The end of the book of Genesis contains what has been called the Joseph Narratives. These scenes move the promises and the people of God from the land of Canaan to Egypt. It is a story full of twists and turns, devious lies and shocking revelations. Joseph’s brothers had stripped him of his many-colored coat and sold him into slavery for 20 shekels of silver. They took the robe and dipped it in the blood of a goat and tricked their father into thinking his son had been devoured by a wild animal. Meanwhile, Joseph finds himself in an Egyptian prison and makes a name for himself interpreting dreams. His notoriety rises and he is elevated to the point that he ends up interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh himself. In fact, not only does he interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, but he helps prepare the land to withstand a great famine that was coming. Now, his brothers, who no doubt long though Joseph was dead, are sent by their father to Egypt buy some grain. Little did they know they would find their brother sitting in the seat of authority. They thought he would kill them, that he would exact revenge, but he did not. He provides for them. In fact, he brings the whole family to Egypt, to share in the blessings of the land.
But then, at the very end of the book in chapter 50, their father dies. Once again, Joseph’s brothers are afraid. They fear that perhaps he was only being kind to them for the sake of their father Jacob. But now that he is dead, they are done for. They say, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.” So, they come up with one final scheme, one way to control the outcome of their fate. They send Joseph a message saying, “Your father gave this command before he died, please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you” (Genesis 50:17). They make up a last will and testament to be sure Joseph will not exact his revenge. In response, through tear stained eyes, Joseph makes a profound theological statement. He says, “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” (Genesis 50:19-20).
What they meant for evil, God meant for good. Their plans, their schemes, their wicked acts could not overcome the good God had intended. It was all leading to this place, ultimately. It was leading to the moment when Joseph would save his family, where life and hope would spring forth in great abundance. It tuns out God is in control and He has always been in control. Now to be sure, it is much easier to say you believe than to live in such a way that you trust God in all things. We all have moments in our lives where we are not sure if God is really in control. Or for that matter if He even cares about what is happening in our lives. In times like that we tend to go in search of the silver lining. In what ways can our suffering be for our good? How can our trials and struggles be a blessing? For if we only saw the silver lining then it would be easier to endure.
Our current struggles in the Church are a perfect example of this desire to find the blessings in the face of trials. As churches across the country have been through various phases of being closed down and limited in some capacity, as they were instantly regarded as nonessential and pushed onto the online venues that grip the modern world where they would now compete to have a voice in a realm that they were unprepared to engage, many of the faithful began to tune out, to shift focus. The zeal for the house of the Lord waned as complacency took over. In a pandemic that attacks the fellowship itself, the handing over of the gifts and the embrace of your brothers and sisters in Christ all come under the scrutiny of fear. We are left wondering just how this might be for our good.
Early on, the message I heard from many was this would help us to not take something like going to church for granted. After months of being denied the Lord’s Supper and the singing of the faithful, the gathering will be all that more powerful, the hymns sung with more veracity. Others have said this will lead to a great awakening. You take a pandemic and mix in racial tensions and a potent political campaign for the presidency and you are ready for people to throw up their hands in despair of human victory and come in search of something higher, something more powerful than the wisdom of man. Others, including myself, have wondered if perhaps this might shake loose the binding of American values and Christian identity that are often confused in this country. Perhaps this is the moment when we realize the Church is categorically different form the state. That could be a good thing for us going forward, to not see ourselves as a privileged majority in this country but find ourselves behaving more like a creative minority.
But in all our searching for the silver lining we find ourselves attempting to do the impossible. Not that we should not look for the good amid the bad or find the bright side of a terrible situation, that is actually a pretty good way to conduct ourselves. But if we think we can discern the will of God or know for certain what good He has intended for us, why then, we will become fools. Seeing the good is usually a product of hindsight, where we can look back and see what God worked out, but in the midst of it all, in the struggle and pain of the moment, how can we ever be sure? It is like peeking behind the curtain and discerning the secret things of God. This is not something we are given to know. Joseph could see God had used even the evil desires of his brothers to work toward their own salvation. But he did not know it at the time; when he was wallowing in the bottom of a pit or being carried off into slavery in a foreign land.
This text is not trying to get us to see the good in everything and it is not about finding the silver lining to every storm cloud. Rather, this text is about trusting God is in control. God can and will use whatever means He desires to bring about His work of salvation. He will use the good work of faithful men and women. He will use the great events of our lives. He will even use the evil desires of men’s hearts and work it toward His goals. Which means the timeline of history is in His hands. Pandemics, government overreach, riots, Democrats and Republicans, depression and anxiety, fear and loneliness these are not outside of the work of God.
Now you may wonder why any of this is good news. If you cannot peak behind the curtain, if you cannot know for sure how this suffering is for your good, what is the point? How is this helping at all? If your pain and suffering is in the hands of God yet He sees fit to allow you to struggle beneath it, how is that a comfort to you? We may want to find the silver lining but if it remains uncertain is it any good?
I think it is. I think hearing the confession of Joseph, that God was at work despite the evil, despite the betrayal and the lies and the attempted murder, God was at work to bring about good is insanely comforting. It is a meeting of the divine will of God in the gritty reality of our lives. God was at work the whole time. God brought them to Egypt. God saved them and fed them and cared for them through shocking means. Which means I can say without a doubt to you today that whatever has happened in your life, whatever wayward path you have taken to this moment, whatever ups and downs, trials and victories you have endured, it has brought you right here, right now. Through your sin and your shame, your doubts and your second guesses, here you are. God has done this, so that you might know you are loved. You are welcome, for you are forgiven all your sins.