Best Laid Plans

Read James 4:13-17 and 2 Kings 5:1-8 to start.

A couple of weeks ago was New Years Eve, and as it happens on that day my family and I had gone to a festive gathering. There were some good friends there, some slight acquaintances, and some complete strangers. One of the strangers, who, as it turns out, is the brother-in-law of one of my best friends, because that’s how things go in PEI, is a pastor at a church in Charlottetown, and I chatted with him for a bit about sermon topics. I told him about the topic that I had chosen for this morning, and how it was an important and valuable topic, and also based on a passage that I don’t think I had ever heard anyone speak from before.

This is not that sermon. Maybe some month soon I will preach that, but not this morning. My original plans, my well considered outline, it went out the window in favour of something else. That is often the nature of plans, though. We make plans, sometimes simple and straightforward plans, other times elaborate and complicated plans with multiple stages that run over months or years, then things change, and those plans go down the drain.

In the passage we read to start, we see a number of people who no doubt had one plan or another that was forcibly altered. We see the Syrian general Naaman, he was generally employed to wage war against his king’s enemies, frequently the nation of Israel, not go to an enemy nation and ask for help. I can’t imagine that a life-threatening, not to mention life-altering illness like leprosy was in his plans either. No one plans for disease, we don’t schedule that on the calendar for next month. But it happened.

The king of Israel, it was not his plan to have an enemy general show up and ask for miraculous healing. Of course it wasn’t, he was a king, not a prophet or a miracle worker, he was not prepared for this seemingly preposterous letter. He interpreted it as a pretext for an invasion. This was not something he wanted or had planned for.

The person, however, that I’m most interested in, is the one we know the least about, and the one whose plans changed the most. That’s the Hebrew maid that we meet in verse 2.

I went and checked my old sermons, and this is the fifth time that I’ve actually talked about Naaman in a Sunday sermon, which surprised me. I’ve preached about the prophet Elisha, I’ve even preached about Elisha’s servant Gehazi, who shows up later in the passage and has his own interesting story. I’ve never focused once on this unnamed girl, and it’s time for that to change.

We think of the big important people as the ones having big, important plans, but everyone has plans of some type. And while I have no specific idea what this girl’s plans may have been originally, I can absolutely guarantee that they did not include being carried away as a captive into a foreign land. Her plans did not include a life of slavery and servitude, but that is where she ended up.

This is a smaller symptom of a much larger tragedy, because what happened to her was common. In those days, carrying off prisoners of war to use as slaves was a standard practice. Slaves were one of the spoils of war, and often those who waged war thought no differently of taking people than they did of taking gold or silver or cattle. This was the case for much of human history, and was unfortunately commonplace throughout much of the world until not so long ago. In fact, as recently as the Second World War there were major world powers whose soldiers captured and widely enslaved civilians, and would have likely continued to keep them as slaves had that war ended differently. Even now this sort of thing happens to vulnerable people who are on the wrong side of conflict.

The inhumane behaviour of the human race is not my topic for today. We’re going to be getting more than plenty of that in the book of Judges. My topic is what do we do when our plans change? I’m not talking so much about a slight shift, a minor adjustment, such as when I decide to change my sermon topic a few days prior to preaching it. That’s so small a change as to barely register. I’m talking about how do we react when our plans are completely derailed, our entire lives upended and changed. One day everything is as we expect, as we have been accustomed to, as we have prepared and planned, and then the next day it is not. What do we do then?

That is the level of disruption that this Hebrew girl had experienced. She was taken from her home, from her family and her friends, from whatever life she had been living, from whatever future she had anticipated and prepared for. Whatever plans her family may have had for her, those also were irrevocably altered. She was taken, she was gone, and her expected life vanished in the dust left behind when the invaders departed.

This is someone who had every reason to be upset. She had been mistreated and enslaved, she had no choice in the matter. She had lost almost everything, her way of life, her family, her home, her freedom. All that she had left, so far as we know, apart from her life itself, was her attitude and her faith.

It would be easy to expect that her faith would falter. It would be almost a cliché to say that she might be mad at God for allowing this to happen to her. Certainly that’s the sort of thing you hear people say today, the sort of excuse they make for their unbelief, for their sinful ways. That’s not something that our generation or our parents’ generation or their parents’ generation made up, either. If we look at Genesis chapter 3, we read how Cain got snarky with God when he was asked about the whereabouts of his murdered brother. People become mad at the creator when things go wrong, whether they are at fault or not.

But she did not, at least not that we read. It well could be that she was upset, especially at first. We do not know, but it’s certainly possible. However, she did not sink into a lasting state of depression, anger and resentment. We know this because by the time we hear her speak in verse 3, she has concern for Naaman, her Syrian captor, and faith that God’s prophet in Israel could heal him from the leprosy. She could have been bitter and hateful, but she chose otherwise.

I’m not saying that this was all okay. I’m not saying that she was fine with being a captive and being a servant girl in a foreign land. She probably wanted to go back home, she probably wanted that deeply, but it seems that she made the best of where she was. And she remained true to who she was, she remained someone who believed in the God of Israel. She believed that He had power, and that His prophet could do miracles, and would heal Naaman of his leprosy.

A person who had lost all faith would never make a claim like this, not if they did not believe. A bitter person would not volunteer information that might help their captor. She was instead a testimony of the Lord’s greatness, an instrument of blessing and truth.

This girl’s story is hardly unique in scripture. Some very well known Bible figures had similar traumatic and life altering experiences. The prophet Daniel, we know him best for the den of lions, as well as for interpreting the dreams of king Nebuchadnezzar, but before we even meet Daniel, he was a captive, taken as a child from his home. We read earlier from 2 Kings chapter 5, if we flip over a few pages to chapter 24 we read of how the Babylonians carried away thousands of people from Jerusalem.  Daniel was one of them, one of many chosen to serve the king of Babylon. This was likewise not his expected life, his anticipated future. He never got to have a family, he never once returned home, he served foreign kings and regents all his life, even as kingdoms and empires rose and fell around him.

We can be quite certain that he never once returned home. By the time some of the Israelites returned from exile he was an old man, nearing the end of his days, and from reading the later chapters in the book of Daniel we see that he remained in the east. This was not his plan, but it was what happened.

Despite this, he did not become resentful or angry, he remained a faithful servant, first of his God, and then of whoever was in power above him. We are told he was blessed in his deeds and his work, and that he remained faithful and true even when those around him sought to destroy him, or when his earthly masters made terrible choices or had mental breakdowns. 

Joseph, son of Jacob, he was another Bible character who we know plenty about, and we know that he certainly did not have the life he expected. As a youth he was favoured by his father over and above his brothers, which lead to resentment on their part. They faked his death and sold him into slavery, which is about as far from being the favourite son as you can get. While a slave in Egypt, he was falsely accused of wrongdoing and ended up in prison. He spent more than two years there before he was freed, not because of any due process, but because God gave him the interpretations of dreams, in particular the Pharaoh’s dreams which predicted seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. He was raised to the station of prime minister, the right hand man of the Pharaoh himself, and in that role he was able to prepare for the famine and that preparation saved the lives of countless people, including his family and the brothers who had betrayed him so many years before.

Tremendous blessing arose out of Joseph’s hardships and the mistreatment that he suffered. But he went down a hard, hard road before any of that blessing became possible. It’s not a path that he chose, it’s not a path that anyone would ever choose for themselves, but it is what happened, and the end results speak for themselves.

Three lives, separated by distance and by centuries, all completely derailed by the actions of others. Whatever plans had been made, whatever expectations there may have been, all were gone, all washed away in the storms of life.

Their experiences are not something that we can directly relate to. So far as I know, none of us have ever been carried off as captives or sold into slavery. The closest example I’m aware of here is my wife, if you ask Laura she can tell you the story of how she was abducted for several hours as a little kid. Traumatic yes, even more so for her mom, but that’s a couple notches short of becoming a slave.

None of us have had anything so massively traumatic and devastating like that happen to us, and that is cause for thanksgiving. But having our lives derailed? That’s a more common occurrence. Maybe you have had that happen to you. Maybe not. Perhaps you’ve felt that all your plans have come undone, that life as you envisioned it has unravelled in front of you. And maybe it has. Maybe that is really the case for you. Maybe it more so feels that way, and in reality it’s not nearly as severe as we imagine.

I know I’ve felt that way, that the way I expected things would go is not how they went, in what seemed, at least at the time like a severe, dramatic, and non-reconcilable way. All my attempts to push things back to where, in my understanding, they should have been, all my attempts to do that accomplished little to nothing. I’ve had that experience, I’ve had that more than once, and I expect that if you’ve lived long enough, you’ve probably had one or more similar experiences as well. Sooner or later, all of us see our best laid plans come undone.

In the past I’ve preached about how so often our own choices are what derail us, and yes, often our choices are a big part of the problem. But sometimes the choices that other people make, choices that are imposed on us, and that we have zero input in making, are the ones that affect us most. And while sometimes that is natural and normal and reasonable, sometimes it is not.

Laura and I decided to move to Montague more than a decade ago. Our children had no say in that choice, but it has certainly affected their lives, I hope mostly for the better. Vladimir Putin decided to conduct what he called a “special military operation” in Ukraine and the lives of millions of people have been affected, mostly for the worse. None of those people had a say in that, either.

Our choices are important. But it is possible to make no wrong choices and still have your life upended, your path altered, your plans utterly changed. That is part of the painful reality of living in a fallen world. Things happen that we did not anticipate and did not want, and we find ourselves not where we expected. Maybe a long, long way from where we planned. And likely nowhere near where we wanted.

When I was younger, one of my favourite verses was Romans 8 verse 28. It’s still a verse that I love and appreciate, and it’s absolutely relevant to what I’m talking about this morning. (28) And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.

It’s easy to pull that verse out of context and say that clearly if you love God, then everything is going to work out okay. That’s not exactly what the verse says, though, is it? It says that things, all things in fact, work together for good to those who love God and are the called, or the invited, which is a more direct translation of the Greek word used here, klētos (klay-TOS). Those whom God has chosen, and I would argue by extension, specifically those who have decided to answer the call and accepted His invitation, things work together for their eventual benefit. It doesn’t mean things are going to be easy. It doesn’t mean they are going to be fun, or stress-free, or enjoyable on any level. It doesn’t mean that God has promised that things are going to be okay.

Daniel and Joseph probably didn’t think that what happened to them was okay, even if their eventual fate was likely better than what would have happened otherwise. Yet they remained faithful despite the disruption to their lives, despite the shame and suffering that they endured. They stayed true to God, true to what they believed, what they knew was right, when things when wrong, and they continued to do so when things improved.

It’s not my primary point this morning, but it is important to remember God when things are going well, and remember to follow Him and obey Him, not just thank Him for the blessings we have received. Sometimes we lose sight of how God has taken care of us, and because things are fine, or better than fine, we think that we don’t need Him anymore, but nothing could be farther from the truth.

Getting back to my topic, I don’t imagine the Israelite maid thought that what happened to her was okay, either. Unlike Daniel and Joseph, she did not end up in a position of power or prestige, she was a simple maid with no authority and no agency. We don’t know what happened to her after this, we don’t know how long she lived, if she was happy, if she ever got to go back home. All we know is that she chose to be faithful, and that others were blessed through her decision.

A few minutes ago I commented how the choices of other people can alter our lives in ways that we cannot control and often may not appreciate. We can’t control what other people do, or what they may do that affects us, or perhaps even what they do to us. We don’t get to choose that. How we react to that, though, that is definitely something that we can choose, and that choice can make all the difference.

That maid, she chose to be a witness for God in the midst of a foreign land, a witness to people who were not her family and to whom she owed nothing. Being carried off to Syria was not her choice, but being faithful was.

Daniel did not choose to be carried off to Babylon, but he likewise chose to remain obedient to what he had been taught, and to be a faithful servant of God and of his earthly masters.

Joseph did not choose to become a slave, a prisoner, or a prime minister, but whatever he was at the time, he chose to be the best example of that, and to serve faithfully, and we know how God blessed him for that.

There are many more examples we could look at. David did not choose to be anointed as the future king, and he did not choose to earn the resentment and jealousy of King Saul, but even as he fled for his life, he chose to honour God. Paul and Silas chose to pray and sing while in prison, and they chose to witness to the jailer, even though he had overseen their mistreatment. Job lost his goods, his livestock, his children, and his health, and he still did not turn his back on the Lord.

Maybe you feel that your life is running along smoothly and cleanly, everything is going according to plan. Maybe you find that your road is steep and rocky, with far more bumps and potholes than you ever expected. Or maybe your find that your road is not at all what you thought it would be, the fog is thick and the night is dark and you don’t know where this road will take you.

 I’m not here this morning to tell you that this is all going to be okay, that life is going to be simple and easy. It’s probably not. Things are going to happen that we did not want, that we cannot prevent, and that we did not choose.

When that happens, and it will, we choose how to respond to the obstacles we encounter, to the disappointments we face, both large and small. Our reactions to the little things are important, too. If we can’t handle small disappointments, how will be react to larger ones?  No matter the size or the scale, we can decide to be angry and resentful, we can choose to be miserable and to make those around us feel worse. That is how many people react when things don’t go according to plan. I know I’ve reacted like that too many times. Never once has it helped.

Or we can choose to look not at what has gone wrong, but to look to the Lord, and to remember that our plans are not the most important thing. We can remember that whatever has happened, whatever will happen, that He has permitted it, and that it falls within His plans. We can choose to trust, choose to believe that God cares for us and that He has good things for those who follow Him, if not in this life, then certainly in the next.

We can choose to be a blessing to others, to those that we love and care about, to total strangers, and to those who have upset us, and even those who have hurt us. That is what each of my examples from before did, even though they could easily have chosen differently.

When your best laid plans go awry, how will you react? Will you be a blessing, or a curse? Will you trust in the Lord and in His plans, or will you push back against Him? The choice is up to you.