Tag Archives: god

When God leaves you (and what to do about it) – Characters: Samson, Part 4

7 Nov
Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash

How close do you feel to God? Do you know if he is a part of your life? Is it possible that he has left you? Today we read that God leaves Samson. Yes, you read that right. God leaves Samson. Is that wrong of God? Is God allowed to do that, based on the character of God himself? What is going on?

In the previous post, we learned about the devastating blow Samson dealt to the Philistines, the people who had occupied and ruled Israel for 40 years. The conclusion of that part of Samson’s story, as told in Judges 15, was that Samson led Israel for 20 years. In Judges 16, the writer of Judges fast-forwards to the end of those 20 years.

We read that Samson goes to Gaza, which is another Philistine area.  As we have seen in this series of posts on Samson’s story, it seems he loves to spend time around the enemy, doesn’t he? In Gaza he spends the night with a prostitute.  In so doing, Samson again shows no concern for God’s law.  I say, “again,” because he has been playing fast and loose with God’s law numerous times in the account.

The Philistines hear that Samson is in their town.  They surround the house where he is staying, and they wait, planning to kill him when he leaves the next morning. But Samson awakes in the middle of the night and slips away, though not before ripping their town gate from its foundation and carrying it away to the top of a hill.  I guess he just loved to mess with the Philistines. 

Sometime later, the writer of Judges next tells us, Samson falls in love with a woman named Delilah.

The Philistines come to her secretly, hoping to entice her to conspire against Samson.  Five Philistine rulers each offer her a huge amount of money to learn the source of Samson’s strength and tell them. For 20 years they have been not been able to unseat him, and they are at their wits end.  Delilah agrees to the scheme, cluing us in to the kind of woman she was: a massive bribe was enough for her to betray Samson.

She asks Samson for the source of his strength.  He lies to her, and she, believing him, tells her co-conspirators, and ties Samson up one night, thinking she is trapping him in his sleep.  When the Philistines come to grab him, he easily breaks the bindings and is free, and the Philistines scatter.  This goes on multiple times. 

It would be obvious to Samson that Delilah is betraying him. Why does he stay with her? Why did Samson not at least ask Delilah, “Why are you doing this?”  Instead, he just goes along with her schemes, lying to her each time.  Why?  Maybe he just arrogantly thinks he can toy with her and nothing will ever happen to him.  He has been undefeated for two decades.  Perhaps it was like a game for him.

After multiple rounds of this bizarre game, Delilah is frustrated. She has dollar signs in her eyes, and Samson is blocking her ability to collect on the bribe! Finally, though, in verse 15 she plays on his emotions.  She tells him that in a loving relationship, they should be totally open.  A good argument, isn’t it?  On one level, she is right. In a healthy, trusting relationship, there should be no secrets. She nags him day after day, until the writer tells us Samson was tired to death, and he divulges the source of his strength, his hair that had never been cut since birth. (That would be some world record length hair, I would guess, right?)

Think about this with me a minute. What should Samson have done?  Well, he shouldn’t have told her the source of his strength.  But shouldn’t he be honest with her?  Yes, except that the reality is that he shouldn’t have been in with her in the first place.  The text never says they were married, so Samson was in another inappropriate sinful relationship.  Yet we can go back further, he shouldn’t have been in any of those bad relationships, and he shouldn’t have been so arrogant and prideful.  We could go back further, he should have followed the Lord’s way all his life.  He had allowed his life to go so far beyond what God desired.  The reality is that there is something deeply wrong inside Samson.

Finally he gives up the truth to Delilah.  Was he being flippant or arrogant, thinking he had defeated the Philistines for years and so there was no way he would lose?  Was his arrogance deceiving him about his ability to keep winning?  Could be. 

I suspect he was self-deceived by his arrogance.  The source of his strength was not truly his hair, but God.  When he disobeys God, he is showing his disrespect and arrogance, and ultimately his self-deception about the source of strength.

Delilah has a man come shave off the seven braids of Samson’s hair one night while he was asleep, and in verses 19-20 we read that his strength left him, but more importantly God left him, and Samson had no idea, blinded by his arrogance.  From birth God had set Samson up to be a great leader of his people, and now things have degraded to the point where God leaves Samson, and Samson is not aware of it. What a sadness.

The next day, his strength gone, God done with him, the Philistines capture Samson, gouge out his eyes, and imprison him, where the Philistines put him to work turning a stone wheel for grinding grain.

The story concludes at a Philistine banquet to their god Dagon.  It’s packed in the temple, with 3000+ people there.  They bring Samson out to entertain and he performs for them.  But standing by the load-bearing pillars of the temple, he offers a prayer to God, pushes over the pillars and kills all the Philistines in the banquet, and killing himself.

A quick read can leave us mistaken thinking that Samson has finally returned to the Lord and is sacrificing his life on behalf of his people. But look closely at Samson’s prayer. Yes, he is reaching out to God, and that is good. What he says, though, is that he wants revenge on the Philistines for gouging out his eyes. Once again, Samson war is lonely, bitter and vengeful. Never in his entire life do we read that Samson is concerned about following God’s ways, or that Samson wants to lead Israel back to faithfulness to God. Never do we read that his war with the Philistines is anything but one man with a superpower, drenched in anger and revenge, controlled by his passions. In the end, God left Samson.

The story of Samson is serious caution for all of us. Is God with you? Would you know if he left you? What should you do to find out? Examine Samson’s life, first of all: his lust, anger, revenge, deceit, foolhardiness. Does that describe you at all? If you’re like Samson, the problem is that you wouldn’t even know it. He had very little self-awareness. So who in your life can tell you the truth about yourself? Maybe you need to see a professional counselor, asking them to be honest with you.

Second, nurture a warm heart to God through spending time with him. Samson seems not to have done much to build his relationship with God. Learn to pray, listen to God, meditate on his word, fellowship with other Christians in a church family. Serve him.

These are all ways to avoid the self-deception of Samson, and the destruction that can follow in the wake of the self-deceived.

How the godly fall – Characters: Samson, Part 2

5 Nov
Photo by Peter Forster on Unsplash

A fall from grace. Maybe you’ve experienced it. Or maybe another’s fall has affected you. There have been a number of high profile such failures, and countless more lower profile examples that don’t get reported in the news. No matter the situation, they impact people deeply, leaving us wonder, “How did that happen?” Parents split up. A pastor commits an atrocity. A friend betrays you. Sometimes we fail ourselves, when we don’t live up to our own expectations. How does this happen? And where is God in this? As we continue the story of our third character, Samson, in our current series, we find the answers are sometimes far from easy.

In the first post in this series on Samson, everything surrounding his birth and early years is amazing.  God has intervened, even before Samson is born, setting him up to be a powerful, godly leader. Perhaps most significantly, we learned that the Spirit of the Lord came upon Samson, a very rare occurrence for ancient Israelites, and a clear indication that God had high hopes for Samson.

Then we come to Judges 14.  Look at verses 1-2.

Huh?  Samson goes to get a wife from the Philistines? That’s the enemy, remember.  Worse, Samson isn’t just making a bad decision in fraternizing with the enemy, he is breaking God’s law.  Both Exodus 34:16 and Deuteronomy 7:3 forbid the Israelites from marrying outside of their own people.  What is going on here?  Has something happened in Samson’s life between chapters 13 and 14?  After setting us up for Samson to be a godly deliverer, the writer now has us scratching our heads.  Unless, Samson isn’t going to be the hero we thought. 

As we continue reading in chapter 14, Samson’s parents are disappointed, and they push back, trying to get him to obey God’s law. Samson is having nothing of it, basically demanding that they get the Philistine woman for him to marry. 

Then the writer curiously tells us in verse 4 that, “this was from the Lord.”  Again, we readers could really be confused by this.  Is God condoning sin?  Or is there another way to look at this?  At this point in the story, there are no answers to these questions.  As Samson’s story unfolds, however, the writer will lead us to some answers.  For now, suffice it to say that even though Samson is a flawed character, God is still at work. Let’s continue the story, and what we discover is that the Spirit of Lord comes upon him twice in this chapter, showing God’s presence in his life.

The first occurrence is in verse 6, when the Spirit of Lord comes on Samson to protect him, as Samson kills a lion that attacked him.  That alone is astounding.  He kills a lion.  With his bare hands.  It is okay to think, “That’s not normal.”  Lions kill people.  Not the other way around.  Something is going on with Samson.  We know what is going on: the Spirit of the Lord is on him.  Essentially Samson has a superpower. 

Days or weeks later he passes by the dead lion, and he notices that it has honey in its carcass. Samson not only eats it, but he also gives some to his parents to eat.  This might seem like a random detail, but it is important at this stage in the story.  In the first post, we learned that God wanted Samson to have what was called a Nazarite vow for life. There were three main rules a Nazarite would follow, as they were specially dedicated to God: no alcohol, no touching dead things, and no cutting their hair. Also God’s law forbade any Israelite from touching a dead carcass, let alone eating from it.  So Samson not only broke his vow to God, he also brings his parents, though unwittingly on their part, into breaking a law.  What does this tell us?  Just as he was flippant with God’s law by marrying a foreign woman, here again he shows disregard for God.  Take a pause with me and let’s consider what we are learning about Samson thus far. We have a guy with super strength, but he seems to disregard the source of that power, God’s Spirit, as he is repeatedly trampling on God’s law.  This is not a good pattern; it’s called biting that hand that feeds you. 

Then we come to the wedding feast, which was a typical seven-day-long drinking party.  Again we need to remember his Nazarite vow: no alcohol.  The text doesn’t tell us that he drank, but at a seven-day long party that would normally feature alcohol, and knowing Samson’s proclivity for disregarding his vow, it seems highly likely to me that he drank. 

I think this is especially likely when we consider the ridiculous drama he gets into with his new bride and her people.  30 Philistine men were given to Samson as companions, and some scholars speculate that these men were there to protect the proceedings from Samson.  Perhaps they were a kind of security detail, making sure Samson stays in line. 

So Samson proposes a riddle to them.  If they could solve his riddle by the end of the feast, he would give the men 30 sets of clothing and 30 linen garments or capes, but if they can’t figure it out, they would have to give Samson that much clothing.  Here’s the riddle:

Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet.

Judges 14:14

Do you know what Samson is talking about? Samson clearly thought no one would figure it out.  And it seemed for a while like he was right.  Actually, he was right. There was no way anyone was figuring it out, because it was about the honey in lion that he had previously killed.  It’s cool that the translators made his riddle rhyme in English, but is it even a riddle?  It is more like an impossible guess. How could the Philistine men ever know what he is talking about?  They can’t know and they are frustrated about that, so these men start going behind Samson’s back, trying to get his new bride to help them.  She is one of them, a Philistine.  Will she be loyal to them or to her new husband who is an Israelite, enemy of the Philistines? 

His new bride cries the whole seven days of the wedding feast because Samson won’t tell her the answer to a riddle. Finally, after she begs him repeatedly, he divulges the meaning of the riddle. With little time left before the feast is over, she gives the answer to her people.  They in turn tell Samson the answer, and he is angry, because now he owes them 30 sets of clothing. 

At this moment, Samson’s story shifts into darkness.  It is also at this moment we learn of the second time the Spirit of the Lord comes on Samson in this chapter, but this time it is not for protection like it was with the lion.  This time he travels to a Philistine city, Ashkelon, where he kills 30 Philistine men and strips them of their clothes to pay up.

Samson’s war with the Philistines has begun. While it might seem like God has given Samson a victory over Israel’s enemies, we’ve also watched Samson begin a fall from grace. Yes, he struck a blow to the enemy who had been ruling over Israel for 40 years. Yes, God empowered him. But Samson actions were dark, betraying his vow, acting in anger and disregard for God. These are warning signs.

Perhaps you’ve seen that pattern in yourself or in others around you. The slow fade into darkness. The lack of concern for what might seem like small things, little lies, selfish purchases, and the like. These actions often reveal a direction of life, and that a larger fall could be coming.

As God is gracious with Samson, not abandoning him even when he disregard’s God’s law, God is gracious with us. Merciful. Patient. Return to him before the fall. Confess and repent. Will Samson? Will you?

No matter how bad it is, there is hope – Characters: Samson, Part 1

4 Nov
Photo by Benjamin Davies on Unsplash

What gifts has God given you?  Sometimes we call them spiritual gifts.  Or it could be our personal abilities.  Our aptitudes. Things we are good at.  Could be working with our hands.  Thinking.  Art.  Communication.  Leading.  There are many such gifts.   Have you ever wondered if you’re using those gifts the way God wants?

Or maybe you are concerned you’re not using those gifts how God wants.  Maybe you’re wondering if you’ve messed up in life and God has passed you over.  In our quiet moments we can wrestle with those kinds of thoughts, can’t we?  I know I do.  When Michelle and I came home from one year as missionaries in Jamaica, I wondered if we had just ruined something.  I knew intellectually or theologically that God isn’t like that, but the thoughts were there for sure.  The dark thoughts.  The fears that we had squandered something.  Maybe you’ve wrestled with those thoughts too.  In this week’s series of posts, I believe you’ll find some hope.

A few weeks ago we started a series titled Characters. It is about people in ancient Israel that are generally considered to be heroes, but when we read their stories closely we find them to be broken or flawed people who really struggled.  And yet God still uses them.  There is hope for us in that. 

So far we have met Jacob, and his son, Joseph, two of the patriarchs of the nation of Israel.  Their family moved from Canaan (which is modern-day Israel) to Egypt. Eventually tboth died, but their family grew into the nation of Israel, still living within Egypt.

The new King of Egypt, the Pharaoh, feared their growth and enslaved the Israelites, resulting in a slavery that lasted 400+ years.  But God raised up a deliverer, Moses, who led the nation in an exodus from Egypt, headed back to their ancestor’s original home in Canaan, which they called the Promised Land.  When Moses died, Joshua became the leader of the nation.  Under Joshua’s leadership, the nation fought the conquest of Canaan and eventually settled in the Promised Land.  Moses and Joshua were strong leaders who kept the nation faithful to God, but after Joshua passed away, the nation struggled. 

We pick up the story in Judges 2.  In this chapter the writer describes a cycle of sin the nation of Israel went through.  Verses 16-19 give us a summary of the whole book of Judges: sin, punishment, God’s redemption through a leader/judge, and freedom…until the people start sinning again. The cycle would happen all over.  Imagine how God must have felt watching his people turn their backs on him.  Yet he is a faithful God, raising up judges to rescue them. Again, do you see the hope for the flawed?

This week, we’re going to meet one of those judges: Samson.  Turn to Judges chapter 13.  By chapter 13, there have been numerous judges, as Israel has gone through many of these cycles of sin, punishment, judge, and salvation.  We don’t know how many years have gone by since the days of Joshua, but it could be hundreds of years.  What has happened in those years is a gradual spiritual decline in the nation.  A nation that has moved farther and farther from God.  Sound familiar to your nation? 

In chapter 13 we are at the beginning of another cycle of sin.  Verse 1 tells us that the people did evil in the eyes of the Lord, and he delivered them into the hands of the Philistines for forty years!  Who are the Philistines?  They are a pagan people, living mostly along the Mediterranean Sea, and one of the arch-enemies of the nation of Israel. 

Into this national situation, Judges 13 tells the fascinating story of the birth of the next judge, Samson.  The basic details are in verses 1-5.

Already in these opening verses, we see God entering the story to be the faithful, redeeming God that he is.  How do we see this?

First, he is going to give a childless couple a baby.  That happens a lot in the Bible, right?  So often, in fact, that should tell us something about the kind of God he is. He brings hope!

Second, if you read the whole chapter you’ll find that Samson’s parents are decent people.  His dad Manoah seems a bit comical, bumbling.  His mom seems a lot more stable and possibly even more faithful than his dad.  But these aren’t paragons of godliness.  God is gracious.

Third, an angel shows up.  When angels show up, we should take notice.  How many times did angels show up to announce the birth of the previous judges?  I’ll let you research that on your own.

Fourth, there are special vows that God declares must happen in this pregnancy and baby.  Samson’s mom needs to take uncommon measures during her pregnancy: no alcohol, no unclean food.  And what’s more, her son will be a Nazarite for life.   

“Nazarite” is from the Hebrew word that means “separated” or “dedicated,” as the angel indicates about the child in verse 4.  It was a vow that people could choose to take.  But God wanted this child to be born as a Nazarite, and to live that way his whole life. As a result there are some specific rules the child will live by: no alcohol, no touching dead bodies, and his hair is never to be cut. 

Fifth, look at verses 24-25. The chapter concludes with the birth of the child, whom they name Samson, and we learn that the Lord blessed him and the Spirit of the Lord began to stir in him.  That phrase alone is a very rare description for people in the Old Testament.  The Spirit of the Lord only came upon a few people.  Samson was one of them. 

The account of Samson’s birth sets the stage for Samson to grow up to be a mighty man of God.  Think about what we have seen.  His parents were decent people, perhaps especially his mom.  God miraculously gives Samson to them.  Samson is set apart from birth in this special role called a Nazarite.  And the Spirit of God is on him.  Add that all up, and you have all the raw material for Samson to be a dynamic man of God.

In fact, it almost gives us the idea that he could be the one to bring the nation back to the place where Moses and Joshua had taken it.  We even get a hint of that from the angel’s words that Samson would begin to deliver the nation from the hands of the Philistines. 

Everything surrounding Samson’s birth and early years is amazing.  This is a reminder that God is a bringer of hope. If it seems like your life is too far gone, too messed up, know that when it comes to God, there is always hope.

How one family’s drama was healed – Characters: Joseph, Part 5

1 Nov

In this Characters installment, we have been following the family drama in the life of Joseph, one of the patriarchs of ancient Israel. His is a story of extremes. Joseph lost his mother in childhood, but was his father’s favorite. His father loved him, but his brothers hated him. He had dreams from God about how he would rule over his brothers, but they sold him into slavery. Purchased as a slave by an Egyptian official, Potiphar, God was with Joseph, and he rose in favor with Potiphar, but was treated horribly by Potiphar’s wife. So Potiphar has Joseph jailed, but there rises in favor with the warden. When he interprets the king’s dream, through God’s empowerment, the king releases Joseph from prison and makes him second in command of all Egypt. Finally, it seems Joseph’s fortunes are settling into a good extreme. Then his brothers show up in Egypt, but now they don’t know Joseph is the governor. Shocked, emotional, Joseph throws them in prison, but eventually shows them a courageous act of mercy, giving them the grain they had come to purchase because the land was in a severe famine.

What happens next?

We learn in Genesis 43 that back in Canaan, Joseph’s brothers and father and family have eaten all the grain Joseph sent back with them. The famine has not let up, and they need more food. That means another trip to Egypt. But Joseph has thrown his family into turmoil because he said that if they come back to Egypt they must bring their youngest brother who had remained behind on their first trip.  You know who that other brother was?  His full brother Benjamin.  You can imagine that Joseph would really want to see Benjamin, the only brother with whom he shared both mother and father.  Their father, Jacob, however, loves Benjamin deeply, as he was Jacob’s only remaining connection to their mother, his wife Rachel whom he loved more than his other wives.  Jacob, for this reason, had not allowed Benjamin to go on the first trip to Egypt to get food.  Now Joseph has forced his hand, so Jacob concedes and sends Benjamin.  That brings us to Genesis 43:15. 

There we learn that once his brothers arrive in Egypt Joseph now invites them to his house. When Joseph sees his brother Benjamin, once again he is overwhelmed with emotion and has to leave the room.  When he finally composes himself, they have dinner together, but remember that his brothers still have no idea who Joseph is. They think he is just an eccentric governor of Egypt, who also holds their fate in his hands, because he is the one who can approve their purchase of more food.  Still toying with them, as he did on their first trip, Joseph seats them in order of age, which they think is an astounding coincidence.  He also gives Benjamin five times as much food as the others!  I bet Joseph had a hard time keeping from laughing as he watched them talking about this.

Joseph’s trickery continues through all of chapter 44, where he contrives to make it seem like they were trying to steal from him, and they are more distraught than ever.  Some scholars believe that in playing all these games with them, Joseph is shepherding his brothers to repentance.  Maybe.  It’s hard to know.  He plays quite an extensive ruse on them.  The games reach a high point at the end of chapter 44 when Joseph, having set them up as thieves, declares that their punishment is that Benjamin must stay behind, while the rest return to Canaan.  His brother Judah makes an impassioned plea for himself to stay behind in prison rather than Benjamin.  Perhaps that humility and sacrifice in Judah was the turning point for Joseph.

Turn to Genesis 45:1-8, and read Joseph’s amazing response.

Joseph can’t handle the ruse anymore.  He explodes in emotion and reveals himself as Joseph, the brother they sold into slavery 20 years before.  His brothers are terrified and shocked.

But as Joseph keeps talking, he describes the events of the last 20 years in a surprising way. He could be bitter, angry, and vengeful. Instead he says that God sent him into Egypt ahead of them, to save their family.  Joseph looks at all the years of pain and suffering and sees God’s faithfulness. 

Even in deep family drama, there is hope and redemption and forgiveness possible.  Even through the worst circumstances, even through our bad choices, God can and does use us when we make ourselves available to be used, like Joseph, to see our pain through God’s eyes.

Genesis 45 concludes in a beautiful fashion.  Look at verses 12-15.  The brothers are all reconciled, and what’s more, Joseph and the King Pharaoh invite Joseph’s whole extended family to move to Egypt and survive the famine.  And that is what happens.  Their father Jacob, now called Israel, moves his whole family to Egypt. 

Fast forward with me to Genesis 50:15.  The years have gone by and Joseph’s father Jacob has recently passed away. Joseph and his brothers keep Jacob’s wishes that they return his body to Canaan.  After doing so, they return to their homes in Egypt.  With Jacob dead, though, Joseph’s brothers fear that Joseph will now finally take revenge on them for what they had done to him all those years before.  Look at Joseph’s response in verse 20.

Amazing.  He continues to see God at work.  All these years later, the wounds of the past are healed.  Sometimes it takes time, repeated affirmation, especially when the wounds are deep.  Forgiving 70×7 as Jesus taught in Matthew 18 can mean that we have to forgive an offense multiple times because the hurt just keeps coming back.

There were many ups and downs in Joseph’s life.  Trials, temptations, jail-time. But when he was close to God, though the circumstances didn’t necessarily change, he clearly saw God at work. 

God is at work for redemption of what is broken.  Even when we are wounded and feeling lots of deep emotion about pain that people have caused us, we can pursue healing and reconciliation. That’s what God specializes in.  Maybe it seems like God isn’t there.  It can often feel that way.  Keep pursuing him. 

What is broken in your life that you need to take a step toward healing?

When God is nowhere to be found – Characters: Joseph, Part 2

29 Oct
Photo by Brunel Johnson on Unsplash

Have you ever felt utterly alone and abandoned by your family, friends, and even by God? If so, you’re not alone. Maybe people hurt you. Maybe you made a bad choice. Maybe life turned out different from your hopes and dreams. There are many ways we can find ourselves in despair. Keep reading as our character for this week had a very similar situation in his life. There might be something helpful to you as you read his story.

In the previous post, we met 17 year old Joseph, and we learned that his family had a lot of drama, some of which seems to be his own doing. This is a blog series on Characters, people who lived in ancient Israel, people who were flawed and troubled, but people who God still used. At the conclusion of the previous post, Joseph had angered everyone in his family, including his father, who loved Joseph more than any of his other sons. The drama is about to get worse. Way worse.

As we continue the account in Genesis 37, verses 12-36, we read that Jacob sends Joseph to check on his brothers, and the brothers see this as an opportunity to vent their jealousy and hatred of Joseph, as he is far from home, from the watchful care of their father Jacob. They debate what to do, including killing Joseph, believe it or not, but the oldest, Reuben, intercedes, and they agree to kidnap Joseph and sell him into slavery.  In the process they take Joseph’s special coat, put blood from an animal on it, and give it back to their father Jacob, telling him Joseph had died. 

Imagine this experience from Joseph’s perspective.  17 years old.  Kidnapped by your brothers.  Sold into slavery.  That had to be horrible.  This is human trafficking, perpetrated by his own brothers. Imagine the darkness in Joseph’s soul.

How would this crisis have impacted Joseph?   Have you been through a crisis, a life-changing event?  It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as Joseph’s, where he was kidnapped, and sold into slavery, betrayed by his own family.  But perhaps you can think of a difficult situation that happened in your life. 

Crisis can (and should) turn us to God. 

Crisis doesn’t always turn us to God.  Crisis sometimes makes us bitter.  Angry.  Harsh. 

How has crisis affected you?

It seems important at this point to note that something is missing in chapter 37.  Scan through the chapter.  It is a glaring omission.  What, or rather who, is missing?  God.  Not a single mention of God.  Not when Joseph is dreaming.  No mention when he is with his brothers.  And nothing about God when Joseph is sold into slavery.

I find it striking that God is nowhere to be found in this part of the story.

Hold that thought, as we see how crisis affected Joseph.

We’re going to skip over chapter 38, as that is a separate story.  Go to chapter 39 where the story of Joseph picks up.

We learn right away in Chapter 39 that a significant change has occurred in Joseph’s life.  Slave traders take him to Egypt where we meet Potiphar, one of the Egyptian King Pharoah’s officials, and Potiphar buys Joseph.  So a physical change has taken place as Joseph is far from home in a new land.  But there is a spiritual change as well.  Look who is mentioned in verse 2.  God is with Joseph, and Joseph prospered.  The Lord gives Joseph success in all he does. 

Back up with me a moment.  Think about all that Joseph has gone through.  I wish I could know if something changed in Joseph while he was in the hands of the slave traders.  The text doesn’t tell us.  But the presence and blessing of God in chapter 39 is quite striking when you consider the total absence of God in chapter 37.  Could it be that Joseph went through a dark inner struggle while he was betrayed by his brothers and sold into slavery?

Did he wrestle with God like his father Jacob did, as we saw last week?  The text doesn’t tell us, but to me that is a possible explanation for the absence of God in chapter 37 and the presence of God in 39.  Also, God is faithful in our trials.  He is there.  He was always there, even when it didn’t seem like it.  Even when the circumstances don’t change, he is there. 

We don’t know how long Joseph was in the caravan of slave traders.  Weeks probably.  Maybe months.  But imagine being a 17 year old boy in that circumstance. Can you imagine all the emotions he’s got going on!  He was in a home where he knows he is the favorite and he is beloved, but he also knows and feels the hatred of his brothers on a regular basis. Then he is sold into slavery! I suspect he cried his heart out to God.  I suspect a change took place in Joseph’s relationship with God.  And God changed Joseph.  His identity became about who he was to God and not who he was to his father and to his brothers.  When we realize our identity in God, he is sufficient for us, even when the trials of life continue. 

We read that Joseph rises in favor in Potiphar’s estimation, as Joseph was very capable and blessed by God in all he did, so Potiphar puts Joseph in charge of his whole estate.  Because of this, God blessed Potiphar too. 

Then more trouble comes.  It’s like Joseph is a magnet for drama.  We read that Joseph is very handsome.  And Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce him. Joseph’s response is amazing, showing the change that God has worked in him.   Look at Genesis chapter 39, verses 8-12.

Joseph refuses Potiphar’s wife’s advances saying, “How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?”  Here he shows his concern for purity, for following God’s ways.  Especially note verse 12 where he flees temptation.  Joseph is an amazing example for us in this.

But Potiphar’s wife is jilted and angry, and she lies to Potiphar, saying that Joseph initiated the advances on her.  Potiphar, angry, imprisons Joseph.  And yet what do we read in Genesis 39:21?  The Lord was with Joseph!  Basically the same thing happens in the prison as what happened in Potiphar’s house.  Joseph is put in charge, and God is with Joseph and blesses all he does.  But Joseph is still in jail.  So his circumstances are still difficult.  Just because Joseph is close to God and being obedient, he is still in prison.  Righteous living does not always mean that immediate results and rewards will come. When we find our identity in God, though, we find that we have all we need, even if our circumstances don’t change.

Be determined in God’s direction – Characters: Jacob, Part 5

25 Oct
Photo by sporlab on Unsplash

I love the picture above. Having done a good bit of running myself, I am always amazed at people who keep at into their older years. My grandfather participated in the Senior Games into his 90s, winning speed walking events. That is the picture of determination.

In this series of posts we’ve been following the life of Jacob, a life marked by determination. We’re not finished with Jacob’s story just yet.  Next week we’ll see him again, though we’ll be focusing on the life of one of his sons, Joseph.  For now let’s think about some of the themes we saw in Jacob’s life to this point.

First, determination.  Jacob showed his determination for the birthright, and then for the blessing, and then for wives, and for wealth.  But all this was focused on his selfish desires. We saw Jacob’s life take twists and turns, and eventually his determination changed its focus toward God’s blessing.  How did that happen? It was directly resulting from God stepping into his life, over and over.  Therefore we could say that Jacob’s life is a story of God’s determination, God’s unrelenting passion for his promises.  Yes, Jacob’s determination moves from selfishness to selflessness.  Yes, Jacob moves from being a deceiver to a truth teller.  He reconciles humbly with his brother, even at the great cost of herds of animals.  But all of it is rooted in God’s determination for Jacob.  God doesn’t give up on us! 

Second, God uses faulty, broken, sinful people.  We call this redemption.  The genealogy of Jesus is littered with broken, sinful people.  Jacob is one of them.  When we first meet Jacob, he is not a virtuous hero.  He is a sneaky, conniving, liar.  He is an opportunist who is looking out only for himself.  And yet God doesn’t give up on him.  God is faithful to his promises, even when it seems Jacob is totally lost.  In Jacob’s life, we see a specific example of one in whom God’s redemption brings a wonderful change from selfish, deceiving opportunist to a truthful, selfless worshiper of God.  God wants no deception in our lives.  We are to be people of truth, even when the truth will put us at a disadvantage.  Are there ways you are being deceptive?  On social media?  At work?  In school?  Financially? 

Thirdly, another lesson we learn from the story of God’s redemption of Jacob is that we can be so quick to write people off.  Especially those that are not behaving well.  Have you written people off in your life?  Do you think God is done with them? I know it is so hard when they hurt you, and when they don’t change.  It doesn’t mean you need to be best friends with them, even if you are in the same family, but don’t write them off.  They could be so toxic that you need to separate yourself from them.  But at the very least keep praying for them.  They might be a Jacob in his selfish stage. 

Finally, pray that God would bring them to the point where they would wrestle with God and not give up. That can apply to all of us.  Do we wrestle with God?  How does one wrestle with God? Prayer is key.  I think of the parable in Luke 18 where Jesus taught his disciples to pray and not give.  He said that wrestling in prayer is like a lady who goes to a judge to get some justice in a situation in her life, and the judge won’t hear her case.  But the lady keeps coming back.  Every day.  Nonstop.  Until finally the Judge says in frustration, “Lady, you are wearing me out!  I’ll hear your case.”  We need to pray like that.  Pray and don’t give up.  Wrestle with God. Be honest before him. 

For one of my seminary classes this fall, I have to do an assessment on a ministry, so I asked Love INC of Lancaster if I could assess their ministry, and they agreed.  One of their primary ministries is like a Christian Uber that connects church volunteers to people in need, driving them where they need to go, usually medical appointments.  I met with their director Kim Wittel this past week, and she told me the story of one of their clients, a lady who had a very grumpy personality.  This particular lady needed a ride to a medical appointment, so one of their partner churches had a volunteer who drove the lady to an appointment.  The driver began taking this lady to more appointments, even though the client was rather grumpy to the driver.  Little by little the driver learned that this lady had more needs, including food.  So the driver and a friend would bring her food.  The grumpy lady would respond that she didn’t like it and it tasted bad.  But the driver persisted in love.  As time went by the Lord broke through, and the grumpy lady admitted some horrible experiences she had in the past.  Eventually she agreed to talk with the pastor of the church, and the lady gave her life to Christ.  Sadly her medical condition worsened, but on her death bed she was not only baptized, but also volunteered to lead a prayer thanking God for all he had done in her life.  God is persistent like that!

God can still use you after you sin? Characters: Jacob, Part 3

23 Oct
Photo by Jesus Kiteque on Unsplash

Have you ever messed up and thought, I’ve ruined my life? Maybe it was a mistake a work. Maybe it was a terrible relationship choice. You might have been selfish or unkind with what you said to a family member or friend, and now things between you are cold. Are you wondering if there is hope for you?

Perhaps that’s how Jacob felt. We’ve started a series called Characters, looking at people who have messed up and how God interacts with them. The first character we’ve met is a guy named Jacob. In the previous post, we learned that he was a sneaky guy, and he was on the verge of trying to steal the blessing from their father that was supposed to go to his older twin brother, Esau. Let’s jump into the narrative at Genesis, chapter 27, verse 18.

I particularly want to point out how Jacob answers his father’s greeting, when Jacob enters his father’s tent. This is important.  Isaac asks, “Who is it?”  And Jacob lies, claiming that he is Esau, who was out in the countryside hunting for food to bring his father.  Isaac, suffering from poor sight, believes Jacob, and Isaac gives Jacob the blessing that was due Esau.  As we already saw in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, Jacob, the younger twin, has once again “grabbed the heel” of his older brother.  Esau, of course, soon finds out and is furious, threatening to kill Jacob.  So their mother Rebekah warns Jacob to leave immediately and flee to a faraway land where her brother Laban lives, until Esau calms down.

In chapter 28, in verses 10-22, we learn that Jacob has left to travel to Laban, but on the way, one night Jacob has a dream.  In the dream, God affirms that the blessing has been passed on to Jacob.  The younger is receiving the promise that was supposed to go to the older, and in this case, it is the promise that God first gave Jacob’s grandfather Abraham, then passed on to Isaac, that now God reconfirms with Jacob.  God says that just as he is the Lord of Abraham and Isaac, he is Jacob’s Lord, and he will give Jacob land, and will turn his family into a great nation through whom God will bless all people on the earth.  Jacob awakes afraid, in awe of what has just happened, and he vows that Yahweh will be his God.  It is a momentous event in Jacob’s life. 

After some really devious, sinful behavior, it is astounding to think that God, at this moment, still maintains the promise to Jacob. Doesn’t it seem like God should be punishing Jacob?  Doesn’t it seem like God should take the blessing and promise and give it to Esau?  Doesn’t this all seem unfair? 

To those questions, consider God’s ways with me for a minute.  God is a God who uses the flawed, the downright sinful.  How many of you have been redeemed?  By that I mean, how many of you have had sin in your life, harmful and hurtful choices that have damaged others, and yet God has taken a disaster and reconciled, healed, reunited, and rectified, making right what was wrong?  God is surprisingly forgiving and merciful like that. 

Jacob is not at the end of his life.  He is still a young man.  In Genesis 29-31, Jacob does go to and work for his uncle Laban.  During a long period of many years, through which Laban fools Jacob into marrying not one but two of his daughters, Jacob is persistent.

Perhaps in this we see character being formed in Jacob’s life.  No longer the deceiver, Jacob now learns what it is like to be fooled.  It is terrible to be taken, lied to.  Through the process of these years, God is still at work. Jacob gains not only two wives, but marries their two servant girls as well, for a total of four wives.  We don’t have time to discuss polygamy, except to say that in ancient Israel this did happen, not that God was approving of it.  Jacob’s wives bore him 12 sons, who would become the 12 tribes of Israel, including the half tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim who were Jacob’s grandsons, through the line of Jacob’s son Joseph (who did not become a tribe, and who we’ll meet next week).  Considering what has happened in Jacob’s life, can you start to see God fulfilling his promise to make Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’s family into a nation?

Jacob works for his uncle Laban for a total of 20 years and then decides to leave to return to the land of his family, the land of Canaan.  That story of Jacob leaving Laban takes place in most of Genesis chapters 31 and 32, and it is filled with intrigue and drama.  I’ll summarize it by saying that God blesses Jacob greatly through it all.  By the time Jacob leaves Laban with his wives, children and herds of animals, Jacob is a very wealthy man. 

At the beginning of chapter 32 we learn that Jacob’s family’s journey is taking them to the border of the land ruled by his twin brother Esau.  20 years have gone by since they last saw each other.  20 years since Jacob deceived Esau of the birthright and blessing.  20 years since Esau said that he was going to kill Jacob.  20 years since Jacob fled for his life.  Jacob never got the birthright.  He ran away in fear for his life, taking with him literally nothing but the clothes on his back and a staff.  Now 20 years later, he has four wives, 12 children and countless animals.  But things with Esau were never made right.  What would 20 years do?  Would time heal the wounds, or would it only solidify Esau’s anger? In Genesis 32:1-21, Jacob decides to send ahead of him a huge amount of animals as a gift to Esau.  Jacob is trying to smooth things over.  He’s heard that Esau is coming to meet him with a force of 400 men.  Check back tomorrow to see what happens.