October 19, 2014

The Tyranny of Circumstances

Have you ever been betrayed?  Take a minute and form a picture in your mind of the circumstances related to that.  When I was in Junior High, I was a bit of a nerdy kid.  I know, it’s hard to imagine…right???  In any event, in the fall of my eighth grade year a kid named Ryan Early decided that I was going to be his target for a bit of bullying in gym class.  He never went very far with it and stuck mostly to things that are probably par for the course in Junior High P.E.  For example, when we were playing football, he was the opposing team’s quarterback.  I was small, quick, and pretty easily overlooked so when playing football I would always stand off to the side and rush the quarterback.  Well, one play, I was about to touch him for a sack and instead of throwing the ball away or evading my touch he just threw the ball as hard as he could into my gut, knocking the wind out of me, and then laughed about it.  When we were playing dodgeball once I was on his team, but instead of throwing the ball at someone on the other team, he threw it at my head.  This kind of stuff happened about once a week for a while.  Eventually, I got tired of it and confided in another kid in my Drafting class that I thought if it came down to it, I could probably take him.  Do you know that rat went straight away and told Ryan about my confidence the next day?  The next afternoon Ryan offered me the chance to make good on my claim.  After only a little shoving and boyish bravado on his part I rhetorically kissed his toes and the episode was over.  But the rat who betrayed me was standing there watching the whole thing with a smug look on his face.  I rather studiously avoided having much of anything to do with him after that.

Now, as far as betrayals go, that one was pretty innocuous.  Perhaps your betrayal was a lot more significant with much further reaching consequences.  Getting betrayed is one of those hard circumstances in life that sometimes feel nearly impossible to get past.  You know what I’m talking about.  The medical bills start coming in and there’s no way they’re going to get paid off in this lifetime.  A friend or family member betrays your trust in such a way that continuing the relationship is practically impossible.  A doctor comes in with news from the latest test and the results are as bad as you can imagine.  The layoff slip comes and the bills don’t stop.  Something bad happens at work and you end up as the one left holding the bag even though you don’t actually bear any guilt in the affair.  You’ve been trudging along in the same place doing the same things for years and have never gotten the first bit of recognition for it.  You went to a church one time or encountered some church people somewhere and got burned badly.  The letter comes from the IRS saying you owe us…and it isn’t tax time.  Any of these are circumstances could and indeed have broken more than their fair share of people.  There are times in our lives when our circumstances seem beyond our control, times when it seems the only thing to do is throw up our hands in surrender.  But what if there was another option?  What if instead of getting swept away by our toughest circumstances we could overcome them and come out not broken, but stronger?  I’m here to tell you this morning that I believe this to be not only possible, but with the right approach, probable.  Yet how to communicate something like this to you?  I could just tell you the truth, but for something like this that usually comes off sounding trite and preachy.

A better way here is to dress truth in the garb of a story, a story in which someone went through hard times, overcame every challenge set before him, and became the kind of person we strive to be.  His story has been retold countless times giving hope to millions.  The man’s name is Joseph and as we begin a new series this morning called Overcome, for the next six weeks I want to look with you at his story of overcoming some of life’s most challenging circumstances time and time again.  From his story we are going to learn how to overcome specific challenges in our lives and also glean some principles for any others we might face.

Now, many of you no doubt know Joseph’s story well, but to make sure we are all starting on the same page this morning, let’s start by taking a look at who Joseph was and why we know anything about him.  First things first: we are not talking about Joseph, Jesus’ dad.  We are talking about the Joseph found in the Genesis narrative.  He first enters the picture by name in Genesis 37, but in order to understand his story well we need to start a few chapters before that in Genesis 29 when his father, Jacob, arrived in Haran, the region where his grandfather Abraham’s family lived.  Jacob went there to avoid his brother Esau killing him for stealing the family blessing from their father Isaac.  (And here you thought your family had problems!)  When Jacob arrived in Haran he connected with his mother, Rebekah’s, brother Laban and his family.  Before even having a chance to meet his uncle, he met Rachel, his uncle’s daughter (yes, that would be his first cousin).  The text says that when Jacob met Rachel he “kissed [her] and wept aloud.”  She was described as “beautiful in form and appearance.”  We are told unequivocally that “Jacob loved Rachel.”

He immediately met with his uncle to find out what it would take for him to marry her.  The two men soon worked out that Jacob would work seven years for his uncle and that at the end of that time he could marry Rachel.  Now, if that sounds like a terribly misogynistic arrangement to you, keep in mind that this was about 4,000 years ago and people thought a little differently then than they do now for several obvious reasons.  In any event, Jacob’s feelings for Rachel were real and strong and we are told that the seven years “seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.”  True to his word, though, at the end of the seven years Laban threw a great wedding to welcome his new son-in-law into the family.  There was just one catch to this.  One of the wedding traditions of the day was that the bride wore a veil on the day of the wedding that covered all but her eyes.  The veil didn’t come off at the altar as our tradition has developed, but in the honeymoon suite.  The problem here was, Jacob was excited enough (and probably drunk enough) that when he went into the tent he didn’t really pay attention to who exactly was in there to meet him.  In the morning he discovered that Laban had betrayed him!  He had consummated a marriage with Leah, Rachel’s older, less attractive sister.

Jacob was furious, but given the culture of the day, couldn’t do anything about it except to negotiate a second bride price with his uncle to marry the right daughter this time.  Finally, fourteen years after meeting her for the first time, he is blissfully married to the love of his life…and her sister…who he didn’t love.  So again, you think your family is messed up?  Check this out.  Jacob was married to Leah, but didn’t love her.  In fact, given that his marriage to her cost him an additional seven years away from the woman he really loved, he didn’t even like her much.  Jacob was also married to Rachel, and was deeply in love with her.  Tough world for Leah, right?  She was probably feeling like God had betrayed her.  But, don’t worry: “When the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.”  Given that barrenness was considered a curse from God back then, this was a big deal.  Leah was fulfilling her wifely potential and Rachel wasn’t.  Surely Jacob would love Leah now, right?  The names she gave to her sons suggest that in spite of her being a better wife than Rachel, at least in the eyes of the culture, this wasn’t happening.  Still, at least she had the comfort of children—something Rachel still didn’t have.  Now who was betrayed by God?  But, Rachel hadn’t done anything wrong except to be loved more by their husband and was now suffering for it.

Rather than taking her anguish to God, though, “when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister.”   To solve this problem she did two things: She complained to Jacob as if it were his fault—“Give me children, or I shall die!”; and she gave him her handmaiden kind of like Sarah had given Hagar to Abraham so they could produce a son who would culturally be considered hers.  Well, this worked.  The servant girl bore Jacob some more sons.  Culturally speaking, things were even between Leah and Rachel.  There was peace in the house…right.  Leah, recognizing that Jacob’s favoritism meant that an even playing field between she and Rachel was a win for Rachel followed her sister’s lead and gave Jacob her handmaiden to bear children for him when she stopped having babies herself.  Now Jacob had four wives, all but one of whom had given him sons (which, again, culturally speaking meant they were the good wives).  Finally then, after Leah has two more sons, piling even more shame on Rachel, “God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb.”  Rachel had one son, whom she named Joseph.  A few years later, after Jacob had swindled his uncle out of the wages he should have received anyway plus interest, the family snuck away from Laban in the middle of the night to avoid an armed conflict, and Jacob had reunited with his brother, Esau, Rachel at last had another son, Benjamin, but died shortly after delivery.

So here, then, is the world into which Joseph was born.  He is the second youngest of 13 (there was one sister we know of named Dinah and possibly more but the text doesn’t say).  His father was really only ever in love with his mom and has dutifully made that known to everyone by heaping favoritism on Joseph.  Joseph seems kind of clueless of the family background and while not flaunting the extra attention gladly receives it in such a way as to deepen the resentment his brothers rather naturally have of him.  Then, to make matters worse, there’s the episode with the dreams.  Joseph has some dreams (which were believed then to be communications from God) in which all of his family members bow down to him.  What more, he doesn’t have enough sense to keep them to himself.  He shares them with the brothers who already hate him which leads to an even more intense hatred.  It’s not enough that he’s dad’s favorite, now he thinks he’s going to rule over the rest of the family someday.  So, Joseph’s brothers hate him.  Well, that’s probably not strong enough.  They have such a visceral, primal, passionate hatred of him that they can barely handle themselves when he’s around.  But, he’s family.  You may not like your family, but you don’t turn on your family.  Blood is supposed to be thicker than water, remember?  When someone is family that’s it.  You put aside your petty (or not so petty) differences and make it work.  That’s been the principle on which families have been operating for centuries.  It was especially true in this culture.  This was simply how people expected things to work.

And yet, things don’t always go quite like we expect.  We’ve been taking a summary run through the background of Joseph so far, but I want you to see this particular part of the story with me.  If you have a copy of the Scriptures at hand, grab it and find your way to Genesis 37.  Starting at v. 19, look with me at what happened one day when Joseph was sent to check on his brothers—a move which only served to deepen their resentment of him—far from the watchful eye of any kind of authority who could have served to keep their darker desires in check.

“They saw [Joseph] from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him.  They said to one another, ‘Here comes this dreamer.  Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits.  Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what becomes of his dreams.’  But when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands, saying, ‘Let us not take his life.’  And Reuben said to them, ‘Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand on him’—that he might rescue him out of their hand to restore him to his father.  So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the robe of many colors that he wore.  And they took him and threw him into a pit.  The pit was empty; there was no water in it.”

Joseph’s brothers betrayed him in a cold, calculating fashion.  They so gave into their passions that were it not for the quick thinking of Reuben they would have murdered him on the spot.  Can you imagine walking in these shoes?  Your own family betrays you in as painful a fashion as you can conceive and then ignores your pleas to let up and turn from their awful designs.  The brothers would later reflect when thinking back guiltily on this time that they ‘saw the distress of his soul, when he begged [them] and [they] did not listen.”  Joseph never saw this coming.  We never do with the worst, most painful betrayals.  They catch us entirely out of the blue.  As they grabbed Joseph he probably tried to laugh it off.  “Haha, guys.  Very funny.  You’ve made your point.  Now put me down and give me back my coat.”  But then they started ripping it into pieces.  Joseph’s attempt a humoring the situation quickly turned sour.  “That was a gift from Dad!  It was really expensive.  Why would you do that?”  That’s when they headed toward the well.  Now Joseph’s anger turned to fear.  “Guys, what are you doing?  What are you doing?  Why are we going over to that well?  You’re not going to put me in there, are you?  No, you can’t do that!  I won’t be able to get out!  Stop!!  Stop right now!  This has gone far enough.  No, no, no, don’t…”  The fear in his voice would have quickly turned to panic.  “Please, don’t leave me here!  You can have the coat.  I was going to give it to you anyway.  I’ll ask Dad to get one for each of you.  It’s not my fault the way he treats me.  And those dreams, they were just stupid.  I should have never told you about them.  Please, get me out of here!”

When I was little we went to visit some friends of the family around Christmastime.  I was just getting to that age where I would do irritating things just to be irritating.  This particular visit I was messing with the patriarch of this other family.  It was all in good fun, but after a while he said that if I didn’t stop he would lock me in the storeroom.  I never believed he would betray my trust and put me somewhere like that with everybody there…until he did.  The panic was instant and aggressive.  When he finally opened the door I was hysterical, much like Joseph would have felt…except his brothers didn’t pull him out after a couple of minutes.  Their deadpan callousness would have only served to intensify his sense of panic.  For all he knew, they intended to leave him there.

A few hours later, when his cries and pleadings had quieted down, he heard some different voices and they sounded foreign.  He couldn’t make out everything that was being said, but it sounded like some sort of deal was being arranged.   What bargain could they be making?  The answer to that question came quickly.  All of a sudden there was a rope lowered down into the hole.  This was unexpected and he was so eager to be out that he quickly wrapped it under his arms without stopping to put the pieces of the puzzle together.  When the foreigners saw Joseph their leader shook hands with Judah, handed him a bag of coins, and the pieces all clicked into place for him.  He had just been sold.  What more, he had just been sold to a group of traders who were headed south.  There was only one place they could be headed: Egypt.

His betrayal by his brothers was now complete.  They had not only attacked him, destroyed what was his, and abandoned him, they had now sold him into slavery in a land hundreds of miles from home with no hope of return.  He would never see the brother of his own mother again, let alone the rest of those who had betrayed him.  How could there be any reconciliation from this place?  He would never see his father again.  He would never see his homeland again.  He would spend the rest of his life as a possession of someone who didn’t know him or his language or his culture, and weren’t interested in learning; someone who considered him to be something less than fully human because he wasn’t like them.  His family had turned their backs on him.  The world had turned its back on him.  It seemed like even God had turned His back on him.  What was he to do?  How was he to move forward?  Where was he to go from here?  How could he trust anyone ever again, let alone God?  This was a darkness from which there was no moving toward the light.

Let me pause here, then, and ask again.  Have you ever been betrayed?  Have you ever felt that particular blend of fear and anger and hopelessness; that sense that it wasn’t just this one person who betrayed you, but rather the whole world?  What did you do then?  Where did you turn?  Maybe this is the better question: have you worked through it yet?  I mean really worked through it, not simply tried to put it in the past and forget about it.  How do we overcome betrayal?  Come with me back to the story of Joseph.

After a quick break to tell a story that seems totally out of place until you dig into it in order to understand it a bit more fully, Joseph’s story picks back up where it left off: with Joseph having been sold as a slave in Egypt.  We learn here that he has been sold to a man named Potiphar who is the captain of Pharaoh’s guard.  That leads us into our story for next week, but just before the next phase of Joseph’s life takes off there is a little note that changes everything.  It’s a note without which it would be easy to expect Joseph simply descended from here into a hole of bitterness and anger; that he became merely another face in what was probably an endless parade of slaves into Egypt and why are we bothering with his story anyway?  Look at Genesis 39:2 with me.  What’s it say there?  “The Lord was with Joseph.”

Joseph wasn’t alone in his betrayal.  The Lord was with him.  All of creation hadn’t turned its back on Joseph.  The Lord was with him.  God hadn’t betrayed Joseph along with everyone else.  He was with him.  You see, God has plans for His world.  And where He is, He is working those plans out to the benefit of all who are involved (and many who aren’t).  If the Lord was with Joseph, we can rest assured that He was working on some plans that involved him.  The world many have turned its back on Joseph, his brothers at the very least certainly did.  But God hadn’t left him.  The Lord was with him.  You see, even when it seems like the walls of life have come crashing down around us and everyone we know has turned on us, God is still at work.  God is always at work.  He is always working steadily toward His incredible plans for this world.  Even when we can’t see it.  Even when it is so far from obvious that a good map and a compass wouldn’t help point us to it.  God is at work, even when it’s not obvious.  In Joseph’s life this was absolutely the case and I suspect that in your life it is too.

But hold on, now, preacher.  We know how Joseph’s story ends.  This was an editorial comment written down years and years later, not an exclamation by Joseph when he was serving around Potiphar’s house.  Of course someone looking back with the clear hindsight of history could say “The Lord was with Joseph.”  But, there’s no way God’s at work in my own circumstances.  My betrayal is simply too great.  God has left me on this one.  I’ve been walking this path for years and have seen nothing reminiscent of God’s presence on my behalf.  Joseph became the second in command of an empire.  I’m still struggling to get out of bed each morning because of the fear and depression threatening to close in around me.  How are you going to stand there and tell me that God is at work, even when it’s not obvious?

Well, let me ask you this: Do you think Joseph realized God was with him in the moment?  Do you think Joseph had some sort of an epiphany when he walked into Potiphar’s house that God was going to be a part of this journey through slavery to do great things on the other side?  Of course not!  Do you think that when David was running through the Judean countryside, hiding out from King Saul, his former friend and mentor who had betrayed him out of jealousy that he could clearly see the ways God was with him?  Of course not!  Do you think there’s a chance that God may be doing something behind the scenes of your life right now that if you knew about would blow your mind?  The very idea that God is at work, even when it’s not obvious suggests pretty directly that it’s…well…not obvious.

So then, what does this affirmation actually do for us?  It sounds great that God is at work even when it’s not obvious, but how does that redeem my betrayal, or any other hard circumstance for that matter?  It gives us hope.  When you have been betrayed, you can have hope and confidence that God is at work, even when it’s not obvious, and continue moving toward in the direction He has you pointed with the confidence that someday it’s going to pay off.  Someday God is going to show you what He’s been doing and it is going to blow your mind.  God is at work, even when it’s not obvious.

Now, let me speak a couple of truths to you here and then we’ll be finished.  First, knowing that God’s at work even when it’s not obvious won’t necessarily make your situation of betrayal hurt any less.  It’ll perhaps make it a lighter load to carry since you know the end from the beginning, but it won’t take away the pain.  Second, God’s being at work all the time even in non-obvious ways neither makes Him responsible for the pain of the betrayal nor an advocate for it.  You were betrayed because of a deeply sinful decision made by someone else and you can rest assured that God is much more offended by it than you are.  He shares in your sense of betrayal.  He didn’t want for you to have to go through that.  But, He did allow for it because He’s at work in some ways that are not obvious and He knew that He would not only provide you the strength you needed to get through it, but also that you would come out on the other side more like Him.  God is at work, even when it’s not obvious.

If you want to overcome your betrayal, this is how you do it.  You hold tight to the hope the Joseph learned that God is at work, even when it’s not obvious.  God has not abandoned you.  He is bigger than whatever situation you’re in.  He’s got a plan that will bring Him all the glory He is due and there is a place for you in it.  Your job, and mine, is to trust Him to implement it at just the right time.  No matter how deep your betrayal is, God is at work, even when it’s not obvious.