Seeing God in The Rearview Mirror
Genesis 45:1-9, 25-28
Sunday, September 2, 2012
If you enjoy classic television, you may remember an episode of Leave It to Beaver that originally aired in October of 1960 called “Beaver Won’t Eat.” In the story, The Beaver refuses to eat brussel sprouts. He just doesn’t like them. He doesn’t like the way that they look and he doesn’t like the way that they taste. His parents, however, continue to encourage him that brussel sprouts are not only good but more importantly they are necessary. They want the Beaver to appreciate the fact that any growing boy needs to eat plenty of green vegetables. As many of you know, Beaver ultimately eats his brussel sprouts and peace in the Cleaver family is restored once more. What I appreciate is that the story illustrates in a wonderfully humorous way what it that there are many things in this life that we don’t like but that still benefit us is some very significant ways.
In a sense, Joseph comes to this same conclusion in our passage from Genesis that is as the center of worship today. Joseph’s life had been anything but easy. Betrayed and sold into slavery by his own brothers because he was the favorite son, Joseph wound up the slave of a prominent Egyptian. Despite Joseph’s hard work and advancements, the Egyptian’s wife falsely charged Joseph of a crime. In an instant, Joseph the slave became Joseph the prisoner. Once again though, through resilience and deep faith, God led Joseph back to a place of prominence. Through a series of unexpected events, Joseph became a key leader in the Egyptian government just as famine approached.
The famine was regional and affected not only Egypt but also the area of Canaan where Joseph’s extended family still lived. At that very moment, the unexpected happened. Joseph’s own brothers – the very ones who had sold him into slavery – came to Egypt in need of assistance as a result of the famine. Yet they had no idea that the very person whom they were asking for help was their own brother whom they have not seen in years.
Our text focuses on that moment when Joseph decided to reveal his true identity to his brothers. As he did, Joseph made it perfectly clear that God had brought very positive results out of the difficult circumstances of his life. Their evil had been transformed into God’s good. As he looked, back at his days, Joseph saw the hand of God and how he had been shaped, formed and guided by God along the way.
Like Beaver with his brussel sprouts, Joseph was able to affirm the very real truth that often times those experiences that seem difficult in the moment actually end up benefiting us and others in the long run. As he communicates this truth to his brothers, Joseph reminds us, in my opinion, of a couple of important truths for us as we too think about the work of God in our own lives in the midst of those times and situations that seem far less than ideal.
On the one hand, Joseph’s story reminds us that even though an experience may be difficult or far less than perfect, God can still shape us and others through it. And, sometimes, we don’t truly appreciate this until we are on the other side. Unfortunately, we live in a world that daily insinuates that only those things that we enjoy are good for us. As a result, we often allow this sort of attitude to influence how we feel about God too. We regularly convince ourselves that if an experience or situation is not enjoyable, fun, low stress or easy, then God must be absent. Yet, so often, when we get to the other side, look back and reflect, we suddenly see how God used that very event to teach us a profound lesson and to shape our faith in a much deeper way.
It’s a lot like climbing to the top of the Harbourtown Lighthouse on Hilton Head Island. If you have ever been to the top, which I am sure many of you have, then you may recall that there are 114 steps that you must climb to get from the ground to the observation level. As a person climbs those steps, somewhere along the way, it generally dawns on them that there is nothing all that fun or interesting about taking one step after another while going in a circular pattern inside a confined space. But, when you reach the top, walk out onto the observation deck and see a beautiful sunset, those 114 steps are suddenly put into perspective.
Our relationship with God works in much the same way. If we can simply continue to trust God and remain faithful even in the midst of life’s difficult days, we often finally come to a moment where everything is suddenly put into perspective and we are able to look back and understand why an event or circumstance, despite its strenuous nature was completely worth it in light of what we learned and how we were shaped for the better as a result.
On the other hand, Joseph’s story also reminds us that God’s use of difficult occasions should not in any way minimize the tragedy or the pain that is often caused. There is something very subtle about the way that Joseph’s conversation with his brothers unfolds that is very important for us to be aware of. Even as Joseph affirms that God’s hand has been at work and that many positive things have come from his life’s tragedies, Joseph refuses to fall into the trap of dismissing the heartbreak of his life.
What I mean here is that at no point does Joseph minimize his past by suggesting that his time in prison was no big deal or that he smiled all the way through his enslavement or separation from his father. Instead, Joseph affirms God’s hand at work and the lessons of God while at the same time remaining honest about his life’s difficulties.
I point this out because so often we reject the idea of God’s hand at work in our lives or others reject our suggestion that God will bring good out of their life’s difficulties. Many times, this rejection is the result of the fact that so many people want to also suggest that since God is involved then it really must not be all that bad. But, if you have ever been through the valley, you know full well that saying on the one hand that God was at work through our difficulties does not necessitate the idea that the times were not all that hard as a result.
I am sure that many of you have noticed by now that I wear braces on my teeth. I have had my braces for about a year and still have a year left to go in the process. Now, I can tell you very clearly and quickly the many positive reasons for wearing braces. My teeth are going to be straighter. My top teeth are now back in their right positions. The problems with my bite are going to be corrected. And, the soreness I felt in my jaw as a result of the issues with my teeth is starting to go away. No doubt, these are all excellent, worthwhile and positive outcomes.
But, all of these wonderful and worthwhile results of wearing braces doesn’t make it any less painful. My teeth still hurt. I still have sores in my mouth. I still hate wearing rubber bands and all of the other annoyances that go along with the process.
Sure, I am excited about and I fully embrace the benefits. But, that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
This is the perspective we get from the Joseph story. Joseph embraced what God had done through the tragedy but it was still tragic. At least from my perspective, admitting this helps all of us be much more likely to appreciate God’s work in our own difficulties. And, counseling others through their own rough patches is much more likely to be embraced if we too speak of God’s presence and God’s ability to transform our sorrows without minimizing the reality of pain.
I got to know an older couple a few years ago who were dealing with cancer. She was in the advanced stages of the disease and he was her primary care giver. In many ways they were what we would call an eccentric couple. In many ways they were a little quirky. But, one thing I truly appreciated about them was the way they faced the journey they were upon. On the one hand, they were very clear God had taught them a lot through this experience. Without a doubt they were better people as a result of what they had gone through. And, they thought about life and faith in a far better, more intelligent way. They would say to you that God had transformed the experience and they had benefited.
Yet, they could say all of this while never saying that they were glad she had cancer. They hated what had happened and they weeped over her loss of strength and physical abilities. They prayed every day that the cancer would go away.
It was indeed awful – there was no doubt. But, that didn’t mean they could not celebrate how God had shaped them. This was how they approached it. This too, I think is how Joseph approached his own life and his brothers for that matter. I think too that this is the way that God desires for us to see our own difficult days.
It will not be easy, but, may God through God’s wisdom give us the eyes to see in this profound yet realistic way. Amen.