Genesis 41: 29-31, 34-36 (New Living Translation)
“The next seven years will be a period of great prosperity throughout the land of Egypt. But afterward there will be seven years of famine so great that all the prosperity will be forgotten in Egypt. Famine will destroy the land. This famine will be so severe that even the memory of the good years will be erased… Pharaoh should appoint supervisors over the land and let them collect one-fifth of all the crops during the seven good years. Have them gather all the food produced in the good years that are just ahead and bring it to Pharaoh’s storehouses. Store it away, and guard it so there will be food in the cities. That way there will be enough to eat when the seven years of famine come to the land of Egypt. Otherwise this famine will destroy the land.”
In our reading for today, Pharaoh finally received an explanation of his dreams. As promised, Joseph was able to deliver an interpretation that Pharaoh recognized as true. No doubt he would have much preferred to hear that he and his people would always be prosperous and safe, that the future was bright and worry-free. Instead, what he heard from Joseph was the difficult truth: there were difficult times ahead for Egypt, and Pharaoh must prepare. As challenging as that proclamation was, Pharaoh knew exactly how to proceed. Pharaoh’s plea for wisdom and direction had been answered. Joseph’s prayers for freedom and redemption had been answered, as well. He was elevated to the position of vizier, second-in-command for all of Egypt. (Quite the promotion for a recently imprisoned slave!)
When you’re faced with a crisis or an important decision, wouldn’t you just love to have such a clear-as-day sign dropped into your vision? Of course you would! It would be so fabulous to receive a dream that explained in detail what was coming, and to also have someone on hand to provide a definitive interpretation of that dream.
So… why doesn’t that happen? Why do some prayers seem to be answered immediately, and others not at all? Why do some people receive a clear answer to their divine inquiries, while others struggle to discern what to do? I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit since the bombing in Boston last Monday. So many stories are being told about that day. There were people who would usually have been standing close by the bombs, who, for some reason, decided to watch the race from a different location. People who ran faster– or slower– than usual, and so missed being in the danger zone at the time of the explosions. There were people who were spared. But there were also over 180 people who were in the direct path of fire and shrapnel. And there were three people, including an eight-year-old boy, who were killed as they watched the race.
The greatest spiritual crisis of my life so far occurred the summer of 2005. In May, my Grampa Bill died at the age of 87. It was not an unexpected death, as he had Alzheimers, but it was still hard on our family. I adored my grandfather. Then in June our eight-year-old nephew Jesse died in a backyard pool accident. Our hearts broke at the loss of this funny, darling, brilliant little boy. We packed our bags with several months worth of clothes and left Florida to be with our families in New York.
It was later that summer that my spirit broke. About a week after Jesse’s funeral we had been so happily surprised to find out that I was pregnant. In August I put my hands on my belly, which was just beginning to swell, and I prayed. I vowed to God that I would do everything in my power to keep this child safe, that I would do whatever was necessary. A few days later I miscarried. When I woke up in the recovery room of the hospital following surgery, there was a moment when I didn’t remember what had happened. My muscles felt heavy and relaxed from the anesthesia, and there was a warm blanket covering me from toes to chin. Then it hit me. A sweet nurse stood by my bed while I cried. Over the ensuing months, I felt so distant from God. I no longer knew how to speak with God, so I read the Psalms out loud, taking those ancient words of pain and hope as my prayers. And I looked at the ways that God reached out to people throughout the Bible.
Here’s what I learned from the interaction between Pharaoh and Joseph:
(1) We live in a world that is not perfect. I’m sure you’re not shocked by that statement. Pharaoh was faced with a famine that threatened the lives of his people. Today you don’t have to look far to see a myriad of examples for how messed up our world is. Bombings and violence. Cruelty and greed. War and confusion. Hate and disease. Sadness and death.
There are only two places in the Bible where we see creation as God originally intended it to be: Genesis 1 and Revelation 22. In those opening words of scripture, God looked at everything that was created and proclaimed it to be “very good” (1:31). Everything in perfect balance, all needs met, peace and creativity and vocation and relationship. Then, in the final chapter of the Bible, we read “No longer will there be a curse upon anything. For the throne of God and of the Lamb will be there, and his servants will worship him. And they will see his face, and his name will be written on their foreheads. And there will be no night there– no need for lamps or sun– for the Lord God will shine on them. And they will reign forever and ever” (22:3-5). A restored, perfected relationship with the divine. A healed creation with full understanding of God’s presence and love.
Jesus’ life, death and resurrection points to the new age promised in Revelation. Jesus ushered in the Kingdom with his holy presence among us. But the Kingdom is not fully here yet. That, for me, is the most plaintive part of The Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Oh, God, let the peace of your Kingdom be realized in our world. Let the joy and wholeness experienced in heaven be brought to heal your creation. We’re promised that this will happen, that this is the future.
But… not yet. We live in an in-between time. Right now, storms still rage and destroy. People are still deceived and infected by evil. Diseases still attack, terrible choices are still made, accidents still happen. Human mistakes, natural laws, and plain-old evil wreak havoc with our lives.
(2) God knows this reality. God doesn’t always give us the answer we desire, but God will always give us the honest and right answer. Pharaoh wasn’t given good news by Joseph. What he did receive was a way to survive the coming challenges. Likewise, God is fully aware of what is going on around us, and will work within our situation for the best possible outcome. But that doesn’t mean that the path will be easy. It will just be easier than it would have been without God’s love guiding our way.
The most poignant example of this is Jesus’ heart-wrenching prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. Knowing what lay immediately in front of him, he prayed: “My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me.” Then he continued: “Yet I want your will to be done, not mine” (Matthew 26:39). God knew what needed to be done to restore wholeness in this broken world, and Jesus was willing to bear the burden for us. God will never– never!– leave us broken and alone. As a matter of fact, in Jesus, God has given everything so that we we can be made whole.
(3) No matter what is going on around you, God loves you with an undying love. Right before he was arrested, Jesus told his followers: “I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Jesus knew that his friends were going to struggle mightily after he was no longer physically present to them, so he gave them this reminder that they would never be abandoned. These words are also for us!
“Trials and sorrows” in your life do not indicate the absence of God. God seeks to bring us peace in so many ways: through promises in scripture, through a loved one’s touch, through calm felt during prayer, through the kindness of strangers. Just as there is a lot of not-so-good between Genesis 1 and Revelation 22, there is also a whole lot of good. That’s because God is constantly working in us and through us.
I don’t doubt that God grieves now with the families and friends of the four people who died in Boston at the hands of the bombers, and all those who were injured as they ran or watched from the sidelines. I don’t doubt that God’s heart broke when the Tsarnaev boys turned away from God’s love to act in a despicably violent way. I don’t doubt that God’s heart aches when the people God created are hurting.
In this in-between time, I don’t doubt that God knows exactly what your current struggles are, and is seeking to heal your spirit, so that you would know how deeply loved you are. Always and forever.
If someone asked you where God was in an incident like the bombing at the Boston Marathon, how would you respond?