Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Bible Character Spotlight: Joseph

Joseph was the son of Jacob, and like his father, he had an interesting life. However, unlike his father, Joseph did not get put on a strange path because of the wrong that he had done. Joseph was portrayed as being good from the start. Maybe he was a little too good, at least, that’s how those around him might have thought. The first thing we learn about Joseph is that he was known to snitch on his brothers.
Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives, and he brought their father a bad report about them. - Genesis 37:2
Maybe telling on his brothers the way he did was the right thing to do, but right away we see that Joseph had to learn a lesson that many of us have also learned. When you do the right thing, it might gain you some allies, but it can most certainly also gain you some enemies. The story goes on to tell us that Jacob (now known as Israel) loved Joseph more than his other sons, and that Jacob’s other sons hated Joseph because of it. Side note: It seems people in the Bible were pretty open about showing favoritism for certain children and it almost always resulted in bad consequences. So, while the parenting wasn’t exactly the focus of these stories, maybe that’s a little extra lesson parents can learn from these stories. Don’t show favoritism. Love your children.

Joseph’s relationship with his brothers was exacerbated when he told them about a dream he had that suggested that one day his brothers would bow to him. The Bible doesn’t say whether or not he understood these dreams were messages from God. Still, it was no secret that God could communicate in that way. After all, God had chosen to communicate with Jacob in the same way. However, Joseph rushing to tell his brothers about the dream suggests that maybe Joseph was a little naive.  If he understood that his brothers didn’t care for him, he should have known that him bragging about such a dream would rub them the wrong way. Yet, he told them anyway, and when he had another dream that delivered a similar message, he told his brothers again even though the Bible tells us that they had a bad reaction to the news of the first dream. He also told his father after the second dream, and even his father was unhappy with the revelation.

When the story continues and we find that Joseph’s brothers plot on him and eventually sell him to some merchants, many of us might think ‘he should have seen that coming.’ His brothers convinced his father that Jacob had been killed, and, at the time, they believed that was the end of Joseph’s story as far as it related to them. On the contrary, his story was just beginning, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, Believers should know that if God tells you something is going to happen, it’s going to happen.

Joseph found himself in Egypt and was purchased by one of the Pharaoh’s officials, a man named Potiphar. Unlike Joseph’s brothers, Potiphar recognized Joseph’s goodness and appreciated it. Being an Egyptian, it was unlikely that he was a follower of God, but even he was able to recognize that Joseph was favored by God.
When his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did, Joseph found favor in his eyes and became his attendant. - Genesis 39:3-4
The story goes on to tell us that Joseph was propositioned by Potiphar’s wife. As expected of a man like Joseph, he did the right thing and turned her down. In response, she lied on him out of spite, and Joseph found himself in prison. Once again, someone, this time the prison warden, was able to recognize God in Joseph and treated him with favor. Eventually, we find out that, Joseph is not only blessed with dreams that portend the future, but he is also blessed with the ability to interpret dreams. This time dreams didn’t lead to misfortune for Joseph. Quite the opposite, his ability to interpret dreams got him out of prison and into the service of the Pharaoh. Joseph was able to interpret the Pharaoh’s dreams when all of his advisors had failed. Pharaoh was so impressed by God’s revelation through Joseph that Pharaoh put Joseph in charge of all of Egypt second only to Pharaoh in authority.

Take a moment to understand how amazing that is. Joseph went from slave to the second most powerful man in Egypt all because of God working through him. If that isn’t uncanny enough, then also consider the fact that Pharaoh, a man considered to be a living god by his people, elevated Joseph in such a way because he recognized God in Joseph.
The Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has made all this known to you, there is no one so discerning and wise as you. You shall be in charge of my palace, and all my people are to submit to your orders. Only with respect to the throne will I be greater than you.” - Genesis 41:39-40
With God’s favor and the authority given to him by Pharaoh, Joseph was able to do some very important things like preparing Egypt for a coming famine that devastated much of the world. Joseph’s status also put him in a position where he had the choice to either punish or forgive his brothers. He chose to forgive them, and just as his dreams foretold, they wound up bowing to him. Fortunately for them, the dreams were never meant to show that Joseph would lord over them in a bad way. The truth is that the dreams were a sign that one day Joseph would be his family’s salvation. In the end, things turned out great for Joseph and his family all because he made a point to live righteously and because God was pleased with him for his righteousness.

There are so many lessons we can take from this story. As Believers, we are set apart from the other people of the world in some ways, and we are expected to do the right thing even if it’s not the popular thing. Like Joseph, living that way can send us through a multitude of ups and downs. Doing good doesn’t mean that every part of our lives will be good, but whether we are at a high or a low, God is with us. If we know that, then we should do our best to make sure that everyone else knows it too. God being in us saves us, but His presence in us can also change the hearts of those around us. It can also save those, who at one time, were against us. In some ways, Joseph’s life is like a blueprint for the lives of Believers. We may not reach the highs that he did or sink to the same lows. However, we can all expect similar dynamics in our lives. We just have to remember that if we live as God commands and always keep him at the head of our lives, like Joseph, we and many that we encounter along the way will win in the end.
Chris Lawyer

Monday, October 21, 2019

Sermon Series Wrap-up: Make Room

In his last series (Empty Your Cup), Pastor Pope spoke about unburdening ourselves of many of the things we cling to and carry in order to gain a greater relationship with God. This series, Make Room, is a natural progression from the last series. In general, when we get rid of clutter, it frees up space that can be filled with things with more value and purpose. Pastor Pope used an example found in Luke 12:13-21 to set the stage for the discussion. In those verses, Jesus tells a parable about a man who had a great harvest and was about to tear down his barn and build something larger so he could hold onto his bounty. God told the man that he was foolish for putting so much into caring for possessions that will not serve him once he was dead.

The point of Jesus’ story was that we shouldn’t fill our lives with things that don’t matter. Instead, we should focus on the things of God. Sometimes it seems hard to get rid of the things taking up the space in our lives that should be occupied by God. We feel that we need earthly things and can’t live without them. In Philippians 4:10-13, Paul addresses the state of being able to do without even when in a state where there is need. It all comes down to faith in Christ. If you truly believe that God will take care of you, then you should also believe that God can empower you to overcome any obstacle.

So once we’ve equipped ourselves with the faith necessary to step away from the clutter in our lives and make room for God, what should we replace the clutter with? The first thing Pastor Pope identified was truth.
And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free. - John 8:32
The truth is important because when it comes to spiritual matters, it is unchanging and absolute. Pastor Pope used a scale to illustrate the importance of truth. Scales are used to weigh things, and when used they give you the truth. If you want to lose weight, you need to use a scale to monitor your progress. You need to know the truth of your current status to know how if you're moving towards your goal. The same goes for our Christian walks. We need to apply something like a scale to our faith and actions. We need to know the truth about where we are in our Christian walks, so that we can properly assess our progress towards our goal, a better relationship with God. We also need to recognize that Jesus represented the truth. He delivered the Gospel, which is also truth delivered from heaven. We need to strive to apply Jesus’ truth to our lives. Since Jesus’ truth came from heaven, we need to take our minds away from the things of the earth to really understand it. Once again, we see why it is necessary to empty our cups and make room.

The second thing we want to make room for is prayer. 
Confess your trespasses to another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. - James 5:16
Contrary to what some may believe, prayer isn’t empty like meditation. We don’t do it simply to focus or center ourselves. We pray with purpose and cause. Christians need to make room for prayer because it serves a real function in our daily lives. Prayer is communication with God, and through that communication we seek to do many things. We pray to ask him to fulfill our needs. We ask Him to help us and others through our trials and tribulations. We pray to confess and repent for our sins. We pray out of obedience, hope, and a desire to grow closer to God. We have an abundance of reasons to pray, but unfortunately many of us do not do it enough, and some do not do it at all. Prayer is a spiritual act, and is necessary for spiritual growth. 

Prayer is also a privilege. It is what gives us a direct relationship with the true God. If our goal is a closer relationship with God, prayer is the means by which we commune with Him. If there is anything in our lives that holds us back from entering that commune, it needs to be removed. We need to clear up the time and space in our lives to speak to God regularly. Otherwise, a true relationship with God will be impossible.   With prayer, we speak and God hears. He answers our prayers, and we should continue to pray in gratitude and thanksgiving. That is how it should be. That is how we can develop past having an idea of who we believe God to be, and instead come to a point where we know exactly who God is.

The last thing mentioned in the series for which we need to make room is fellowship. When we make room for prayer we allow for growth in our relationship with God, but He doesn’t just want us to have a relationship with Him. He wants us to have relationships with each other. God made us social beings, and that affects all parts of our lives including our Christian walks. Our attempts to live righteous lives affects how we interact with each other. Pastor Pope pointed out that many of us are nicer to each other because we are trying to live godly lives. We become better at interacting with people because of our desire to live righteously. However, the dynamic works in the other direction too. Good social interaction with other people of God helps us to live righteous lives. As the James verse above noted, we are to confess to others and pray for others. These are acts of fellowship. The Bible instructs us to do those things and more because they are important to our growth. 

As Believers, our fellowship should be based on our mutual belief in Jesus and his resurrection. That common belief acts as a strong foundation for our relationships that allows us to positively influence each other and keep each other on the narrow path. Perhaps, most importantly, our fellowship in the name of Jesus brings glory to God.
Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. - Hebrews 10:19
Jesus died for us and every time we gather with others who believe as we do, we are providing a living testimony of our faith in our savior.
The things Pastor Pope named are certainly not the only things for which we should make room, but if we start with these things, then we will have given ourselves a strong foundation and a clear path to a better relationship with God.

Make Room

Make Room for Truth

Make Room for Prayer

Make Room for Fellowship

Chris Lawyer
Sermons By Pastor Everett Pope

Monday, October 14, 2019

Forgiveness Revisited


Normally, we wouldn’t really go back to a topic so soon after covering it, but an interesting case study in forgiveness took place recently and has stirred up quite a bit of controversy. Last year, a white off-duty police officer named Amber Guyger entered the home of Botham Jean, a black man, and killed him. According to Guyger, she had mistaken Jean’s apartment for her own, and upon entering and finding him there, she pulled her gun and killed him in what she claimed to be self-defense. Her account of the incident didn’t hold water for many who took this incident to be just another example of police officers killing black men unjustly. This incident was particularly egregious because the victim in this case was completely innocent of any wrongdoing and was, by all accounts, a very good person.

Guyger was found guilty of murder, which surprised those who had come to expect the police to always get away with killing blacks. However, her sentencing of only 10 years for the murder angered many, who believed that 10 years was far too short for the killing of an innocent man. At least one person, did not seem enraged by the short sentence. Brandt Jean, Botham Jean’s teenage brother, sparked a debate of sorts when he took the opportunity in court to forgive Guyger and gave her a hug. To some, the act was a shining example of Christian principles. Young Brandt had done something many people could not. He had chosen to forgive the person that had taken a loved one away from him and his family. Many applauded him for the act and pointed to his act as an example of the kind of humanity this world needs to see more. As discussed in the Forgiveness: Hard But Necessary blog entry, forgiveness is an essential part of the Christian walk.

However, many did not agree with what Brandt did. In fact, many were maddened by it and saw it as an example of what was wrong with the Black community and Black Christians specifically. They argued that such forgiveness was always one-sided and pointed out several cases where black people were convicted of similar or even lesser crimes and did not receive the same forgiveness. Many of the critics believe the tendency of Blacks to forgive to be a weakness and that Brandt’s action could only hurt the Black community by giving the impression that no matter what is done to Blacks, they will just roll over and take it. The criticism is harsh, but, to some extent it is true. Christian forgiveness is not guaranteed to turn enemies to friends, and some will look at the tendency to forgive as a sign of weakness. However, much of the criticism seems to be born from a lack of understanding about Christian motivation.

First, Christians don’t forgive because they are naïve enough to believe that their forgiveness will automatically change the ones being forgiven or the world at large. As we discussed before, we forgive out of obedience to God (Luke 17:3-4). We forgive as an acknowledgement that we ourselves are also guilty of sin and were forgiven by God (Colossians 3:13). Yes, some acknowledge the possibility that by forgiving someone, you may change that person’s heart, but hardly anyone believes that change is a guarantee. Few believe that an act of forgiveness, even one as public as Brandt Jean’s, will rid the world of racism and its other ills. The critics seem to be hung up on the idea that Brandt forgiving Guyger was somehow a gift to Guyger. They don’t realize that forgiveness can benefit the person doing the forgiving as much as it does the person being forgiven (Mark 11:25).

That’s part of the reason those critics can look at Brandt’s action as one born of weakness. They think that he gave something to the person that murdered his brother. In reality, it is more likely that he unburdened himself. His brother was murdered. He probably felt a mixture of emotions as an example – pain, anger, and even hatred. He knows exactly who committed the injustice, so Guyger likely acted as the target for all those emotions. Anyone who has experienced such emotions knows they can be like weights that can hold a person back and keep that person from moving forward. Guyger was basically the tether that tied Jean to those weights. By forgiving her, Brandt may have been able to cut that tether and give himself the chance to leave those weights behind. Maybe his actions will help Guyger deal with what she’s done and grow as a person. Maybe she doesn’t care about the forgiveness. Either way it doesn’t really matter, if Brandt’s actions allow him to recover from the trauma that resulted from the loss of his brother, then clearly his actions were beneficial.

Blacks have been and still are brutalized in this country. Often, Blacks have found themselves having to be the ones to accept wrong doing and move forward without compensation or even contrition from those guilty of the misdeeds. It certainly does seem unfair for one group in particular to be put in that position especially when the same understanding and forgiveness is rarely offered in the opposite direction. Still, Christians shouldn’t aim to do what is right out of the belief that we will be treated in kind. In fact, the Christian expectation should be that our good acts won’t be returned in kind. After all, Christ spent his whole life doing good and was thanked by being beaten and murdered. Being Christlike doesn’t mean being weak though. A weak man couldn’t have endured what Jesus went through before reaching the cross. A weak man wouldn’t have used his dying breaths to advocate for those that put him in that position. That was the example Jesus set for Christians. That was the example young Brandt chose to follow. It wasn’t easy or fair for Jesus, and it probably wasn’t for Brandt either. The truth is that doing the right thing is hardly ever the easiest thing to do. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done, and if people only do the right thing in times where there they can expect it to be reciprocated, it’s unlikely anyone would ever do the right thing. So it is on Christians to take the hard step, and even if there is no reward or recompense in this world, we will have pleased God and that will matter when we move on to the next world.

Nonbelievers may not ever understand or agree with what Brandt did. When Christians point out that what Brandt did was what Christians are supposed to do, some nonbelievers take that as proof that Christians are naïve and problematic. The harsh criticisms that Brandt has received demonstrate that. Christians have to learn a lesson from this. Christianity is about love, faith, and righteousness. One would think that exhibiting those things would endear others to you, but that is often not the case. Sometimes doing what you feel is right as a Christian will only turn people against you and gain you enemies. That doesn’t mean Christians should walk around with a persecution complex as some do, but Christians do need to understand that following Christ may leave you alienated and at odds with those around you, especially if you are surrounded by nonbelievers.
In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted - 2 Timothy 3:12
The above verse sounds dire, and one might wonder why it has to be true, but Jesus explained clearly why it is so.
If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. – John 15:19
Unfortunately, what Brandt Jean did was not typical in our society. It was an aberration. In this world, we’re led to believe that we should be angry and hateful and vengeance seeking, and anyone who doesn’t fall in line is either aiding the enemy or is also an enemy. As Christians, we have been given a set of principles and we have to stand on those principles whether everyone applauds us for it or hates us for it. That’s what Christ did, and who’s a better example than him?

Chris Lawyer
Image Courtesy of www.heavy.com

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Christian Culture Wars

Culture is defined as the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group. Cuisine, language, literary works, style of dress – these all act as elements of a culture and, in many cases, are clear indicators of a particular culture. If you see a person Hula dancing, you’d probably immediately think of Hawaii and the natives of that island. That’s just how strong the influence of cultural elements can be. Everyone who sees or partakes in them knows exactly which culture they represent. Christians as a group have an associated culture too. Does the culture that is associated with Christianity fairly represent Christ? That’s an important question because if the answer to that question is anything less affirmative than “absolutely,” we are doing something wrong.

For example, music is arguably one of the most important elements of any culture. Music is universal and almost every culture has its own style of music, which is easily identified as being representative of that particular culture. Christianity is certainly covered in that area. Whether it’s through contemporary Christian music or Gospel rooted in the slave customs of the past, Christians have definitely found a way to use music to praise and worship God, spread the Gospel, encourage other Believers, and accomplish a number of other tasks. The use of music in service of God was well established in the Bible.
Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs. – Psalms 100:1-2
These verses from Psalms make it clear that we are expected to use music in our worship and praise of God. In fact, the inclusion of Psalms in the Bible is proof of just how important music is to the Christian experience. After all, Psalms is largely a collection of songs about God and dedicated to God. They aren’t solely just for praise either. Consider the many songs from David like Psalms 56.
Be merciful to me, my God, for my enemies are in hot pursuit; all day long they press their attack. My adversaries pursue me all day long; in their pride many are attacking me. When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise—in God I trust and am not afraid. What can mere mortals do to me? – Psalms 56:1-4
David isn’t just praising God in the song. He’s explaining the goodness of God. He’s giving a testimony. Maybe some of the musicality of the song has been lost in translation and with the lack of the accompanying melodies, but the meaning is still crystal clear. Religious songs are a dime a dozen these days, but are they all really like those that David wrote? Does your favorite Christian song truly capture who God is and what he's done? Does it really put into perspective how important Jesus is? We have to be careful that we don’t allow the culture to be watered down. Anything put out there to represent Christianity should do that in a truly substantive way and not just in name. That isn’t just true for Christian music but also for any other element of Christian culture whether it be Christian movies, liturgical dance, or Bible influenced clothing.

Culture isn’t just about artistry and works though. The customs and values held by a group of people are also elements of its culture. For example, the term “Southern Hospitality” is often used to describe the customs of the people in the southern states. Friendliness is considered to be part of southern culture. In contrast, indifference to the needs and circumstances of others is often associated with more urban places like NYC. So, depending on the customs associated with a particular culture, that culture can be seen in either a positive or a negative light. To make things more complicated, a group might seem to have a singular culture from the outside, but in truth be made of a bunch of smaller subcultures. That’s how America is. As suggested above American culture includes both southern and urban subcultures among others.  The various American subculures are easily recognized by people that live in the country. However, people outside of the country may not recognized the distinction. What happens when different subcultures exhibit opposing characteristics? In those cases, we see intracultural wars – battles for the spirit of the larger culture. This is a problem we see in America today. Unfortunately, it is also a problem facing Christianity. It shouldn’t be though. The difference between America as a group of people and Christians as a group of people is that there is no core guidance that defines what American culture should be and what characteristics Americans should portray. Christians, on the other hand, have the Bible, which defines Christian culture and identifies what characteristics are fitting of the people within the culture.
Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. – Colossians 3:12-15
In those verses, Paul is explaining what characteristics should define Christians and by extension Christian culture, but are they the characteristics that those outside of the faith would attribute to Christians now? Or would they say that Christians are mean spirited, judgmental, unforgiving, and cruel? Maybe only a few people who claim to be Christians portray those negative traits, unfortunately, in today’s world the actions of a few often unfairly reflect on everyone in a group. So, your bad actions might not just be attributed to you. They might be seen as being reflective of all Christians and even Jesus himself. The last thing any true Believer should want is to badly represent Jesus.

Today, we Christians are in the middle of a culture war. On one side are the people who seek to ensure that Christian culture reflects what’s in the Bible and does Jesus and his teachings justice. On the other side are people who call themselves Christians but indulge in a culture that is anything but Christ-like. We must do everything we can to ensure that we are on the right and winning side of this battle. We must win for ourselves and for the Lord because our job as Christians is to bring others to Him, but if we are associated with a culture that makes Christ seem like someone that should be avoided, we can’t fulfill our mission. So, let us be sure to indulge in the music and other works that glorify God, but let us also strive to only engage in the customs that represent what God expects of us. Because if Christian culture doesn’t reflect Christ then we’ve already lost the war.
Chris Lawyer
Image Courtesy of www.evangel-temple.org