Although I am not a theologian or pastor, I like to offer an annual Christmas reflection. This year, I want to weave together two biblical stories that touch on travel but also on one of our deepest human needs, that of our purpose here…and our control over it.
2022 Christmas Reflection
You may have heard this half-truth from popular preachers: God wants you to live your best life now. In reality, there is a degree of truth in that when we live in communion with God, we do live our best life. But the idea that God wants to bless you materially if you will only trust in Him (and support the pastor…) is heresy. I’ve seen the fruit of that heresy recently in Kenya and South Africa and we see it in the West as well. Such apostasy represents a grave threat to mankind. Part of that heresy is the idea that it is up to us to shape our destiny; that God wants to bless us, but we have to earn it through hard work or even faith.
“I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” -William Ernest Henley
Not really. Not at all, actually, in the broad scheme of life.
It is important to exercise discernment in the information we consume. Sometimes travel bloggers sound like crooked ministers. There’s a certain danger among influencers who peddle the lie that travel is free or far more perniciously, sell you on a lifestyle that is actually not real. My wife and I recently watched an HBO documentary entitled Fake Famous. It does an excellent job of showcasing the deception of influencers and making clear that so much of what happens in life is not due to hard work or good looks or shrewdness, but because of algorithms, fate, or perhaps divine providence beyond our control.
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Today, let’s think back to Joseph. Not Joseph the husband of Mary in the Christmas story, but Joseph the dreamer as chronicled in the book of Genesis of the Hebrew Bible.
When you think about living your best life now, Joe was living it. He was the favored child, even given a coat signifying authority (at Sunday school we were taught that he had a coat of many colors, which makes me picture a pride flag draped around his neck, but that is debated…what we do know is that the coat was likely ornamental in nature and a sign of a ruler). His father Jacob sent him to spy on his older brothers and bring back reports on what they were doing wrong. While he enjoyed life in the house and the favor of his father, his brothers labored in the fields and grew to despise him.
Filled with envy, his brothers hatched a plan to kill him, throwing him into a pit while they decided how best to do it. A caravan heading to Egypt rolled by and Joseph was sold instead; an act of mercy to be sold into slavery. Joseph landed in the house of Potiphar, a high-ranking official in Pharaoh’s court, and was soon put to work overseeing his house.
But Joseph, a strapping young man described as “handsome in form and appearance,” caught the eye of Potiphar’s wife. She tried to seduce him several times. He resisted. Finally, she lied, claiming he tried to rape her. Now Potiphar could have killed him under Egyptian law for this offense but jailed him instead (suggesting he did not quite believe his wife…).
In jail, Joseph met two men who worked for Pharaoh. They both had dreams, which Joseph was able to interpret. In short, the cupbearer would live and the baker would die. Joseph told the cupbearer to remember him before Pharaoh, insisting he did no wrong.
Like a good friend, the cupbearer totally forgot about Joe and two years went by. Then one night Pharaoh had a dream that he could not decipher. The cupbearer remembered Joseph, he was brought to Pharaoh, and interpreted the dream: seven years of bounty were coming, followed by seven years of famine.
Recognizing his business acumen, Pharaoh put Joseph in charge. Over the next seven years, Egypt aggressively built up a stockpile of grain in preparation for the famine. When the famine did come, Egypt was well-prepared to insulate itself and sell food to neighboring peoples, increasing its wealth and stature.
During the famine, Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt to buy food. They came before him, bowed down to him, and did not even recognize him. But Joseph recognized them. And instead of exacting revenge, he wept…and forgave them.
Hard to say Joe was living his best life now, right? Despised by his brothers, he was stripped and sold into slavery. In Egypt, he was falsely accused of a crime he did not commit and thrown in jail. There, he languished for years. Through it all, he must have been asking what he did wrong. The answer was he did nothing wrong to deserve the injustices perpetrated against him.
And yet through his unlikely path, we reach my favorite verse in the entire Bible, a statement from Joseph to his brothers:
“You intended it for evil, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” – Genesis 50:20
Through Joseph, the world was saved. And by preserving his brothers, Judah in particular, Joseph preserved the bloodline that would eventually lead to Jesus.
Joseph points to Jesus of Nazareth; he points to a greater Christ (anointed one). Joseph was not the only Shepard who was beloved by his father. He was not the only child taken into Egypt or rejected by his brothers. He was not the only one who was tempted but did not fail; who was falsely accused and stood between two others, one who would live and one who would die. Joseph was not the only man of compassion who served those who betrayed him through the washing of feet and breaking of bread. Most importantly, Joseph was not the only one sent so that humanity could be saved. But unlike Joseph who was a mere shadow of Christ, the real Christ came not just to save the world from physical hunger, but to satisfy our greatest hunger of all: our purpose and meaning and hope in life that we cannot find in ourselves or our endeavors. Put another way, Jesus came to save us from our sins and make us realize that we are unworthy but God is worthy.
I do believe in a sovereign God who is working out all things according to His plan. It often does not make sense (indeed, it often makes God appear distant or disinterested) and it is often frustrating. But over time we see that God works things together for good for those and through those who love Him. Joseph was a tool in the hands of God. Great things were accomplished through him and yet nothing went according to his plans for life.
This Christmas, realize that the point is not about realizing our dreams or working hard so that we can rack up the treasures we think will satisfy us. Work does not set us free…but God does through Christ. Jesus said that His yoke is easy and His burden light. While God’s sovereignty does not release us from our great responsibility to love God and love our neighbor, we need not flatter ourselves that our life is sovereignly under our control and ours to win or lose. An honest introspection should reveal that life is indeed more than a byproduct of our sweat and tears or our hopes and dreams. Like Joseph, our ultimate story is really not about us. It’s God’s story. That’s actually quite a relief.
From my family to yours, I wish you a very happy Christmas and look forward to returning to our regularly scheduled programming on Monday.
image: Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife by Francesco Trevisani (1710)