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"Happy Families Are All Alike"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on February 16, 2020
By Rev. Dr. Dean Nadasdy, Guest Speaker
Copyright 2024 Lutheran Hour Ministries

Download MP3  Reflections

Text: Genesis 50:15-26

Let us pray: Gracious Father, You have placed us in families. Give us confidence and hope in Your provision, protection, and restoration of our family. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lived on earth in a human family and knows the joy of being family with You. Amen.

Leo Tolstoy began his novel Anna Karenina with this well-known opening lines. "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." For years, commentators have tried to explain what Tolstoy meant by that statement: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." But it may be simpler than we think. Tolstoy's story shows that what makes for a happy family may be as simple as faithfulness in ordinary, little things and unconditional love. As for unhappy families, the families in Tolstoy's novel are unhappy all right, each in their own way. And that, after all, is the stuff of a good story. In other words, unhappy families make for good drama, as if we didn't know.

As we bring our Genesis sermon series to a close with chapter 50, we realize that each of the families of Genesis, from Adam and Eve's family at the beginning to Joseph's family at the end, each family is "unhappy" in its own way. And that, after all, is the stuff good drama. Only this is history, not fiction. This is Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Sarah and Hagar, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. As the saying goes, "You don't get to choose your own family." These folks did not choose their family, but God did. God chose each of these families to carry God's promises. In that sense these families were all happy or blessed in the same way. God was busy with them; God was working through their ordinary, everyday, dysfunctional, sinful and unhappy life together to bring the world its Messiah—Jesus Christ, Savior and Lord.

We see this nowhere better than in the story of Jacob's son Joseph and his brothers. This is a family story of epic proportions, taking up a good quarter of the book of Genesis. Joseph is first left for dead and then sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, who lie to the father, Jacob, saying Joseph was killed. Joseph is brought to Egypt by slave traders and bought by Potiphar, captain of Pharaoh's guard. He is then falsely accused with rape and imprisoned, then called on by Pharaoh to interpret his dreams, and ultimately appointed to be prime minister of Egypt. While administering the sale and distribution of food during a famine, he meets his brothers who come seeking food. He immediately recognizes them, but they don't recognize him. Eventually, he reveals himself to them, and he shows them kindness. He meets his little brother Benjamin, brings them all to live in Egypt, and there is reunited with his father. Jacob dies in Egypt, having blessed his sons, and at his request is buried at Machpelah in Canaan, where Abraham, Isaac, Sara, Rebekah, and Leah were also buried. This where our text picks up in verses 15-17 of Genesis 50, the Word of God.

"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."

Now remember, earlier Joseph had reconciled with his brothers. Now, though, Jacob has died and has been laid to rest in Canaan, and the brothers wonder if Joseph will turn on them with a vengeance. They tell Joseph that Jacob commanded them to ask for his forgiveness for what they had done to him. Joseph's response was one of deep emotion. We're told that he wept when his brothers asked for forgiveness.

The depth of a family's love is often seen in the tears we shed. Weddings, baptisms, funerals, graduations, reunions, and in moments of reconciliation. That was certainly true with Joseph. No less than seven times in his story in Genesis, Joseph spills tears, sometimes uncontrollably. And most of these tears are not shed for sadness but for love. The tears of Joseph are a testimony to his love of family and for God and for this God who chose his family. Let's trace Joseph's tears.

In the Genesis story, Joseph's cries the first time in chapter 42 when his brothers stand before him to buy grain in a famine. Again, he recognizes them as his brothers, but they don't recognize him. He accuses them of being spies. He demands that one of them, Simeon, stay behind until the others return, bringing with them their youngest brother Benjamin. The brothers talk among themselves, thinking Joseph doesn't know their language. Joseph overhears them recalling what they had done to Joseph and that this now was their punishment. On hearing this, Joseph had to turn away from them to cry. They had never forgotten him. They knew they had wronged him terribly. They were living with guilt. He was overwhelmed, so he cried.

Joseph cries a second time on the road to reconciliation in chapter 43. His brothers have returned with Benjamin. When Joseph sees Benjamin, the only one of his brothers who was also a son of Jacob and Rachel, seeing Benjamin, we're told he was so moved with love and compassion that he had to leave the room and cry his eyes out, wash his face, and come back in.

The third and perhaps most profound tears of Joseph come in chapter 45, as he makes himself known to his brothers. He had set it up to make it appear that Benjamin had stolen a chalice. It was a test of the brothers. Would they turn on this new favored son of Jacob the way they had turned on him. Remarkably, Judah steps forward to take the blame, offering his life for Benjamin's rather than break his father's heart again with the loss of a favored son. This act breaks the cycle of jealousy and violence. Joseph clears the room except for his brothers and lets them know who he is. The Scriptures say, "And he wept aloud, so that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it."

Later in chapter 45, Joseph is moved to tears again, his fourth tears. He embraces Benjamin and weeps and then kisses each of his brothers, with his tears falling on them. Notice that these tears, like those that had come before, were not tears of sadness or regret but tears of deep emotion and compassion, and love.

Joseph's fifth cry comes as he goes to Goshen to see his father who had so deeply loved him when he was a child. The Scriptures say that "he presented himself to Jacob and fell on his neck and wept on his neck, a good while." Simply put, the phrase could read, "he wept on his neck more," that is longer than all the cries before, longer and deeper as father and son, who was thought dead, are now reunited.

And that brings us to the last two cries of Joseph here in chapter 50. Verse 1 tells us that when Jacob died, Joseph "fell on his father's face and wept over him and kissed him." If you've ever lost a family member, you know what that embrace and those tears feel like.

And Joseph's seventh tears come in our text as he hears his brothers ask for his forgiveness. Throughout all seven of Joseph's tears, we can't miss how deeply he loves his father, his little brother Benjamin, and even those brothers who had so wronged them.

There is something steadfast and durable about families shown so well by Joseph's tears in Genesis. Within our families we can wrong each other. We can spend days, even years, not talking to each other. In some families, as in Joseph's, violence threatens life itself. Yet, through it all, the love within a family persists. The ancient Greeks had word for this family love. Their word for it was storge. It was a deep love for family rich with devotion and unrelenting even in tragedy. Though storge is not used in the New Testament, its opposite is. And at one point in Romans 12:10, storge is joined with the word for friendship love as Paul writes that Christians must "love one another with brotherly affection," that is, love as deep as family.

From the get-go, family was God's idea for creation. Family is at the very essence of who God is as Father, Son, and Spirit. Despite all of our struggles and all of our bad days, God is at work in families. Through family, God brings order to His creation and preserves it. God is at work in your family, giving you an opportunity to make sacrifices, to keep on loving no matter what, to invite Christ to be present at every meal, but also at every milestone and in every challenging conflict.

Growing up, I remember how at our supper table, our family would spend time singing hymns and songs. My brother played the accordion, and when my grandpa, who lived in the flat upstairs, came down to join us, my brother played "The Blue Danube Waltz." My grandfather had come to America from Hungary through Germany. One night I asked him why he always cried when he heard that tune. Through his tears he said, "My family. It makes me remember them."

The tears of Joseph remind us of the treasure we have in our families, even through our brokenness, even through our sins against one another. God has given us parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, and all our kin, even that crazy uncle who drives us nuts, even that sibling with whom we're always competing. My, how deep family love runs—as deep as our tears.

Our text goes on with verses 18-21: "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."

So Joseph's brothers look and sound a lot like the prodigal son in Jesus's story. Remember how the runaway son decides that being his father's servant would be far better than dinner with the pigs. Joseph's brothers kneel before him as servants. Expecting judgment, they hear Joseph say, "Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God?"

The road to reconciliation in families is strewn with tears but also often disabled by fears—the fear of rejection, the fear of reprisal, the fear of losing control. Joseph says to his brothers, "Do not fear; for am I in the place of God?" To judge his brothers for their sins was God's responsibility, not his. To make them his slaves (as they had made him a slave) would be to play God—and a vengeful God at that. Not now, not in this family. Joseph is saying, "God is God, and I'm not. And you're not either. Put your fears way."

And then Joseph gives us one of the Bible's most treasured insights: "As for you, you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good, to bring about that many people should be kept alive." In other words, "Out of jealousy and hatred, you wanted me dead, but through all that evil, God was raising me up to save the lives of hungry people." Not everyone gets to see it, but Joseph did, how God works through a family's conflicts and tragedies and bad motives and sin, to achieve God's good purposes. God had a plan. That's what Joseph saw. It's what an inspired apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote in Romans 8:28, "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose."

In moments when families are mired in their own unhappy stories of torn relationships, when they're wronged and hurt one another deeply, the Joseph principle asks, "What good thing may God have in mind here, even in this, for our life together? Where can I see God at work even in the middle of this mess?"

"You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good." That phrase, "but God" is all over the Scriptures, and it is at the very heart of the Gospel.

  • Romans 5:7-8 - "For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."

  • Acts 13:29-30 - "And when they had carried out all that was written of Him, they took Him down from the tree and laid Him in a tomb. But God raised Him from the dead."

  • Ephesians 2:1, 4-5a - "And you were dead in the trespasses and sins ... But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ ..."

"You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good." It's our story as the Father's children. The grace of God intervenes as God loves us, steeped in sin, and Jesus dies for us. The grace of God raises Jesus from the dead. The grace of God transforms us from the walking dead to those alive in Jesus Christ. All of this, all of this love from the Godward side, is available to families, each unhappy in its own way.

Go ahead, finish the sentence:

  • "I don't know if I can ever forgive my spouse, but God ..."

  • "I don't care if I ever speak to my sister again, but God ..."

  • "I am haunted by the wrong done to me by a family member when I was young, but God ..."

A few years ago, an angry man rushed into the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam and stopped at Rembrandt's famous painting "The Night Watch." He took out a knife and slashed the painting repeatedly before he could be stopped. The painting was severely damaged. Museum officials called in gifted experts who painstakingly and at great cost restored this treasure to its intended beauty. God wants to do the same when our family relationships are damaged by evil intentions, bad words, and sinful actions. Where God is at work, treasured families can be restored.

And that brings us to the closing verses of the book of Genesis 50:22-26. "So Joseph remained in Egypt, he and his father's house. Joseph lived 110 years. And Joseph saw Ephraim's children of the third generation. The children also of Machir the son of Manasseh were counted as Joseph's own. And Joseph said to his brothers, 'I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.' Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, 'God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.' So Joseph died, being 110 years old. They embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt."

So after a long and fulfilled life of 110 years, Joseph dies with the promise of the patriarchs on his lips. He would not be buried in Egypt, but at his request—as a sign of his confidence in God's promises—his remains were placed in a coffin, and after more than 400 years, his bones would be carried across the desert into the Promised Land.

So the stories of the troubled families of Genesis come to a close, but not without this assurance: every unhappy family may be unhappy in its own way, but God is at work in families, planning for good. From these troubled Genesis families comes the Messiah so that just as God had promised to Abraham, "All the families of the earth shall be blessed." Among those families blessed, is yours. Amen.

Please pray with me: Lord God, even as You were in Christ reconciling us to Yourself, so by Your grace and power work within our families to reconcile us, one to another. That being restored, we may be a blessing to others. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Reflections for February 16, 2020

Title: Happy Families Are All Alike

Mike Zeigler: And thank you Dr. Nadasdy. You helped me see how it pleased God to bring forth our Messiah from a dysfunctional family, and also how Jesus is pleased to dwell and work through us in our families, in our households, even with our dysfunctions.

So dysfunction, jealousy, violence even, that was all part of Jesus' family, His heritage. And at the same time, in these accounts from the old Testament, there are examples of devotion, of instruction, forgiveness, hospitality. So we get this sense how God meets us in our dysfunction, but He doesn't leave us there. And that's one of the driving ideas behind Lutheran Hour Ministries' partnership with the Barna Group and a research project that we conducted along with them to learn more about what makes a household vibrant in that sense, spiritually vibrant.

Joining me today in the studio is Dr. Jason Broge. He spent a lot of time with this project learning about households. Thanks for being here, Jason.

Jason Broge: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here with you. This has been a fun study for us. And it's one of those things where we really wanted to get a clear understanding of what is going on in Christian households in America today, and have a picture of where faith is being nurtured within the household and where households are coming together and what that looks like. And what Barna found was that the households where faith is being nurtured, they called them "spiritually vibrant households," and there were certain characteristics they had in common. So when we looked at those households, they were households where spiritual conversations were a normal part of life within the household, where they were having them with each other, not just individually outside of the household, but within the household. The members of that household are talking together about faith-related topics.

Mike Zeigler: And it comes up naturally.

Jason Broge: And it comes up naturally. It's a part of their life. Another one that came up was that these are households who are being intentional about their spiritual life together. So you have these natural spiritual conversations coming up, but they're also households that practice spiritual disciplines together.

Mike Zeigler: Okay, not just individually.

Jason Broge: Not just individually.

Mike Zeigler: But as a household.

Jason Broge: Exactly. So maybe you have individual members doing quiet times or time alone in devotion in the Word. However, these households are households where people are coming together to do household devotions, and that's something where the spiritual conversations might just sort of pop up in everyday life. That's something that for a lot of them takes intentionality like habits—the time of day where we're going to do this thing.

When we talk about spiritual disciplines, we're also talking about prayer, and we're even talking about some things that happen outside of the household—like we go to worship together; we go to the same church. It's something we do as a whole household, hopefully sit together. How often do I go to church and I see families spread out all over the congregation, especially as the kids start to get older? I'm not saying that's a bad thing necessarily, but one indicator of vibrancy in a household is this is a place where, you know what, there's a desire on a regular basis for us to do this aspect together, too.

Mike Zeigler: So some conversations about God and His work in their lives, some devotional time. And another?

Jason Broge: There was a third indicator, and it was hospitality.

Mike Zeigler: Really?

Jason Broge: Yeah. And this one surprises a lot of people. And there were some people who say, "Wait a minute! I'm a bit of an introvert. My household's not very hospitable." That's okay. But one thing we noticed is that there is a correlation between households where faith is being nurtured and growing, and households where hospitality is regularly being practice, where people are coming in from the outside and joining in on the daily routines of life. Maybe it's having people over for dinner. Maybe it's having people over for a Super Bowl party or something of that nature. But hospitality somehow goes hand-in-hand in these households. There's a correlation between that and faith being nurtured and faith being more vibrant within the household.

Mike Zeigler: So when you talk about a vibrant faith, it sounds like it's more than just having some knowledge of the Bible or the basic teachings of the Christian faith, but there's a way of life that's being patterned, taught. Is that right?

Jason Broge: Well, absolutely. When we look at our faith as Christians, I still remember my pastor saying this to me when I was in confirmation in Sunday school and hearing it at church, that our faith is not just something for Sunday. It's not just something for when we're reading the Bible. But because of the totality of what happened when we were baptized into Christ's death and resurrection, our entire lives are changed, and our faith should be a part of everything. And so often in today's world we do tend to segment things. And in households where faith is being nurtured, we see there's something a little more holistic and exciting going on. It's happening. It's sprinkled throughout their conversations. It's something that's happening when they're inviting people in through their doors, and it's something that they are intentionally setting time aside for, to come together and study God's Word and be in prayer and continue to grow that way.

Mike Zeigler: Well, I know we just barely touched on this, but could you come back and talk a little bit more about it next week?

Jason Broge: I would love to.

Mike Zeigler: All right.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"Songs of Thankfulness and Praise" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)

Change Their World. Change Yours. This changes everything.

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