Sunday, December 04, 2005

When Confusion Comes

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Church during worship celebrations on both December 3 and 4, 2005.]

Second Peter 3:8-15a [through the word salvation]
Matthew 1:18-25

An economist read our first Bible lesson for today and was struck by the words with which it begins: “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.”

So, the economist asked God, “Lord, is it true that a thousand years for us is like one minute to you?” God said yes. The economist said, “Then a million dollars must be like one penny to You.” God said yes to that, too. The economist then asked, “Will you give me one of those pennies?” And God told him, “All right, I will... Wait here a minute.”

Sometimes life can be confusing. Even God can be confusing. God promises to be with us always and to hear our prayers. Yet there are times and seasons in our lives when we may feel that God is far away from us and terribly slow to respond to our cries for help.

When we find ourselves in such circumstances, we want answers. Instead, an eternal God seems to tell us to be patient. He tells us to live for a while with confusion, loose ends, and unknown destinations. Do you ever wonder why God does that?

If we do wonder, we’re not alone. Our first Bible lesson was addressed to people in precisely that sort of confusion. Most scholars think that the book of Second Peter was written sometime after the year 70 AD. That would have been about forty years after Jesus died and rose. Most of the early Christians were sure that the risen Jesus would return to the earth within their short earthly lifetimes. After all, they reasoned, all the signs that Jesus said pointed to His second coming had already happened: wars, famines, earthquakes, disasters manmade and natural. They looked forward to Jesus coming back, closing the book on this sinful old world, and creating new heavens and a new earth. They looked forward too, to Jesus bringing an end to their being persecuted for their faith, to having their tears dried, and their deepest pain converted into eternal comfort and joy. But Jesus hadn’t come back. And so they were confused.

Our second lesson recounts a similar state of confusion in the life of an obedient follower of God named Joseph. The Gospel of Matthew from which our lesson comes, tells us that Joseph was “righteous,” meaning that here was a man who was right with God. He lived in a relationship of daily repentance and renewal with God. He strove each day to love God and to love his neighbor. Joseph is the kind of person most of us, in our heart of hearts, would like to be. And he’s the sort of guy about whom we might say, “If anyone deserved to have life go his way, it would be Joseph.”

And yet, as we all know, one day Joseph’s world was turned upside down. His betrothed, a young girl named Mary, told him that she was pregnant. Joseph knew that he wasn’t the father and he understandably couldn’t believe Mary’s fantastic tale that it was by God’s Holy Spirit that she had conceived and that the child in her womb was the Savior of the world, God in the flesh.

And so, we’re told, Joseph resolved to divorce Mary quietly. To understand this, you need a little explanation. In those days, there were two parts to the marriage covenant. First, came the betrothal. Although our translation calls it an engagement, a betrothal was more than that. Once betrothal had happened, couples were considered to already be married. They just weren’t living together and had not yet consummated their relationships. Second, came the actual ceremony and the move of the bride into her new husband’s home. If a betrothed person was found to have had sex with another person, the punishment was death for both offenders.

Joseph had no desire to see Mary killed. He decided to give her a quiet release from their covenant. Maybe then she could go off somewhere else to deliver her child and her guilt being undetected, be allowed to live.

Then came Joseph’s dream in which a messenger from God, an angel, told him, “Don’t be afraid, Joseph. Mary’s story is true. You must be the earthly father to Jesus, the Savior of the whole human race.”

I don’t imagine that ended Joseph’s confusion. But he obeyed. He took Mary as his wife and he raised Jesus as though he were his own son.

With the passage of time, Jesus proved to be the very Savior the messenger had told Joseph that the baby in Mary’s womb was. Jesus did defeat the enemies of sin and death for the whole human race. But Joseph was long dead before Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead. Nonetheless, in the midst of the confusing loose ends of life, He trusted and He obeyed God without knowing for sure how things would turn out. He only saw with the eyes of faith!

That’s the way it can be when we set out on journeys, whatever kind they may be. When I was seven years old, my folks decided to take our family on a vacation to Central Lake in Michigan. They also decided that we would set out in our 1954 blue two-tone Plymouth at midnight. Dad set newspapers down on the floor in the back in order to fill in the wells that surrounded the hump that ran down the middle of the car. Then he put a sleeping bag over top of them to form my bed. For my sister who is three years younger than me, he made a bed of the back seat. And the sister who is six years younger than I am was placed in one of those little car beds that hooked to the front seat and rested on the back seat.

Why did my folks decide to leave at midnight? Because when you’re as young and inexperienced at traveling as we three were, it’s hard to be patient. My folks hoped we would fall asleep and not pepper them with such inevitable questions as: Are we there yet? How much longer? Why is it taking so long? Can we stop at HoJo’s for ice cream?

When you’re a kid you want instant gratification. You want everything to go your (I don't think that things change much when you get older!) But that isn’t always the way life goes. Any time we take a trip, the destination is out of our view for at least 99% of the way. You simply have to trust that it’s there. That isn’t easy. Like that great theologian, Tom Petty. once sang, “You take it on faith, you take it to heart. The waiting is the hardest part.”

The amazing thing about Joseph is that he knew and accepted that good things from God usually take time. They require a journey, not of ease, but of patience and diligence and trust in God. So, when confusion comes to us, when the uncertainties of life dog us and God seems far away, how are we to live?

Peter addresses this question in the second part of our first lesson. He says: “Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.”

We can use the times of confusion, even times of pain and difficulty, in positive ways, trusting that God hasn't forgotten us.

Many of you have heard me speak of my mentor and seminary professor, Bruce Schein. Pastor Schein died when he was only forty-two. Few of us realized how much he suffered or for how long. The last year was particularly hard for him. He had always been a slight man. But the last time I saw him, he looked almost emaciated. Yet, he soldiered on. I used to get notes from him, encouraging me in my ministry and revealing that even as he suffered, he was praying for people all over the world. He strove to be found by God at peace with God, with neighbor, and with himself. I think that he may have especially understood that last bit of today’s lesson from Second Peter.

We’re to regard the seeming tardiness of God to act in our lives not as some rejection by God, but as a sign of God’s patience with us. When we let Him, God uses our seasons of confusion to shape us into the people He wants us to be.

Back in my twenties, I worked at the United Way in Columbus. I hated that job, not so much because of the job, but because of the nastiness of my bosses. At about the same time, I came to faith in Christ and I begged God to get me out of that place. It took a long time for God to answer my prayers and I wondered why God waited so.

I got the answer just a few months ago: I was asked to work on a big new fund-raising campaign for the Boys and Girls Club here in Clermont County. Why? Because all the things that I learned on a job I hated helps me to understand the approach of a new program that the national Boys and Girls program has developed and wants us to do. God waited to answer my prayer to help me be of use to others. He used a lousy experience to shape me for a task he was to give me twenty-seven years later! Wow!

Does life confuse you? Does God seem far away? Hold onto Christ. Strive, like Joseph, to trust and obey. Lay every moment of your life before God in prayer. Trust the God we know in Jesus to give you calm in the chaos and the sure and certain hope of endless tomorrows with Him. The God Who came to us at Christmas promises these things and you can believe Him.

[The joke about the economist comes from Perfect Illustrations.]

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