Choice, Chance, or the Hand of God?
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Choice, Chance, or the Hand of God?
Pastor Vince Gerhardy
Life is a matter of choices. Life is like going to the supermarket. We want breakfast cereal. We look along the shelves packed with all kinds of breakfast foods. There are so many brands and types of cereal. You can choose whatever you like. And what you choose is what you will eat that week for breakfast. If it turns out that you don’t like what you have chosen, there is no one else to blame except yourself. Life is like that. What you choose is what you get.
A young person gets involved in drugs and crime to support his habit. He is caught and jailed. He is now suffering the consequences of some very bad choices.
Another way to look at life is that it is a matter of chance. Life is like a roulette wheel. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you are when your number comes around, that’s it. You don’t get any choice in the matter. You can be either lucky or unlucky.
If you get cancer or are run over crossing the street that’s just bad luck. Many people speak of death, particularly an unexpected and untimely death saying, “When you number comes up, that’s it.” There is no explanation for it except that a person was unlucky.
Years ago a young man in one of my congregations went out on his trail bike to round up the dairy cows for milking. He didn’t come home. He was struck by lightning and killed instantly. Some said he was unlucky. He was at the wrong place at the wrong time. A few seconds earlier or later would have made all the difference.
You might say this about the story of Joseph in the Old Testament is a story about choices and chance. Today’s reading brings us to the last act of this lengthy story.
Joseph was the youngest and old Jacob didn’t hide the fact that out of all his sons Joseph was his favourite. That’s a recipe for trouble in a family. And adding fuel to the resentment the brothers were feeling toward Joseph, Jacob gives him a magnificent coat. And then to make things worse, Joseph tells his brothers that he had dreamt about his brothers – they were bowing down to him as if he was someone real important. No doubt, the brothers saw Joseph as a real pain in the neck. To make things worse, his father even sent Joseph to check up on his older brothers.
You can see chance and choice at work here as this story unfolds. By chance Joseph happened to turn up when his brothers had about had enough of their little brother. By chance the Ishmaelite traders just happened to pass by at the right time and saved the life of the bratty, spoiled, big mouthed, dreamer.
And Joseph made a bad choice when he wore that dazzling new coat his father gave him on that day and made real bad decision to tell his brothers that one day they would be bowing down before him.
And as luck (or chance) would have it, he ended up in the home of a rich Egyptian officer named Potiphar. He did very well, that is, until Mrs Potiphar was looking for a bit of steamy romance and Joseph’s choice to not get involved landed him in jail. By chance he got out of jail just in time to help the king interpret a dream that had been bothering him. And Joseph has a quick rise in fame and is placed in charge of the entire Egyptian welfare program during the famine he had predicted.
And who should show up in Egypt looking for food? Joseph’s brothers. You can imagine how shocked they were when the Egyptian ruler says, “I am Joseph, your brother” (45:4). Not only were they shocked but terrified. That was the worst news they could ever have hoped to hear. It was bad enough to stand before a powerful Egyptian governor who was angry because of a theft on a previous visit, but to find out that he was their brother whom they had treated so badly — that was too much! What rotten luck. They had no chance now.
What the Egyptian ruler said then just blew them away, “I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt.
Now don’t be grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (45:4-5). Their attempt to put this dreamer to death had been used by God to keep Jacob’s family alive. They were prepared to commit the ultimate crime – the murder of their own brother, but God had used their wickedness for good.
A SUBSCRIBER SAYS: “THE LAST FEW WEEKS YOU’VE BEEN A LIFESAVER, as I’ve had several funerals as Easter was coming on. Ugh… it comes with our calling, but the timing was rotten!”
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Some of you might remember those TV families like the “Brady Bunch”, “Leave it to Beaver” and “Different Strokes” where everyone is so loving, understanding, so happy, so unreal, where the parents are always so wise, and brothers and sisters so loving and considerate. If we are honest these kinds of families only exist on TV, not out in the real world. In the real world even the best families have setbacks, misunderstandings, and hurt feelings.
Jacob’s family is a typical family, as modern and up to date as you can get. We may not go so far as to plot to kill another family member (though there are plenty of examples when this does happen), but the same feelings of hurt and betrayal are there. Joseph had every right to be angry with his brothers and resentful of how their actions had deprived him of his father’s love. He had the power to strike back with a vengeance and put them through the same fear that he experienced when they grabbed him, threatened to kill him and threw him in a dry well. He could have sentenced them to slavery, or if he was in a particularly bad mood, have them executed.
But this story that started out to be one of resentment, betrayal and unforgiveness turns to be a story of God’s divine intervention. Joseph didn’t see these events as bad choices by the brothers or chance that he should be there in Egypt just when his family needed help. There is something far greater behind all of this than chance or choice or the resentment of his brothers.
God had used that bratty teenager and his bragging about his dreams.
God had used the anger and murderous feelings of the brothers to carry out a plan that meant the saving of his father Jacob, and all his brothers and their families. Joseph summed it up like this, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (50:20). As far as Joseph was concerned chance or good luck had nothing to do it. This was all part of God’s plan to save the nation of Israel, the nation from which the Messiah would come.
We are so used to thinking of life as a matter of choice and chance. If it’s a matter of choice then everything rests on the decisions we make. That can be a terrifying thought – our future and the future of our family or even the world rests solely on human choices. If we rely on choices or the roulette wheel of luck (chance) it’s no wonder that we suffer a paralysis of confusion and hopelessness that comes from thinking that it’s all up to us.
It’s even scarier to think that everything is a matter of chance, or ‘fate’ as some people say. If it’s a matter of chance then it doesn’t matter what decisions we make it’s a matter of good luck or bad luck. We just have to take what comes. We are powerless to anything about it.
Joseph in the end was able to look back on the twists and turns of his life and proclaim, “God sent me ahead of you to rescue you in this amazing way …It was not really you who sent me here, but God.” It was clear to him that even though choice and chance seemed to control his life when he was in the thick of a bad turn of events, he was wrong. It was God who was behind it all. He didn’t cause the brother to be so resentful and angry but he used their evil to carry out his plan of rescue and make sure that Jacob’s family was safe.
Likewise when we look back over our lives we too can see that there has been a hand that has guided us along the way. At the time it didn’t seem to make any sense but as we look back at the twists and turns of our lives, it’s amazing to see how it has all fitted together, as if there were a hand directing those events.
We may have doubted God’s love and concern for us,
we may have abandoned him for a while,
we may have cried out to God in pain and grief,
but as we look back now we can see, as Joseph did, that God has been there all the time bringing about his plan for us. Life isn’t one damning thing after another. God graciously intrudes and we are amazed at how everything has worked out.
Even though we don’t know where the events of our life are heading (and maybe just as well), we know that behind it all we have a loving heavenly Father and Saviour. God promised at our baptism to always be there for us and he is. And one day we may be able to look back on everything that has happened and see the gracious hand of God at work in the twists and turns of our life.
The good news is this. Even though we may be going through dark days in our lives at the moment and we are wondering what will happen in the future, rest assured that behind all of this there is a hand that will guide us through this and use what is happening to bring blessing to us, our family or even people we don’t know. Even Jesus wasn’t spared this kind of thing. We can see how evil people plotted against him, even his own disciples deserted him, he suffered and died in a most horrible way, and yet look how God used all that to bring blessing to us all.
Let me finish with a word from St Augustine. He said that our lives are like a chicken yard full of random tracks crisscrossing this way and that in total confusion. Seen through the eyes of faith, straining to see the purposes of God, our lives take on a pattern, and we discover a certain design, a direction as if led by a loving hand – the unseen hand of God. Then we know with Paul that”all things work together for good for those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2005, Vince Gerhardy. Used by permission.