Someone once said, “I don’t mind being alone but I hate being lonely.” Let me say that again, “I don’t mind being alone but I hate being lonely”.
Many of us can relate to this statement I think. Sure, there are some of us that simply love people and being with people and thus we don’t like being alone at all, no matter what. Yet, most of us enjoy at least some alone time to read, reflect, rest and be quiet. We welcome this sort of opportunity from time to time.
But, as the quote says, virtually all of us hate being lonely. Loneliness, this feeling that we are all by ourselves and that we have to a degree been abandoned in the midst of the things that life has brought our way, is a very, very challenging place to be. Further, it is a feeling that we can have whether we are physically and literally all by ourselves or not.
Joseph, in much of his story and particularly in our text for today as he finds himself in an Egyptian prison, wasn’t simply alone, he was lonely.
I want to suggest to us this morning that we can learn a lot from Joseph in his loneliness that can help us in our own lonely times. Joseph, through what I think he learns and how he responds to his lonely moments and particularly his time of abandonment in the Egyptian jail, provides an excellent example for us of how to handle loneliness well. In essence, last week our subject about the truth led us to deal with negative example of truth telling in the story of Jacob, Joseph and the older brothers. Here, as it relates to the idea of loneliness, the examples of much more positive and mainly run in the vain of reminding us that even when we feel a sense of loneliness in a real and palpable way, we truly are not alone, abandoned or all by ourselves. In this regard, here are some things we learn from the Joseph story.
First, Joseph story teaches us that we may feel lonely but that we are never really alone because God is with us no matter what. There is an interesting phrase that crops up more than once in our text for today as Joseph is described as someone who had been abandoned to life in an Egyptian jail. In the midst of the Genesis description of this moment in young Joseph’s life, there is this statement that we read “yet God was with him”. God was with him. (39:21; 39:23) Yes, Joseph felt lonely and he had ever right to sense that he had reached a place of having been utterly forgotten. Yet, no matter how real and true his perceptions were that he was all by himself, the truth was that God was with him.
Now, I know that I sound like a broken record at this point. But, I really don’t know that we can say it too much or too often. God is always with us whether we sense it or not. As God’s children, we are never abandoned or left to a life on our own. Again, we feel this way. And we conclude that this is what has happened when things are not happening the way we want them to or the way that we dreamed they would. But, God does not, has not and will not abandon us. God is with us in both the moment where we clearly sense God’s presence and in the moment where we struggle to recognize any sense of God’s nearness at all. No matter our perspective, God’s position of being present remains the same.
Second, Joseph helps us to see that even when we feel lonely we are not alone for often there are others who are a part of our lives who are struggling in similar ways. As a result, our ability to give energy to their challenges often helps us deal with our own.
Joseph provides a marvelous example of this. Genesis 39 helps us to see that two of his companions in prison were important figures in the administration of the Egyptian Pharaoh. When one first reads this story we can easily see the titles Cup-bearer and baker and assume these were small, menial figures on the Pharaoh’s staff. Yet, what historians teach us is that in fact these were very important positions. The cup-bearer and baker were over the Royal food supply in a day when healthy and safe food was hard to get and certainly when exotics foods were hard to come by. They held a lot of power and likely both knew the king well but they too had lost their places of service and both now felt they had been abandoned and forgotten. In a word, they were likely lonely just like Joseph.
Joseph, however, shows interest in them. Befriends them and helps them both to understand their dreams. In turn, they give Joseph a focus, a sense of value and the ability to see that as lonely as he felt, there were others in the world and in his life who had similar issues as did he. By seeing one another in the midst of their collective loneliness they all added value to one another’s lives.
During World War II, one of the prison camps established in Japan was called Shantung Compound. Interestingly, the prison was filled primarily with educators and missionaries from the West who had come to the country with the purest of desires – to teach and to share faith. Yet, once they were all rounded up and forced to live a very menial existence with 1,500 other prisoners in a facility built for 300, much of their civility was lost. The hopelessness of their situation, their sense of loneliness and the dire conditions within which they were forced to live lead many of their morals to be set aside as they struggled to stay alive.
In their midst was a group of Dutch Roman Catholic Monks. These Monks had lived with the belief that their greatest mission on earth was to serve others. At Shantung, even in a horrible situation, they continued to live into this belief as they volunteered to work in the kitchen, mop the floor or to simply provide a listening ear for other prisoners. It is said by those who were there and who observed the Dutch Monks that what they taught the other academics and missions was that their best chance at survival was in their recognition of the others in their midst and their dedication to focus on them. This same approach and way of Jesus offers us a way to navigate our loneliness too. (God The Ingenius Alchemist, John Claypool, pg. 52-54)
Third, Joseph at this juncture in his story, reminds us that even when we feel lonely, hope remains present in our lives. While we don’t know exactly how long Joseph was left in the prison we do know that it was a little over two years at a bare minimum and likely quite a bit longer. I have no doubt that he was ready to give up on any possibilities for a better existence and truthfully he may have already been beyond that point. I think if we are honest, we would all have to say if we had been in his shoes we likely would have given up too. But, if the Joseph story in general and if the story at this point in particular teaches us anything it is that as people of faith, hope is always a possibility in our lives no matter what. No matter how lonely, isolated, abandoned and deserted we feel, we are always accompanied by the hope that comes through faith and God’s presence – things can and often do get better.
Let me speak more directly to this on two levels. First. I cannot begin to tell you the number of times that I have been with people in hard places that seemed absolutely unresolvable that eventually worked out. The moment seemed hopeless only for all of us to find that hope remained. This is what happened for Joseph – two years after the cup-bearer is released, he suddenly remembers Joseph and speaks his name to the Pharaoh. In an instant and completely unexpectedly, Joseph’s whole situation changes. Second, I often say to people that are facing life threatening illness that God’s healing is a guarantee no matter what. My point is that God does heal all illness in one of three ways – either through the good work and skill of physicians, nurses and modern medicine, or through a miraculous experience that no one can quite figure out or understand or through the restoring of our bodies as we enter into God’s presence in the life that awaits us after this one. No matter what, there is hope. All others may seem to abandon us but hope never does.
I love the old story about the man who was befriend by some of the fellas in a men’s Sunday School class at the First Baptist Church in their town. Through the friendship, the men in the class started inviting the gentleman to be their guest for their Sunday study and for worship. Finally, one day, all out of excuses, the man said, “listen, I know you fellas all wear coats and ties to your church. I am just a simple country fella. I don’t own a tie and even if I did have one, I wouldn’t know how to tie it. You all seem like wonderful men and I have enjoyed getting to know you but I just wouldn’t feel comfortable there at your church.” No matter what the gentlemen said, they could not convince their new friend that what he wore didn’t matter and that he would be perfectly welcome just as he was. So, they took a different tact. They figured out his size and went and bought him a beautiful pin stripped Navy Suit, a pair of black wing tip shoes, a white oxford shirt and a very sharp red silk tie complete with one of those hankies to match just like Jimmy Chandler wears every Sunday. The man was really moved by the gesture and they all arrived at Sunday School the next week early so that they could all be there waiting when their new class member arrived.
But, after waiting and waiting, he never showed up. The next week a couple of the guys went by to see what happened. The man apologized and then shared what took place. He said, “I got all dressed and you were right. I had never looked so sharp in all of my life. Why, I couldn’t control myself, after seeing myself in the mirror in that suit, I thought, why stop at First Baptist? Why, I look good enough for First Presbyterian, so I went there.” (Gleaned from the sermon More Dreams for Joseph, by Tony Hopkins, preached August 31, 2014 at FBC Greenwood, SC)
Here’s the point – when we begin to see ourselves different we begin to see our possibilities in the world differently. It is true not only when we get dressed up in our Sunday fineries. It is also true when we cloth ourselves with an understanding about the true state of our loneliness. We when can see that even when we are lonely that God is there; and even when we are lonely others are there who are lonely too,; and even when we are lonely hope is there, it changes things – both about how we see ourselves and about how we see the world. Amen.