Participating, not initiating

Graphic of two people in conversation found via GoogleWhen it comes to sharing the Good News, I’m tempted to think that I’m the one who’s supposed to make people interested in Jesus and matters of faith. Believing that, however, betrays how I think I’m more important than I really am! Yes, God uses me and you to do important work in his Kingdom, but he’s always a step ahead of us – getting us ready and preparing situations for our arrival on the scene. That is, we’re not supposed to initiate getting someone interested in Jesus; we’re called to participate in how God is already at work in that person’s life.

The apostle Paul opens his letter to the Philippians with thanksgiving to God for the church of Philippi and then says this: “[I am] confident of this, that he [that is, God] who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion.” It wasn’t Paul who began the process of the Philippians becoming partners with him in sharing the Gospel; it was God who got the ball rolling. The same remains true for us in our encounters with people who are not yet Christians: The Holy Spirit who guides our words and actions is also nudging and warming the heart of the individual who doesn’t know Jesus yet and is waiting for us to introduce him.

Knowing this is very liberating. Instead of worrying about how to convincingly show and tell someone about Jesus, we can first listen to what’s going on in his or her life. Something they figure is a coincidence or has no meaning might actually be God at work – it’s just that they need us to gently help them recognize it! Or maybe the answer to something that is perplexing them can be found in the Bible – it’s just that they need us to winsomely point it out! What’s more, something as simple as our interest in them might be what the Holy Spirit uses to help them see that God is interested in them, too.

Talking about faith with people who do not walk with Jesus is daunting. But I find courage in knowing that in those special moments where God is leading me to give witness to him, God is going before me, preparing both me and the other person.

I wrote this a few weeks ago for “Grace Encounters,”
the newsletter of
Trinity CRC’s Outreach Team.

Joseph 7: “A Gracious Transformation”

“God’s purposes are not always clear, but Joseph knows that God seeks to save.  The twists and turns of his life have given Joseph the perspective to know that what God does is enough to satisfy the heart.”
– Julius T. Medenblik, president, Calvin Theological Seminary

As his story wraps up, I’m inspired by Joseph’s ability to see God’s hand at work even in the worst parts of his life. Instead of hating his brothers, he forgives them and encourages them to see what God is doing through and around them. Actually, Joseph has forgiven hisForgiveness graphic found via Google brothers long ago, but they have a hard time believing it.

This part of Joseph’s story leaves me pondering my attitude toward forgiving others: If someone has wronged me, and I’m waiting for the apology, and I can hardly wait for them to beg and grovel in front of me so I can perhaps attach a list of conditions before I hear them, I’d better rethink how forgiveness works! As I asked in yesterday’s message, can I have a forgiving heart even before someone asks for forgiveness? If I am called to be like Jesus and if I am filled with the Holy Spirit of Jesus, then it’s indeed possible and I’ve got to pray for a heart like that! That kind of heart beats with the same rhythm as God’s heart if you consider how He arranged for my forgiveness long before I ever asked Him. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” the apostle Paul teaches. Having been graced by my forgiving God, I pray for the same grace-filled attitude when before someone approaches me with an apology.

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Here’s the complete Joseph-Lent-Easter series that Pastor Bobby and I led at Trinity CRC:
:: Joseph 1: “Only in Your Dreams”
:: Joseph 2: “Run, Joseph, Run”
:: Joseph 3: “In the Meantime”
:: Joseph 4: “Haunted”
:: Joseph 5: “The Substitute” (Good Friday)
:: Joseph 6: “My Son Was Dead and Is Alive Again!” (Easter)
:: Joseph 7: “A Gracious Transformation” (above)

Joseph 6: “My Son Was Dead and Is Alive Again!”


I don’t know what other word to use to describe discovering so many connections between the Joseph of the Old Testament and Jesus’ resurrection! At the climax of the story of Joseph as well as on Easter Sunday, we witness God transform death into life.

Father Jacob was convinced his son had been dead for years, probably decades. But it turns out Joseph is actually alive and has risen to power in Egypt! I am reminded of the father of the lost sons in Jesus’ parable inviting the older son to come into the house to feast and celebrate when the younger son returns from the far country, saying, “We [have] to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again.” I can hear Jacob saying, This son of mine was dead as far as I knew, but now he’s alive again! Joseph is alive, and Jacob at long last is at peace.

Empty grave graphic found via GoogleOn Easter we celebrate that God’s Son is alive. Unlike Joseph, who was only presumed dead, Jesus truly was dead. He died on the cross and was buried in a tomb. But, as we sing, “death cannot keep its prey,” and “up from the grave He arose!” And unlike Joseph, who was ruler only in one particular country, Jesus rules over the entire world. Jesus is alive and He reigns, so I can be at peace.

Finally there is joy in the story of Joseph. Yet it really only foreshadows the even deeper joy I have in the risen Christ. You’re welcome to read more about that in my Easter message based on Genesis 45-46. And consider giving thought to this question: What difference is Jesus’ resurrection making in my life?

Joseph 5: “The Substitute”

I know our series at Trinity CRC is supposed to be about Joseph, but on Good Friday we spent a good chunk of time considering his half-brother Judah. He makes a speech biblical scholar Terence Fretheim in his commentary on Genesis calls “a literary masterpiece” in which he pleads to the Egyptian governor (who, unbeknownst to the brothers, is Joseph) on behalf of his younger brother, Benjamin.

Benjamin has been framed for stealing Joseph’s silver cup. All the brothers appear before Joseph and are given the opportunity to walk away from their trouble simply if they leave Benjamin behind in Egypt to live the rest of his life as the governor’s slave. Essentially, they have the opportunity to do to Benjamin the exact same thing they did to Joseph years before: Betray and ditch their little brother and be on their merry way.

I am happily astonished at how much Judah and his brothers have changed (something I started exploring in my last blog entry). Instead of abandoning Benjamin, Judah begs the governor, “Please let your servant [i.e. me] remain here as my lord’s [i.e. your] slave in place of the boy, and let the boy return [home] with his brothers.” In his commentary, Bruce Waltke observes that this is the very “first instance of human substitution in Scripture” – where one person willingly gives up him- or herself in place of another. And Judah’s the same one who years ago said, “Come, let’s sell [our brother] to the Ishmaelites!” It’s hard to believe we’re talking about the same person! That Judah, by the grace of God, has changed is undeniable.

God, in His grace, invites me to change, too. He loves to see me grow in Christ. Sometimes in some areas, the growth will be as dramatic as Judah’s. At other times in other areas and perhaps more often, Growth graphic found via Googleit will be more subtle. But, as the Holy Spirit directs, grow I will. In fact, as I’ve said before, it’s impossible for followers of Jesus not to grow. Anything that’s alive will grow! Without growth, our spiritual muscles will atrophy, our convictions will become fuzzy, our obedience to Jesus increasingly sporadic.

It makes me want to look back over the past week, month, and year to see where God has been making a difference in my life and helping me grow more and more “in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (to quote Peter). Maybe you’d like to consider that, too.

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You can read my Good Friday message here. It touches on growth, but focuses more on how Judah’s willingness to take his brother’s place anticipates the perfect “substitutionary atonement” of Jesus through His death on the cross.

Joseph 4: “Haunted”

“Guilt is like the red warning light on the dashboard of the car.
You can either stop and deal with the trouble,
or break out the light.”
– Source unknown

One of the things that makes the story of Joseph so appealing and memorable is how the people in it change. In my message yesterday, we saw how Joseph’s brothers are confronted with the opportunity to do the same thing to Benjamin as they did to Joseph. Years before, Joseph’s brothers abandoned him when they sold him as a slave and now they have the opportunity to also ditch Benjamin in Egypt. This option is presented to them by the Egyptian governor as a quick and easy way to solve their problems and head back home to Canaan.

However, the guilt that has haunted the brothers has had at least one positive effect: The brothers have changed for the better. Guilt graphic found via GoogleInstead of hightailing it back to Canaan, they choose to meet with the governor and plead for Benjamin’s life.

But they aren’t the only ones who have changed: Joseph has changed, too. When we first meet him, Joseph comes off as a brat as he struts about in his ornate robe, tattles on his brothers, and indiscriminately describes his dreams of ascending to prominence. There’s no excuse for the brothers’ cruelty towards him, but he certainly knew how to make life miserable for them, too. Perhaps he’s haunted with his own sense of guilt.

Like his brothers, Joseph has also changed. As Pharaoh observed, Joseph has become “discerning and wise.” Joseph has been growing in ways that are enabling him to create reconciliation within his family, something that wasn’t even on his radar in his younger years.

The story of Joseph and his brothers inspires me to own up to my guilt, to recognize and confess the stupid things I’ve done that have hurt God, others, and myself. I see guilt as simultaneously a warning and a blessing, a call to stop doing something wrong and an invitation to experience grace. For when guilt prompts me to seek and receive forgiveness, there is healing and liberation. Do you want to join me in thinking about and responding to guilt this way? It’s not an easy process, but it’s one the Holy Spirit uses to slowly but surely make you and me more like Jesus.

Joseph 3: “In the Meantime”

What do we do when things don’t go according to plan? That’s the question Pastor Bobby addressed yesterday in the third installment ofPlan A, B, C graphic found via Google our series on Joseph at Trinity CRC (you can watch it here). Whether it’s our toast getting burnt or finding out that we didn’t get into the college of our choice, a lot of things veer off course in our day and throughout our lives.

How much of Joseph’s life didn’t go according to plan? He is sold by his brothers. He is forced into slavery in Egypt. He is thrown in prison on false charges. Finally Joseph receives some hope in Genesis 40 when he correctly interprets cupbearer’s dream: Pharaoh is going to restore the cupbearer to his position in the king’s court and Joseph asks the cupbearer to remember him once he’s free again. For how many days, weeks, or months does Joseph hold out hope until he came to the sad realization that the cupbearer has forgotten about him?

I appreciate how Bobby described the two things that can happen to me when things don’t go according to plan. This applies whether I am merely inconvenienced or suffering severely. On the one hand, the pain may keep me from recognizing or helping someone else who is suffering: I’m consumed with my predicament, leaving me with little interest or energy to observe what people around me are going through. On the other hand, the pain may make me uniquely qualified to identify with and reach out to someone else who is suffering: My troubles may increase my empathy for others who are experiencing trouble.

Jesus invites me to choose the latter, to reach out even when life is crazy. Jesus endured more pain than I’ll ever know, yet He chooses to identify with my pain. Even more than that, He reaches out, pulls me up, and gives me fresh courage and strength. That’s Jesus’ plan for me, and that remains constant even when everything else I count on falls apart.

Joseph 2: “Run, Joseph, Run”

“I can resist everything except temptation.”
– Oscar Wilde

My second installment in our series on Joseph at Trinity CRC circled around the theme of temptation. I wonder what’s harder for Joseph in Genesis 39 – to give into the temptation to commit adultery with Mrs. Potiphar or to give into the temptation to give up on the God of his fathers? Think about it: Joseph is abandoned and sold into slavery by his own brothers. He is exiled to Egypt where his boss is the king’s chief of security (a.k.a. the country’s “Executioner General”). Who would blame Joseph for thinking, If this is how the God of my fathers treats the people of families with whom He has repeatedly made covenants, I don’t want anything to do with Him.

Yet Joseph resolutely sticks with the God of Israel, pursuing Godliness Graphic of fleeing found via Googleand fleeing from sexual temptation. Choosing to be faithful to God certainly plays a role in successfully resisting temptation. Although Joseph’s response to Mrs. Potiphar’s advances is spontaneous, it reveals serious forethought. In the moment of temptation, Joseph was prepared to do the Godly thing.

Even though I might know what the Godly thing to do is, I find ways to justify doing the opposite. I suspect that if Satan is unable to convince me that temptations don’t exist, he’ll settle for me becoming the master of exceptions. He loves for me to think, Yeah, that’s an important rule, but it doesn’t really apply to me, especially considering everything you’re going through right now.

It leaves me asking how can I be sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s leading so that I, too, can be prepared when temptations arise. He prompts me to recognize the types of temptations to which I’m susceptible, whether it’s lust or pride or selfishness. He helps me investigate when these temptations are strongest so I can make a plan for how I can avoid those occasions, situations, and/or locations. And that says nothing about the strength I find in prayer and having an accountability partner.

Our gracious God provides us with plenty of ways to run like Joseph, fleeing from temptation. Can you and I run together?