His Baton or Yours?

His Baton or Yours?

Joshua 3:1-17

James C. Denison

In the battle of Jericho, Joshua had the priests blow “seven trumpets of rams’ horns” and march around the fortified citadel (Joshua 6:8). I’m a “priest” (as it were), and I play the trumpet (or at least I used to). I’ve often wondered what they played. Perhaps “Taps” for the inhabitants? “Reveille” for the Israelites? It’s actually a trick question. I played a “rams’ horn” in Israel–it made only two notes (and sounded like a dying cow). Their part was easy.

Ours is harder. Our instruments have valves and scales and options. How can you be sure that you’re playing what God wants? What’s the relationship between your hard work and practice, and his direction and plan? I’ve struggled with that question for much of my Christian life. My hard work cannot save a single soul or change a single life. And yet God has given me gifts and abilities, and you as well. What is the relationship between his will and our work?

Recently in my journal I recorded a metaphor which helped me greatly: God is the conductor and I’m in the orchestra.

He alone has the score for the entire orchestra–in fact, he wrote it. I can see only my part. Sitting in the orchestra, I can hear only those playing right around me. I cannot hear the oboe player in Brazil or the cellist from 600 years ago whose contribution is part of this concert of the ages.

I can play my part as I want, ignoring the conductor, but I’ll most likely play out of time and he won’t be able to use my part in the eternal CD he’s recording. Or I can watch his baton, his downbeat, playing as he directs. Then he will use my abilities and hard work as part of something far greater than anything I can play by myself. And best of all, as I focus on the Conductor’s baton, I get to know the Conductor.

Where do you need his direction today? What question, issue, challenge have you come up against with your instrument? How can your life know and follow the Conductor of the universe this year, starting today?

Prepare to play for the Conductor (vs. 1-13)

Every musician knows that a concert consists of two parts: practice and performance. For every hour you hear played on the stage, there are hundreds of hours of preparations you don’t hear. It’s the same with the orchestra and plan of God. Here’s how to prepare for the concert he intends for your life this year.

First, trust in his direction (vs. 3-4). Know that the Conductor is with you, whether you can see and feel him today or not. And know that his direction is always best for you as you play in his orchestra.

The “ark” was the most sacred possession of the people. Overlaid with gold, it was constructed with a golden angel at either end. Only four feet long by 2.5 feet wide and 2.5 feet deep, it was so sacred that it was carried on poles attached permanently to its sides because no human was allowed to touch it. It contained the Ten Commandments, as well as a jar of manna from the wilderness (Exodus 16:33-34) and a copy of the book of Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 31:24-26). It was the most significant symbol of the Jewish nation, much more than a flag to us, for it represented the throne and presence of Almighty God himself. When the ark preceded the people, they would know that the Lord was present with them, marching at their front, leading them into the river and the land beyond.

Today the ark is no more. Lost or destroyed in the Babylonian captivity, its fate has never been determined with certainty. Some Jewish archaeologists believe that it was stored by the rabbis in tunnels beneath the Temple Mount when the Babylonians were approaching, and awaits discovery at a time when the Muslim authorities permit such excavation. Others think it was taken with Jeremiah in exile to Egypt or on to Babylon, or hidden on Mt. Nebo in the country of Jordan today. And some think the Jews destroyed it lest it fall into pagan hands. But no one is certain.

Nor is it needed now. After Pentecost, God’s people are God’s temple, with God’s Spirit living in us (1 Corinthians 3:16). His word is no longer kept in a box, but is alive in our hearts (Hebrews 4:12).

Our Conductor is just as present in our lives as he was with their ark. And his will is best for us, as it was for them. As we step into the water of obedience, we can trust his presence and plan. As we play our instrument in his orchestra, he will direct all our notes to be their very best.

Second, practice for your performance (v. 5) In preparing to see the power of God, the people must first believe that his presence would lead and protect them. Next, they must be ready spiritually to walk in that holy presence: “Joshua told the people, ‘Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you'” (v. 5).

How do we “consecrate ourselves” today? We ask the Holy Spirit to show us anything which is wrong between us and God, any notes we have played out of tune or rhythm, and write down what comes to mind. We then confess these sins specifically, humbly, and honestly to God, claiming the forgiveness he offers by grace (1 John 1:8-10). We throw away the paper in gratitude, and submit our wills and ambitions to his perfect purpose. We crown him our Lord anew, placing him on the throne of our hearts. We draw close to him, knowing that he will draw close to us.

If you were a musician with a concert at the Meyerson coming up, you would practice your part. Think back to a job interview, and the attention you gave to every detail of the day. If you are married, remember all the months of work invested in 30 minutes of wedding ceremony. Does our Father deserve less? If we are not experiencing the power of God in our lives and ministries, perhaps this is an issue worth examining. When we humble ourselves and pray, seek his face and turn from our sins, then our God can hear from heaven, forgive our sin, and heal our land (2 Chronicles 7:14).

Third, follow his leadership (vs. 6-8, 13) The priests would step into the river while it was still flooded, carrying the symbolic presence of the Lord into the torrent (v. 8). Then God would stop the flooded river so the entire nation could follow (v. 13).

How does God lead his people today? Where do you need his word and will for your heart and relationships and problems? He leads us rationally through his word. Start your day by reading Scripture, asking the Spirit to speak from it to your mind. Use a study Bible to look up passages which deal with your subject or problem. Ask a teacher or friend to help. Do what you must to find his word on your problem, for it is still true and relevant.

He leads us pragmatically through circumstances, open and closed doors. Ask him to do that for you. He leads us intuitively as his Spirit speaks to our spirit and we sense what we should say and do. Ask him to speak to your heart and soul.

Know that the Conductor wants you to know your part more than you do. Seek his direction for this day and year, and it will be yours.

Joshua and the nation were called to trust God’s presence, consecrate themselves, and follow as he led. You and I are God’s people today, called to the same preparations. Do you trust God’s presence and will to be best for you? Have you prepared to play? Are you following his lead?

Play as he directs (vs. 14-17)

Now the concert begins. The people broke camp and marched toward their future (v. 14). What did they find? The Jordan “at flood stage all during harvest” (v. 15a). The river flows north to south, over 200 miles from Mt. Hermon to the Dead Sea. It drops nearly 2000 feet down across its journey, but typically flows in a peaceful, meandering stream.

However, every year the spring rains and melted snow from Mt. Hermon combined to turn the stream into a raging torrent. It is now a mile wide, 12-15 feet deep, rushing by so swiftly that it promises to drown any who stepped into it. The cattle and possessions of the nation will be lost. The children have no chance to survive. Few adults can expect to live through this flood.

Now comes the crucial moment in the performance, with the future of the nation suspended in the balance. Picture the scene in your mind. The priests take up the Ark, grasping the poles which support its weight. They lift these poles to their shoulders. They march toward the river. They stop. No one speaks. You can hear only the pounding of the water as it rushes by, crashing against the shore. You can feel its spray against your face and smell the mist as it rises. It’s a torrent.

They don’t have to do this. They can stay where they are, secure and at ease. But they’ll never inherit the promises and power of God. They can try to find their own way across the river, but they’ll likely fail and drown. Or they can step out in faith. And they do.

Instantly, the pounding waters stop. The foam ceases, the spray dies. The river’s roar falls silent. All is quiet and still. And where only moments before there had been a deep, torrential river, now there lies before them a dry bed anyone can cross.

How did it happen? “The waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan” (v. 16). Adam was some 20 miles upstream. The Jordan would take several hours to flow from there to here. And so God began this miracle hours before his people knew it or could participate in it.

Now the people are required to demonstrate their own faith (v. 17). Would the flood stay blocked? Was it safe to step into the river bed? It would take the nation half a day to cross. Imagine parents with children in hand, all their worldly possessions at their side. What would your response have been?

Theirs was unanimous–the entire nation followed God by faith. They stepped into the miracle. And only when they did, could they see its power and experience its provision.

It is still the same with us today. As the orchestra followed the Conductor, it played a concert for the ages.


Now your instrument is in your hands.

You have only the notes of this moment’s measure of music before you. You cannot know what is on the next page. Only the Composer and Conductor know that. Only they can see the score of eternity.

You can choose to play whatever you want, however you want, for as long as you want. When you’re done and your music dies with you, no one will remember that you played it.

Or you can play what the Conductor has given you, each measure at a time. You can trust his direction, practice your part, and follow his lead. And your music will be a beautiful part of the concert of eternity. You will never play as well as this. Your performance will never be so joyous. And best of all, you’ll know the Conductor himself.

Last Monday night, Craig and I were privileged to go with some dear friends to a remarkable concert by the great trumpet player Chris Botti. I’m so glad he’s not here to listen to my trumpet flailings. Hearing him perform brought to mind a wonderful story about the great Polish pianist Paderewski.

A little boy just learning the piano was taken to a concert by the master. He slipped away from his mother, sat down at the concert piano, and began to play Chopsticks. The crowd reacted with anger, shouting for someone to take the boy away. Paderewski quickly walked to the piano, put his arms on either side of the boys’, and began improvising a wonderful composition to the tune. All the while he whispered to him, “Keep going. Don’t quit, son. Keep playing.”

It’s a wonderful story, but historians say it never happened. Maybe a great musician never played Chopsticks with a small boy, but the Composer and Conductor of the ages is ready to play a composition of eternal significance at your side. The next note is up to you.

Our Utmost for His Highest

Our Utmost for His Highest

Joshua 1:1-9

James C. Denison

A young nun who worked for a local home health care agency was out making her rounds when she ran out of gas. Fortunately, there was a gas station just a block away. She walked to the station, only to learn that their one gas can had been loaned out. So she returned to her car to look for something she could fill with gas, and spotted a bedpan she was taking to the patient.

The resourceful nun carried it to the station, filled it with gas, and carried it to her car. As she was pouring the gas into the tank, two men watched her from across the street. One of them turned to the other and said, “I know that the Lord turned water into wine, but if that car starts, I’m going to church every Sunday for the rest of my life.”

We’re beginning 2007 by learning to follow the God who still works miracles today, if only we’ll have courage enough to conquer the promised land he intends for us this year.

The key to God’s purpose and power is captured best by the title of Oswald Chambers’ classic devotional, My Utmost For His Highest. I’ve been reading from it each day for 15 years, and have found it to be the most essential book in my spiritual life next to Scripture. Its title motivates me constantly: find and give my “utmost” gifts and service to God’s “highest” purpose for my life and work.

What is your “utmost”? What is your “highest” purpose in the will of God? What is the greatest dream you can envision for this new year? Some of us would rather avoid the question. We’ve settled comfortably in the Land of Good Enough where we’re safe and secure. We know life could be more, that God has higher plans for us, but we also know that we are fallen and failed people, that we’re not sufficient for more than this. We’re exactly where some of Joshua’s people were, camped safely on the eastern side of the Jordan River, wondering whether they should risk the Promised Land.

Others of us are ready to charge into battle. The problem is, we’re not sure where to go, or if we are sufficient to defeat the flooded rivers and fortified citadels ahead. There are giants in the land, and they’re waiting to kill us. If we march to war in our strength, we won’t survive the contest. The good news is that there’s a third option. There’s a promised land which is God’s intention for your life in this new year. Let’s learn how to find it and claim it today.

Seek the purpose of God

Moses has died. This is Joshua’s chance at greatness. He had led the people to their first military victory 40 years earlier (Exodus 17:8-16). He had been Moses’ “assistant” (v. 1) for these four decades, his right-hand man on Mt Sinai when he received the Ten Commandments (Exodus 24:9-13) and in the tabernacle when he met face to face with God (Exodus 33:7-11).

Only he and Caleb had urged the people to take the land 40 years earlier. He was the one person in perfect position to seize Moses’ mantle and carry it forward. If anyone could lead the nation out of his own preparation, experience, and pedigree, it was Joshua. If anyone could defeat the giants in the land, it was him.

You and I face the same temptation today. What giants are living in the land before you this year?

We worry about the insurgency and civil war in Iraq, terrorism around the world, and economic uncertainties. One investment analyst I read this week thinks there’s a 50-50 chance of a recession in 2007, though others are more optimistic. No one knows if the housing market will improve, or how things will go in Washington under Democratic control for the first time in 12 years with a Republican in the White House.

Closer to home, if I were reading the newspaper of your mind today, what headlines would I find? What giants are stalking your land? What flooded rivers are you afraid to cross? What fortified citadels are you afraid to attack?

Isn’t it a temptation to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and charge ahead? That’s our cultural mantra: you can do it. The entrepreneurial spirit reigns here. From childhood we learn to be self-starting and self-reliant. We can defeat our giants if we just fight hard enough.

That’s what’s gotten us where we are. That’s the spirit which has led us to this place on the journey. But it can take us no further. God’s will requires God’s help. His plans for our lives require his power. You and I will never know the abundant, joy-filled promised land of God if we are trying to get there in our strength. If you’re trying to get to Hawaii, you’d best not swim. If you need life-saving surgery, you’d best not treat yourself. If your house is burning down, you’d best call the fire department.

If Joshua had yielded to our temptations to self-reliance, the Bible would have ended at Deuteronomy. He and the people would have drowned in the flooded Jordan River or been massacred at Jericho. The few who survived would have retreated back across the river to safety, where they would have been assimilated into the ancient Canaanite world. Instead, by God’s grace he trusted in God’s grace. And God gave him all he would need. He still does the same for his people today.

Trust the plan of God

God gives the “who”: “You and all these people” (v. 2a). Not just the leaders, or the army, or the priests–the entire nation was part of God’s purpose and call. He has a specific purpose for you and those you love and influence.

God gives the “where”: “proceed to cross the Jordan.” The Jordan is typically only 80 to 100 feet wide, and not deep. I baptized a large group there, and had no difficulty wading out into the middle of the slow-moving current. But when the spring rains come, the river can flood its larger bed. Where Joshua and his people would be crossing, the river would be more than a mile wide and a raging torrent.

They didn’t know what the Lord already knew–that they would face an insurmountable obstacle which he would lead them across miraculously. We are called to follow God today, and leave tomorrow in his hands. He already knows every step he intends us to take.

The Lord gives the “what”: they would inherit “the land that I am giving them” (v. 2b). God had earlier promised this land to Abraham for his descendants (Genesis 15:18-19), and had renewed his promise to and through Moses (Deuteronomy 11:24-25). Now he would bring it to fulfillment.

He would give them “every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon” (v. 3). The Hebrew tense indicates that the land was already theirs, though it remained to be taken. It already belonged to God, and thus to his heirs. They just had to go and claim it.

Each Christmas some very kind friends give our family gift certificates to restaurants (the boys’ favorite) and bookstores (Janet’s and my favorite). Our possession is already purchased and belongs to us–we need only claim it. So it is always with God’s planned future for us, on earth and in heaven. He already owns all that is; we need only go and “set foot” on that which he wants us to have.

And God gives the “how.” God knew that his people would face opposition for the land he had planned for them. So he promised Joshua: “No one shall be able to stand up against you all the days of your life” (v. 5a). Why? Because “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you: I will not fail you or forsake you” (v. 5b).

To “forsake” meant to abandon, to turn loose of. Imagine a mountain climbing guide, holding the lifeline for a climber who has lost his grip on the mountain. This is precisely our condition spiritually. But our Father will never turn loose of our rope. He will always hold us up until we have climbed to his full purpose and will.

Joshua’s part was simple: “Be strong and courageous” (v. 6). “Be strong” translates a Hebrew word which means to be bound strongly together, to be put together well. “Courageous” means to be firm-footed, to take a strong stand, the opposite of shaking or quaking knees. This command was so important that God repeated it three times to Joshua. How are we to keep it in this new year? Consider this spiritual formula:

Consistent obedience (v. 7): “being careful to act in accordance with the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go.”

Plus constant communion (v. 8): “This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it.”

Equals courageous commitment (v. 9): “Do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” And so he is.


As “the Lord spoke to Joshua,” so he wants to speak to you. Why not take some time today to listen to him? Ask him to define his promised land for your new year, the next step in journey he intends for your life. It may involve giants in the land–people you can’t forgive, temptations you can’t defeat, fears you can’t conquer, plans and money and time you can’t surrender.

Choose to be strong and courageous. Choose obedience and communion with God.

But remember this theological fact: God’s purpose always requires God’s power. He will not do for us what we try to do for ourselves. But when we submit to him as our King, committing our utmost to his highest, yielding ourselves every morning and every day to his Lordship, he will tax the last star and grain of sand to empower us in fulfilling his purpose for our year and our lives.

And rejoice in this spiritual fact: God wants a relationship with you more than he wants anything else in the universe. The closer you are to him, the stronger and more courageous your soul will be. He is the source of your personal worth. Choose obedience to his word as you know it, and daily time spent with him in prayer and worship. And you will be empowered by the God of all creation who lives in you.

Do you know your promised land today? Can you finish the sentence, “God’s purpose for my year is____? Have you asked God for his plan? Have you sought it in his word and worship and prayer? The God who called Joshua is calling you. Are you listening?

Harry Truman: “Make no little plans. Make the biggest plan you can think of.” Ask God to show it to you.

Now sell out to it. Philip Yancey: “The giants all had one thing in common: neither victory nor success, but passion.”

And settle for nothing less. Harry Emerson Fosdick: “No steam or gas drives anything until it is confined. No life ever grows great until it is focused, dedicated, disciplined.” Dwight L. Moody says it more simply: “Consecrate, then concentrate.”

Don’t leave this Sanctuary until you have surrendered this year to the purpose of God. You’ll never have this day again. This is the reason you’re here, the work God intends to do with your soul today. Pay any price to submit to your Father as your King.

I read this week a fascinating story from the early life of Billy Graham. When he was a college student, he asked a fellow student named Emily Cavanaugh to marry him. After months of deliberation, she finally accepted his proposal. But one evening at a class party she sat with him on a swing and told him she had to give back his ring: “I’m not sure we’re right for each other. I just don’t see any real purpose in your life yet.” She was interested in an older student who had goals, plans, responsibility.

Billy was crushed. “All the stars have fallen out of my sky,” he wrote to a friend. For months he was burdened, not only by the breakup of their relationship but by her words. She was right–he didn’t have a sense of purpose. He had a vague sense that God was calling him to preach, but he didn’t feel that he was equal to the task.

After months of angst, one autumn evening Billy wandered through a golf course, kneeling on the 18th green. Eyes filled with tears, he looked up at the night sky and said, “All right, Lord! If you want me, you’ve got me. No girl or anything else will come first in my life again. You can have all of me from now on. I’m going to follow you at all cost.” (Harold Myra and Marshall Shelley, The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005] 21).

Aren’t you glad he did? Who will be glad you did?

That I May Know Him

That I May Know Him

Philippians 3:7-11

James C. Denison

Eric Liddel was the greatest 100 meter runner of his day, so fast he was nicknamed the “Flying Scotsman.” However, as the 1924 Paris Olympic Games drew near, a problem arose.

The 100 meter race was scheduled for Sunday. A devout Christian, Liddel did not believe in competing on the Lord’s Day. He felt that Sunday was for God alone. So while his race was being run, he was preaching in a Scottish church in Paris. His countrymen were confused and outraged.

Later in those Olympics, Liddel ran in the 400 meter race, not his best event. He set an Olympic record and won the gold medal. And when the closing ceremonies came, fame and fortune were his.

But then he surprised his countrymen for a second time. Rather than returning to Scotland and glory, he rejoined his missionary parents in China. He served his Lord there for many years. When the Japanese invaded China in 1937, Liddel might have escaped to freedom, but he chose to remain with his people and church. And so he died at the age of 43 in a Japanese World War II interment camp.

What makes a man do something like that?

Today we’ve taken time for a “state of the church,” an opportunity to take stock of the gifts which God has given to us, the “stones of remembrance” made possible by his Spirit’s blessing on our church. Now we turn from the gifts of God to the gift of God. If we focus only on the gift, we will miss the Giver. And knowing him intimately and passionately across this new year is the greatest gift of all.

When last did your spirit connect with his Spirit? When last did his word come to life in your soul? When last did worship move your heart? When last did prayer empower your obedience? When last would you say you really “knew” God? Not just believed in him, or worked for him, or thought about him, but knew him the way you know your spouse or your best friend? If it’s been a while, Paul may know why.

Roadblocks to knowing God

Personal success can keep us from knowing God intimately.

Paul was born into an elite family and Roman citizenship. As the star pupil of Gamaliel, he was renowned for his intellectual brilliance. He was a Pharisee, the elite religious and political leaders of his nation. He was wealthy enough to support himself in travels around the world. But now he says that “whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ” (v. 7).

Is social or financial success your real goal today? Is Jesus just one part of your life? Is the church just one part of your schedule? I know you didn’t intend it to happen, but maybe it has. Is it honestly more important to you that your children succeed socially than that they know God intimately? Is it more important to you that your job or house or car or school impress others than that your faith impresses God? If the highest goal of your life for this new year is not to know God, today is the day to consider all this “loss for the sake of Christ.”

Personal failure can keep us from knowing God intimately.

Paul was known for “persecuting the church” (v. 6), arranging for Christians to die for their faith. When he was first converted, no one in the church wanted to talk to him, because they were afraid of him. Later he would call himself the “chief of sinners” (1 Tim 1:15). But he was able to know God.

Is personal failure keeping you from knowing God intimately today? Guilt over sins you’ve confessed but not forgotten? Know that God has forgiven and forgotten every sin you’ve admitted to him. If he could use a murderer like Moses, an adulterer like David, or a persecutor like Paul, he can use you. If problems in your past are keeping you from knowing God, today is the day to count your failures “loss for the sake of Christ.”

And religious success can keep us from knowing God intimately.

Paul was so engaged in the rules and rites of his religion that he missed the God they were intended to serve and honor. He knew about God, but he did not know him.

You and I can be so involved in the church that we miss Christ. We can be so busy working for Jesus that we forget to walk with him. Or we can assume that our religious activities guarantee a personal relationship with him. If you are active in the church but not intimate with Christ, today is the day to consider all else “loss for the sake of Christ.”

The gospel, the good news that God loves us and wants an intimate relationship with us, the incredible fact that our Father will forgive our sins because of Jesus’ death for us and make us his children–this is the treasure hidden in the field, the “pearl of great price” (Matthew 13:44-46).

This is the message Paul and the other apostles gave their lives to tell the world. This is the news which more than a million early Christians died to share. The greatest “stone of remembrance” is the Rock of Ages, cleft for me, the Chief Cornerstone, the Lord Jesus himself.

Is he your pearl of great price? Do you “consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus your Lord” (v. 8)? Will you sacrifice the time to meet him each morning, submitting to him as your King? To settle for nothing less than a personal, intimate connection with him each day?


Let’s decide early in this new year that Paul was right, that we will consider everything in life as “loss” and “rubbish” compared to the joy of knowing Jesus as our best friend, Savior, and Lord. That we will seek an intimate, passionate relationship with him every day. That we will know Jesus, wherever we are, whatever the cost.

During World War II, three American divisions had pressed the defending Nazi paratroopers to the tip of the Crozon peninsula in southern France. In the desperate final hours of the battle, men on both sides were killed and wounded.

One young soldier from the 8th Division was brought to the first-aid station with a shattered leg. The corpsmen did what they could to stop the bleeding, then looked for someone to carry the man back to the waiting ambulance. Four volunteers lifted the stretcher to their shoulders and began the march away from the front lines. The wounded man was obviously in pain; as he rolled his head to the side he noticed a cross on the collar of one of the stretcher-bearers. He asked, “Are you a chaplain?”

“Yes, I am, can I do something for you?” “Do you know that old tune, ‘He walks with me and he talks with me’?” “I sure do–want me to sing it for you?” “Better than that, Chaplain, you sing melody and I’ll sing tenor.”

Quite a few soldiers along the road lifted their heads in surprise as they heard, amidst the whine of incoming artillery shells and the rat-tat-tat of machine gun fire, the sound of two men singing in the middle of a war, “And the joy we share, as we tarry there, none other has ever known.”

In the midst of your battles, whatever they are, would you stop this morning and sing that song? Make it your resolve for this new year, joining the apostle of old: “I want to know Christ. Whatever it takes, wherever he leads, whatever he asks. This will be my ‘stone of remembrance’ this year–I knew Jesus.” Is it so for you today?