- The Washington Times - Monday, January 8, 2007

The following are excerpts from a recent sermon by the Rev. David R. Stokes at Fair Oaks Church:

Often we cast off New Year’s resolutions too quickly against the backdrop of the distractions of life. There is one resolution, though, that should find a permanent home in our lives: the resolution to forgive.

When Jesus gave us His model prayer, He said, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” He told us that the experience of divine forgiveness will lead us to express human forgiveness.

There is no better picture of this than the story of Joseph in Genesis 30-50. He had a traumatic experience and could have very well carried bitterness throughout his life. He could have blamed his treacherous brothers for every bad break that came his way. He could have lived as a pathetic and perpetual victim.

But Joseph chose another way, a liberating way: the way of forgiveness.

In the last chapter of Genesis, we find the story about an encounter he had with his brothers, the people who caused so much pain. By this time, there had been a reunion of sorts. Now, though, the brothers are afraid that with their father, Jacob, dead, Joseph will exact his revenge. After all, they would if in his shoes.

And his shoes were gigantic. Joseph was one of the most powerful men in the world, controlling the food in a famine. That’s power.

Instead of pettiness, however, Joseph expresses remarkable forgiveness. This quality has apparently sustained him throughout his adult life. As he tells his brothers how he forgives them, he also tells us something about the nature and practice of this virtue.

Forgiveness means resisting the desire to retaliate. In Joseph’s case, he determined to model God’s mercy, not His wrath. He said, “Am I God, that I can punish you?” Too many of us are more comfortable fantasizing about God’s wrath when we find ourselves treated badly. We find comfort in imprecatory passages, wondering why God doesn’t smite our enemies. But Joseph understood that such determinations are better left in God’s hands.

This story also reminds us that forgiveness is not a matter of excusing or rationalizing sin. He told his brothers, “You intended to harm me.” In other words, there was no whitewash. What they did was evil. This was not a matter of no harm, no foul. It was a clear case of egregious sin countered by gracious forgiveness. In reality, there can be no real appreciation of forgiveness without a clear sense of the nature of depravity. Forgiveness is not weakness. It is the ultimate act of relational strength.

Forgiveness also means trusting in God’s ultimate plan. The story of Joseph forgiving his brothers contains the essence of Romans 8:28 — “all things work together for good” — long before the words were written. When Joseph said, “Am I God that I can punish you?” he was reminding himself that God had a profound purpose even for his private pain.

This is a crucial point. When we get hurt, it is easy for us to wallow inside ourselves. But, Joseph had a better perspective, a bigger one. Yes, he was God’s child, but he remembered that he wasn’t God’s only child. God was doing something far beyond his comprehension. Every part of Joseph’s life, every betrayal, every disappointment, was grist for God’s mill. God was using everything to prepare this unique man for his ultimate role.

Winston Churchill said as he was riding to Buckingham Palace on May 10, 1940, to be asked by the king to become prime minister during a perilous moment in the life of his nation that he felt as if “all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.”

In a real sense, this was what Joseph was thinking, because he saw a direct connection between the pain he suffered — pain that was initiated by the brutality of his brethren — and his position and present responsibilities. He said, “God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.”

His vital ministry to the world was made possible because he rose above the pettiness of bitterness. The ability to forgive liberated this man to become the gracious giant he was.

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