Pastor Craig Carter
I remember right after Hurricane Michael, folks would use the phrase, “Welcome to the new normal.” In my mind, nothing has been remotely normal since October 10th, 2018.
So I’m not surprised that, just as we were about to restore some normalcy to our church’s life and move into our renovated facility this weekend, the Coronavirus pandemic upended our plans.
Maybe God is trying to tell us something – there is no new normal for the Lynn Haven United Methodist Church.
And that’s okay because I’m not sure God really wants His people to settle into a regular routine or mundane existence. Instead, we’re to see ourselves as on a journey (sometimes described as a pilgrimage).
Sometimes it’s smooth sailing, while at other times, the road can become a bit bumpy or we may even hit some road blocks.
Since we experience both ups and downs, highs and lows, “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” we can rightfully say that “life is like a roller coaster ride.” I’ve used the expression frequently over the past 18 months and even more often the past week or two. Can any of you identify with that feeling?
If so, we’re in good company because the final person we encounter in our study of the Book of Genesis lived a roller coaster existence.
Terry introduced us to Joseph in a sermon on forgiveness two weeks ago. I’d like us to conclude this series by seeing what else we can learn from him.
Joseph is introduced in Genesis chapter 37 as the eleventh of Jacob’s twelve sons. He was his father’s favorite and had a “coat of many colors” to prove it. But his brothers were not impressed with the preferential treatment he enjoyed nor were they fond of his arrogance, so they plotted his demise. They considered leaving him in a pit to die, but instead decided to sell Joseph as a slave to some passing merchants.
The roller coaster ride was just beginning for Joseph.
After the low point of being sold by his own flesh and blood, his life took a turn upward when Joseph was purchased by a high official in Pharaoh’s government in Egypt.
If you’re going to be a slave, this was the place to be.
His owner soon discovered that “the Lord was with him” so he put Joseph in charge of his entire household and made him an overseer of the other slaves. With things looking up, they quickly spiraled downward and out of control when Joseph was falsely accused of trying to sexually assault his master’s wife. As a result, he was thrown into prison and the roller coaster ride continued.
In prison, the favor of the Lord upon Joseph’s life was again readily apparent. The warden promoted him and put him in charge of his fellow prisoners. Once again, it was the best possible situation.
Two of the inmates under his care happened to be the king’s servants. Joseph correctly interpreted their troubling dreams and one of them promised to remember Joseph when he was released from prison. Unfortunately for Joseph, the man forgot about him and he was left in prison for two long years. The ebb and flow quality of his life continued.
Finally, Joseph got the break he needed when the Pharaoh had a dream that stumped the wisest men in Egypt. One of the men who had been with Joseph in prison remembered Joseph’s talent for interpreting dreams and told the king about it.
Brought before Pharaoh, Joseph, with God’s help, revealed the meaning of the dream – seven years of abundance would be followed by seven years of famine.
As a reward for his efforts, the Pharaoh made Joseph the governor of Egypt, putting him in charge of all day-to-day operations. Quite a roller coaster ride, huh?
During his tenure, his predictions came true and because of his able leadership, his new homeland was well-prepared to weather the coming famine.
Back in his former country, the harsh reality of the famine was being felt. Hungry and without food, Jacob sent his sons to buy grain in Egypt.
As “luck” would have it, they obtained a personal audience with the governor – their long lost brother. Joseph constructed an elaborate plot to reveal his identity to his father and family members, which was a roller coaster ride in and of itself. As a result, “Israel” moved to Egypt and enjoyed the fruit of Joseph’s labors.
But even then, trials and tribulations seemed to follow Joseph. When their father died, Joseph’s brothers feared retribution by their now powerful brother. It was then that Joseph uttered the sentence that summarizes his entire life: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20 NIV)
Can we agree that Joseph’s life was a “roller coaster ride” filled with exhilarating twists and agonizing turns, incredible highs and terrible lows? And, through it all, one thing remained steady – God’s protection and care.
Several weeks ago, when exploring the life of Joseph’s father, Jacob, we observed that there was something he couldn’t live without – God’s blessing. Amid very difficult circumstances, Joseph learned that he could live without many things – family, power, prestige, friends, comforts of home, to name a few. But there was one thing he couldn’t live without – God’s providence.
And the truth of the matter is: you and I can’t live without it either.
What exactly is God’s providence? “Divine care and guidance over the entire universe, and especially human existence, in both ordinary and extraordinary ways.”
Let me put it in much simpler terms: it is an awareness that God is always at work in and around us.
Providence describes a God that is constantly involved in the affairs of the world. God didn’t just create this planet, put it into motion, and then sit back to see how things would turn out.
The Lord is at work in us and around us – protecting us from harm, providing for our every need, and guiding things according to His divine will. So you and I aren’t all alone nor do we have to fend for ourselves.
This belief goes against a fatalistic approach to life that resigns us to accept whatever the world throws our way and makes us subject to others’ whims and wishes. It also refutes the notions that coincidence rules and accidents happen. Instead, God rules and “providence happens.”
Friends, the Lynn Haven United Methodist Church has been on a roller coaster ride for the past year and a half. Just about the time we thought it was ending and we’d get in our renovated building, life has thrown another sucker punch. But I am as convinced as convinced can be that it’s all part of God’s providence.
The Lord may not have caused it all to happen, but He’s been at work in and through it all (and He is now and will continue to be at work in us, among us, through us). Just as He did in Joseph’s life, He intends it all for good.
Let me share some areas in which God’s providence is evident. They are found in Joseph’s story and confirmed by our own experience.
Evidence of God’s Providence in the Natural World
Through the dreams that Pharaoh dreamed, it is clear God is fully aware of what is going on in the natural world. The Lord foresaw that seven years of plenty would be followed by seven years of want. By revealing this information to Joseph, many human lives were preserved. In such a way, God demonstrates His sovereignty over the forces of nature.
Listen to what the psalmist says on this subject: [God] covers the sky with clouds; he supplies the earth with rain and makes grass grow on the hills. He provides food for the cattle and for the young ravens when they call…[Yet] the Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love. (Psalm 147:8-9, 11 NIV)
Scripture makes it clear that God is the One and only one who is in control of the world in which in live (not acts of nature, climate change, or the Force/Dark Side).
While we may not necessarily know how and why everything happens as it does, we can be confident that God is in control. Those of us who faced a Category 5 hurricane and lived to tell about it understand this important truth, don’t we? 150+ mph winds make you feel helpless and vulnerable, but God protected…lives if not property.
But beyond that, the Lord used Hurricane Michael to move this congregation. Not just to a new location at 3203 Minnesota Avenue, but to where He wants us to be as the Body of Christ in Lynn Haven. I am convinced we are more equipped and better prepared to serve His purposes than we were on October 9th, 2018.
God’s providence is seen in his gracious provision for His creation. But it is especially evident to those “who fear him, and put their hope…” Lynn Haven UMC has demonstrated those characteristics post-storm. And, as a result, “the Lord delights in [us].”
Look around: everything you see, everything that nourishes you, everything that sustains life, it’s all an act of God’s providence and shows how much He cares for you and me.
Evidence of God’s Providence in Human History
In the Egyptian mindset, who or what was considered in control of human destiny? It was a pantheon of gods, with Pharaoh himself being the chief one.
But was Pharaoh in control of the course of human events? Not at all. Instead, it was the God of Joseph, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham.
The Lord had made some promises to Joseph’s forefathers and nothing or no one was going to thwart His purposes – not jealous brothers, not a scorned woman, not a forgetful cupbearer, not even the most powerful man in the known world.
Again, the psalmist confirms this important truth about God’s providential care over the course of human history: Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and rulers band together against the Lord and his anointed…The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. (Psalm 2:1-2, 4 NIV)
Absolutely nothing can keep the Lord from accomplishing His purposes on earth. Sure, He allows human beings the freedom to act in opposition to His will, but even when they do, he foresees it and acts accordingly.
The classic example is the cornerstone of our Christian faith: The death of Jesus at the hands of evil religious and government rulers didn’t stop God’s plan; instead it was used to bring salvation to all the world.
There have been theories about the origin of the COVID-19 Coronavirus, (e.g. Chinese government, U.S. military, laboratory test gone awry, “wet” market). I don’t know the source (although I think it’s just a sickness caused by living a fallen world), but regardless, it didn’t surprise God when it developed. He’s not in heaven, wringing His hands, wondering what to do.
“The One enthroned in heaven laughs…” – not at the effect of the virus and the suffering it is causing, but He does scoff at it as a viable threat.
The Lord didn’t cause the virus but, because I believe in God’s providence, I am convinced He wants to use this crisis as a way to advance His Kingdom. Will we join Him in what He wants to do by ministering to the hurting and giving hope to those who feel nothing but doom and gloom?
God’s plans and purposes will be carried out because He is Lord over human history. The only question is: Will we help shape human history by being fellow workers with Christ?
Evidence of God’s Providence in Life’s Circumstances
No matter where Joseph found himself, he encountered God at work on his behalf. In a desert cistern when he was sold instead of abandoned, in Potiphar’s household, in prison, in his work as governor, in effecting reconciliation with his brothers.
Also, notice that he recognized God’s providential care in both good times and in bad. Scripture, from beginning to end, confirms the truth that Joseph asserts to his brothers: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good…” (Genesis 50:20a NIV)
As the Apostle Paul said: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28 NIV)
Make no mistake about it, God is constantly at work in our lives trying to bring about the highest good, and he uses any and every means to do so.
Life is viewed much differently when we begin to see anything and everything as providential acts of God – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Let me be crystal clear, God doesn’t cause it all, but He’s at work in it all.
J.D. Walt, author of Seedbed’s Daily Text, puts it this way: “What God allows, He redeems.” In all things the Lord works to bring about good and godly results.
So even when others try to harm us, even when we are innocent bystanders, even when we suffer the consequences of other people’s actions. God is at work seeking to bring about His good will. It is sometimes hard to see and even harder to feel, but God’s providence is always there. The key is recognizing it and then acting upon it.
God does not normally force His way into our lives so we have to decide whether or not to trust God to do His providential work. When we give Him all of life’s circumstances, we’ll see Him at work through events and people in some absolutely mind-boggling ways.
Who could ever have believed God could turn a traitorous act by some brothers into something good? Or a false accusation into a promotion? Or an interpreted dream into salvation for the known world?
If God’s providence could do that through one solitary man’s life, imagine what He could do through all of our lives collectively?
Let’s consider that possibility for a moment. As previously stated, we have been on a “roller coaster ride” for the past 18 months. But what if everything that happened and everyone that has been involved is a part of God’s providence?
We lost two church facilities but never missed worshiping for a single Sunday. Along the way, we learned that the church is more than a building.
Remember all the help that came our way in the days that followed? There was a couple who drove from South Alabama to set up chairs in the parking lot, folks who showed up to cook meals, and generous donations from individuals and churches.
After seven weeks of perfect weather in the parking lot, we moved inside and it rained.
A member of our church just happened to be CEO of Bay Haven Charter Academy, where we worshiped for 16 months.
We began repairs on Fusion and realized it wasn’t going to work, so we made contact with an architect from Utah that one of our pastors met years earlier in Orlando.
About the time we were going to move in, the Coronavirus shut us down. This bought some time for contractors to finish up and forced staff to work from home, which they’d already been doing for months.
I don’t believe there is better prepared or more resilient staff and congregation than ours. Amid financial uncertainty, our congregation has accumulated a “nest egg.” Dave Ramsey would be proud that we have an adequate emergency fund.
While others churches wonder if folks will come back after not meeting in-person, our concern is greatly lessened by the excitement of opening a new facility.
I think the current crisis is perfectly timed to remind us that God’s got this and God’s got us.
To paraphrase Joseph, “[Hurricane Michael and COVID-19] tried to harm [us], but God made it turn out for the best, so that he could save all these people, as he is [about to do].” (Gen. 50:20 CEV)
I can’t wait to see how many folks are saved in the days to come! Could it be that our 2020 Vision goals will finally be realized as a result of the impact of a Cat 5 hurricane and worldwide pandemic? That sounds like just something God would do.
Friends, the roller coaster ride may just be starting. Buckle in, hang on, and praise God!