November 23, 2014

Seeing the Big Picture

Have you ever wondered what the disciples were thinking after the crucifixion?  We don’t actually have to wonder.  In Luke 24 the Gospel writer relates a rather humorous story of a conversation that an incognito Jesus had with a couple of His disciples on the morning of the resurrection.  The pair was walking along the road stretching west from Jerusalem to a town called Emmaus.  As they walked they were reflecting on the events of the last couple of days, especially the announcement from some of Jesus’ women followers that He was alive.  Suddenly, Jesus came walking up behind them.  But, the pair didn’t recognize Him.  Luke notes that they were actually kept from recognizing Him.  In any event, Jesus hears their conversation and noses His way right in: “What are you guys talking about?”  The pair stops for a minute as another wave of sadness rolls over them from the pain of Friday.  Then, once they have recomposed themselves, Cleopas spoke up in response: “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”  Jesus plays coy: “What things?”   Their answer reveals just exactly what they were thinking after the crucifixion.

“And they said to him, ‘Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him.”  The next part is key: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  Notice that’s past tense.  They used to hope for that…but they didn’t anymore.  Jesus was dead.  In a day when false messiahs were a common affair, the way everybody knew someone who made such a claim was a fraud was that Rome ultimately killed them.  They “knew” the real Messiah would defeat Rome in a glorious battle and restore Israel to its former glory.  They had been hopeful Jesus was that guy.  But He was dead.  There’s more, though.  “Moreover, some women of our company amazed us.  They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive.  Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.”  In other words, “Some of the women with us went to go visit the tomb early this morning and came back spouting off a bunch of nonsense about angels and the Lord being alive.  We went to check it out and yeah, His body was gone, but we didn’t see Him.”  For all they knew the Jewish leaders or the Romans could have stolen the body, but just because it wasn’t where it was supposed to be didn’t mean anything.  Dead people stay dead.

There are times in life when terrible things happen.  There are times in life when terrible things happen that are totally unexpected.  The crucifixion caught all of Jesus’ followers off guard.  None of them expected that to happen.  Yes, He had told them it was coming over and over again, but it didn’t compute.  They all believed Him to be the Messiah which, again, meant He was going to live to defeat Rome, not die on one of their crosses.  That was just reality as far as they were concerned.  Jesus was dead and they were hiding in case Pilate decided to round up and crucify all His followers just to send a message as was occasionally his custom.   After that, they were going to head back to the homes they had left behind three years earlier and pick life back up again.  In the same way, if we look at the hard times of our lives from simply the apparent realities of the situation they can easily break us.  I am here to tell you this morning, though, that there is another way.

For the past six weeks we have been talking about how to overcome hard times in our lives.  We have examined hard times both generally and specifically.  We have looked at overcoming the sting of betrayal.  The thing about betrayal that is so hard to work past is that it nearly always comes at the hand of someone we trust.  Indeed there is no betrayal without trust.  We can overcome times of betrayal, though, when we keep in mind that God is always at work around us, even when it’s not obvious.  From there we talked about overcoming temptation.  The best bet with temptation is to stay away from it in the first place.  But when that’s not an option, taking stock of what’s at stake in falling to it can give us a huge lead as we flee from its Siren song.  Next came overcoming feeling forgotten.  When we are in a place where it feels like everyone has left us behind our job is to keep at the task God has given us.  If we are faithful there, then when the time is right for Him to usher us to the next place we’ll be ready to go.  Two weeks ago we broadened our approach and looked at overcoming hard times generally.  We can not simply endure in these times, but rise above them when we remember that God has a plan to see us through any crisis.  If we will follow His lead, we’ll get to take part in His plans.  Finally, last week we talked about overcoming bitterness.  I have to ask: Could anybody still taste that nasty baker’s chocolate after the round of Hershey’s Kisses?  I’d also like to observe that I sent six bags of Kisses around the room and did not see a single one sitting around here after the service.  You guys gobbled those up like they were going out of style.  I’m sorry I tricked you like that…okay, that’s a lie.  I’m not really sorry, but it did make the point.  And the point was this: we can overcome bitterness in our relationships and taste again the sweetness of life when we extend forgiveness to those who have hurt us.  Relationships can only move forward with forgiveness.

Well, as we have been talking about approaches for overcoming all these different sorts of hard situations we face in life, there has been something missing; something that actually comes logically prior to them; something that has to be in place before any of them will work.  This morning as we wrap up our series we are going to zoom way out and talk about the first thing we have to do in order to overcome hard times in our lives.  We must think rightly about them.  We must bring the right attitude to bear in these situations before we will have a chance at rising above them.  Indeed, if we don’t think rightly about them, our progress toward getting past them will be slow at best.

We can actually find a clue as to what this right thinking is in—appropriately enough—the final part of the story of Joseph.  Grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures and find your way to Genesis 50—that’s the last chapter of the first book.  I hinted at this story to you last week, but this morning I want to look at it with you in a bit more detail.  Let me set the scene and we’ll start reading at Genesis 50:15.

After Joseph finally revealed himself to his brothers he sent them back to tell Jacob the good news and to move the whole family to the land of Goshen somewhere in the eastern part of the enormous Nile delta.  Jacob is deeply skeptical of the brothers’ story at first, but the consistency of their testimony along with the huge stock of food and gifts Joseph had sent back with them wins him over and the entire clan packs up and heads for Egypt.  Joseph and Jacob are reunited and he has the pleasure of introducing his family to Pharaoh.  From here the next few chapters serve to close out Jacob’s story.  He gives a special blessing to Joseph’s sons, a traditional blessing to all of his own sons, dies at the ripe old age of 147, receives a full state funeral complete with a traditional Egyptian embalming, and at his request is buried back in Canaan in the family tomb.

Jacob’s death is a sad event, but for Joseph’s brothers it is also a scary one.  In the culture of the day, feuds between siblings were often put on hold until the parents died so they could work them out without worrying about someone to whom they had to be accountable.  Siblings still do that.  On occasion when Noah and Josiah are playing together Josiah will do something to bother Noah who will promptly tattle on his little brother.  If we don’t do anything about it beyond telling them to work it out, Noah will often get where he doesn’t think we can hear him anymore and take matters into his own hands.  Now, this always backfires on him because Josiah starts screaming and we were both the oldest sibling so we can pretty well guess at what happened, but that’s just the way of siblings.  You probably either did or had done the same thing to you.  Well, it’s one thing punch your brother in the arm when you think Mom and Dad aren’t looking.  It’s a whole other deal to contemplate murdering your brother now that there’s no one around to care.  Yet this is exactly what Joseph’s brothers were worried he might now do.  They were concerned Joseph’s offer of forgiveness and invitation to move to Egypt where he was second only to Pharaoh was all a ruse to get them close in order to have them all killed once Jacob died.  As a result, they come to Joseph with word regarding Jacob’s last request.

Look at this with me in v. 15: “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.’”  Now, I’ve always kind of wondered whether Jacob actually said this or whether the brothers made it up in hopes of heading potential trouble off at the pass.  Honestly I suspect the latter is the case, but the text doesn’t say.  In any event, Joseph receives the request graciously and responds in kind.  In doing so he puts on glorious display the kind of thinking that will allow us to overcome any hard circumstance we might face.

Check this out starting back at the end of v .17: “Joseph wept when they spoke to him.  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 what’s going on here?  What does Joseph demonstrate here that’s so important for us to understand if we are going to have the right attitude in place necessary to overcome the various hard times we are going to face in this life?  We saw last week that Joseph consciously recognized that he was not God.  That’s certainly important, foundational even, but that’s not where we’re going this morning.

As a matter of fact, before I give you the answer to that question let’s think for a minute about how Joseph could have responded to the trajectory of his life up to this point.  How could Joseph have thought about the hard times he had been through?  Well, what are some of the ways we think about hard times when they come?  How about anger?  Anybody get angry when things don’t go your way?  I’ll confess that I probably land here more so than anywhere else.  We can get angry at the unfairness, the injustice, maybe even simply the inconvenience of it.  This is not how I wanted things to go.  My plans have been decimated by all this mess.  It’s not fair.  It’s not right.  And I’m angry about it.  Ever been here?

Or if not anger, we could fall to cynicism.  Cynicism is different than anger.  It may be mixed with anger, but whereas anger says about hard times, “I’m mad about this,” cynicism says, “See, I knew this was going to happen.  This just confirms my belief that my life is just on a collision course with garbage.”  The cynic assumes the worst and then when this assumption becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy says, “See?!?  I told you this would happen.”  But, where the angry person might go on to do something about the hard situation—probably not something wise since he’s angry—the cynic just mutters under his breath about what a pile of…well, you know…the world is and goes on about his business.

Still, there’s always avoidance as a third alternative if neither of those two do it for you.  Avoidance does just what it sounds like: it avoids the situation.  The avoider keeps acting like nothing is wrong when the walls are caving in around her.  This is the person rearranging deck chairs as the ship sinks beneath the waves.  This is the person who keeps smiling and saying, “I’m fine,” while her soul is slowly dying on the inside.  Hard conversations are put off until later because the water is smooth and beautiful right now and why would you want to mess that up?  Corrective steps to avoid the swiftly coming cliff are not taking because the ride is really smooth at the moment and why making things bumpy unnecessarily?

But, if none of those sound good, you could always go with despair.  Despair is kind of like cynicism in that it grows to expect the worst, but instead of muttering as it marches along, despair fixates on the bad and starts to view everything in light of that.  The person struggling with despair experiences something hard and exclaims: “Another thing gone wrong!  Another reason why life just isn’t worth the effort.”  Just as cynicism ultimately leads to apathy which is bad, despair leads to hopelessness which is worse.  Apathy says this is just how things are, whatever, and keeps shooting for average because if you’re in the middle of the pack you don’t often get pounded.  Despair says things are never going to get better and eventually stops trying because it’s simply not worth it.

Each of these approaches to hard times is utterly common.  People react in one of these four ways all the time.  Perhaps you have found yourself in one of these places on more than one occasion.  And yet, what do these do for us in a hard season?  I mean, the obvious and expected answer is nothing, but think for a minute about why.  What is anger going to accomplish?  If the hard time is caused directly by someone else we could get angry at them, but that’ll just lead to bitterness which kills us in the end.  And, if the circumstance is more anonymous we could get angry at God but that seems like it’ll do us even less good.  Many folks get angry at God and conclude He must not exist…but it doesn’t make a lot of sense to be angry at someone who doesn’t exist.  Also, while God doesn’t necessarily like that we’re angry at Him, He’s still going to stick to His plans so in the end we merit nothing by it.

Similarly, cynicism leads us nowhere too.  When we fall into cynicism we start striving for mediocrity because that avoids losing while staying away from the pounding always given to the tallest nail.  Yet, we are called as followers of Jesus to use the gifts He has given us to their ultimate potential to bring Him glory.  That’s not really a middling position.  Besides, who wants to strive to be average?  That’s no way to live.  Such a mindset is corrosive not only of people but of whole cultures.  And as for avoidance, eventually you can’t avoid things anymore.  You can pile stuff in the closet only so long before the door explodes open and you get buried under a mountain of junk.  As for despair, no one can live long in a state of hopelessness.  When we are hopeless life stops whether physically or in some other way.

So again, none of these common approaches to hard times get us anywhere.  In fact, they will usually only serve to make things worse.  There has to be another way.  Friends, there is.  We see it on the lips of Joseph.  What did he say again?   “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.”  What is he expressing here?  What we see here is that Joseph had come to view his circumstances through the lens of what God was doing around him.  And when he learned to view his circumstances, regardless of what they were, through the lens of what God was doing around him what did he come to see?  He saw things as they really were.  The views afforded us by anger, cynicism, avoidance, and despair may seem to be one version or another of realism, but they are not.  They lead us to inhabit fantasy worlds that do not cohere with reality.  But seeing things through the lens of what God is doing always affords a view of things as they really are.  It is God who defines reality so life filtered through His activity will always be seen for what it actually is.

And for Joseph, what did seeing things as they really were lead him to understand?  He understood not simply that God allowed his brothers to do the awful things they did knowing He was going to work good out of what they intended for evil, He saw now that God’s intention was always to save the lives of some untold number of people including—we now see—the growing tribe of Jacob that He was transforming into a nation called Israel.  What Joseph came to understand is that he could trust that God was working on his behalf.  In everything he experienced he had learned to see the ways God was at work in the situation to bring life and blessing to him, his family, and who knows who else.  This is always how God operates.  When Paul wrote a couple thousand years later that God works all things together for good for those who love Him he wasn’t just blowing smoke.  God has a plan for this world and that plan is for the good of all those willing to take part in it.  If you are a follower of Jesus then you are taking part in it.  Our heavenly Father is constantly at work as His plan slowly unfolds in and through the lives of His people as well as in and through the lives of folks who don’t care two cents about Him.  In this way, just as Joseph had come to know, we can trust God is at work on our behalf.  Regardless of what we are facing, we serve a God who is at work on our behalf.  We can trust this without any doubts or hesitations.  We can trust God is at work on our behalf.

This is the attitude you need in place before you even think about overcoming hard times in your life.  If you are currently relying on anger then your guiding assumption is that God may be at work, but He is working against your interests, not for them.  If you tend toward cynicism, your foundational assumption is that God is really powerless before a world controlled by the capricious deity known as Fate.  With Fate behind the wheel you never really know if things are going to turn out good or bad, but usually they turn out badly.  If you can keep your head down and avoid Fate’s attention altogether that’s ideal.  For folks committed to avoidance, they are operating either as if there were no God at all or else as if He were more of a Grandpa in the sky who just sits up there handing out chocolate and bonbons.  And, when we turn to despair, we are very simply inhabiting a godless world.  None of these approaches will get you through the hard times you are facing now or at any point in the future.  They won’t get you there because they operate on the notion that getting through whatever it is depends wholly on you and let’s just be honest: in most of these times you don’t really have what it takes.  But, when we look through the lens of what God is doing and start to see things as they really are then we are able to embrace the fact that the world doesn’t ultimately depend on us.  It depends on God.  And when we lean on Him we’ll find that no matter how deep the valleys may be through which we have to walk, He’s always working on our behalf to shape us more fully into the beautifully unique people He created us to be.  We can trust God is at work on our behalf.

Incidentally, this is exactly what the two disciples on the road to Emmaus learned.  Luke writes that when they finished relating their version of the events of the past three days—which were filtered mostly through despair, but with a tinge of cynicism wrapped around it—Jesus spoke up and gave them a new lens.  “And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!  Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’  And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”  As they arrived in Emmaus they urged this remarkable stranger who knew so much about the Scriptures to stay and eat with them.  He graciously accepted their invitation.  At last during the meal when He blessed and broke the bread their eyes were open and they saw things as they really were.  It was Jesus!  He was alive!  God had been at work on their behalf—and on the behalf of the whole world—all the while.  They were using the wrong lens, the wrong attitude, the wrong thinking, to make sense of their world and it wasn’t working for them.

Friends, Jesus is still alive.  He is still alive and your heavenly Father is still working on your behalf.  He’s never stopped and He won’t stop until you are literally perfected in the image of His Son.  This is the hope that is available to us no matter what it is that we are facing.  There are no circumstances you will face that are too deep and hard for God’s plans for His world to overcome.  He is constantly working for your good.  He is the giver of all things good.  In this we can trust with unwavering hope.  We can trust God is at work on our behalf.  So let this truth become your lens through which you see and make sense of your world.  Look at all things in light of the fact that God is working on your behalf and stand strong in the storms because there is nothing that will blow you away when you are anchored to this rock.  We can trust God is at work on our behalf.  Now let’s go and live like it.