When Amy and I were preparing to be married, we did what every couple in that situation does – we went and registered for wedding gifts. Now I had told Amy that for the most part, I probably didn’t have any strong feelings about the vast majority of choices that needed to be made. However, when I did have one I would let her know. And I think she was a little surprised to learn that I really did mean it. So when it came to the pattern for the forks, spoons and knives that I was going to hold in my hand every day for years to come, I really did want to be involved in making the final choice.
We were registering at the Target in Bloomington, IN one day. We had been at it for some time, when … let’s just say that nature called in a rather urgent fashion. So I hurried off to the restroom intent on getting back to registering with Amy as quickly as I could.
I was in the stall in the bathroom when I heard the door to the restroom open as someone else was coming inside. Immediately the sound of the shoes caught my attention because it sounded very odd – something wasn’t right. Through a small gap where the stall door hinged I caught a glimpse of the person who walked in and was shocked to realize why the shoes sounded strange – they were women’s shoes. A woman had walked in and the thought that flashed into my mind was: “Oh my goodness! She’s in the wrong restroom!”
I was beginning to collect my thoughts about how exactly to handle the situation. Shortly thereafter the restroom door opened again as a second person entered. A glimpse of the person revealed that this was woman too. And then in an instant, the thought formed in my head: “Oh my goodness! I’m in the wrong restroom!!”
I realized that in my haste to get to the restroom I had entered the wrong door. And now my mind really began to spin. I was engaged to this wonderful woman. I was about to go out on vicarage as I prepared at seminary to be a pastor – something I loved doing. What was going to happen if I was arrested because they thought I was trying to spy on women in their restroom?
So I waited, listening for the second woman to leave the restroom. When she had gone out, I waited a few moments. And then I made a dash for it and left the women’s restroom thankful that I didn’t encounter anyone who was just about to enter at that moment. And because I don’t want the thought distracting you during the rest of the sermon … yes, I did then go the men’s restroom and wash my hands.
My experience in the Target women’s restroom illustrates the fact that sometimes perception and reality are not the same thing. We see this in our Old Testament lesson this morning as Joseph’s brothers come to him. Joseph looks back on events that at the time could only have been perceived as God’s absence – his abandonment of Joseph. And yet now he is able to see the reality of what was really going on – of what God was really doing. This text prompts us to ponder more deeply perception and reality in our own lives.
The first time I really took a more careful look at Genesis in an Introduction to the Old Testament class at Concordia College, Ann Arbor led me to realize how big a role the account of Joseph plays in the book. Genesis is long – fifty chapters. And of those one quarter tell the story of Joseph. You can’t avoid the conclusion that inspired by the Holy Spirit, Moses really thought that the events of his life were important.
Now of course, they were important because it is through the experiences of Joseph that Jacob and the descendants of Abraham ended up in Egypt. It is their presence in Egypt that sets the stage for their eventual enslavement by Pharaoh and God’s saving action in the exodus.
But if he had wanted to, Moses certainly could have narrated all of this with far more economy. And here in our text at the end of the book, we learn that in addition to narrating Israel’s early history Moses has been teaching us an important truth about the way God works.
You of course know the account about Joseph well. It’s the story of Jacobs’s dysfunctional family. He favors Joseph, who is to be honest, really a brat. His brothers are so angered that one day they sell him into slavery and convince their father Jacob that Joseph has been killed by a wild animal.
Joseph is sold as a slave in Egypt. And there he just can’t seem to catch a break. Every time things begin to go well and start to look up, some terrible circumstance wrecks everything. I mean, Joseph fends off the sexual advances of his owner’s wife – he doesn’t break the Sixth Commandment – and he gets thrown into prison as a result of it.
Finally Joseph ends up as second in charge of Egypt – helping Pharaoh to provision the nation during seven good years of harvest as they prepare for seven years of famine to follow. The famine strikes the whole region and as a result of this Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to buy food for the family and Joseph eventually reveals himself to them. And then he brings Jacob and all the family to live in safety in Egypt.
In our text we hear about what happened after Jacob died. The brothers feared that with their father gone, Joseph would now seek revenge against them. And so “they sent a message to Joseph, saying, ‘Your father gave this command before he died: ‘Say to Joseph, “’Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.’’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.’”
Now we don’t know whether Jacob had really said this. But we do know Joseph’s reaction. He said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.
Joseph forgave his brothers. He acknowledged the evil they had done to him. But he didn’t take up the opportunity to get pay back. Instead he focused upon what God had been doing in the midst of all his experiences. It was the same thing he had said to them when he first revealed himself. Then he had said, “And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.” He talked about the famine and added, “And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God.”
Joseph looked back on his life and he could see that perception and reality had not been the same thing. He had experienced evil. He had been wronged. Time after time he had experienced what the world would describe as terrible luck. It appeared that God was nowhere to be found; that God had abandoned him; that God was in fact against him.
But the reality was that nothing could be father from the truth. In fact God was at work all the time. He was using the sin of others and evil in order to weave it into his own purpose. He was active working good not only for Joseph, but also for his family and many others besides.
Now in a story that has a “and they lived happily ever after” kind of ending it’s easy to say that God is working for good even when it didn’t seem like it. We have these experiences in life too that look a lot like Joseph’s. We go through hardships and things turn out different than we expected. And yet, when it is all said and done we see that God has been at work for our good.
But what about when you are in the midst of it? What about when life is being crushed by the darkness of anxiety and depression? What about when physical ailments take the joy out of life and there is no reason to expect any change in the future? And what about when there are wrenching tragedies that defy any explanation – like when Christians are exterminated in Iraq and Nigeria; like when a mother is killed and a child experiences terrible injuries just because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time recently on Route 13?
In the face of those circumstances the notion that “God is working something good” sounds hollow and trite. It is then that we are tempted to doubt God; to be angry with God. And you know there have been times when you have given in to that temptation. Perhaps it’s happening right now.
God doesn’t promise that your story will have what you consider to be a happy ending. He doesn’t promise an ending that makes sense to you. What he does promise is that you are his child and that he is present and at work in the midst of your life and circumstances no matter what things may look like to you. He calls you to believe in him; to trust in him no matter what happens. And he has done one thing that gives you the ability and confidence to do so.
In our text this morning Joseph says to his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” This is of course, part of the story of Israel. It is the story of God keeping his promise to Abraham: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
It is in the fulfillment of that promise through the seed of Abraham, Jesus the Christ, that we find the ability and confidence to believe and trust in God. Through the evil of men looking to protect their own insignificant turf God subjected his Son to torture and death on the cross. Through the evil action of those men God sent his innocent Son to die in your place as the sacrifice that takes away your sin.
But where on Good Friday nothing but powerlessness and meaninglessness was perceived, on Easter morning the reality became clear. God had indeed been at work through that evil. He had removed the barrier of sin and now in the resurrected flesh of Jesus Christ he had defeated death. He had worked forgiveness and immortality for you.
This is what God had done for you in Jesus Christ. And because he has done this, through the work of the Spirit he gives you the ability and confidence to trust in him no matter what is happening. Because you have seen him work in this way in Christ, you know that you can trust that he is present and at work in your life no matter how circumstances appear.
The death and resurrection of Christ, and your share in those events through baptism, becomes both the engine and the guidance by which you move through life. Nourished by the Word and fed with Christ’s body and blood, God enables you to trust in his presence and good purposes for you.
You can do this no matter what the circumstances because you have seen what God did in Christ and how he did it. You can do this because each one of you knows for sure how the story ends. You can do this because you know that the final outcome for you will be resurrection and eternal life with Jesus Christ.