November 2, 2014

Sticking with It

Have you ever forgotten something?  Of course you have.  We all have.  The real question is this: have you ever forgotten anything important?  In high school I went on a trip with a music-arts summer program to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  To get to Santa Fe you have to fly into Albuquerque.  We did that and took buses the rest of the way north.  I have always prided myself on having a pretty big music collection and while it’s mostly digital now, it was all CD back then.  Naturally I brought the entire collection with me because I was in high school and much more confident in my decision-making prowess than I should have been.  I enjoyed my music all the way to Santa Fe, but that was it.  I forgot the whole carrying case on the bus when we arrived.  Major (and expensive) bummer.  I can actually top that, though.  Several years earlier my family was traveling to Boston to see my granddad sworn in as the president of the American Veterinary Medical Association.  As we got to the airport and started unloading the car guess where my bag was.  You guess it.  Sitting back at home on the floor in the living room.  A week out of town with one pair of underwear.  My dad tried to speed back home to get it, but it was just too far to make and still get back in time to catch the flight.  My folks had to buy everything for me when we got there.  It all worked out, but forgetting things is a pain in the neck.

Let’s push this just a bit further, though.  Have you ever been forgotten?  That question changes things.  I mean, it’s one thing to forget a thing.  But forgetting a person is often a bigger deal.  Not always, mind you.  My dad drove home one Wednesday night from church and got about a half mile down the road before he realized that my sister and I weren’t just being really quiet in the backseat—a welcome change I’m sure after a long, hard day—we weren’t actually in the backseat at all.  We never knew the difference except that we got to play in the nursery for an extra few minutes.  No big deal.  But sometimes—more often perhaps—being forgotten is a much bigger deal than that.

Perhaps you have been in a place where for a much longer period of time than you thought it should have been you were pretty sure that nobody noticed or appreciated what you did anymore.  Maybe you are in such a place right now.  That’s a hard place to be.  To work hard at something and never receive any thanks or recognition can easily lead to anger and bitterness.  It can lead even to hopelessness and despair as we convince ourselves that the situation isn’t going to change, that we are never going to be recognized.  This is a hard circumstance that many of us face at one point or another in our lives.  Maybe you’ve been working the same job for years and aren’t seeing any real progress or practical impact of your work.  Maybe you’re a mom and are doing the bulk of the child-raising while your husband works.  You deal with messes all day at home and don’t get to see the fruit of your labor that shows forth when the kids leave the house and are excellent testaments to the great parenting you’ve done.  All you see is the emotional garbage they’ve learned to regulate and filter out in public but which they can’t hold any longer by the time they get home and dump all on your lap.  You’ve asked on more than one occasion if your labor is in vain.  Maybe you are a volunteer in a church…let’s say this church…and you’ve been doing the same thing for years and have never been celebrated.  What’s the point, you wonder.  Does anybody really care that I’m doing this?  These and others are circumstances that could easily wash us away.  If we know the right things, though, they are circumstance ripe for being overcome.

This morning we are in the third week of our Bible study and preaching series, Overcome.  The whole idea for this series is just what we’ve been talking about.  There are circumstances in all of our lives that are hard.  They are hard beyond what we think we can bear.  They threaten to knock us down and leave us wondering which way is up.  We could throw up our hands and walk away in these frequent times, but I’m here to say: there’s a better way.  Instead of losing ourselves to these circumstances we can overcome them.  So far we have looked at overcoming times of betrayal.  We can do this by keeping in mind that God is always at work in and around us, even when it’s not obvious.  Now, that doesn’t mean the road back to sanity is going to be straight and smooth, but it will keep the despair of hopelessness at bay so that we can keep putting one foot in front of the other with hope that there will be purpose and direction to the valley of death we’ve been forced to walk.

Then last week we took a look at times of temptation.  Temptation is something all of us face on a daily basis, on an hourly basis even.  It can come as the result of our road through other hard times, but it is by no means limited to those times.  Our best bet in times when temptation rears its ugly head is to put up roadblocks to keep us from getting to the point of direct temptation in the first place.  But, that’s not always possible and like Joseph did when Potiphar’s wife grabbed his cloak, we should flee from temptation.  We should flee because we don’t have the wherewithal in ourselves to beat it.  What can give us a boost down the road, though, is knowing what’s at stake.  It’s easier to resist temptation when we know what’s at stake.  This morning as we continue our look at life’s hard circumstances we’re going to look at times when maybe we’ve been resisting temptation, when we’ve been doing the right thing, when we’re floating along in life pretty well…and nobody seems to notice.  We’re going to look at times when we feel forgotten.

About fifteen years ago a movie came out called Office Space.  Now, I can’t in good conscience recommend the movie if you haven’t seen it…but it was pretty funny.  The movie is about some guys who work at a terrible company with an even more terrible boss.  One of the recurring gags in the movie centers on a character named Milton Waddams.  Milton is a pretty stereotypical nerd, glasses and all.  Milton was apparently laid off years before but nobody told him and a payroll glitch has kept his paychecks coming.  Throughout the movie Milton is consistently ignored and overlooked except when someone needs him to do something unpleasant.  Each time he grumbles to himself or someone else about whatever it is.  In one funny scene Milton is complaining to someone on the phone about his treatment.  Check this out.  “If they take my stapler I’ll…set the building on fire.”  That is a man who has been forgotten too many times and isn’t going to take it anymore.  Now, perhaps you don’t have any designs on burning down your place of work, but if you have been or perhaps are in a place where you feel forgotten, the bitterness may be welling up all the same.  Fortunately you are not alone in this.  As we look at the next part of Joseph’s story we find that he knew this particular place all too well.  Grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures and find your way to Genesis 40 and we’ll see how life went for Joseph once he found himself unjustly thrown in prison.  I’ll actually start reading at Genesis 39:20.

When we last left Joseph, Potiphar had thrown him in the Pharaoh’s prison on the basis of the false accusation of his wife who really was burned up that he kept refusing her advances.  The text says, “And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison.  But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison.  And the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison.  Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it.  The keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, because the Lord was with him.  And whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed.”

Now let me pause there just a minute.  This is yet another statement of the incredible blessing of God’s presence that Joseph enjoyed.  He’s once again in a mess that was not of his own making, and yet the Lord has not left his side.  The Lord has obviously gifted Joseph with pretty significant administrative gifts to accompany his sterling character (and just as a note on how exemplary Joseph’s character was, other than Jesus he’s the only character in all of Scripture who doesn’t have a single fault mentioned).  He’s been given these incredible gifts and God is obviously putting him in situations where they can be used both to His glory but also with a great deal of strategy.  From the perspective of knowing the end of Joseph’s story Potiphar’s house was a mere stepping stone to this special prison and this prison a mere stepping stone to life in the palace as second-in-command of the entire empire.  So when the text says that the Lord was with Joseph it really does mean it.  But, let us not forget that Joseph could not see that as we can.  He could only commit himself fully to work out of his natural gifts wherever he was.  As it turns out this has played itself out well so far, but he doesn’t have any guarantee it will happen again.  He can only keep doing what God has gifted him to do.

In following this path on this particular trip through injustice, Joseph rather quickly makes a couple of connections that seem primed with the potential to change his circumstances yet again.  Stay with me in the text starting again at 40:1: “Some time after this, the cupbearer of the king of Egypt and his baker committed an offense against their lord the king of Egypt.  And Pharaoh was angry with his two officers, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, and he put them in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, in the prison where Joseph was confined.  The captain of the guard appointed Joseph to be with them, and he attended them. They continued for some time in custody.”  So after some time in the prison Joseph has again achieved the position of second-in-command.  In his new role he winds up helping new prisoners get adjusted.  Well, it just so happens, two of the new prisoners are the king’s baker and cupbearer.  These are guys who have the ear of Pharaoh himself.  If anyone could plead his case to someone with the power to do something about the injustice he had been dealt it was these guys.  Things really were looking up.  And, to top off all of this, shortly after arriving in the prison both men found themselves in Joseph’s debt.

Check this out: “And one night they both dreamed—the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt, who were confined in the prison—each his own dream, and each dream with its own interpretation.  When Joseph came to them in the morning, he saw that they were troubled.  So he asked Pharaoh’s officers who were with him in custody in his master’s house, ‘Why are your faces downcast today?’  They said to him, ‘We have had dreams, and there is no one to interpret them.’  And Joseph said to them, ‘Do not interpretations belong to God?  Please tell them to me.’”  Joseph goes on to interpret both dreams.  The cup bearer will be returned to his previous position in three days’ time.  On the same day the chief baker will be executed.  Joseph’s only request in exchange for interpreting their dreams—a task they would have assumed could have only been done by those skilled in magic arts, not a simple foreign slave—was for the cupbearer to remember him and make his case to Pharaoh.  Remember me.  Enjoy all that you have coming to you, but remember me.

Here’s what happened: “On the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday, he made a feast for all his servants and lifted up the head of the chief cupbearer and the head of the chief baker among his servants.  He restored the chief cupbearer to his position, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.  But he hanged the chief baker, as Joseph had interpreted to them.”  And the cupbearer made Joseph’s case to Pharaoh who acted immediately to rescue this remarkably wise man from prison and made him second in command in the empire so that he could bring his wisdom to bear on whatever challenges faced the nation.  Oh wait, that’s what should have happened.  What actually happened was this: “Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.”

Again, have you ever been forgotten?  Joseph was.  He served admirably.  He plied his gifts with expertise and grace.  He did work that everyone should have recognized and celebrated.  And he was forgotten.  Nobody noticed or remembered—not even those who were directly impacted by it.  He was just a foreign slave and not worth their time or consideration.  Maybe you’ve been working hard, too hard, in some place in your life and no one has noticed.  Or maybe you’ve been waiting for your situation to change, waiting for God to act on your behalf, and He just isn’t doing it.  Whatever the details of your story are, being in a place where we feel like either the world or perhaps even God Himself has forgotten us is a hard place to be.  It’s frustrating.  It’s depressing.  It’s even enraging.  How do we handle it?  How do we overcome it?

Well, the first step forward is to be realistic about it.  Sometimes times in which we tread water for far longer than we’d have preferred given our choice end really well.  When Jesus’ parents took Him to the temple when He was still just a week old as was their tradition at the time, there was a man in the temple court named Simeon.  Luke only gives us a little bit of detail about him, but the gist of it is that Simeon was an old man who had gotten word from God that he would not die without laying his eyes on the Messiah—the one who would redeem his people.  We don’t know how long ago that promise had been made to him, but presumably it’s been some time.  And yet here near the end of his life he gets a little poke from the Spirit when Jesus’ parents carry Him into the temple complex and he rushes over and speaks a blessing over the child as he rejoices in God finally coming through on the promise He had made.  Sometimes our times of waiting end like this.  My Royals had been waiting for 29 years to get back to the Playoffs.  If I believed in baseball gods I would have been forgiven for concluding that they had forgotten about the Royals.  And yet this past October their generation in the wilderness finally came to an end.  The baseball gods remembered them and gave them once again the success they had known before.  Now, it wasn’t a totally happy ending…thanks a lot Madison Bumgarner…but it was a pretty exciting ride all the same.

But sometimes people have found themselves waiting, apparently forgotten, and have never seen a resolution to their plight.  The writer of Hebrews mentions this group of the forgotten in his run down of the faithful men and women of the Old Testament.  After running down the litany of hard times they faced in their active hoping for the fulfillment of God’s promises he notes, “all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised…”  They lived with the tension of being forgotten for their entire lives and never saw something come of it.  What are we to do in times like these?

We do what they did.  We do what Joseph did.  The faith heroes celebrated in Hebrews 11 spent their lives pursuing whatever was the task God had set before them.  Did they have times when they were down?  Of course they did.  But they bought into the vision God had set before them of a coming redeemer, a coming Messiah, and kept working toward this out of whatever place they were in.  They kept doing what God had gifted them to do trusting that at the right time they would enjoy the fruit of their labor, but even if that didn’t happen in their lifetime, still they pressed on because the vision was worth it.  Even if they didn’t see it, it was worth it to be a part of making it happen.

How about Joseph.  Well, his story next picks up two years later.  For two more years he was unjustly confined to that prison.  Yes, things perhaps weren’t terrible for him there because of the success God had given him, but still, being a prisoner is not as good as being free.  Two years after his one real chance to have his case heard by the highest authority in the land had passed some things happen that cause the cupbearer to finally remember him.  Guess what we find Joseph doing.  The same things he had been doing the last time we found him.  He was using the gifts God had given him in the place he was currently located…or stuck…to the glory of God.  He had been stuck in a secret place for years and was being faithful there.  In spite of the obstacles in his path that were keeping him from apparently going anywhere, he had kept doing what God had called him to do.  It’s a good thing too, because God had plans about which he could not have known.  By virtue of continuing faithfully on the path God had allowed him to walk he was ready for what came next.

With that in mind, let’s talk about our own lives.  Are you in a place where you feel forgotten?  Are you in a place where you feel like your work doesn’t have any meaning; where no one seems to notice anything you do in spite of nearly killing yourself to do it; where it seems God has abandoned you because you have pled for change many times to no apparent avail?  What do we do in these times?  How do we overcome times of being forgotten?  By following the pattern that has been clearly laid out for us.  When you think you’ve been forgotten, keep doing what God has called you to do.  When you think life has passed you by, when God seems to have moved on to the next place and isn’t looking back, keep doing what God has called you to do.  Why?  What’s the point?  Simply put: you and I don’t know what God has planned.  Joseph couldn’t have known.  Had he allowed being forgotten to wash him away an empire nation could have starved.  Who knows what is riding on your continued faithfulness in your application of the gifts God has given you.  Now, if you are in the wilderness because of some bad choices you have made, you need to deal with that.   But if you are in the wilderness of forgetfulness by no fault of your own, the odds are good that God has allowed you to be there for a reason.  When you faithfully keep pursuing the path you are currently on, you will find yourself in a place where when the time is right blessing can come.  It may not come in the ways or at the time you are expecting, but it will come.  When you think you’ve been forgotten, keep doing what God has called you to do.

Incidentally, this practice of a kind of secret righteousness was affirmed by Jesus Himself.  In his most famous and longest recorded sermon Jesus spoke about how to pursue the spiritual disciplines of giving, prayer, and fasting.  He was speaking directly about those, but we can apply His words much more generally.  His advice consisted of this: practice them in such a way that as few people as possible know what you are doing.  Then your righteousness will be for the benefit of your heavenly Father who will take your actions done in secret and reward them openly.  From Matthew 6:6: “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”  Life may seem to pass you by and people will forget you, but your heavenly Father will never leave you nor forsake you.  He will not forget you.  And at the right time He will take your practice of faithfulness and reward it in a way you could not imagine sitting where you are now.  This has been the consistent experience of all those who have faithfully committed themselves to doing what God has called them to over the long haul in spite of the challenges getting in the way.  When you think you’ve been forgotten, keep doing what God has called you to do.  When the time is right you will without question enjoy the fruit of your labor.  This is an absolute promise in the Scriptures held out for all those willing to walk the sometimes long path to receive it.  When you think you’ve been forgotten, keep doing what God has called you to do.  You are not forgotten.