August 9, 2015
What does it mean to live in a post Christendom society? In his book, After Christendom, Stuart Murray defines post-Christendom as “the culture that emerges as the Christian faith loses coherence within a society that has been definitively shaped by the Christian story, and as the institutions that have been developed to express Christian convictions decline in influence.”
This has already happened in Europe and is happening in the United States. In the U.S Christianity has enjoyed a privileged status both in the culture and in politics. Over the years of our history by-in-large the culture has embraced Judeo-Christian ideas. The church has had a great deal of influence and acceptance so much so that politicians felt it important to identify as Christians. We have been known as a Christian country. But now Christianity is being pushed out onto the margins of society and we do not hold a privileged status anymore.
This morning I want to begin a series of messages on how Christians respond when culture turns against them. The idea came as I was thinking about people in the Bible who experienced a significant change in culture. Joseph and Daniel immediately came to mind. Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt, while Daniel and his three friends were exiled to Babylon. I will begin with Joseph since he appears in the book of Genesis. As society becomes more secular, believers must rest in the providence of God.
I. CULTURE CAN QUICKLY CHANGE. Gen.37
The story of Joseph begins in Gen.37. In v.1-4 we see that not only was Joseph a tattle tale, but he was the favorite of Jacob’s 12 sons. Favoritism is a recipe for family disaster. When Jacob honors Joseph with a special coat that would have been worn by a supervisor, the brothers are indignant. In addition to this, Joseph has dreams that he tells to his brothers and father. The dreams show Joseph in a place of authority and his brothers, mother and father all bow down to him.
It was too much for the brothers. As soon as the opportunity presented itself they devised a plan to kill Joseph. But Reuben, the first born persuaded them against it and eventually they end up selling Joseph to some Midianite traders who in turn sell him into slavery in Egypt. In v.36 it says, “Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard.”
Suddenly Joseph is in a new land, with new gods, with a new language, new customs and new ways of living. The cultural rug was pulled out from under him. Joseph is a slave in Egypt. To be fair, I need to point out that there were other slaves in Egypt from the land of Canaan, and who knows but that Joseph met some of them. But since Joseph was a believer in God, he may not have had much in common with the pagan Canaanites.
When I was in my teen years, the Jesus Movement was becoming a well-known phenomenon in this country. We all thought it was cool to grow long hair and listen to the new Christian rock music being written. We thought nothing of rolling tracks into toilet paper rolls so that people would get a tract in the rest rooms. We wore tee-shirts that had overt Christian statements on them. We were regularly going out to witness and generally we were well received, at least by other teens. What I am saying is that our witness didn’t surprise or really offend anyone. In 1977 when Jimmy Carter was elected President he was a Democrat who was born again. It was okay for a Democrat to be an Evangelical in those days.
In my life-time, the culture has changed. The Jesus Movement died out in the 80s. We would never roll tracts up in toilet paper today. People are offended when we talk to them about Jesus. And I doubt that any politician who made a big deal about being born again would get very far in the Democrat or Republican Party. And whereas, years ago we would invite an unbeliever to see a choir concert at our church, today, few unbelievers are all that interested in even stepping into a church. The culture has changed on us. Many others examples could be given. Joseph found himself in a different culture and…
II. WHEN CULTURE CHANGES LIFE CAN BECOME CHALLENGING. Gen.39-40
The story of Joseph picks up in Gen.39. There we learn because of his integrity and ability to manage the household of Potipher, Potipher puts Joseph in charge of the entire estate. Potipher trusted Joseph and didn’t even concern himself with his estate. Things were going well and looking up for Joseph.
We know the story. Potipher’s wife saw that Joseph was well built and good looking and she tried to seduce Joseph. At first Joseph tried to explain that sleeping with her would be a great wickedness against Potipher and God, but she wasn’t buying it. Day after day she pressed. One day she caught him by his cloak and when he ran away, she was left holding his cloak and accused Joseph of trying to rape her. Joseph didn’t have a chance. When you are a cultural outsider, the rules often go against you. So it was with Joseph. Just as things seemed to be going well he was falsely accused and thrown into prison.
Time went by. In prison the prison warden saw that Joseph was a leader. And he put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners. More time went by and at some point the cup bearer to Pharaoh and a baker in Pharaoh’s household were thrown into prison. They both had dreams and amazingly Joseph was able to interpret the dreams and all that Joseph said came true. The baker was put to death, while the cup bearer was restored to his position in Pharaoh’s house. Look at Gen.40:14. Joseph says to the cup bearer, “Only remember me, when it is well with you, and please do me the kindness to mention me to Pharaoh, and so get me out of this house.” But that didn’t happen and Joseph remained in prison for another 2 years. His life in Egypt had become very disappointing and difficult.
Yes, Joseph was a strong believer in God, but there were no churches or anything like that. He had no contact with his family. I mean, where was his support group? Joseph was largely on his own.
Now the things that happened to Joseph can happen anywhere. All of us can be falsely accused and even falsely put into prison. I realize this, but because our culture is changing many are deeply concerned about the potential difficulties Christians may face. For example, in Sweden, “all anti-homosexual speech is a criminal offense, including sermons or Bible readings that condemn homosexual behavior.” Canada has also passed hate speech laws, although those laws do not include the Bible as being hate speech. Nevertheless Christians and pastors in Canada must be careful. Could this happen in the United States? It surely could, but as far as I could discover there are no similar hate speech laws in the U.S.
With the Supreme Court ruling regarding same sex marriage, many are concerned that the next bomb to drop on the church is the withdrawal of our tax exempt status. If we lose our tax exempt status, it will go very hard for most congregations. Many congregations will have to close their doors.
Others are concerned that eventually pastors will be required to perform same-sex weddings. Our elders are currently looking at changes we need to make in our church constitution to help protect the church.
But more significant for us as believers is that generally in our country there is less tolerance for Christian teaching and morality. Followers of Christ are regularly discriminated against in the work place and in public schools. Christian professors who teach at secular universities are sometimes denied tenure because of their Christian beliefs. One would think it would be an easy decision for congress to defund Planned Parenthood in light of the recent revelations which show that Planned Parenthood is trafficking in the sale of aborted body parts. But so far it is not happening. As the culture tips further away from Christian principles it will become increasingly difficult for us to openly practice our faith. So how do we look at this? We must remember that…
III. GOD IS WORKING OUT HIS PURPOSES IN OUR CULTURE. Gen.
Let’s go back to Joseph. In Gen.41 to the end of the book we learn the rest of the story. Eventually Pharaoh has a dream and the cup bearer remembers Joseph. Joseph is brought before Pharaoh and he interprets the dream concerning 7 years of abundance and 7 years of famine. Joseph is promoted to 2nd in command just under Pharaoh. Eventually the famine comes, but because Joseph has prepared well, there is food in Egypt. At some point Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to buy food. Because Joseph is in a powerful position he is able to bring his entire family to Egypt. Joseph rescues his family. I’ve left out a lot of detail, but there are two observations I want us to see.
First, in this pagan culture, Joseph was faithful to God. When Potipher’s wife tried to seduce Joseph, he was very clear to say that he would not commit that wickedness against God. When the baker and cup-bearer came to Joseph, we read in Gen.40:8, “…And Joseph said to them, "Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me." And then when Joseph was brought before Pharaoh to hear his dream, we read in Gen.41:15-16, “And Pharaoh said to Joseph, "I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it. Joseph answered Pharaoh, It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.” And then after he interpreted the dream we read in Gen.41:28, “It is as I told Pharaoh; God has shown to Pharaoh what he is about to do.” And again in v.32, “And the doubling of Pharaoh's dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about.”
Sometimes in a culture where God and his Son, Jesus are not welcomed, we shrink back from identifying ourselves as followers of Jesus. Joseph did not shrink back. Had he not honored God, God would not have honored him. As Christians in a post-Christendom culture, we must confidently honor God without fear. We must put Jesus Christ first in all we do and say.
Secondly, in the story of Joseph we are brought face to face with the providence of God. When we talk about the providence of God we mean that God is working in every circumstance to bring about his good purposes. This truth shows up often in this story. For example, when Joseph was a slave in Potipher’s house we read in Gen.39:2-3, “The LORD was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master. His master saw that the LORD was with him and that the LORD caused all that he did to succeed in his hands.” Verse 5 continues, “the LORD blessed the Egyptian's house for Joseph's sake; the blessing of the LORD was on all that he had, in house and field.”
When Joseph was in prison we read in Gen.39:20-21, “But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. And the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison.”
Was Joseph aware that God was granting him favor? Perhaps. But at the same time being falsely accused and thrown into prison for a number of years would make one wonder if God was really pouring out his blessing.
The main example of God’s providential working is seen when Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream and was made second in charge over Egypt. By skillfully managing the 7 years of abundance Joseph provided for all Egypt during the 7 years of famine. But more importantly, Joseph rescued his family. Once Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, his brothers were afraid that Joseph would seek revenge. But no. Look at Gen.45:4-8. “So Joseph said to his brothers, "Come near to me, please." And they came near. And he said, "I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.”
Again, in Gen.50:19-21 we read, “But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.”
In the Bible we read the story of God’s ultimate purposes. In Eph.1:9-20 we see that God has made “known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” Jesus Christ was born as a Jew of the tribe of Judah, one of Joseph’s brothers. Through Joseph God was preserving his people so that Christ could come in the fullness of time.
We do not know what is going to happen to the Christian church in America. My sense is that we are going to continue to lose ground as far as our influence and power is concerned. My cousin who teaches philosophy and who is basically atheistic regularly posts articles and census studies that show the decline of the church. He has disdain for conservative evangelicals because he feels evangelicals are just another wing of the Republican Party.
We should not be worried about the church of Jesus Christ. The gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. God is working his purposes out and it is for us to be faithful and to learn to work within the new realities of our culture. I will have more to say on this later. It is for us to not become discouraged, but to trust in the Lord, our God.
Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hanity, Glenn Beck, Mark Levin and others say the sky is falling. Well it is. And as Christians we may be in for the worst of it. But God rules over all, and Christ is building his church. We do not take our marching orders from those men. We fix our eyes on Jesus. We will not shrink back but press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.