Harry Truman didn’t care at all about his legacy.
On January 21, 1953, he returned to Independence, Missouri, and retired to his home. Residents would see him walking, walking stick in hand, down the sidewalks to do daily tasks. He became a regular citizen. Sometimes, reporters or well-meaning friends would ask him about his legacy. He would shoo them off, sometimes stating that he didn’t care about his legacy. As far as he was concerned, he had done what he had done and history could be the judge of it.
He could say as much because he was convinced that he had acted with integrity, not just integrity in doing what’s right but integrity in being true to himself. He did the best he knew how and he expected nothing more of himself. A failure at business, a wannabe cadet at West Point who couldn’t get in on account of his eyesight, a failed farmer, Truman never stopped believing in himself and, upon exiting public life, simply looked to the future. Historians could judge him all they wanted, but he believed he had set the country on the right course for the future. It was now in the hands of others to live out that future.
Most of the time, public officials want to control their legacy. While they’re alive, they want to control the narrative around what they did while they were in office. They want to control how they are remembered, even after they are gone. Not Truman. And not Joseph.
With Joseph, we conclude our sermon series on Beginnings, looking at the book of Genesis, by looking at the ending of the book. Hear now Genesis 50:22-26.
Joseph didn’t mean to end up in Egypt.
One commentator called him the Prime Minister of Egypt; an apt title to describe his role. He was the second most powerful person in the empire, which was the most powerful empire of its time. He has risen from being a slave, then a prisoner, to now penultimate leadership of the world’s most powerful country. He single-handedly saved Egypt, and the known world, from a famine because of his ability to interpret the signs of the times and dreams.
Joseph ended up there because he had been sold into slavery by his brothers. Born in the land promised to Father Abraham by God, Joseph was the youngest son of a clan of sons. He was the favorite of his father, so the story goes, and this made his brothers very jealous.
Much history has passed since the last sermon where we learned about Abraham in chapter 15. This is a sermon series on Beginnings and there are not many new beginnings past chapter 15. Abraham has a son, Isaac, and through Isaac there is a lineage of sons that leads directly to Joseph, a story that begins in chapter 37. There are many entertaining and instructive stories between chapters 15 and 37, but they simply recount how the lineage of Abraham, the lineage of the future Israelites, established itself.
A few generations past Abraham, we arrive at Joseph, the favorite son of his father but otherwise unremarkable. His brothers concoct a plan to sell him into slavery and then lie to their father about what has happened to him, thereby ridding themselves of him. Joseph is, in fact, sold into slavery.
And through a series of events ends up prime minister of all of Egypt. He has the foresight to save the people from a terrible famine that gripped the whole region. The famine brings his brothers to Egypt to get food, for Egypt has the only supplies in the region, and the brothers fail to recognize Joseph. Eventually, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and forgives them, declaring in verse 20 of chapter 50: “Even though you [brothers] intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” Joseph forgives and sees the hand of divine providence.
And here the story of Genesis ends. It will progress rapidly, skipping several generations, into the story of the Exodus.
Which might beg the question of what this has to do with beginnings?
In the beginning, God created.
Then, God established a new beginning for the diversity of the world through Babel.
Then, God recreated through Noah and began the habit of covenanting, contractually binding himself, to the people.
Then, God created the Israelites through Abraham, their beginning as a distinct and favored people of God.
Here, we have not a beginning, but an ending.
It’s a funny way to end, too. Genesis begins with a bang as God creates everything that’s ever been known. The language is poetic, the description beautiful and orderly. God looms large, God is celestial, cosmic, way beyond humanity. Genesis ends with a body of a particular Israelite, turned Egyptian, in a box, buried in the land not promised to his forefather Abraham. Here at the end, God is not present but only referenced. Joseph says God will come, Joseph declares that God intended for good, Joseph points the people to God. But God is not active, very much unlike the other stories we’ve read. God is active at creation, God is active at Babel, God is the one destroying and then restoring in Noah, and God is talking directly to Abraham. Not here.
Where did God go? It’s an anticlimactic way to end Genesis.
The book of Genesis ends not the way we would expect. Just as life, it’s fair to say, had not turned out the way any of these characters had expected.
God had big plans! Through Abraham, God would make the people numerous, give them land, and bless them. Joseph’s brothers frustrate all of that. By selling Joseph into slavery, they end up destroying their prosperity in the land as well as give it up. Here at the end of Genesis, they have moved to Egypt, because that’s where the food is.
And why is the food there? Because that’s where Joseph is. Not by his own design but by his brothers’ devious scheming.
His brothers have frustrated God’s plans.
Life didn’t turn out the way Joseph had expected and, neither it seems, the way God had designed. God had big plans for the people in the land, but the people there, like at Babel, stopped listening and succumbed to jealousy instead. Their sin got in the way of hearing what God was saying.
Joseph, rotting in a jail cell after being sold into slavery, would seem likely to despair. He had been living the high life as his father’s favorite only to end up in a foreign land in jail, having been wrongly accused after being sold into slavery.
Life hadn’t turned out the way any of them desired. Not even the way God had designed.
And that’s the thing. We explored this before. So often, what people are deeply angry about, so angry about that they can’t even articulate it, is the way things turned out.
We have big expectations at the start of our lives, especially as we emerge into adulthood and begin to build a life for ourselves. And then things don’t turn out as planned. Rarely in fact does that happen. The stories of our lives mirror the stories of so many others. Consider Harry Truman: he never intended to be a president. He was a failed farmer and failed business man just trying to scrape enough money together to keep his family going. He was constantly out of money, out of luck, and life seemed against him.
Life seemed constantly against Joseph, too, sitting in his jail cell.
I wonder how you feel about life this morning? Is it constantly set against you? How many of your best laid plans have failed? Have things turned out the way you expected, the way you labored for?
We spend much of life looking in the rearview mirror. If only I’d done this, if only I’d known that, if only I’d….you fill in the blank. Life is full of regrets. We think if only we’d done this differently or that differently, things would have turned out better. Our lives are consumed by endings, thinking that the pages of that chapter are already written and cannot be undone.
And so now we’re stuck with what’s left, with the way things turned out, trying to make the best of it but despairing because there’s not much to make of it. Life just didn’t turn out great and we’re left holding what remains. Or if that doesn’t describe your circumstance this morning, it’s easy to become worried and fearful that life will turn to disappointment and failure. And so we strive and fight and push and hustle so that our lives don’t turn out that way.
We want to control how our lives turn out.
But that’s not how Joseph lived his life. While things ended well, it’s not because he controlled his life, nor because he had some power over outcomes.
The ending of Genesis is remarkable to me for many reasons, but consider this reason more than any others: Joseph is focused on the future, not on the past.
Here we have a prime minister, one of the most consequential leaders of Egypt in its history, a person who single-handedly saved the people after rising out of prison, slavery, and obscurity. He’s the self-made man! Surely he should be focused on his legacy, telling his story to his brothers and his great-grandchildren sitting on his knee, as the scripture says. Surely he should be giving them the lessons he’s learned and making sure that history and his family remember him properly.
Instead, at the end of his life, he’s focused on the future. He’s telling the people not to forget who they are: they are the favored people of God, the people to whom God made promises that God will keep. He’s saying to them: don’t lose focus. Keep your eyes on God and seek his direction for the future.
And I think that’s the legacy of his life: no matter his circumstances, he stayed focused on God, focused on the future God was creating through him.
Throughout his story, no matter how bad things got, Joseph didn’t lose hope. As people, like his brothers, like other antagonists in the story, got in the way of what God wanted to do, Joseph didn’t lose hope. Joseph kept his focus on God, kept praising God, kept his faith. Even when things were terrible and the future looked bleak, Joseph focused on God as the God who keeps promises and loves him.
Joseph knew instinctively that God is the God of Plan B.
We humans can frustrate God’s plans. Joseph certainly knew that through the actions of his brothers. God’s plans come through in God’s vision for the world; what we call the Kingdom of God. You’ve heard me preach about it many times. It’s a Kingdom of peace, justice, joy, led by the Holy Spirit. It’s the vision of the world in harmony, not in spite of its diversity but because of its diversity. This is the picture the end of Revelation paints, where the world in its manifold diversity are all gathered together in peace, praising God. That end is, itself, a new beginning in the new Jerusalem that forms the center of the fully-realized Kingdom of God.
But we get in the way. We are too often like Joseph’s brothers, succumbing to our own sinfulness, like petty jealousy, that leads us to do things that get in the way of God’s plans. All of us, with no exceptions, have done harmful things to our families. Some of those harmful things still remain, an open wound that has festered so much that it seems there’s no undoing it; an end to our family relationships. We got in the way of God’s plan for our family.
Perhaps we’ve done other things, too, that look like ends. Maybe we sinned in our business practices, creating an end to our business or our wealth. We got in the way of God’s plan for our business.
Maybe we sinned in our leadership, harming others and sullying our reputation. We got in the way of God’s plan for our leadership.
Maybe we sinned in ourselves, sins that we have trouble forgiving ourselves for. We got in the way of God’s plan for our very selfhood.
Maybe we sinned in other ways and got in the way of God’s plans. And now it seems, whether in family, business, leadership, or ourselves, we’re at an end. There’s no going back. There’s no undoing the past. What’s done is done and that’s it. We live a life of regret and its child, despair.
If that’s you this morning, hear the words of the hymn Lisa played during the offering: This is a day of new beginnings.
An end is no end for God. God is the God of plan B.
When God chose to covenant with humanity, as we explored through Noah and through Abraham, God chose to partner with humanity. That means there’s a mutuality in the agreement, a willingness by God to have his plans frustrated. God could choose, out of God’s own power, to simply direct the world and do whatever God wants to do, smiting anyone who gets in his way.
But that isn’t at all what Genesis says and that’s not at all what we believe as Methodists. We believe, seen here in scripture, that humans frustrate the plans of God. Abraham fathers Ishmael when he gets impatient for an heir, Jacob steals the birthright from his brother Esau, and on and on throughout Genesis we see people frustrating God’s plans, including Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery.
But in each of these cases, rather than smiting, rather than giving up and breaking promises, and rather than forcing, God simply adjusts the plan and moves to plan B.
God is the God of plan B. That’s a simple way of saying a theological term you’ve heard me use often: God is the God of redemption.
One way to think of redemption is that God makes a plan B when we frustrate plan A. Or, let’s be real, sometimes plan A gets frustrated not by our own doing but by the doings of others. Sometimes, its others who frustrate our best laid plans of no fault of our own. You’ve heard me testify before, and I testify again, Eastman is a plan B. Plan A was in North Georgia at Reinhardt University where I was chaplain. I loved the idea of the job and, at first, I loved the job. I was going to stay a long time. Other people had other plans and things didn’t work out that way, of no fault of my own.
And here I am, happy as can be, with a family that’s as happy as it can be, living Plan B. Or, if I look back over my life, I think I’m on Plan Q.
Because that’s what God does. Sometimes, I’ve gotten in the way of God’s Kingdom plans. Sometimes, others have gotten in the way of God’s Kingdom plan in ways that have directly affected me. That’s what happened to Joseph. And God kept redeeming, kept going to plan B. With Truman, the same. Life dealt him a horrible deck for several years. And God kept going to plan B.
God will go to plan B. God will redeem. That’s the witness I see in scripture, especially here in Genesis, and the testimony I can share from my own life.
But one of the chief ways we can get in the way of God’s plans is to lose focus on God’s plan B, spending our lives looking in the rearview mirror. If we stay focused on the past, whether on our own sins or the sins of others, focused on regret and despair, focusing on how life has dealt us a bad hand and saying “woe is me;” if we stay focused in that way, not only do we miss how God is moving to create plan B, we also stand in the way of that plan, frustrating what God is trying to do through us and for us.
Which means the trick, the task of faith, whatever the status of our lives, is to stay focused on God.
If we, like we explored last week, really believe that God is who he says he is, then God will come with plan B, regardless of whether or not we caused the trouble or if it was caused by others against us. Plan B will be there, because God will keep moving for righteousness and justice in the world. And God wants us to be a part of that.
This is not that oft used, and often wrong, phrase “God makes all things work together for my good.” No, that’s not our faith at all because God is not our personal God who makes our life as easy as possible. It’s a misquote of Paul, who was saying that God makes all things work together for the common good. We must not say “God makes all things work together for my good” but rather “what others intended for evil, God intends for good.” We can play a role in that common good if we stay focused on God.
Consider Joseph, who never lost focus on God. God didn’t bless Joseph just so that Joseph could have it easy. God redeemed Joseph, moved to plan B, so that God could save the people. Joseph rose to prominence not as a reward for his faith but so that he could be in the right position at the right time to prepare for a famine that would have killed off the Egyptian empire and, by extension, all the Egyptian’s neighbors; neighbors, like his brothers and father.
God is active and moving and working for the Kingdom of God. We all have a role to play in establishing that Kingdom. But we must stay focused on the future, looking for where God is moving to create plan B in our lives, where God is redeeming, rather than keeping our focus in the past, living a life of regret and despair over how things turned out.
So this morning, if that’s you, I offer you freedom this morning. Freedom from regret. Freedom from despair. Freedom from looking in the rearview mirror. Somewhere in your life, God is calling. Regardless of whether or not it’s your sin or someone else’s sin that has your life in the state it is today, God is calling to you. Somewhere in your life, God is laying out the road that is Plan B.
The question is whether or not we are looking for it.
And the best way to blind ourselves to seeing it is by spending our lives looking in the rearview mirror, looking at the past, keeping alive the feelings of regret and despair.
Somewhere in your family, God is offering plan B that will create healing and move toward justice for your family, not just because God loves you, but because such promotes the Kingdom of God.
Somewhere in your finances, God is offering plan B that will not necessarily restore your fortunes but will somehow be restorative in a way that promotes the Kingdom of God.
Somewhere in your reputation, God is offering plan B that will restore you so that you can be an agent for the Kingdom of God.
The task of our lives, after we have entered into relationship with God, is to live a life that partners with God in establishing his kingdom on earth. We get in the way of doing so with our sin and, sometimes, the sins of others gets in the way, too. The task is to never lose focus, always mindful that no matter how ugly things get, God is working plan B in our lives so that we may continue to work for the Kingdom.
God makes everything work together for the good of the Kingdom. As Joseph said, what others intended for evil, God intends for good, God makes work for good, because God is the God of plan B.
Wherever you are in your life, there’s a plan B in your future. Even if life is good right now, one day you’ll need plan B.
So I wonder this morning, where’s your focus: in the rearview mirror feeling sorry for yourself and angry at the way things turned out?
Or like Joseph, focused on the future, looking for the road that’s rising up to meet you; the road called plan B?
That focus makes all the difference.
Where is your focus?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.