November 9, 2014

A Way through the Mess

When I was in college I went with some friends to see what was probably the scariest movie I’ve ever seen.  Now before I tell you what it was let me explain something: I like the horror genre…to a point.  The recent trend of horror movies that are little more than gore-fests doesn’t really do it for me.  Neither do the movies that center around demon possession.  I much prefer either a monster movie  or else more of a psychological horror movie.  What really gets me are the more subtle scares.  As Stephen King once wrong, it’s not what’s actually behind the door that scares us, it’s the thought of what might be behind the door.  Our imaginations are much more creative than whatever Hollywood could put there.  Movies that scare me the most leave me the most time to imagine the monster on the other side of the door all the while dropping hints at just how bad it could be.

In any event, the movie that was so disturbing to me was the movie Signs directed by M. Night Shyamalan and starring Mel Gibson.  I was on the edge of my seat with every muscle in my body clenched for most of the movie.  And as we walked out of the theater to the light of a full moon, I stayed on edge the whole way home.  Driving while freaked out is hard.  The movie is about an alien invasion which is a simple enough concept.  But M. Night Shyamalan was an absolute master of suspense for that two hours of my life.  In addition to the horror element, though, the movie explores some really deep theological themes including faith and the question of whether or not there is a reason behind everything that happens.  Gibson plays a pastor whose wife was killed in brutal fashion when a car hit her while she was out walking.  He has not recovered from the tragedy and his faith is on intensely shaky grounds.  Throughout the film and while hiding from the aliens Gibson wrestles with why God would take his wife from him like that.  How could there be a reason behind this?  What kind of plan could God have in this tragedy?  In the climax of the movie and with the unwitting help of his quirky children, Gibson’s faith is restored as we see that through the right lens God does indeed have a plan.  Our job is to trust Him and stay on the path He has set out for us.  It is a reaffirmation of the plan of God that allows Gibson’s character to overcome a ferociously hard season in his life and I don’t mean the aliens.  This morning I want to look with you at the fact that with a similar reaffirmation in our own lives we too can overcome our hard times.

We are in the fourth week of our series, Overcome, this morning.  The big idea for this series is that we all face times in our lives when our circumstances seemed poised to undo us; when life has gotten so hard we aren’t totally sure that we’ll be able to take another step.  While it’s tempting to respond to times like these with a nihilistic “whatever” and let them break us beyond repair, there’s a better way.  We can overcome them.  We can rise above them.  We can be the masters of our circumstances instead of being mastered by them.  If you have missed any of the previous parts of this series this is a great morning to be here.  We have spent the last three weeks looking at specific kinds of hard circumstances: betrayal, temptation, and being forgotten.  We can overcome in these times by remembering that God is always at work around us, even when it’s not obvious, taking stock of what’s at stake in falling to temptation, and staying on the path to which God has called us.  But there is a good chance that you have experienced a hard season of life that doesn’t really fit into one of those categories.  And so this morning as we begin the second half of the series I want to look with you at how we can overcome hard times in life more generally.  Because the fact is that there is a huge variety of hard times we face.  It would be really helpful to have some idea how to tackle hard times in our lives regardless of the particular form they take; an idea onto which we could hold no matter the shape of our circumstances.  I think there is just such an idea and we can glean it from the next part of Joseph’s story.  If you have a copy of the Scriptures find your way to Genesis 41 and we’ll take a look at this together.

When we left Joseph last week he had been forgotten.  He correctly interpreted the dream of Pharaoh’s cupbearer, and yet when he was restored to his position just as Joseph had said, he forgot all about what he had done and Joseph lingered for another two years in prison.  As I told you last week, though, eventually something happened that would jog his memory.  Look at this with me in chapter 41: “After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed…”  In a way this whole adventure for Joseph started with a couple of dreams.  Now, almost fifteen years later, a couple of dreams are once again going to have a huge impact on his life.  In Pharaoh’s dream he watched as seven skinny, sickly cows came up out of the Nile River and ate seven fat and healthy cows that had been grazing along its bank.  When they finished their meal, though, they didn’t look any better than before they ate.  In a subsequent dream he saw seven good heads of grain which were “consumed” by seven heads that were thin and diseased.  These dreams were bizarre and they bothered him.  It says there in v. 8 that “in the morning his spirit was troubled, and he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men.  Pharaoh told them his dreams, but there was none who could interpret them to Pharaoh.”

So Pharaoh is in this mental bind and can’t get out of it.  What more, all the men who are supposed to be able to help him make sense of things can’t.  It is in this moment when he can’t hide his perplexed state that the chief cupbearer notices and asks him what’s going on.  When Pharaoh tells him a light finally comes on in his brain.  Look at v. 9: “Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, ‘I remember my offenses today.  [If only Joseph could have heard this conversation.  It would have been small comfort, but that’s better than nothing.]  When Pharaoh was angry with his servants and put me and the chief baker in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, we dreamed on the same night, he and I, each having a dream with its own interpretation.  A young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard.  When we told him, he interpreted our dreams to us, giving an interpretation to each man according to his dream.  And as he interpreted to us, so it came about.  I was restored to my office, and the baker was hanged.’”  Finally then, here is Joseph’s real redemption moment.  This is what he—and we—have been waiting for.  This is where things get really good.

The text says in v. 14 that “Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they quickly brought him out of the pit.  And when he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came in before Pharaoh.  And Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it.  I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.’”  This is it.  This is the moment when Joseph is finally getting all the recognition he deserves.  God has finally come through for him.  He is finally going to enjoy a few rounds of good fortune instead of the mess he’s been wading through for almost half his life.

Pharaoh relates his dreams to Joseph and Joseph in turn tells Pharaoh what they mean.  Look down to v. 28: “God has shown Pharaoh what he is about to do.  There will come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt…”  So things are starting off really well.  Joseph has really good news for Pharaoh.  The next seven years are going to be economically awesome.  Giving authoritative good news to the man in charge is a surefire way to increase your standing in an organization.  Joseph is on the right track.  But then comes this: “…but after them there will arise seven years of famine, and all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt.  The famine will consume the land, and the plenty will be unknown in the land by reason of the famine that will follow, for it will be very severe.  And the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about.”  Okay, yeah, he probably should have left off that last part, right?  I mean, here he is, fresh out of prison with a chance to plead his case before Pharaoh.  He delivers some really good news to start things off, but then goes on to drop a stink bomb that clears the room.  After the seven really good years there will come seven years that are going to be so unbelievably awful that people won’t even remember the season of blessing that preceded it.

That kind of news is probably not really the best way to advance your cause, I’ll be honest.  Furthermore, here’s Joseph’s chance to leave his hard times behind, but instead he runs smack into another one.   This is getting a little ridiculous!  It seems like all Joseph does is go from hard time to hard time.  He starts in the fryer, leaves that for the fire, and here finds himself facing the oven.  Surely a story like his is the exception.  Nobody faces hard times at a pace like this…right?  Well, certainly we all go through good times in our lives, yet I don’t know about you, but sometimes life does feel a little like Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events.  You lose a job that had great benefits.  Eventually you find another job, but it doesn’t have benefits and you get sick.  You get better and manage to get some benefits, but then the bills start coming in and the benefits aren’t very helpful.  Credit cards help you pay off most of the medical bills, but now you can’t use them for anything else and cash for your other bills starts to get hard to find.  I could go on like this.  For far too many folks, this feels like the trajectory of their life.  One hard circumstance after another.  Where’s the hope in this?  Where’s the plans of God in this?  It’s just like Mel Gibson experienced in the movie Signs: his wife died, aliens invade the planet, his daughter has become a germophobe and leaves glasses of water all over the house, and his son’s asthma is getting worse with more frightening attacks on a more regular basis.  It’s one thing after the next.  How do we handle this?  How do we overcome in times like these?  How do we overcome…well…life in a broken world?

Check out the next part of Joseph’s story with me.  Once he has related to Pharaoh what the dreams mean he gets a little forward and immediately lays out what Pharaoh needs to do to be prepared for the hard times.  Look at this in v. 33: “Now therefore let Pharaoh select a discerning and wise man, and set him over the land of Egypt.  Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land and take one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plentiful years.  And let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming and store up grain under the authority of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it.  That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine that are to occur in the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine.”  Pretty good plan.  Joseph fires it off almost like God put it in his head.

Pharaoh agrees.  Stay with me at v. 37: “This proposal pleased Pharaoh and all his servants.  And Pharaoh said to his servants, ‘Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God?’  Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are.  You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command.  Only as regards the throne will I be greater than you.’”

So then, not only does Pharaoh see the wisdom of Joseph’s plan, but he puts him in charge of seeing it carried out.  And while we can’t see it just yet in the context of Joseph’s story, jumping a bit further down the road, this really was God’s plan all along.  The famine is going to be every bit as bad as Joseph made it sound to Pharaoh.  It affects not only Egypt but all the surrounding regions as well all the way to the land of Canaan.  And guess who was living in Canaan?  Jacob and all the rest of Joseph’s family.  Joseph being in this position saved Jacob, or Israel as he was also known, and his whole family from starvation.  What more, the family’s eventual move to Egypt to be with Joseph puts them in place for God to reveal Himself through the events of the Exodus and to build the nation of Israel from which would ultimately come a man named Jesus of Nazareth.

What’s the point of all this?  That’s great things went so well for Joseph and us by extension, but what does this have to do with the litany of hard times we are facing in our own lives?  Joseph’s story here serves as an affirmation for us of the fact that God is still involved in our lives, in His world, even when it seems like the wheels are falling off the wagon.  When hard times rear their ugly head, no matter the frequency or shape of them, God knows what’s going on and is moving in a specific direction.  In any and every crisis we face, God always has a plan to get us through it.  God has a plan to see you through any crisis.

That’s it?  God has a plan?  That’s almost as bad a cliché as quoting Romans 8:28 to someone who’s hurting.  Knowing something like, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,” is nice, but in a moment of fresh pain it seems a little disconnected from reality; a little insensitive to bring that to bear on the conversation.  “Hey there, I know the wheels just fell off the wagon on you, but don’t worry, everything’s going to work out in the end.”  That’s the kind of thing people say when they don’t know what to say.  And the truth is, it usually does more harm than good.   So how is this much more than putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg?  Sure, the idea that God has a plan to see you through any crisis sounds good, but does it make any difference when the rubber meets the road?  Can it really help us overcome our hard times?

I think it can and let me explain why.  For followers of Jesus, this notion that God has a plan in every crisis; that all things are somehow going to work together for good is not some mere mindless platitude.  It is a deeply held assurance that surpasses all understanding and which pervades all our circumstances no matter how bleak they may seem in the moment.  We hold tightly to this promise not simply on blind faith because some guy named Paul wrote it down in a letter to the ancient believers of Rome some 2,000 years ago and we’re just supposed to believe whatever he says.  We hold it with totally reasonable tenacity because we have seen evidence for its truthfulness over and over again.  We see it in the lives of the various men and women whose lives were recounted for us by the various authors of the Bible.  Joseph not only saw, but experienced God’s plan.  So did Paul.  So did David.  So did Jesus Himself.  Over and over again in the Scriptures we see God working out His plans for His world in the lives of people willing to trust in those plans in spite of the fact that they can’t see them just yet.  Our very salvation has depended on God doing that.

There’s more than, though.  We don’t have to look back to a 2,000 year-old collection of manuscripts for confirmation here.  We can look much closer to our own lives.  A few weeks ago I told you the story of Horatio Spafford.  Remember the mess of hard times he went through?  And what did God do?  God restored his family and his fortune in time.  But more than that, through his tragedy God used him to pen some words that have brought comfort to untold millions of people.  Or how about Steve Saint?  He was a missionary kid whose dad was massacred by Ecuadorian tribesmen.  Where’s the plan of God in that?  It’s right here: through the incredible courage of his mom, Steve and his remaining family went back to the tribe that had killed his dad and eventually the man who led the massacre became his best friend and nearly the entire tribe became Christians.  What more, 30 years later on the other side of the world, Steve was stuck in the bush in Africa and happened upon a local pastor who was a pastor in part because of reading the story of Steve’s dad and the courage of his family!  One more just for fun.  How about the story of Louis Zamperini?  He was the Olympic runner who became a pilot in the Pacific theater for the U. S. during WWII.  His whole story was overcoming one challenge after another including crashing, surviving for almost two months in the Pacific with no food or water, surviving for months in a Japanese P.O.W. camp, and finally surviving the strangling grip of alcoholism.  He went on to be a fantastic ambassador for the Christian faith and the Gospel message of forgiveness and redemption.  God has a plan to see you through any crisis.

But here’s the thing about this plan, the likelihood that it is going to cohere neatly with our expectations of how He should make things right is low.  Perhaps God will act to make things totally right again…but for most of us, that would mean undoing whatever the crisis was and that’s just not going to happen.  Horatio Spafford was not getting his kids back.  Steve Saint wasn’t getting his dad back.  Louis Zamperini couldn’t get back the years he spent getting beaten in the P.O.W. camps.  Joseph couldn’t get back the years he spent as a slave and then a prisoner.  It wasn’t going to happen.  That wasn’t God’s plan.  You aren’t likely to get back what you lost in your hard times either.  Things won’t go back to the way they were.  God’s plans are always moving forward, not backward.  They don’t take us back into the crisis, they take us through the Valley of the Shadow of Death and out the other side.  God has a plan to see us through any crisis.   Our job is to trust Him and follow His lead; to commit ourselves to faithfully keeping the character necessary to take part in His plans.

Let me add one more layer to this.  Many folks have the notion in their heads that God’s plans are going to be unfailingly grand as we would define the word.  But, our well-cultured expectations when we hear the word “grand” aren’t always…or often…the way God acts on our behalf in the midst of a crisis.  We expect the clouds to part and His solution to be delivered to us on a silver platter.  But God tends much more frequently to the subtle than the obvious.  For example, in Bible study this morning many of you heard the story of a man who got the call from his wife that the house was on fire.  It ended up being a total loss for them.  Where’s the plan of God in something like that?  It was here: the man had insurance and in a few months’ time they were well on their way to seeing the restoration of what they had lost.  Now, was that good planning on his part?  Certainly!  Is it wise for us to plan like that in light of the possibility that hard times might come?  Of course it is!  But, does something so simple as his having insurance being the pathway to the restoration of what his family lost preclude it also being God’s plan to get him through the crisis?  No, it doesn’t.  God has a plan to see you through any crisis, but that plan may very well be something that seems totally mundane.  When the prophet Elisha was ministering to the people of Israel as recorded in 2 Kings, a Syrian army officer came to him to be healed from a debilitating skin disease (probably leprosy).  He was expecting something grand.  Elisha told him through a servant to go and wash in the muddy Jordan River.  At first he was indignant.  He was an important man.  He expected a personal audience with the prophet.  He was expecting something grand and miraculous-looking.  You know, lights, smoke, rumbles of thunder.  Maybe even an epic quest to find a magic goblet which then needed to be taken to an obscure spring at a certain time of the day when the moon was full.  At the very least he wanted to wash in the clean rivers of Syria.  He was going to refuse until his servants observed to him that he would have gladly done something he deemed heroic, why not go with the simple thing and see what happened.  God has a plan to see you through any crisis.  It might be a grand plan, but even if it seems a common one, it’s still grand because God did it.

Here’s the thing: I don’t know what your hard circumstances are.  Well, that’s not totally true.  I’m the pastor so I know what at least some of you are going through.  But, I don’t know anything in the neighborhood of the full story.  But here’s what I do know: God has a plan to see you through any crisis.  He did it for Joseph.  He did it for David.  He did it for Horatio Spafford, Steve Saint, and Louis Zamperini.  He did it for His Son.  He can do it for you.  I don’t know what shape the path will take, but as you commit yourself to Him and the lifestyle that accompanies life in His kingdom, you will see those plans come to pass.  You will eventually see how God was at work in your situation to bring you to a place of life and not death.  No matter how deep your crisis, through Christ He has walked a deeper path and still His plans were greater.  The God who raised the dead will not be stopped by any forces in this world.  God has a plan to see you through any crisis.  The road may yet be long and hard, but it will end in life.  It will end in life because we serve the God of life.  No matter what your hard times are, God has a plan to see you through any crisis.  Hold tight to the promise and relish in the hope.  Life is on its way.