Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19 [a]) September 13, 2020
When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.” So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “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.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.
In the Name of Jesus.
A strange statement by Joseph: “Am I in the place of God”?
Not a bad question, actually. Joseph’s brothers were asking him to forgive them. Will he? He says, “Am I in the place of God”? We know the history:
—Joseph’s brothers attempt to kill him.
—Then they sell him into slavery and he ends up a slave in Egypt.
—Then they lie to their father about why their brother is missing.
—Then, unknown to them, Joseph becomes a big man in Egypt, over the whole government.
—Then, back home, a famine, and Joseph’s family is in starvation.
—Then, his brothers come to Egypt in search of food, of survival.
—Then, some more details, but the long and the short is, the brothers find out about Joseph, how he’s a big man now, not a slave, and they ask him for forgiveness. They grovel:
“Please forgive the transgression of your brothers, [Joseph,] and their sin, because they did evil to you … please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.”
Only God can forgive sins. He’s our Creator. Every sin, no matter whom against, is ultimately against him.
“Do not fear, for am I in the place of God?”
If only God can forgive sins, though, how will God forgive sins?
Actually, that question goes for everything God does. How does he feed people he loves? How does he give shelter from storm, protection from violence, relief from sickness? It’s one thing to say that God does these things, but how will he do them?
Our Lord Jesus teaches us to pray to our Father, “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses.”
We know that this “daily bread” our Lord gives us to pray for is not just the slice of bread dropped in the toaster. It includes, as we teach our children in the Catechism, everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money, goods, a devout husband or wife, devout children, and more.
So, if our Lord is giving us all this provision of daily bread, we can ask, How?
Our Lord gave Joseph’s brothers all the provisions of daily bread. How? Our Lord worked a remarkable chain of events, including Joseph’s incredible rise to authority in Egypt, and a famine in Canaan, and a dying father’s desire—our Lord used all this to finally bring the guilty brothers to the feet of Joseph in Egypt, where Joseph could then supply them with food and drink, clothing and shoes, house and home, and all else pertaining to their daily needs.
The prayer is to the Lord for daily bread.
For Joseph’s brothers, the Lord provides that daily bread by using Joseph. In that way, in regard to his brothers, Joseph acts as God’s hands on Earth. Joseph is, indeed, in the place of God: God’s servant, his man on Earth to love and care for his neighbor.
We pray to our Lord, Father, give us this day our daily bread.
How does our Lord do this toward us and our families? We know how. Our Lord does it instrumentally through those he has created.
The carpenter builds a house to protect the family from cold. But the lumberman provided the wood to the carpenter. The machinist builds the table saw the carpenter uses. The restaurant provides food for the carpenter as he builds the house.
The farmer grows the corn to feed the cattle to come to the butcher to provide the hamburger meat our family gets from the grocer. These are hands of God, providing us daily bread.
Daily bread includes the petition to our Lord to give us health. In that petition, we are praying for the nurse at the hospital, for the doctors and researches at the drug company looking for a medication or vaccine. These are hands of God, providing daily bread to us.
How will the Lord provide us with daily bread?
He uses people, he uses us as his servants. He gives vocations to provide food and drink, house and home, transportation and trade, law enforcement and defense—all these vocations we see around us and in which we ourselves are involved, these are God’s ways of working in our world to provide daily bread to our families.
Are we in the place of God? Well, yes, in this way we are.
It’s like that quote by Martin Luther speaking of how when the Lord wants the child’s dirty diaper changed, he uses the hands of the mother or father.
We are in God’s place, his servants to serve our neighbor with the Lord’s care.
But when Joseph asked his brothers, “Am I in the place of God,” the question was, specifically, about the forgiveness of sins.
How will the Lord give the forgiveness of sins to Joseph’s brothers?
The brothers had just asked Joseph to forgive them for their evil against him. Will Joseph forgive them? Yes. He forgives them. He comforted them and spoke kindly to them. [Genesis 50:21]
Only God, though, can forgive sins.
But he forgives them through the mouth of Joseph. Joseph is in God’s place, his servant, appointed by the Lord to dispense his gifts on Earth.
So that, the sins forgiven on Earth by a human mouth, are forgiven in Heaven, by the Lord who placed the mouth here on Earth to speak the Lord’s Word of forgiveness.
So we pray in the Lord’s prayer, Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
This is God forgiving sins on Earth, using our mouths as his instruments to dispense his gift of forgiveness and life.
Only God can forgive sins. But he does it through a spoken word, even by our mouths.
He does it through the Word of Gospel spoken at a Baptism, through the Word of promise delivering God’s own Body and Blood in Holy Communion, he does it by appointing a pastor to pronounce Absolution here on Earth, and he does it by setting his people on Earth to release sins.
In proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified for the sinner, in speaking the forgiveness of sins, in releasing guilt, we find ourselves set by God in his place, for us to deliver the most precious gift of all: the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting, all as the gift of grace from our Lord Jesus.
To refuse, then, to forgive sins is to rob God of his prerogative of grace.
To refuse to forgive sins is to claim, not that we are placed by God to serve out his gifts, but to claim that we are acting on our own, judging as we choose to judge, and refusing grace according to our own judgment.
“Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?,”
asked Peter. [Matthew 18:21]
“I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”
That is, forgive sins past what you can even count.
Forgive sins freely and abundantly. Forgive sins, hold on to no guilt, cover in no shame, as your Father in Heaven forgives you, and releases your guilt, and covers you in the honor of his Son’s holy blood.
We forgive sins, for our Father in Heaven forgives us, and he makes us his servants.
In the Name of Jesus.