October 29, 2006

God Works in the Dark

Opening:

Thank you for the outpouring of love and prayer and support for our family these past two weeks.  My son’s death has left a gaping hole in our hearts and lives, and we are grieving deeply, and will for a long time.  But we have also felt carried by God and by you…thank you.

God is always at work in our lives.  Jesus said in John 5:17, “My Father is always working, and so am I.”  (Read together.)  When is God working?  Always.  God is always at work in your life, even when it seems like nothing is happening, even when it seems like bad things are happening.  When it is dark, when we can’t see or don’t understand, when life doesn’t make sense, we tend to think that God is not there, or God is not working.  But God is always working, even in the dark.  In fact, some of God’s greatest work is done in the dark, and that’s what I want to think about with you today.  God works in the dark.

Introduction:

I’m going to say just a few words about my son, Jeff.   (Pic of Jeff at counter).  I told Jeff’s story at his memorial service a week ago.  If you’d like to hear more of the story and get to know my son a little better, you can pick up the CD of the eulogy at the Resource Center.  If you want to hear the story and see the pictures,

you can order a DVD of the memorial service.  Jeff’s is a remarkable story of uncommon grace.

I gave Jeff’s eulogy because I thought his story could only be told by an insider.  Jeff had Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism that makes social interaction very difficult.  One symptom of Asperger’s is that Jeff didn’t like to be touched.  This is how he responded to hugs.  (Pic of Andy hugging Jeff.)  Jeff also didn’t like to look you in the eye; it was too intense for him; he felt like you were staring at him.  He struggled to read non-verbal cues: tone of voice, facial expressions, body language all escaped him.  If you were talking at dinner and everyone had their heads down and was not responding, you’d stop; Jeff didn’t.  (Pic of family.)  Jeff sat next to me, at my right hand, so I could help him almost every meal for 23 years,.  Notice that everyone else is smiling; Jeff was annoyed that I was taking the picture when he wanted to eat.  Normal social interaction was like a foreign language to Jeff.  Consequently, the last four years of his life were spent going to school or work where he kept to himself, and then coming home, where he spent all the rest of his time.  Our home was his refuge; we were his safe place, his friends.  So he’d come home and unload all his frustration and unhappiness on us.

Life was very difficult for Jeff, and he made life difficult for the rest of us.  I often said that Jeff required more time and energy than the other four kids combined.

This past year was Jeff’s best and brightest year as a young adult.  He was back in school in a program he enjoyed.  He had a good job.  He was on some meds that helped relieve his social anxiety.  He had started coming to College Life here at church-his first social contacts outside of home in four years.  And he was doing much better at home.  He was smiling and joking and happier. (Pic with Amy and Zac.)  I can’t tell you how grateful we are for this past year, and the better times we shared with Jeff.

Jeff died on Sunday, October 15.  We think it was an accidental overdose of prescription medications.  We won’t know for sure until the toxicology report comes back in 10 weeks.  But we do know that he was trying to find medications that would help him sleep, calm his hand tremor, and relieve his anxiety.  On that Saturday night, Jeff loaded a tray with popcorn, soda, pizza and breadsticks, and settled in front of the TV to watch a movie.  He fell asleep and woke up in heaven.

Many people have told us that God put Jeff in the right family, that we were a gift to him.  I believe that.  But our family all believes that Jeff was a gift to us, an uncommon grace, a very different boy who taught us compassion, unconditional love, patience and acceptance like no one else could.  So when someone says, “God put Jeff in the right family,” we smile and say, “Yes He did.  We needed him.”

As I said, we’re grieving deeply-we cry every day-and we miss Jeff terribly.  But we’re smiling through our tears and we believe Jeff is fully alive with Jesus.  Paul Miller had a picture of Jeff worshipping in heaven, saying, “I get it!  I get it!” free for the first time.  I can see Jeff being hugged by Jesus…and liking it.

That’s the short version; if you want the longer version, you can get it at the resource center.  (I’d like for you to know my son.)

I wasn’t going to speak today, but I wanted to give this talk, and I wanted to thank you and let you know that we’re ok.  Then I’m going to take a couple more weeks off to grieve and heal.  I’m giving a talk that I first gave over 18 years ago, when my dear friends, Chris and Shelley Brumfield, lost their 3 year-old son, Michael.  It’s called “God works in the dark.”

Let’s read this verse again out loud.

John 5:17  But Jesus replied, “My Father is always working, and so am I.”

When is God working?  Always.  God is always working.  But aren’t there moments in your life when God seems distant and remote?  Aren’t there times when it seems like God is doing nothing at all, or other times when it’s really hard and you wonder what God is doing?  God is always working, and Paul adds this:

Romans 8:28 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.

God works for good-for the good of those who love Him.  When is God working for our good?  In all things.  All the time.  Always.  God is working for good for you.

But there are often long stretches of darkness when we can’t see what God is doing, when we can’t make sense out of what is happening around us.  It’s often hard to believe that God is working then, especially for our good…but He is.  God works in the dark.  I want to quickly walk through a few Bible stories that illustrate this.

1. Abraham: God worked in the darkness of unfulfilled promises

Abraham’s story is told in Genesis 12-25.  Abraham was 75 years old when God called him to leave his home and go to “a land I will show you”.  So Abe packed up all his belongings, gathered his family and set out for this land.  God gave him 3 promises:

          1. A land.  God’s first promise to Abraham was “Lift up your eyes and look north and south, east and west.  All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever.”

          2. Many offspring.  God told him that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky or the sand on the seashore.  God even changed his name from Abram, meaning exalted father to Abraham, which means father of many.

          3. To make him a blessing. God told Abraham that all nations on earth would be blessed, benefited through his offspring.

Three promises.  Abraham lived to be 175.  He lived the last 100 years of his life in the hope of these 3 promises.  Here’s what happened.

          1. A land.  For 100 years, Abraham lived in Canaan, the land God promised to give him.  When he died at 175, how much of Canaan did Abraham own?  A cave. He owned a small cave in which he buried his wife, Sarah, and where he was buried when he died!  That’s all.  For 100 years, he had no permanent dwelling; he was a nomad in the Promised Land, living out of tents and saddlebags!

     ILL: How many of you have moved?  Seven years ago, when we moved to a new house, we were homeless for 4 weeks.  Our old house was sold and we had to move out, but our new house wasn’t ready yet.  Three families here opened their homes to us-no small feat, considering there were 8 people, a dog and two cats in our family.  For four weeks we lived out of suitcases and boxes; everything else we owned was jammed into our new garage.

Imagine doing that for 100 years!  Abe and Sarah lived for 100 years out of saddlebags, moving from place to place!  What a drag!  I can hear Sarah asking, “When are we gonna get a place of our own, Abe?”  And Abe says, “Well, honey, any day now.  You know God promised us this land.”  And Sarah says, “I’ve been hearing that for 83 years now! I’m sick of hearing that!  And I’m sick of living out of these stinking saddlebags!  When are you going to stop promising and start producing!  You know, it’d be nice to see it in my lifetime!”

But Sarah didn’t see it her lifetime; neither did Abraham.  The Bible says they died without seeing the promise come true, but still trusting the One who promised. And God made good on His promise to Abraham’s offspring.

But don’t you know that there had to be lots of times when Abe and Sarah wondered what God was up to–every time they packed and unpacked again, they had to wonder, “What about God’s promise?”

          2. Many offspring.  Abe was 75, and Sarah 65 when God first gave them this promise, and they were childless.  Now, 75 and 65 are not exactly prime child-bearing years!  God was already behind schedule when He gave the promise!  And then 24 years go by!  Abe is 99 and Sarah 89, and I’m betting pregnancy is the last thing on their minds. Then God shows up and says, “Remember that promise about kids.  Yep…it’s your time!”

Abe laughed…and I love what he said: “If only Ishmael might live under Your blessing!”  Ishmael was Abraham’s son by Hagar, Sarah’s maid. Abraham was saying, “In case you hadn’t noticed, Sarah and I are getting a little old for you know what.  Look, Lord, you missed your chance.  Why don’t we just stick with Ishmael here–go with Plan B?”

And when Sarah heard, she just fell down and laughed out loud.  Not exactly great faith from either! But God keeps His promise, and Sarah gets pregnant and has a baby–they name him Isaac which means “laughter”!  And God said, “Your offspring will be numbered through Isaac.”

So years later, when Abe and Sarah die, they’ve got one cave in the land, and what have they got for kids?  One!  Not nations, not millions like the stars or sand. One!  Uno!  Don’t you think that there had to be many times during that 100 years that they wondered, “What about kids, Lord?  Many offspring? What about your promise?”  But they kept trusting God even when it didn’t make sense.

          3. To make him a blessing.  Abraham dies at 175 with one cave, one kid and a promise that the whole world would be blessed through him. Can you imagine what Abraham must have thought?  “Promises one and two aren’t in the greatest of shape–how will God ever pull off #3?”  But God did!  It was through the line of Abraham that God brought His Son into the world, to bring all mankind back to Himself.  This was God’s plan all along.  Abe, like us, saw so little, just his own short and small life; but God saw the big picture.  The third promise was fulfilled about 1500 years after Abraham died.

If you didn’t hear Jerry Sittser last week, you should pick up that CD or go to our website.  He spoke on Ruth, and reminded us to give God time.  God’s redemptive purposes are worked out on His schedule.  Sometimes it takes months, or years, or even generations.  Give God time.  That was true of God’s promises to Abraham.

Abe lived for 100 years with the darkness of unfulfilled promises.  How about you?  Do you have any promises that haven’t come true yet?  Are you struggling with the darkness of unfulfilled promises?  Are you wondering what God is doing?  He is working in the dark!

          ILL: Laina and I had our own struggle with an unfulfilled promise.  Like Abe and Sarah, we believed that God had promised us that we would have children.  After 3 years of marriage, we began trying to get pregnant–you know…reading books, hanging around other people’s kids–all the things you do to get pregnant.  But we couldn’t conceive. After several years, Laina’s doctor performed a laparoscopy.  I’ll never forget the moment he came out of surgery and put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Joe, how do you and Laina feel about adoption?  You’re not going to get pregnant.”  I said, “What about Laina?”

So we began to pursue adoption–with enthusiasm, I might add.  We still believed that God had promised we’d conceive; and we believed that adoption was a wonderful God-given way to start our family. So we adopted Andy as a newborn, fresh out of the oven!  And 18 months later, we adopted Jeff as a newborn.  The day we brought Jeff home, Laina’s cycle started spontaneously for the first time in 7 years.  And 10 months later we discovered that Laina was pregnant–with twins! When we went in to visit Laina’s doc, he jumped up and said, “It’s a miracle!  It’s a miracle!”  And it was!  When the girls were born, Andy had just turned 3, Jeff was 21 months old–we had 4 kids 3 and under!  Three years later, we were pregnant again with Michael, our fifth.  We wanted six, but by the time # 5 came along, we were too pooped for more!  God kept his promise in a big way!

I love to tell that story!  God fulfilled His promise to us, but there were many nights we cried together, wondering if the promise would ever come true. There were many disappointments along the way–adoptions that fell through, years of infertility and all the questions that go with it.  But God was at work the whole time, working in the darkness to accomplish His purposes.

We struggled through years of darkness before we saw the promise fulfilled.  Sometimes the promise waits for years; sometimes for generations.

Hebrews 11:13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth.

There are some promises that won’t be fulfilled this side of heaven.  And that may leave you in the dark…but remember, God works in the dark.  What is your promise?  Hang on to it!  Don’t give up!  God is working in the darkness of your unfulfilled promises.

2. Jacob: God worked in the darkness of self-inflicted suffering.

          The story of Jacob starts in Genesis 25. Bible names are great. Jacob was a twin.  His brother Esau came out first and was red and hairy, so they named him Esau, which means “hairy”.  “Let’s name him Harry!” Jacob was hanging on to his brother’s heel, catching a free ride, so they named him Jacob, which means “trickster”, or “deceiver”.  Nice label to stick on your kid!  “Let’s see; let’s name this one ‘Shyster’!  Has a nice ring to it!”  And Jacob lived up to his name.  He tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright.  The eldest child was entitled to a double portion of the family inheritance.  Jacob caught Esau in a weak moment, when he was famished, and got him to trade his birthright for a bowl of porridge.  Later, he tricked his father into giving him the paternal blessing.  Esau was so angry that he resolved to kill his conniving brother, and Jacob had to run for his life.  He spent 20 years on the lam, suffering for his own sin and deceit.

While living in exile, Jacob met his match in his shrewd uncle, Laban.  Jacob fell in love with his daughter Rachel, and agreed to work for Laban for 7 years for free in order to marry her.  We’re talking about a serious case of love here–7 years was many times more than the going rate for a bride!  But Jacob was so wildly in love that the Bible says the 7 years “seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for Rachel.”  So the big day finally arrived, but that night, Laban switched the brides; he gave Jacob Rachel’s older sister, Leah. The Bible says that Rachel was a beauty, a real head-turner; but Leah wasn’t much to look at. In fact, Rachel’s name meant “little lamb”, and Leah meant “wild cow”.  It was dark, and bride was veiled, so Jacob didn’t realize that he made love with Leah until morning. He woke up expecting to see his little lamb, and saw the wild cow!  He had been tricked! For the next 20 years, Jacob worked for Laban, who tricked and cheated him time and again.  Finally, Jacob took his wives, and children and fled from Laban to go back home.  Still on the lam.  Running from his angry uncle to his bitter brother.  Between the proverbial rock and hard place.

When Jacob hears that his brother, Esau, is coming to meet him with 400 armed men, he is terrified.  He spends the night in prayer–it is the dark night of the soul–Jacob’s sin has caught up with him.  Years of deceit and trickery are about to be avenged.  And on this night, the darkest night of Jacob’s life, he wrestles with God, and comes away a changed man.  And God changes his name, from Jacob the Liar, to Israel, the Man who struggles with God.

Twenty years on the lam.  Twenty years of being cheated.  Twenty years of reaping the consequences of his own sin.  But God was at work in the dark, making Jacob a man of character, a prince, a man who wrestles with God.

Have you ever struggled in the darkness of the consequences of your own sin?  The Bible says that we reap what we sow.  There is an inescapable harvest; you reap the consequences of your choices and actions, good or bad.  God uses those consequences to teach us lessons that we’d never learn any other way. That’s certainly true of me!  I’ve learned the hard way!  God has worked in the darkness of my failures.

ILL: I made a bad decision many years ago.  I borrowed money to loan it to friends.  I knew what the Bible says about co-signing–it says “don’t do it!”  My friend Larry Vandenberg, who is a VP at Washington Trust Bank, told me that 80% of all co-signers end up paying all or some of the loan! That’s why the Bible says, “don’t do it”.   But I did worse than co-signing; I borrowed the money and loaned it to friends; it was my name, and mine alone that was on the line for the loan.  I put my name on the line for $12,000!   And I ended up paying it!!  It took me almost 5 years–and the first year, I had to do two morning paper routes to make the payments each month and still make ends meet at home.  Your paperboy, Pastor Joe!!  There were many mornings as I walked in the dark, tossing papers, that I wondered what I was doing out there.  But each time, God reminded me that I was there because of my own foolish decision. God was at work in the dark, teaching me valuable lessons!

Some of you are struggling in the darkness of difficult times brought on by your own poor choices and action…by your sin.  Rather than being angry with God, and shaking your fist at Him, I encourage you to humble yourself before Him and trust Him to be working in the dark, shaping you, making you the person you ought to be.

3. Joseph: God worked in the darkness of pain inflicted by others. 

Joseph was a dreamer.  He dreamed that God would exalt him so that his brothers, and even his mother and father would bow down before him.  This didn’t win him any points with his family!! His brothers hated him and took the first chance they got to be rid of him.  They were going to kill him, but decided just to sell him to a passing band of traders who took him to Egypt and sold him as a slave there.  Joseph was 17 years old.  Nice group of brothers, huh?

But God blessed Joseph in Egypt, and gave him favor with his master.  Soon Joseph was Potiphar’s most trusted slave, and was placed over all the affairs of Potiphar’s house.  But disaster struck again, this time in the form of Potiphar’s wife, who got the hots for Joseph.  When Joseph spurned her sexual advances, she falsely accused him of rape, and Joseph found himself in prison.

But God blessed Joseph in prison and gave him favor with the warden.  Soon Joseph was put in charge of the prison and all that happened there.  One day, two prisoners, Pharaoh’s cup-bearer and baker had dreams.  Joseph interpreted their dreams for them: one would live and the other die.  Joseph asked the one who would live to remember him to Pharaoh…but the cupbearer forgot all about Joe once he got out.

Finally, Pharaoh had a dream that no one could interpret, and the cupbearer remembered Joseph.  When he interpreted Pharaoh dream, Pharaoh made him prime minister over all of Egypt–no one had more power in Egypt than Joseph, except Pharaoh himself.

When Pharaoh’s dreams came true, and famine gripped the whole region, Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt seeking food.  They bowed down to Joseph, just as he had dreamed; but they had no idea it was their baby brother–they assumed he was dead.  And when Joseph revealed himself to them, they were terrified–they thought they were dead!  But Joseph said, “Don’t be afraid.  I won’t hurt you.  You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”  Joseph was able to see God’s purposes being achieved through his suffering.

There had to be lots of times during those 13 years of slavery and imprisonment when Joseph wondered what God was doing.  “What about those dreams, Lord?  Was that You, or was I just dreaming?  What am I doing here in Egypt, in slavery, in prison, far from my family and all that matters to me?  Why am I suffering for my brothers’ sin, and Potiphar’s wife’s deception, and Pharaoh’s cup-bearer’s forgetfulness?”

Sometimes we suffer for our own sin; sometimes we suffer because of other people’s sin.  It seems so unfair.  But God is at work in the dark!  He was at work in Joseph’s life.  His brothers’ meant to harm him, but God meant it for good!  And God is at work in your life, right now, if you are suffering because of others.  “We know that God works in all things for the good of those who love Him.” Give God time.

4. Moses: the darkness of unrealized expectations.

Acts 7:23‑29 When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his fellow Israelites. 24 He saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian, so he went to his defense and avenged him by killing the Egyptian. 25 Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not. 26 The next day Moses came upon two Israelites who were fighting. He tried to reconcile them by saying, ‘Men, you are brothers; why do you want to hurt each other?’ 27 “But the man who was mistreating the other pushed Moses aside and said, ‘Who made you ruler and judge over us? 28 Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ 29 When Moses heard this, he fled to Midian, where he settled as a foreigner and had two sons.

Moses had great expectations.  He believed that God had strategically placed him where he was so that he could lead his people to freedom.  Even though Moses was raised in the center of Egyptian culture, religion and power, he never forgot his heritage or his people.  And the time had come to act!  But the Israelites rejected his leadership, and Moses was forced to flee Egypt, running for his life to Midian, where he got a job tending sheep.  From the center of Egyptian culture to the backside of the desert.  From the power of the throne to the poverty of a nomadic shepherd.  From great expectations to the despair of rejection, shattered dreams and hopelessness.  Moses abandoned his dreams and settled down to tend sheep.

After 40 years God showed up one day in a burning bush and rekindled those dreams of leading his people to freedom.  Forty years of forgotten dreams.  Forty years of wandering in the darkness of unrealized expectations.  Forty years of wondering  “What happened God?  I thought you wanted to set the Israelites free.  I thought you wanted me to lead them back to Canaan, the land of promise.  I thought you had plans for me, a purpose for my life.  What is it, God?  What happened to those dreams that I thought You gave me?”

Have you ever felt that way?  Have you ever struggled through the darkness of unrealized expectations?

  • A relationship that you expected to last forever disintegrates and leaves you wondering, “what happened?”
  • You had such great expectations for that child, who seems to be just wasting his potential. We certainly had hopes and dreams for our son.
  • You were sure that promotion and raise were yours–so sure that you had already spent the first month’s raise–but the boss gave it to someone else.
  • The big deal was in the bag, then unexplainably, fell through.
  • The “perfect job” didn’t work out.
  • You prayed for your friend and expected a miracle, but instead of getting well, he died.

I doubt if there is a person in the room who hasn’t struggled with the darkness of unrealized expectations.  I want you to know today that God is at work in the dark.  When our dreams die, and our expectations don’t materialize, God is still at work accomplishing His purposes.  He was working with Moses during those 40 years of unrealized expectations in the desert.  And He is working with you.  God is at work in your life too, right now, in the darkness of your unrealized expectations.  Trust Him!

5. Jesus: God worked in the darkness of death.

Of course the best example of God working in the dark is Jesus.  There was no darker moment in human history than when sinful men nailed God’s sinless Son to the cross.  We murdered God’s Son.  In that dark moment, it looked like evil had triumphed.  No doubt Jesus’ followers were overwhelmed with sorrow and confusion and pain.  What they couldn’t see in that dark moment was that God was working to redeem the world.  In our darkest moment, God did His greatest work.  In the darkness of Jesus’ death, God worked to save us.

For most of us, there is no darker moment than the death of a loved one.  I’ve often said that nothing is harder than losing a child; I’ve experienced that now, and know it’s true.  I want you know that our family is believing that God is at work in our darkness right now.  We can’t see it; we don’t know what He’s doing, but we believe that He is working for our good, and perhaps more importantly, He is working redemptively.  Somehow God will use this to further His redemptive purposes, to bring people back to himself.  Jeff’s life and death won’t be in vain; God is working in the dark.

Conclusion: God is working in the dark in your life; trust Him!

          ILL: During the German bombing of London in WW2, a father was caught outside with his small son.  Seeking shelter as quickly as possible, the father jumped into a crater made by a bomb, and held up his arms for his son to follow.  Standing on the rim of the crater, staring into the darkness, the terrified boy heard his father’s voice calling for him to jump.  “I can’t see you, Father!” he cried.  The father, looking up at his son silhouetted against the sky illuminated by burning buildings, shouted, “But I can see you, son–jump!”  The boy jumped because he trusted his Father.

In the darkness, when you can’t see, God sees you.  You may not know what’s going on, but God does.  Trust Him.   You may not see Him…but He sees you.