The Way God Changes a Human Heart
Joseph, Repentance, Conversion
We live at a time when there are a host of reported celebrity conversions. There are the stories of athletes, politicians, and movie and television personalities. The latest conversion reported is that of outspoken actress Jane Fonda. We are told that she has embraced evangelical Christianity as a result of four years of faithful testimony from her chauffeur.
Our heart jumps for joy at the these reports and we know that God can change any heart. However, we have become rather cynical when we hear such things because we have heard of so many who have professed faith but have seemed to give no evidence of that faith in their living. It seems that some people are being converted to a false gospel. A person can certainly think they are a believer and never really be one.
I think this is the case with Joseph’s brothers. I am sure that these brothers worshipped as they were supposed to. They affirmed their Hebrew heritage. They were “good Jews”. But they were not really children of God. They were outwardly religious but inwardly unchanged. We heard the account of their assault of their brother and how they sold him as a slave. We read about their deception of their father. We have heard the witness in months past of the reckless nature of their lives. They were outwardly religious but inwardly lost.
As we move into Genesis 42 the long awaited reunion between Joseph and his brothers will finally take place. And in this chapter and the ones to come we are going to see God bring these men to faith. We are going to see what it took for these men to truly become children of God. And as we do, we will be able to see the process that God generally uses to awaken those who are spiritually lost.
As we look at our text this morning we see three different scenes. We see the brothers at home, the brothers before Joseph, and the brothers as they talk amongst themselves. And in these three scenes we see God doing three things . . . 1) He awakens the brothers to the fact that there is a problem. 2) He shows them the nature of their sin 3) and He brings them to a point of repentance.
ACT ONE: HOME ON THE RANGE . . .GOD GETS THEIR ATTENTION
The first act in the story takes place back in Jacob’s home. The predicted abundance and famine in Egypt was not confined to Egypt. It was area, if not world, wide. Jacob and his family in Canann (which is north of Egypt) are facing the same problems. For awhile I imagine this family is able to live on what they have in reserve. But the weather is not changing and the supplies are almost depleted. The situation is becoming serious. In our text we read.
When Jacob learned that there was grain in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you just keep looking at each other?” He continued, “I have heard that there is grain in Egypt. Go down there and buy some for us, so that we may live and not die.” Then ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain from Egypt. But Jacob did not send Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, with the others, because he was afraid that harm might come to him. So Israel’s sons were among those who went to buy grain, for the famine was in the land of Canann also. (Genesis 42:1–5)
I get the impression that Jacob is frustrated with his sons. In a crisis situation they don’t seem to be doing anything. It sounds like things were getting tense.
It is important that we see what God is doing. For years Jacob and the boys were living life without having to think about God. Life went on as normal. They got up, did their work, came home and the next day started all over again. They were content in their routine. Their needs were met, life went on as it always had.
But with this famine God gets their attention. Now, “life as it always is” is not enough. It is easy to avoid God when we feel self-sufficient. It is easy to feel that you have no need of God’s touch when everything is running smoothly. These men were comfortable in their denial and their deceptions. As long as the status quo remained they would never change. So . . . God provokes a crisis. This crisis would either harden them further or wake them up.
This is the way God often works. In the book of Amos God tells the Israelites,
“I brought hunger to every city and famine to every town. But still you wouldn’t return to me,” says the LORD. “I kept the rain from falling when you needed it the most, ruining all your crops. I sent rain on one town but withheld it from another. Rain fell on one field, while another field withered away. People staggered from one town to another for a drink of water, but there was never enough. But still you wouldn’t return to me,” says the LORD. (Amos 4:6-8)
God could have simply washed his hands of these folks. He could have said, “Fine, forget it.” But that’s not what he did with the Israelites . . . and that’s not what He does with you and me. God loves us too much to let us go without a fight. So, at times He exercises “tough love”. He brings a crisis into our lives that force us to address ultimate issues. It may be,
- an unexpected diagnosis
- a financial emergency
- an overwhelming situation
- a family crisis
And in these situations God is often seeking to awaken us out of our spiritual lethargy. Is God acting harshly or is He acting in love? God lovingly put Jacob and his family in the midst of a famine . . . in order to draw them to Him. You can’t be treated for a disease until you are made aware that there is a problem. God is forcing these brothers to see that they need help.
So here’s the question we need to ask? Are you going through tough times? Is life a struggle right now? Could it be that God is trying to get your attention? Could it be that He is trying to awaken you out of your spiritual slumber? Is it possible that God is trying to move you from a profession of faith to a possession of faith? Is it possible that God loves you so much . . . and that He wants you to be His with such intensity that He will stop at nothing to turn your heart to Him?
ACT TWO: IN EGYPT BEFORE JOSEPH . . . CONFRONTING THE PROBLEM
Joseph and his brothers hadn’t seen each other for probably 20+ years. Joseph was 17 when he was sold into slavery, 30 when he was brought before Pharaoh, then there were seven years of abundance, and it probably would have taken a year or perhaps more to use up all the reserves the family may have had. During this time Joseph and his brothers had certainly gotten older. They had lost some hair and gained some weight. They were gray and the older brothers were probably starting to show signs of the wear of life.
Can you imagine the scene? Joseph, wearied by the stream of people in need, looks up and sees his brothers. He recognized them but they didn’t recognize him. And why would they? I suspect you have been to class reunions and had a hard time recognizing people you grew up with. Or maybe you have run into someone who recognizes you in the mall but you don’t recognize them because you are seeing them in a different setting than normal.
The last time the brothers saw Joseph he was covered with mud from being thrown in the cistern, he was wearing tattered clothing, and he was in a position of weakness, pleading for his life. Now he is dressed in royal attire, he’s clean shaven, confident and powerful. And he is speaking Egyptian. This is the last place they would have expected to find Joseph.
When they have their turn before Joseph, they bow before him (remember Joseph’s dream?). And Joseph does something that may strike us as a bit odd. He doesn’t tell his brothers who he is . . . he doesn’t even give them a hint that he knows who they are. Joseph begins a period of questioning. “Where are you gentlemen from?” They reply that they are from Canann and they have come to buy grain. Jacob accuses them of being spies!
The brothers argue that they are not spies. They are just brothers who have come to get bread for their family. Joseph pretends not to believe them. Their response, “Sir,” they said, “there are twelve of us brothers, and our father is in the land of Canann. Our youngest brother is there with our father, and one of our brothers is no longer with us.”
Now why would they say all these things? First of all they are trying to be honest. Second, they are pleading that it is absurd to think they are spies. What spy would travel with his brothers and in a group of ten! A good spy wants to blend in, be inconspicuous.
Joseph remains calm. He is not after revenge . . . but he does want to know if his brothers have really changed. He is concerned for his brother Benjamin and for his father. If they treated him shamefully . . . .what did they do to Benjamin? Besides, I think Joseph (who had lived his life listening to God) realized that this was an opportunity to reach his brothers. So, Joseph proposes a test.
One of the men is to be selected to go home and return with Benjamin before the others will be set free! So, Joseph throws them all in prison for three days. What is going on? Alistair Begg helps us understand what is happening.
Do you recall what three things had annoyed the brothers about Joseph? There were his special coat and his dream, but he had also brought a bad report about the men to their father (Gen. 37:2). In other words, the brothers had seen Joseph as Jacob’s spy, sent to get information and then run back to Daddy with it. . . .
So Joseph decided to accuse his brothers of the very thing they had held against him. Back in Dothan, Joseph had protested his innocence but had been treated with harsh words, imprisonment in a cistern, and, finally, deportation to Egypt as a slave. Now the brothers were protesting their innocence, and Joseph responded with harsh words and imprisonment (vv. 14-17) [The Hand of God p. 132]
Joseph is subjecting his brothers to the same charges and a taste of the same experience that he endured. He is not doing this for punishment . . . he is doing this in the hope that his brothers will wake up to the nature of their actions. He is hoping this treatment will make them “come clean.”
It is unfortunate but true that often we,
- do not appreciate the effect of words until we have felt their sting ourselves
- do not sympathize with the one who struggles until we have struggled
- do not comprehend the pain of indifference until others have ignored us
- do not understand rejection until we have been rejected
- and we do not understand sin until we see the way it hurts God and destroys others
Joseph was not being cruel . . . God was using these events to awaken the conscience of his brothers. He was stripping away the pretense and exposing the horror within. You can’t treat a disease until you know what disease you are dealing with. A person can’t be saved until he realizes he is lost. The brothers needed to see, to feel, to understand their own wickedness.
ACT THREE: A PRIVATE CONVERSATION . . .REALIZATION OF SIN
The third act of the story follows the three days in prison. Three days they thought about their situation. For three days they experienced some of the horror that they had inflicted on Joseph. And now they are brought before Joseph again. The brothers are given a reprieve of sorts . . . instead of one brother going home and the others staying . . . one stays and the rest are able to return home (but Joseph knows they will have to return).
Joseph wants to see if the brothers are willing to desert one of their own again. Will they abandon Simeon as they did Joseph? What is most interesting about this scene is the conversation that takes place between the brothers. They thought it was a private conversation . . . they didn’t know that the Egyptian leader who sat before them knew Hebrew and knew very well the situation they were talking about.
They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come upon us.” Reuben replied, Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn’t listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood.” They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter. He turned away from them and began to weep, but then turned back and spoke to them again.
What this conversation shows is something very significant . . . twenty years had past, their lives had gone on . . . but their past sin continued to haunt them. I suspect they had agreed to never talk about the incident. They certainly resolved many times to “move on” and to all appearances, they did. They seemed unaffected by the past. But it was like a paint job on a moldy wall . . . you can cover the problem, but you don’t get rid of it.
Chuck Colson is best known as a modern day prophet who had done many horrible things as the “hatchet man” for President Nixon. But when talking about the “sin that is in us” he tells his story.
Colson tells of a particularly cruel thing he did when as a brand-new marine lieutenant. He was leading his platoon of forty grimy, sweating soldiers on a training mission on Vieques Island, a satellite of Puerto Rico. The marines had been instructed not to trade with or buy anything from the impoverished people of the Island. But this order was expected to be ignored. Thus, on the second day of maneuvers, when the hot exhausted platoon suddenly came upon an old man leading a scrawny donkey burdened down under two ice-filled sacks of cold drinks, the men headed toward the old man to buy some.
Suddenly Colson intervened. “Sergeant, take this man prisoner. He is trespassing on government property,” he said. The sergeant stared in disbelief but began to carry out the order. “And confiscate the contraband,” Colson added. The soldiers cheered as they stole the old man’s chilled drinks, which a moment before they would gladly have paid for, and drank them all. After the drinks were gone, the “prisoner” was released and sadly slunk away, probably thankful that he had only lost what was quite possibly his life savings and most certainly his means of livelihood for many months–and not his freedom or his life.
Technically, Colson had only been observing the rigors of military law. But now, years later, it is this and not the more spectacular “crimes” of Watergate that comes to his mind when he thinks of past sins. He gives it as an example of one of the sins for which I feel the greatest contrition. [Quoted in Boice p. 1003]
Do you have place in you that has stored all these memories? We try to bury them, but they keep creeping back into our conscience.
- We try to forget the people we made fun of as kids.
- We try to forget the people we used for our own advantage.
- We try to hide the lies we told to people we loved
- We try to forget the people in need that we ignored
- We try to forget the things we did in secret that we knew were wrong.
But we can’t forget. Slowly these things eat away at our joy and our heart. We may work hard to be better people than we used to be . . . but we cannot escape the fact that others are living with scars that we are responsible for. We cannot escape the fact that no matter how holy we try to pretend to be . . . there is a cancer called sin that is buried inside of us. We present ourselves as good and righteous while living in fear that someone will learn the truth.
Looking squarely at our sin is painful, embarrassing, and at times, makes us sick. But without a recognition of sin . . . there can be no forgiveness. Without seeing our need, we will never need a Savior. It’s a road we don’t like . . . but it is a road that must be traveled. We are not “All O.K.” We are anything but OK. We are wicked people who have done horrible things and no matter how good we are at hiding these things . . . we know the truth.
What we need is something we have long believed we could never receive. We need to be forgiven. Joseph’s brothers found that forgiveness. You can too. You may not be able to go back to the person you hurt (but if you can, you should). What we can do . . . and must do is turn to the Lord, He is the one we are ultimately accountable to.
But we dare not come glibly. We are foolish to pretend these sins of our past are nothing. We kid only ourselves when we act like we “have it all together”. The only way to come to God is with a heart that is broken and hands that are open, pleading for mercy. And when we do we find arms open to receive us and embrace us. They are open for Chuck Colson. They are open for Jane Fonda. And, yes, if you come honestly, confessing your sin with a sorrow that makes you want to change . . . His arms will embrace you.
Max Lucado writes,
The jewel of joy is given to the impoverished spirits, not the affluent. God’s delight is received upon surrender, not awarded upon conquest. The first step to joy is a plea for help, and acknowledgment of moral destitution, an admission of inward weakness. Those who taste God’s presence have declared spiritual bankruptcy and are aware of their spiritual crisis. Their cupboards are bare. Their pockets are empty. Their options are gone. They have long since stopped demanding justice; they are pleading for mercy.
They don’t brag; they beg. [Lucado, The Applause of Heaven p. 32, 33]
What I hope you see this morning is that before we can be made new in Christ, we have to come to grips with our own sinfulness. The reason that we are suspicious of much of the “God-talk” today is that it does not come from the humility of one who has been granted an undeserved pardon . . . it often has a discordant sound of pride. Some people sound like they have done God a favor rather than that God has given them an undeserved mercy. They see faith as a good investment . . .not as their only hope for life.
What about you? Does your faith come out of your realization of sin or are you still playing games with God? Are you still pretending that you are self-sufficient? Are you still trying to sell everyone on the fact that you don’t need God . . . . He needs you? If so . . . you may look like a believer, but you aren’t. You are just a phony who is playing “church”.
If we are ever going to find the salvation which which we desperately need and inwardly crave, we have to be honest with God. We have to see the wrongs of the past as sin. We need to expose our denials. We need to face the truth.
And if you are unwilling to do so, God will pursue you. He will work to get your attention. He will haunt you with the past. He will pursue you with relentless determination. Not because He is cruel . . . but because He loves you, and because He knows that until you recognize that you are sick . . . you can never be made well.
But if you come to Him the message of the gospel will stagger you. Jesus died for the very sin that haunts us. If we turn to Him without pretense in an attitude of sorrow and repentance . . . God will cover our past with the blood of Christ. Our wickedness will be forgiven. We will be given a new beginning. We will be able to stop running from the past and start living the life we were created to live.
Do we deserve this mercy? No. Can we earn it? No. Can we ever repay what we ask to receive? No. But when we confess, repent and ask . . . God forgives, heals, and makes new. The Bible calls that – grace.