If you are a person of a certain age, there’s a pretty good chance that you have a series of scars on your body that reflect a childhood lived without seat belts, bicycle helmets, elbow and knee pads, and a host of other safety devices designed to bubble wrap kids in safety these days. That banana-seated Schwinn bike with the sissy bar on the back and chopper wheel on the front no doubt led to a couple trips to the emergency room, a few stitches, and a good story.
Every scar is a memory, revealing an unfortunate accident, a random act of stupidity, or some kind of injustice. I know that some scars are the memory of the deft hand of a surgeon whose God-given skill saved your life from cancer or heart disease; those scars are, usually, straight and neat and we should thank the Lord for those scars.
But this morning I’m talking about the ragged, jagged scars. Like the cigar-shaped scar you got on your left leg when you found out that the plastic you used for a homemade slip ‘n’ slide had razor sharp edges when they curled up. Then again, maybe that’s just me. Or maybe the neighborhood bully hit you with a rock thrown in contempt. Or maybe the scars are less visible and yet run much deeper, the result of a deep woundedness of the soul. However we got them, these scars remind us that life isn’t fair and can be painful. Every time we look at a scar, we remember the story.
The Joseph story is a scar story about a young man’s woundedness and recovery. His scars are numerous, and yet Joseph is able to interpret them in light of the larger story that God has in mind for him and his people. They are scars that are less badges of honor and more signposts pointing to the kind of suffering love that God has for us and for the world.
To recap the story in Genesis up to chapter 45 (in case you missed it last week), Joseph has been in Egypt for quite a while. As a boy, Joseph was a dreamer and the favorite of his father, Jacob, which led to no small amount of jealousy among his older brothers. His father made him “a long robe with sleeves,” which implies that his dad thought him to be a little more special than the others and expected him to do less work (Genesis 37:3). Joseph’s dreams had his brothers bowing down to him, and Joseph was young enough (and naive enough?) to tell them about it, and thus the sibling rivalry boiled over. When Joseph goes out one day to check on his brothers at his father’s request, they finally decide to get rid of him by tossing him into a well, stripping off his fancy coat, and then selling him into slavery. The brothers told their father he was eaten by a wild animal and presented their dad with the coat smeared in goat’s blood as fake proof — easy to do in the days before CSI and DNA testing!
Joseph is brought as a slave to Egypt and sold to an official named Potiphar, who saw Joseph’s potential and put him in charge of the household. Potiphar’s wife saw Joseph’s potential, too, but as a lover, not a worker. When Joseph refused to have an affair with her on moral grounds, she falsely accuses him of rape and has him thrown into prison.
If you’re keeping score, that’s at least two major scars: being sold unjustly as a slave and being unjustly accused of a crime. But Joseph doesn’t pick at those wounds. Instead, he makes a favorable impression on the prison warden, who puts him in charge of the other prisoners. He becomes the interpreter of their dreams as well, and eventually rises again from the dungeon to interpret the dreams of the Egyptian Pharaoh himself. When Joseph predicts a great famine to come, Pharaoh appoints him as the equivalent of the prime minister in charge of the social and economic affairs of the empire. Once again, he is wearing a coat with long sleeves!
The famine strikes hard in Joseph’s homeland of Canaan, where his still-in-the-dark father and scheming brothers still reside. They hear that there is grain stored up in Egypt, so they decide to take a shopping trip there, not knowing from whom they would be buying!
That’s the recap of the story between Genesis 37 and 45. Joseph’s life has been a bit of a roller coaster to this point, with very high highs and low lows. There was plenty to celebrate but also plenty about which he could be bitter, especially toward the ones who put him in this situation. Joseph no doubt had scars from being tossed in the well, scars from being tossed in the dungeon, scars of rejection, scars of false accusation, and scars from longing to be in his father’s presence once again.
And now, here in Genesis 45, Joseph stands over his begging brothers who don’t yet recognize him, scarred for life by what they had done to him. He has every right to see himself as a victim, and we wouldn’t blame him if he wanted some payback.
Yet Joseph refuses to give in to victimhood. He does not view his physical and emotional scars as reasons for despair or revenge. Incredibly, Joseph instead sees his scars as signs of God’s providential grace.
Joseph “could no longer control himself” in that moment (45:1). He sent everyone out of the room except his brothers and, through his loud, wailing tears, he reveals the truth to them: “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” (v. 3). His brothers couldn’t answer him. They were terrified, speechless, almost not believing what they were hearing and seeing. They had to believe that payback was coming swiftly.
But Joseph isn’t there to inflict more scars on them. “I am your brother, Joseph,” he said to them, “whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life” (vv. 4-5). Indeed, Joseph says, it was not you, my brothers, who sent me here, but it was God (v. 8). And because of God’s provision, Joseph’s family now had a place to go to survive the famine and, in effect, preserve the covenant God had made with Abraham earlier in Genesis.
Joseph looks back at the events of his life with a new vision where the scars of pain, injustice, rejection, and separation were only part of the story. Fast forward to Genesis 50:20, where he sums up all that he has learned from his scars. “Even though you intended to do harm to me,” Joseph says to his brothers, “God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” This is what we might call 50:20 vision — Genesis 50:20 vision. What the world, the human plan, the human scheme planned as an evil, self-serving act, God took and used for good, preserving life!
One of the persistent puzzles of the human experience is how we deal with evil in the world. As humans in a fallen world, we seem to live lives of constant jeopardy. We are vulnerable to a wide range of evil, from pandemics, to crime, to family dysfunction, to oppression, to all sorts of uncontrollable, wound-inflicting mayhem. In the midst of all of that, it’s a legitimate question to ask or even cry out, “Where is God in all of this?”
Joseph’s 50:20 vision tells us that despite all evidence to the contrary, God is still at work. God is making things good despite appearances. We suffer the scars, but the wounds of this life are not ultimately fatal for those who put their trust in him.
Does this mean that every tragedy we experience has a silver lining? That all evil is really good and that all our suffering is somehow being orchestrated by God?
Not at all.
Notice that the end of Genesis has the same message as the beginning. In Genesis 1, God creates the universe, the earth, and us and calls it all “good.” By chapter 3, however, humans have rejected God’s goodness for self-serving sin and yet, despite all human efforts to the contrary, God’s intention for good overcomes. God used the slavery of Joseph to save His chosen family, through whom all the earth would be blessed. The God who does this is also the God who transforms the evil and unjust death of Jesus into the salvation of the world. God’s goodness wins in the end, which is why the apostle Paul, even while languishing in prison with many scars of his own, could say, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
Plastic surgeons routinely try to erase the scars people have accumulated over the years. There are cosmetic reasons to do so, but there may be spiritual reasons not to. Joseph didn’t ask for his scars to be removed. He showed them to his brothers and saw them as signs of ultimate healing. The risen Jesus did the same. When he came out of the tomb, he still had the scars as identifiable marks of how God can make even the horror of death into a vehicle for good that blesses the whole creation with restoration and renewal.
What scars do you carry? What are the physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual scars that mark your life? How might they become signs of healing and occasion for a new vision of life for you and others you meet? Joseph looked at the scars of slavery and saw that God had a saving plan for his life and the lives of his people. Perhaps the scars you carry can enable you to speak into the pain of someone else’s life. Showing that scar of past abuse may help others have the courage to seek healing. Revealing that pain of loss may put you in a powerful position to help others who are grieving. We didn’t ask for these scars, nor did God inflict them upon us; and yet, those scars can make known to the world how God can make good out of the worst situations.
Scars never go away, and yet the scars of Joseph and Jesus remind us that the tears we shed, the emotional pain inflicted on us, and the heartache of loss will all become memories one day, like the scars of Jesus. We still bear the marks, but they need not hurt us any longer. They can be signs of healing for us and for the world.
That’s 50:20 vision!