Covenant Renewal

Covenant Renewal

Joshua 24:1-33

Dr. Jim Denison

Thesis: We find peace only in the gracious covenant of our Lord.

Goal: Respond to God’s grace with obedience.

Years ago, an artistic competition was announced on the theme of “peace.” Beautiful paintings were entered—a pastoral landscape, with sheep grazing contentedly; a warm fire blazing in a rich wooden study; a tranquil sunset over a calm ocean.

But the award-winning submission was different from all the others. The artist pictured Niagara Falls in all its roaring, cacophonous power. The viewer could nearly feel the mist in his face, the wind in his hair, as the water rushed over the rocks in a thunderous torrent. At the edge of the painting, the artist rendered a slender tree branch, and on that branch a tiny bird nest. A bird sat in that nest, perched over the falls, gazing into the sky with contentment. The picture’s caption was simple: “peace.”

The bumper sticker has it right: Know God, know peace; no God, no peace.

In all the recorded years of humanity, historians can find only four years where there was no conflict raging somewhere on the globe. We cannot produce peace. But we can receive it at the hands of the Prince of Peace.

Respond to the graceful initiative of God (vs. 1-13)

One last time, Joshua assembled the elders and leaders of the nation into a kind of national congress (v. 1). His purpose was a covenant renewal ceremony, his last gift to this nation he had led so capably across so many years.

Such ancient ceremonies typically began with a recitation of the history of the people. And so Joshua recounted their experience from Abraham to the present. But with a theological theme: every provision they had experienced had come from the hand of their gracious God, by his initiative and mercy.

So it was with Abraham, himself part of a pagan family. By his grace God took Abraham from that place of idolatry and gave this childless, elderly man “many descendants” (v. 3). Abraham did nothing to earn such favor from the hand of his God.

Next the Lord sent Moses and Aaron to lead his people from Egyptian slavery to their freedom. The plagues which freed them and the miracle of the Red Sea which preserved them were again his gifts, in no sense the result of their work or merit.

When the nation came to the Amorites east of the Jordan, God conquered them. He refused the curse of Balaam, and blessed his people instead. He led them across the flooded Jordan River, gave them the conquered city of Jericho, and brought them into military victory they did not earn.

In summary, “I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant” (v. 13). Nothing they could see was theirs except from the hand of their gracious Lord.

Were Joshua to stand before our congregation this weekend, he could make exactly the same speech. Every breath we draw comes from our Creator; every birth is his gift; every salvation is by his grace. Our church was birthed in his heart before it was dreamed in ours. Our buildings and ministries are led by his Spirit and prospered by his mercy. He receives our worship only because he is a God of love. He guides our Bible study and obedience by his grace.

The peace we seek can come only from God’s hand and his heart. We can do nothing to earn his favor.

Let us resolve to refuse the subtle temptation to believe we have earned the peace and prosperity we know today. R. A. Torrey once told of receiving a note from a Presbyterian elder. The man complained that God was not answering his prayers, even though he had been a faithful elder for many years, a Sunday school superintendent, and a recognized church leader. Torrey came to the heart of the problem: the man was praying in his merit. He thought that his religious works had earned an audience with God. He was wrong.

Is the same subtle temptation present in your life and ministry? Is it possible that some of us teach or preach so that God will bless us in return? That we expect him to answer our prayers and meet our needs because we do this work in his Kingdom? The covenant to which God calls us in renewal this day is one based on his grace, not our goodness. And on no other foundation.

Everything you do should be motivated by the grace of God, as we will discover next.

Choose the obedience which comes from gratitude (vs. 14-18)

Now Joshua called his people to “fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness” (v. 14). No partial obedience, this. “All” faithfulness requires that we give God Monday as well as Sunday, our private thoughts as well as our public actions. If he is our King, and we are in covenant with him, then every moment of every day is his. Every dollar belongs to him. Every relationship is to be governed by his word and will.

For the Israelis, such a commitment meant that they must abandon every false idol (v. 14). This was to be a conscious, intentional decision, made carefully and definitively (v. 15a). Joshua offered them his model: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (v. 15b), perhaps the most famous statement in the book bearing his name. Would to God that you and I provide such an example for those whose spiritual lives we influence.

When I first met Janet’s parents in Houston, I was immediately impressed by a plaque hanging on their dining room door. It contained the words of Joshua 24:15. I soon discovered that her parents lived by these truths. They were not just a motto for their house, but a commitment for their lives. Can others say the same of us?

The people admitted their absolute dependence on their God (vs. 16-17). And they renewed their pledge to the covenant which had brought them this far (v. 18). Theirs would be a life of obedience. But that obedience would be their response to grace.

For much of my Christian life, I wrestled with the relationship between faith and works. I knew that I was saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). What, then, is the role of works in my salvation? Eventually I came to understand that the work I do for the Kingdom is to be my response to the goodness of God, not my effort to earn such blessing. I serve because God loves me, not so that he will. I work because I am accepted by him, not so I will be. You and I minister the word of God because God has ministered it to us. Our obedience is to be motivated only by gratitude for such grace.

This motivation is the only means to peace in ministry. If you are working to become someone of merit and significance, you can never do enough. There is always another class member who needs your attention, love, and concern. There is always another lesson to prepare, another event to arrange, another visitor to call. If we are driven by performance to become people who matter, we will be driven to unrest and distress.

On the other hand, if we do our ministries out of love for the One who loves us, we can rest in his grace and guidance. We will do that which he asks of us, in the power he provides. He will get the glory, and we will be blessed by his grace. Gratitude leads to peace. All other motives rob it from us.

Live in covenant by the power of God (vs. 19-27)

Joshua next responded to the enthusiasm of the people with a realistic warning: “You are not able to serve the Lord. He is a holy God; he is a jealous God” (v. 19). He was exactly right. Their history was filled with failures to follow this covenant. The ten northern tribes would eventually lose their identity to Assyria; the southern would lose their land for 70 years to Babylon. And in AD 70 the entire nation would be taken by the Romans. All because they could not keep this covenant of obedience.

Neither can we keep ours. You and I cannot stand against the enemy in our strength. We fight a spiritual war, and must have spiritual armor and weapons (Ephesians 6:10-18). Civil war soldiers would stand no chance against modern weaponry. Only when we fight in the power of the Lord can we have his victory.

The people renewed their commitment to obedience (v. 22), and Joshua marked their covenant with decrees and recorded laws (vs. 25-26). A written witness to a covenant was typical in the ancient world, something like a legal contract in our culture. He set a large stone as a marker to remind the generations to come of the decision transacted on this soil and day (v. 26). But it would take more than this stone to keep them faithful to their God.

What step is the Father asking you to make today? Where is there sin to confess, obedience to render, ministry to give? Do so in his strength. Ask for his power. Admit to him that you cannot follow him unless he sustains your steps and guides your heart. Ask him for his provision and purpose, in humility. Walk on your knees. And you will walk into the Land he promises his faithful children.

Conclusion (vs. 28-33)

Joshua came to his end, as all mankind must. Eleazar, his faithful partner and priest, died and was buried as well. Joseph’s “bones” (actually his mummified corpse; cf. Genesis 50:26) were brought to their final resting place. And the nation would step into uncharted waters, a future found only in the providence of their God.

It is said that after Alexander the Great died, his generals consulted their maps to determine their next steps, only to discover to their dismay that they had marched off of them. Their general knew where he was going, but they did not.

Our General knows the way to the Promised Land, for now and for eternity. Choose to live in covenant with the second Joshua, and you will find in his grace the peace of mind and heart which is his gift to us. This gift comes only from his hand. He is waiting to give it to you.



Isaiah 9:1-7

Dr. Jim Denison

A friend sent me these actual airplane in-flight announcements.

On one flight with a “senior” flight attendant crew, the pilot said: “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve reached cruising altitude and will be turning down the cabin lights. This is for your comfort and to enhance the appearance of your flight attendants.”

One attendant said, “Your seat cushions can be used for flotation; and, in the event of an emergency water landing, please paddle to shore and take them with our compliments.”

After a hard landing, the attendant said, “Ladies and gentlemen, please remain in your seats until Capt. Crash and the Crew have brought the aircraft to a screeching halt against the gate. And once the tire smoke has cleared and the warning bells are silenced, we’ll open the door and you can pick your way through the wreckage to the terminal.”

And my favorite: After a very hard landing, the pilot was standing at the door while the passengers exited the aircraft. An elderly lady with a cane made her way up the aisle, stopped, and said, “Young man, do you mind if I ask you a question?” “No, ma’am,” said the pilot, “what is it?” The lady said, “Did we land, or were we shot down?”

We’ve all wondered the same thing. Nevertheless, we fly anyway.

So much of life turns on that single word, “nevertheless.” People perish in car crashes every day in Dallas; nevertheless, I will drive home after church. Marriages often end in divorce in our culture; nevertheless, Janet and I got married. Children so often break their parents’ hearts; nevertheless, we prayed for children and rejoiced when they were born. God so often disappoints me, permitting or even causing pain and heartache in my life; nevertheless, I will trust in him.

Joy is tranquility transcending circumstances. Not the happiness which results from happenings. If someone can take your joy, it wasn’t joy. If someone can give you joy, it isn’t joy. Joy is that inner serenity and tranquility which nothing in life can give or steal.

Who of us doesn’t need such joy? Life is hectic for us all during these holidays. Some of us remember those not with us for this Christmas. Some of us are lonely and alone. Some of us are facing an uncertain new year. We all need joy. But there’s only one way to find it: in the word “nevertheless.” Let me explain.

Christ gives nevertheless joy

“Nevertheless” is a common word in the Bible.

Psalm 73:21-23: “When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you. Nevertheless [NIV: “Yet”] I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.”

Psalm 106:43-45: “Many times he delivered them, but they were bent on rebellion and they wasted away in their sin. Nevertheless, he took note of their distress when he heard their cry; for their sake he remembered his covenant….”

Luke 22:42: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but yours be done.”

Isaiah 8 finds Israel in gloom and distress: “Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness” (vs. 21-22).

And things will only get worse for the people. In coming years their cities will be ransacked, their Temple reduced to rubble, their people enslaved by pagan Babylon.

But Isaiah can proclaim, “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress” (9.1). Instead, “You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder” (v. 3).

Why? How can they have such tranquility transcending their circumstances? Because of verse 6: “to us a child is born, to us a son is given.”

Before we go to him for our joy, let’s consider the alternatives.

Thomas Aquinas said, “Man cannot live without joy; therefore when he is deprived of true spiritual joys it is necessary that he become addicted to carnal pleasures.But do they work? A century ago, the average lifespan was 41 years; now it is 77; plagues such as polio, smallpox, and measles have been defeated. Our real income, adjusted for inflation, has more than doubled in the last 50 years.

However, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as “happy” has not budged since the 1950s, despite doubling our income.

“Unipolar” depression, a condition in which a person always feels depressed, is today ten times as prevalent as it was half a century ago.

Gregg Easterbrook’s new book is titled The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. In it he describes our society’s shift from “material want” to “meaning want,” in which our lives lack purpose no matter our prosperity. His conclusion is simple: we are more prosperous, but less happy.

How to have nevertheless joy

So let’s consider nevertheless joy. This is seeking our tranquility in Christ and not circumstances. In eternity and not events. In God and not people. How do we find it?

Trust his purpose. The Christ of Christmas is our Wonderful Counselor. “Wonderful” in the Hebrew means “so full of wonder as to be miraculous.” “Counselor” points to a person of such wisdom that he can advise kings, the wisest man in the land. The two together can be translated, “He who plans wonderful things.”

The world cannot give us such purpose, or steal it. Paul was as much an apostle to the Gentiles when he wrote letters from a Roman prison cell as he was preaching in a Roman marketplace. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was as great a theologian when in a Nazi prison as in a seminary classroom. The way your life purpose is fulfilled can change, but the purpose will not.

Where do you need direction and counsel? Will you seek his will, live by his word, surrender to his purpose? Will you make him your Wonderful Counselor, no matter what your world says, despite all appearances, nevertheless? Then you’ll have his joy.

Seek his power. The baby in the manger is also the Mighty God, translated literally, “the God who possesses might.” No circumstance could steal his power. Frederick Buechner is right: for all his enormous power, Herod the Great knew there was somebody in diapers more powerful still. G. K. Chesterton said of Christmas, “The Child that played with moon and sun is playing with a little hay.”

And no circumstance can take his power from his people. John was as empowered to receive the Revelation on Patmos as he was at Ephesus. Peter could walk on stormy seas and face murderous officials, in this power.

So can you. Where do you need strength beyond your circumstances and ability? Courage to face the future, resolve to refuse temptation and do what is right? Will you seek his power and strength? Will you make him your Mighty God, no matter what your world says, despite all appearances, nevertheless? Then you’ll have his joy.

Live in his presence. The Christ of Christmas is additionally our Everlasting Father. In the Hebrew, a “Father forever,” one who is always a Father to us, one who forever loves us as only a father can.

No circumstance can change his love. He is a Father, not an employer, general, or owner. And a father is obligated to love his children, simply because they are his children.

Where have you failed, fallen, sinned? Where do you carry secret shame in your soul? Will you seek his forgiveness and cleansing grace? Will you make him your Everlasting Father, no matter what your world says, despite all appearances, nevertheless? Then you’ll have his joy.

Claim his peace. Last, the baby of Bethlehem is the Prince of Peace. In the Hebrew, the Prince who gives peace.

No circumstance can change the fact that he brings peace, or that we need that peace. President Bush repeated again this week the fact that we are a nation at war. And the war has no end in sight. We need peace our circumstances cannot give.

Where do you need such peace, harmony with righteousness? Where do you need to be right with God, with someone else, with yourself? Will you ask him for your peace? Will you make him your Prince of Peace, no matter what your world says, despite all appearances, nevertheless? Then you’ll have his joy.


The bearded figure most Americans are thinking about this week isn’t Santa Claus. For the first time I can remember, Time and Newsweek feature exactly the same image on their covers, and you can guess who. We rejoice in last week’s capture of Saddam Hussein, but grieve that the next day six Iraqi officers were killed and 20 wounded by continued terrorist activity in the land. We need the purpose of God, the power of God, the presence of God, the peace of God.

Don’t settle for less. Don’t settle for happiness based on happenings. C. S. Lewis was right: “Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Make the baby of Bethlehem your Wonderful Counselor, your Mighty God, your Everlasting Father, your Prince of Peace. Do it no matter what your world says, despite all appearances, nevertheless. And you’ll have his joy.

This is the promise of God.

The Baby Born To Die

The Baby Born to Die

Isaiah 49.1-7

Dr. Jim Denison

This morning I have good news for half of you, and information for the rest. The essay is titled, “Why men are just happier people.” Here are some of its disclosures: wedding plans take care of themselves; car mechanics tell us the truth; wrinkles add character; phone conversations are over in 30 seconds flat; we can open all our own jars; we get extra credit for the slightest act of thoughtfulness; if someone forgets to invite us, he or she can still be our friend; three pairs of shoes are more than enough; we can “do” our nails with a pocketknife; and the number one reason: we can do Christmas shopping for 25 relatives, on December 24, in 15 minutes.

There are better reasons for happiness. This Advent week of love claims that our Creator loves us. The King of the entire Kingdom loves his subjects. “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

But what does this knowledge mean to us practically? No word is harder to define than “love.”

The Bible teaches us to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18, quoted by Jesus in Matthew 22:39). So, how do we love ourselves?

At its core, our self-love can be summarized as seeking our good. We will always seek our own good. This is not a feeling or emotion. We often feel frustrated and unhappy with ourselves. Self-love is an action. I can be trusted to do whatever is to my own good. So can you. Seeking our own good is the most basic and fundamental characteristic of life. It is the instinct for self-preservation defined.

Therefore, to love my neighbor as myself is to seek his good as much as I seek it for myself. To “love” God is to seek his good with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength.

These are the two goals of today’s Advent message on love: that we would seek the good for God and for each other, even before our own. Why would we do so?

Know God’s universal plan

Our text is the second of four “servant songs” in the book of Isaiah, four poems about the coming Messiah, each of which was fulfilled by the Baby of Bethlehem. This one tells us the “why” of Christmas: “Before I was born the Lord called me” (v. 1).

To what purpose?

“To bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself” (v. 5). To bring God’s chosen people back to their Creator and King.

However, “It is too small a thing for you” to limit your ministry to the Jewish people alone: “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth” (v. 6). God’s plan included all the nations, from the very beginning. This text is sometimes called the Great Commission of the Old Testament.

How would the Servant fulfill his calling?

He would be “the Redeemer” (v. 7a). To “redeem” someone in the Bible is to buy them back from the punishment they deserved, to free them from the slavery which was the consequence of their sinful choices.

How would he redeem us? He would be “despised and abhorred by the nation” (v. 7b). As the last Servant Song predicted, “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). He was born to die.

With this result: “Kings will see you and rise up, princes will see and bow down” (v. 7c). These kings would represent the nations of the earth. They would come to worship the One who would die for them.

Rejoice in the universal love of Christmas

How would these promises be kept? The Christ of Christmas would die for the Jewish people whose race he entered as their Messiah. He would preach in their synagogues, heal their sick, raise their dead. He would do his best to persuade their religious leaders to trust in his Father. He would weep over the lost city of Jerusalem. Despite all the ways they rejected him, he would die to prove his unconditional love for them.

And he would die for the Gentiles and pagans as well.

He would invite the shepherds to attend his birth. They were unclean spiritually, unable to keep the Jewish laws, assumed to be thieves and criminals. No self-respecting Jewish home would invite them to the birth of a child. But he did, to prove his unconditional love.

He would invite the Samaritan woman to himself, and the lepers and the prostitutes, the demoniacs and the despised. All to show his unconditional love.

He would call the kings and princes, the Magi and wise men, from Persia to himself. Even though they were pagan astrologers and magicians, despised and rejected by his people, they would find his unconditional love.

And he would send his missionaries to continue spreading his unconditional love across his creation. In Paul’s first missionary journey, he quoted this very text as sanction and support for his evangelism among the Gentiles, where he spent his life to share God’s unconditional love.

If the religious leaders had planned Christmas, there would have been no peasant parents, no shepherds, no Magi. You and I could not come. But this Baby came for us all. No qualifications or exceptions, just unconditional love.

Consider your worst sin, your gravest secret and shame. Next, think of the person who would be most hurt if he or she knew of this sin. If you were to admit this sin to that person, and were to receive only that forgiveness which forgets, cleanses, and buries the sin so that it is no more, you would know you were loved.

What king dies for his subjects? Only this one. The Son of God became man, that men might become the sons of God. C. S. Lewis, commenting on such love, says that if you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab. He did far worse. He was born to die, to prove his unconditional love to you.

Love as God loves

Christmas proves that there is nothing you can do to make God love you any more or any less than he already does. He seeks your good, at the expense of his own Son. What are we to do with such unconditional love?

Love God as he loves you. The shepherds gave him their joyous worship, not the mere habit of rote church attendance. Have you truly worshiped him today? The kings gave their offerings of two years’ travel, lives risked, their best gifts given. When did it last cost you something significant to love God?

Love him as he requires. Jesus was clear, and blunt: “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15); “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching” (John 14:23).

I have often been troubled by the sense that I do not love God enough. Here is the answer: act as if I do. Act into feeling, rather than waiting until feelings produce action. Submit to his word and will. Fulfill his ministry. Find a way to seek his good.

Love others as he loves us.

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12). This is an order, an obligation, a directive from our King.

“Let no debt remain outstanding except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). Martin Luther said, “Love begins when we wish to serve others.”

Our love for each other is to be as unconditional as his (Romans 8:35-39). E. M. Cioran taught, “Love is an agreement on the part of two people to overestimate each other.” I read this week a challenging statement: “Jesus never gave us the option of deciding who does and does not deserve our love.” After Pearl Harbor, the tragedy which occurred on this day in 1941, a whole generation of Americans hated the Japanese for what they did to our soldiers. But God has forgiven what we did to his Son. Our love for others is to be equally unconditional.

And sacrificial: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers” (1 John 3.16).

Mother Teresa commented on her ministry, “We must not drift away from the humble works, because these are the works nobody will do…We are so small we look at things in a very small way. But God, being Almighty, sees everything great. Even if you write a letter for the blind man, or just go and sit and listen, or you take the mail for them, or you visit somebody—small things—or wash clothes for somebody or clean the house. Very humble work, that is where you and I must be. For there are many people who can do big things. But there are very few people who will do the small things.”

If you seek just one person’s good each day, in ten years you have loved 3,650 people.

Someone said well, “When God measures a man, he puts the tape around his heart instead of his head.” How do you measure?


Love is seeking someone’s good. Christmas proves God’s unconditional love for you. Will you seek his good through your worship and obedience? Will you seek the good of his children this week, even before your own?

I still remember the day I read this man’s story: “Bad luck—the light turned red, and I was trapped standing at the corner. I prayed for it to change quickly. He was standing too close to me. And besides, it was cold and I was getting wet from the snow.

“‘Can I have something for my file, mister?’ he asked. This one was crazy—no doubt about it. The grimy box under his arm gave him away immediately. Crazies always carry something, usually a shopping bag with handles. They can be unstable, but this guy looked pretty safe. ‘Sorry, no money.’ I had repeated the old lie so often it came out automatically. ‘Have you got anything for my file?’ he repeated.

“Finally his message sank through. I fished in my pocket, pulled out a brochure, and handed it to him. ‘No!’ he shouted. Then, almost pathetically, he finished, ‘I don’t have a file for that.’ I took it back and turned away. Come on light—change. I stepped over the curb to look for a break in traffic.

“‘I’m Howard,’ he said. ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Mark.’ One syllable was all the information I intended to give. I had no desire to have some crazy calling me all the time. I knew people who had to change their telephone number to stop calls. I liked my number.

“I chanced a quick look to see what he was doing. He had a pencil in one hand and was stooping to pick up a piece of paper from the snow. Just then the light changed, and I took off. Halfway down the block, I slowed down and looked back. The crazy had just closed his box and begun to look around for another victim.

“A few days later, I was walking the same route when I noticed an ambulance parked outside a dingy alley. I joined a crowd of onlookers. Two attendants in white jackets wheeled their stretcher out of the alley. It was the crazy. His face was showing, so I knew he wasn’t dead. But as the attendants shut the door, I could tell by their conversation that he wouldn’t stay uncovered for long.

“A policeman questioned some of the people in the crowd but received no answers. Nobody seemed to care that much. It was just a little added excitement on an otherwise dull December day. The cop raised his voice and asked, ‘Did anyone know this guy?’ Nobody answered. Finally, I volunteered, ‘His name is Howard.’

“The people around me backed away—as if my knowing the crazy’s name made me a crazy, too. The cop came over and began to pump me for more information. ‘His name is Howard. That’s all I know, sir.’ ‘Well, at least there will be a name for the headstone. Thanks for your help. Oh, by the way, would you take this for me?’ He reached down and picked up the crazy’s box. ‘I’d like to skip the paperwork on this one.’

“He shoved the box into my hands and walked away before I could say anything. ‘Why would I want this guy’s garbage?’ I looked around for a trash can, but maybe it was the stories I had heard of millionaires who lived like bums, or perhaps it was just my slightly misguided sense of loyalty to the human race. Whatever it was, I opened the box.

“I was disappointed. There was nothing but old clothes and a file folder. I pulled out the file and dumped the rest of the stuff. Then I noticed the crude printing on the folder: ‘FRIENDS.’ I opened it and looked inside. It held only one small scrap of paper. On it was written, ‘MARK.'”

Let us pray.

The Fourth King

The Fourth King

Matthew 2.2

Dr. Jim Denison

What do you give a King who has everything?

The nation of Brunei sits on the northwest coast of the island of Indonesia in Southeast Asia. It occupies just over 2,200 square miles, about the size of Delaware, or the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex. 358,098 people live there, including one of the richest men in the world, the Sultan of Brunei. He inherited $40 billion from his father, and his lifestyle shows it.

His palace boasts 1,788 rooms, the world’s largest palace still in use, with 388 more rooms than the Vatican. His royal banquet hall can seat 4,000 guests. He owns 400 cars, a sports complex and a polo field. His many horses are stabled in air-conditioned quarters, of course.

The nation is allowed into his palace on his birthday, July 15. In 1979, I happened to be a summer missionary on the island of Borneo and the country of Brunei on his birthday. And so I saw his palace. I’ve never seen anything like it. Gold-plated door knobs and hinges, diamond chandeliers made of real diamonds. He has everything his country can offer, except the affection of his people. That they must choose to give. And most do not.

How the wise men became wise

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him'” (Mt 2.1-2).

Here is what we know, and don’t know, about them.

We know that these “magi” were priests in Persia, modern-day Iraq. They specialized in magic, astrology, and the interpretation of dreams. We typically translate “magi” as “wise men.”

We don’t know their number. They usually traveled in groups of twelve. Tradition identifies them as three, but that’s only because they brought three gifts.

We don’t know their names, though by the 6th century they were given the names Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior.

We don’t know that they were kings, though the medieval church erroneously identified them as the kings of Arabia, India, and Persia.

We don’t know where they died, though their bones were supposedly discovered in the fourth century and moved in 1162 to Cologne, Germany where they reside today.

But we know that they were wise men. They were wise enough to know that the King of Kings had been born, and they must find him and make him their King. They must give him the one thing he doesn’t yet have—their hearts. How can we be that wise?

How we become wise

Go to the Child by faith, personally.

They came personally. They didn’t send representatives or ambassadors or emissaries. They had to come to crown this King themselves.

It’s not enough that your parents have come to him—you must go yourself. No one can get married for you, or go to the doctor for you, or go to Christ for you. You alone must crown him your King. Ask his forgiveness for the mistakes of your past, and surrender your present and future to his will. Put him on the throne of your heart and life.

Worship him with your heart.

They traveled more than 500 miles across two years, risking their fortunes and their lives, so they could “come to worship him.”

Worship him each day in your heart, and each week with your faith family.

Give him your best.

They gave him gold, the gift to a king; frankincense, the gift to a priest; and myrrh, the gift to a sacrifice.

Make him your king, your priest, and your Savior by giving him your best. Not just your worship attendance on the eve of his birth, but your service and commitment each day of each year.

This is how you crown the fourth King your King. And it is how you can become wise this year.


Take a Christmas trip with me. Climb down a dozen steps into the cavern below. Watch your step—the stone is narrow, worn with the centuries. The walls are clammy and covered with moss. The smell is pungent and a bit rancid.

At the bottom of the steps, turn to your left. You’re in a cave now. Maybe ten feet from side to side, perhaps twenty to its back. At its center, it’s tall enough for us to stand. But it slopes quickly to the rounded walls, so watch your head. The dank, musty smell is even sharper here. The only light comes from electric bulbs strung overhead.

Imagine it by the light of a flickering fire. Smell the burning wood; feel the sting of the smoke in your eyes. Cough if you must. Hear the snorts of the animals. Sense the field hands crowded next to you; see the dirt caking their hands, the sweat running from their streaked faces onto their stained, rough burlap shirts.

Turn to what they’re watching. It’s a baby—a newborn, helpless infant. Cradled by a very young adolescent girl, her eyes dark circles, her face still marked with the pain of her delivery. Half sheltering, half protecting her is a rough peasant, more than twice her age, his gnarled hands testimony to his life’s labor.

See in their eyes something glimmering, some spark inexplicable in the gloom of their circumstances. Turn to the rough field hands attending his birth in wonder. Listen to the angels in their songs of triumphant worship. What have they given to him? The same gift which is in your hands and heart this moment.

Bulgaria was allied with Nazi Germany during World War II, but not a single Bulgarian Jew died in a concentration camp, largely because of the stand that Bulgarian Christians took against the persecution of Jews by the SS. Here is one example.

One day the Nazis rounded up hundreds of Jews and imprisoned them behind barbed-wire enclosures at the train station in Sophia. Soon the train would arrive, and they would be sardined into boxcars and shipped to Auschwitz and almost certain death.

As the panicked Jews waited, many sobbing hysterically, a strange image appeared out of the mist-filled night. It was Metropolitan Kyril, head of the Orthodox church in Bulgaria. He was already tall, but the miter on his head made him look like a giant. His flowing white beard hung over his black robe. He walked so quickly that others had to hustle to keep up with him.

He stormed to the entrance of the barbed-wire enclosure. The SS guards raised their machine guns and shouted, “Father, you cannot go in there!” Metropolitan Kyril defiantly laughed at them, brushed aside their guns, and marched into the midst of the Jewish prisoners. They gathered around him, wondering what a Christian leader would say in such a desperate hour. With arms upraised, Metropolitan Kyril recited a single verse from the book of Ruth: “Whithersoever you go, I will go! Your people will be my people! Your God will be my God!”

With these words, the frightened Jews were transformed into an emboldened mob. They cheered their Christian friend. Christians outside the barbed-wire enclosure cheered them, and they became one. Responding to the noise at the train station, the townspeople came out of their houses and joined the crowd.

The SS troops decided that discretion was the better part of valor. When the train arrived, they boarded it without their prisoners and left town.

At Christmas, the King himself invaded our barbed-wire prison, and won’t leave until we go with him. He has everything but your heart, tonight. What will you give such a King as this?

The Only Path To Peace

The Only Path to Peace

Isaiah 11:1-9

Dr. Jim Denison

Have you seen the television program Extreme Makeover? If not, that makes two of us. And apparently, only two of us. Makeover shows are multiplying faster than interest on your Christmas credit card purchases. I heard on the news this week that 40 such shows are in the planning stages now. Everything from people being kidnapped and “made over” to houses being “made over” without the owner’s knowledge or consent. If there’s a Purgatory, television viewers don’t have to go there.

Hollywood is an effective barometer for our culture. They only make shows which will sell advertising. And they can only sell advertising if we watch. So the popularity of “makeover” shows tells us something about our dissatisfaction with our lives. Surveys indicate that two out of three Americans are not happy with their appearance, their finances, or their lives. And Hollywood knows it.

What would you like made over in your life? I’ll bet your answer relates to peace, a solution to turmoil or conflict somewhere in your life. And I’ll bet that you have struggled to find that peace. You may be looking in the wrong place. The way to peace is simpler, and more surprising, than you may know.

Define peace properly

Let’s ask first, What is “peace?” Most of us think of peace as the absence of war or conflict, the presence of harmony in our lives. We have physical peace when there is no pain in our bodies. We have relational peace when there is no conflict with others. We have emotional peace where there is no turmoil in our minds or hearts. We have political and military peace when there is no war with other nations or within our nation.

But true and lasting peace is far more than harmony or the absence of conflict. It also requires the presence of justice. Martin Luther asserted: “Peace, if possible, truth at all costs.” Dwight Eisenhower believed, “Peace and justice are two sides of the same coin.” And Benjamin Franklin warned, “Even peace may be purchased at too high a price.”

We can achieve peace with nearly anyone at any time, if we are willing to forego justice. We could have had peace with Hitler without World War II if we were willing for Nazism to control Europe; there could have been peace with Japan, if we were willing for the Emperor to control Southeast Asia. We could have peace with Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda now if we are willing for Israel to be annihilated and fundamentalist Islam to control the Middle East. There could be peace in the Middle East if Israel were willing for the Palestinians to control Jerusalem and the region, or if the Palestinians were willing for Israel to control Jerusalem and the region.

True peace requires justice and righteousness, in all three dimensions of life: with ourselves, with others, and with God. Not just the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice. Where do we find such peace?

Admit your need for peace

How do we find peace with ourselves?

We ask ourselves, is my life fulfilling its purpose? Am I all I should be? Most of us would answer in the negative. For most of us, the burdens of our failures, guilt, and shame are heavier than the joys of our successes. Philip Yancey wrote a bestseller, Disappointment With God. Most of us could write the sequel, Disappointment with Us. Do I have hope? Direction? Purpose? Do I even believe in hope, direction, and purpose?

No society in human history has witnessed the proliferation of self-help books, magazines, and television shows we have seen. None has ever had so many counselors or drug therapies available to it. None has ever been wealthier. But by every measure, none has ever been unhappier.

Detailed research has proven that Americans need about $50 thousand to be happy. Once we reach that level, our happiness does not increase with our income. Those who make four times that much are no happier than those who make that amount.

Have we found peace with ourselves? Have you?

Have we found peace with others?

We seek peace with others. We face conflicts at work, school and home; and terrorism abroad and at home. We now take for granted a Department of Homeland Security. “9-11” will forever be this generation’s Pearl Harbor. And conflicts are nowhere near an end.

The “Road Map to Peace” in the Middle East now appears to be potholed beyond repair, its asphalt buckled in the hot sun of terrorism and violence.

Things are better in Iraq without Saddam in power, but the conflict continues and terrorism still threatens us. Fifty years after the United Nations was created to “make the world safe for democracy,” is the world safe for democracy?

Ambrose Bierce calls peace in international affairs, “a period of cheating between two periods of fighting.” And Lloyd Cory adds cynically, “Peace is the brief glorious moment in history when everybody stands around reloading.” Have we found peace with each other? Have you?

Have we found peace with God?

If you knew somehow that the King of Kings and Lord of Lords were returning to this planet in the next ten minutes, how would such knowledge make you feel? If you could choose whether he returns this morning or not, what would you decide? Are you ready to stand before your God? Are you at peace with him? How can we be?

Seek righteousness to find peace

One of the most famous passages in the book of Isaiah predicts that God’s Messiah will one day come to his people. He will “come from the stump of Jesse,” the father of King David, thus from David’s royal line. And he will “bear fruit” (v. 1).

What kind of fruit? The Spirit of the Lord will enable him to give:

“Wisdom,” the comprehension of truth in our lives, and “understanding,” the ability to apply this knowledge to our daily problems. In other words, he will guide us to peace with ourselves.

He will give us “counsel and power,” practical attributes which enable us to be at peace with each other.

And “knowledge and the fear of the Lord,” spiritual qualities which lead to peace with God.

But this harmony will be partnered with justice:

He will not judge by appearances or hearsay (v. 3). Unlike fallen humans, he will not listen to gossip or slander.

With righteousness he will help the needy and the poor, and punish the wicked (v. 4). In fact, righteousness and faithfulness will be his “belt” and “sash” (v. 5).

And then true peace will come:

There will be peace in nature (vs. 6-8). Isaiah partners the predator with his most desired prey, and promises they will live together.

We will have peace with ourselves and each other, so that we “will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain” (v. 9a).

And we will have peace with God: “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (v. 9b).

The path to peace is simple. We seek not peace, but righteousness, and peace results. When we are right with each other, we will be at peace with each other. When we are right with ourselves, we will be at peace with ourselves. When we are right with God, we will be at peace with God. And we must be right with God before we can be right with each other or with ourselves.

Billy Graham claims, “Christ alone can bring lasting peace—peace with God—peace among men and nations—and peace within our hearts” (Billy Graham).

Dante’s most beautiful line of poetry states simply, “In Thy will is our peace.”

Julian of Norwich taught, “Peace reigns where our Lord reigns.”

At Christmas the angels rejoiced: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14).

He came to make it possible for us to be right with God, and then with others and ourselves. To pay our debt, purchasing our salvation, redeeming our souls, making possible a right relationship with our righteous, pure, and holy God.

To transform our natures by the miracle of his grace, making us God’s new creation so that the lion and the lamb might lie down together inside our hearts and homes. To make possible that righteousness with God, others and ourselves which leads to true and lasting peace. To be our Prince of Peace.

And so the Bible teaches, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). The “peace which understanding cannot produce” will be yours. This is the promise of God.


Where do you most need peace in your life?

The next time you find yourself in conflict with someone else, in need of relational peace, remember that righteousness is the foundation for peace. Do the right thing, no matter the apparent cost. Do whatever you must to be right with that person, and peace will result.

The next time you find yourself in inner conflict, go to God and get right with him. He will carry you through your circumstances, however hard they may be. He will give you strength, no matter how heavy your load. He will give you comfort, no matter how difficult your pain. Stay right with him, and you will know his peace.

The next time you are tempted to sin, know that your enemy is trying to steal your peace with God. When you are wrong with him, you cannot be right with yourself or with others. The momentary advantage or pleasure that sin offers you will cost you your peace. The deal is not worth its price. Stay right with God, and you will know the peace which passes understanding, the peace his Son came to give us all.

After World War I, the Prince of Wales visited a military hospital and its 36 injured soldiers.

In the first ward he visited, he went from bed to bed thanking each soldier for his sacrifices for his country. When he left the ward he told the official in charge that he had counted only 29 soldiers, and asked where the other seven were being kept. The official explained that they would not recover, and had been left alone to die.

The Prince refused to leave until he found their ward and visited with each one. But he counted only six and asked about the missing soldier. He was told, “That soldier is in a little dark room by himself. He is blind, dumb, deaf, and completely paralyzed by his injuries. He awaits release by death.”

The Prince of Wales quietly opened the door and entered his darkened room. He could not speak to the man, or shake his hand. Finally he went slowly to his bed, stooped over the wounded soldier, and kissed him on the forehead.

The Prince of Peace who came at Christmas has come again today. To your room, no matter how dark or lonely. To bring you his peace. This is the promise of God.

To the Future

To the Future

Joshua 23:1-16

Dr. Jim Denison

Thesis: We must walk with God today to step into the future he intends for us.

Goal: Examine your present obedience to the Lord and his word.

The Chinese have a saying: “To predict is difficult, especially with regard to the future.” I have often wished I didn’t have to be right more often than a weatherman. Or a futurist.

Consider these confident prophecies: “The phonograph is not of any commercial value” (Thomas Edison, 1880); “Flight by machines heavier than air is unpractical and insignificant, if not utterly impossible” (astronomer Simon Newcomb, 1902); “Sensible and responsible women do not want to vote” (Grover Cleveland, 1905); “Ruth made a big mistake when he gave up pitching” (Tris Speaker, 1921); “I think there is a world market for about five computes” (IMB chairman Thomas J. Watson, 1943); “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home” (Digital Equipment Corporation president Ken Olsen, 1977).

How do we face the future with confidence? By obeying the God of the future in the present. You and I can only step into tomorrow with God if we walk with him today.

In this study, Joshua will teach us how to consecrate our lives to God in the present by remembering his purposes from the past. Then we can trust the God of tomorrow with triumphant faith.

Let’s learn how to embrace and share the grace of a God whose love transcends our every circumstance and need.

Look back at his provision (vs. 1-5)

Many years ago, my home church pastor preached a sermon on Psalm 23 which has stayed with me ever since. He showed us “God in three tenses.” He walks before us, leading us in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. He walks with us, protecting us through the valley of the shadow of death. And he walks behind us, as his goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our lives. He is the ever-present, timely and timeless God.

Joshua here calls his people to follow God in all three tenses. First comes the past, narrated by one who lived it.

A long time has elapsed since the events of chapter 22, and “the Lord had given Israel rest from all their enemies around them” (v. 1a). Now Joshua was “by then old and well advanced in years” (v. 1b), most likely near his death at the age of 110 (24:29). At least 25 years have passed since the end of the Conquest.

Their leader from the Jordan crossing to the Canaan conquest now “summoned all Israel” by gathering their representatives from every dimension of leadership: elders, leaders, judges and officials” (v. 2a). Once assembled, he reminded them of his age and experience (v. 2b). And he took them on a pilgrimage across their past:

•They have seen all that God has done to the surrounding nations

•They must remember that “it was the Lord your God who fought for you” (v. 3).

•Joshua then recalled their tribal inheritance and distribution (v. 4).

•And he promised that the God who had given them these lands would help them continue to conquer and control them (v. 5).

An elderly saint once said with a smile, “All I have seen teaches me to trust God for all I have not seen.” Because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8), all he has done in the past he is still able to do in the present and the future. When we need to be encouraged about uncertainty ahead, it is always good to look back at the sure and certain presence and power of our God.

What about tomorrow most concerns you today? Let’s look to the past to find his love in the present. Are you worried about a health issue? The One who “healed many who had various diseases” (Mark 1:34) is still a Great Physician. Is your material security in doubt? The One who fed the widow of Zarephath and her son so that “the jar of flour was not used up and jug of oil did not run dry” (1 Kings 17:16) is still rich.

Are you struggling with loneliness or discouragement? The One whose angel touched the discouraged Elijah (1 Kings 19:5) still comforts. Is your marriage in pain? The One who blessed Hannah and Elkanah in their childless suffering (1 Samuel 1:19-20) still cares.

Are your children making disappointing choices? The One who redeemed a lost son (Luke 15:24) still forgives. Your God loves you without condition and beyond description. Remember the last time he proved his love to you—your last sin he forgave, your last prayer he answered, your last need he met. And know that he didn’t bring you this far to leave you.

Look around for his purpose (vs. 6-11)

In light of all God has done for Joshua’s people, he deserves their obedience and trust today. His requirements for the present are four.

First, “Be very strong” (v. 6a). Here is a consistent them of Joshua and the word of God: strong courage is required of the people of God. Three times in Joshua 1 we find the injunction, “Be strong and courageous” (vs. 6, 9, 18). In verse 7 the command is made even more urgent: “Be strong and very courageous.”

Paul exhorted young Timothy, his son in the faith, in the same way: “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline. So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God (2 Timothy 1:7-8).

God’s purpose will always succeed in his power, but never in our own. We can do “all things” only “through Christ who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13). If your present service to your Lord does not require courage and strength on your part, your ministry is not bold enough.

Second, the Lord asked his people to “be careful to obey all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, without turning aside to the right or to the left” (v. 6b). “Be careful” in the Hebrew means to “act with diligence,” not accidentally but intentionally. Make this your conscious decision and effort.

We are to “obey all that is written in the Book of the Law.” And so we learn the word of the Lord, for ignorance is no excuse. We consult Scripture before we make our next decision, and refuse to do that which God’s word forbids. A lamp is only good in the dark if we turn it on and walk in its light.

We are to obey God’s word “without turning aside to the right or to the left.” Obedience to God’s will is a narrow road (Matthew 7:13-14) with ditches on both sides. It doesn’t matter much whether we sin with the Pharisees in self-promotional righteousness or with the publicans in self-destructive unrighteousness. The only way to stay in the will of God is to take every step in the right direction.

Third, our God warns us: “Do not associate with these nations that remain among you” (v. 7a). Paul made the same request of the Ephesians: “you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking” (Ephesians 4:17). Refuse all relationship with sin; “Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). What specific steps can we take to follow this command?

“Do not invoke the names of their gods or swear by them. You must not serve them or bow down to them” (v.7). Any object or person which becomes more important to us than God is our idol and must be refused. Evil can take the place of God, but so can good. The opinion of people cannot matter to us more than the opinion of God. On Judgment Day, what others said about us will not count—only what our Lord says about our obedience.

Rather, “you are to hold fast to the Lord your God, as you have until now” (v. 8). “Hold fast” is a Hebrew word used to describe the relationship between a husband and his wife (Genesis 2:24). Faith is a journey more than a destination. We never arrive on this side of glory. We are either moving toward the Lord or away from him. Where is your soul this day?

We “hold fast” to God by reading and obeying his word, offering our worship, serving his Kingdom with our gifts and time, trusting him financially. We act into feeling rather than feeling into action. “Hold fast” is a proactive commitment of the will. It is a present-tense, daily decision. As you hold to your Lord, remember that he is holding onto you (John 10:28-29).

Last, we are to “be very careful to love the Lord your God” (v. 11). Why? Again, the look to the past encourages our faith in the present: the Lord has driven out before them “great and powerful nations” so that “no one has been able to withstand you” (v. 9). This victory has come from God alone, so that “one of you routs a thousand” (v. 10a). In their every battle, “the Lord your God fights for you, just as he promised” (v. 10b).

What the first Israel experienced physically, the new Israel has experienced spiritually. Our Lord has defeated Satan, sin, and death, removing their sting and condemnation (1 Corinthians 15:56-58). Now it is a fact that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:38-39).

We cannot follow God into tomorrow unless we are close to him today. The church marquee sign asked a profound question: “If you don’t feel close to God, guess who moved?

Look ahead with his protection (vs. 12-16)

God has blessed his people abundantly, in the past and in the present. Now, as they look to a future without Joshua as their leader, they must face a crucial fact: they have no future unless they are faithful to their Lord. His protection has brought them to this point; if they forsake him, they will lose his power and help. And their nation as well.

Israel had not driven out of the land all those who had inhabited it, despite God’s clear instructions and warnings. Now they might “turn away and ally yourselves with the survivors of these nations” (v. 12). As a result, the Jews would intermarry and associate with them. And their God could no longer give them his protection.

These Canaanites would “become snares and traps for you, whips on your backs and thorns in your eyes,” and they would “perish from this good land, which the Lord your God has given you” (v. 13). Such would be the case at present, except for the sheltering hand of God. Such would be the case in the future, if they disobey their Lord. A fortress is no help to those who will not dwell in its shelter.

They have seen God’s good promises kept. Now Joshua warns them that they will see his promises of judgment kept as well, if they violate their covenant with him: “the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and you will quickly perish from the good land he has given you” (v. 16).

We have no future except as it comes from the hand of our God. Your next breath is his gift. Tomorrow’s sunrise is his act of grace. No king can bless those who are disloyal to his kingdom. No father can reward that which hurts his children. We can step into the future with confidence, but only if our confidence is in our God.

The God who is love intends for us such a future of blessing and provision: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). All loving parents want only the best for their children. As much as it would grieve us to lose the protection and prosperity of God, such judgment would grieve our Father even more.


Not one figure in the Bible knows where he or she will be in a year. The old saying is still true: if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. The only way you can I can step into the coming new year with confidence is to do so in the hands of God. And we can only walk with him tomorrow if we are close to him today.

What must change in your life for you to be fully committed to Jesus? Is there a sin to confess? Obedience to offer? Surrender to make? If your children or friends were as faithful to Jesus as you are, would that be a good thing?

Gifts to your children and friends will be of benefit to them only if they are opened. What is your Father waiting to give to you?