Hard Places Make Holy People

Hard Places Make Holy People

Romans 8:28-30

James C. Denison

Would you go on the Internet to watch cheese ripen? I did last Tuesday, and became the 1,205,022th visitor to do so. A large English cheddar cheese was placed in front of an Internet camera last December, its ripening process broadcasted to the world. It will take a year for the cheese to fully ripen. Meanwhile, viewers from 119 countries are watching. Now that’s entertainment.

A ripening cheese beats much of what’s in the news these days.

An al-Qaeda bombing in Bangladesh proves the terrorist organization isn’t going away. Controversy in Washington over war funding; global warming and the melting Zugspitze glacier in Germany; a week of thunderstorms and floods locally; continued coverage of the Virginia Tech tragedy and fears about security at upcoming college graduations.

Where is the world not what you wish it were? What about the past or the future worries you in the present? God’s word today calls us to be grateful for all of that. To learn an attitude of gratitude even in the hardest places of life. Why? Because hard places make holy people. How can that promise be true in your hard place today?

Don’t be surprised by suffering

Let’s begin with what Scripture does and does not say. Our text does not say that all things are good, but that “in all things God works for the good….” The distinction is important.

When God made the world he called it good. In fact, when he was finished with creation, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

But then humanity fell into sin and the suffering which results. Man would live by the sweat of his brow and woman would bear children in pain until death comes.

This fallen world is a reality for us all. Every one of us has sinned and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23); the wages or result of that sin is death (Romans 6:23).

And creation is affected by such sin: “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.  For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.  We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:19-22).

We suffer cancer and heart disease and disaster and death because this world is not the way God intended it.

Some say that Romans 8:28 means all things are good all the time, that we are to be happy always and “praise the Lord anyway.”

Such theology would find no home in Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed under such stress that the capillaries of his skin broke and he sweated drops of blood (Luke 22:44). Not on Calvary, where our Savior cried in anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Not with Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” a problem so great he prayed three times for God to remove it (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). Not for John, who was exiled on the prison island of Patmos where he was a “companion in tribulation” with suffering Christians around the world (Revelation 1:9).

Jesus warned us that “in this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). Paul likewise warned us that “we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Don’t be surprised by suffering.

Our text does not promise that all things are good, but that God “works through all things for good.”

The Greek is that he “works together all things for good.” “Works together” is the picture of God taking existing materials and using them, working with them, molding them into something new.

He is in fact making something “good.” This is the Greek word for “good in nature,” not necessarily in appearance. At the time it may not seem at all that God is working bad for good, but he is.

The reason is simple. As I’ve said often in the last year, God’s holiness requires him to redeem all that he permits or causes. God is by definition the greatest, most perfect being that can be conceived.

And a perfect being must redeem everything he permits or causes. He can allow or do nothing which he cannot use for a greater good. If 9/11 or Virginia Tech defeated the ultimate purpose of God, he is not God.

We likely will not know all the ways our Father is using bad for good, but we can know that he is. We don’t have to understand computers to use them. I don’t have to know how this wireless microphone works to trust it. So with the redeeming power of the God who works through all things for good.

If you’re not sure God can use bad for good, ask Joseph in his Egyptian prison; or Moses at the Red Sea; or Joshua at the flooded Jordan River; or David facing Goliath; or Jeremiah in the mud cistern; or Daniel in the lion’s den; or Shadrach, Meshach and Abednigo in the fiery furnace; or Peter in Herod’s prison awaiting execution; or Paul and Silas singing hymns at midnight in a Philippian jail; or John exiled on Patmos.

Ask the millions of Christians who have come to faith in Communist China after their churches were made illegal; or the millions of South Koreans who came to Jesus after the devastation of the Korean War; or the thousands who were moved to faith upon hearing the stories of the martyred Christians at Columbine. God is working through all things for good. Either his word is true or it is not. Either he is God or he is not. We must make our choice.

Submit to the purpose of God


If Jesus Were a Mother

If Jesus Were a Mother

Isaiah 49:8-16

James C. Denison

This week I saw a “mother’s dictionary,” and thought several of the terms worth passing along this morning:

•Family planning: the art of spacing your children the proper distance apart to keep you on the edge of financial disaster.

•Feedback: the inevitable result when the baby doesn’t appreciate strained carrots.

•Hearsay: what toddlers do when anyone mutters a dirty word.

•Look out: what it’s too late for your child to do by the time your scream it.

•Show off: a child who is more talented than yours.

•Sterilize: what you do to your first baby’s pacifier by boiling it and to your last baby’s pacifier by blowing on it.

On this Mother’s Day, we are grateful for all the ways our mothers love us in spite of ourselves.

As you may know, a woman in Philadelphia named Anna Jarvis began a campaign in 1907 to honor mothers, for the sake of her mother. President Woodrow Wilson made the second Sunday in May an official national holiday in 1914.

And so the holiday is not found in the Bible or on the church calendar. But it is appropriate that we celebrate it on a Sunday. It is interesting that you have come to church for Mother’s Day. Many of you would be here anyway, but most of you see worship as a part of your Mother’s Day observance. Some of you are our guests today as you have come to worship with your mothers. Most of you wouldn’t feel it was truly Mother’s Day without such worship.

Our sentiment is more correct theologically than we may know. We are all familiar with God as our Father. Jesus taught us to pray to “Our Father, which art in heaven.” But the original readers of Scripture were very familiar with the fact that God is our mother as well. When we explore that concept for just a few moments, we will quickly see why it is so transforming and practical for every mother and for every child today.

God our Mother

Isaiah 49 is best understood in the context of the Babylonian captivity, those 70 years five centuries before Christ when God’s people were enslaved in a foreign, pagan land. Our chapter contains one of the Messianic passages of the Old Testament, predicting the coming of a Chosen One who would save and help God’s people.

He will come “in the day of salvation” (v. 8a); he will “restore the land and . . . reassign its desolate inheritances” (v. 8b). He will free the captives (v. 9), feed those who are hungry and thirsty (v. 10), and bring people from the north and the west to the Kingdom of God (v. 12). In short, “the Lord comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones” (v. 13).

But how can this be true in Babylon? How can this be true where you live, in the hurting and fallen world you and I inhabit? Many of us know how to say, “The Lord has forsaken me; the Lord has forgotten me” (v. 14). But he has not: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?” (v. 15a). Every mother knows the answer to that question. Even if your mother forgets you, the Lord says, “I will not forget you!” (v. 15b).

In fact, the God of the universe promises, “I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” (v. 16a). “Engraved” in the Hebrew means to tattoo or otherwise fix permanently. God has written your name on the palm of his hand, where he can see it every moment of every day. It is there right now.

In other words, God the Father does for us what a mother does for her children.

He comforts us when we are hurting and lonely: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God” (Isaiah 40:1); “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you” (Isaiah 66:13).

He protects and guides us when we are lost or in danger: “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young” (Isaiah 40:11).

Christian readers of the Hebrew Bible understood clearly that God the Spirit does for us what a mother does for her children as well.

The Hebrew word for Spirit is ruach, a term which is feminine in nature. We find the word in Genesis 1, where “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:2). “Hovering” translates a Hebrew word used in Scripture for a hen “hovering” over her chicks or her eggs. At the very beginning of creation, God the Spirit was “mothering” the universe.

The Spirit gives us life. Many people do not know this, but the Bible teaches that our physical life is due to the presence of the Spirit (Job 27:3; Ezekiel 37:14; 39:29). And our eternal life is the result of the Spirit’s work. When we “ask Jesus into our heart,” it is actually the Holy Spirit who comes to dwell in us. We are now the “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 3:16). The Spirit regenerates us and makes us the children of God. Using our mothers to give us life, it is actually the Spirit of God who gives us physical and eternal life.

And God the Son acts in our lives as a loving mother as well.

Jesus is our “advocate” in heaven, standing with us no matter what (Hebrews 9:24). As a mother with her child, he is always with us.

He weeps with us when we hurt, as he wept at the grave of Lazarus (John 11:35) and the onlookers said, “See how he loved him!” (v. 36).

He longs to gather us together as his children: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Matthew 23:37).


The World’s Only Hope

The World’s Only Hope

Matthew 16:13-20

James C. Denison

Since I was born and raised in Texas, I’ve always been proud to be a Texan. But I didn’t know how good we have it until last week, when a friend sent me this geography lesson, a list of actual places in Texas.

Anyone need cheering up today? You can go to Happy, Pep, Smiley, Paradise, Rainbow, Sweet Home, or Comfort–all in Texas. Hungry? Try Bacon, Noodle, Oatmeal, Turkey, Trout, Sugar Land, Salty, Rice, or Sweetwater, Texas.

Why travel out of the state? We have Detroit, Colorado City, Denver City, Nevada, Memphis, Miami, Boston, and Santa Fe, Texas. Why leave the country? We have Athens, Moscow, China, Egypt, Italy, Turkey, London, New London, and Paris, Texas. We even have Earth, Texas.

If you’re cold, you should go to Blanket, Texas. If you need office supplies, try Staples, Texas. Kids should visit Kermit, Elmo, Nemo, Tarzan, Winnie, and Sylvester, Texas. The rest of us should try Frognot, Bigfoot, Hogeye, Notrees (I’ve actually been there!), Best, Veribest, Telephone, Telegraph, Twitty, and Ding Dong. When we’re done, we should go to Farewell, Texas.

There’s only one place on earth better to be than Texas. Jesus identified it: “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18). How can you and I get on that rock? Why is standing on that rock the best decision you can make this morning, the only hope of the world and your soul today?

Who owns the church?

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

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

I will never forget standing on that rock, looking up at that cave, as long as I live. As I looked in awe, my mind traveled back to a time when another man stood where I was this day. As he himself looked around, he could feel the religious significance of the place.

Just a short distance away stood the brilliant white marble temple built by Herod the Great as an altar to the worship of the Roman Caesar, hence the name of the place, “Caesarea.” He knew the emperor was worshiped here.

Beneath his feet was that cavern where the Greeks said Pan, their god of nature, was born. He knew the Greek and Roman gods were worshiped here. Scattered around the place were fourteen temples to Baal, the Canaanite fertility god, where the pagan Syrians worshiped.

Somewhere below was the origin of the Jordan River, the holiest river in all the Jewish faith, the water Joshua and the people walked through to inherit the Promised Land, and he thought of his own Jewish traditions and worship.

On this gigantic rock, standing in the midst of temples to every kind of god known to their culture, a Galilean carpenter asked his followers, “Who do you say that I am?” And one of them, standing where I stood, said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And he hears the Galilean say, “Upon this rock I will build my church, and”–pointing to the cave towering above them, dwarfing this small group of peasants gathered below–“even the gates of hell will not withstand your assault.”

Who owns the Church?

A survey was recently conducted, asking members and pastors whether the church exists to reach the world or to meet members’ needs. 90 percent of the members said it exists to meet members’ needs; 10 percent said it exists to reach the world. 90 percent of the pastors said it exists to reach the world; 10 percent said it exists to meet members’ needs.

Isn’t it easy to think that the members own the church? After all, it’s your tithes and offerings which keep the doors open and the lights on. You pay my salary and that of the rest of our staff, don’t you? And you come to be fed and inspired in worship, for your children to grow up in faith and moral teaching, to be with your friends and get help for your family. Don’t we all measure church by what we “get out of it”?

Isn’t the church something like a country club, where the head pro knows more about golf than anyone else? He has a staff to help him do what the members want done. But the head pro doesn’t run the club–that’s the job of the board of directors. They do this on behalf of the members. The members in turn pay dues for services received. If you don’t play golf, don’t pay for golf. Go to your club as it meets your needs.

Isn’t that the consumer church of our day, where I’m supposed to teach you how to find success without stress and the church exists to help you improve your life? Where therapy is the nature of preaching, and programs exist to meet all your needs?

Except that Jesus said, “I will build my church.” The Greek is emphatic–the Church belongs to him. The Bible says that Jesus is the “head” of the church (Ephesus 5:23). We are the “body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:27). Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given unto me” (Matthew 28:18).

The Church is his. This church is his. He is the Lord of this Church, or we are not a church. We may be a charitable organization, a civic society, a benevolent institution, but we are not a church. If we’re in charge, we’re not a church. If we’re doing what we want, coming to meet our needs, leading the church to do what we want it to do, we’re not the church of Jesus Christ.