The Kindness of God that Transforms

Feast Day: Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany
Readings: Genesis 45:3-11, 15; 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50; Luke 6:27-38

“…for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

Have you ever been in a situation where you were sure you were in trouble, even deservedly so, but instead of getting what you deserved you received mercy? Have you ever found yourself in a place where because of your own actions or words you expected to be excluded but rather were embraced?

My daughters are amazing and kind and gentle but sometimes when they are playing together a dispute breaks out. One of them will take a doll that the other had been playing with and claim that they were playing with it first. Their voices begin to increase in volume and the defences go up. As a father it is easy to witness this and say, “Right, give me the doll, you two go for a time-out.” And I’d be lying if I said that was never my response.

However, sometimes I’ll be in the room as a dispute like this is beginning and what I’ll do instead is call them over. “Come here.” And even while they are sputtering away trying to state their case I’ll just draw them into my arms and let them know that they aren’t in trouble, that they don’t need to worry. Almost immediately you can feel the anxiety and stress and confusion and fear leave their little bodies as they rest in the arms of their father who loves them.

Our readings today are all about the generosity and kindness of God that transform us from scared, anxious, angry, defensive people into people whose lives resemble in some small and imperfect way the generosity and kindness that they have received. “…for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

If anyone could be excused from showing kindness to the ungrateful and the wicked surely it would be Joseph. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you,” says Jesus. OK, but what if your enemies are your own brothers?

Do you remember the story of Joseph? It’s one of my favourites, in case the name of my eldest son didn’t give it away. Joseph was especially favoured by his father Jacob and as a result his ten older brothers grew jealous of him and hated him. One day they stripped Joseph of the garment that his father had made for him and threw him into a pit with no water. They planned to kill him but instead they sold him for a few pieces of silver—where have we heard this story before?—and Joseph was taken as a slave to Egypt.

Once in Egypt Joseph found himself favoured by one of Pharaoh’s top guys but soon after wound up in a prison cell. Yet even in the darkness of a prison cell the Lord was looking after Joseph. God gave Joseph favour with the chief jailer such that the jailer committed all of the prisoners to Joseph’s care. For two years Joseph was in that prison caring for those who were captive. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” says Jesus in Luke’s gospel. “He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives…to let the oppressed go free.”

After two whole years, that is, in the third year, Joseph was lifted up out of that dark prison cell—resurrected, if you will—and he ascended to the highest office in Egypt next to Pharaoh himself.

Now there was a famine in the land that lasted for seven years but because of Joseph’s wisdom and prudence food had been stored up over the previous seven years so that when the famine came the people did not perish. Jacob, Joseph’s father, sent his sons to Egypt to buy grain that they may live and not die. When the brothers get to Egypt who do they meet? Who is in charge of the land but Joseph, the brother they had sold for a few pieces of silver. Although Joseph recognized them they did not recognize him. Indeed, it isn’t until Joseph shares a meal with his brothers and reveals himself to them by his word that they recognize him in the passage that we heard read this morning.

“I am Joseph,” he says to them. And immediately their eyes were opened and they recognized their brother who they had betrayed all those years before. And the Scriptures tell us that they were so dismayed, so stunned, so terrified at his presence that they were literally speechless. They could not answer him. No wonder! They knew how they had treated Joseph and now they knew how powerful he was in comparison to them and they feared for their lives.

All week I have been thinking about what Joseph says next. There are his brothers totally exposed in their sin and it is within Joseph’s power to crush them. To exact his revenge. To make them pay. And what does he say? “Come closer to me.” He draws them near.

They came closer and as they did Joseph, lovingly, reassured them: “Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” He unfolds to them the logic of God’s saving plan even in the face of their sin. Yes, they sold him into Egypt but God was acting in and through all of that. Indeed, God sent Joseph into Egypt. Why? For life. So that when famine came Jacob and his descendants would live and not die. And through the provision of Joseph Jacob and his family are given a new home and a new life together with Joseph.

I love the last line that we heard: “And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.” Joseph repays hatred with love. What a great moment of brotherly reconciliation. For the first time in the narrative there is touching. Joseph embraces his brothers with tears and a kiss and finally they who could not speak at the beginning of the story have restored to them the capacity for speech. As one of the Church Fathers put it, “[he] moistened the necks of his frightened brothers with his refreshing tears, he washed away their hatred with the tears of his charity.”[1]

Friends, if it isn’t already clear this is the gospel. Jesus Christ, sold out for a few pieces of silver and for our sins suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell, that is the place of the dead and cared for all those who were in prison there. The third day he rose again  from the dead and ascended into heaven. Why? To preserve life. So that we might come to him and live and not die. So that our sin and shame and sadness might be transformed by his kindness into life with God.

This morning as we open the Scriptures and break the bread Jesus is opening our eyes to behold him and calling us to “come closer.” And every time we do he meets all of our fear and anxiety and shame and uncertainty and sin with his kindness. “Come closer to me,” he says, that you might know my healing embrace, the sweetness of my kiss, the dampness of my tears that wash you clean. And not you who were looking for me but you who are ungrateful, unbelieving, and a mess of contradictions. “Come closer to me.”

Loving enemies, that is what God is doing on the Cross. One theologian put it this way: “Jesus himself is God’s gift to all his enemies, a gift of uncalculable love that indeed now causes everyone endowed with it to be “consecrated to God.”[2] The kindness and generosity of Christ transforms we who were once enemies into friends.

As a result, enemy love becomes self-evident and ordinary for Christians—of course we love of our enemies—because we know that we ourselves are the product of divine generosity and kindness: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” God’s kindness is designed to lead us to repentance, it changes us and makes us more like Christ: “as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven,” says St Paul.

Do you want to avoid bitterness? Anger? Fear? Anxiety? Competitiveness? Envy? Do you want to avoid sin? Keep God’s kindness to you front and centre. Meditate upon it. Contemplate it. Think about it when you wake up, as you go about your day, as you lay your head down on the pillow at night. For God is kind, even—especially—to the ungrateful and the wicked, says Jesus. To me and to you. God is kind to us when we are least deserving and knowing this kindness is what will transform us and the world.

Endnotes:
[1] St Caesarius of Arles
[2] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Light of the Word, 280.

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