Sermon: Longing for a Better Country

This morning we reach the end of the book of Genesis. Genesis 50, beginning in verse 1. Next week I will be gone but then we will come back and listen well to the letter of Paul to the Philippians, listening for Joy in Christ. Yet today, we reach the end of Genesis. Last week, we heard Jacob’s blessing upon his sons. At the end, he drew up his feet into his bed, breathed his last, and was gathered to his people. Jacob has just died. And it is here that we pick up the story in Genesis 50. But before we do, please take a moment to pray with me. 

Prayer

Then Joseph threw himself on his father’s face and wept over him and kissed him. Joseph commanded the physicians in his service to embalm his father. So the physicians embalmed Israel; they spent forty days in doing this, for that is the time required for embalming. And the Egyptians wept for him seventy days. 

When the days of weeping for him were past, Joseph addressed the household of Pharaoh, “If now I have found favor with you, please speak to Pharaoh as follows: My father made me swear an oath; he said, ‘I am about to die. In the tomb that I hewed out for myself in the land of Canaan, there you shall bury me.’ Now therefore let me go up, so that I may bury my father, then I will return.” Pharaoh answered, “Go up, and bury your father, as he made you swear to do.”

So Joseph went up to bury his father. With him went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his household, and all the elders of the land of Egypt, as well as all the household of Joseph, his brothers, and his father’s household. Only their children, their flocks, and their herds were left in the land of Goshen. Both chariots and charioteers went up with him. It was a very great company. When they came to the threshing floor of Atad, which is beyond the Jordan, they held there a very great and sorrowful lamentation; and he observed a time of mourning for his father seven days. When the Canaanite inhabitants of the land saw the mourning on the threshing floor of Atad, they said, “This is a grievous mourning on the part of the Egyptians.” Therefore the place was named Abel-mizraim; it is beyond the Jordan. Thus his sons did for him as he had instructed them. They carried him to the land of Canaan and buried him in the cave of the field at Machpelah, the field near Mamre, which Abraham bought as a burial site from Ephron the Hittite. After he had buried his father, Joseph returned to Egypt with his brothers and all who had gone up with him to bury his father.

Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them. 

So Joseph remained in Egypt, he and his father’s household; and Joseph lived one hundred ten years. Joseph saw Ephraim’s children of the third generation; the children of Machir son of Manasseh were also born on Joseph’s knees.

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die; but God will surely come to you, and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” So Joseph made the Israelites swear, saying, “When God comes to you, you shall carry up my bones from here.” And Joseph died, being one hundred ten years old; he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

These are the last words in the book of Genesis. Fifty chapters, beginning at the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, speaking words that shaped and filled reality. Fifty chapters, through the fall and the flood and the tower of Babel. Fifty chapters, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. It ends here, with the funeral of Jacob and the death of Joseph. 

As we close our time in the book of Genesis, ending our trek through the story of Joseph, I want us to see in Genesis 50 something about grief, something about forgiveness, and something about hope. Grief, Forgiveness, and Hope. 

First, a word about grief. The people of God grieve death when it comes. Joseph grieves the death of his father Jacob. We can feel the emotions of Joseph at his father’s death, especially if we remember our own times in the throws of grief. After this, Joseph threw himself on his father’s face and wept over him and kissed him. Joseph’s grief is deep and is felt in his body. But in his grief, he still works to care for his father’s body, to honor him in death. He has Jacob embalmed – a typically Egyptian practice, for only Jacob and Joseph are ever embalmed. Yet it was a long and expensive process. Forty days. Joseph, along with all Egypt, weeps for Jacob seventy days. That’s two and a half months of the whole nation publicly mourning the death of Jacob. Clearly Jacob and Joseph were honored in Egypt, but also clearly the grief was deep. Then Joseph asks permission from Pharaoh to go up to Canaan to bury his father. Pharaoh agrees, and a whole state funeral procession is made from Egypt to Canaan – servants, elders, leaders from all Egypt, chariots and charioteers – in solemn procession to the burial of Jacob. Then they reach a threshing floor and lament for Jacob seven more days. They were so many and their grief so deep that the local people noticed and renamed the place because it was there that the Egyptians mourned for Jacob. 

Joseph grieves for his father and leads his brothers and all Egypt in grieving as well. And he is right to do so. The people of God grieve death when it comes. Our grief or our funerals are rarely as extravagant as what we see done for Jacob and we should not equate the size or expense of a funeral with the depth of love and grief. Yet, the people of God are right to grieve when death comes. The hope of eternal life does not cancel out the grief of death. 

In fact, even though death and grief are universal, there is also something truly Christian about grieving the dying. 

Christians grieve the dying because we know the value of the person. He or she was made in the image of God. Though all peoples have some sense of this, Christians have the unique vision to see the incredible value of every human person. While this deepens our love and joy in life, it also deepens our grief in death. If they were just a rational animal, just a clump of cells, or just important for what they contributed to society, we might be sad for a moment or two, but we wouldn’t grieve. Yet, there is something truly Christian about grieving the dying because we know just how valuable each and every person is, even as we recognize the special value of certain people in our lives. We grieve because we love and we love because they matter – to us and to God who made them in his image. 

Christians are also right to grieve because we can be honest about death. Death cuts a person off from the land of the living. We grieve because, in death, that person is gone from us. All those platitudes – they are still with us in spirit, heaven just got an angel, or they live on in our hearts – are not only lies, but they simply fall flat because the truth of death. Death cuts us off from the land of the living. 

As a pastor, I get to be a part of a lot of funerals and I am reaching the point in life where I am increasingly going to family funerals. I tend to get angry at all the schmaltzy poems and sayings I see that try to make it sound like everything is fine and this isn’t really that bad. Rather, let’s be honest. We gather to grieve because death is hard, because it is loss, because it is not a friend to us. Death cuts them off from us and that is deeply painful, even for those who die in the faith, let alone the anguish for those who do not. 

I think of holding my step-father at my grandmother’s funeral as he shakes and sobs at the loss of his mother. I think of every funeral where my mother was asked to sing ‘His eye is on the Sparrow,’ as I see her strength to maintain composure. I think of those who have not yet tasted death, but whose loss – one day or another – already cuts my heart. 

So we rightly grieve when someone dies. This is not the way things are supposed to go. Death is both natural to our fallen existence and also profoundly unnatural. There is a sense in which death is an enemy. So we grieve, like Joseph, at those we have lost because we know their value and we know that death has cut them off from us and that is painful. 

So the first word I want you to hear this morning from Genesis 50 is a word about grief. Joseph grieves deeply the death of his father Jacob and he is right to do so. Christians, of all people, can grieve because we know how valuable every human person is and because we acknowledge just how deep and painful is the cut of death. 

The second word we need to hear is about forgiveness. After Joseph buries Jacob, he heads back to Egypt with his brothers. However, the brothers have a concern. Dad is dead and Joseph is still in power over us. Perhaps, now will be the time of his revenge. Maybe he didn’t mean it when he forgave us but was only waiting until Dad was gone. So they come to Joseph with a supposed request from their father. Would Joseph please forgive the brothers for the wrong they did to him? Joseph weeps. Fearing the worst, the brothers begin to weep as well, throw themselves at Joseph’s feet, and ask to be his slaves – better that than death. But Joseph turns to them and confirms his forgiveness. 

He had not been holding onto the grudge all these years. With his eyes on what God has done, Joseph is able to see how the LORD even turned their wicked desires into good. He forgives.

The brothers had feared that the forgiveness was only temporary, that it might hold for the moment, but when the time was ripe, Joseph would bring out that old hurt, that old injury, that old grudge and use it against them. They were afraid that Joseph would ‘forgive but not forget’ which really meant no forgiveness at all, but just delayed retribution. 

Have you ever done that? You say you have forgiven someone, but you hold that injury in your heart, then – weeks, months, years later – you bring it up again as a weapon. We say we forgive, but it really means we just hold onto our pain to use it against the person later. 

Have you ever had that done to you? They say they forgive you, but you sense they have not. You live with the words of forgiveness, but wondering when they will finally choose to let the axe fall on you. 

Some people I know were talking recently about forgiveness and grudges. One said, “You know, a family has got to be able to forgive. I can get hot and angry pretty easily – I know it’s not great – but I do know how to forgive and I don’t hold grudges.” The other person responded casually, “Oh, I hold grudges.” 

This is what the brother’s feared. Joseph might still hold a grudge. He might say forgiveness, but really mean judgement later. I know that nobody here would ever get hot-blooded. There are no people in our lives that are – how shall we say this – that’s right – strong-willed and passionate. That’s the right way to put, right? We never get hot and angry, do we? Now, Scripture has lots to say about anger and sin, but I want to be clear on this. If anger is a problem, grudge-holding is poison.

If Joseph had held onto that grudge it would have been poison to the people of God. With Jacob no longer alive to hold them together, Joseph’s grudge would have destroyed them or alienated them from each other. We have seen how this happens when Mom or Dad dies and the kids turn into wild animals in how they treat each other. Every injury of the past finally comes to the surface and suddenly no one is talking to each other. This was possible for the people of Israel. But instead, Joseph forgave. He set aside the possibility of using the wrong they had done against him as a weapon – now or later. He forgave. 

Anger is a problem, but grudge-holding is poison. It would have been poison to the people of God and it is poison to us as well. 

You want to poison your marriage, hold a grudge. The destruction may be slow in coming, but the poison is deadly.

You want to poison your friendships, hold a grudge. 

You want to poison your workplace, hold a grudge.

You want to poison the church, hold a grudge. Say you forgive someone, but hold onto that memory waiting for the right moment to bring it up again. It was destroy you and poison the church. I’ve seen it in men who once were passionate about mission, but held onto bitterness and grudges until no one wanted to serve with them and they ended up leaving the church. I’ve seen it in faithful, servant women whose grudges turned them bitter and left them sniping at every one who they thought wasn’t do things just the right way. 

You want to poison your life, hold a grudge.

I was talking to my Dad a couple years ago about forgiveness and I said to him, “I don’t think cranky old men are born that way. I think it happens slowly when they fail to forgive.” 

Joseph could have held the grudge. Joseph had spent decades in prison and was ripped from this family. The brothers got off, not with punishment, but with the blessings of Egypt given to them because of Joseph’s hard work. Joseph could have easily seen now as the time for revenge. Instead, he forgave. And if we want health and life in our community, in our church, in our families, we will need to learn what Joseph did. Forgive. Forgive. Forgive. Then forgive again. Otherwise, to hold on to grudge will be nothing but poison to us. 

That’s the second word we need to hear this morning. Forgiveness frees us from the poison of holding grudges. 

One last word as we close the book of Genesis. A word about hope. Genesis ends with longing and hope for another country. Joseph lives 110 and then calls his brothers to him. As he dies, he makes a promise. God will come to them and will bring them out of Egypt to the promised land. When God comes and when they go, Joseph makes them promise to carry his bones up with them. Then he dies. 

The book ends with Joseph dying outside the promised land. He dies outside, longing for home. He dies in a country, but he is not yet in his true home. Yet, he dies with the promise of God on his lips that God will come and one day bring his people out of this land of bondage into the land of their true home. Genesis ends with longing and promise. Longing for the land of God’s people, even as we sit in Egypt. The promised hope that one day God will come and bring us there. 

We talked earlier about how Christians grieve the dying because death is a place of loss. Yet, Christians also approach death as a place of hope. Each and every one of us, unless Christ returns soon, will die outside the promised land. We will die like Joseph, in the land of Egypt, in a place of bondage, waiting and hoping for the day when the LORD will surely come to us and bring us up out of that land to the land of promise. 

Each of us dies in Egypt longing for our bones to be carried across the Jordan into the New Jerusalem. Each of us dies in Egypt with the promise that God will surely come one day, the dead raised, and the LORD will lead us into his everlasting kingdom. 

If the death of Jacob teaches us to grieve in the face of death, the death of Joseph teaches us to hope in the face of death. It is a reminder that, like Joseph, we long for a better country. We grieve, yes. We forgive, yes. And we hope for that better country. When the book of Hebrews speaks of Abraham and the other patriarchs, it says even their longing for the land of Canaan was truly a longing for a better country – a heavenly one. 

In Christ, we can die in hope. Though we might die outside the land, in the land of Egypt, with all its beauty and challenges, we die with the promise that God will bring us one day to the land of promise. We live and die in the promise that one day God will bring us fully into his kingdom, where Christ is. 

Throughout the story of Joseph, we have been seeing God’s faithfulness when life is in the pit. We saw it when Joseph was thrown into the pit by his brothers, then as he went into the pit of slavery, and then as he went into the pit of prison. We saw God’s faithfulness when the country of Egypt was plunged into the pit of famine and it was unclear whether the brothers would ever be reconciled. Here at the end, we see it again. God is faithful when life is in the pit. The promise at the end of Genesis, that echoes down into the promises of the gospel is that God is faithful even when we end the pit of death. That one day God will surely come to us and bring us up out of that land to the land that he has promised. Praise be to God!

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s