A sermon delivered by David Hughes, First Baptist Church, Pastor, Winston-Salem, Nc., on August 14, 2011.
Genesis 45:1-11; 50:15-21
There’s a popular bumper sticker these days that reads, IF YOU ARE NOT OUTRAGED, YOU ARE NOT PAYING ATTENTION!
Lots of people must be paying attention, because rage of all kinds seems to be in no short supply. For example, rage abounds over the political stalemate in our nation’s capital. And as always, your political point of view will dictate the trajectory of your anger. By the way, rage is not confined to our country. Hundreds of teenagers gone wild have been arrested in Great Britain the last few days for spontaneous outbreaks of rage and riots throughout London and other British cities.
But I think an even more fitting bumper sticker today might read, IF YOU ARE NOT FALLING APART AT THE SEAMS, YOU ARE NOT PAYING ATTENTION. Fear, even more than rage, seems to be the prevailing emotion these days. After all, our American stock market just endured the most volatile week in the history of our stock exchange, experiencing four and five hundred point swings day after day. It’s as though our economy is having a nervous breakdown, which is precisely what millions of investors are having as they watch their earnings evaporate in a matter of minutes.
But that’s not all. Beneath this tale of national struggle and suffering are millions of individual trials and tribulations. You can observe a wide range of pain just inside this congregation—the unemployed seeking to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads; people fortunate enough to have jobs killing themselves doing the jobs of three people; people struggling mightily with life-changing or life-threatening illness; marriages falling apart; families falling apart; and people falling apart. This week I dealt with a few trials and tribulations of my own—in my work, in my family, and with a pastor friend who has just stepped aside from his church because of voice problems—a preacher’s nightmare.
And what I notice about Christ-followers, including myself, is that as we go through our hard times, one of the first things to go is our belief in a fundamental tenet of the biblical faith—the goodness of God.
Many of us grew up praying this simple blessing before each meal:
God is great, God is good,
Let us thank him for our food. Amen.
But friends, how do we hold on to the belief that God is so good in the face of so much that seems so bad? Do you ever wonder, when the bad days come, if God is as good as we said he was in our childhood blessings?
If it seems like doubting the goodness of God is deep down in our wiring, it’s because it is!
If you review the account of the Fall of humanity in the Garden of Eden, you’ll notice that the crafty serpent set Adam and Eve up for the Fall by convincing them that God’s goodness was suspect. “ You don’t need to heed God’s command,” said the snake, to avoid the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, lest you die. “On the contrary,” said the sly Serpent, “you should definitely eat the forbidden fruit because it will make you like God—which is, by the way, the reason God doesn’t want you to have it!” So first Eve and then Adam doubted the good intentions of God, and the rest is history.
Since then, human beings have almost instinctively doubted God’s goodness, especially when the chips are down. On our bad days when nothing seems to be going right, that same, sly Voice keeps whispering, “You can’t count on the goodness of God,” and we keep listening.
And we do so, apparently oblivious to the clear teachings of scripture. Psalm 34:8 declares, O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him. Psalm 107:1 says,
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
For his steadfast love endures forever.
In the New Testament, Jesus offers startling testimony about the goodness of God. When someone came to him and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?…(Jesus) said, “Why do you ask me what is good? There is only one who is good” (Matthew 19:16-17). Of course, Jesus is referring to his Heavenly Father. And of course, Jesus seems overly modest here, because many would say that the most convincing evidence of the goodness of God is the goodness of his Son.
Today, when it seems like our world is falling apart at the seams, our assigned lectionary passages in Genesis bring us a timely word. The story of Joseph that occupies the last fourteen chapters of Genesis is one of the greatest stories of the Old Testament. It can be used to demonstrate the providence of God at work in all things. And the power of forgiveness and reconciliation in a family. But today I want to view this biblical biography as a powerful illustration of what difference it makes if you actually believe in the goodness of God, come hell or high water.
You may remember that Joseph was one of twelve sons born to Jacob. Early on Jacob made it clear who his favorite was when he made the famous “coat of many colors” for his next to youngest son, Joseph. Joseph didn’t help matters any when he declared that he had dreamed two dreams in which all his brothers were bowing to him. Naturally, Joseph’s older brothers were seething with resentment and ready to kill him, and almost did before a last minute change of plans that involved selling him into slavery.
Joseph ended up in Egypt and served so well that he was promoted to chief steward in the household of Potiphar. The Lord was with Joseph, we read in Genesis 39:2, and he became a successful man. When Potiphar’s wife propositioned Joseph, he refused to sin against God. Potiphar’s wife was outraged by Joseph’s rejection, and convinced Potiphar to have Joseph thrown in prison. Still, the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love (Genesis 39:21). (Of course, we couldn’t blame Joseph for thinking as he sat in jail that God had a strange way of showing his love!)
In time Joseph became responsible for his fellow prisoners. When two of them had dreams, Joseph accurately interpreted them both. Later, when the Pharoah of Egypt had some strange dreams, he learned of Joseph’s amazing ability with dreams and he summoned Joseph to interpret his dreams. Joseph began by admitting that his ability to interpret dreams came from God, and then proceeded, with the help of Pharoah’s dream, to offer incredibly accurate details about upcoming years of plenty and famine that indicated Egypt should be stockpiling food for the hard years to come. Pharoah was so impressed with Joseph that he named him the head governor of Egypt (second only to Pharoah) who would prepare Egypt for the upcoming famine.
The predicted famine came with a vengeance, and in time, Joseph’s family, desperate for food made their way from Canaan to Egypt to buy grain. Joseph recognized his family when they arrived, and after a time he revealed himself to them. Joseph’s brothers were undone with guilt and fear—guilt over selling Joseph into slavery, and fear that Joseph would have them killed out of revenge.
Imagine how surprised Joseph’s fearful brothers were when he said, “Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” Despite these assurances Joseph’s brothers were still fearing the worst some time later when they met Joseph again after their father Jacob died. Again, Joseph amazed them when he said, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to harm me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people.”
What do we make of Joseph’s responses? That he was a weakling who wouldn’t stand up for himself? That he was a Pollyanna optimist who decided to always keep his eyes on the sunny side of life?
Joseph was neither weak nor Pollyanna. What he was absolutely convinced that the goodness of God lay beneath everything that happened to him. How did he manage to hold on to this belief? One commentator observes that it was Joseph’s faithfulness to certain spiritual disciplines that helped him cling to the goodness of God even when that goodness was anything but obvious.
So, for example, Joseph persevered in the discipline of submission, accepting his circumstances even when they were patently unjust. He served his overseers and later the people of Israel with excellence and loyalty. He was faithful in chastity when he could have indulged, and he was humbly obedient when he received guidance from God through dreams. Through it all he managed to avoid becoming bitter because deep in his bones he believed in the goodness of God and had faith that through it all God had a plan and ultimately all would be well.
Now many Baptists know the story of Joseph. But I want to close today with the story of someone else who believed deeply in the goodness of God, someone we may not know at all.
Julian of Norwich was born in England in 1342 and died sometime in the early 1400s—we don’t know the exact date of her death. For that matter, we don’t even know her given name. Julian is so named because for most of her life she lived in a small room attached to St. Julian’s Church in Norwich, England.
In all honesty, our trials and tribulations today pale in comparison to what surrounded Lady Julian. When she was born the “Hundred Years War” war was already raging in England, resulting in thousands of deaths over several generations. To add insult to injury, the plague known as “Black Death” was spreading like wildfire, and before it was done it would kill one-third of the people of Europe. While we don’t know for sure, some historians believe Julian may have been married as a young woman, and likely lost her husband and children to the plague.
Living conditions for the poor were horrendous. England suffered simultaneously from a shortage of labor, high taxes, high prices, and bad harvests. The bad harvests led to still another bloody conflict between the working class and land-owners called the Peasants Revolt. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church was of little help because it was divided between two rivals who were both claiming to be Pope, and had decided to settle their claims by fighting it out on the battlefield.
The 14th century was a dark time to be alive. And if you were paying attention, no one could blame you for falling apart at the seams.
For Julian, it got even darker at age 30 when she fell deathly ill. For seven days she hovered near death. And then, on the seventh day, she miraculously recovered. Like Joseph before her Julian immediately began to have dreams and visions especially of the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross. When the dreams ended, Julian made notes in a journal, but said nothing about them publicly for the next 20 years.
For 20 years, Julian of Norwich pondered and prayed over what she had seen and heard in her visions of Christ. She meditated upon scripture, and used daily periods of solitude and silence to wait patiently for God to give her greater clarity about what the visions meant. Finally, she wrote a book, the first book written by a woman in the English language. The title of the book, now considered a classic, is Revelations of Divine Love. For 600 years we heard little or nothing about Julian of Norwich. But in the last few years, even Protestants have begun to rediscover this woman who so fervently believed in the goodness of God, like Joseph before her.
Listen to what Julian says about God’s goodness in Revelations of Divine Love: “Just as our flesh is covered by clothing, and our blood is covered by flesh, so are we, soul and body, covered and enclosed by the goodness of God. Yet, the clothing and flesh will pass away, but the goodness of God will always remain and will remain closer to us than our own flesh.”
Julian of Norwich was not oblivious to pain and suffering. Far from it—she endured incredible suffering herself, and watched others do the same. But she was so captivated by the love and goodness of God that even her suffering brought her joy because it drew her closer to Jesus Christ.
It was this bedrock belief in God’s goodness, come what may, that inspired Julian of Norwich to utter words that have become famous, words that could have from the mouth of Joseph, or for that matter, Jesus—“All shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
Thanks be to God that when all is said and done, all shall be well!