Four Sermons on Baptism: 3. Joseph’s Tears


–Joseph Recognized by His Brothers, Leon Pierre Urbain Bourgeoise, 1863

Baptism of Oliver Magnus L.

Genesis 45:1-15; Luke 6: 27-38

If you don’t know the story of Joseph, you owe it to yourself to read it from start to finish. It has everything: jealousy, violence, sex, power, money, suspense, God — and a happy ending.  It begins in chapter 37 of Genesis when Joseph is 17 and a shepherd in the land of Canaan. It ends in chapter 50 (the end of the whole book) when Joseph dies in the land of Goshen at 110. In between, Joseph is transformed from a spoiled little Hebrew kid into a shrewd Egyptian potentate, and his pack of jealous brothers into men of honor.

The plot of this convoluted story has a large historical purpose: it is meant to explain the manner in which the Israelites whom Moses led out of Egypt got down to Egypt in the first place. But it has a theological purpose too: it is meant to demonstrate the character of Joseph’s God. This God has a plan, and everything that happens to Joseph happens for a reason.

God’s reasons become clear only in hindsight, of course; but to Joseph, the divine method in the madness makes even attempted fratricide meaningful. Joseph says to his brothers, after finally revealing his identity, “Don’t be distressed or angry with yourselves about what you did to me: it was not you who sent me here, but God, in order to preserve life” [45:5].

Now, the providential worldview that makes such a crime meaningful does not remove the need to resolve the nasty old family secret. The business of forgiveness is still pending, and it won’t be simple. Joseph will subject his brothers to a series of tests, some bizarre, before he finally reveals himself and absolves them.

But absolve them he does — through his tears. In the short passage we read this morning, Joseph weeps only once, but if you read the story from its beginning 3 chapters earlier, you’ll see that this encounter-reunion narrative is drenched in Joseph’s tears.

The first time Joseph weeps is after he has terrified his brothers by accusing them of espionage. When the brothers realize that they are in deep trouble with this powerful and enigmatic man, they can only think that their crime has returned to haunt them: “We’re about to pay the price for what we did to our brother,” they all agree. “Joseph pleaded with us, but we turned our backs. Now we will surely answer for his blood…” [42:21-22]. And Joseph, who has pretended he can’t understand their language, is overcome — he hurries from the room to weep.

Why these tears? Well, why not? Here he discovers that his brothers have come to comprehend the gravity of what they did. So it all comes back to him — the horror of being snatched and stripped and thrown into a well in the middle of nowhere, left for dead by your kin. When he hears them recall the crime, he also discovers that for all these years in a foreign land, he has not been altogether lost; he has been remembered by these brothers of his — their guilt has kept him near, and so has their grief, a grief not unlike his own.

Does he see a glimmer of possibility for a new relationship, one woven of regret and empathy for their mutual emptiness, their mutual sorrow? Does he weep, then, also in joy, because he knows now what he will do with his power over them — that he will use it to be kind to them, and that soon he will effect a reunion with his father and his mother’s only other son, the youngest of the brood, Benjamin?

Joseph’s tears fall again when, much later, the brothers return for another sojourn in Egypt, still unaware of who “the man” who so dominates their lives now really is. This time, they bring Benjamin. And again, tears force Joseph out of the room: “Then he looked up and saw his brother Benjamin, his mother’s son… He hurried out, for he was overcome with affection, and was about to weep. So he went into a private room and cried. When he composed himself and washed his face, he came out…” [43:29-31].

Joseph then plants evidence of theft on Benjamin, and when Benjamin is caught, Joseph decrees that he must remain behind as a slave while the rest of the brothers return to Canaan. This is the greatest test — whether they will abandon Benjamin just as they abandoned Joseph once upon a time. They do not. One of the brothers offers himself in Benjamin’s stead. His father’s grief would undo him, he says, if he were to go home to report yet another lost son.

Joseph is overwhelmed by the pain of his own absence and the genuineness of his brothers’ loyalty. He bursts out weeping, and this time there is no hiding his tears. His passionate weeping, the scripture says, echoes through the palace — an eruption of pain and possibility so intense that it compels him at last to drop the game and reveal himself: “I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt…” [45:1-2].

Now you might conclude that Joseph was a sentimental fool prone to exaggerated displays of emotion. And maybe he was — no one else but Joseph weeps in this story, and he’s not done weeping yet. When his father Jacob finally comes down from Canaan, Joseph “weep[s] on his neck” a good long while too.

But I think Joseph’s tears are more than sentiment. I think he knows that the sin of human enmity is something that can only be grieved, and never quite fully repaired. He knows that human estrangement is something to be borne, and never quite completely fixed. I think he knows, in the words of another preacher, that with those who hate us and with those whom we despise, with those who have harmed us and those whom we have harmed, we share a single damaged heart, and for this common wound he also weeps. I think he knows that the great tragedy of the refusal to forgive is that at a certain point in that stubborn sustenance of estrangement, all you succeed in doing is erasing yourself from your own on-going history; and because the absence of anyone from a rich human life is unutterably sad — a waste — it is worth weeping over.

I think he knows that you can’t retrieve, relive or reconstruct the past, and you certainly can’t forgive on command. You can only hope, by the grace of God, to test and probe and dare the present to see if you can get a little closer each day to the empathy and regret that make reconciliation and new relationships thinkable — a bit closer to the experience, the knowledge that we are in truth each other’s Josephs, that all our enemies (and those who scare us) are kin in disguise.

So in that hope he also weeps — the hope for joy in solidarity, in eventual reunion, in a holy communion. He knows it is possible: after all: his brothers tried to kill him once upon a time, but now they refuse to sacrifice Benjamin. He knows it is possible, after all: for now somehow he who was their victim is now holding them in his arms.

Today we baptized Oliver Magnus. What did we do for him? We passed him through water into a Company of Forgiveness. We wet him down with tears — God’s ancient tears, the same ones Joseph shed over his brothers, the same tears Jesus wept over us — and ushered him into a Way of Reconciliation.

Now, we know he didn’t need those tears of mercy today, didn’t need to be wept over. So far he hasn’t hated anyone, started a fight or a war, or decided he’s more righteous than the rest of us and treated us that way. He doesn’t have any siblings he can throw into a dry cistern (although there is a pesky cat in the apartment…).

But even if it’s hard to imagine him sinning today, he will need these tears some day, for sure. We all sin, there’s no reason to think he won’t end up sinning too.

So what we did for him today was to give him the best defense and the best offense we have found. Led by the Spirit, the church has for centuries collected the copious tears of God’s grieving over our alienation and aimlessness; God’s tears of regret for our foolishness and anger, our need to kill (in one form or another) to protect our own lives and the life of our tribe; God’s tears of hope for our turnaround, and God’s tears of joy at our homecoming — the tears that bathe our wounds and water our growth and enliven our pleasure and refresh our loves; the tears we too learn to shed for others, whether they belong to our tribe or sojourn in foreign places. We collected tears in this cistern (which can never dry up) and plunged this baby boy down in it, bathed him deep.

He is drenched now, and sealed: no matter what he ends up doing, where he wanders or is carried off to, God’s tears can find him, reach him, wet him down again and again. God will never lose him or let him lose himself. He is entrusted to us, too, who are likewise bathed and sealed and are wept over daily. We are each other’s kin now, now and always, God hanging on our necks and weeping tears of love, pure love, always love, nothing but love for us all.

God bless you, Oliver Magnus. We are Joseph, your siblings. Don’t be afraid. All will always be forgiven: Welcome home.