A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

Psalm 46

Dr. Jim Denison

President Bush calls the tragedy of this week “the first war of the twenty-first century.” This has been a week of horror and shock of a kind our nation has never experienced. As long as you live, you will never forget where you were or what you were doing on September 11, 2001. But a mighty fortress is our God.

The World Trade Center towers in New York City stood 1,368 feet tall, comprising 110 stories each. Costing $400 million, they were the tallest buildings in the world when they were completed in 1973. A person could see for 45 miles from their observation decks at the top. They were actually designed to withstand an airplane collision, but the fires from the attacks of September 11 destroyed their infrastructures. If they could collapse, anything manmade can. But a mighty fortress is our God.

Martin Luther wrote Christendom’s most famous hymn in the midst of a world in collapse and change. Reformation and Renaissance were shaking the very foundations of his culture and nation. Psalm 46 became his anchor in the hurricane, his shelter in the storm. He wrote his hymn to claim its promises, to seize this anchor. His hymn has been translated into 183 languages. We will grasp its hope today.

Here our gravest and greatest questions are answered. Let’s ask them together.

Why did this tragedy happen?

The first question any human asks in a crisis like this is, Why? Why did this happen? Many have asked me that question this week, from young people to older adults. As they ask themselves and each other the same question. Why?

There is a political answer to the question, of course. If it is confirmed that Islamic terrorists planned and executed this act of war, we know that they did so in retaliation for our nation’s support for Israel. Please remember that this act would then represent only an extreme, radical fringe within the Arab Muslim world. Please do not associate all Arabs or Muslims with this outrage. Shooting at a mosque in Dallas is terrorism as well. There is a political reason for this assault on our country, and we will know it in time.

But there is a spiritual answer to the question as well, and it deserves our focus today. Our text promises that God is “our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (v. 1). If he is such a help in trouble, why did he allow this trouble, this tragedy? If he is our refuge and strength, why did this atrocity happen at all?

You know that God made us with free will, so we could choose to worship him. As we remembered just last week, we exist to worship and glorify our Creator. Freedom of will is necessary to this purpose.

And so God has given us free will, and he will not take it away from us. Could God have stopped these terrorists? Yes, by removing their free will. But then he would have to remove yours and mine as well. He would have to prevent every human attempt to sin and attack others. We could no longer be free to worship God or love each other. We could not be human. And this God cannot and will not do that.

As long as there is life on this fallen planet, there will be misused free will and its sin. Not because this is the will of God, but because it is the will of man.

A second spiritual reason for this atrocity is just as clear: Satan is very, very real. Peter called him “a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Jesus warned us that he “was a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44). Luther was right: “Still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe; his craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.”

So America has now joined that tragic list of nations which have experienced the atrocity of terrorism on our own soil. From Israel to Ireland, from the Balkans to Indonesia, from Lebanon to Somalia, much of the world knows the grief and outrage we feel today.

Last Sunday we never dreamed we would see the week that has been. But our nation has lived through it. What do we do now?

What do we do now?

Our nation faces tragedy and crisis. So do many of you.

Some of you have family and friends directly affected by this atrocity. Some of you have family and friends scattered over the world, trying to get home. Some of you work in vocations which will be directly affected by this week’s events. We all grieve in shock and pain, as we wonder how our lives will be forever changed.

And some of us face other crises which are very real and personal for us. In the midst of the horrors of these days, I’ve also walked with members of our church family who are in marital crisis, financial crisis, health crisis. Surgeries await; diseases progress; funerals have been held; many are hurting in ways less visible than the tragedy in New York City but no less real.

What do we do now? Our Psalm has the answers.

First, run to God (v. 1).

“God is our refuge and strength,” his word promises us. A “refuge” is a place where we go to escape, to be sheltered and safe. But we must choose to go there. A refuge is no good unless we use it. If we think we can stand the storm, the crisis, the tragedy alone, this refuge cannot help us.

So run to God. The Hebrew word for “refuge” is literally “a place to which we flee.” Don’t walk—run to him. Run to his help, his power, his love, his grace. And seek the strength he offers. His power and help can be yours, if you will ask for it from him.

First Things First

First Things First

Matthew 22:34-40

Dr. Jim Denison

Football season begins today. The best definition of football I’ve heard came from an English visitor’s first impression: 22 men in desperate need of rest, being watched by 70,000 people in desperate need of exercise.

And the math only gets worse. The NFL estimates that 100 million people watch by television some part of a football game on any given Sunday. Watching the 1,643 people who made NFL rosters this year. By my calculation, that’s a ratio of 60,864 fans per player. Watching every mistake, every penalty. Every fan sure he could do it better.

No wonder the coaches look that way on the sidelines. You’ve heard the old adage, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you.” They believe it.

We can afford to be spectators in some areas of our lives. But not with our souls. You and I will each stand personally before the God of the universe one day, to give account for the years he gave us to live. There are only two questions on that final exam. Two commitments which give our lives purpose, significance, and joy; two commitments which give our eternity reward and delight. We’ll remember them and pledge ourselves to them anew in these weeks together.

Let’s begin where Jesus began, putting first things first: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (v. 37). We need to remember what worship is, what it isn’t, and why it matters so much to our God and to our souls.

What is worship?

Let’s understand first what worship is, as God sees it. It’s not what our culture thinks it is, or even what many church attenders think it is. We’ll see what it’s not in a moment—see what it is to God.

Worship is “love.” This is how the first commandment begins: “Love the Lord your God.” Love is a verb, not a noun or an adjective here. It requires doing, not just attending, watching, or believing in. You haven’t worshipped by attending church, listening to a sermon, singing hymns, or giving money. You’ve only worshipped when you’ve loved, adored, honored. Worship is love.

Worship is loving God: “Love the Lord your God.” Worship is about God, not us. It’s not about what we “get” from the hour, but what we give to God. You are not the audience, and we are not the performers. God is the audience of One, and you are the worship performers. Our job is to help you do your job, to be worship “coaches,” to lead you to love God today.

I am grateful for every scripture which stands over your heads as you worship God today. If I could add any words to our architecture, I would put over the doors as we enter to worship, this statement: “It’s not about us.” Worship is loving God.

And worship is loving God in every way a human can love.

With all our “hearts.” The word refers to our emotions, our senses. You need to feel love for God today.

With all our “souls.” The word means the life force itself, that which gives our bodies life, our very essence. Not as a peripheral matter but as your highest purpose and value today. You need to love God passionately today.

With all our “minds.” We are to have no ungodly thoughts, or songs, or movies, or television shows, or books in our minds. We are to think about our faith, to study God’s word, to engage intellectually in the worship of God.

This is every way a human can love: emotionally, passionately, intellectually. Is this your worship experience? Make it so today.

And make it so this week. Mark’s version adds that we are to love God with all our “strength” (Mark 12:30). This means to love God with our actions, when the worship hour is done. Nowhere does our text limit itself to church or Sunday worship. God measures our love for him not just by Sunday, but by Monday. By whether or not we love him tomorrow as we say we love him today. He’s looking for Monday Christians, Monday worshippers.

Did you know that you can love God in the same way you love anyone else who matters to you? You can spend the day with him—talking with him, thinking about him. Tell him how you feel, what you’re thinking. Thank him for the good things you experience, for “every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17). Ask him for what you need, and praise him for what he gives. Spend the day with Jesus. Love him. Worship him. This is his first commandment, his first expectation for your life and mine. For every day.

So we can identify what worship is not:

Performance—by me or by us. God has called us to help you worship God, but you are the performers. Don’t evaluate worship today by my performance, but by yours. That’s how God measures our worship today.

Entertainment. Worship is to be exciting and encouraging, but we are not in the entertainment business. We’re not here to impress you—you’re here to impress God.

Therapy. God helps us as we worship him, but our first purpose is to worship him. Interestingly, we get far more out of worship when we come not for us but for him. When we worship for his sake more than our own.

Evangelism. Evangelism results from worship, as people see Christ in our joy. But we don’t evaluate worship by how many public decisions get made at the front of the church. God evaluates it by how many hearts adore him all across the church.

About us. Remember INAM—it’s not about me. Write it over your heart every time you enter this place. Worship is about loving God. Every day.

Why does worship matter?

So why make such a deep and costly commitment as this? Why does God put this commandment first, for his sake but for ours as well? Why make this your first priority in life? For these reasons.

Making Holes in the Darkness

Making Holes in the Darkness

Acts 2:1-14

Dr. Jim Denison

Robert Louis Stevenson, then a child of six or seven years, was standing at his window one night watching the lamplighter at work. One by one, the lighter would light the streetlamps as he walked down the road. Young Stevenson watched with fascination. His nurse asked what he was doing. The little boy answered, “I am watching a man making holes in the darkness.” We need holes in the darkness today, don’t we?

Military action against al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden is imminent, and the Taliban as well. This action may already be underway as we speak. Our troops may be in Afghanistan, a country which has never been successfully invaded before.

Such action causes many to worry about a military draft and the future for their children of such age.

The stock market has seen its most chaotic days since the Great Depression. Layoffs threaten the jobs of multiplied thousands of people in Dallas. Many of you wonder about your financial future and that of your family.

And the typical problems of life in these stressful days continue unabated. Marital tensions, family problems, health issues, school struggles. We need holes in the darkness.

The light we need is available to us. In fact, if you’re a believer, you already have all the power and help you need. What God’s Spirit did for the first Christians, he’s waiting to do for us. Come with me to the Upper Room, then we’ll make this place of worship our Upper Room today.

Receive God’s Spirit

Here’s the situation. Jesus’ followers number around 120, in a hostile world of 25 million. The very people who executed Jesus are now the enemies of his followers. What they did to him, they stand ready to do to them. Yet Jesus has charged them with reaching that hostile world in its entirety—all 25 million.

One third of the world today claims to follow Christ. .0006% of their world did.

If we were in their shoes, we’d be doing something. We’d be organizing strategies, starting ministries, doing all we can. They knew better.

“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place” (v. 1). Pentecost was the 50th day after the Passover Sabbath. Jews from around the world were crowded into Jerusalem for the religious holiday.

Meanwhile, Jesus’ church was crowded into a single room. Where and why? Jesus had told them to wait in Jerusalem for the “gift” of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4). So, at the risk of their very lives, they met in an Upper Room of a Jerusalem house, where they prayed constantly for God’s protection and his Spirit’s power.

And God kept his promise (vs. 2-4). A violent wind filled the room, so they could hear the Spirit’s approach. Tongues of fire rested on them, so they could see his approach. And they were each “filled” with the Spirit of God—this means that their lives were surrendered completely to the Spirit’s purpose and power for them. The Holy Spirit took up residence in their souls and lives, and he never left.

This is how you and I received the Spirit—when we asked Christ into our lives, his Spirit moved into our souls. The Holy Spirit is God alive and at home in us, the Spirit of Christ in our hearts. As a result, these first believers began to “speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (v. 4).

This was the Spirit-empowered ability to speak in known languages they had not learned. This was not the ecstatic prayer and worship language known as “unknown tongues” in Corinthians and other places. These believers were simply given the ability to share their faith in the languages of the people who had come to Jerusalem from all across the world.

The text makes this clear: “Each one heard them speaking in his own language” (v. 6); “How is it that each of us hears them speaking in his own native language?” (v. 8); “We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (v. 11).

By this gift, never repeated again in the New Testament, these believers were able to share their faith with the multitudes crowded into their city. If I were in Cuba and could suddenly preach in Spanish, this would be the same gift. The point is that God gave them the power they needed to fulfill their purpose.

Now Peter stands up to preach. The same Peter who had denied he knew Christ, who had fled from his cross in fear. Now the bold power and authority of the Spirit is his. So he preaches the gospel to the very crowds who had shouted for Jesus’ crucifixion and the very officials who had carried it out.

The result of the Spirit’s work through this first Christian sermon was dramatic: “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?'” (v. 37). Peter called them to faith in Christ, 3,000 responded in faith, they were baptized, and the church was born.

All by the power of God’s Spirit at work in the lives of God’s people.

Have you done what Peter and these first Christians did? Have you asked Jesus Christ to take up residence in your life? Have you yielded yourself to his Spirit? If you have, you have the Spirit, the person, and the power of Almighty God himself alive in your life. You are God’s temple, and God’s Spirit lives in you” (1 Corinthians 3:16). Today.

Be assured of God’s love

Now, how does this fact relate to our lives, our problems, our fears and needs in these troubling days? First, it assures us of God’s love. The fact that God’s Spirit lives in us is his assurance of his love and grace. And we need that assurance.

Many are suggesting that the tragedy of September 11 is God’s punishment of America and even of the American church. My friends, when 7,000 people died on that day of infamy, God wept. The Creator of all the people who died grieved their death. God judges and punishes sin, but he doesn’t kill innocent people by the thousands to do it. We need to know in these days that God loves us, absolutely and unconditionally.

This Is a Spiritual War

This Is a Spiritual War

Zechariah 4:1-7

Dr. Jim Denison

America faces a war unlike any we have ever fought. This war is not for land, money, or power, though all will be involved. This war is not with a nation, though nations will be sorely affected. This conflict pits us against a spiritual opponent who fights for spiritual reasons. His aims and methods are spiritual in nature, and his irrational zeal is inspired by his spiritual fervor.

This is a spiritual war. We need spiritual help, the power of the Spirit himself. We have begun already to sense this, with more people crowding into more churches for prayer and worship than we have seen in a generation. We are right. We need the Spirit’s power for our lives, our future, our leaders, and our nation. Today I must show you why this is so, and how the Holy Spirit can empower each of us for the days ahead.

The spiritual enemy we face

First I must talk about the spiritual enemy we face. To no one’s surprise, on September 13 Secretary of State Colin Powell named Osama bin Laden as a prime suspect in Tuesday’s attacks. Who is he, and what does he want?

The US indicted him for masterminding the 1998 bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; he has been connected to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1993 killing of American soldiers in Somalia, the mid-90’s bombings of US facilities in Saudi Arabia, and the 2000 attack on the US Cole.

Authorities have prevented his associates from launching attacks during the millennium celebrations, from bombing a dozen trans-Pacific flights in 1995, and from assassinating the pope and President Clinton in the Philippines.

So we know what he has done. Why does he do it?

Osama bin Laden is the most notorious leader of a strain of militant Islam that has been growing in the Muslim world for 30 years. Its fundamental belief is that the Muslim world is being poisoned and desecrated by “infidels.”

These “infidels” include both the US and Israel and governments of Muslim states such as Egypt and Jordan which have relationships with them.

These “infidels” must be driven out of the Muslim world by a jihad, the Arabic word for “struggle” often identified with holy war. Then strict Islamic rule must be established everywhere Muslims live. These extremists want to reestablish the golden age of Muslim domination which followed the death of Muhammad. The Taliban’s Afghanistan rule is their model for such a state.

Why has he attacked America?

Bin Laden is especially angry with the United States because of our military presence in Saudi Arabia. When the Saudis invited our troops to their defense after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, bin Laden and others were repulsed at this desecration of their holy land. And so he has bombed American military facilities in Saudi Arabia, and attacked our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania eight years to the day after our first troops were dispatched to Saudi Arabia.

He is furious about our support for Israel, and cannot tolerate our alliances with moderate Arab governments in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (see David Plotz, “What Does Osama Bin Laden Want?” Slate, 9-13-01).

In brief, he wants to drive America out of Muslim nations, annihilate Israel, and establish the strictest Muslim rule over the Muslim world.

It is highly significant that most of that world has denounced both his aims and his tactics.

“Islam” means “peace” or “surrender” to Allah. It focuses upon the Koran as Allah’s revelation of himself to mankind through the prophet Mohammed.

Strict morality and obedience to the Koran, five daily prayers, almsgiving for the poor, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and pilgrimage to Mecca characterize its basic tenets. Nowhere does the Koran link “holy” and “war.”

It is wrong to speak of bin Laden and his movement as Muslim, just as it is wrong to speak of David Koresh or Jim Jones or the KKK as Christian.

The enemy we now face is unlike any we have seen in military terms. Bin Laden’s organization, called al-Qaida (Arabic for “The Base”), has mobilized perhaps hundreds of cells across the nations affected by its strategies. These underground movements are very difficult to define and attack. While they have been supported by Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Algeria, Libya and Syria, among other nations, attacking these nations would not destroy the movement. Killing bin Laden would not by itself destroy the movement. This is why our president warns us that the war ahead will be long and hard.

And so we must have God’s power and God’s strength. We are facing a spiritual enemy, one which seeks not more money, power, or land, but spiritual goals through spiritual fervor. We are facing a military struggle which will require spiritual strength. The wonderful news is that this power is available to every one of us and to our nation, today.

The spiritual power God will give us

This is by no means the first time God’s people have been tested by their enemies. Let me take you to a place and time amazingly like our own, and offer you the help which gave that people the hope and victory they desperately needed.

The year is 538 B.C. Cyrus, king of Persia, has just conquered Babylon and freed the Jewish people to return from their Babylonian captivity to their homeland in Israel (Ezra 1:2-4; 6.3-5).

Led by Zerubbabel, about 50,000 Jews journeyed home and began work on their temple. Two years later they finished its foundations amid great celebration (Ezra 3:8-10).

But their success aroused the wrath of neighboring nations. These people didn’t want Israel back in the land at all, and feared their renewed spiritual and military power. They opposed this project vigorously, threatening the Jewish people with war and lying about them to the Persian government. For 14 years the temple’s foundations lay untouched, the nation fearful, their walls and city little more than rubble and ruins.

What is the Unpardonable Sin?

What is the Unpardonable Sin?

Matthew 12:30-32

Dr. Jim Denison

For three weeks during the presidential campaign of 1988, two California whales gained more global attention than candidates Bush and Dukakis. “Bonnett” and “Crossbeak,” as they were named by marine biologists, had become trapped in Alaska as an early winter iced them in. Eskimos were the first to notice their plight, and to try to help with chain saws and poles. The media publicized the problem. An Archimedean Screw Tractor was next on the scene, breaking up the ice between the whales and open water. But it was too slow, so the National Guard flew in two CH-54 Skycrane helicopters with five-ton concrete ice bashers. Next came a twenty-ton Soviet icebreaking ship, eleven stories tall. $1.5 million was spent to help two whales move sixty miles to open water and freedom.

What the world did for those whales, God has done for every one of us. And at even greater cost, giving his only Son to die on a tortured cross. To break through the sin which trapped us and lead us to abundant, overflowing, joy-filled eternal life.

Tragically, not everyone knows that story. Probably the most common single question I’ve been asked in 25 years of ministry is, “What is the unpardonable sin?” So many people are afraid that they or those they love have committed this sin.

So what is the “unpardonable sin?” What isn’t it? And why are the answers so important to us today?

What is this sin?

Let’s begin by understanding Jesus’ words on our subject.

Our Lord has healed a demon-possessed man, the crowds think he might be the Messiah, but the Pharisees say that he drives out demons by the devil himself.

So Jesus responds, “the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven” (v. 31). He repeats his warning: “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (v. 32).

Peter could deny Jesus, Thomas could doubt him, and Paul could persecute his followers, yet they could be forgiven. But “blasphemy against the Spirit” cannot be forgiven, now or at any point in the future. This is the “unpardonable sin.”

So, what is this sin? Let’s set out what we know. We know that Christians cannot commit this sin. 1 John 1:9 is clear: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” “All” means all. No sin is unpardonable for a Christian.

We know that this sin relates to the work of the Holy Spirit in regard to unbelievers. Jesus is warning the Pharisees, those who rejected him, that they are in danger of this sin. So what does the Spirit do with non-Christians?

He convicts them of their sin and need for salvation (John 16:8-9).

He tells them about Christ their Savior (John 15:26).

He explains salvation (1 Corinthians 2:14).

When they confess their sins and turn to Christ, the Spirit makes them God’s children (Romans 8:9, 11).

In short, the Holy Spirit leads lost people to salvation.

So we know that it is the “unpardonable sin” to refuse this salvation. To be convicted of your sin and need for a savior, but refuse to admit it. To be presented the gospel but reject it.

Why is this sin unpardonable? Because accepting salvation through Christ is the only means by which our sins can be pardoned. It is “unpardonable” to reject the only surgery which can save your life, or the only chemotherapy which can cure your cancer. Not because the doctor doesn’t want to heal you, but because he cannot. You won’t let him. You have rejected the only means of health and salvation.

The unpardonable sin is rejecting the Holy Spirit’s offer of salvation, and dying in such a state of rejection. Then you have refused the only pardon God is able to give you. Don’t do that. Be sure you have made Christ your Lord, today.

What about suicide?

Now, this question inevitably raises a second and very difficult issue: what about suicide? So many people mistakenly believe that suicide is the unpardonable sin. What does the Bible teach about this tragic subject?

God’s word consistently warns us that suicide is always wrong. Deuteronomy 30:19 is God’s command, “Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” Job knew that the Lord gives and the Lord takes away, that life and death are with God and not us (Job 1:21). Paul teaches us, “You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). And the sixth commandment is clear: “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).

God gives us life and he alone has the right to take it. It is always too soon to give up on life. God can always intervene, and often does. You’re not done until God says you’re done.

That said, why is suicide so often thought to be the “unpardonable sin?” Not because the Bible ever teaches this, for nowhere does God’s word make this connection. Here’s the story in brief.

Eventually the Church came to separate “mortal” from “venial” sins. “Mortal” sins would condemn a person to hell, “venial” to Purgatory. Only by confessing a mortal sin could a person avoid hell.

Murder, including self-murder, was one of these mortal sins. And of course a person could not confess this sin after committing it.

So, by logic, suicide was defined as the unpardonable sin. But nowhere does the Bible teach that this is so.

Suicide is always wrong, always a sin, and always a tragedy. It places far more grief and pain on family and friends than life would have. It takes into human hands a decision which is God’s alone. It leads to judgment and loss of reward by God in eternity. But it is not the unpardonable sin. Those you care about who committed this sin are not in hell for having done so. Rejecting Christ is the unpardonable sin, and the only one.