoulder – and they say, “When I finally went in to the doctor, she said my knee was terrible and should have been dealt with years ago. But I just learned to live with it until the pain got so much I couldn’t bear it anymore. But I’m glad I got it done.” Or another one I’ve heard a lot. Only after chest pains or a full heart attack brings someone to the hospital are we finally ready to change our diet or daily routine of exercise.
Have you been in that conversation? It sometimes takes great pain and discomfort before we will actual go and do something about it. Maybe it’s pride, maybe it’s inertia, maybe its that patented Dutch stubbornness, though it runs in my family too and I don’t have a drop of Dutch blood in me. But the fact is that we will tend to just ‘keep on keeping on’ until the pain or discomfort rises high enough for us to actually move and do something about. It often takes ache to bring us to change.
But this is not just true with our bodies. It is true of our souls. Ache is often the way God brings us to change.
Ache is often the way God brings us to change. This is what we see this morning in this section of the story of Jacob’s sons. On their own, if it was up to them, things would have stay the same. Life would not have changed and neither would they. The way things were was miserable, but comfortable. It was only when the pain rose high enough were they willing to move, move “unwillingly but fortunately down the path of hope” God had for them.
Before we dive into the details, we need to get something clear. The fact that God uses the aches, the hungers, and the pains of our lives to bring us where would not have gone on our own does not mean that God actively caused or sent all the misery in your life. God is in control of all things and why God allows such suffering is, in many ways, a mystery. We are not told. We know from Scripture that none of it is outside God’s control and that God is not the author of evil. We are not going to solve that dilemma this morning, but I want to be clear so that you don’t mishear me. God uses our aches to bring us to change, but that does not mean that God actively sends all the misery in your life. As Joseph himself will later say, “You (referring to the brothers) meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”
God uses our aches to bring us to change, to lead us where would not otherwise go. This is what we see in the story of Jacob and his sons. This morning we are going to start at the end and work our way back to the beginning. In doing so, we will see how God uses aches to bring us to change in three places – and empty cup, an empty table, and an empty house.
First, God uses aches to bring about change, to lead his people where they would not otherwise go through an empty cup. When the brothers leave Egypt, they must have been surprised by how well everything went. Not only were they not accused of stealing the money they had found in their packs the last time they came, but they had dined in governor’s house. Simeon had been restored to them. The governor had received them as guests, fed them food from his table, showering extra portions on Benjamin. They drank and enjoyed his company for an evening. They had come empty and left full, with all eleven remaining brothers.
A few miles outside of the city and the steward rides to catch up with them. Everything starts to fall apart. They are accused of stealing, not just silver and gold, but the precious silver cup of the governor. The brothers are indignant and proclaim that none of them would even think of doing such a thing. In fact, they are so confident they rashly vow that if one of them has it, that brother will be killed and the rest will go into slavery.
A rash and foolish vow – like Jacob when Laban accuses him of stealing the household gods which are unknowingly in Rachel’s bags – like Judah when he hears the circumstances of Tamar’s pregnancy and vows judgment – like later Jephthah who vows away his daughter.
The steward accepts the vow but softens it. No one shall die and only the one who stole the cup will be enslaved, the rest will go free. The pace slows as the tension builds. Then each one quickly lowered his sack to the ground, and each opened his sack. He searched, beginning with the elders and ending with the youngest; and the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack.
Now what? What will the brothers do? This is the third time these brothers have faced the same situation. One brother left in the pit while the others go free. The first time, with Joseph, the brothers sat and ate, then rose and sold him off and lied to their father. The second time, with Simeon left behind in Egypt, the brothers feel remorse but still leave him in the pit. But now, when Benjamin will not just be imprisoned by sold into slavery, what will the brothers do? Will they keep going as they always have? Will they keep putting themselves and their interests first? Will they abandon another brother? Is the pain of losing Benjamin enough that they will finally break out of their pattern and acts differently?
At this they tore their clothes. Then each one loaded his donkey and they returned to the city. The brothers go back for Benjamin. Every other time they left their brother in the pit, but for the first time they go back for him. Something has changed in them. God has brought them to a place they would not have gone on their own. God used the ache of losing Benjamin to lead the brothers to become different men than they had been before. They go back for Benjamin.
We will see next week what happens when they arrive and plead for the life of Benjamin, but the first crucial move was made in our passage today. The ache was enough that they were willing to change. They went back for Benjamin. It took an empty cup found in their youngest brother’s sack, forfeiting his life and freedom, for them to go where God was ultimately leading them.
But we need to back up a bit. It is not just the brothers that reach the pain point where aches bring them to change. It is not just the brothers who experience a pain of soul that will be God’s catalyst for change. We also see it in Joseph at an empty table.
Joseph sees his brothers coming with Benjamin and invites them to come and eat with him. After meeting the brothers and breaking down at the sight of Benjamin, Joseph tells them to serve the meal. It’s verse 32: They served him by himself, and them by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, because the Egyptians could not eat with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination to the Egyptians.
Joseph eats alone. Joseph could not eat with the Egyptians because he was a Hebrew, but he could not yet eat with his brothers because he had not revealed himself to them. Joseph sits at a table by himself while the others eat in various communities. Where does Joseph belong? In learning about the attitude of the Egyptians toward the Hebrews, this was not an isolated incident. Joseph is second in command over all Egypt. He is in the highest and most powerful position he could ever attain in Egypt. Yet, he will never belong. He will never be welcome at the table. For years, Joseph has been eating alone. All the power, all the influence, an Egyptian wife, an Egyptian name, and all the temptation that comes with it, but Joseph will never truly belong.
Yet, he does not belong with his brothers either. The rift has not been mended. Where does Joseph belong? We don’t get the resolution yet. We don’t have the answer yet to the question of whether Joseph is truly a son of Jacob or a son of Pharaoh. All we see today is that Joseph dines alone. Joseph sits at the table alone. This heightens the pain of the question of where Joseph belongs.
God uses aches to bring us to change, to bring us where we would not otherwise go. I think of a friend whose relationship with his son broke down sometime in high school. He had worked too many hours and taken too little time connecting and investing in his children. The years had worn on their relationship and the ache grew until he had to change. The relationship is still hard and painful, though it is improving. This friend is a faithful companion to me, reminding me through his own failures of what is truly important in being a father. While this friend would never have wished to go through this, he tells me his prayer life has never been the same. He had always prayed, but it was different. His desperation forced him to come to God in ways he hadn’t before. God did not send this upon him, but God uses aches to bring us to change, to bring us where would not otherwise go.
But we need to back up a little bit more, to see Jacob sitting in an empty house. God uses aches to bring us to change, to bring us where would not otherwise go. For Jacob, God uses hunger to bring him “unwillingly but fortunately down the path of hope.” Jacob’s loss has made him protective. Years ago, he lost Joseph and so be protected Joseph’s younger brother Benjamin. Then later, the brothers go to Egypt and Simeon doesn’t come back, but they say they need to bring Benjamin down to Egypt in order to buy more food.
But Jacob refuses to risk Benjamin. At the end of the last chapter, Jacob refused the brother’s request to take their youngest brother down. It is too much of a risk. The cost if things go wrong is too high. Jacob won’t do it.
If you know the rest of the story, it is Benjamin going down to Egypt that sparks the reconciliation between the brothers, that restores the family, and, in fact, lifts Jacob out of his decades of despair. God’s plan is fulfilled for the family of Jacob by Benjamin going down, but Jacob won’t do it.
For Jacob the status quo may be miserable, but it is better than risking more hurt, more loss. He is content to keep things the way they are, even if it hurts. It is only when the ache grows too much to bear that Jacob finally is willing to change. It is only once the food runs out and hunger gnaws at his insides that he willing to budge.
In this way, God uses the suffering of the body to cure the soul. Left on his own, Jacob would never have sent Benjamin down to Egypt. He never would have changed. If it was up to him, he never would have taken the risk. Yet, God uses the hunger to lead Jacob where he needed to go, even if Jacob couldn’t see it.
Jacob with Benjamin is a bit like that knee pain. It hurts, but we live with it. Until the pain grows too much that we are basically forced to change, forced to deal with the problem and find relief.
This is what it is like for Jacob with Benjamin and this is what it is often like for us in our walk with God. We seek comfort and familiarity, keeping things the way they are, until there is enough discomfort for us to change. I know that is true for me, and I’m guessing its true for you as well. More than just knee pain, there are pains in marriages or relationships with children that we become content to live with until the ache grows that forces us to confront what is happening and change. More than just knee pain, there are sins in our lives – habits, attitudes, and desires – or sins in the world – racism, violence, injustice – that we just become content to live with until the ache reaches a point that change seems the only option. More than just knee pain, we can be like Jacob and refuse the risk – the risk of telling another about Christ, the risk of fulling committing to the cause of Christ, the risk of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – content with the status quo until the ache reaches a point where change is the only option.
This happens in churches as well. We keep on keeping on, comfortable with things as they are, until the loss and discomfort, until the ache reaches a point where we are willing to change. It is not about knowing change needs to happen, but about reaching a point where the cost of doing nothing is felt to be greater than the cost and risk of change.
This is what happened with Jacob. He would not risk Benjamin until the ache was enough to force his hand. This ache is what we see with Joesph, eating alone at the table. This is what happened with the brothers. It was only when the ache of losing Benjamin was so great that they finally turned back to rescue one of the brothers. God uses ache to bring us to change, to lead us where would not have gone on our own.
So the question for us this morning, in light of the story of Jacob and his sons, is this: What ache or pain in your heart and soul are you ignoring? Where might God be using your discomfort to prompt you to move in ways that you would not go on your own?
What ache or pain are you ignoring? And what might it look like to follow where God is leading you?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.