Ash Wednesday: The Past Comes Knocking

Lent is a lot of things to a lot of people.

But at its heart, Lent is a gracious invitation to take an honest look in the mirror of self-reflection, muster up the courage to allow the Holy Spirit pick out those attitudes and behaviors that are separating you from God and those around you, make an honest, good-faith effort to repent of that sin and brokenness, and let God’s extension of forgiveness and grace beckon you back home to the fold of the Lord.

That makes Lent a homecoming – a family reunion, of sorts, and we full-well know that homecomings and family reunions are dicey propositions that can go either way: Lively, lilting galas punctuated with big smiles, warm hugs, and back-slapping all around, or raging Dumpster fires of animosity, hostility and dysfunction.

That reality likely explains why some of us avoid homecomings and family reunions – and Lent – like the plague. Lent’s darkness and ashy-ness are intimidating and foreboding – certainly no picnic, and our RSVP to Lent’s invitation to wholeness is often a terse “thanks but no thanks.”

But reconciliation – the restoration of right relationship –inevitably demands the hard work and heavy lifting of healing and mending broken hearts.

Which brings us to tonight’s Scripture lesson, a story that’ll seem like an odd choice for Ash Wednesday. We’re dropping in on the long, fractured, Old Testament story of Joseph and his estranged brothers.

Joseph’s sharp wits and keen ability to interpret dreams have caught the attention of pharaoh, who puts Joseph in charge of all the day-to-day governmental affairs in Egypt. What impresses pharaoh most isn’t Joseph’s coat of many colors but rather Joseph’s spot-on prediction of upcoming famine and his strong suggestion that pharaoh start stocking up on grain, so the Egyptians can weather the famine on full stomachs.

The grain bins are now full, and the people have enough to eat. All is well in Egypt.

But then, some unexpected arrivals one day out of the blue show up at Joseph’s door. Making for this painful, uncomfortable family reunion are Joseph’s nasty, mean-spirited brothers who, a decade or two earlier, had left Joseph for dead in a pit but then change their minds and decide to pull him out only to sell him into slavery.

The brothers have traveled in search of grain from their home in Canaan, where famine has laid bare the kitchen cupboards. And now, they unknowingly look to Joseph – the little brother they despised – to solve their hunger problem.

Joseph’s response not only satisfies their immediate hunger but also sets the table and serves up the first course on an even greater feast that awaits all of them. Listen for the word of the Lord in Genesis chapter 42.

When Jacob learned that there was grain in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you keep looking at one another? I have heard,”” he said, “that there is grain in Egypt; go down and buy grain for us there, that we may live and not die.”

So ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain in Egypt. But Jacob did not send Joseph’s brother Benjamin with his brothers, for he feared that harm might come to him. Thus the sons of Israel were among the other people who came to buy grain, for the famine had reached the land of Canaan.

Now Joseph was governor over the land; it was he who sold to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground. When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he treated them like strangers and spoke harshly to them. “Where do you come from?” he said. They said, “From the land of Canaan, to buy food.”

Although Joseph had recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. Joseph also remembered the dreams that he had dreamed about them. He said to them, “You are spies; you have come to see the nakedness of the land!”

They said to him, “No, my lord; your servants have come to buy food. We are all sons of one man; we are honest men; your servants have never been spies.”

But he said to them, “No, you have come to see the nakedness of the land!”

They said, “We, your servants, are twelve brothers, the sons of a certain man in the land of Canaan; the youngest, however, is now with our father, and one is no more.”

But Joseph said to them, “It is just as I have said to you; you are spies! Here is how you shall be tested: as Pharaoh lives, you shall not leave this place unless your youngest brother comes here! Let one of you go and bring your brother, while the rest of you remain in prison, in order that your words may be tested, whether there is truth in you; or else, as Pharaoh lives, surely you are spies.”

And he put them all together in prison for three days.On the third day Joseph said to them, “Do this and you will live, for I fear God: if you are honest men, let one of your brothers stay here where you are imprisoned. The rest of you shall go and carry grain for the famine of your households,and bring your youngest brother to me. Thus your words will be verified, and you shall not die.”

And they agreed to do so. They said to one another, “Alas, we are paying the penalty for what we did to our brother; we saw his anguish when he pleaded with us, but we would not listen. That is why this anguish has come upon us.”

Then Reuben answered them, “Did I not tell you not to wrong the boy? But you would not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.”

They did not know that Joseph understood them, since he spoke with them through an interpreter. He turned away from them and wept; then he returned and spoke to them. And he picked out Simeon and had him bound before their eyes.

Joseph then gave orders to fill their bags with grain, to return every man’s money to his sack, and to give them provisions for their journey. This was done for them.They loaded their donkeys with their grain, and departed.

When one of them opened his sack to give his donkey fodder at the lodging place, he saw his money at the top of the sack.He said to his brothers, “My money has been put back; here it is in my sack!” At this they lost heart and turned trembling to one another, saying, “What is this that God has done to us?”

When they came to their father Jacob in the land of Canaan, they told him all that had happened to them, saying, “The man, the lord of the land, spoke harshly to us, and charged us with spying on the land. But we said to him, ‘We are honest men, we are not spies. We are twelve brothers, sons of our father; one is no more, and the youngest is now with our father in the land of Canaan.’

“Then the man, the lord of the land, said to us, ‘By this I shall know that you are honest men: leave one of your brothers with me, take grain for the famine of your households, and go your way.Bring your youngest brother to me, and I shall know that you are not spies but honest men. Then I will release your brother to you, and you may trade in the land.’”

As they were emptying their sacks, there in each one’s sack was his bag of money. When they and their father saw their bundles of money, they were dismayed.And their father Jacob said to them, “I am the one you have bereaved of children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin. All this has happened to me!”

Then Reuben said to his father, “You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you. Put him in my hands, and I will bring him back to you.”

But he said, “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he alone is left. If harm should come to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol.” (Genesis 42:1-38)

Up to now, Joseph has been a stand-up guy:

Always doing the right thing, seeing the big picture, managing affairs with the upmost efficiency, thinking about the needs of others as much or more than his own. So, this prickly reception he gives his long-lost brothers is definitely out of character.

A number of possibilities could explain Joseph’s cold-shoulder threat of confinement when the past comes knocking at his door.

Joseph might be trying to figure out if his brothers really are spies – like he says in the story, but deep down, he knows that they aren’t. He knows who they are, and while they’re a lot of things – including prickly and ill-willed, spies they are not. So, no, trying to sweat out a confession of espionage from his brothers is not what’s driving Joseph.

He might be acting in revenge or punishment, but that seems unlikely. Joseph is upfront about his supposed concerns that his brothers are there to spy on him, and he even backs off on the severity of the confinement that his brothers imposed. Plus, all throughout his story, Joseph is portrayed as a wise man who has everyone’s best interests at heart. He’s not a vindictive guy. So, no, Joseph isn’t acting in revenge or punishment.

Maybe, Joseph is trying to figure out if his brothers have changed for the better – moved beyond the envy and jealousy that led them to throw Joseph into a pit and then sell him into slavery. While that might be true – that they’ve charged the error of their ways, the brothers seem solely focused on the problem at hand: Putting food on the table in the middle of a great famine. So, have the brothers changed? Probably not much. The brothers are still as focused on themselves and their own needs as they ever were.

It could be that Joseph might simply want to see his brother Benjamin, his only full-biological brother who stayed behind in Canaan with their father. Benjamin eventually travels to Egypt, and his reunion with Joseph leads to weeping. So, no, being heartsick for Benjamin probably isn’t driving Joseph here either.

If it’s not fondness for a sibling, or taking stock of the brothers’ current moral fiber,or revenge or punishment, or sweating out a confession, then exactly what is it that drives Joseph’s desire to toss his brothers into the hoosegow?

Well, as he’s done all along, Joseph is playing a long game – acting in the present to achieve a larger objective down the road.

In this time and place, Joseph is sowing the seeds that will secure the best possible outcome for his family. And to Joseph’s way of thinking-through a means to that end, the brothers need to pass through an attention-getting ordeal that brings their dark memories and wretched guilt to the surface, where those crude attitudes and deadly behaviors can be dealt with adequately and faithfully, and thus bring about healing and reconciliation that reunites the estranged family and safeguards their future.

Those grand plans should sound vaguely familiar.

Those grand plans are, after all, the big, Lenten dreams of God in Christ, who breaks into the downward spiral of broken hearts and shattered relationships with the power to repair and re-assemble that which sin has torn apart.

And, like it or not – probably NOT, the process of being healed, restored, and made whole begins when your past comes knocking at your door –with all its hurt, with all its pain, with all its sadness.

One of the main things that tips people toward depression, experts say, is a low tolerance for sadness. The inability to bear dark emotions – not the emotions themselves – is what causes many of our most significant personal problems.

When we cannot bear to open the door on the darkness of our past –on things like relationships that have been torn apart to name but one, we turn on all kinds of harsh, artificial lights –including but not limited to drugs, alcohol, shopping, meaningless sex, and hours upon hours in front of a TV or computer screen – in feeble attempts to see and feel our way through the dark emotions of our dim past.

But there are no such things as dark emotions – only unhelpful ways of dealing with emotions that we simply cannot bear.

Those emotions themselves are conduits of pure energy that demand something of us. They want to wake us up, tell us something we need to know, break the ice surrounding our hearts, move us to action,and thus transform our lives unto heaven’s good.

Healing and reconciliation only happen when you let loose your raw emotions – even the loud and messy ones, like the bickering and back-biting that Joseph’s grand plan sparks among his brothers and their father. If those feelings are kept from making their noise and maybe even tossing the furniture, they can harden like plaque in a coronary artery, blocking anything else that tries to come through.

Eruptions are good news – the signal that darkness will not stay buried. If you can stand the upsetting energy, you just might get the chance to watch as dark and light come back into balance.

Getting the relationship between Joseph and his family back in full balance will take a few more chapters. But a sign that the scales are starting to dip from darkness to brightness for Joseph and his family shows up in a most-unlikely place – in those bags of grain that the brothers haul back to Canaan, in those coins of grain payment that Joseph refunds to his brothers.

That unearned and undeserved favor confuses and surprises the brothers and their father.

Those of us whom the Lord has claimed have a word for unearned and undeserved favor that confuses and surprises. We call it grace. And what makes grace so confusing, so surprising –so amazing – is that grace also arrives whenever the past comes knocking, and the Holy Spirit gives us the courage to open the door and let it in.

Please remember that and take it to heart, as another Lent begins and we kneel before our Maker in contrition for our sins. What if, down on our knees – jealous, proud, impatient, and loving over much our things, what if, as another writes, instead of ashes, gold gleamed on our foreheads?

What if, alongside the certainty of earthly death, the ashes of Lent are loving reminders of God’s expansive grace?

That reality just might make it a whole lot easier to accept Lent’s knock-on-the-door invitation to face up to the sin and brokenness of your past and present and to return home to the Kingdom of God.

May each of our homecomings and reunions be so, this Lent, this Easter, and in the days of resurrection that are sure to follow.

Amen, and amen!

Pastor Grant shared this message on Ash Wednesday, March 2, 2022. Commentary, scholarship, and reflection by Lisle Gwynn Garrity, Michelle Greenspan, Scott Hoezee, and Barbara Brown Taylor inform the message.

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