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.


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.


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.


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.