Don’t Join the Crowd

Don’t Join the Crowd

John 12:12-19

James C. Denison

“March Madness” has consumed the nation. When our study group left for Greece, the NCAA basketball tournament had started. When we returned, it was still going on. 64 teams began; 63 will end their season with a loss. They will learn the difference between a friend and a fan–a friend is there when we lose. A fan changes the channel.

We’ve seen Jesus with his Father and with his friends. Now let’s watch his fans, the crowds who gathered on this first Palm Sunday. And let’s learn why we must not join them, at the peril of our lives and souls.

What fans wanted God to do

By most historical reckonings, it was Sunday, April 12, in the year AD 29 when Jesus of Nazareth rode a donkey into Jerusalem.

A “great” crowd of Jews has come from all over the world for the Passover Feast; some ancient historians number them at more than two million.

Now they have “heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem.” They have heard the stories–how he healed the man born blind, and the leper and the paralytic, and raised Lazarus from the dead. For generations they have been taught to pray for their Messiah, the Promised One of God who would liberate his people from their cursed oppressors and establish their nation on earth. Now they believe that their prayers have been answered.

So “they took palm branches and went out to meet him.”

Palm branches were symbols of victory in the ancient world They were printed on Roman victory coins commemorating great battlefield triumphs. They were pictured on Jewish coins during periods of rebellion against Rome. To lay palm branches before a person was the same thing as gathering for a victory parade, welcoming the conquering hero into the city.

Palm trees did not grow in Jerusalem because of the weather. When the people heard that Jesus was coming, they went out into the surrounding areas, cut palm branches, and brought them to the Holy City.

The crowds went out to meet him, shouting “Hosanna!”; “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”; “Blessed is the King of Israel!” (v. 13).

“Hosanna” means “Save us, we pray.” Here the phrase greeted Jesus as their Savior and Liberator.

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” can be translated, “Having been blessed and now still being blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” The phrase points to the Messiah’s eternal and divine nature.

“The King of Israel” is the conquering hero, the military commander, the revisitation of King David, the ruler who would sit on the Jewish throne forever and ever.

This is the One who would overthrow Pilate and Caesar, drive the cursed Roman soldiers from their streets and cities, and establish the great Jewish nation for all time.

If we were Holocaust camp survivors being liberated by Allied soldiers, we’d be no more excited than these crowds on this day. If we were slaves being emancipated from our owners, or imprisoned East Germans watching in stunned joy as the Berlin Wall was destroyed, we’d feel what they felt.

God was finally going to answer their prayers the way they asked him to. He was finally going to give them what they wanted. He was going to meet their needs. But when he didn’t, how long did their adoration last? How long before “Hosanna” turned to Crucify!”?

What they needed God to do

Jesus knew that they had it all wrong, that the Messiah they wanted was not the Messiah they needed. So he “found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written, ‘Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt'” (vs. 14-15).

A military conqueror rode into a city on a chariot drawn by four white horses with a slave holding a crown over his head. Jesus came on a donkey.

He didn’t have to ride at all–he had just walked the 15 miles from Jericho to Jerusalem, up 3,000 feet of elevation through some of the most difficult terrain to be found in that part of the world. He could have walked into the city. But he chose a donkey, a beast of suffering, a symbol of peace.

He came to fulfill Zechariah 9, a prediction made 567 years earlier that the Messiah would come as a suffering servant and prince of peace. Zechariah’s promise ended, “I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth” (v. 10).

If Jesus had been the Messiah the crowds wanted, he would have set them free from Rome. But they would still have been slaves. Slaves to sin, to Satan, to death. As would we today.

So he died for them, and for each of us. Christ “died for the ungodly” (Romans 5.6).

He “died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15.3).

He “laid down his life for the sheep” (John 10.11).

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 “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3.13).

He “gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Galatians 1.4).

He “gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own” (Titus 2.14).

He has “freed us from our sins by his blood” (Revelation 1.5).

He “purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5.9).

He “died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3.18).

The word of God is true: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15.13).

Jesus wouldn’t give them what they wanted, so he could give them what they needed. And they crucified him for it.

Are you a fan or a friend?

Have you been part of the Palm Sunday crowd lately? A fan in the stands, coming to watch your team win? It’s human nature to join them, to come to God for what we want him to do for us. I’ve just returned from my fourth trip to Greece and Turkey. Every time I go I am awed again at the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome. These civilizations were the cradle of Western culture, home to Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and other geniuses, some of the most brilliant people of all time. And home to some of the most stunning idolatry and paganism in human history.

You see it at the famous Parthenon in Athens, where a colossal statue of Athena was erected and the goddess worshipped. You see it in Ephesus, where marble statues to the worship of Roman emperors and gods stand in mute attention 20 centuries later. You see it from Philippi in the north to Corinth in the south. You see it as you drive past Mount Olympus, supposed home of the gods. Worshiping the gods so the gods will bless us. Sacrificing on pagan altars so the gods would give rain or sun, crops and flocks, children and protection. Appeasing the gods so the gods would protect and prosper the people.

Coming to church for what we can get out of it. Worshiping to be inspired, encouraged, or uplifted. Listening for advice on handling time or stress or marriage or family. Preaching to be liked and admired. Teaching to be thought wise; singing to be thought talented; serving to be noticed. Shouting “Hosanna!” so long as the Nazarene does what we want, and “Crucify!” if he does not.

All the while, the One who came on Palm Sunday and died on Good Friday deserves our worship not for what he will do for us, but for what he has done. Not so he will love us, but because he does. Not so he will bless us, but because he has. Not so he will give us what we want, but because he has already given us all that we need. At the cost of his own tortured, horrific, innocent execution, dying on our cross for our sins.

A medical doctor described crucifixion in physical terms. This is not for the faint of heart:

“The cross is placed on the ground and the victim is thrown backwards with his shoulders against the wood. The legionnaire feels for the depression at the front of the wrist. He drives a heavy, square wrought-iron nail through the wrist deep into the wood. Quickly he moves to the other side and repeats the action. The left foot is pressed backward against the right foot, and with both feet extended, toes down, a nail is driven through the arch of each, leaving the knees flexed. The victim is now crucified.

“As he sags with his weight on the nails in the wrists, excruciating fiery pain shoots along the fingers and up the arms as the nails press on the median nerves. He pushes upward to avoid this stretching torment, placing full weight on the nail through his feet. Again he feels the searing agony of the nail.

“As the arms fatigue, cramps sweep through his muscles, knoting them with deep and throbbing pain. With these cramps comes the inability to push himself upward to breathe. Finally carbon dioxide builds up in the lungs and in the blood stream, and the cramps partially subside. Spasmodically he is able to push himself upward to exhale and bring in life-giving oxygen. This goes on for hours.

“Then another pain begins: a deep, rushing pain deep in the chest as the pericardium slowly fills with serum and begins to compress the heart. It is now almost over. The loss of tissue fluids as reached a critical level. The compressed heart struggles to pump heavy, sluggish blood through the tissues. The tortured lungs make frantic effort to gasp in small gulps of air. Finally the victim dies. For you.


That’s what Jesus came on Palm Sunday to do, for you. He deserves our worship and surrender, our obedience and gratitude, not for what he will do but for what he has done. Then comes the irony: the more we worship him for his sake rather than ours, the more he blesses our worship and our lives. When we come not to get but to give, we receive. When we come to honor God, we are honored and blessed. When our souls connect with his Spirit not as consumers but as children, we are empowered and directed and forgiven and liberated. When last did you worship Jesus like that? Will you today?

Jesus is looking for friends, not fans. How can we tell the difference? Not by appearances–they look the same in the stands. Appearance is not reality. I can prove it–I’m wearing my new Rolex watch today. I bought it from a street vendor in Ephesus for 10 euros ($13 American). It looks like a Rolex, but will probably die by this afternoon.

The test is not Sunday but Friday. It’s not in church but when we’re done with church. The test comes when Jesus asks us to refuse a temptation we want to commit; to seek forgiveness when we don’t want to; to share our faith; to give sacrificially of our time and money; to take a step into further ministry by faith. Is this where the Father finds you today? What can you do this morning to prove that you’re not a fan but a friend?

Know that you cannot outgive God. His will never leads where his grace cannot sustain. Whatever it costs you to follow him is more than worth its price.

Traveling in the Aegean Sea last week reminded me of one of my favorite stories. A man spent his entire life on the island of Crete. He never left it. He loved everything about it–the people, the terrain, the beauty of his native land. So when the time came for him to die, he asked his sons to carry him from his stone cottage and lay him on the land of Crete. He reached down, took a fistful of the soil of Crete, and died.

He appeared before the gates of heaven. An angel came out to welcome him inside, but saw his clenched fist. “Old man, what is that?” “It is Crete–I go nowhere without it.” The angel was firm: “You must leave earth to enter heaven.” “Never!” said the man with his fist raised in the air. He turned from the gates of heaven and sat down outside their walls.

A week went by. The gates opened, and the old man’s best friend walked outside. He had gone to heaven some years earlier. He sat down beside his dear friend and said, “Old man, drop that dirt and come inside. We’ll celebrate together.” But the man from Crete raised his hand and said, “Never!”

Another week passed. The dirt of Crete had begun turning to dust, as it slipped through his elderly hands. He sat, cupping one under the other, when the gates opened again. Out came his beloved granddaughter. She had gone to heaven just the year before. She stood at his side and said, “Grandpapa, the gates open only for those with open hands.”

The old man thought about that for a while. Then he stood to his feet and took her hand with his. Together they walked to the gates of heaven. He held the dirt of Crete in his hand, then let it go. It slipped through his fingers to the clouds below. The doors opened. Inside was all of Crete.

Let us pray.

Getting Rid of Guilt

Getting Rid of Guilt

1 John 1

James C. Denison

A teacher gave her fourth-grade class a list of famous sayings and asked them to complete each one. Here are some of the results:

Better be safe than . . . punch a 5th grader.

Don’t bite the hand that . . . looks dirty.

You can’t teach an old dog new . . . math.

A penny saved is . . . not worth much.

When the blind leadeth the blind . . . get out of the way.

Where there’s smoke, there’s . . . pollution.

Children should be seen and not . . . spanked or grounded.

A bird in the hand is . . . a real mess.

Early to bed and early to rise . . . is first in the bathroom.

None are so blind as . . . Helen Keller.

Laugh and the whole world laughs with you. Cry and . . . you have to blow your nose.

We’re going to try to do better with some of the famous sayings of Scripture. Together we’ll examine four of the most commonly quoted passages in all the word of God. None of them means what most people think it means. There’s more to the story for each and every one. And yet every one of these passages, these promises, is crucial to living in the joy, the victory, the celebration of life which Jesus wants us to experience every day. For the next few weeks we’re going to open four invitations to the party of God, and learn how to make them our own.

We start with one of the most frustrating problems plaguing Christians today–guilt. Guilt over mistakes we’ve made, failures we’ve experienced, sins we’ve committed. Skeletons in the closets of our souls.

We all have things in our past we don’t want anyone to know about. I do, and so do you. Where does guilt live in your mind or heart? What past failures haunt you? What secrets from your past still shame you? Where does your past afflict your present?

Are you living with failure and wondering if you’re forgiven? Are you facing tough times and wondering if you’re being punished? Does your past poison your present?

A psychologist recently said he could dismiss 90 percent of his clients if they could heal their guilt over failing in the past or fear about failing in the future.

Someone has said that living with guilt is like being stung to death by a single bee. How do we remove that stinger today?

Why do we struggle with guilt?

Our text is clear and plain: “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

To “confess” is to admit and repent. God is “faithful and just”–he always keeps his promises, here to forgive. So he will “forgive” our sins. And he will “purify us from all unrighteousness.” He wipes the slate clean, no matter what was written on it.

This is the plain and clear promise of God: he forgives every sin we have confessed to him in genuine repentance. So why do we all struggle with guilt over these sins?

Some of us grew up with a God of anger and wrath, more like Zeus throwing thunderbolts than a Father sending his Son to die for us. We picture God with gigantic scales, judging all we do. We hear that he forgives sins in general, but we’re not sure he has forgiven ours.

Some of us grew up with a deep sense of personal inadequacy, a low self image, and we don’t think we truly deserve to be forgiven.

I struggled with this issue for many years. My parents were very loving and supportive, but had very high expectations for me. When I failed them I felt that I was a failure. And so I grew up with a very low self image, a sense that I was inadequate, that nothing I could do would be good enough.

I learned to compensate, as people with this problem do. I created what psychologists call an “idealized self,” the person I wanted you to think I was, and I worked hard to become that person. I had many masks in the closet–one for church, one for school, one for work. Always trying to be the person I thought you wanted me to be.

But deep inside me I knew it wasn’t really true. I didn’t want you to know who I really was, because I was afraid you wouldn’t like me very much. And when I became a Christian, I struggled for years to believe that God had really forgiven my sins. Because I didn’t think I deserved to be forgiven.

Some of you know exactly what I mean.

And some of us practice “Baptist penance.” We’re self-made people, and cannot accept grace from people or from God. We must pay it back, for we don’t want to owe anyone, even the Lord. If God won’t punish us, we’ll punish ourselves. We’ll hold onto our guilt, our pain, our failure, until we think we’ve paid our debt.

How do we break this cycle of grief and guilt?

What do we do with our guilt?

Understand the consequences of sin. Like holes left by nails in wood, the results of sin remain even when the sin is confessed and forgiven.

When we lie to others, they may forgive us but they’ll always wonder if they can trust our words. If we are unfaithful, our spouse may never be able to trust our commitment. If we steal or embezzle, our colleagues may never be able to trust our character. Virginity lost cannot be regained. Pornographic images take years to leave the mind. Substance abuse can affect our health until we die.

And sin will always take us further than we wanted to go, cost us more than we wanted to pay, and keep us longer than we wanted to stay.

Paul Harvey once told how an Eskimo kills a wolf. He coats his knife blade with blood and lets it freeze. He then buries the knife, blade up, in the frozen tundra. The wolf catches the scent of fresh blood and begins to lick the knife. He keeps on licking, harder and harder. Because of the cold, he never notices the pain of the blade on his tongue. His craving for blood is so great that he does not realize he is now lapping up his own blood. He licks the blade until he bleeds to death, swallowing his own life. So it is with the consequences of sin if we do not give it immediately to God. This is the reason we are not to sin and confess, sin and confess. God will forgive every sin we admit with repentant hearts, but the consequences may remain long after the sin is done.

Know that guilt is not from God. The consequences of sin are clear, and motivate us to refuse temptation. But know that guilt is not among them. Not once in Scripture does the Holy Spirit use guilt to accomplish his purposes. He condemns sin, not sinners. He convicts of failures, he does not call us failures. Not once does he use guilt in our lives.

Guilt comes from ourselves, our culture, or Satan himself. Realize that guilt is not from God.

Confess your sins, specifically and immediately to God. No generic confessions will do. Be specific and honest with God. And do this immediately, before the cancer can spread in your soul.

I recommend a moral inventory at least once a week. Get a piece of paper and a pen, get alone with God, and ask the Holy Spirit to show you anything which is wrong between you and the Father. Write down what he says, specifically. You’ll be amazed at what comes into your mind. Confess what you discover, honestly and genuinely. Then burn the paper, tear it up, throw it away. Know that you’ve dealt with these issues with God, and you’re done.

Start when the sin is small, before the cancer grows and the malignancy spreads. Otherwise, it will. For example, do you happen to know how a worm gets inside an apple? Most of us think the worm burrows in from the outside. In fact, an insect lays an egg in the apple blossom. The worm later hatches in the heart of the apple, then eats his way out, destroying the apple as he does so. It is the same with sin.

Accept the forgiveness of God. Remember and claim these scriptures–write these references down if that will help you remember them.

Psalm 103.3 promises that God “forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases.” All of them.

Psalm 103.12: God will separate your sins from you as far as the east is from the west.

Micah 7.19: God will bury your sins in the depths of the sea.

Isaiah 43.25: God will remember them no more. The next time you confess a sin you’ve already confessed, God won’t know what you’re talking about.

Continue to claim God’s grace, every time guilt attacks. You may need to do this a hundred times today, or tomorrow, or all week long. But eventually the enemy will get the idea, and you’ll get the scriptural fact of God’s forgiveness deep into your soul, and you’ll find one day that the guilt is gone. All by the grace of God.


Are you being tempted to believe that nothing will come of your sin? Know that the consequences remain far after the sin is confessed. Give your temptation to God today, immediately. Claim the power he alone can provide.

On the other hand, are you a Christian who has been beaten up by guilt? Give that pain to the grace of God, right now. Trust it into his loving hands every time it attacks you. And eventually the abundant joy of Jesus will be yours.

A small boy was visiting his grandparents on their farm. He was given a slingshot to play with in the woods. Heading back to dinner, he saw Grandma’s pet duck. Out of impulse, he shot a rock at it, hit the duck in the head, and killed it. He was shocked and grieved. In panic, he hid the dead duck in the wood pile, only to see his sister watching. Sally had seen it all, but she said nothing.

After lunch that day Grandma said, “Sally, let’s wash the dishes.” But Sally said, “Grandma, Johnny told me he wanted to help in the kitchen today, didn’t you Johnny?” Then she whispered to him, “Remember the duck?” So Johnny did the dishes.

Later Grandpa asked if the children wanted to go fishing, and Grandma said, “I’m sorry but I need Sally to help make supper.” But Sally smiled and said, “But Johnny told me he wanted to help you.” And she whispered again, “Remember the duck?” So Sally went fishing and Johnny stayed.

After days of doing his and Sally’s chores, Johnny couldn’t stand it any longer. He came to Grandma and confessed that he had killed her duck. She knelt down, gave him a hug, and said, “I know. You see, I was standing at the window and I saw the whole thing. Because I love you, I forgave you. But I was just wondering how long you would let Sally make a slave of you.”

Your Father is wondering the same thing today.

It’s Not About Us

It’s Not About Us

Jeremiah 29:4-14

James C. Denison

Smart people can make some dumb predictions:

•In 1943, the chairman of IBM said, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”

•Decca Recording Company rejected a musical group in 1962 with the assertion, “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.” The group was named the Beatles.

•Irving Fisher, Economics Professor at Yale University, said, “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” The year was 1929.

•Charles Duell, commissioner of the U.S. Office of Patents, said in 1899, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

•The head of IBM once said of a proposal, “I don’t know what use anyone could find for a machine that would make copies of documents.” The inventor was forced to found Xerox.

•The chairman of Digital Equipment Corporation said in 1977, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”

Who of us can really see the future? Who of us thought two Sundays ago that the next day would bring the Virginia Tech tragedy? What will happen tomorrow where you live?

On a day when we honor and pray for our graduates, what kind of society are we sending them into? Is there an overarching purpose to this apparently random, chaotic world? If there is, how can they know it? How can you?

God promises his chosen people, “I know the plans I have for you–plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” But he sent the Babylonians to destroy their temple and take them captive. They’re going to be enslaved in this foreign, pagan land for 70 years. How can this be? How can God have a plan to prosper and not harm them, and allow this?

How can God allow the tragedy at Virginia Tech to take the lives of 32 students and faculty just like our graduates and their parents? How can he allow you to face cancer and heart disease, divorce and death and grief? How does this promise work in a fallen world like theirs and ours? How can we find God’s will and purpose in the midst of such struggles as we all face?

Learn about the purpose of God

Let’s examine God’s answer to our question. Our text gives us five life lessons, each of them crucial to our problem. Our text begins: “‘I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord.”

Here we learn lesson one: God has a plan for our lives. Over and again, Scripture declares that fact.

•James taught us: “You ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that'” (James 4:15; cf. Ephesians 6:6, Hebrews 13:21).

•The psalmist prayed, “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God” (Psalm 143:10).

Whatever your decision, question, or problem, know that God has a plan and an answer for you today.

Lesson two: God knows his plans for us, but we do not. “I know the plans I have for you,” he says. But we do not. No one in the Bible gets a five-year plan.

•The Bible says, “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going” (Hebrews 13:8).

•When Moses agreed to face Pharaoh, he didn’t know there would be a Red Sea in his future.

•Joshua knew nothing about a flooded Jordan River or fortified Jericho when he agreed to lead the nation.

•When Daniel started the day in prayer, he didn’t know he would end it in the lion’s den.

•The fishermen who left their boats to follow Jesus didn’t know they would lead the global Christian movement.

•When Paul followed the Macedonian call and baptized Lydia in Philippi, he didn’t know he was bringing the gospel to the Western world.

Whatever your problem or decision today, know that you don’t know the answer. Refuse to trust your human wisdom, education, or experience. Tell God that you don’t know the right plan, and that you need his. Develop the reflex of praying first, always.

Lesson three: God’s plan is for our best. His purpose is “to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you hope and a future.”

Forty-three times by my count, God’s word promises that God loves us. He so loved us that he gave his Son for us (John 3:16). He proved his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). Nothing can separate us from his love (Romans 8:35-39). He longs to be gracious to us and rises to show us compassion (Isaiah 30:18).

He is a perfect Father, and he loves every one of his children perfectly and unconditionally. No matter where we’ve been or what we’ve done, he loves us. Even though the Jews’ sins and rebellion have landed them in Babylon, he loved them. Even though our sins and failures have caused us guilt and him grief, he loves us. He has a plan to prosper and not harm us, to give us hope and a future. All of us.

Decide now that you will follow his plan, whatever it is, because it is best for you. And then you will know it.

Lesson four: his plan begins today. It is a flashlight in the dark, showing us enough to take the next step but no more.

God has a plan for where and how they should live: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce” (v. 5).

He has a plan for the families they should have: “Marry and have sons and daughters” (v. 6).

He even has a plan for the country which has enslaved them: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (v. 7).

Even in Babylon, he had a plan for them for that day. They could not know his purpose for the future unless they were willing to obey his purpose in the present. I can’t learn calculus until I learn arithmetic. I can’t drive to Waco until I learn to operate a car. Lance Armstrong started with training wheels. As Oswald Chambers said, we must be of use to God where we are, because we certainly cannot be of use to him where we are not.

Are you in his will this morning? Is there unconfessed sin in your life? Are your dating relationships pure? Your internet use? Your late-night television habits? Your language, and finances, and taxes? We must be close to God today if we would hear his voice tomorrow.

Lesson five: God’s plan is for his Kingdom. God blessed the Jews because they were his children, but also because they were a means to a larger end. He blessed Israel so he could use Israel to bless the world. He prospered them in Babylon so he could return them to Palestine and through their nation bring the Messiah for all peoples.

As prosperous as Babylon might be, it’s still a foreign country. You and I still live on foreign soil. God’s word calls us “aliens and strangers on earth” (Hebrews 11:13; 1 Peter 2:11). Our best day here cannot compare to our first day in Paradise. Every day we live, we must live for eternity. Our decision we make must be framed by the prayer, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

When last did you make a decision based on what would most glorify God, bring people to serve him as their King, and build his Kingdom on earth? That was the last time you sought his plan in line with his purpose.

Trust the redemption of God

Now, how can this plan to prosper us be reconciled with the Babylon where God’s people found themselves? With the Babylon which is our fallen world today?

The key lies in the redemption of God. The Bible never promises that bad will not come to good people. Quite the opposite, in fact. Jesus warned his followers, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Jesus was crucified, Paul beheaded, Peter crucified upside down, every apostle but John martyred, and John exiled on Patmos. A million Christians died in the first centuries of the faith simply for following Christ. God never promised that his plan to prosper us and give us a future meant temporal health and wealth.

Rather, his present plan is a means to our eternal good: “‘Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.  I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile'” (Jeremiah 29:12-14).

God will redeem their Babylonian captivity by using it to draw his people back to himself. In Babylon as they had not in Israel, his people would “come and pray to me.” They would “seek me with all your heart.” Then he would return them to their land, and through them one day bring the Messiah for all peoples. He would redeem the pain they faced in Babylon by using it to draw them to himself.

We’ll speak more of this next week when we consider Romans 8:28. For now, let’s remember a statement I’ve made often in the last year: God’s holiness requires him to redeem all that he permits or causes. God is redeeming the tragedy of Virginia Tech and 9/11. He stands ready to redeem cancer and heart disease, divorce and disease and death. I don’t have to understand all the ways he is, to know that he is. I don’t have to understand aerodynamics to board an airplane, so long as the pilot does. God stands ready to use bad times for good purposes, always. In Babylon then, and in Babylon today.


Where does this promise find you today? Are you a graduate or someone else seeking God’s purpose and direction for your future? Are you struggling with a hard place and wondering why? Perhaps a word of advice may help.

Many years ago, I was part of a worship planning meeting on the Monday after an especially powerful worship service on Sunday. We were all discussing the reasons why the service had been so moving, and looking for ways to make the next week’s worship experience equally successful for those who came. Then one of my best friends in the world, a man who had helped us start that service years earlier, smiled and said something I’ve never forgotten: “It’s not about us.”

He was so very right. Life is not about us. This is Babylon, not the Promised Land. We are subjects of the Kingdom, servants of the King. When we surrender our lives, plans, and agendas to his purpose, asking only how we can serve Christ as our King and help others make him their King, then we find his “good, pleasing, and perfect” will. Then we walk in his purpose each day.

We must lose our lives to save them (Matthew 16:25). We must surrender them to live them. We believe that he is redeeming all that he permits or causes. When last did you submit completely to the plans of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords? When next will you?

The Gospel According to Cleopas

The Gospel According to Cleopas

Luke 24:13-35

James C. Denison

People send me lots of stories, some of which I can actually tell in church. Here’s my favorite so far this year. A man says, “As a young minister, I was asked by a funeral director to hold a graveside service for a homeless man who had no family or friends. The funeral was to be held at a cemetery way back in the country, and this man would be the first to be laid to rest there.

“As I was not familiar with the backwoods area, I became lost. Being a typical man, I did not stop for directions. I finally arrived an hour late. I saw the backhoe and the crew eating lunch, but the hearse was nowhere in sight. I apologized to the workers for my tardiness and stepped to the open grave, where the vault was already in place. I assured the workers that I would not hold them up for long, but that this was the proper thing to do. The workers gathered around, still eating their lunch. I poured out my heart and soul.

“As I preached, the workers began to say ‘Amen” and ‘Praise the Lord.’ I preached and I preached as I’d never preached before, from Genesis all the way to Revelation. I wasn’t going to let this homeless man go out without someone taking notice of his service. I closed the lengthy service with a prayer and walked to my car.

“As I was opening the door and taking off my coat, I overheard one of the workers say to another, ‘I’ve never seen anything like that, and I’ve been putting in septic tanks for more than 20 years!'”

There are many reasons to have church, but none surpasses today’s. This is the Sunday when Christians the world over gather to celebrate the fact that Jesus rose from the grave and is alive today.

We do this because we need to–because we need the hope and encouragement and help which remembering the resurrection gives us. We do this because we’re Easter celebrants, but we’re also people with problems. We’re courageous and fearful, faithful and backslidden. We’ve had victories and we’ve had failures. Some days we’re excited to be alive and some days we’re not. Some Sundays we’re inspired, and some we want to sleep in. Some weeks we win, and some we lose. Some weeks we’re with Cleopas, and some weeks we’re with Christ.

Today we’ll learn why choosing latter over the former is the most important decision of life.

The gospel according to Cleopas

Our drama begins as two players enter the stage. One is named “Cleopas”–that’s all we know about him. Nothing more, just his name. We know even less about the second actor in the play, as he or she is never named in the script. Maybe this person is the wife of Cleopas, as they went home together; or perhaps his brother or close friend. That’s part of the beauty of our story–they are Everyman, Everywoman. Every one of us, at some time in our lives.

Now it’s Easter Sunday, the greatest day in human history, the day God’s Son rose from the grave, defeating death and sin and Satan and hell, the day he fulfilled the promises of God’s word and God’s plan and purchased salvation for all who would trust in him. The day that the Church began and the world changed.

But Easter has missed Cleopas and his companion. No “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” for them; no “Up from the grave he arose.” They’re shuffling off from Jerusalem to their home in Emmaus, a small village 7½ miles west of the Holy City, a place known for medicinal springs in the area and not much else. They’re trudging from Dallas to Grand Prairie. The sun is setting on their day, and their souls.

Somehow they know a lot about the One who was crucified two days ago. They know that “he was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people” (v. 19), God’s spokesman and preacher. They know that he has been “crucified” (v. 20). They had hoped that he would be their Messiah, “the one who was going to redeem Israel” (v. 21); probably they had been part of the Palm Sunday crowd the Sunday earlier, throwing their palm branches before Jesus and their “Hosanna”s into the air with the jubilant crowd. They’ve heard rumors that some women have seen him alive, but the apostles “did not see” him (v. 24).

They know all about Jesus. And yet they don’t know him. He’s right here, walking beside them, and they are “kept from recognizing him” (v. 16). Perhaps by their grief, or their disillusionment, or something else. We don’t know. All we do know is that they appreciate Jesus for the good man he was, but nothing more. No living, life-transforming Lord for them.

Cleopas is alive and well and skeptical still today.

Atheism is making a comeback these days. Richard Dawkins of Oxford University, the man who said a few years ago that “religion is a virus in the software of humanity,” is publishing bestsellers with titles like The God Delusion. Sam Harris’s last book is called The End of Faith. They and others like them are telling all who will listen that the resurrection of Jesus is a myth, that religion is superstition we must outgrow.

Maybe you wouldn’t go that far, but some of us here today aren’t sure if it’s all really true. You’ve never seen Jesus, touched him, heard his voice. It’s all a nice story, fine for those who want to believe it. Churches do lots of good in the world; if faith helps you get by, there’s nothing wrong with that. Do whatever works for you. But don’t ask me to believe it just because you do. Just because some people say they’ve seen him doesn’t mean they have. Every religion claims to be right. Buddhists and Hindus and Muslims say they have met God or the gods. It’s a lovely story, a treasured tradition, Santa Claus for Christians. But nothing more.

For you, Jesus was a good man, even a great one. A wonderful teacher and example. We ought to imitate him and try to do what he says, honoring his memory and continuing his legacy. But he was just a man.

A little boy was asked in Sunday school what “faith is.” His definition: “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

You can find Cleopas in the culture, and in the church as well. Some of us who come every week have read his “gospel” and know that his story is ours.

Like lots of people in church, you accept the story of Easter on a level of history, the idea that Jesus Christ rose from the grave on April 19, AD 29. You know that there’s no explanation for the empty tomb: if the authorities had the body, they would have produced it; if the disciples stole the body, they died for a lie. You know that 500 early Christians saw him alive, and that there is no other good explanation for the birth and miraculous growth of the Church.

You understand the theological importance of the resurrection: that Easter fulfilled the biblical predictions that God’s Son would rise from the dead (cf. Matthew 16:21); it proved the divinity of Christ (John 20:28); it guarantees our victory over death and the grave (John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 6:14; 1 Corinthians 15:22).

You know all of that. But to you it sounds like so much data, statistics without relevance. It’s been a while since you felt the touch of his power, his answer to your prayers, his help for your needs. It’s been a while since he gave you his joy or changed your life. For you, Easter is a story and a tradition but not much else. It’s not your story today. You’re with Cleopas. His gospel is your gospel.

The gospel according to Christ

Fortunately, Luke’s Easter drama doesn’t end with verse 24. In response to the misgivings and doubts of Cleopas, the Christ preaches a sermon I want very much to hear when I’m in heaven: “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (v. 27).

He showed himself alive in the word of God, and in the worship of God: “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. [This describes what we call the Lord’s Supper today.] Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?'” (vs. 30-32).

He showed himself alive in God’s word, and worship, and world: “They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, ‘It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.’ Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread” (vs. 33-35).

Jesus is still alive in his word and worship and world, for any of us who will do what Cleopas and his companion did. If we will listen to his word and his Holy Spirit. If we will meet God in our worship and our world. If we will settle for nothing less than a personal, intimate, passionate, daily relationship with the risen Christ, it will be ours. Yours. Today.

When last did you start the day by giving it to Jesus? By spending time in his word and worship? When last did you go out into the world in prayer, walking with him through the day? Praying first about all that came your way–the problems and opportunities, frustrations and joys of life? Practicing the presence of God, surrendered to Jesus as the King of your life? When last did his word and worship change and empower your soul? When last did you experience Easter? Today you are walking to Emmaus, and he has joined you. He is at your side right now. He is ready to walk through this day and this year with you. Are you ready to walk with him?


Is Easter the story of Cleopas or Christ for you? Have you come to give thanks for a good man, or to meet God? When last did meeting Jesus bring Easter to your soul?

Jesus rose from the grave on Easter Sunday–I can show you that it’s so. Two weeks ago, it was my privilege to be part of a group following the footsteps of Paul and John in Greece and Turkey. On Sunday morning we made our way to Patmos and the cave where John received the Revelation of Jesus Christ.

It was AD 95. John had been Jesus’ best friend on earth for 60 years. Probably the first to join his apostolic band, and the last to leave it. The only one at his cross; the one to whom Jesus entrusted his mother. His “beloved disciple.”

Now six decades have come and gone, and all the other disciples are with Jesus in heaven. Only John remains of the original twelve. He has been exiled by Emperor Domitian to Patmos, the Alcatraz of the ancient world off the coast of modern-day Turkey. Separated from his family, his friends, his congregation; his witness silenced and his ministry over. At least that was Domitian’s plan. But John won his jailer to Christ, and his fellow prisoners, and started a tiny church on that island rock.

Weeks went by. It was Sunday, and John was with his trusted assistant Prochorus. They were worshiping in their cave on the island, when there came a voice he had not heard in 60 years. He turned and found his best friend, the One he never expected to see again on this side of heaven. The One who rose from the grave on Easter Sunday and is alive today. And the risen Christ gave him the Revelation, the last book of Scripture, truth which is still changing souls across the world 20 centuries later.

Two more years passed. Domitian was executed, and replaced by Emperor Nerva. Nerva freed John to return to his home in Ephesus. He left that prison island and his tiny church behind, never knowing what would become of them. He died a few years later and went to join his best friend in heaven.

Now 2,000 years have passed. Two Sundays ago, our tour group entered John’s cave. There we found the table where the Revelation was written, and the handhold he used to get up from the ground after praying. And John’s church. Worshiping Jesus in the cave, as they have since John left. As they will until Jesus returns. All because the risen Christ brought Easter to Patmos. And never left.

Now he’s ready to bring Easter to Dallas. And to your soul. This is the invitation and promise of the living God.