A Counselor for Chaotic Times

A Counselor for Chaotic Times

Isaiah 9:2-7

Dr. Jim Denison

Today I have a secret to reveal: my middle name is Clarence. James Clarence Denison. Here’s the story. The oldest Denison male in every family was given the middle name of Irvin, without exception. My father hated that middle name. But he knew the only way my grandfather would allow him to break the tradition was if my grandfather’s first name became my middle name. And the rest is history, with apologies to the two resident members out of our 9,400 members who are similarly named.

Things could always be worse. The full name of Prince Charles of England is Charles Philip Arthur George of the House of Windsor. His titles are: His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales; Knight of the Garter; Knight, Order of the Thistle; Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester; Duke of Cornwall and Duke of Rothesay; Earl of Carrick and Baron Renfrew; Lord of the Isles and Great Steward of Scotland; Personal Aide-de-Camp to the Queen; and Great Master of the Order of the Bath. And of the rest of the house, I’m sure.

Titles and names can be trivial pursuits. Or they can reveal the inner character and permanent identity of their bearer. The latter is so with the Christ of Christmas. Isaiah named him Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. Never have we needed such a God more than today.

Newsweek‘s latest cover: “The Hunt for Bin Laden.” Time‘s cover: “Inside the Manhunt.” And they were published Thanksgiving week. The bearded figure most Americans are thinking about this season isn’t Santa Claus. We need peace for a world in pieces.

This morning we’ll begin with the first title of the Christ child, the first promise to us: a counselor for chaotic times. Who needs one today?

Who needs a wise counselor?

As our text opens, seven centuries before Christmas, the world is at war, as ours is today. Assyria will destroy Israel and threaten Judah; then Babylon will overthrow Assyria and enslave Judah for seventy years. War clouds are brewing, and there is no blue sky in sight.

In such chaotic times, the people are seeking counsel from everyone but God. They are turning to “mediums and spiritists,” consulting “the dead on behalf of the living” (8:19). They are ignorant of the “law and testimony,” the revealed word of God (8:20). And so they “see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom” (8:22).

Our text describes their confusion and chaos further. The people are “walking in darkness” and “living in the land of the shadow of death” (9:2). They feel the “yoke that burdens them,” the “bar across their shoulders,” the “rod of their oppressor” (v. 4). They have known the “warrior’s boot used in battle” and the “garment rolled in blood” (v. 5). Their nation is in chaos, distress, spiritual confusion. They need a Wonderful Counselor.

Do we?

Are you more afraid than you were on September 10? Afraid of airplanes, tall buildings, and mail? Worried about the future, and your future?

The most recent New England Journal of Medicine reported that ninety percent of Americans admit to symptoms of stress following the September 11 attacks. Post-traumatic stress levels in our country are increasing five fold.

Even before September 11, doctors estimated that 70% of our illnesses are the result of mental stress and worry. And heart specialists listed such stress as the number one cause of heart disease.

Marvin Harris is an anthropologist and the author of America Now. He documents the fact that America’s increase in cults, drug addiction, and suicide is a direct result of a lack of direction and spiritual purpose for our lives.

Boris Becker, the youngest man ever to win the Wimbledon tennis tournament, nearly took his own life a few years ago. Here’s why: “I had won Wimbledon twice before. I was rich, I had all the material possessions I needed—money, cars, women, everything. I know that this is a cliché—it’s the old song of the movie and pop stars who commit suicide. They have everything and yet they are so unhappy. I had no inner peace. I was a puppet on a string.”

Jack Higgins, the author of The Eagle Has Landed and other bestsellers, was asked, “What would you have liked to have known at the age of 16, which you now know to be true?” His answer: “I would have liked somebody to have told me that when you get to the top, there’s nothing there.”

How do you feel about your future, your life direction, your purpose? The ladder you’re climbing today? The world you inhabit? Would you like a Wonderful Counselor?

Who is a wise counselor?

“Wonderful” in the Hebrew means “so full of wonder as to be miraculous.” “Counselor” points to a man of such wisdom that he can advise kings, the wisest man in the land.

The words together can be translated, “He who plans wonderful things.” He is a Counselor in his office waiting for your questions and problems. And he is also a Counselor in your office, the God who steps into your history, your world, your life, the proactive Creator who has a plan for your life every day.

One of my favorite promises in God’s word is Jeremiah 29:11: “I know the plans I have for you—plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” The maker of all creation has a plan for your life, and it is wonderful. The Christ of Christmas is ready to counsel you, to guide you with the wisdom of God himself.

This was Isaiah’s first name for the baby of Bethlehem. Was he right?

When he was only twelve, he had his first audience with the religious scholars. The result? “Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:47).

When he taught the people, “they were amazed. ‘Where did this man get this wisdom?'” they asked (Matthew 13:54).


Peace, Be Still

Peace, Be Still

Mark 4:31-35

Dr. Jim Denison

A friend sent me these actual newspaper headlines: “Include your children when baking cookies”; “Iraqi head seeks arms”; “Miners refuse to work after death”; If strike isn’t settled quickly, it may last a while”; “Typhoon rips through cemetery; hundreds dead”; “Kids make nutritious snacks”; and most insightful of all, “War dims hope for peace.” It usually does.

We need peace in our hectic lives.

Wendy’s now averages 150.3 seconds between the time you place your order and you receive your food. McDonald’s is 16.7 seconds behind. But McDonalds will soon offer scanners which work with toll road devices; they will enable drivers to pick up food without paying, and add the charge to our monthly toll road bill.

A new pill is being tested which appears to nullify the effects of sleep deprivation, so we can work more and sleep less. Its inventors expect to make millions.

There is good news for our hectic world. Tuesday’s news reported this fact: scientists have determined that our earth is spinning more slowly with each passing day. In merely 200 million years, a day will have 25 hours in it; in 400 million years, we’ll have 26 hours in a day. Just think what you’ll be able to do with the added time.

In the meanwhile, we need peace for our hectic and troubled hearts.

And of course we need peace in our war-torn world. The conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East fill the front pages of our daily papers, and our hearts. Threats of further terrorism are repeated every week. Our first-ever Secretary for Homeland Defense is busy. We need peace.

And so, of all Isaiah’s promises about the baby in Bethlehem, perhaps the one most welcome to us today is that he will be the “Prince of Peace.” Literally, the “Prince who brings Peace” wherever he goes. Let’s watch Jesus prove Isaiah right, and learn how to find his peace where we need it most.

Hear him speak peace

The episode begins safely enough: “That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, ‘Let us go over to the other side'” (v. 35). Note that Jesus has a will for the evening, as well as the daytime, for every hour of our lives. And note that these men are in that will when they sail across the Sea, into the storm they don’t know is coming.

The Sea of Galilee sits 682 feet below sea level, like a bowl at the bottom of the rugged hills and craggy mountains which surround it on all sides. So when weather fronts blow through the area, their gusts are magnified by these mountains like a wind tunnel, and storm down from their heights onto the unsuspecting sea below without warning.

This is just the crisis here: “A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped” (v. 37). Mark’s word is Greek for a terrible storm or even a hurricane. Matthew’s account uses the Greek word for an earthquake—it was that terrifying on these waves.

The waves are literally “attacking” the ship. These seasoned, veteran sailors know a dangerous storm when they’re in one—and they’re in one now.

And Jesus is asleep through it all. The incarnate Lord was fully human. The Bible says that he was tired at Jacob’s well (John 4:6) and thirsty on the cross (John 19:28). He was tired here.

So as he slept, they rowed. They fought the winds, braved the seas. Four of them were professional fishermen and sailors, and all knew boats and the Sea of Galilee. But finally, when all hope was lost, they cried out to Jesus for help.

He arose immediately. He “rebuked the wind” which was causing this storm. Then he shouted to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” In the King James, “Peace, be still.” In the Greek, “Shut up! Put a muzzle on and keep it on!”

Instantly, obediently, “the wind died down and it was completely calm” (v. 39). Like a disobedient puppy cowering before his master. The disciples said, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (v. 41). They said it in amazement. As would we.

Out of all this event can say to our storm-tossed souls and world, I suggest this one principle: we should go to Jesus first. Not last. Not after we’ve rowed our hardest and tried our best and fought as long as we can. If we want peace, we must go to him first. Let’s discuss that principle for a moment.

Admit you need Jesus

Why didn’t they call on Jesus first? Why don’t we?

Think about your own experience with storms—at home, at school, at work, across your day. What is your first response? Do you pray first, or last? Do you decide what to do, then ask God to bless your decision if you turn to him at all? Do you fix the problem as best you can, before calling on God if you can’t?

That’s my nature—performance driven, a little perfectionistic, do whatever it takes, never give up. I understand these disciples perfectly. I’ve rowed my boat against storms just as much as did they. Haven’t you?

Why don’t we turn to Jesus when the storm first attacks? Some of us don’t think we need to. We think our boat is big enough, the storm small enough, our abilities good enough, our training and experience all that’s needed. Like these veteran sailors, we’ve been through storms on our lake before, and we know how to handle our boats. We like rowing. We don’t need help. We want to do this ourselves. We think we can.

But no boat, no ability, no money, no possession, no resource is enough to live at peace without God. That’s just how he made the world, and us.

Some of us have given up on peace. We accept storms as a way of life. We’ve been through so many downpours, so many hurricanes that we’ve given up on peace in our hearts or homes. We’re accustomed to a life filled with stress and strife, hectic hurry and perennial pressure.


Strength for Stormy Days

Strength for Stormy Days

Matthew 14:22-36

Dr. Jim Denison

I hate roller coasters. As long as I can remember, I have hated high places. Jesus said, “Lo I am with you always,” and that’s enough for me. So you can imagine what I think of roller coasters.

They used to have simple names. Now those at Six Flags in Arlington are called Mr. Freeze, Flashback, Texas Giant, Runaway Mountain, Shockwave, Judge Roy Scream. The newest monstrosity is suitably named the Titan. Towering 255 feet above the earth, it drops people at 85 mph. People wait in line for an hour to ride for 3.5 minutes. But not me. Our youngest son has already ridden this beast, and thinks its great. I think it’s hell defined. Or at least Purgatory.

You know how a roller coaster feels. Your car gets to the very top, and just comes over it. You can see only the sky above you, but you know that the bottom is about to fall out. And you’re right.

This morning I’d like to show you a prayer for the roller coaster. A prayer for stormy seas, a prayer which brings peace to a world in pieces. It’s the shortest prayer in the Bible, and one of the most urgent. If the prayer of Jabez was special, the prayer of Peter is even more significant. Whatever your theological depth or spiritual knowledge, you can pray this prayer. And you should.

I’d like you to learn to pray it with me today, and every day for the rest of your life.

See Peter’s problem

First let’s join the story where this amazing prayer is found.

It’s late at night, around 3:00 in the morning, and we’re on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus has sent his disciples off in their boat, while he climbs one of the nearby hills to pray.

Suddenly a catastrophic storm attacks them.

These disciples are in a small fishing boat. A few years ago archaeologists discovered a boat they date to AD 40, identical to the one these disciples used. It measures 27 feet by 7½ feet; its sides are just over an inch thick. It’s no help in a storm. I’ve been on the Sea of Galilee during a wind storm in a tour boat, much larger than their fishing vessel, and found it a frightening experience.

Now their boat is “buffeted by the waves” (v. 24). The Greek word means that it was “tortured.” Water is stinging their faces and drenching their bodies. The wind is howling in their ears. They are fighting for their lives.

And Jesus sees their crisis.

He walks on the water three or four miles to them. Matthew records the miracle just that simply (v. 25). By now Matthew has seen Jesus crucified and risen from the grave—walking on water is no big deal to him.

But it was to them, and they are terrified.

So Jesus calls to his frightened disciples: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid” (v. 27).

Peter takes him at his word. “If it’s you…” is better translated, “Since it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water (v. 28).” Jesus calls, “Come!” So Peter goes. He leaves his boat for Jesus. This man who has spent his life fishing these waters now walks on them. Imagine a pilot flying without his plane, a deep-sea diver without his apparatus, an astronaut without his suit. He walks to Jesus.

Until he sees the wind and the waves. Taking his eyes from his Lord in fear, he begins to sink. He’ll drown. He’s going to die.

Now comes his prayer, one of the greatest and most profound prayers found in all the Bible and all of recorded literature. A prayer filled with the deepest spiritual and theological significance. A prayer we must all learn to pray every day.

Here it is: “Lord, save me!” It’s just that simple. And that profound. And Jesus answers this prayer, then and now.

Trust Peter’s Lord

Do you need Peter’s prayer? Let’s spend some time with each of his three words. First, “Lord.” Master, King, Boss. The Romans insisted that their Emperor be called “Kurios.” Peter calls the Nazarene carpenter Kurios. Lord. Why? Why should we?

Peter knows some things about the Christ born at Christmas. For instance, he knows that Jesus is the creator of the cosmos. Anyone who can calm storms and walk on their waves must be their creator. And he’s right.

Colossians 1:16 teaches, “By Jesus all things were created.” All things. Not coincidence or chance—the creation of the Christ of Christmas.

Dr. Hugh Ross is an astrophysicist who served several years as a post-doctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology. In his book, The Creator and the Cosmos, Dr. Ross documents 33 parameters essential for life to exist on a planet. Things like galaxy type, star location, star age, carbon dioxide level in atmosphere, axis tilt, and so on. He has determined that the probability for occurrence of all 33 is 10 followed by 42 zeroes. This is nearly twice as large a number as the total number of planets in the universe. In other words, we’re not here by chance.

Peter knows that this Creator still rules his creation. He still rules the storms he made.

Dr. Ross cites an example of this fact. The luminosity power of our sun has increased by more than 35% since life was first introduced on our planet. This change has been more than enough to exterminate all life here. But a decrease in the greenhouse effect in our atmosphere has exactly coincided with the increase in the sun’s power, maintaining life on Earth.

The astronomer Robert Jastrow states, “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”