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).


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.


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).


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.