Sermon notes 08-16-20   When Brothers Dwell in Unity                Pastor David King

Genesis 45:1-15 Then Joseph could not control himself before all those who stood by him. He cried, “Make everyone go out from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept aloud, so that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed at his presence. 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. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; do not tarry. 10 You shall dwell in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, and your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. 11 There I will provide for you, for there are yet five years of famine to come, so that you and your household, and all that you have, do not come to poverty.’ 12 And now your eyes see, and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see, that it is my mouth that speaks to you. 13 You must tell my father of all my honor in Egypt, and of all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.”14 Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, and Benjamin wept upon his neck. 15 And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them. After that his brothers talked with him. (ESV)

Psalm 133 Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron,
    running down on the collar of his robes!
It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.

This past week I spent a couple of days with my two brothers, who had come to see our mother who is staying in our home while receiving hospice care.  I am the middle brother, with one brother a year older and another a year younger than I am.  We are all very close now, but it has not always been that way.  Like many brothers, we fought—a lot—as we were growing up.  For much of our childhood we all shared the same room so you can imagine how living in such close quarters led to all sorts of quarrels and fights.  We were also all very competitive; we could turn nearly any activity into a competition, and none of us handled losing well.  Sibling rivalry was definitely a thing in our home.

As we grew up and moved away from home, we stayed in touch but we did not become really close friends until all of us, at different times, came to a shared faith in Jesus Christ.  That faith we now share unites us even closer than our biological family ties, even though we are still not above some friendly but intense competition.

I am speaking about the unity that my brothers and I now share because that is the theme of our two passages of Scripture.  In the passage from Genesis, we heard the moving story of Joseph being reunited with his brothers who, out of their jealousy and hatred of him, had sold him into slavery two decades previously, because he was favored by their father Jacob.

And then we heard Psalm 133, which in my Bible has the heading, “When Brothers Dwell in Unity.”  That’s the key phrase in the psalm, and when we consider that phrase in light of the deep divisions in our nation, and even in our denomination, it is a phrase that seems like a pipe dream.  Based on the evidence all around us, it occurs to me that that phrase is like a couple of other familiar phrases we use that begin with the word “when,” such as:

  • When pigs fly
  • When hell freezes over

“When Brothers Dwell in Unity” … as if that is ever going to happen!

The Bible talks a lot about unity, but unity is a rare and elusive thing, even among Christians.  This morning I want to talk to you about what we do—that is, what those of us who call ourselves Christians do—to contribute to the animosity and deep division in the church and in our world.  There are any number of things we might do that cause disunity, but I want to focus on three things I believe Christians do, or mistakes we make that contribute to lack of unity: 1) we embrace an identity and loyalty to things that supersede our loyalty to Christ, 2) we are too easily offended; and 3) we are not careful enough about not offending others.

Let’s begin with a closer look at Psalm 133. With only three verses, Psalm 133 is one of the shortest psalms.  Maybe it’s so short because, when it comes to describing brothers living in unity, the psalmist doesn’t have much evidence to point to.  Think about the biblical record of brothers and their relationships: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers.  None of these relationships are exactly models of brotherly love; their stories are about bitter rivalries, stolen birthrights, human trafficking, and murder.

Maybe the rarity of brothers dwelling in unity is why the thought of it is so refreshing to the writer of Psalm 133.  The psalm writer uses similes to try and describe just how refreshing it is when brothers dwell in unity.  He describes dew falling on the mountains of Zion.  Dew on the mountains is an image of refreshment that I think we can all get.  Maybe this is where they got the name of the soft drink Mountain Dew!

But what about… precious oil on the head?  That image probably does not make us think of refreshment.  As far as I know, no one has ever named a soft drink Head Oil!  Yet if we think about what it was like for folks in that time, in that dusty and arid region when they did not have air conditioning or showers or body lotions like we have today, precious oil being poured on the head would probably have been a very soothing and pleasant experience.

But more importantly, beyond the image of refreshment, when the psalmist describes oil on the head of Aaron, he is describing Aaron’s ordination as a priest.  The oil used in ordination ceremonies indicated that the priests were made holy; they were consecrated or set apart for God’s purposes.  And I believe this psalm is teaching us that being set apart has a whole lot to do with brothers dwelling in unity.  Specifically, it seems to me that in order to attain the unity that God intends for to us to have, we have to willingly set ourselves apart from those identities and loyalties that cause us to be divided from our brothers and sisters in Christ.   

We humans have a real knack, or it seems even a real need, to draw up sides that are opposed to one another.  We kind of naturally and automatically set up dichotomies of opposition. We like to say things such as, ‘there are two types of people in the world; those who do (A) and those who do (B).’  We are constantly pitting sides against each other, and we passionately claim loyalty to one side or the other.  Think of the different ways that we constantly draw up sides of opposition:

Black vs. white

Male vs. Female

The North vs. the South

Red States vs. Blue States

Conservative vs. liberals

Traditionalists vs. Progressives

Republicans vs. Democrats

Mountain folks vs. beach people

State vs. Carolina

Duke’s vs. Hellman’s

Us vs. them

I could go on and on.  The point is that we are constantly choosing sides, and the problem is we often place our identity or our loyalty to one ideology or side or team or party or preference above our identity as followers of Jesus Christ.

Mitch Simpson is a preacher at University Baptist Church in Chapel Hill.  I heard him speak about this problem in a sermon when I was a member there many years ago (yes, I was once a Baptist … briefly!).  Dr. Simpson made the statement concerning his own denomination that Southern Baptists were sometimes inclined to be more Southern than they were Baptist, and more Baptist than they were Christian.

In other words, Dr. Simpson was saying that regional loyalty might be more important to some Southern Baptists than doctrinal beliefs, and adherence to certain Baptist doctrines might for some take precedence over being a true follower of Jesus Christ.

As for those of us who claim to be United Methodists, with the state that our denomination is in I don’t think anyone would accuse United Methodists of being more United than we are Methodist!  But I wonder sometimes if maybe the reason we are not more united is that we might be more Republican or more Democrat than we are Methodist, more liberal or more conservative than we are Christian, more traditional or more progressive than we are true followers of Jesus Christ.  I am convinced that there are more than a few Methodists whose theology and interpretation of the Bible are determined by their political ideology, when it should be the other way around.  For too many of us, some other identity has higher priority than our identity of being a follower of Christ.

The apostle Paul wrote about the place in our lives that anything other than our identity in Christ should have.  In Phil 3:5 he describes those things that formerly identified him and claimed his loyalties.  He says that formerly he identified as having been:

circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 


But then Paul goes on to describe being set apart from those things that formerly identified him:


But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.

So the question I want you to ask yourself is, when it comes down to it, are you willing to lay down your loyalties to your political party for the sake of dwelling with your brothers and sisters in unity?  Are you willing to consider your regional and racial and cultural heritage as rubbish for the cause of Christ?  Are you willing to be set apart from your ideologies in order to love others as Christ calls us to love one another?  Or, is being Republican or Democrat, or liberal or conservative, or Southern or Northern, or black or white, or even Methodist or Baptist, more important to you than being a true follower of Jesus Christ?

Now I want to quickly touch on the last two mistakes I believe Christians make that contribute to disunity. First, some of us are too easily offended.  (Tell the story of Richard Neal and Edna).

I believe that if more Christians embraced Richard Neal’s philosophy, there would be a lot less division in the church.  But sadly, too many Christians seem to have caught the disease of our culture that causes us to look for reasons to be offended.  Too many people in the world and in the church claim to be offended by things for which no offense was intended.  Looking for reasons to be offended is not helpful; in fact, it hurts the cause of those who have legitimate concerns or complaints.  Brothers and sisters, for the sake of unity, we should not be people who are looking for reasons to be offended.

But … at the same time (and this is my last point) for the sake of unity we should try very hard never to offend, and this is where we might need to rethink some of our identities and loyalties. We should be very careful to consider how the things we do to express our regional or racial or political loyalties—whether in the words we say or the flags we fly—can be truly offensive and painful to some of our brothers and sisters in Christ.  For the sake of dwelling in unity with our brothers and sisters, Christians ought to try never to unnecessarily offend others.

There are times when it might be necessary to offend; the Gospel itself can be offensive, but we ought never offend unnecessarily.

I want to close with a prayer for our church that we might all willingly set ourselves apart from those things that divide us as Christians.  May we strive not to be easily offended, and never to offend, that we might dwell together in the unity of our shared faith in Jesus Christ.  Let us pray.

Lord, we long for the day when brothers and sisters will dwell together in unity.  Help us, Lord, to willingly set ourselves apart from any identity, ideology or loyalty that causes us to be divided from one another and is not in keeping with the identity of a true follower of Jesus Christ.  Keep us from being too easily offended, and help us never to carelessly offend.  We ask these things through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.