Help for the Weary Soul

Help for the Weary Soul

Matthew 11:28-30

Dr. Jim Denison

I bring you greetings from the Baptist World Alliance, which met last week in Melbourne, Australia. It’s summer “down under,” 90 degrees and beautiful, but someone’s got to go “suffer for Jesus.” I learned to say “g’day, mates,” saw some kangaroos and koala bears, and heard some great messages. The Baptist World Alliance is just like all other Baptists—exciting, energetic, and disorganized. Someone said, “I don’t believe in organized religion—that’s why I’m a Baptist.” But it was a great meeting.

Janet and I were grateful to go, and glad to return.

Today I am to bring you my annual “state of the church” message. But while I’m interested in talking about our church and how we’re doing, I’m even more interested in talking about our souls and how they’re doing.

First walk with me through the word of God. Then you’ll see why I selected this text for us today, and its relevance for our church and our souls this morning.

What yoke are we wearing?

Jesus’ word to his disciples then and now answers four questions: what does he want us to do? Who should do it? How? And why?

First, what are we to do? Jesus invites us, “Come to me” (v. 28). The word “come” is better translated “hurry” or “come hither.” It means to hasten to him.

And to him alone. Not to the church, or religion, or other people, or ourselves. Go to Jesus, now. Don’t wait until tomorrow, or the end of the service. Come to him now.

Who needs to come to him? All the ones who are “weary and burdened.”

“Weary” translates the Greek word for “laboring.” This is in the active sense—those who are working hard of their own initiative. Work you’re doing to advance your career, to make more money, to help your family, to serve God and his church. Things you choose to do.

“Burdened,” on the other hand, is in the passive sense—those who have burdens placed on them by other people. The original context was the Jewish law, which Peter called “a yoke which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear” (Acts 15:10). The Pharisees gave the people 613 laws to keep, so as to keep the ten God gave. For instance, a woman was forbidden to look in a mirror on the Sabbath, lest she see a gray hair and be tempted to pull it, which of course would be “work.”

For us, the context applies to any work we didn’t choose. Grief over loss, crises at work or home or school or relationships, health problems. Anything someone else put on us.

If you’re tired today, weary of what you’re doing or others want you to do, you qualify for this invitation. This is all you need to come to Jesus. But you need to come to Jesus.

How? “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me” (v. 29).

The “yoke” refers to the typical means of guiding an animal in Jesus’ day. The farmer used to yoke to tell the ox where to do, how fast, how far, and how long. To take Jesus’ “yoke” is to submit to his will, his leadership, completely.

Take “my” yoke, he says. Not just any yoke, but Jesus’ alone. There are many to choose from—the yoke of my own pride and ambitions, the yoke of your expectations, the yoke of our culture and its definition of success. Of all the options, we are to choose Jesus’ yoke alone. We can wear only one yoke at a time—we are to wear his.

Then he says it another way: “learn from me. Enroll in my school,” this could be paraphrased. Today students go to school for a certain number of hours, pay more or less attention, and get good or bad grades as a result. In Jesus’ day a student gave his life to his teacher. The rabbis and philosophers all had their “schools,” and they followed their master twenty-four hours a day. They belonged fully to them.

So to wear Jesus’ yoke, to enroll in his school, is to give our lives absolutely and fully to him alone. Every time we go out to “plow” we put on his yoke. We seek his help and guidance all through the day, every day. We seek to please him and him alone. He is our boss.

Is he your boss this morning? Are you wearing his yoke right now?

Why should we wear it? “I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (vs. 29-30).

Earlier Jesus said, “I will give you rest.” The Greek original says, “I will rest you,” or as a doctor might say, “I will cure you.” I will impart to you rest. Now he repeats the promise. And any promise made twice in holy Scripture is doubly good. How do we know?

He is “gentle”—the Greek word is praus. Aristotle defined this as the man who is always angry at the right time and never at the wrong time. The man who always does the right thing. Jesus is the best boss for your life because he will always do the right thing with your life. When I first heard the gospel I rejected it because I didn’t trust what God would do with my life. Now I know that I cannot trust what I will do with my life, but I can always trust what Jesus will do with me.

He is “humble in heart,” wanting always your best. The worst boss uses you to advance his career and ambitions; the best boss puts you first. Jesus always does.

His yoke is “easy”—the word means that his yoke fits well. An ancient tradition says that Jesus the carpenter made the best yokes in all of Galilee, and that over his carpenter’s shop there was the sign, “My yokes fit well.” If the yoke is well fitted to the animal, it is “easy” to bear. He alone knows what purpose best fits our lives, our future. His yoke alone fits well.

Therefore, his burden is “light.” If the strap fits well, the luggage is light. If the yoke fits well, the burden attached to it is light. If your burden is heavy today, check your yoke. There are always enough hours in the days we give to God. The will of God never leads where the grace of God cannot sustain.

So, what is his yoke, his purpose for his church?

He made it so clear it is impossible to miss: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthw 28:18-20).

Our “yoke” is to “make disciples.” This is our business, our purpose. General Motors exists to make cars, and IBM to make computers. We exist to make disciples, fully devoted followers of Jesus. We exist to help people follow Jesus.

And so do you. When we do this, our yoke fits well and our burden is light, joyful, filled with purpose and significance. When we do not, our yoke is hard and our burden is heavy. How’s your burden today?

How will we wear our yoke this year?

Our church has clearly determined that we exist to help people follow Jesus. We will obey Jesus’ mandate to go to our city (Jerusalem), our area (Judea and Samaria), and our world (the ends of the earth).

Here’s what we’ll do in Jerusalem this year, to reach the 100,000 people living within three miles of our campus who aren’t in church this morning.

We will empower our people for ministry through a variety of worship and prayer experiences. Our traditional services on Sunday morning will continue to minister to the large majority of our church family, and to our community. Our new SaturdayNight experience will minister to those who choose to worship in a less traditional format, and will be a tool for inviting our friends who don’t have religious backgrounds.

And we will meet on Thursday mornings at 6:00 a.m. to pray for revival in our church and nation, and in a variety of other prayer meetings and spiritual growth experiences as well.

We will evangelize the lost through personal evangelism strategies, congregational events, and media initiatives. Our Personal Evangelism Leadership Team is developing ways to train and encourage us in reaching out to our friends and neighbors. Our Harvest Event this Spring will share the gospel with our entire community. The Seed Initiative continues to help us pray for our lost friends. Our Easter celebrations will share God’s love with all who come. And our media ministry will develop ways to communicate the gospel through a variety of creative media strategies.

We will equip our members to be ministers through Sunday school, LIFEtime courses, and Internet training. We will move even closer to a full lay seminary this year, and are developing the funding and equipment needed to make all training available through the Internet to our church and anyone else in the world. Our education ministry is developing a disciple-making strategy for every age group, as part of our comprehensive ministry plan for this year.

And we will engage our members in ministry through evangelistic projects, need-based ministries, and local ministry projects across our city.

How will we reach our area and the larger world?

We will continue to lead all Baptist churches in Texas in missions giving and support.

We will develop a global missions strategy to link arms with apostolic churches across our area and the world. We will then provide them with equipping resources and spiritual support.

Our members will serve Jesus in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Russia, China, Venezuela, and other foreign countries this year. And our members will help people follow Jesus more fully than ever before.

We will wear Jesus’ yoke, and our burden will be joy indeed.


What yoke will you wear this year? When the year is done, what will you have done? I can only recommend one yoke, one purpose for your life, if you want fulfillment, joy, and significance. Like your church, your purpose this year must be to help people follow Jesus. How will you do this? What is your strategy?

What lost people are you praying for? Who will you bring with you to church, on Sunday morning or Saturday night? What will you do to become better equipped for serving and sharing Jesus? What will be your ministry this year? How much money will you give to God’s eternal kingdom? How much time? How much sacrifice?

At the Baptist World Alliance meeting, Tim Costello, pastor of the Collins Street Baptist Church in Melbourne, told a great story. It seems that three pastors—a Methodist, a Catholic, and a Baptist all had the same, uniquely Australian problem: possums in the attic.

The Methodist told the others that he trapped the possums and drove them two hours out of town. But wouldn’t you know—in two weeks they were back.

The Catholic told how he trapped them and took them to the local zoo, but somehow they escaped and came right back.

The Baptist said, “I took a different approach. I baptized them and made them church members, and they haven’t been back since.”

Let us pray.

Let’s Make a Deal

Let’s Make a Deal

Exodus 20:4-6

Dr. Jim Denison

Remember the old game show, Let’s Make a Deal? The winner was defined by who made the most money and the best deals. And at the end the winner had to select Door Number 1, Door Number 2, or Door Number 3 for his prize. It might be something spectacular, or it might be a donkey.

Today we come to God’s Second Commandment. We’ll learn what God said to them, and what he says to us. And we’ll make a deal—hopefully, the right one for our souls.

Idols they chose

“Worship” is putting something or someone first in your life. The verb “worship” can take any noun as its object. We can worship something made of wood, stone, flesh, paper, or spirit.

If that which is first in our lives is anything or anyone but the Lord God, by definition it is an idol. What does God say about this?

You shall not

“You” is plural, applying to every one of them and every one of us. “Shall not” is a command. If you and I find that we have an idol in our lives this morning, we must get rid of it, right now.

Make for yourself

Here’s a basic principle for life: if you can make it, don’t worship it. If you can buy it, or sell it, or destroy it, don’t worship it.

I would rephrase this for our culture as well: “You shall not make of yourself” an idol. Anything we make for ourselves or of ourselves must not have first place in our lives, or it becomes an idol.

An idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.

The ancient Canaanites made their idols of wood, sometimes of stone, often covered with some kind of precious metal. They made them in all sorts of forms, which is why the Second Commandment prohibits forms from the sky, the earth, or the seas—thus, everything.

You shall not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.

This was a huge problem in the ancient world. The Egyptians worshiped idols, as did the Canaanites and the Jews’ own forefathers. The ancient Greeks, the most brilliant civilization of all time, also worshiped gods such as Athena and Zeus—so many, in fact, that Paul commented on the number of idols he found in Athens (Acts 17:22-23).

Idolatry was such a problem, there are fourteen different synonyms and words for “idol” in the Old Testament, and the Hebrew Scriptures say more about this commandment than any of the other nine.

Why was idolatry so common? Every human being is created with a need to worship God. As St. Augustine said, we all have a “God-shaped emptiness” inside us, and our hearts are restless until they rest in him.

But it’s hard to worship something you cannot see. So the ancients would make physical images for spiritual gods, seeking to portray divine characteristics such as power, fertility, or glory. But in time the means became the ends, and they began worshiping the idols themselves.

This God cannot allow, for he is a “jealous” God. The word is better translated “zealous,” and points to God’s desire for an exclusive relationship with us. Just as no husband who truly loves his wife could endure to share her with another man, so God will not share us with another god.

The term also shows that God truly cares for us, for we cannot be “jealous” or “zealous” about someone unless they matter to us.

Is this law or grace?

God says that he “punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” This is simply a Hebrew idiom, not a mathematical statement. The Bible teaches repeatedly that we must pay for our own sins, not those of others (Deuteronomy 24:16; Jeremiah 31:29,30; Ezekiel 18:1-4).

God is saying that our present-day idolatry has consequences for those who come after us, for they will likely follow in our footsteps. If I worship money, my children probably will, too. If I love Jesus, my family probably will as well.

This is why God says that he “shows love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” “Love” is the Hebrew word hesed, like agape love in the Greek—unconditional, unbreakable.

God is not saying that we earn his love when we worship him alone. He is saying that we put ourselves in position to receive this love by his grace. Then we respond by keeping his commandments. Jesus said, “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love” (John 15:10); his disciple John said, “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands” (1 John 2:3).

Idols we choose

Let’s sum up:

To “worship” is to put something or someone first in our lives. We all have an innate need to worship something or someone. The oldest art in the world is of figures used in worship. Bob Dylan’s old song is right: “You gotta serve somebody.”

But we don’t like worshiping what we cannot see. So we make physical images for a spiritual God, and wind up worshiping them. And whenever we worship anything or anyone that is not God, this by definition is idolatry.

Now, how is this relevant for us? Return to Let’s Make a Deal for a moment.

Religion is popular. We’ll call it “Door Number One.”

The Hindus have idolatrous images of their thousands of gods. The Buddhists venerate their images of the Buddha. The Hare Krishnas have their idols as well.

Do Baptists have idols? We do whenever we make the means of our faith into the ends of our faith. I have known churches which refused to sing, except from the hymnal; Christians who so venerated the church’s buildings that they refused to change them; people who so treasured their traditions and customs that they would not consider other ways to reach people. I know a church in Atlanta, for instance, whose pastor died twenty years ago, but he’s still their pastor, and nothing has changed. The average age of their membership is now 80.

Here’s a test for religious idols: can you worship God in any way except your way? If the answer is no, you’re on the way to making the means the ends. You’ve chosen this door. Don’t open it—there’s an idol inside.

Materialism is popular. We’ll call it, “Door Number Two.”

There is nothing inherently wrong with material possessions—a nice car, house, or suit. God’s word does not say that “money is the root of all evil,” but “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10).

Money becomes my idol whenever it is the end, not the means. When I work to make more money, not to accomplish something of significance for which I am paid money. When I want money for the sake of money, rather than for what I can do with money for God and others.

If I take money from God or his work to buy possessions, if I consider myself better than others because I have them, or if I measure my life significance by them, I’m in trouble. They have first place, and are my idols.

Here’s a test for materialism: can you give up your possessions and still be happy? If not, you’ve chosen this door. Don’t open it—there’s an idol inside.

Immorality is everywhere. We’ll call it, “Door Number Three.”

Listen to Colossians 3:5: “Put to death…whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.”

Ephesians 5:5 warns us: “No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.”

Any time we intentionally break the will and word of God, we put our own desires ahead of God. The next time you are tempted by immorality, ask yourself: do I want to commit this sin more than I want to honor God? If the answer is yes, you’ve chosen this door. Don’t open it—there’s an idol inside.

Last, we come to self. We’ll call it, “Door Number Four.”

Here we find the “unholy trinity:” “me, myself, and I.” Bestsellers tell us to “pull your own strings,” and “look out for number one.” Frank Sinatra sang the theme song of our culture: “I did it my way.”

Our “postmodern” culture says there’s no such thing as “absolute truth,” only “your truth” and “my truth.” They make this an absolute truth claim, by the way. There are no idols—only what you worship, and what I worship. If it works for you, fine.

We don’t apply this subjective view of truth to our car keys (any one will do), to our food (any quality or sanitation will do), or to our history (any Hitler will do). But we apply it to our selfish ambitions and choices.

Here’s the door I tend to choose: ambition, pride, a drive for perfectionistic performance. Working for myself, not God. Is this your choice? Don’t open it—there’s an idol waiting inside.


What do we do with our idols?

Admit we have them, that we’ve chosen the wrong doors. I’m an idolater by nature. So are you. The question is not, do we have them? but, which of them do we have?

Find them, then destroy them. Hear the word of the Lord: “Throw away the foreign gods that are among you and yield your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel” (Joshua 24:23).

Make a moral inventory of your life today. Ask the Spirit to show you any idols in your life. Take a sheet of paper and write them down. Destroy it. Confess them to God. And claim his promise: If we confess our idols, he is faithful and just to forgive us for them and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (cf. 1 John 1:9).

My friends, idols cannot help us. They’re like plugging a power drill into a disconnected socket, or putting a dead battery in a flashlight. They keep God from helping us. They are spiritual cancer. Eventually they consume us, and destroy our souls.

And so we must keep God’s Second Commandment, for our sake.

I’ll close with a silly story my youth minister told me in the tenth grade. It seems an eagle was flying in the sky one day when he looked down and saw a little man pushing a strange cart. On the cart was a sign with the words, “Worms for sale.” He landed and asked the man how much he wanted for his worms. The man said, “A feather for a worm.” That sounded good to the eagle, so he plucked a feather from his wing, gave it to the man, and the man gave him a worm. He ate it and flew off.

The next day the man was back, so the eagle traded another feather for a worm. The next day the same thing happened, and the next, and the next. Over time the eagle found that he could not fly as high as he once could, or as far, but by now he was dependent upon these worms. Every day he traded another feather for another worm.

Finally the day came when the eagle plucked a feather, gave it to the man, ate his worm, and tried to fly away—but he couldn’t. He’d lost too many feathers. Then he thought of a solution. He dug up a huge mound of worms, brought them to the man, and asked for his feather back. But the man said, “I trade worms for feathers, not feathers for worms.”

Don’t make the deal.

Once Every 365, 250 Days

Once Every 365,250 Days

Acts 16:6-15

Dr. Jim Denison

Days like yesterday don’t come along very often. In fact, it has been 365,250 days since the world last stepped into a new millennium. And a few things have changed since then.

Restaurants now have entire dining rooms for cell-phone users. The military has developed miniature robots, and will be modifying them for commercial use soon. A car connected to the Internet will be available this year, as will wristwatches which check e-mail verbally and work as cell phones. Soon cars will be able to guide themselves with radar-aided satellite cruise controls.

And in the next few years everything we own will be connected through the Internet. Clothes will monitor our health and report problems to our doctor electronically; appliances will monitor themselves and report repair problems before they occur; refrigerators will order food to be delivered; scanners will measure our bodies and order our clothing; we will touch the television screen and order the clothing the actor is wearing. Entire college degrees will be earned from our homes.

But while the future fascinates us, it frightens us as well.

Seattle cancelled its Millennium celebration due to terrorist threats. Security has been heightened the world over.

Millions of people stockpiled food and money for the Y2K problem.

A new word has been coined: “atmosfear.” This is the fear and uncertainty of everything around us—the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, fear of hospitals and viruses, fear of banks, the government, everything.

What about the future most worries you this morning? Your children? The society they’re growing up in? Your finances and job? Health? Marriage? Significance and purpose for your life?

How does God want us to face such an uncertain future? His word will help us, no matter what our fears might be.

A trip into the future

Paul’s future was in Macedonia. And he had no clue. Here’s how he found his future.

He is traveling through Phrygia and Galatia, because the Spirit would not let him preach in Asia. On a map of modern-day Turkey, this region would be in the center, where the capital city Ankara is today. I’ve been through the area, and was fascinated by it. A very ancient culture, dating back for thousands of years—in fact, I picked up a piece of clay pot which was dated at 3,000 BC. Ruins today, everywhere you look, waiting to be excavated.

This is where Paul had built churches during his first missionary journey. But now, for reasons completely unclear to him at the time, the Spirit will not allow him to continue his ministry here.

So they travel to Mysia, to the northwest, and try to go to Bithynia, further to the north, but “the Spirit of Jesus” (the only time this phrase is found in the New Testament) would not allow them to. Later, other Christians would plant churches in these areas. But not Paul.

Thus they arrive at Troas, a port city on the western coast of ancient Asia, modern-day Turkey. And here the future became the present.

For here, Paul heard the seven words which literally changed the world: “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” This was modern-day Greece, Europe, the West. Paul had never been here. So far as we know, no Christian had. He had no contacts, no place to start, and no plans to make this his future.

If he had turned back to the East, perhaps the gospel would never have come to Europe and the Chinese would be evangelizing us instead of the other way around. Some historians believe that the whole course of Western civilization and culture turned on this vision, this extraordinary and breathtakingly courageous decision by Paul to go to Macedonia.

Now Paul and Luke (note the “we” passages here), with the rest of their group, sail to the island of Samothrace, and on to the port of Neapolis (the modern city of Kavalla).

Then they hike ten miles along one of the most famous roads in history, the Via Ignatia, arriving at Philippi, “the leading city of Macedonia.” This road still exists today—I’ve seen the ruts in the marble made by Roman chariots.

Philippi had been so named by Philip of Macedon, for himself. It was a strategic military outpost, and the site of one of the most famous battles in history. Here Octavius and Marc Antony defeated Brutus and Cassius and Octavius became Augustus, the Roman Emperor.

The city was a “colony,” meaning that it was a little Rome. The people spoke the Roman language, ate Roman food, wore Roman clothes; most were retired Roman soldiers and their families.

Paul could not have chosen a more strategic first place for the gospel in Europe.

But their church begins in a most unusual and memorable way.

They go outside of town to the Zygaktis river, where they meet some women gathered to pray. Not at a synagogue, or with the leading men of the city, as in other places—this church begins by a river, with the women.

I’ve been to the river, and can tell you it’s a beautiful place to begin the first church in the West. Perhaps five to ten feet across, two or three feet deep at this spot, shaded by trees and foliage. The Greek Orthodox church maintains a concrete baptistry and church there today.

Here Lydia becomes the first European convert to Jesus.

She was apparently a Macedonia agent for a Thyatira clothing manufacturer, specializing in purple clothing. This was the most expensive clothing of the day, made from the glands of the murex shellfish (8,000 made one gram of dye) or the roots of the madder plant. Only kings and the wealthiest people wore this. So Lydia would know the chief influencers in the entire city. Small wonder that God led Paul to her, by this river, in this way.

She had already been worshipping God, seeking him. Never underestimate what God is already doing in the people you know—fully three-fourths of unchurched Americans say they would go to church if brought by a friend.

Paul tells Lydia the gospel, and God opens her heart. This is how the ministry partnership works—we do what we can, and God does what only he can do. We are responsible for telling the truth; God alone can save the soul.

And here, by this river, the first convert helps plant the first church. She is baptized publicly, then invites Paul, Luke, Silas, and their companions to her home. From this base Paul will heal a demon-possessed girl, and lead the jailer to Christ after God miraculously shatters his prison bars. To this church he would later write my favorite letter of the New Testament, Philippians.

All starting at the side of a river Paul had no idea he would ever see. Now, will God lead us as God led him? If so, how? What would Paul say to us about our future today?

How God leads us

Let God have your future.

The first principle Paul would articulate to us is very simple, and very profound: let God have your future. You may think you’re supposed to go to Phrygia and Galatia when you’re supposed to go to Philippi. Not one of us knows our future, or what’s best for us. If we close God in, limit his will, decide for him what’s best, we will miss his best. I like the saying, “God always gives the best to those who leave the choice with him.”

I was sure we were not supposed to move to Dallas. We loved Park Cities, but were not finished in Atlanta. But the day I finally let God have our future, no strings attached, was the day he spoke to my heart and to Janet’s and moved us here. This morning I am truly grateful to be by this Philippian river with you.

Does God have your future? Can he lead you anywhere he wants to?

Listen daily for his voice.

A second principle Paul would teach us: listen daily for God’s voice. God’s will is no blueprint, revealed a year in advance. Paul didn’t know until he was in Phrygia that he was to go to Mysia, and only in Mysia did he know to go to Troas, and only in Troas did he receive the call to Macedonia. Even in Philippi, he didn’t know about Lydia for several days, on the very day he led her to Christ.

God’s will is a present-tense issue. Have you recently made time for his Spirit to speak to you, to guide you? Sometimes he leads through open and closed doors, as he apparently did with Paul. Sometimes through the counsel of others, sometimes through the Scriptures, sometimes through an intuitive sense, sometimes through a very direct word, like a vision. But God will speak to us. None of us will stand before him at the judgment and plead ignorance.

There are radio waves in this room. But the radio must be on to receive them. Is your spiritual radio on? When did you last spend time listening to God?

Obey the last word you heard from God.

Finally, Paul would challenge us to obey the last word we heard from God. Keep doing what God told you to do, until he tells you to do something else. Then obey his new direction, immediately and boldly.

At the end of AD 2000, you will have successes and failures to remember, good days and bad. Your best days will be those you gave to God, the days you obeyed his will as you understood it. The martyred missionary Jim Elliott was right: he is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.

When we give God our future, listen daily for his voice, and obey what we hear, then God leads us into a future far greater than any we could choose for ourselves. Your best plans and highest dreams pale by comparison with his for you. And he will use make your life eternally significant, no matter what the world says about you.

Consider William Borden, heir to the family dairy fortune. He gave it all up to follow God to the mission field in China. Tragically, he died of spinal meningitis in Egypt, before ever reaching his intended destination. The world branded him a failure.

But not God. Borden left behind a scrap of paper, with the words of his life motto: “No Reserve! No Retreat! No Regrets!” And thousands of young people, inspired by his motto and his example, have followed him onto the global mission field, leading far more people to Christ than Borden could ever have reached himself.

Each year I make some phrase my motto for the year. I’ve adopted Borden’s. Will you join me?


I want to close this morning in a very different way. Not with a story or recap of the message, but by summarizing the most powerful single essay I have ever read. It is by C. S. Lewis, and it deals with the very heart of the Christian life. Listen closely—I think you’ll find it’s worth the effort.

Before we become Christians, we each take as our starting point our ordinary self with its various desires and interests. When we become followers of Christ, we know that we shall have to give up some of these desires and interests, and add others in their place. We shall have to go to church, read our Bibles, pray, give, serve, and so on.

But we are hoping all the time that when all the demands of our religion have been met, we will still have some chance to get on with our own lives and do as we like. We are like an honest man who pays his taxes, but certainly hopes there will be money left over for him to spend as he wishes. We want to be Christians and go to heaven, but we also want to have some time left to live our own lives. Isn’t that true?

But this is not the way of Christ at all. To quote Lewis: “Christ says, ‘Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself; my own will shall become yours.'”

This way is far harder, and far easier. It is so hard to hand over our entire lives to Jesus—all our time, our money, our abilities, our ambitions. Not just part of them so we can live as we like—all of them. And yet it is easier as well.

Take, as an example, two boys given a proposition in geometry to do. The lazy boy will memorize the formula because that’s easier for the moment. The other will learn the principle, even though that’s harder at the time. But when the test comes the lazy boy is working much harder over things the other boy understands and enjoys.

It’s like that here. The almost impossible thing is to hand over your whole self to Jesus. But it is far easier than what we are trying to do instead. We are trying to remain what we call “ourselves,” to keep our personal happiness as our great aim in life, yet at the same time be good Christians. This is exactly what Jesus warned us we could not do. As he said, a thorn bush cannot produce figs. Grass cannot make wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and resown. My whole life must belong to God.

Lewis says that this is why the real problem of Christianity comes where we do not usually look for it: at the very moment we wake up in the morning. All our wishes and hopes for the day rush at us like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back—in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting the other larger, stronger, quieter life of Jesus come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all our natural hopes and desires—coming in out of the wind—listening to Jesus.

We can only do it for moments at first. But from these moments a new life begins to spread through our system. Now we are letting Jesus work at our souls. It is the difference between paint, which is merely laid on the surface, and a dye or stain, which soaks right through.

Jesus never talked in vague, idealistic terms. When he said “Be perfect,” he meant it. He meant that we must go in for the full treatment. It is hard; but the sort of compromise we are trying to make is harder—in fact, it is impossible. It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird; it would be even harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. You must be hatched or go bad.

Then Lewis concludes: “This is the whole of Christianity. There is nothing else” (excerpted from Mere Christianity, 166-9).

What will your egg become this year?

The Game of Life

The Game of Life

Exodus 20:1-3

Dr. Jim Denison

Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? is the most popular show on television these days, with 33.6 million viewers most recently. And not long ago, an IRS agent named John Carpenter actually won the million dollars. I’ll bet he paid his taxes.

It looks like a simple game, but I discovered personally that if you don’t play by the rules you cannot win.

Did you call that number they advertised a few months ago to see if you could qualify to play? I actually did one night, just out of curiosity. I knew the question the recording asked. But I got flustered and didn’t push the buttons on the phone in the right order, the way they said to. I broke the rules. And so, sadly, I couldn’t play.

In the same way, the Ten Commandments are the “rules of the game.” These ten principles tell us how life works, and how to live if we want to live well.

In weeks to come we’ll learn how to handle our ambitions, religion, stress, parents, enemies, sex, possessions, lies, and lusts. These are God’s rules for every game we play.

Unfortunately, most people don’t know the rules, at least not very well. Newsweek magazine recently reported that only 49% of all Protestants, and 44% of all Catholics, could name even four of the Ten Commandments. Can you? Are you living by them, and thus living well?

The setting

Go back with me some thirty-four centuries into the past, and stand with ancient Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai.

We are on a sandy plateau some four thousand feet above the Mediterranean Sea. This is a plain roughly two miles long and half a mile wide, with enough room for two million people to stand together.

Towering overhead 2,200 feet is a huge granite mountain peak, altar-shaped and awesome. This is the mountain of God’s law, the throne from which the King of Kings proclaimed his Ten Commandments.

These words were inscribed by the finger of God on two tablets, written on both sides. If these tablets were twenty-seven inches long by eighteen inches wide, the 172 Hebrew words of these Ten Commandments could easily have been inscribed on them.

Moses shattered them in rage when he descended from the mountain and confronted the idolatry of the people. God made them again. Moses eventually laid them in the Ark of the Covenant, the sacred box carried before the people for centuries and eventually stored in Solomon’s Temple. When the Babylonians destroyed this temple in 598 BC they likely took the Ark, and it is now lost to us.

But the words it contained are not. Imagine it: an obscure tribe of Egyptian slaves plunges into the desert to hide from pursuit, and emerges with a code of ten “words” which is still authoritative today, 34 centuries later. A depiction of Moses and these Ten Commandments adorns the courtroom where the Justices of the Supreme Court meet, deliberate, and lead our nation’s legal system. These ten principles are still the foundation stones of moral and legal systems the world over.

Today we examine their first, and foundational command.

What does God say?

Western Union decided in 1876, “The ‘telephone’ is inherently of no value to us.” Lord Kelvin, president of the Royal Society, said in 1895, “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.” Charles H. Duell, Commissioner of the U.S. Office of Patents in 1899, said, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” Irving Fisher, professor of economics at Yale University, said in 1929, “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” And Decca Recording Company said in 1962, “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.” The group they rejected was the Beatles.

By contrast, our text begins, “And God spoke all these words.” Fortunately, this command is not based on our predictions, our rules, our laws, to be changed by the whim of our legislators.

God said this.

He is the “LORD,” the Hebrew word YHWH. This is the holiest name of God, meaning the One who was, is, and ever shall be.

He is “God,” the Hebrew word “Elohim,” the typical name for God.

He is “your” God—this God is personal. No Buddhist would say “Your Buddha;” no Muslim would say “Your Allah;” no Greek would say “Your Zeus.” But YHWH calls himself “your God.” We can know him personally, as you would know “your wife” or “your husband” or “your son” or “your daughter” or “your friend.”

He is the holy YHWH, who is yet our personal God.

What does he want of us? “You shall have no other gods before me.”

Remember that the Hebrews have just come from Egypt, where the people worshiped Ra, Phthah, Osiris, Isis, Horus, the animals, and the pharoahs.

They were going into polytheistic Canaan, the land of Baal, Ashtoreth, Asherah, Molech, and Dagon.

Their own ancestors had made the Tower of Babel, to make themselves God. Joshua had warned them, “Long ago your forefathers, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the River and worshiped other gods” (Joshua 24:3).

This would be their tendency as well. In fact, they would make and worship the golden calf even as YHWH was giving this command to Moses on the mountain above.

So, God says, “Have no other gods before me.” “Before me” means “against my face,” and requires absolute and unconditional allegiance to God and worship of him alone.

What a shocking surprise! Before this, everyone knew that the universe was wild and chaotic, a jungle of warring powers: wind against water, sun against moon, life against death. There was a god of the spring planting and another god of the harvest, a spirit who put fish into fishermen’s nets and a being who specialized in caring for women in childbirth; and at best there was an uneasy truce among all these, at worst a battle.

Now along comes this Moses, from an insignificant band of desert wanderers, and shouts that all these processes are one process from a single source, that the obvious many are the unthinkable One. And he shouted it so loud that it has echoed down all time. This was the greatest discovery ever made (from Joy Davidman, Smoke on the Mountain, 21).

Are you keeping his command?

How are you doing with this, his command to have no God but God?

Our country is not doing so well with these ten commands. Only 13% of us say we believe in all ten of the Commandments. 69% of us say that there is no moral absolute today—we’re our own moral determiners. We’re in charge, not God. Or so we think.

Who’s in charge of your life? Who comes first?

Paul Tillich, the German theologian, says that everybody has an “ultimate concern.” We all have something or someone who matters most to us. How do you know what yours is? Ask yourself three questions:

Where and how do you spend your time? That’s the real currency of our day. The average Christian spends ten minutes a day in prayer and Bible study. If I told you I loved Janet and my boys, that they come first in my life, but only spent ten minutes a day with them, would you believe me? Does your time serve God?

Who are you trying to impress? If you had to choose between pleasing God and impressing your friends, or your girlfriend or boyfriend, or your boss, or your employees, who would you choose? Is it your ambition to please God?

For what would you sacrifice? When was the last time it cost you something significant to follow Jesus? Today, I hope.

How’s your soul with the first commandment this morning?

Why should God be your Lord and boss?

He’s YHWH, the creator of everything that is. Maybe you think life began as a cell in a pool of water—where did the cell and water come from? If the universe began as a Big Bang, where did the Big Bang come from?

He’s our redeemer, the one who brought us out of “Egypt,” out of bondage to our sins and eternal death in hell.

He’s our personal God, “your God.”

He is the only God there is: “I am the Lord, and there is no other” (Isaiah 45:6); “There is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none but me” (Isaiah 45:21).

He demands our worship: “I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols” (Isaiah 42:8). Jesus said to Satan, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only'” (Matthew 4:10).

How can you make him your Lord and boss?

Ask for his help. Each of the Ten Commandments addresses a problem God knows we have. So here, God knows we have trouble making him our only God, our boss. Adam and Eve first sinned by trying to be as gods, and we’ve done the same thing ever since, from Nero to Hitler. Ask God to help you.

Examine your life. For what would you die? For what are you sacrificing today? What or who matters most? If the answer is anyone but the Lord God, obey Joshua 24:23: “Throw away the foreign gods that are among you and yield your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.”

Make time every day, early, to worship him: “It is the Lord your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him” (Deuteronomy 13:4). Decide each day to live that day to please God.

Start today, before you leave this place of worship. This is the only day you have.


People who don’t use seat belts spend 54% more time in the hospital each year than people who wear them. Are you wearing God’s seat belts for your soul? Put yours on, while you still can.

Ephesus was the largest, richest, and most influential city in all of first-century Asia. Their Temple of Diana was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. 425 feet long by 225 feet wide, she possessed 127 columns, each 60 feet high; 36 of these columns were covered with gold, jewels, and carvings. A spectacular sight, to be sure.

But according to Revelation 2, the Christians here lost their “first love.” They stopped loving Jesus as their highest priority, their first commitment. Jesus warned them that if they did not return to him, essentially to observing the First Commandment again, he would remove their church and their city would cease to be.

What happened? Ephesus is today a city of abandoned ruins. And the Temple of Diana lies in rubble, a stark sermon in stone to any who violate the First Commandment. We don’t break God’s rules for life, we break ourselves on them.

How is your soul with God today?