November 16, 2014

Making Things Whole Again

When I was in second grade we did a unit on the five senses.  A friend of mine received taste as her project and she went over the top for it.  She had something for everyone to taste in order to demonstrate what each of the major taste groups are.  Taste by taste she handed out samples to the class.  The one everyone was most looking forward to was the big plate of chocolate she had—for sweet we all knew in advance.  In fact, I actually brought a tray of chocolate to share with you all this morning just to help you relive my experience.  If I can get my helpers to come up here, let’s pass this around for everyone to have a bit.  If you would, wait just a second before you eat it so everyone has a chance to eat together.  In the same way my friend’s mom handed a piece of chocolate to every member of the class.  All at the same time we ate in order to experience the sweetness together—just like we are right now.  Ready…one, two, three…eat!

Oh wait!  I’m sorry, that must have been the wrong tray!  That was the tray to demonstrate what bitter tastes like.  Yeah, we were just as surprised in class.  We thought for sure the plate of chocolate was to demonstrate sweet, but it was baking chocolate.  Nasty stuff, isn’t it.  That flavor is probably going to be in your mouth for the rest of the sermon.  You may not even be able to pay attention to any more of what I say…  Well, I’ll try for it anyway and see what happens.

Bitter is just not a fun flavor.  Perhaps it can serve a purpose when it’s used in the right cooking context, but I’ll admit, I have a hard time imagining it.  I’ll bet you do now too.  The bitter flavor serves as almost a kind of warning to our body that we may be putting something in it that isn’t good.  Like baking chocolate.  Stuff that tastes so bad is probably harmful to the body, right?  Why would someone knowingly put something that’s bitter in his body?  And yet, while our tongues tell us to keep away from things that taste bitter if we can, there are times in life when we are tempted—and often give in—to willingly take bitterness into our hearts and minds.  We throw open the door of our lives and pour in the bitterness.  We let it take control and dictate our words and actions.  The thing is, though, for most of the times in which we do this, it is a perfectly understandable course of action.  Sure there have been voices of wisdom throughout the ages warning against it, but when something really bad happens to us, when we get really hurt, embracing the bitterness makes sense in the moment.  It serves as a kind of shield against the hurt.  Now, the shield is laced with poison, but that doesn’t start killing us until later.

For instance, in 1993 a woman named Mary had a son who was involved with some of the wrong kind of people.  Sadly, his involvement with them led to his being murdered by a man named Oshea.  Oshea was convicted and sent to prison for his crime, but how would you react if you were Mary?  It’s tempting to say while we are sitting in this room where we are supposed to say things like this that we would simply let it go.  Justice had been served and it is time to move on with our life.  But how many of us would really do that?  It seems much more likely that we would hold on to the hurt and the sense of loss and the anger and let them mix together to form a very bitter cocktail in our hearts.  Mary and Oshea, though, didn’t have a relationship when he killed her son.  Perhaps a lack of a relationship would make not embracing the bitterness not as pressing a temptation as it might have been.  But, what about a situation in which there was a relationship that has been fractured by some offense, by some betrayal?  Bitterness often comes as the result of a broken relationship but once in place can make it nearly impossible for the relationship to become once again what it was or was always intended to be.  This is a hard situation that far too many face, but quietly and on the inside so it’s difficult to see and harder to overcome.  Yet overcome we must.  Our lives depend on it.

This morning we are in the fifth part of our series, Overcome.  Through the lens of the story of Joseph, for the last several weeks we have been working through this idea that all of us face times in our lives that are hard.  We all face times when something has happened from which we’re not really sure we have the wherewithal to recover.  We all face seasons when we’re pretty sure that giving up would be the best option for us.  And yet if we give in and give up we risk losing ourselves to these hard situations and that won’t ultimately do anybody any good, least of all us.  As a result, when we face these hard times, instead of giving in and losing ourselves, the better way forward is to overcome them so that we come out on top, so that we come out as victorious, not defeated.

In the first three parts of the series we looked at some specific hard situations that many of us face.  We talked about overcoming betrayal by keeping in mind the fact that God is always at work in and around us even when His activity is far from obvious.  We waded through the mess that temptation always makes in our lives and saw that if  we will stop and take stock of what’s at stake in giving in to it we will give ourselves a leg up on either avoiding it altogether or else fleeing like the house is on fire when we can’t.   A couple of weeks ago we wrestled with the hard place of feeling like we’ve been forgotten, of feeling like life itself and maybe even God too has left us behind.  In these hard times we need to stay on the path God has laid out for us, putting the gifts He’s given us to work all the while remembering well His promise to never leave us nor forsake us.  We do this because at the right time He is going to give us a chance to take part in His plans, but if we have walked away from Him because we felt forgotten we’ll miss the chance.

Finally last week we started to look at things from a bit broader of an angle and talked about how to overcome hard times generally.  We can overcome any hard times in our lives by remembering that God has a plan to see us through any crisis.  No matter how bad things get, our heavenly Father who loves us without condition or reservation is at work in the world around us and has an incredible plan that involves us and in which we can play a part.  That’s a prize worth hanging on through the storm to receive.

This morning we are going to continue looking at the hard times we face from this broader angle.  I’m not going to ask for a show of hands on this one, but take a second and think through the various relationships in your life.  Are they all fully what they could be?  Do you have any relationships that might be properly described as broken?  Come on, we all do.  We all have—or at least have had—a relationship in our lives that wasn’t working like it was designed to work.  The reasons for this are many.  It could be that we have experienced, or better yet been a victim of, one of those specific hard times we looked at in the first few weeks of the series—betrayal, temptation, or being forgotten.  But whatever the reason is, for many of us, a broken relationship is an opportunity for bitterness to take root in our heart.  Now, admittedly, while bitterness is always bad, if it stayed limited to a single relationship it wouldn’t be all that bad.  I mean, yes, even a single broken relationship in our lives is cause for great concern because being rightly related to God means not having any broken relationships as far as it depends on us.  But, if only a single relationship is being poisoned by some foreign force that’s a manageable challenge.  Bitterness, though, once let in the door, doesn’t stick with that single relationship.  It gradually spreads out to affect other relationships and finally all our relationships.  When we let bitterness into our hearts we can very easily find ourselves in a place where we start to see all of our other relationships through the lens of the bitterness rendering them all less than they could be.

Thus bitterness, whether we recognize it or not, can become a situation in need of being overcome.  This morning and through the next major part of the story of Joseph, I want to show you how we can do it.  If you have a copy of the Scriptures handy find your way to Genesis 45.  You see, once Joseph had finally had his day in court and was promoted from the chief servant of the prison warden to second-in-command over the whole nation of Egypt, it would have been nice to think he could just live the rest of his life in peace, forgetting about the trouble in his past that led to his current state, but this was not to be.  Nine years into the fourteen year dream sequence Pharaoh had, once the famine had really gripped the land,  Joseph found himself standing face-to-face with his brothers—the same brothers who had thrown him into the pit almost 30 years before.  Not only were they standing before him, but they didn’t have any idea who he was beyond being the man in charge.  And, as was fitting for their times, when they found themselves in his presence, they bowed to the ground before him, just as his dream 30 years before had foretold.

Put yourself in his shoes for a moment.  Have you ever been in a place where for years you had successfully locked some hard memory away so you didn’t have to deal with it on a regular basis only to have something happen that brought it all rushing back to the foreground?  Imagine all the emotions and thoughts that slammed into the front of Joseph’s mind when he looked up from his work to discover the men who had caused him so much trouble standing before him.  Surely the looming bitterness would have swelled to tsunamic proportions and threatened to wash him away.  Joseph had two paths in front of him: one of bitterness and one of wholeness.  Both were going to be started by making a single choice.  Embrace the bitterness or take another path.  Well, from his initial words and actions toward his brothers it seems like he embraces the bitterness.  He gives them a pretty hard time and we’re really not treated to a reason why.  I mean, we can guess at his motivations based on what we’d do—you know, turnabout is fair play—but that’s about it.  Part of me wonders if what happens over the course of chapters 42-44 isn’t at least in part the result of Joseph trying to make up his mind as to the path he’s going to take.  By the time we get to chapter 45, though, his planned course of action is clear.

If you aren’t already there, open your Bibles to Genesis 45 and take a look at this with me.  The brothers have returned to Egypt a second time and Joseph is still giving them a hard time.  He’s poised to keep it up when Judah—the ringleader when they betrayed him—makes a passionate plea to him to let them basically go back and starve because they know they’re not welcome here any longer.  Over the course of his plea he basically confesses to their crimes, expresses their collective remorse, worries that much more trouble from Joseph will kill Jacob, and offers to stay with Joseph as a sacrifice so that the rest of the brothers can go home safely.  This all finally proves too much for Joseph to handle and maintain the charade of him as a suspicious Egyptian official any longer.  He throws all the Egyptians out of the room so he is alone with them and breaks down in tears.

His brothers—still unaware of who he is—figure he’s finally lost it and are probably read to bolt for the exit themselves when Joseph finally pulls back the curtain.  Look at this starting in v. 3: “And Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph!  Is my father still alive?’  But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed at his presence [for obvious reason I might add].  So Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come near to me, please.’  And they came near.”  As a quick cultural note, the Egyptians would have considered Joseph to high enough up the social ladder that average folks would not have been able to get within a certain distance of him.  Also, there’s a good chance he would have spoken everything through someone who acted as his mouth.  For the brothers, his speaking directly to them in Hebrew would have freaked them out enough by itself.  The request to come near would have had them shaking in their boots.   This shock would have been nothing, though, compared to what was coming with his next words.

“And he said, ‘I am your brother, Joseph, 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.  For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest.  And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.  So it was not you who sent me here, but God.  He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.’”

What we see here, though not explicitly, is that Joseph did not choose the path of bitterness at all.  He chose the other path: the path of forgiveness.  He wanted his relationship with his family back more than he wanted to hang on to the hurt.  And so he forgave.  He let go, not simply of the offense, but of the debt his brothers owed to him for it.  He turned the pain of the offense over to his heavenly Father—the one who was even more wounded by the offense than he was.  He refused to stand in the place of God any longer over their lives.  He forgave.  He forgave and opened the door to the possibility of a relationship existing once again where it had not for some time.  Now, don’t get me wrong: forgiveness doesn’t guarantee the return of the relationship, but it does guarantee that the bitterness welling up from the wound won’t control us anymore; it does guarantee that we can now walk the road of healing with confidence and grace; it does guarantee that when the time is right, the relationship can move forward.  Relationships can only move forward with forgiveness.

If you have relationships in your life that are broken, there is a very good chance the reason for the brokenness stems from an offense of some kind.  Where there is offense in our lives there are always two choices, two paths stretching out in front of us.  They are the same two paths that stretched out before Joseph: embrace the bitterness or walk the road of forgiveness.  I said it before, but it bears repeating here.  Embracing the bitterness that wells up after an offense will nearly always make sense in the moment.  Bitterness can serve as a very effective insulator against the pain of the offense or the loss.  It gives us something on which to focus other than how miserable we are.  It provides us with a lens through which to see the world in which everything is filtered through the offense, through the pain, through the hurt and the anger these cause in us.  For a time at least, this helps us make sense out of the world around us.  But, as I also said before, bitterness is a slow poison.  By the time we wait to see whether or not bitterness will help keep us safe from the offense we will likely find ourselves in over our heads.  The bitterness will have long since left its holding tank and will have begun poisoning our hearts, hamstringing our ability to form and keep subsequent meaningful relationships.  You probably still have the taste of that bitter, baking chocolate in your mouths.  It really stays with you, doesn’t it?  Bitterness does the same thing in our hearts and minds.  It stays with us and distorts the way we see reality.  And, perhaps most importantly, it puts all the relationships it affects (which over time will become all of them), on hold.  They cease to grow and develop any further until the bitterness is eliminated.  Relationships can only move forward with forgiveness.

The path of forgiveness is harder to walk in the short term, but it is much, much sweeter in the long term.  It’s harder in the short term because it means feeling the full weight of the offense which, depending on its severity, may be something we’ve been rather assiduously avoiding perhaps with the aid of the bitterness.  Yet we must take down our shield and bear the offense so that we are fully aware of what we’re doing.  We feel the offense, and with that pain fully in mind, step out of the place of God over the person who hurt us, and voluntarily release them from the debt they owe us.  This is, again, a huge challenge, but we take it on because we are commanded to do so.  When Jesus finished telling a story to illustrate just how ridiculous it is for us to refuse to forgive someone else in light of what God has forgiven of us—a story that ended with the main character being sentenced to a life of torment—He dropped this bomb on the people: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother [or sister] from your heart.”  Pretty strong words.  The gist of the parable is that God can’t forgive us if we don’t forgive others.  This isn’t Him being mean, but rather by refusing to forgive we put ourselves in His place and thus aren’t able to receive the forgiveness He freely offers because if we’re god and He’s not then not only does He no longer have the authority to forgive us, but we haven’t done anything that warrants forgiveness in the first place.

Joseph understood this.  We see this brought out even more clearly in a subsequent conversation Joseph had with his brothers.  After Jacob died and the brothers were afraid that Joseph hadn’t really forgiven them but was rather merely biding his time until their father died so he could go after them without anyone to hold him accountable, the brothers came to him and said that Jacob’s last request to them was that Joseph forgive them for what they did to him.  His response was revealing: “am I in the place of God?”  The obvious answer is no and that’s exactly the point.  He wasn’t in the place of God and neither are we.  We don’t stand in the place of God and to attempt to do so anyway will only serve to open our hearts to the bitterness we’ve been talking about all morning.  It’s a bitterness that permeates all of our lives and leaves an imprint that stays with us for a long time.  It poisons the relationship in question, halting it completely in its tracks.  But it also goes on to halt the growth of all our other relationships as well if left unchecked.  With forgiveness, though, everything changes.  Relationships can only move forward with forgiveness.

Do you want to know who else understands this?  Mary.  Remember Mary?  A man named Oshea murdered her son and then went to prison for it.  Relationship or not, overcoming bitterness for Mary wasn’t going to be easy.  She mourned and raged at the unfairness of the situation for a time—a state of mind from which she was not helped by her church—but then she made a decision that she was not going to be a victim of her bitterness.  Twelve years into his prison sentence she finally decided that the only way she was going to taste the sweetness of life again would be to sit face to face with Oshea.  At first he flatly refused to meet with her.  But finally he agreed.  Out of the forgiveness Mary offered the two eventually formed a relationship from their places of brokenness.  When Oshea was released from prison in 2009 Mary threw him a “welcome out” party and with her landlord’s help he moved into the apartment next door to her.  He’s no replacement for her son, but she has gained a new son all the same.  The bitterness is gone and in its place is a sweetness unlike any other in this world.

When we take up the intentional practice of forgiveness we throw off the shackles of bitterness, and set our relationships on the sweet path of life.  We are able to move them forward and enjoy a lasting sweetness powerful enough to drive away any thought of the bitterness.  It’s a scary place to be because we have to give up the power and control bitterness naturally grants those who hold it, but that power and control is ultimately an illusion and will only result in death if we cling to them without release.  And why would we want to let that awful flavor linger any longer than absolutely necessary (the trick being that it’s never necessary) when the sweet taste of life is there for the enjoying?  In fact, to help you grasp what I’m saying I’m going to try and make up for my earlier trick.  I have another basket of chocolate.  And in case you don’t trust me anymore (I don’t blame you) I’ve kept this chocolate—Hershey’s kisses—in its wrappers.  As my helpers pass this around again, I want everybody to take two kisses and eat them as you take them.  As you eat these sweet, milk chocolate morsels, imagine the sweetness of forgiveness driving away the awful taste of bitterness not merely in your mouths, but in your entire lives.  This is the sweetness that comes when we liberate our relationships to move forward again by lavishing forgiveness on all the folks in our lives (or not in our lives for that matter) on whom we need to lavish it.  Just as the sweet, milk chocolate drives away the bitterness of the baking chocolate—still on your tongue 30 minutes later—so also will forgiveness drive away the bitterness from broken relationships.  Relationships can only move forward with forgiveness and though the journey may not be easy, it’s end will be sweet.  I pray this morning that you will set your relationships free from bitterness and live with the sweetness of forgiveness.  Relationships can only move forward with forgiveness.