Are You Jesus?

Are You Jesus?

Isaiah 58.1-14

Dr. Jim Denison

A friend recently sent me this wonderful story. It seems that a group of salesmen were attending a regional sales convention in Chicago, and were rushing to their airport gate when one accidentally kicked over a display of apples in a basket. Apples flew everywhere. Without stopping or looking back, they managed to reach the plane just before takeoff. All but one. He paused, told his buddies to go on, told one to call his wife when they arrived home to explain his late arrival. Then he returned to the terminal where the apples were lying all over the floor.

He was glad he did. The 16-year-old girl whose apple stand had been overturned was totally blind. She was crying softly, helplessly groping for her spilled produce. The crowd swirled around her, no one stopping. The salesman knelt on the floor with her, gathered up the apples, put them into the basket, and helped set up the display. He then pulled out his wallet and said to the girl, “Please take this $20 for the damage we did. Are you okay?”

She nodded through her tears. As the salesman started to walk away, the bewildered girl called out to him. “Mister….” He paused and turned to look back into her blind eyes. She continued, “Are you Jesus?”

Do people mistake you for Jesus? Here’s how they can.

Don’t confuse religion with faith (vs. 1-5)

The people of Judah have been imprisoned in the pagan wasteland of Babylon. But in Isaiah 56 the scene changes. The last eleven chapters of this book prophesy the nation’s return from exile to their home in the Promised Land. But all is not well: “Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins” (v. 1).

They think their religion guarantees their relationship with God:

They “seek me out” and “seem eager to know my ways” (v. 2).

They “ask me for just decisions,” praying for his guidance.

They have “fasted” and “humbled” themselves (v. 3). Their religion is in order, their worship attendance exemplary, their church involvement outstanding.

But their lives give the lie to their religion:

“You do as you please” (v. 3b). Sunday has no effect on Monday.

They “exploit all your workers” and engage in “quarreling and strife” (v. 4).

Their religion is for show, “bowing one’s head like a reed” and “lying on sackcloth and ashes” (v. 5). They look religious, and act the part. But God knows better.

I’m glad you’re here this morning. My friend, Frank Herrington, longtime pastor of Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, used to say that his first thought at the start of every Sunday sermon was, “I’m glad someone came to hear me preach.” I feel the same way.

But we will do well to remember from our text that religion does not guarantee faith. Being right with the church doesn’t mean we’re right with the Christ. There’s more to faith than religion.

Turn obstacles into opportunities

So what do we do to be the “body of Christ,” to show him to our community this week? First, act with justice: “loose the chains of injustice” (v. 6). Act with justice in your business dealings, your finances, your personal ethics: “Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge” (Deuteronomy 24:17); “The righteous detest the dishonest; the wicked detest the upright” (Proverbs 29:27).

Will someone see your moral example this week and ask if you are Jesus?

Second, care for the impoverished: “to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter” (v. 7); “when you see the naked, to clothe him” (v. 7b).

More than one tenth of Dallas County lives below the poverty level. One out of five Texans lives in poverty. One in ten children in our state is hungry today. By the time I finish this sentence, two people will have died from hunger-related causes worldwide, 24,000 by the end of this day. The number of homeless people in our city has nearly doubled in two years.

Scripture is clear on our subject: “If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered” (Proverbs 21:13); “‘He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 22:16); “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward him for what he has done” (Proverbs 19:17); “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” (Galatians 2:10).

Will someone receive your gift of compassion this week and ask if you are Jesus?

Third, speak the truth in love: “do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk” (v. 9).

The Bible is crystal clear in its condemnation of gossip, slander, and lies: “Do not go about spreading slander among your people” (Leviticus 19:16); “A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret” (Proverbs 11.13); “He who covers over an offense promotes love, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends” (Proverbs 17:9); “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man’s inmost parts” (Proverbs 18:8); “Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down. As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife” (Proverbs 26:20-21); “Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies” (Psalm 34:13); “He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin” (Proverbs 13:3); “Whoever slanders his neighbor in secret, him will I put to silence; whoever has haughty eyes and a proud heart, him will I not endure” (Psalm 101:5).

Will someone hear your words this week and ask if you are Jesus?


Defined By A Cause

Defined By a Cause

Isaiah 54.1-3

Dr. Jim Denison

The young preacher was shouted down. He had dared to suggest that the ministers in Nottingham, England discuss “The Duty of Christians to Attempt the Spread of the Gospel Among Heathen Nations.” The moderator of the meeting was greatly agitated: “Young man, sit down. When God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid or mine.”

But William Carey would not be quieted. On May 31, 1792, at a Baptist ministers’ meeting in England, he preached the most famous missions sermon of all time. Taking today’s text as his, his message was titled “Expect Great Things From God; Attempt Great Things For God”.

Within five months, on October 2, 1792, twelve of those who heard him that day had formed the Baptist Missionary Society of England. They began work to send Carey to India. And thus began the Modern Missions Movement which has circled the globe with the good news that our Creator loves us all.

We want our lives to matter. And so we engrave our initials on tree trunks and our children’s initials in wet cement. We affix our names to plaques on walls and buildings. We name streets and cities and stadiums for each other. We want to outlive ourselves. We want to leave a legacy, to be significant. Each of us wants to believe that this tiny planet and our brief lives on it are not all there is, that there is something more, something permanent, something eternal. We want our lives to be defined by a cause which matters.

All this month we are learning how to live for that cause. Today we’ll learn from a short, squat English cobbler whose faith and faithfulness changed the world.

Join the battle (v. 1)

I bring you shocking news today: “One month after their gay wedding shocked the world: Saddam and Osama adopt shaved ape baby.” The Weekly World News for November 4 says it’s true. And it adds this story: “Found: Hair from God’s beard! DNA tests prove it’s for real.” I didn’t bother reading the article, so that’s all I can tell you.

You are no less incredulous than the readers of our text today. Such news is no less outlandish, farfetched, and ridiculous. Here is Judah enslaved in the deserts of Babylon, Iraq to us. Their temple is rubble, their traditions shredded, their homeland ruined, they, themselves, captives to cursed pagans.

They are “barren,” unable to conceive a child. Worse, it is as though they “never bore a child.” Still worse, they are “desolate,” with no husband and no hope for one.

And so they have no child and no ability to conceive one. They can give birth to no future. Their hopes will die with them. They can have no tomorrow, no dawn on the horizon, no morning to the nightmare from which they cannot awake.

Theirs is a land without spiritual hope, a place of desolation lost to the love of God. And yet they are to “burst into song” and “shout for joy” because theirs will be more “children” than those who have husbands. In a place with no future, theirs is the brightest future of all.

Many still call Texas the “buckle of the Bible belt.” Why must we be concerned with missions in such a place? Because if such a belt ever existed, and if we ever served to anchor it in place, it is no longer so. We now live and serve in a spiritual Babylon.

8.5 million of our 17 million residents are spiritually lost. This is a number greater than the total population of 42 states in America and 52 foreign countries. Only 15 percent of our Texas Baptist churches are growing, and 85 percent of that growth is from our own children or other churches. Less than 1 percent of our churches are growing primarily through evangelism.

How many spiritual children have you borne this year? To what degree is your soul “barren” and “desolate”?

Look from our state to our globe. See a line stretching around it thirty times, spanning some 750,000 miles, growing 20 miles every day. It is the lost of our world, standing side by side.

We are called to them. We are called to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” of each person in that line. We are called to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth, to be his ambassadors to our neighbors and the nations.

Tuesday is Veterans’ Day. This week we remember with undying gratitude those men and women who have served each of us as they served all of us. As they fought for us, sacrificed family and future, plans and dreams for the greater cause of freedom. They know what it is for their decisions and lives to be defined by a cause.

In the spiritual warfare raging in our homes, our communities, our nation, our world, how many of us are veterans? How many of us are defined by this cause?

Attempt great things for God (vs. 1b-2)

We have heard the bad news: the world is lost in the darkness of sin, and each of us is responsible for bearing the light to that darkness. Here’s the good news: when we attempt great things for God, we can expect great things from God. Our lives can matter. Our work can achieve significance. Our days can affect eternity. Our gifts and abilities can change souls forever. The “desolate woman” can have more children than she “who has a husband” (v. 1b). There is hope—great hope. What are we to do?

Give generously: “Enlarge the place of your tent.” Make it bigger, and broader, and higher, and longer, so more can come in. Such enlarging takes material, substance, money. It costs to do this. And so we give what is required, sacrificially and generously.

On January 9, 1793, the Baptist Missionary Society took its first offering, in William Carey’s snuff box, to send Carey to India. It was not much, but it was enough to get him across the ocean and to the need. Without that offering, no missions movement could have been possible, then or now.


East and West

East and West

Joshua 22:1-34

Dr. Jim Denison

Thesis: We can know the love only God gives.

Goal: Receive and give the love only God can offer.

A man’s wife died, and the first night after the memorial service was hard for him and his son. The boy got into bed with his father. They lay in the dark, but the boy could not fall asleep. Finally he said, “Dad, is your face turned toward me? I think I can go to sleep, if I know your face is turned toward me.” “Yes,” his father answered, “I’m looking right at you.” Soon the boy drifted off the sleep. The father got out of bed, walked over to the window, and looked up into the heavens. “God,” he said, “is your face turned toward me?”

God not only turned his face towards us, he took ours as his own. He put on our flesh, walked our planet, breathed our air, faced our sins, felt our pain. We could not come to him, so he came to us.

Advent means “to come,” and marks the pilgrimage of God from heaven to earth, from throne room to feed trough, from the worship of angels to the wonder of shepherds. The decision made before the world began that our Creator would be named Immanuel, “God with us.” History is filled with men who would be gods, but only one God who would be man.

In this study, we will remember the fact that true love is given only by this God. Not a single one of us can predict with certainty what will happen next year, or even if we will live to see next week. When Advent began last year, who of us knew that Iraq would fall this year or the largest power outage in world history would befall us? Think of events in your own life which were beyond predicting a year ago. If we would seek that love which transcends circumstances and crises, we must go to the only One who can give it.

Our study finds the infant nation of Israel facing the gravest threat to its future it has yet known. An objective reporter standing on the sidelines of the crisis would likely have predicted disaster for this fragile union of nomadic tribes. What the Canaanites could not do to the people of God, they almost did to themselves. But at the end of the story, they found a love for each other which had its origin in their Lord. Through our encounter with their story, may we discover the same.

Where do you most need to be loved? Where can your class most profit from a study on this vital theme? Ask the One who inspired our text to guide you in sharing his love with those entrusted to your care this week.

Love God before you walk with him (22:1-9)

Finally the land had peace, for “the Lord gave them rest on every side, just as he had sworn to their forefathers” (21:44). Now it was time for the armies of the tribes settled east of the Jordan to return home.

They had done all that God had commanded them to do (v. 2), having carried out their mission “for a long time” (v. 3). At last they could return to the land given to them by the Lord (v. 4).

But they must keep his commandments and laws as they left. Here are five:

•To love the Lord your God—”love” here means to desire or breathe after, to long for someone as your first and highest love.

•To walk in all his ways—”walk” means to live, and encompasses attitudes, words, and actions.

•To obey his commands; this is still Jesus’ description of true love (John 14:15).

•To “hold fast” to him—the words describe the wedding union, and call us to the deepest and most intimate communion with our Lord.

•To “serve him with all your heart and all your soul” (v. 5). The Greeks would later divide human nature into body, soul and spirit; the Hebrews always thought of man as a unity. It is not that we “have” a body, soul and spirit, but that we “are” body, soul, and spirit. Heart and soul here refer to two different ways of seeing the one person—the “heart” is the center of the will, emotions, and actions, while the “soul” describes the spiritual dimension by which the heart is to be led.

These were the priorities assigned to them by God. Only by knowing these commandments could they truly walk with their Lord.

Now they could return with “great wealth:” large herds of livestock, silver, gold, bronze, iron, and great quantities of clothing. This they could “divide with your brothers” (v. 8). Contrast their possessions in Egypt as oppressed slaves with the blessings God bestowed on those who were faithful to receive all he intended to give. And so the eastern tribes returned home to walk in the commandments and will of the God they had agreed to follow.

We cannot walk in the will of God unless we first know that will. It is possible to be sincerely wrong, to drive east when we are certain we’re driving west, to take the wrong medicine in good faith, to think we are serving God when we are not.

Suicide bombers in Israel and America have thought they were doing the will of Allah, but Islam is almost universally agreed that they were not. The medieval Crusaders were convinced they were serving their Lord by slaughtering Muslims, but we know that they were tragically wrong. The followers of David Koresh died for a lie and a liar; the men who fought for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan were serving a traitor to their faith; those loyal to Saddam Hussein in Iraq were followers of the man who destroyed their country and stole their freedom.

Before you try to walk with God, first renew your love for him. This is his first and greatest desire for your heart. Like any father, our Lord most wants from his children their love. How long has it been since you gave him yours?


Gideon’s Deception

Gideon’s Deception

Joshua 9:1-27

Dr. Jim Denison

Thesis: We must refuse all worldly covenants if we would belong fully to God.

Goal: Choose Christ as your only Lord, and identify specific changes this decision will require.

Jennifer Johnson banged her hands on the steering wheel. “I can’t believe it!” she screamed out loud. She’d run out of gas. It was dark, and she was scared. She was in a part of town where there had been riots only the week before. She could barely see outlines of large warehouses, railroad tracks, and chain link fences. She looked for a telephone, service station, anything. She saw nothing, and was scared.

Then she saw him, and the hair stood up on the back of her neck. Her heart raced. In the middle of the street, coming straight at her, she could see a man approaching. “Maybe he won’t see me,” she prayed. But then he was at her window. He tapped the glass and yelled something, but she was instantly hysterical: “Get away. Leave me alone. Don’t bother me.”

He yelled louder, and knocked harder. He raced around the car and tried all the doors. She blew the horn and screamed, and he was gone. But in a moment he returned, carrying a long, thick board. He tried to say something to her, but she screamed, drowning out his voice. He battered the driver’s side window with the board until it shattered. In an instant he reached in, unlocked the door, opened it, and grabbed Jennifer. She hit him and kicked furiously until his nose and face were bleeding, but he pulled her from the car and dragged her away.

About 40 feet from the car, he suddenly dropped her. “Don’t be afraid,” he said, but she was terrified. She backed away from him until she ran into a fence. He had not moved. He tried to speak but she screamed, “Leave me alone. Go away.” He stood there for a second, and then walked slowly away.

She sat trembling. Then a strange noise caught her attention. Lights began to flash in the night. The ground began to shake. The noise grew louder, and came closer. In an instant she saw it. A train roared past a few feet from where she sat, crashed into her car, and dragged it scraping and banging into the darkness.

Then she realized: the man knew about the coming train. He was not trying to hurt her—he was trying to save her.

So it is with the will of God. What looks unfair, or punitive, or unreasonable, is not if it comes from the hand of an all-loving, all-powerful Father. A parent who forbids illegal drug use is not punishing his child, but protecting her. When we allow our children to compromise with that which will destroy them, we share the blame for their pain.

And so the God of Israel forbade his people to make treaties with the sinful, idolatrous people living in their Promised Land. He warned them again and again that such pagan alliances would poison them spiritually. His warning is as relevant to us as it was to them. We are to be in the world, but not of it. When the ship is in the water, all is well; when the water is in the ship, disaster is on the way.

C. S. Lewis remarked that any time we live for “Christianity and…”, whatever is on the other side of “and” inevitably supersedes that which precedes it. Are there places in your life where compromise with sin exists? How can you help your class yield themselves fully and only to God?

Expect opposition (vs. 1-2)

As we noted last week, the people of God are in a constant spiritual battle. Augustine was right: there is a city of God and a city of the enemy. They are locked in perennial struggle. But Satan cannot hurt the Lord of the universe, so he attacks his children. He knows that this is always the best way to hurt any loving parent. An African proverb says it well: when elephants fight, the grass always loses.

So expect the enemy to attack. As my youth minister used to say, if you and the devil are not in opposition, you’re probably in partnership. When the kings west of the Jordan heard about Israel’s victory over Jericho and Ai, they “came together to make war against Joshua and Israel” (v. 2). They came from the central mountain area, the rocky plateaus to the west, and the seacoast further west, comprising the largest portion of land in the region. And they formed a new strategy, becoming a new kind of enemy.

No longer would Israel have the privilege of fighting against a single army, one city at a time. Now they would face the combined forces of their opponents. But as great as this threat appeared to be, it would not pose the long-term threat the nation faced through the deception recorded in this week’s study.

You and I can assume that the enemy will attack us. We read only three chapters of God’s word before we find Satan deceiving our parents. Abel would face death at the hands of his brother Cain. Moses would withstand the assaults of Pharaoh and the mightiest army the world had ever seen. Daniel would face his lions, and his companions their fiery furnace.

Peter and the apostles would stand before their Sanhedrin. Paul would deal with his Judaizers and eventually his emperor. John would suffer on his Patmos. Jesus warned us that tribulation is inevitable (John 16:33). So expect opposition. The enemy is coming after you. A lion roars when he is about to pounce (1 Pt 5:8). You don’t have to find him—he’ll find you.

Beware deception (vs. 3-15)

Those enemies who attack us spiritually are a constant and predictable threat (cf. Ephesians 6:12). But our even more dangerous opponents are those who appear to be our friends. Because Satan masquerades as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14), “it is not surprising if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness” (v. 15).


God Fights for Israel

God Fights for Israel

Joshua 10:1-12:24

Dr. Jim Denison

Thesis: We must attack the enemy to win spiritual victory.

Goal: Identify a ministry initiative to attempt.

The scene is one of the most dramatic locations on earth. Standing 1150 feet above sea level, the massive rock outcropping is the largest I’ve ever seen, gray with streaks of metallic brown, flat and imposing. And towering above it is a gigantic cliff, dwarfing the valley below in every direction.

High up on that cliff our tour group could see a cave, the famous “Gates of Hades.” This cave leads to a shaft which bores down through the mountain and this plateau on which it stands, deep into the earth. That shaft is so deep that its bottom has never been found. Even the most sophisticated measuring devices have not been able to determine its absolute depth. I will never forget standing on that rock at Caesarea Philippi, looking up at the Gates of Hades.

As I stared in awe, my mind traveled back to a time when another man stood where I was this day. As he looked around himself he could feel the religious significance of the place.

Just a short distance away stood the brilliant white marble temple built by Herod the Great as an altar to the worship of Caesar, hence the name of the place, “Caesarea.” Beneath his feet was that cavern where the Greeks said Pan, their god of nature, was born. Scattered around the place were fourteen temples to Baal, the Canaanite fertility god, where the Syrians worshiped. Somewhere below was one of the origins of the Jordan River, the holiest river in all the Jewish faith, the water Joshua and the people walked through to inherit the Promised Land. And he thought of his own Jewish traditions and worship.

On this gigantic rock, standing in the midst of temples to every kind of god known to his culture, this man hears a Galilean carpenter ask, “Who do you say that I am?” And this man, standing where I stood, declares, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And he hears the Galilean say, “I will build my church.” Then, pointing to the cave towering above them, dwarfing this small group of peasants gathered below, he claims, “Even the Gates of Hell will not withstand your assault” (Mt 16:13-18).

Many Christians miss the analogy. It is common to think of the church as an ark, built to withstand the floods which surround us. Or a fortress, erected to provide safe haven amidst the attacks of enemy armies from our fallen world. But it is not. The church is an army, created to attack Hell. Commissioned to take the gospel to the world. Called to assault the enemy, wherever we find him.

Retreat is not an option.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president, he faced a nation mired in Great Depression, with world war clouds gathering on the horizon. The economy was in retreat; discouragement was epidemic; some were beginning to question the future of the American experiment with democracy. But the new president, himself crippled by polio, taught us a lesson we’ll remember so long as America lives: we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Had America retreated from her challenges and opportunities, what would have happened to Europe? To us?

In war, initiative is everything. If Joshua and his people had waited at the Jordan River until there was no water to brave, they’d be waiting there still. If they had waited at Jericho and Ai until the residents gave them the keys to their cities, they’d be waiting still. We are called to attack, to initiate, to find ways to take the good news of God’s love to our fallen city and world. And retreat is not an option.

Sitting on a bedside in East Malaysia while on a summer missions tour in 1979, I was asked by veteran missionary Chuck Morris if I would consider a career in missions. My reply: “I’d go if God opened the door.” Chuck pointed his finger at me and said, “No, go unless God closes the door.” It was a prophetic moment.

What ministry will you initiate this week? What will your class do to help someone follow Jesus, because you have taught them the truths of this text? To win the battle, we must engage the enemy. And retreat is not an option.

Pay the price of victory (10:1-15)

The oath Joshua and the leaders of the nation made with the Gibeonites would soon be tested. Our word and integrity will always face adversity. The rain proves the foundation (Matthew 7.24-27). But God is ready to transform and redeem any situation trusted to his care (Romans 8.28).

The Amorite kings in the region learned of Gibeon’s treaty with Joshua, and likely feared that it would be the first of many dominoes to fall. If such a formidable city and army would choose slavery to Israel over armed assault, who might follow their example? Thus their combined strategy against Joshua and his army, a gambit born of desperation (vs. 1-4).

It is ironic that their assault was initiated by the king of “Jerusalem.” The name means “Foundation of Peace,” but it was given to the city centuries after Joshua by King David. In Joshua’s day the city was known as Jebus, “City of the Jebusites” (cf. 2 Samuel 5:6ff). The writer/editor of our text used the name by which the city was known to Jewish history. In time, the “city of peace” would welcome and then crucify the Prince of Peace, that he might bring peace on earth and goodwill to mankind.

When the Amorites united against Gibeon, these slaves of Joshua appealed to their master for help. And God’s general responded by taking immediate initiative, choosing the best men and summoning his entire army for response. The Lord again exhorted him to courage, and promised that their fate had already been determined. They marched the 30 miles from Gilgal west to Gibeon, climbing some 3,000 feet of elevation, completing in one night what had earlier been a three-day journey (9:17). And so they surprised their enemy (v. 9) and won the victory.


God’s Provisions

God’s Provisions

Joshua 18:1-21:45

Dr. Jim Denison

Thesis: The will of God never leads where his grace cannot sustain.

Goal: Follow God into his future for you, trusting his provision.

I have read that a buzzard can be trapped in a pen which is open at the top, so long as its dimensions are no more than six to eight feet long. The bird always begins its flight with a run of ten to twelve feet. Without such space, it will not even attempt to fly, though its pen has no roof to keep it from the skies. Similarly, a bumblebee, if dropped into an open glass jar, will remain trapped until it dies. It will fly into the sides of the jar, but will never attempt to escape from its top.

It is easy to struggle with our problems, frustrations, and needs, never realizing that our answer is just above us. God’s purpose for our lives is always greater than we can imagine it to be.

Saul of Tarsus used his theological training and cultural education to achieve significance within Phariseeism. God used them to write half of the New Testament and take Christ across the known world. Peter used his gifts of courage and leadership to create a successful fishing enterprise. God used them to lead his church into all the world (Acts 17:6). Matthew used his literary talents and prodigious memory to record tax accounts. God used them to record the Sermon on the Mount.

So it was with the ancient Israelites. Their fondest hope was that they might have a land of their own. But God’s plan was far greater. He intended to make of them a people which would endure in that land for some 15 centuries, so he could bring through them the Messiah who would bring salvation to the entire human race. And so God provided for the needs they knew they faced, and for those they did not even know existed. He still does the same for all of us who will follow him by faith today.

Where is God calling you to take a step which transcends sight? To risk, courage, or boldness? Are you facing a trial which seems beyond your strength? Temptation transcending your power to resist? A decision which you cannot find the will to make?

Where is God calling you to trust in him alone? If you don’t sense such a calling in your heart, get alone with your Father until you do. He never leads his children further into his purpose than we can see with our eyes. When we come to that place which calls us to risk, remember that the will of God never leads where his grace cannot sustain. Step onto his promises, and you will find them ever faithful.

We will watch as God leads the first Joshua to provide for the needs of his people. Then we will watch the second Joshua, the Lord Jesus, as he applies such provision to those who follow him in New Testament faith today. This week is the first Sunday of Advent and the week of hope; it is appropriate that we learn to trust the provisions of our loving Father, new each day of the year.

Claim his provision for your material needs (chs. 18-19)

Each tribe needed land upon which to live. Theirs was an agrarian society, where land was life. And so the geographical location of the tribes would largely determine their future prosperity. Discord about such a significant decision could tear apart their union. Wars over such issues are still fought today.

How would each tribe have what it needed? If the smaller tribes like Benjamin received the largest parts of the land, the larger tribes like Manasseh or Judah could starve. The current redistricting battle in the Texas Legislature shows that such issues have never lost their relevance. How would the nation avoid such infighting and potential disaster?

God’s solution through Joshua was simple: they would “cast lots” (18:10). The land-apportioning ceremony would take place at Shiloh, because it was centrally located so representatives from every tribe could attend the event. This was the location where the Lord intended his tabernacle to stand (see Deuteronomy 12:14); later Jeremiah quoted the Lord as saying that Shiloh was “where I set my name at the first” (7:12).

The tribes trusted the Lord to know and meet their physical needs. And the result was a land distribution which would stand as long as the nation survived.

In such faith, the people followed their leader. Joshua’s tribe gave him the city he asked for: Timnath Serah in the hill country, where “he built up the town and settled there” (19:50). As the nation’s leader, general, and hero, he had every right to choose his land first. He could have chosen the most valuable possession in the entire region. Instead, he took what was left (v. 49). And here he was buried (24:30).

Joshua knew the truth Jesus later taught his followers: “Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6.31-34). The will of God never leads where the grace of God cannot sustain.

A friend sent me this reading, which I have found worth repeated reading:

There are two days in every week about which we should not worry,

two days which should be kept free from fear and apprehension.

One of these days is Yesterday with all its mistakes and cares,

its faults and blunders, its aches and pains.

Yesterday has passed forever beyond our control.

All the money in the world cannot bring back Yesterday.


Hope In Hard Places

Hope in Hard Places

Isaiah 40:1-5

Dr. Jim Denison

The Presbyterian lay minister Fred Rogers (“Mr. Rogers” to us) once quoted an anonymous scrawling on the bulletin board of the great Notre Dame cathedral in Paris: “The world tomorrow will belong to those who brought it the greatest hope.”

Counselors and psychologists have long known the truth of those words.

Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychologist and concentration camp survivor, documented the fact that those prisoners who believed in tomorrow best survived the horrors of today.

Survivors of POW camps in Vietnam reported that a compelling hope for the future was the primary force that kept many of them alive.

A mouse dropped in water will give up and drown in minutes. But if it is rescued, it will tread water for more than 20 hours the next time.

Austin pastor Gerald Mann saw his church grow from 60 to 4,000 in 14 years. His explanation: “I know three things people want when they come to church: they want help, they want home, and they want hope.”

Where do you have hope? It’s not a rhetorical question. What causes you to feel that your life has a future, a purpose, a reason to be? Do you have such a reason for hope? If you do, is it the right reason?

Avoid the dead ends of hope

I reread this week C. S. Lewis’s essay on “hope” in Mere Christianity, and it changed my sermon completely. Listen to this paragraph: “Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality. I think everyone knows what I mean. The wife may be a good wife, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job: but something has evaded us…” (Mere Christianity 119).

We know there’s “something more” which has evaded us. What do we do about it?

Some of us live for tomorrow. We hope that the next job, the next girlfriend or boyfriend or spouse, or car or clothes or city will fill what is lacking. We put our hope in tomorrow, believing that it will somehow be better than today. But it never is.

So some of us settle for today. We give up our dreams of a better future, and settle into the present as we find it. We call ourselves “realists.” We decide that there is no such thing as real love, or purpose, or meaning in life. We’ll settle for what we can get with what we have.

And some of us escape the present. Medieval monastics retreated from the physical to concentrate on the spiritual. Simon Stylites lived nearly 40 years on the top of a pillar, 60 feet above the ground, refusing to come down. His example was widely applauded.

Others escape the present in less spiritual ways. Drug or alcohol abuse, sexual addictions, fixation on cults or the occult—anything to lessen the pain, the grief, the disappointment of hope abandoned.

In Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Fantine is a young single mother without a job, a place to stay, or a way to support her child. If you’ve seen the musical, you’ll remember her haunting song, titled “I Dreamed a Dream:”

I had a dream in time gone by

When hope was high

And life worth living

I dreamed that love would never die

I dreamed that God would be forgiving.

But her love has died, and she believes that her God is not forgiving. And so she ends,

I had a dream my life would be

So different from this hell I’m living

So different now from what it seemed

Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.

Make earth like heaven

Perhaps not. Perhaps there’s a fourth option: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God” (v. 1). “Comfort” means to give hope and courage in the midst of despair. He repeats it twice for emphasis. Comfort “my people,” God’s creation made in his image, the Father’s children. “Says your God,” not a man but the King of the Kingdom.

Why? Because “her hard service has been completed.” “Hard service” refers to the punishment of imprisonment. The sins which led Judah into Babylonian captivity have now been punished, and she is released from slavery to return to her Promised Land. “Her sin has been paid for,” as has ours.

How? “A voice of one calling: ‘In the desert prepare the way for the Lord” (v. 3).

The one calling is the messenger sent to precede the king. In the ancient world, the visit of the Sovereign would require that all roads be improved, valleys filled in, mountains leveled, terrain cleared. “The red carpet” was rolled out. Then “the glory of the Lord” would be revealed.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all found this promise fulfilled when John the Baptizer announced the beginning of the public work of Jesus of Nazareth. And John even quoted the Baptist: “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord'” (John 1:23).

“Advent” is from the Latin for “to come.” At Jesus’ first “advent,” he kept God’s promise. His suffering death completed our hard service and paid for our sin. He brought us hope that our past could be forgotten and our future secured, that our lives could have meaning and joy again.


Inheritances

Inheritances

Joshua 13:1-17:18Dr. Jim Denison

Thesis: the battle is not over until the victory is won.

Goal: Identify God’s greatest calling on your life, and commit to its complete fulfillment

This is the story of four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody. There was an important job to be done, so Everybody was asked to do it. Anybody could have done it but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it. Consequently it wound up that Nobody told Anybody so Everybody blamed Somebody.

The church is its people. We do our ministry through our members as they are empowered for mission and service. We can only inherit the spiritual victory God intends for our church when Everybody does what he and she can do. Let’s learn how to be an army whose troops all fight and win.

Assess the challenges (13:1-7)

The first step in any military strategy is to define the enemy. Determine his strengths and weaknesses. Plan not just for what he will probably do, but for what he is able to do. Define your own opportunities and obstacles. Assess the challenges, before you go to war.

One challenge facing Israel was clear and immediate: “Joshua was old and well advanced in years” (v. 1). The leader of the nation and its army was probably around 90 years of age by this time. Time was of the essence for him, and for the people he was called to lead. The longer they inhabited the land without conquering it, the more likely they would assimilate its pagan theology and practices.

And there was still much land to be taken (vs. 2-5). Joshua and the army “took the entire land” in principle (11:23), but much still remained to be inhabited and controlled. They were living between the D-Day when they entered the land miraculously and the V-Day when the land God promised Israel would be fully theirs.

Some of the remaining lands to the north would be conquered by the Lord himself (v. 6) and given to the nation (v. 7). God will never allow us to face an enemy we cannot defeat with his help (1 Corinthians 10:13).

In winning the spiritual battle for the souls of our community and beyond, we first assess the challenges and opportunities which are before us. What obstacles stand between you and complete obedience to God’s call on your life? Are there sins to be confessed? A step of faith to be taken? Surrender of your finances, time, or abilities?

When Nehemiah returned to this same land some eight centuries later, on a mission to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and reestablish the nation after Babylonian captivity, his first step was to assess the challenges facing his people. He later recorded his strategy: “I went to Jerusalem, and after staying there three days I set out during the night with a few men. I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem. There were no mounts with me except the one I was riding on” (Nehemiah 2:11-12). He proceeded to inspect the Dung Gate, the Fountain Gate, the King’s Pool, and the Valley Gate (vs. 13-16).

His investigation complete, he made his report to the leaders of the nation: “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace” (v. 17). Then Nehemiah followed the bad news with the good: “I also told them about the gracious hand of my God upon me and what the king had said to me” (v. 18a). With this result: “They replied, ‘Let us start rebuilding.’ So they began this good work” (v. 18b).

When we assess the challenges and opportunities before us, we know how to begin the campaign which will lead to victory. What temptation is challenging you today? What is keeping you from taking your next step in fulfilling God’s Great Commission for your life?

Trust God’s promises (13:8-33)

Before Joshua could lead his people further west into the lands intended for them, first they must settle the lands assigned to tribes east of the Jordan. The tribes of Reuben and Gad, and half of the tribe of Manassah had been promised this land by Moses (Numbers 32:1-42). But these tribes were required to fight with the rest of Israel in conquering the lands to the west. They had kept their promise to this point; now God would keep his to them.

Understanding the tribal structure of Israel at this point in her history requires a bit of work. The “twelve tribes” were originally the 12 sons of Jacob, with Reuben the oldest and head of the brothers. What follows is a brief description of the rest of the story, including lands to be given each tribe in coming chapters.

•Reuben sinned against his father (Genesis 35:22; 49:3-4), thus losing the double inheritance which was to go to him. His tribe eventually settled east of the Jordan River.

•Thus Jacob gave this double inheritance to Joseph, the spiritual head who had saved their family in Egypt. Jacob adopted Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh as his own children and promised them equal inheritance (Genesis 48:5). Manasseh split into two half-tribes, one on each side of the Jordan. Ephraim would locate west of the Jordan, just south of the western part of Manasseh.

•Simeon and Levi were born next, but both shamed the family at Shechem (Genesis 34). Jacob thus decreed that they would be scattered among the nation, and they were. Simeon received cities within Judah (Joshua 19:1-9).

•Levites rejected idolatry at Sinai, so that God made them his special inheritance (Exodus 32:25-29). They had no single land, but were scattered and would be supported by the rest of the nation.

•Judah was next in birth order, and was thus made the head of the nation (Genesis 49:8-12). This tribe received the first and largest allotment of land west of the Jordan, located in the southern part of the nation and west of the Dead Sea; eventually the kings of David’s line came from Judah, as would the Messiah.


The Joy Of Giving Jesus

The Joy of Giving Jesus

Isaiah 61:1-2

Dr. Jim Denison

The little crowd of 102 persons finally arrived, after surviving two months of stormy seas on a crowded little boat. Their first year, about half died in the severe winter, most of pneumonia. The next year, in the fall of 1621, the survivors planned a time of memorial and sorrow for those who had died in the previous year. But as they looked about themselves at all God had given them—their first harvest, the friendly Indians, their blessings from heaven—they chose to turn that service from one of memorial to gratitude. And so Thanksgiving was born.

On Monday last, at 12:10 in the afternoon, Mr. Rip Parker went home to be with his Father in heaven. He was adamant that there be no memorial service, no funeral, no obituary in the paper. Nothing which would draw attention away from Jesus to him. And so against our wishes, we have planned no memorial service. But he can’t tell me what to preach about. In the context of his physical death, when our souls so want to mourn our loss, Rip would have us count our blessings. And give thanks to our God.

My one point today is clear and simple: our greatest joy comes from giving God’s good news to others. Here is our greatest cause for thanksgiving—our greatest purpose, significance and legacy. Rip was convinced that it is so. Here’s proof that he was right.

Know the purpose of your empowering (v. 1)

God’s word begins, “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me.” The Holy Spirit of the Sovereign ruler of the universe, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords—he is “on me.” After Pentecost, he came to dwell “in” us. Now we would say, “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is in us.”

Why? “Because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news.”

“Because,” for this reason or purpose. This is why you and I exist. It’s why God left us on earth after he saved us for heaven. We’re not here to make money, or earn status or acclaim.

We are anointed, chosen and empower and gifted, to “preach good news.” The “good news” that our Creator loves us, that the Lord of the universe knows our names, our needs, our hurts and our hearts. We are called and commanded, privileged and purposed by God to tell such good news.

To whom?

To the “poor”—physically, financially, and also spiritually.

To the “brokenhearted,” those who are suffering from despair, discouragement, loneliness, hopelessness.

To the “captives,” those who are enslaved by men or themselves, sin or Satan.

To the “prisoners,” in jails made of bars or sins, of men or devils.

To “all who mourn,” those who have suffered death, loss, grief, pain.

In each case, we are to go “to” them. Not to wait for them to come to us. To give them the good news of God’s love, God’s healing, God’s help and hope, grace and mercy and peace.

Evangelism, preaching, missions and ministry is not imposing our beliefs on others. It is not about getting more people to join our church. It is about gift-giving, giving to others what God has given to us. Nothing more, but nothing less.

It is significant beyond words that Jesus chose these verses as the text for his first recorded sermon. He was invited to bring the message at the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. The scroll of Isaiah was handed to him, apparently the chosen book for the day. But he “found the place” where these words were written, and read them deliberately and intentionally. And he “rolled up the scroll, gave it to back to the attendant and sat down” (Luke 4:20). Then “he began by saying, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing'” (v. 21).

What his Father called him to do, he called his followers to do. To “make disciples of all nations,” to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth, to be his salt and light, his ambassadors and representatives, his hands and feet and flesh. As the reason we exist, the purpose of our lives and days.

Claim the privilege of your purpose

But most of us are insecure with such a calling and purpose. It’s not primarily a lack of training. Say John 3:16 with me—that’s all the theology you need to explain salvation. It’s not a lack of opportunity—119,000 souls within three miles of us are not in church this morning. This of someone you know who doesn’t know Jesus. Have you given them the good news of God’s love? If not, why?

Here’s the number one answer for most of us: we’re afraid. Afraid of being rejected, of offending them. We’re not sure they need our faith; after all, they seem to be doing just fine. We’re not sure that we have the right to give it to them; after all, religion is a private matter.

So let’s learn a simple fact today: ministry is gift-giving. It is giving to someone you care about that which someone gave to you. The privilege of learning how to have a personal relationship with the God of the universe. The privilege of learning how to have your sins forgiven, your soul cleansed, your life given a thrilling purpose and direction, a joy you can find nowhere else.

There is joy in gift-giving. Already, I’m looking forward to Christmas gifts for that reason. Every parent knows the joy of pleasing your children. Every person in love knows the joy of pleasing the person you love. You’re not imposing your possessions on them. You’re not assuming that they need what you have. Rather, you’re simply giving them your very best gift. You’re giving them Jesus. And there’s true joy in that.

Rip Parker knew such joy, more than any human being I’ve ever encountered.

He knew the joy of worshiping Jesus each Sunday morning, no matter his life circumstances. Did you ever see him without his smile? Even after his left eye was removed because of the cancer which took his life, he was here with a smile, welcoming us to worship. His only fear was that his bandage would keep the children from coming to him for the candy which filled his pockets each week.