February 24th, 2019, Pastor Galen
Genesis 45:3-11, 15; Luke 6:27-38
How many of you have ever had an enemy? A rival? An archnemesis? Someone who seemed to be out for your destruction, or who tried to block you at every turn? Perhaps it was a co-worker or a colleague, a classmate, or a complete stranger.
The concept of an enemy is a rather universal phenomenon. Just as we have friends, there are also people in our lives who we can’t stand to be around, people who ruffle our feathers, or people who seem intent on our destruction.
Joseph had not just one enemy, but ten. And they weren’t coworkers or colleagues, they were his older brothers. And his brothers didn’t just beat him at Monopoly, or jump out of dark corners and scare him when he was walking through the house like my older brother did. His brothers hated him so much that they actually sold him into slavery.
This would be an utterly absurd story if it wasn’t completely true. Can you imagine this actually happening? Some of you may have had siblings who were mean to you. But selling your own flesh and blood as a slave? That takes the cake.
Sibling Rivalry to the Extreme
Joseph’s life was definitely one wild ride. Joseph was the eleventh of twelve brothers. He was the oldest son to his father’s favorite wife (so technically his ten older brothers were his half-brothers) and his father let it be known that Joseph was his favorite (37:3), which was the cause of no small amount of tension in the family. And if that weren’t bad enough, Joseph was also known to tattle on his brothers (c.f. Gen. 37:2) and his father intentionally sent him to spy on his brothers since they spent long periods of time tending their father’s flocks (37:14).
From an early age Joseph was a big dreamer. Maybe it was because his father thought so highly of him, or maybe because he had to constantly stand up to his older brothers, but for some reason Joseph’s dreams were always about how great he was and how someday he would rule over his brothers. That was all well and good, except that Joseph excitedly shared these dreams with his brothers. Probably not the wisest move on his part.
We have only a few examples of Joseph’s grandiose dreams and of his father’s ostentatious displays of favoritism, but eventually Joseph’s brothers couldn’t take it anymore. The next time Joseph came to spy on them, they faked his death and sold him into slavery, telling their father that Joseph had been attacked by a wild animal.
Sometimes Dreams Do Come True
Joseph was taken to Egypt and sold as a slave to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. Joseph rose through the ranks and was eventually put in charge of Potiphar’s whole household. But then he was accused of attempting to rape Potiphar’s wife, which landed him in prison. Joseph again rose to the top, and eventually caught the eye of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, because of his ability to correctly interpret dreams. Joseph gave wise counsel to Pharaoh in response to one of Pharaoh’s dreams and Pharaoh was so impressed that he put Joseph in charge of food distribution throughout the whole kingdom during a famine. And sure enough, who comes to get food during that famine, but Joseph’s older brothers.
By this point, fifteen years have passed since Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. He was seventeen when he arrived in Egypt, and now he’s thirty two. Joseph has completely assimilated into Egyptian culture and society. Joseph appears to them as an Egyptian official — they have no clue that he is their brother. But there they are, bowing down to their own brother who they don’t recognize, begging him to give them food.
At this point, Joseph’s dreams have literally come true. He is ruling over his brothers – in fact he holds their lives in his hands, since if he chooses not to give them food they and their families will starve.
Joseph is given an opportunity that few people ever experience — the opportunity to make his enemies pay for the way they treated him. Joseph has won. Joseph is on top. His brothers are completely and utterly at his disposal, their lives are in his hands.
This is like the point in every epic war movie where the hero is standing over his enemy with the sword at his enemy’s throat. Joseph has the power to put an end to his suffering. His brothers’ lives are flashing before their eyes.
What is Joseph going to do?
Love Your Enemies?
In Luke 6 Jesus taught his disciples, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28), and “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
If you didn’t know these words were from the Bible or spoken by Jesus, you would probably say, “that’s absurd! I could never love my enemies. I could never do good to those who hate me, or bless those who curse me.”
But of course, Jesus did just that. Jesus turned the other cheek when his accusers struck him. He blessed those who unjustly nailed him to the cross. He loved his enemies and prayed for them even while he breathed his last breath. He forgave us even when we rejected him. He had mercy on us.
Still, we may say, what’s the point in loving our enemies? What good will that do? Wouldn’t getting revenge on our enemies be so much sweeter?
The Cycle of Violence
The reality is that revenge rarely puts an end to violence. In fact, every act of violence usually results in more violence.
Bob hits Joe, and Joe hits Bob back even harder. Bob knows he’s outmatched, so he goes and gets his cousin, or uncle, or brother, and they come back and get revenge on Joe. Now Joe has to get his family involved to retaliate against Bob’s family. And the violence continues to escalate.
We like to think that the fighting will be over if the hero of the story could just deliver that one final blow to the villain. We’d like to think that one final ultimate act of violence will bring an end to violence all together. That’s what happens in every action movie, right? The hero delivers that last knockout punch or runs his sword through the enemy, and everyone lives happily ever after.
But that rarely happens in real life. Violence almost always results in more violence. Squabbles between individuals turn into family feuds that can last for years. Arguments between parties and factions turn into international wars. Violence and bloodshed results in more violence and bloodshed.
The Power of Love
The only way for violence to end is for one or both parties to decide not to retaliate. Someone needs to make the decision to put down their weapons, to back away, to decide not to repay evil for evil.
Of course, loving our enemies doesn’t always mean that they will start being nice to us. Jesus loved his enemies, but they still crucified him.
And yet it was Jesus’s death on the cross that brought about our redemption. Jesus won, not through taking the lives of his enemies, but by giving his own life for us. It wasn’t violence or military force that brought about our freedom from captivity — it was Jesus’s self-sacrificial love, expressed for us on the cross. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus conquered the enemy.
Love is a powerful force. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend” (MLK Jr.). Or, as Abraham Lincoln once said, “I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.”
In other words, the only way to put an end to the cycle of violence is to love our enemies.
Making Enemies Into Friends
In our community in Southwest Baltimore there lives a saintly woman by the name of Ms. Diane. Diane is a strong woman of faith who lived by herself for many years in what is not necessarily considered to be the safest neighborhood in Baltimore.
One day a man came to her door with a gun, demanding all of her money. Ms. Diane said that she had no money in the house, but that she could give him some food to eat if he was hungry. The man asked for canned food. Now this probably fits into the category of “do not try this at home unless absolutely prompted by the Holy Spirit” — but Ms. Diane refused to give the man canned food and instead she offered that if he wanted to come inside she would be glad to cook him a homemade meal.
With that, the man muttered something about her being a “crazy woman” and he turned and ran out the door.
Several years later, Ms. Diane heard a knock at the door. Went she opened the door, the same man was standing at the door. She didn’t recognize him without the gun in his hand, so he told her he was the same man who held her up at gunpoint several years before. He told her that experience had changed his life, that he left his life of crime and he had sought help with his addictions. He was standing before her a changed man.
Ms. Diane invited him into her house, cooked him some food, and they had an opportunity to share that meal that he had refused several years before.
Love is the only force capable of this sort of transformation.
WDJD? (What Did Joseph Do?)
Joseph had the power to make his brothers pay for what they had done to him, and when they first came to him he did speak harshly to them and even put them in prison for three days. Joseph could have done much more than that. He could have refused their request for food and turned them away. He could have sold them into slavery. He could have watched them suffer just like they made him suffer.
But despite everything Joseph’s brothers had done to him, despite the fact that they hated him so much that they sold him into slavery and lied to his father all those years, Joseph ultimately chose to forgive. He chose to love his brothers even though they had hated him. He chose to bless them even though they had cursed him.
Joseph chose to love, bless, and forgive those who had hurt him the most. And because he did that, Joseph won his family back. His relationship with his father and brothers and their family was restored. Joseph won by making his enemies his friends.
How Can We Do This?
The reality is the command to love our enemies is probably one of the most difficult commandments in the Bible. We cannot do it on our own, we need the power of the Holy Spirit in order to love and forgive our enemies. But loving our enemies is the only way to break the cycle of violence. Love is the only thing that can drive out hate. Love is the only way to truly destroy our enemies, as we them our friends.