Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Lord is With Us

The Lord is With Us
Genesis 50:15-21[1]
I find that “God’s purpose” for my life is incredibly difficult to discern. I also know that my ability to discern what God may be doing in my life at any particular time isn’t very accurate. You may be able to identify with that. It seems, beyond the obvious truth that God wants us all to love him and to love each other, that it’s next to impossible for us to know with any certainty what God may be doing in our lives. I think that’s especially the case when life hurts. We believe in a God who loves us, who is kind and good to us, and who is all-powerful. And for most of us that all adds up to the idea that God must intend to bring into our lives the good things that we desire. Surely it must be God’s purpose to make us happy! And, at least from the outside looking in, that seems to be true for some people. But I would have to say that I doubt that most of us fall in that category.
I would say that the vast majority of people we encounter in our everyday lives are dealing with some kind of significant loss or another—whether it’s a career, or health, or a relationship, or simply the loss of vitality you had when you were younger. Since that’s the case, I personally don’t find it helpful to peddle the promise that if you have enough faith you’ll get the life you’ve always wanted. If that’s God’s purpose for us, then it seems like he hasn’t done a very good job of it! But I would have to say that I don’t believe “making us happy” is God’s purpose for us at all. In fact, I would point to St. Paul who says that God’s purpose for us is to “conform us to the image of Christ” (Rom. 8:29). That happens in a variety of ways, but in my experience it “sticks” most frequently in times of hardship and suffering. It’s in those times that we truly learn the faith that trusts in God in all the circumstances of our lives.
That’s not the answer most of us want to hear. We enter our lives with the youthful enthusiasm that leads us to believe we can do anything. But life has a way of reminding us that we are mere mortals with limitations. Joseph seemed to have some of that youthful enthusiasm. Although his dreams of success and great achievement did actually come true. I doubt that as a young man he could ever have imagined the path that it would take for him to get there. It was a path through slavery and a long imprisonment that led him to become the second most powerful man in the world of his day.
But that wasn’t the primary purpose of God in this seemingly tragic story. God had something more important in mind. And it would take Joseph a lifetime to understand it—a lifetime that I think must have turned out very differently from the one he may have wanted. His journey started with his family. Joseph’s own brothers hated him so much that plotted to kill him. Instead, they wound up selling him into slavery. It must have been quite a fall for Joseph going from being the favored son of a rich man to a slave in a foreign country.
And yet, in slavery, “the Lord was with” Joseph (Gen. 39:3), and he was put in charge of the master’s household. After repeated attempts by his master’s wife tried to seduce him, one day Joseph fled leaving his garment in her hands.  Of course, she accused him of taking liberties with her, and Joseph wound up in jail. Now, what we have to understand is that “jail” in those days was more like a death sentence than confinement. You were thrown into a dungeon and no one really cared if you lived or died. But even in the dungeon, “the Lord was with” Joseph (Gen. 39:21), and he wound up running the place.
After years, two of Pharaoh’s closest servants happened to land in jail. Joseph helped them by interpreting some troubling dreams, and in return he asked them to help him when they got out. Pharaoh eventually had his own disturbing dreams, and one of them remembered Joseph. After interpreting Pharaoh’s dream as a reference to a coming famine, and proposing a plan for dealing with it, Joseph became what was essentially the “Prime Minister” of Egypt! He became the second most powerful man in the most powerful empire in the world of that day!
As a result of the famine, Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt looking for grain. After testing them, he revealed his true identity to them, and Joseph was reunited with his family. Years later, Joseph’s brothers were afraid that he would take revenge on them. But Joseph said, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Gen. 50:20). Years of hardship, suffering, and brokenness led him to understand that God used all his experiences to shape him into the man who could save his family, as well as many others.
Like many of us, Joseph’s life turned out quite differently than he could have imagined. I think the reason for all that he went through was that something bigger was at stake than his own personal “happiness.” And I think it was this realization that enabled him to find peace by trusting that God’s purposes were for good, even though it may have been hard to see it in the process. I think that’s a lesson we all have to learn if we’re going to learn to trust God to be loving and good, come what may. I think that’s where the water hits the wheel for many of us when it comes down to really learning faith. It may take pain and loss to learn that kind of faith, but we can trust God to be with us every step of the way.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/17/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE. 

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