For those of you who weren’t here last week, we kicked off a Lenten sermon series on the subject of the Lord’s prayer, beginning with the phrase— ‘thy kingdom come.’ We are going to continue with the Lord’s prayer this week, but before we jump right back into the next line of the prayer, I want to take a short detour into the Hebrew scriptures, to a story that I know many of you will be familiar with— the story of Joseph and his brothers. For aside from being the subject of a blockbuster Broadway musical, it is also a great illustration of the part of the Lord’s prayer that we are going to be looking at this morning.
So what do we remember about Joseph’s story? Well, for starters, Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son, which, as we all know, was the cause of endless jealousy for his brothers. Then, one day, Jacob gives Joseph a fabulous coat of many colors and his brother’s jealousy gets the better of them. They hatch a plan to throw Joseph down a well and leave him there to die, and then to tell Jacob, their father, that he had been devoured by a wild animal. Luckily for Joseph, just as the brothers were getting ready to do this, a band of slave traders comes riding by, and the brothers decide that a worse fate for Joseph would be to sell him into slavery. This is how Joseph ends up a slave in the household of a high level official in Egypt. And that’s when things begin to look up for Joseph, because after a number of trials and tribulations he is able to make himself indispensable to Pharaoh, and eventually, is elevated to a position of power in Pharaoh’s government. Then the tide really begins to turn when a famine hits the land, and Joseph’s brothers, who are starving, are forced to travel to Egypt and beg for rations from Pharaoh. And who do they encounter there when they approach Pharaoh to ask for food? None other than their little brother Joseph. And it’s what Joseph says to his brothers next that will be the key for us this morning. He says to them, “do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life… it was not you who sent me here, but God.” One commentator paraphrases Joseph’s reaction to seeing his brothers again as this— “what you meant for evil God used for the good.” Or to put it another way still, in the words of Martin Luther, “God can shoot with the warped bow and ride the lame horse.” The bottom line for our purposes this morning being this— the will of Joseph’s brothers was for him to suffer, and suffer he did, but God’s will was for the preservation of life, and so God took Joseph’s poor circumstances and brought forth from them something good and life-giving.
So if you haven’t already guessed, the part of the prayer that we are going to be focused on this morning is the line “God’s will be done, on earth as in heaven.” What does it mean to pray for God’s will to be done? What does God’s will look like? How do we recognize it? And how can we discern the difference between God’s will and our own, often flawed, human will?
Before we get into what God’s will looks like, I think it’s important to take a moment to note what it does NOT look like. Because way too many well-meaning friends and family members have said to a loved one following a terrible loss or a difficult diagnosis, something like the following— “God has a reason for this,” or, “God doesn’t give us anything that we can’t handle,” implying that an untimely death or the diagnosis of a terrible illness is somehow in line with the will of God. Maybe some people find this kind of theology helpful, but I’m afraid I just can’t get on board with it. I find such statements to be decidedly unhelpful, and I just don’t think God’s will works that way. I don’t think God’s will works that way because I believe that God’s will is always and everywhere going to be for the good of God’s creatures and for the good of God’s creation. As Joseph says to his brothers, God’s will is for “the preservation of life.”
I believe that God wills for us a life of joy and meaning in which we are able to live into the fullness of our potential. I think where we can get into trouble is when our own human will gets in the way of God’s will. I think that’s the birthplace of our suffering. We humans have a remarkable tendency to will for things that are decidedlynotfor the good of our neighbors or even for ourselves. Consider the actions of Joseph’s brothers. Or just think about our own self-destructive tendencies, our selfish tendencies, or our fearful tendencies. It’s also true that sometimes things will happen to us or to our loved ones, that are not necessarily the product of our own free will but may be the result of other humans exercising their free will with little to no thought of how their actions might affect others. It’s a tricky business deciphering why bad things happen to good people. And sometimes there are no good answers to be found there. But I have to come down squarely on the side of the belief that it’s not necessarily God’s will for such things to happen.
However, maybe it is God’s will, when terrible things do happen to us, to take those circumstances and bend them towards something good. We all know the famous Martin Luther King Jr. quote, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” I think maybe the idea of the “moral universe” could just be another way of talking about God’s will, and that we could just as easily say, that the arc of God’s willis long, but it bends towards justice, it bends towards life, and it bends towards the good of all creation. It’s just that our pesky human will gets in the way sometimes. Our pesky human will gets in the way and so we rightly pray together every week, “thykingdom come, thywill be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Speaking of what God’s will does NOT look like, I would be remiss if I did not mention that what happened on Friday in New Zealand was absolutely NOT God’s will. It is never God’s will to destroy life and it is never God’s will for hate to rise up against love. There is no room in the long arc of God’s will for white supremacy or Islamophobia. There is no room in the long arc of God’s will for hatred or fear of those who are different from us. Anyone who says otherwise is not preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, they are preaching something else. I know it’s hard to see how anything good could ever come out of such a terrible act of hate, but I think that there are going to be times in this life when we just can’t see it or understand it. All we can do is believe that somehow, God can and will take the brokenness and pain and bring forth from them healing and new life. Maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow. But somehow, someday, love will win out in the end.
It’s appropriate, I think, that we are talking about all of this during the season of Lent, because in many ways, the story of Holy Week and the story of Christ’s passion and resurrection is perhaps the greatest example of how God can take something that is meant for evil and turn it into something for the good of all creation. God can take humanity’s ‘no’ and turn it into a resounding, heavenly ’yes.’ When humanity said ‘no’ to Christ’s message of radical love and grace, and when humanity willed for Christ to be crucified and killed, God was able to take that defeat and turn it into a resounding victory for the forces of good. What humanity meant for evil, God was able to use for good. The arc of the God’s will is long, but it bends towards life and resurrection.
And so when it comes to what God’s will looks like on earth, it’s not about saying that everything that happens, happens because God somehow planned it that way. It’s about understanding the amazing resilience of God’s purposes and understanding that God’s intentions for this world aren’t going to be stumped by our selfish plans and ambitions. God can take any circumstance and bend it towards love, life, justice and hope. May it ever be so, Amen.