The chief cupbearer, however, did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.
Genesis 40:23 (NIV)
This Sunday, I am giving the final message in a series on the sage words of Ecclesiastes among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. One of the themes of the ancient book of wisdom is that the notion we have any control in this life is an illusion. In fact, the Sage has a Hebrew word for it: hevel (or hebel). It gets translated into English as “vanity” or “meaningless” but its meaning is really more like “smoke” or “vapor.” I can see it. It looks like I should be able to touch it, grab it, or contain it but I can’t.
The continued story of Joseph in today’s chapter is a prime example of life and circumstance being out of our control. Life is not turning out to look anything like he expected. He thought things were comfortable at home being his father’s favorite. Then his brothers sold him into slavery and told their father Joseph was dead. Joseph then became a successful house manager for a powerful Egyptian official, only to be falsely accused of attempted rape and thrown into prison. In today’s chapter, Joseph successfully interprets the dreams of Pharaoh’s cupbearer who is reinstated to his position. Joseph asks the man to “remember him” and it appears that circumstances are finally in Joseph’s favor.
Alas, no…the restored cupbearer completely forgets Joseph. He continues to languish in the Egyptian prison for a crime he didn’t commit. His circumstances are out of his own control.
As I look back on my own earthly journey, I have so many examples in my own life. A grandmother was run over and was killed by a distracted teen driver. Getting unexpectedly fired. The “perfect job” turned out to be a year of purgatory within a dysfunctionally chaotic system. My marriage fell apart. I was scandalized by wrongful accusations. Family members were diagnosed with cancer. Mom developed Alzheimer’s. And these are just the big items. There as countless small experiences that have affected my circumstances and my life; Circumstances that were unexpected, unforeseen, and completely out of my control.
Meditating on the reality of control being an illusion leads right to where the Sage ends up. It’s futile. It’s like trying to chase the wind or contain the morning fog. It’s all hevel.
But there’s another layer that I have to consider as a follower of Jesus, and this layer redeems the hevel. It’s a parallel reality that we are part of the Great Story, and the Author of Life is a sovereign storyteller.
Once again, Joseph is a prime example. Prior to his life being hijacked by circumstances out of his control, Joseph had a dream. That dream was a foreshadowing of the end of Joseph’s story. Joseph couldn’t see it in the moment. Every hevelish circumstance in Joseph’s experience is leading somewhere that’s known and has been foreshadowed. In the next chapters of the Great Story, God will lead the Hebrew people out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and to the Promised Land. He chooses to appear to them each day as a cloud. What is a cloud? It’s water vapor. It’s hevel.
God is in the hevel. That’s good news within the out-of-control circumstances of my life.
In the quiet this morning, I find myself recalling hevelish moments along my life journey that seemed out of control. Looking back from my present waypoint on Life’s road, I can see how God used each one to grow me up, teach me, hone me, and lead me to another waypoint a little further up the road and further in my own story. God has always been in the hevel.
I have to believe that Joseph was frustrated, angry, and depressed that the cupbearer forgot him rotting away in his cell. I imagine he felt the futility of his circumstances. He might have even whispered, “It’s all hevel.” What he doesn’t recognize is that he is part of a larger story. The cupbearer will remember him at just the right moment. The rest of the story has yet to be told.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.