Covenant Restored

Covenant Restored

Joshua 8: 1-35

Dr. Jim Denison

Thesis: We must seek God’s will for each battle we fight.

Goal: Learn why and how to seek God’s will daily.

One of the most common questions I’ve been asked in 20 years of pastoral ministry has been: how can I know the will of God? We need his will for specific decisions—vocational opportunities or problems, family issues, financial commitments. We need his will for our relationships. We need his will for the use of our time, talent, and treasure. Nothing is more important to the follower of Jesus than that we know and follow the will of God for our lives. So how can we find this will each day?

Frederick Buechner was right: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” He has an overarching will for our lives, a purpose for our existence. Stephen Covey distinguishes between the compass (our values, vision, principles and mission) and the clock (our commitments, appointments, activities). We want God’s will for both.

When we find and fulfill that will, we can follow Jim Elliot’s advice: “Wherever you are, be all there. Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God.” You and I will live with purpose, fulfillment, and significance only to the degree that we live in the will of God. So again we ask: how can we find this daily will?

Review all the ways God has led his people to this point. At the Red Sea, Moses held up his shepherd’s rod and the waters parted. At the flooded Jordan, the priests stepped into the water before it stopped. At Jericho, the army marched around the city walls. Now they would embark on yet another strategy, one of the most ingenious in war literature.

What’s the point? We must seek God’s will each day, for that day. His plans for yesterday may not be his plans for today. The way we cross the Red Sea may not be the way we cross the Jordan. We will defeat Ai differently than we defeated Jericho. Only when we live in this day, seeking God’s will for this moment, can we find and fulfill that will.

Norman Vincent Peale used to illustrate the point this way. He and his wife had a summer house, to which they would often arrive at night. A rough path of stepping stones led from the parking area to the house. Their flashlight would not illumine the entire path, just the stones directly before them. But when they stepped on each stone as the light revealed it to them, they reached their house safely. Let’s learn how to find that next stone.

Seek God’s will for this moment (vs. 1-2)

Francis Schaeffer was right: God is there and he is not silent. Hundreds of times the Bible records the words, “the Lord said to….” He speaks through his creation, his word, our worship, his Spirit. Just because we do not hear him does not mean he is not speaking. Radio and television waves fill the room where you are reading these words. You will not hear them unless you are “tuned in” to their frequency. The problem is not with them but with you.

In our text, the Lord began with yet another word of personal, direct encouragement to his general: “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” He repeated the message for emphasis, an early example of Jewish parallelism. Three times already he has given Joshua such verbal support (1:3-5; 3:11-13; 6:2-5). But never was this encouragement more needed than now.

When we sin, we often feel shame and discouragement more than courage and hope. After the first military defeat in their history, Joshua and his people needed to know that the Lord was still with them, that they were his covenant people and heirs to his promises and provision.

His word not only encouraged their spirit, but also guided their next step: “Take the whole army with you, and go up and attack Ai.” Not the 3,000 dictated earlier by human wisdom (7:3). Not led by the priests, as at the Jordan. In a moment he will show Joshua how to use this army victoriously.

They would march with this assurance: “I have delivered into your hands the king of Ai, his people, his city and his land” (v. 1b). It is already done—the battle is won. Now that Joshua and his people are walking in the covenant will of God, their victory is assured. They could have won this victory earlier, but their sin hindered the power of God. Now the king, his people, his city and his land would be theirs.

With this change from the Jericho strategy: “you may carry off their plunder and livestock for yourselves” (v. 2a). If only Achan had waited! God’s will is always determined by the need of the moment. Now they would need this sustenance as they proceeded further into the land.

They would go with this military gambit: “Set an ambush behind the city” (v. 2b). God has a will not only for our needs, but also for our service. We must ever remain flexible to his purposes. We never change the message, but we must always examine the means.

Martin Luther set Protestant theology to familiar melodies, including barroom tunes, creating what we now sing as “traditional” hymns. The organ was divisive when first introduced to sacred worship, as it did not use human breath and was not sanctioned by the New Testament. The Sunday school was a novelty in the early 18th century. Many of us remember when churches did not have a “youth ministry.”

90% of the changes in human history occurred in the 20th century, 90% of those in the last decade. We currently possess 3% of the information which will be available to us by the year 2025. And so we must seek God’s will for this moment.


Final Preparations

Final Preparations

Joshua 5:1-12

Dr. Jim Denison

Thesis: We can win spiritual battles only when we are prepared spiritually.

Goal: Identify disciplines by which we are prepared for spiritual warfare today.

In John Bunyan’s classic Pilgrim’s Progress, the main character is appropriately named Christian. Early in his pilgrimage, Christian arrives at the House Beautiful, where he is taken to the spiritual “armory.” Here “he saw all kinds of equipment for soldiers in the holy war: swords, shields, helmets, breastplates, effectual prayer, and shoes that would never wear out.” He was told that “the Ruler of the hill had enough of this equipment to furnish every person who desired to resist evil in his progress to the promised land. No matter how great the number who needed such equipment, there was enough for all.”

That’s good news, for every Christian needs this equipment to win the spiritual battle which comprises life on this fallen planet. The warfare for which Joshua and his people would prepare in this week’s text was no less real than the spiritual war your class will face on Monday. While the Israelites faced armies which knew of their presence and wanted to destroy them, our enemy is just as real, and even more deadly than theirs.

Satan is still a roaring lion, seeking to devour us (1 Pt 5:8). If you knew an enemy were crouching, about to attack you as you read these words, would you want to be ready? What would you need to be prepared? The requirements God made of his people in Joshua 5 made no sense in military terms, but they were essential to spiritual victory. They still are.

Trust your body to his purpose (vs. 1-9)

Our text begins with good news: the Amorites and Canaanites in the Promised Land have heard about the miracle of the Jordan, and “their hearts melted and they no longer had the courage to face the Israelites” (v. 1). Now is the perfect time to attack. Any military commander would seize such an advantage. In warfare, it is always best to strike first and immobilize the enemy.

So the Lord gave Joshua and his people a command to do exactly the opposite. God knew that military strength and human resolve would never be enough to defeat the enemies of his people. They must stay yielded to him in body, soul, and spirit. He began their final preparations with the physical surrender represented by the ancient rite of circumcision (vs. 2-3).

Circumcision was practiced by a variety of nations across the world. In biblical times it was a custom in Moab, Ammon, and Edom as well as Israel. Egyptians performed the rite either at puberty or in preparation for marriage. Scholars suggest several reasons for the widespread practice: sanitation, a tribal mark, and a kind of blood sacrifice which sealed a religious covenant.

Even though the events of our text occurred during the Bronze Age, when bronze implements were common, the Lord directed his people to use flint knives. In so doing, they preserved ancient customs and employed a safer medical procedure (cf. NavPress p. 58). But such an action would immobilize the fighting men of the army and render them subject to attack from their enemies.

So why would the Lord require such strange obedience?

Circumcision began as a covenant between God and Abraham, and was required of all his male descendants (Genesis 17:10-14). The practice served as a symbol for spiritual purity, so that sinful lips were considered “uncircumcised” (Exodus 6:12), as were forbidden fruit (Leviticus 19:23) and disobedient ears (Jeremiah 6:10). Foreigners were “uncircumcised in heart and flesh” and would thus “desecrate” God’s temple (Ezekiel 44:7, 9).

The “hearts” of the people must be circumcised (Leviticus 26:41; Deuteronomy 10:16), an action God must initiate: “The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live” (Deuteronomy 30.6). We must participate in this discipline as well: “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, circumcise your hearts, you men of Judah and people of Jerusalem, or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done—burn with no one to quench it” (Jeremiah 4.4).

This rite was never a guarantee of relationship with God. Rather, it indicated the faith upon which such a relationship is based (Romans 4:9-12). For Christians, baptism is our circumcision (Colossians 2:11-15), the sign that we have entered into God’s covenant community. Today circumcision is performed for medical or family reasons, not spiritual. For believers, “circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code” (Romans 2.29). Paul summarized: “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts” (1 Corinthians 7.19; cf. Galatians 5.6).

Jewish males were to be circumcised when they were eight days old. However, none in Joshua’s army had been so initiated into the covenant community. God would not allow this ceremony while the disobedient generation wandered in the wilderness. They were no longer part of his covenant nation. But now their descendants had proven their faith in God at the Jordan, positioning themselves to receive God’s covenant of grace. Their circumcision sealed the nation’s renewed relationship with their Lord.

The men remained at camp until they were healed physically (v. 8). Then God made a strange statement: “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you” (v. 9). Perhaps the circumcised Egyptians saw their previously uncircumcised former slaves as reproachable. God’s words may also be interpreted as indicating that the Jewish nation would have been destroyed by God if they had refused this act of sacrificial faith, leading to reproach by the Egyptians.

Or this statement by the Lord may be intended to recall the reproach which began in Egypt, as the people eventually forsook the Lord and were forced into the wilderness. The crossing of the Jordan now symbolized their death and rebirth, and their circumcision constituted them as the children of God.


God On Trial

God on Trial

Isaiah 40:12-17, 21-26

Dr. Jim Denison

A schoolteacher injured his back and had to wear a plaster cast around the upper part of his body. It fit under his shirt and was not noticeable at all.

On the first day of the term, still with the cast under his shirt, he found himself assigned to the toughest students in the school. Walking confidently into the rowdy classroom, he opened the windows as wide as possible and then busied himself with deskwork. When a strong breeze made his tie flap, he took the desk stapler and stapled the tie to his chest.

He had no discipline problems with any of his students that year.

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche claimed that the “will to power” is the basic drive in human nature.

We want more money, more fame, more status, more success, not for what they are in themselves, but as a means to power. Every crime is an expression of power. Nearly every item in the news reduces to a quest for power. Who will be in charge in Iraq? Who will win in Israel? Who will be governor of California, or the Democratic nominee for president? Who will have the power?

Faith reduces to this question: will I trust God’s power, or seek my own? Will I make Jesus the King of my ambitions, my future, my money, my family and friends, my life? Or am I on the throne, using faith and worship as a means to my end?

Judah is captive in Babylon. Does this mean their God is powerless? That he cannot or will not help his people? He is on trial, in the minds and faith of his people. Our text is a defense attorney’s speech on behalf of his client. He tells them, and us, why we should trust the power of God. Why we should make him King of our lives, our problems, our resources, our present and future. Let’s join the jury and listen in.

He is Lord of creation (vs. 12-14)

First, the attorney claims that the God on trial creates and controls all that exists. That he is Lord of all the universe. Therefore, he is God, and they are not. What data does he enter into evidence?

One: he is Lord of the oceans (v. 12a). He has “measured” them, a word which means that he has them under his complete understanding and control. And we do not.

The world’s oceans average 12,230 feet in depth, with a total volume of 322,280,000 cubic miles. How heavy are they? Each cubic mile of seawater weighs 4.7 billion tons. That’s what this God measures in the “hollow of his hand.”

By contrast, the deepest anyone has gone into the ocean without assistance and lived to tell about it was 236 feet, the dive of one Umberto Pelizzari in 1992. That’s just slightly longer than one New York City block. Who is more powerful, God or us?

Two: he is Lord of the “heavens,” the air and the universe beyond it (v. 12b). The part we can see is 90 billion trillion miles across. All the visible stuff in our solar system fills less than a trillionth of the available space. There are approximately 200 billion stars in just our galaxy. If you were randomly inserted into the universe, the chances that you would be on or near a planet would be less than one in a billion trillion trillion. That’s how large this universe is. But God measures it with the palm of his hand. Who is more powerful, God or us?

Three: this God is Lord of the earth, that he holds the dust of our planet in a basket (v. 12c).

We’re dealing with entities like protons, so small that the dot on an “i” in your Bible can hold 500 billion of them.

They make up atoms, which are somewhat larger. Find a “dash” in your Bible. An atom is to that dash as the thickness of a sheet of paper is to the Empire State Building. God holds and controls all of that.

And that he weights the mounts and hills of our planet in his balance as well (v. 12d). We’re dealing with 5.97 billion trillion metric tons. Who is more powerful, God or us?

Now the attorney claims that this God designed all of that, in far greater complexity than we can possibly imagine (vs. 13-14).

One cubic centimeter of air, about the size of a sugar cube, contains 45 billion billion molecules. What’s more, every atom you possess has passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms across the universe’s history, before becoming you. I learned this week that a billion of your atoms probably belonged to Shakespeare, and another billion to Buddha, and Genghis Khan, and Beethoven, and George Washington, and any other historical figure you care to name.

By contrast, I read recently that the average American rush-hour driver wastes 51 hours sitting in traffic each year. Now, who’s smarter, God or us?

You’d be pleased today if Warren Buffett were to volunteer to guide your investment strategy, or Tiger Woods agreed to give you golf instruction; if Pete Sampras were to be your tennis coach, Don Nelson agreed to coach your son or daughter in basketball, or Bill Parcells volunteered to help you turn around a business or a team. This almighty God of the universe is available and ready, right now, to guide your steps, direct your decisions, and give your life greater joy and purpose than you can imagine. But only if he is your King. Only if you agree.

He is Lord of the nations (vs. 15-17, 21-24)

Now the defense attorney claims that this God who creates and controls the universe is also Lord of our planet, of our nations, of our people. Of your life and mine.

He regards the nations and all their power as “dust on the scales,” as “fine dust” (v. 15). The world’s armies comprise some 22 million soldiers. The world’s economy produces some $18 trillion a year. All this is “nothing,” “worthless,” and “less than nothing” to this God (v. 17). When we learn that he measures the entire universe with the palm of his hand, we can see why.


Good News For Skeptics

Good News for Skeptics

Isaiah 55:8-11

Dr. Jim Denison

I read this week that no piece of paper can be folded more than seven times. Donkeys kill more people annually than plane crashes. Walt Disney, the inventor of Mickey Mouse, was afraid of mice. A duck’s quack doesn’t echo, and no one knows why. Women blink twice as much as men. Elephants are the only animals that can’t jump. And it is physically impossible to lick your elbow. But you’ll probably try when you get home.

Why? Because we are skeptics. You looked skeptical as I recited those facts. You want to know how they know. We live in a culture which distrusts authority.

During Vietnam, we saw flags and draft cards burned for the first time in our nation’s history.

During the Watergate scandal, we watched the first resignation of an American president.

During the sexual revolution we watched morals change dramatically. In 1969, 67% of young adults said premarital sex was wrong; today only 38% agree. Over a million people reported sexually transmitted diseases last year. And the AIDS epidemic continues.

As the world’s religions have come to our shores, Muslim mosque activities have increased 75% over the last five years. There are more Muslims in America than there are Episcopalians, Jews, or Presbyterians. The Internet lists 67 different Buddhist societies in Texas. We have become the most religiously diverse nation on earth. As a result, 60% of young adults believe that God is not limited to a single faith.

As Christendom has declined, two out of three adults believe that religion is losing its influence in American society. The number of Americans who said they had no religion doubled in the last ten years.

What does it all mean for the concept of authority?

The number of Americans who believe that absolute moral truth even exists dropped last year to 22%, an all-time low. 93% of Americans say that they alone determine what is and what isn’t moral in their lives.

As Chuck Colson summarizes: “The emerging consensus seems to be that vague, comforting spirituality is healthy, but that doctrinal, authoritative religions may even be dangerous.”

Now you come to church and hear a sermon with this thesis: the Bible is the objective, absolute authority of God. When we know what God’s word says, we must do it. And we ask, Why?

Why trust the Bible? (vs. 8-9)

Today we discover that ours is a revealing God. He reveals himself to us. He speaks to us. He gives his word to us.

If he is God, he must: “‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord” (v. 8). Mark Twain was right: if I could understand every part of the Bible, I wouldn’t believe God inspired it. God speaks. God reveals himself.

Why believe that this book contains such revelation? It says it does:

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).

“Prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1.21).

“The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:8).

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matthew 24:35). When God is your King, his word must be your authority.

But the Koran says that it comes from Allah through Mohammad; the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints maintains that the Book of Mormon contains further revelation from God to mankind; Buddhists and Hindus consider their sacred writings to be “divine” revelation. Why trust the Bible?

Because it keeps its promises. For instance, the Old Testament contains 61 specific prophecies concerning the coming Messiah, each of which was fulfilled by the historical Jesus. The odds of his fulfilling just 48 of them is one in 10 followed by 157 zeroes. To count that high, you’d have to count 250 numbers per minute for 6,589,000,000 years.

Because you can trust its transmission. The Greek New Testament we possess is judged by scholars to be 99.2% accurate with regard to the original, with no questions remaining concerning any facts or elements of faith.

Why trust the Bible?

Because archaeological evidence continues to validate its claims. Here’s a recent example: skeptics claimed that no evidence for the existence of King David exists outside the Bible. But a group of archaeologists recently found an Assyrian stone tablet in Northern Israel dating from the ninth century B.C. The Aramaic inscription listed Assyria’s foes, including the “king of Israel” and “house of David.” The skeptics were wrong again.

And because the risen Christ said it is the word of God. Neither the Buddha, Muhammad, Joseph Smith, nor the Hindu masters died on the cross for our sins and rose from the grave. And Jesus called this book the “word of God.”

When we trust the Bible (vs. 10-11)

Now, here’s the most compelling reason of all to make this book your life authority: when we trust it, God uses it to change our lives. His word “will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (v. 11).

What is his purpose for his revelation?

It leads us to salvation: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).

It keeps us right with God: “The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

It guides us daily: “How can a man keep his way pure? By living according to your word” (Psalm 119.9); “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (Psalm 119.105).

It brings us to Jesus: “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20.31).


Jericho

Jericho

Joshua 5: 13-6:27

Dr. Jim Denison

Thesis: No obstacle is insurmountable with the power of God.

Goal: Seek God’s highest purpose for your life, trusting him to supply all that is needed to make that vision a reality.

Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychologist who survived the death camps of the Holocaust, made a discovery which transcended the horrors he experienced. He studied those who survived the ordeal, and those who did not. After examining several factors, including health, vitality, family structure, intelligence, and survival skills, Dr. Frankl concluded that none of these were primarily responsible. The single most important factor in survival was a sense of future vision—an impelling conviction that they had a mission to perform, an important work left to do. Survivors of POW camps in Vietnam and elsewhere have reported the same fact: a compelling vision of the future is the primary force in survival and success.

Every human being needs a vision—a motivating, captivating, empowering purpose for life. Standing before the House of Commons in June of 1941, Winston Churchill said: “I have only one purpose, the destruction of Hitler, and my life is much simplified thereby.” Will Rogers advised, “If you want to be successful, know what you are doing, love what you are doing, and believe in what you are doing.” John Stuart Mill believed that “One person with a belief is equal to a force of 99 who have only interests.” Elton Trueblood was convinced that every successful person needs a philosophy, a program, and a passion. Paul could say, “This one thing I do” (Philippians 3:13).

What is your “one thing”? As the proverb has it, if you chase two hares, both will escape you. What is God’s highest purpose for your life?

Forgetting all limitations, costs, and problems, if you owned the proverbial “magic wand” and could make of your life its highest contribution to the Kingdom of God, what would you attempt to do? Frank Gaines was right: only the one who sees the invisible can do the impossible.

This week’s study will teach us to look for God’s invisible, highest, best purpose for our lives. Then it will challenge us to dedicate ourselves to this one purpose, trusting our Lord to supply our need and make effective our work. We each face a Jericho. We can each be a Joshua. Let’s learn how.

Join God at work (5:13-15)

Joshua was “near Jericho” (v. 13), perhaps to scout the city one last time. Here “he looked up”—the Hebrew tense conveys the element of surprise. He had not expected to find a warrior outside the city. But here was “a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand,” clearly ready for battle. We sense Joshua’s courage, as he was willing to face the man as a foe or join him as a friend.

Little did he know the identity of this “man.” A “theophany” is an appearance of God. As with Abraham (Genesis 18:1-33), Moses (Exodus 3:1-12) and Gideon (Judges 6:11-24), a man stood before the divine. Some believe this figure to be an angel; others see him as the preincarnate Christ. The “man” calls himself “commander of the army of the Lord,” probably a reference to an archangel such as Michael (cf. Daniel. 10:13, 20-21, 12:1; NavPress 68).

All this time of preparation, Joshua had assumed the battle was about him and his people. Bernard Bailey was right: “When they discover the center of the universe, a lot of people will be disappointed to learn they are not it.” It turns out this “commander” was not on Joshua’s side but the Lord’s. God has his own purpose, which we must join. When a lady told President Lincoln she was praying for God to be on their side, the president replied wisely, “Pray rather that we would be on his.” You and I are not the commanders of the spiritual army which is our church. The Lord alone is Lord.

How do we join him at work? First, we fall before him in reverence, on our face and with bare feet on holy ground (vs. 14-15). Next, we listen for his word: “What message does the Lord have….” Last, we surrender to his cause: “…for his servant?” Paul called himself the “servant” or “slave” of the Lord (cf. Philippians 1:1). We choose to obey his call so we can hear it, for his plan is always bigger than ours

The Japanese Carp or Koi is a favorite fish of collectors. These fish will grow proportionately to the size of their surroundings. In a fish bowl they grow to a length of only two or three inches. In a pond they can grow to three or four feet. The size of their vision determines their growth and significance.

So it is with God’s people. Surrender to God’s plan for your life, before you know it. Do not limit him to your vision. Rather, yield to his dream for your ministry. It will be greater than your greatest plans. And worth whatever it costs you.

Believe God first (6:1-2)

Now Joshua and his armies were ready to fight their first battle in their promised land. And against one of their most formidable foes: “Jericho was tightly shut up because of the Israelites. No one went out and no one came in” (v. 1). “Tightly shut up” means that the city was enclosed and fortified, the way we would board up the windows for an approaching hurricane.

Such fortifications were daunting in the extreme. Jericho was one of the most secure cities in the ancient world, built typically with double walls. In Joshua’s day, the walls were so thick that Rahab could live in an apartment built within them (2:15). These high walls had discouraged the first spies sent into the land, 40 years before (Numb 13:28). Now the city was filled with “fighting men” (v. 2), indicating grammatically that all were great warriors.

The strength of Jericho conveyed spiritual significance as well. The city’s name most likely meant “moon city,” as the community was the center of Canaanite moon worship. This battle would pit Israel’s God against the Canaanite pagan moon deity. Just as the crossing of the Jordan had “defeated” Baal, so this conflict would defeat a second god sacred to the Canaanites, further proving that Israel’s God was the one true Lord.


Making The Past Into The Future

Making the Past into the Future

Isaiah 55:12-13

Dr. Jim Denison

In the United States, the standard distance between the rails of railroad tracks is 4 feet 8.5 inches, and has been since the first railroads were built in this country more than 170 years ago. Why such an odd distance?

These first tracks were made by railroad pioneers from England, and that’s the distance between their rails. Why? Because the people who made the first railway cars were carriage makers, and the wheels on their carriages were 4 ft. 8.5 inches apart, so their manufacturing equipment was set up to make railway cars that wide.

Why were their carriages that wide? Because the dirt roads in England at the time had ruts that were 4 ft. 8.5 in. wide. Why were their ruts this wide? The original roads in England were laid out by the Romans after they conquered the country in Julius Caesar’s day. The Roman war chariots were 4 ft. 8.5 inches wide, so two war horses could be hitched to them side-by-side.

Now the story gets even more involved. You’ll remember seeing the launch of a space shuttle, and the two large round rockets strapped to its side to help blast it into space. These are the Solid Rocket Boosters, or SRBs. They are made at a plant in Utah, then shipped by rail to Cape Canaveral, where they are strapped to the shuttle.

Their manufacturer would like to make the SRBs bigger than they are, but there’s a problem: a railroad tunnel along the only feasible route to Florida. The tunnel is just a little bigger than the width of the railroad rails, and the rails are the width of two war horses’ rear ends.

So the size of the major booster rockets on the world’s most advanced transportation system is the result of ruts made by Romans twenty centuries ago. And that’s how the past affects the present, and the present affects the future.

We all want our lives to matter. We want to know that what we do today will have a legacy tomorrow. But there’s only one way to be guaranteed that your legacy will matter. We’ll discover it today.

What can God do with a life?

Isaiah 55 calls us worship in response to the grace of God (v. 1), and to submit our lives to the revelation of God (v. 11). When we do, when God’s worship and word accomplish their life-transforming purpose in us, here are the results.

You will experience the presence and purpose of God (v. 12a).

“You will go out.” The people are enslaved in Babylon, but not forever. They are in captivity today, but not tomorrow. They will be set free. So will you, when you worship God in gratitude for his grace, and obey the revelation of his word. Whatever traps you in despair, in discouragement, in hopelessness, will be broken. You will mount up on wings like eagles, run and not be weary, walk and not faint, in the victory of God.

You will go out “in joy.” God’s joy is not that happiness which depends on happenings or happenstance, but a deep sense of well-being which transcends our circumstances. Whatever frustrates or hurts you today, you can “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4). When you worship God and obey his word, you have his joy.

You will be “led forth”—God will guide your steps and make straight your paths. Whatever decision you’re facing, or confusion you’re feeling, he will “lead you in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

And you will be led forth “in peace.” No matter what conflicts you may face in your family, friendships, or future, you can experience God’s inner serenity which nothing and no person can steal from your heart. When you walk in God’s worship and God’s word, you have his peace.

Do you know today the victory, joy, leadership, and peace of God?

Others will see a difference in your life.

“The mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands” (v. 12b).

God’s presence and peace in your life will be so obvious that the mountains and hills and trees will see it. People will notice it, even more than you do. Moses’ face shone when he came down from the mountain with God, though he did not know it. When the Jewish Sanhedrin put the apostles on trial, they “took note that they had been with Jesus.” When last did someone say that about you?

Others will be changed by the God who works in you.

“Instead of the thornbush will grow the pine tree, and instead of briers the myrtle will grow” (v. 13a).

The thornbush and briers were worthless nuisance plants. They produced no edible food, and made cultivation difficult. The pine tree and myrtle, on the other hand, gave shade and beauty to this arid land.

God will remove the bad and grow the good. And as God changes us, he will change others through us. They will want what we have. They will see the Christ who lives in us. And that Christ will touch their hearts through ours.

With this result: “This will be for the Lord’s renown, for an everlasting sign which will not be destroyed” (v. 13b).

The Lord’s “renown” or glory will be advanced through us.

This legacy will be “an everlasting sign,” a permanent mark left on the history of humankind “which will not be destroyed.”

Here is how to leave a legacy, to make your life matter. Put it in God’s hands. Worship him each week and each day, in gratitude for his grace. Yield each day in obedience to his word and will. And he will use your life to change the world.

As you know, Dr. E. K. Bailey died this week. I know of no human being who more proves the promise of this text. His visionary leadership, prophetic preaching, scholarly mind, and humble heart were the result of a soul placed in the hands of its Father and King. God gave him his victory, joy, guidance and peace. Others were changed by the Christ we saw in him. When his cancer was first diagnosed, E. K. told his congregation, “You have heard me preach. Now you will watch me preach.” And we have.


The Real Painter of the Gospel

The Real Painter of the Gospel:

“The DaVinci Code” in the Light of History

Dr. Jim Denison

Shortly after its publication, I picked up Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code on the new fiction table at a local bookstore. Its cover and title led me to believe it would be a work of art history. Given my interest in the general subject, and in Leonardo in particular, I began thumbing through the volume. It was quickly obvious that the writer intended something far different.

I read the book that night, and knew immediately that it would be controversial. I write a daily on-line devotional, and dedicated a series to the novel. Response far exceeded my expectations. Even then, I did not know the book would remain so popular.

Mr. Brown’s Angels and Demons enjoyed a predictable resurgence in interest as well, climbing to #1 on the paperback fiction bestseller list. The author’s earlier Digital Fortress, a novel with no spiritual overtones whatever, gained popularity as well. The DaVinci Code was then made into a movie by Ron Howard, starring Tom Hanks.

Why has this book been the subject of such controversy? Why would a Baptist minister and former seminary professor take an interest in its claims from the perspective of historical facts? Why should you care if the book is accurate or fictional?

Blurring the lines

Part of The DaVinci Code’s popularity is surely its fascinating plot. To summarize: Christ was deified by Constantine the Great in A.D. 325 at the Council of Nicaea. The “Priory of Sion” (supposedly founded in 1099) knows the “truth”: Jesus was a man, married to Mary of Magdalene. The couple had a daughter they named Sarah, who was raised in France; her bloodline can be traced to this day. Her tomb and story are the “Holy Grail,” the “cup” containing the “blood” of Christ.

Leonardo daVinci was Grand Master of the Priory of Sion from 1510-19. In this capacity, he used artistic means to tell the “truth.” His The Last Supper pictures Mary Magdalene at Jesus’ right hand. His Mona Lisa was named for Amon (the Egyptian male god) and Isis (their female god), intended to show the union of man and woman.

However, the Roman Catholic Church’s most militant sect, Opus Dei, has attacked the Priory of Sion before it can release its “truth” to the world. As a result, the current Grand Master of the Priory, Jacques Sauniere (curator of the Louvre), must pass the key to the location of the Holy Grail to his granddaughter, Sophia Nevea. Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor of religious symbology, helps her find the key and the path to the Grail, with the assistance of renowned English historian Leigh Teabing.

It’s a fascinating plot. Each character is of course fictional. And so many dismiss concerns over the book’s claims, citing the fact that the work is a novel. However, Mr. Brown claims that his plot is built on historical truth. The first page of his book is titled “Fact.” It ends with this claim: “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate” (p. 1). By “documents” he means the descriptions of the Bible and its origins, the Gnostic gospels, and other documents we’ll discuss momentarily.

In interviews, the author has made clear that he believes what his novel claims: that Jesus was a man deified by Constantine; the Church covered up the real records; and orthodox Christian theology is founded on this deception. His book makes the case with authority, placing these assertions in the mouths of the Harvard professor and his expert friend.

When Tom Clancy describes Jack Ryan on a submarine, we know Ryan to be a fictional character but we assume his description of the submarine to be accurate. It is the same with Mr. Brown’s depiction of the historical “facts” behind the Christian gospel. It is impossible to tell in the novel where historical fact and fiction separate.

Clearly, many readers have not made the distinction. Celebrities have been quoted with gratitude for Mr. Brown’s exposing of the truth behind the Christian movement. I have spoken with a large number of people in recent months who assume the novel’s portrait of Christian origins to be accurate. Even many who claim a strong personal commitment to Christ are confused. They don’t believe what the novel claims, but don’t know how to respond to its falsehoods or explain the truth to others.

Getting some facts straight

So, is the novel an accurate depiction of the history it claims to record? Remember that the book opens with the assertion that its depictions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals are accurate. Before we move to the main subjects of the book, let’s consider a few test cases.

First, let’s deal with the title of the book. Mr. Brown’s characters frequently refer to the artist as DaVinci. But his name was Leonardo. He was born outside Vinci, a village near Florence in central Italy. “DaVinci” simply means “from Vinci.” And so art historians all call him “Leonardo,” not “DaVinci.” No Harvard symbologist and art historian, real or fictional, would call him “DaVinci.” This would be like calling Jesus of Nazareth, “of Nazareth.”

Later Mr. Brown states, “Originally, Tarot had been devised as a secret means to pass along ideologies banned by the Church. Now, Tarot’s mystical qualities were passed on by modern fortune-tellers” (p. 92). The historical fact is that Tarot cards were invented for innocent gaming purposes in the 15th century. They did not acquire occult associations until the late 18th century. The cards’ suits carry no Grail symbolism whatever.

In a dramatic plot twist, one of the characters encounters “Job 38:11.” Mr. Brown writes, “It was only seven words. Confused, he read it again, sensing something had gone terribly wrong. The verse simply read: Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further” (p. 129). The scene is indeed moving. But the verse is not “only seven words.” Here is the entire Scripture: “when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt’?”


The Sin of Envy

The Sin of Envy

Dr. Jim Denison

Webster defines “envy” as “(1) a feeling of discontent and ill will because of another’s advantages, possessions, etc; resentful dislike of another who has something that one desires (2) desire for some advantage, quality, etc. that another has.” Envy is the byproduct of greed. It is wanting what someone has enough to resent them for having it.

Why does our culture value envy? Because envy promotes materialistic greed. If I envy what you own, I’ll try to buy it. And we live in a world which measures success by possessions. And because envy promotes self-reliant achievement. If I envy what you have done, I’ll try to do it. And we live in a world which measures success by performance.

Envy is one of the devil’s most effective weapons. No matter who we are. Years ago I came across this painfully relevant story: Once there was a monk who lived in a cave in the wilderness. He had a great reputation for holiness. His reputation reached Hell itself, whereupon the devil took three of his key demons with him to tempt the monk out of his sanctity. When they reached the wilderness, they found the monk sitting at the mouth of the cave with a serene look on his face. The first demon walked up to the monk and planted in his mind the temptation of great power, with visions of kingdoms and their glory. But the face of the monk remained serene.

The second demon walked up to the monk and planted in his mind the temptation of great wealth, with visions of silver and gold and all that money can buy. But the face of the monk remained serene. The third demon walked up to the monk and planted in his mind the temptation of sensuous pleasure, with visions of dancing girls. But the face of the monk remained serene.

Annoyed, the devil barked, “Step aside, and I will show you what has never failed.” The devil strolled up beside the monk, leaned over and whispered, “Have you heard the news? Your classmate Makarios has just been named bishop of Alexandria.” And the face of the monk scowled.”

What makes you envious this morning? Someone else’s possession? Position? Status? Family? Happiness? Health? Where is the enemy using this deadly sin against you?

What is wrong with envy?

Scripture answers our question in five ways.

Envy is forbidden by God

•”Do not fret because of evil men or be envious of those who do wrong” (Psalm 37:1)

•”Do not envy a violent man or choose any of his ways” (Proverbs 3:31)

•”Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always be zealous for the fear of the Lord” (Proverbs 23:17).

•”Do not envy wicked men, do not desire their company; for their hearts plot violence, and their lips talk about making trouble” (Proverbs 24:1).

•”Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy” (Romans 13:13).

•”Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud” (1 Corinthians 13:4).

•”Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying one another” (James 3:14).

Envy destroys souls

•”A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones” (Proverbs 14:30). When we envy what others have, we will never have enough. We are never done. And the cancer grows until it consumes us.

•Remember Cain and Abel: “The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast” (Genesis 4:4-5).

•”Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Psalm 73.1-2).

Envy keeps us from God

“On the next Sabbath almost the whole city [of Pisidian Antioch] gathered to hear the word of the Lord. When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and talked abusively against what Paul was saying. Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: ‘We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles'” (Acts 13:44-46).

Envy destroys relationships

Isaac “had so many flocks and herds and servants that the Philistines envied him. So all the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the time of his father Abraham, the Philistines stopped up, filling them with earth” (Genesis 26:14-15). Joseph’s “brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind” (Genesis 37:11).

Envy destroys lives

It harms the envious, as Haman proved “I’m the only person Queen Esther invited to accompany the king to the banquet she gave. And she has invited me along with the king tomorrow. But all this gives me no satisfaction as long as I see that Jew Mordecai sitting at the king’s table. His wife Zeresh and all his friends said to him, ‘Have a gallows built, seventy-five feet high, and ask the king in the morning to have Mordecai hanged on it. Then go with the king to the dinner and be happy.’ This suggestion delighted Haman, and he had the gallows built” (Esther 5:12-14).

It harms the innocent, as Daniel demonstrates: “The administrators and the satraps tried to find grounds for charges against Daniel in his conduct of government affairs, but they were unable to do so. They could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent. Finally these men said, ‘We will never find any basis for charges against this man Daniel unless it has something to do with the law of his God'” (Daniel 6:4-5).

And it crucified Jesus: “When the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, ‘Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?’ For he knew that it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him” (Matthew 27:17-18).


Trouble Valley

Trouble Valley

Joshua 7: 1-26

Dr. Jim Denison

Thesis: sin prevents the power of God in our lives.

Goal: Confess specific sins that you might know the power and purpose of God for your lives and ministries.

On April 10, 1912, the ship Titanic left Southampton for New York. She was four city blocks long and featured a French sidewalk café and luxurious suites, but possessed only 20 lifeboats for the 2200 passengers on board. After five days at sea, she struck an iceberg and sank in two hours and forty minutes. 1523 people lost their lives; only 705 survivors were rescued from her half-filled lifeboats. The greatest shipwreck of modern history was especially tragic in that it was so avoidable.

Throughout the day of April 14, wireless operators on board received at least six messages which described field ice and icebergs on her course directly ahead. One message was not posted until more than five hours after it was received. Another was not shown to the captain, since to do so would have interrupted his dinner. Yet another was never taken to the bridge, as the wireless operator was working alone and could not leave his equipment. A final, crucial message was interrupted and never completed when Titanic’s operator cut it off to continue his own commercial traffic.

There was even a visual warning at 10:30 p.m. from the Rappahannock, whose Morse lamp message about heavy ice directly ahead was briefly acknowledged from Titanic’s bridge. The message went unheeded, and was not even given to Captain Smith, now dozing in his quarters.

One of the reasons God hates sin is that he knows the shipwreck it will bring to our lives. He sends us warning after warning, but so often we sail ahead to destruction. We do not break his laws, but ourselves on them. The consequences of our abused freedom are not his fault but ours. Sin always takes us further than we wanted to go, keeps us longer than we wanted to stay, and costs us more than we wanted to pay. Always.

Last week we explored ways to find and fulfill God’s miraculous purpose for our lives. No Jericho can stand before his people when they walk in his power. This week we will learn the converse truth: God’s people cannot stand before any obstacle or opponent when they live in rebellion against their Lord. Little Ai defeated an army which had just participated in the destruction of mighty Jericho. Sin always blocks the power of God.

Let’s learn why, and discover ways to prevent such titanic catastrophe in our lives and service.

Know that God knows your sin (vs. 1-5)

I read recently of a pesticide warehouse in Hawaii which collapsed. Apparently, its roof was termite-infested. Knowing the problem is only helpful when we do what we know to do.

Rahab did. This infamous Jericho prostitute repented of her idolatry and sin, and received part of God’s promised land. By contrast, an Israelite named Achan, from the famous tribe of Judah, would deliberately violate what he knew to be the word and will of God, and lose his share in the nation’s inheritance. We can be Rahab or Achan—the choice is ours.

God had made extremely clear the fact that his people were to keep none of the plunder from Jericho for themselves (6:18-19). Achan’s theft had no pretense to ignorance. Neither Joshua nor the other leaders of the nation saw his sin. But he did not know that their Leader watched it all.

Now the army was ready for its next battle. Ai, a town 15 miles to the west of Jericho, was perched at the top of a ravine overlooking the surrounding valleys. This was a significant place for military control, but a citadel of no compare to Jericho. Joshua’s scouts reported that “only a few men are there” (v. 3).

So Joshua sent a small force to attack the small city. He did not consult the Lord first. He marched ahead of him, despite all the ways God had proven that the people could win victory only in his will and power. Their Lord would have shown them the tragedy which was about to transpire, if only they had asked. Years ago a friend gave me some memorable advice: don’t get ahead of God, for he may not follow. I’ve learned that God would rather lead us than fix us.

Here he must do the latter. The Israeli army was routed by the smaller forces from Ai; 36 were killed, and the rest forced into retreat. The result was horrific: “At this the hearts of the people melted and became like water” (v. 5).

One man sinned by commission, in deliberate rebellion against God’s prohibition regarding material possessions. But another sinned by omission, failing to consult the Lord before he went into battle in his name. Had Joshua sought the Lord to ensure that his people were ready for the next step, seeking confession and repentance wherever it might be necessary, victory would have been theirs. Such a step is always wise, for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Ro 3:23). Job’s practice should be ours: “Early in the morning he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, ‘Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.’ This was Job’s regular custom” (Job 1:5).

Know that God knows your sin and mine. We should give him regular opportunity to tell us what he knows, for we are more inclined to sin than we want to admit. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, once sent identical anonymous telegrams to twelve of his friends: “All has been discovered. Flee at once.” Within 24 hours, all twelve had fled the country. Who wouldn’t?

It is fallen human nature to ignore the reality of sin in our lives, and to excuse that which cannot escape our notice. Thomas Fuller (1608-61) admitted for us all: “Lord, often have I thought to myself, I will sin but this one sin more, and then I will repent of it, and of all the rest of my sins together. So foolish was I, and ignorant. As if I should be able to pay my debts when I owe more; or as if I should say, I will wound my friend once again, and then I will lovingly shake hands with him.” How deceived we are. Billy Sunday was right: one reason sin flourishes is that we treat it like a cream puff instead of a rattlesnake.


Wrestling With Grace

Wrestling with Grace

Isaiah 55:1-7

Dr. Jim Denison

The best picture of grace I have discovered outside Scripture was made powerfully real to me nearly ten years ago, when I attended a Broadway theater production of Les Miserables. I will never forget the emotions of that night.

You remember the central scene from Victor Hugo’s novel, one of the most famous in all of literature. Jean Valjean, the convicted thief, has stolen silver from the bishop who took him in, but he was caught with the pieces in his possession. The gendarmes brought him to the bishop so he might press charges. Instead, the bishop told the soldiers that he had given Jean the pieces. Then he gave him his two silver candlesticks as well, his most valued possessions.

The soldiers freed him. Then the bishop said to him in a low voice, “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good. I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”

And so it was. Jean Valjean would be a changed man, and he would help to change the world. Changed by the power of grace.

How long has it been since God’s grace changed your life? Since you experienced his grace in a new, empowering, transforming way? Is your Christianity routine and comfortable? Is your God predictable? Then you need to wrestle with grace.

I’ve been in such a match with God all week. Sometimes the sermon flows from the text, but not this time. In this sermon God has been wrestling with my mind and heart all week long. But I now believe I have a message from him for us. A message about the transforming truth of grace.

Admit your need of grace

God’s word for us begins with the invitation of grace: “Come.” The Hebrew word shows that the one calling is concerned for the needs of those he addresses. Think of a doctor calling the next patient into the room, or a benevolence worker calling the next client into the food pantry or the overnight shelter.

Can you “come” to his grace?

Only if you are “thirsty”—the Hebrew word means to be desperate for water. Are you thirsty for living water, for the Spirit of God? The psalmist said, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” (Psalm 46:1-2). How long since you felt this way about your relationship with God?

Only if you “have no money”—the words mean to be so impoverished that you don’t know where your next meal is coming from. Do you know that you are this spiritually poor before God? That your money is no good with him, that you have no merit to earn his favor? Or do you think you deserve his grace?

The Bible says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). Are you proud before God? In your own eyes?

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who know their need of God, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs” (Matthew 5:3). Do you know your need of God? How long since you knelt before the holy God of the universe in broken humility and admitted your need of his grace?

His “wine and milk” are “without money and without cost.” That which we can buy with the currency of our works and merit is “not bread,” and it “does not satisfy.”

But we are self-sufficient and self-reliant. We are willing to work for God, but we want to be in charge. We’ll donate some of our time to the church, some of our money to pay its bills, some of our energies to spiritual activities like worship, Bible study and prayer. We are willing to help God. We don’t like admitting that he doesn’t need our help, that in fact we need his. Desperately.

Think of recent box office successes: Diane Lane takes matters into her own hands and finds meaning in her life in “Under the Tuscan Sun;” the Rock saves the day and defeats each and every one of the bad guys in “The Rundown;” and on it goes.

The classics are the same theme. “Star Wars” made famous the phrase, “Use the force, Luke.” This “force” is impersonal, something for us to use, in our own decision and initiative. Indiana Jones continually saves the day through courage and pluck. Scarlett O’Hara makes a new life for herself after the Civil War destroys her beloved South and Rhett leaves for good. Remember her defiant vow, fist in the air: “I’ll never go hungry again!” And so on.

In wrestling with this text, God has shown me how much of his grace I have missed by my works. By trying to become a person of significance and value through my efforts and sacrifice. God can give only to those with open hands. The first step to a life of grace is admitting how much we need such grace.

Receive what only grace can give (vs. 2b-5)

What does God want to give to those who will receive? To those of us who will humble ourselves before him and admit that we need his help? What can we have only by grace?

First, grace gives salvation of our souls. When we listen to him and eat what he offers, “your soul will delight in the richest of fare.” Then “your soul may live” (v. 3a). We enter “an everlasting covenant,” a relationship which God will never break. And once we become his children we will be his children forever.

But only when we accept the grace of God. If you’re trying to save your own soul, you are lost. No church attendance can remove your sins. No religious acts or traditions can make you right with God. No success or status in the world can purchase a relationship with God. Do you remember the day you received this grace? Or are you still trying to earn it?