October 26, 2014

High Stakes Proposition

In Bible study this morning many of you started out by looking at some funny warning labels like the hair dryer label that warns against using it while sleeping.  I thought I’d share a few more with you.  Now, we laugh at those—and we probably should—but unless one of the companies who created those labels was trying to make something ridiculous just for fun, there’s a good chance they included some of those warnings in response to specific situations.  Someone, somewhere probably tried to dry off their pet gerbil in the microwave after giving the poor thing a bath.  Maybe somebody got really mad and punched that brick wall and hurt their hand.  I’m not really sure what the wash label warning against wearing whatever it was for sumo wrestling was for, but perhaps someone strapped it on, tried some sumo wrestling, and things…didn’t go well.  I’m sorry for the person who lost their bird when they overheated their cooking oil in that particular pan, but maybe you shouldn’t cook with your bird…  As for that sign warning against touching the sign, well, that may have been a public works sign department employee with a bit too much time on his hands.  But, doesn’t it make you want to go and touch the thing just because it says not to?

The truth is that all of those labels exist to help people understand the stakes involved in misusing that particular product or appliance.  I mean, if you really want to grab the chainsaw, I don’t think anybody’s going to stop you, but the stakes are pretty high if you happen to be as attached to your fingers as I am to mine.   Knowing what’s at stake if we ignore the warnings against doing certain things can indeed help us to make the decision to heed them.  It helps us to not be swayed by the Siren song of sin.  In Homer’s The Odyssey, when Odysseus leaves the island of the witch Circe, she warns him to stay away from the island of the Sirens, these half-woman/half-bird creatures that feasted on the flesh of shipwrecked sailors.  Odysseus decided that he had to hear their song and so after making sure all of his crew members had plugged their own ears, he had them tie him to the ship’s mast with strict instructions to keep him tied up no matter what.  The truth is that the alluring melody of temptation in our lives is just as sweet and just as deadly as the song of the Sirens, but we don’t have the option of tying ourselves to the mast in order that we can enjoy the music without dashing ourselves against the rocks as Odysseus did.  Instead, we have to rely on understanding the cost of our actions in order to keep ourselves on the straight and narrow path.

So this morning we are in the second part of our series, Overcome.  The whole idea here is that all of us at one time or another face really hard circumstances; circumstances that threaten to wash us away entirely; circumstances that are so severe that we are convinced we aren’t going to survive them.  But, rather than giving up or laying down in defeat, there is actually another way forward.  We can overcome them.  We can lean into the God who is always at work, even when it’s not obvious, and come out the masters of our circumstances rather than the mastered.

Well, last week we took a look at the challenge of overcoming times of betrayal.  We learned from Joseph’s being betrayed by his brothers that we can avoid being undone by betrayal when we learn to trust that God is always at work in and around us even when it’s not obvious. And, this is more than merely a hollow, after-the-fact affirmation.  Remember: Joseph had no way of knowing the plans God had set in motion with his betrayal by his brothers.  All he knew at the time was that they had just sold him into slavery, bound for Egypt, and that he would probably never see his home or his family again.  All he had to go on was his own character and faith that the God his father had taught him to worship would be able to act on his behalf no matter how far from home he found himself.  Now, as it turns out, of course, things ended up really good for Joseph, but his faithful commitment to the character his God expected came before this success was even a rational hope.  In the same way, when we go through times of betrayal in our own lives, times when it seems the whole world, even God Himself, has turn on us, we too can trust that God is at work even when it’s not obvious and continue pursuing the character of Christ with the confident hope that at the right time we will enjoy the fruit of our efforts.

This morning as we continue our look at the hard circumstances we all face at one time or another in our lives, we are going to examine one that often happens as the result of finding ourselves in the midst of another.  Think about it like this: if you had been thrown into that pit by your brothers instead of Joseph, what kind of responses would you have been preparing?  I don’t know about you, but I’d be planning on revenge.  When Joseph finally got to stand before his brothers as the prime minister of all Egypt without their recognizing him, the totally natural thing for him to do would have been to have all to them put to death, or at least lock them in the dungeon and throw away the key.  Giving into that temptation would have been easy.  It would have been easy for him to convince himself that this was his chance for justice and take it.  And indeed, when we are facing one hard circumstance or another the alluring ring of temptations of various kinds often seems stronger than at others.  In times like these temptation can become its own hard circumstances.

I’m not even going to bother asking for a show of hands of who has experienced temptation before.  My guess is that every single person in the room experienced a temptation of some kind before you left the house this morning—not counting the temptation to not bother leaving the house in the first place.  Temptation is something we all go through and on a frustratingly regular basis.  In fact, if you don’t feel like you’ve been weighted down with a burden of temptation lately it’s probably because you’re already giving into it at one point or another and Satan doesn’t see the need to waste any more effort getting your attention off of God!  Indeed it is only the people who aren’t currently giving in to temptation who properly understand the struggle against it because if you’re giving in you’re not…struggling…with it.  But, lest I leave you thinking something I’m not saying, temptation is hardly limited to the other hard times in our lives.  Temptation can come at any point in our lives.  The hard times provide a convenient platform for it because we can easily convince ourselves we are owed a bit of pleasure, however illicit it may be, as recompense for our trouble.  But, times of plenty and ease can provide just as straightforward a pathway because we get so caught up in the good times that we either slip into sin without realizing it or else begin to dabble in sin as a perk of the position.  Either way we go, there are warnings signs for us all along the path letting us know what’s at stake.  We ignore them at our own peril.

Well, as it turns out, the very next part of Joseph’s story details a temptation he faced that actually came on both of these fronts.  If you have a copy of the Scriptures nearby, find your way to Genesis 39.  Let’s take a look together at how Joseph overcame his temptation and see if we can’t glean some principles for overcoming situations of temptation in our own lives.

The story actually starts right where we left off last week.  If you want to follow along with me I’ll start reading at v. 1.  “Now Joseph had been brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, had bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there.  The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master.  His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord caused all that he did to succeed in his hands.  So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him, and he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had.  From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field.  So he left all that he had in Joseph’s charge, and because of him he had no concern about anything but the food he ate.”

When we left Joseph last week he had been sold to Potiphar in Egypt and in spite of the affirmation that the Lord was with him things were looking pretty grim.  We quickly discover here, though, that his commitment to a righteous character plays off beautifully and God blesses everything he touches.  He transforms into one of those guys who succeeds in whatever he does.  Thankfully for him, Potiphar is smart enough to recognize what’s going on and puts Joseph in charge of just about everything.  It would seem then, that things have turned a major corner for Joseph.  I mean, sure, he’s still stuck as a slave in Egypt, but in no time at all he has gone from a new, green slave to the personal valet of one of the more powerful men in the nation.  Not a bad jump for an 18-20 year-old kid.

But, far from being merely an unmitigated success, Joseph quickly experienced a season of temptation that could be seen as having come from either of the different sources we talked about just a minute ago.  Perhaps he never really overcame the bitterness and anger he felt toward his brothers, settling instead for merely bottling it up and pursuing success as a kind of band aid, and experienced this temptation as an indulgence he was due given the turmoil he had just faced.  Perhaps, though, he experienced the temptation out of his success and it was presented to him as a kind of entitlement to which he had access in his new high position.  Either way, temptation did come to Joseph.  It we were going to describe his life in modern media terms he went from being the Count of Monte Cristo to a pool boy in Desperate Housewives.

Keep reading in the text with me in the second half of v. 6: “Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance.”  Depending on your era of preference think Clark Gable, James Dean, John Travolta in the 70s, Brad Pitt in the 90s, and Channing Tatum today.  Verse 7: “And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, ‘Lie with me.’”  Got the picture?  Potiphar’s wife watched Joseph go about his work every day.  At first he was just a slave, but then she started to notice that he was developing from all the work into quite the whatever-the-ancient-Egyptian-ideal-of-a-hunk-was.  This eventually turned from appreciation to attraction and finally to lust.  Now, we don’t know a thing about Potiphar’s wife other than her willingness to have an affair with this young, Hebrew slave.  It may be that she was a domineering woman accustomed to getting whatever she wanted with whomever she wanted (behind her husband’s back, of course).  Perhaps she was a really sympathetic character who let the neglect of her busy husband turn into an attraction for this knock-out young man who really listened to her heart and showed her the attention she so needed.  But, whatever the situation actually looked like, she started going after Joseph and wouldn’t take no for an answer.  But, the character that had gotten him this far prevailed and Joseph refused…a lot.  Verse 10 says that “as she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not listen to her, to lie beside her or to be with her.”

But, Potiphar’s wife was simply not going to take no for an answer.  One day, before he arrived for his regular duties, she had sent all the other men out of the house so she was there alone.  Verse 11: “But one day, when he went into the house to do his work and none of the men of the house was there in the house, she caught him by his garment, saying, ‘Lie with me.’”  Again, whether this was aggressive or playful or desperate, she had him and wasn’t going to let go.  So, Joseph took the only avenue available to him.  He left his coat and ran.  Verse 12: “But he left his garment in her hand and fled and got out of the house.”

Well so far, this is a model story for how to overcome temptation.  I mean, surely God would honor someone so committed to doing what’s right as Joseph obviously was.  Remember, though, Joseph’s not the Count of Monte Cristo anymore, he’s a pool boy.  What comes next could probably have been the script of a Desperate Housewives episode.  She was a woman scorned and wasn’t going to take it.  Pick back up with me at v. 13: “And as soon as she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled out of the house, she called other men of her household and said to them, ‘See he [her husband] has brought among us a Hebrew to laugh at us.  He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice.  And as soon as he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me and fled and got out of the house.’  Then she laid up his garment by her until his master came home, and she told him the same story, saying, ‘The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to laugh at me.  But as soon as I lifted up my voice and cried, he left his garment beside me and fled out of the house.’  As soon as his master heard the words that his wife spoke to him, ‘This is the way your servant treated me,’ his anger was kindled.  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.”  Now, in the next verse we get once again this supposedly encouraging affirmation that the Lord was with Joseph, but still, here yet again, Joseph had done nothing wrong and is punished for it.

What are we to make of all this?  A couple of things.  First, overcoming temptation is always the right thing to do.  But, that doesn’t mean doing it will always go well for us in the short term.  Joseph absolutely does the right thing in this situation.  No question about it.  He is in the right.  He refuses to engage with temptation over and over and over again.  He doesn’t let up in his resolve.  He works to put himself out of situations where temptation was likely to beckon.  He commits social suicide rather than compromise his character—in other words he chose a reputation of good over fun.  He did everything right.  His reward?  A trip to prison.  And not just any prison, but the prison reserved for Pharaoh’s personal prisoners.  The Hebrew phrase translates literally as “the house of roundness,” suggesting perhaps some kind of tower or fortress designed specifically for this purpose.  Now once again he is Edmond Dantes, no longer the Count of Monte Cristo who fortunes have turned, locked away in the Chateu d’If; once again imprisoned unjustly for crimes he did not commit.  Sometimes doing the right thing doesn’t go well for us.  Particularly if we are in a context geared toward celebrating the wrong thing.  This was Joseph.  Perhaps it has been you.  Perhaps it is you.  But, just like with Joseph, the Lord will also be with you.  And, that is an affirmation that carries with it a bit more weight then perhaps it did a week ago.  In spite of this second setback, we have seen the evidence of God’s activity on Joseph’s behalf and can trust with greater tenacity that He will do it again.

True as that all may be, though, it doesn’t speak very loudly to our efforts to overcome temptation.  Joseph overcame temptation and got punished for it.  That really makes you want to jump into the act with him, doesn’t it?  Of greater interest to us is the part of the story those of you who are following along in the text or perhaps were here this morning for Bible study know I skipped.  While it’s certainly praiseworthy that Joseph overcame his temptation, especially in such an environment as he was in, what is much more noteworthy is his rationale for it.  Come back to the text with me in v. 8: “But he refused and said to his master’s wife, ‘Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge.  He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife.  How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?’”  You see, what Joseph knew here were the stakes.  He knew the stakes for his actions were high.  And, it’s easier to resist temptation when you know what’s at stake.

Because of the perennial problem of temptation in our lives, various guys who contributed to the Bible wrote about how to overcome it.  James’ advice was simply to resist the Devil.  When we resist the Devil in the power of Christ he will flee from us and leave us alone.  Now, that doesn’t mean he won’t come back later to try again, but in the moment we’ll be victorious.  That’s helpful advice, but it doesn’t give us the full picture.  Paul gives advice that’s a bit more direct.  Rather than simply resisting the Devil, Paul tells us to flee temptation—as Joseph does.  Paul doesn’t seem to harbor any delusions regarding the strength of our resolve.  He knows it isn’t strong enough and so his advice is to flee.  When we see temptation rise we need to turn and run as fast as we can in the other direction.  He also makes clear elsewhere that falling to temptation is never a given for us.  There’s always a way out.  We never have to sin.  God graciously provides us with an exit ramp.  Now, like Joseph, taking that ramp may very well prove painful at first, but the end result will always be better than going with the temptation.  Still, though, it’s hard to take the way out, isn’t it?  I mean, it’s one thing to know it’s there, but it’s a totally different thing to slow the train down to keep the wreck from happening.  Plus, when we have mentally committed ourselves to giving in to the temptation let’s be honest: there’s not much that’s going to stop us.  Except this: knowing the stakes.  When we really understand what’s at stake if we were to give in to the temptation, saying no becomes that much easier.  It’s easier to resist temptation when we know what’s at stake.

This is why Joseph’s story here is so helpful in our quest to overcome temptation rather than being bowled over by it.  I mean, let’s be honest: the temptation before Joseph was a powerful one.  Potiphar’s wife was undoubtedly powerful.  She was probably beautiful.  He was in his prime with no real relationship prospects on the horizon.  It would have been so easy for him to give in, especially when she engineered it so she was home alone as he arrived that last morning.  Nobody would have known but the two of them…and God, but who’s counting?  Instead, though, Joseph took the exit ramp, he resisted the Devil, he literally fled from the temptation.  How?  Why?  He knew what was at stake.  Listen to his words one more time: “Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge.  He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except yourself, because you are his wife.”  This run down of the blessings God has given Joseph in success and the unflinching trust of Potiphar lays out the stakes for agreeing to be intimate with his wife.  He stood to lose everything good God had put in his life since that awful time of betrayal at the hands of his brothers.  More than that as the next sentence proclaims, the trust of a man whom he had probably come to respect very deeply and his relationship with God were also at stake.

The contrast, then, was pretty stark: a few moments of intense, but illicit pleasure against all the good things God had put in His life.   Now, when you put it like that it seems like it should have been an easy decision, but not so fast.  We are masters at selling ourselves on things we want to do but know we shouldn’t.  We are incredibly adept at fooling ourselves into thinking something we otherwise know to be an awful idea isn’t really so bad as it first seemed.  And yet, knowing the stakes gives us a leg up on the challenge.  It’s easier to resist temptation when we know what’s at stake.

Those were the stakes for Joseph.  The real question is, though: what’s at stake for you?  What’s at stake if we give in to the temptation that keeps hounding us to lie with it?  What do we stand to gain?  A few minutes of pleasure.  What do we stand to lose?  Everything good God has put in our lives.  Whatever your temptation is, before you fall headlong into it, take stock of what’s at stake.  This is especially true for temptations to dabble in something that seems private, secret, totally under the table.  The stakes may seem small in such cases—after all, if no one is going to know, what’s the harm?—but Joseph’s last statement puts the lie to that question.  What good is it to gain that few minutes of high and lose your soul?  What good is it to gain some small satisfaction and lose ground on living the life you’ve always wanted?  Sin can be private, but it is never personal.  And, when we properly understand that, saying no is that much easier.  It’s easier to resist temptation when we know what’s at stake.  So if you want to overcome temptation, this is how: take stock of what’s at stake.  Think through what you stand to lose if you give in to it.  Straighten out your priorities.  Stand strong in the character of Christ which invariably brings blessing.  It’s easier to resist temptation when we know what’s at stake.  So take stock and stand strong.