Believing is Seeing

Believing Is Seeing

Galatians 6:7-10 / Mark 8:11-26

Jim Denison

New Year’s celebrations are the most universal of all holidays. Every religion and culture has its version. The Babylonians started this tradition 4,000 years ago. Their new year’s party lasted for 11 days, if you can imagine. Their most popular new year’s resolution was to return borrowed farm equipment. If I have borrowed your tractor, I resolve to return it this week.

Have you made any new year’s resolutions? Has God made any for you? Is there anything you know he wants you to do as 2008 begins?

Is there a person you know you should forgive? Someone’s forgiveness you know you should seek? Sin you know you should confess and stop?

Do you know a non-believer you should try to bring to Christ or church? Is God asking you to make a new time commitment to his service? A new financial commitment to his Kingdom?

My problem with God’s will is seldom that I don’t know what to do–it’s usually that I don’t want to do what I know I should. Mark Twain spoke for me: it’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me–it’s the parts of the Bible I do. I always know more than I do. I suspect you’re the same way.

Paul assured the Galatians that if they would “sow to please the Spirit,” living in the Spirit’s guidance according to God’s will, then “at the proper time, you will reap a harvest if you do not give up.” If we do what God wants, we’ll be glad we did. We can trust God’s will even when it’s hard. We can believe that God knows and wants what is best for us, even when he asks more than we want to give.

I’ve heard that all my Christian life, and so have you. If someone could help me believe it when it’s hard, I’d be grateful. When my faith is tested this year and I don’t want to do what I know God wants–when I don’t want to give or forgive, to refuse sin or submit to his will. Why should I pay a price to follow Jesus? Why should I believe that I’ll reap a harvest if I do not give up? Why should you?

Why to trust God today

This episode in Mark 8 was so important to Jesus’ work that it was recorded in all four gospels. It begins: “The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven” (v. 11). The word translated “sign” means a miracle which proves that a prophet is from God.

The Pharisees wanted Jesus to make specific predictions for the future and then fulfill them, thus proving that he was who he said he was. This he would not do for them. He knew that such signs would do nothing to convince those who will not be convinced. They would not be persuaded, because they had already decided not to believe.

Why is this story in all four gospels? As a warning to us. If we ask God to prove himself before we will trust and serve him, we’ll never trust and serve him. If we wait for him to prove that his will is best for us before we’ll follow it, we’ll never follow it.

What more can he do than he has done to convince us of his reality and character? He created the world, then gave us his law and prophets to show us how he wants us to live. But we refused them, so he sent his Son to become one of us that we might be one with him. But we rejected and crucified him. He raised him from the dead and exalted him to heaven, but we can’t prove that today. What more would we like God to do before we’ll follow him unconditionally?

He could appear to us today in this Sanctuary, but would you trust your senses? Would you believe tomorrow what you saw today? Would anyone else believe your story? Let’s say I told you that God appeared to me yesterday and revealed to me that he wants us to start a Sunday morning worship service in the Cotton Bowl. What is your first reaction? What about the weather? Who will come? How much will it cost? How can we be sure God is in this? My testimony to God’s miraculous vision wouldn’t be enough for you, would it? If you reported such a vision this morning, I’d be just as skeptical. How can you use natural means to prove a supernatural experience?

There is only one way God could prove his reality and power to every person in the human race, and that would be to return to this planet in unmistakable power and divine glory. This he will do on the day when he ends history. When he does, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11). On that day, seeing is believing.

Until he returns, believing is seeing. The only way to prove that God’s will is best for our lives is to follow that will. The only way to know we can trust a person is to trust them; the only way to be sure that a job is right for us is to take the job; the only way to prove that we’re ready to have children is to have them. The only way to be sure that we should do whatever God asks of us this year is to decide that we’ll do what he asks of us.

In the meanwhile, it helps to remember that what God has done in the past, he can do again in the present.

When the disciples got into the boat they worried over the fact that they had only one loaf of bread. This even though Jesus had already fed 5,000 families with five loaves and two fish, and 4,000 families with seven loaves. Now they were repeating the doubts of the Pharisees, when the very Bread of Life was in the boat with them. What he had done in the past, he could do again. If he fed the crowds, he could feed his disciples. He still can.


Defrosting the Refrigerator

Defrosting the Refrigerator

Romans 8:3-4

James C. Denison

It’s January, so everyone must be on a diet. Time magazine reports on the latest fads.

One aims at men who eat at fast-food restaurants, and tells us to eat a Big Mac (540 calories), not a Whopper (760 calories). I could stay on that diet. One says to eat small meals all day; another says to eat only three meals and no snacks. I want one which says to eat big meals all day long. One says to eat fruits, grains, and veggies; another says to eat meat, poultry, fish and cheese. One says to avoid all coffee, diet drinks and artificial sweeteners; another says to drink tea all day long.

I’m announcing today my answer to the diet confusion. It’s called the Cancellation Diet: Diet Dr. Pepper cancels Butterfingers; carrots cancel chocolate cake; you can eat chicken fried steak so long as you have broccoli somewhere on the table. I expect to make a fortune, most of which will go to my cardiologist.

Exercise more, eat less, lose weight, get organized, take time to smell the roses, slow down, keep it simple. But not much changes day to day, year to year, does it? There are wars and rumors of war; the stock market goes up and it goes down; babies are born and people die. And the problems which follow us around day by day don’t seem to go away.

Are you facing the same temptations this year as last, the same struggles and doubts and feelings of inadequacy? We come to worship and go to Sunday school and give and read and pray, but what really changes? Leonard Bernstein spoke for most of us:

What I say I don’t feel

What I feel I don’t show

What I show isn’t real

What is real, Lord–I don’t know. . . .

Why I drift off to sleep

With pledges of deep resolve again,

Then along comes the day

And suddenly they dissolve again–

I don’t know. . . .

What I need I don’t have

What I have I don’t own

What I own I don’t want

What I want, Lord, I don’t know.

Here’s the good news: there’s a way off the treadmill to nowhere, the constant struggle and strain against brokenness and discouragement and temptation you and I face every morning of every day.

There’s a way to joy and peace and victory over our fallen lives. God has made us to be “more than conquerors through him who loved us” (v. 37). More than conquerors, every day. More than conquerors over every temptation and struggle we face. No exceptions, nothing outside the power of God’s Spirit in our lives. That is his promise and purpose for us.

Last week we learned that grace is greater than guilt. This week we learn that the Spirit is greater than sin. All sin, any sin, your worst sins, your greatest temptations to sin. There’s a simple step waiting for you, a step into spiritual hope and victory. But you must take it today.

Give up

My college apartment made the yearbook as the messiest on campus. This was an award for which there was much competition; my roommates and I were deeply honored. What won the prize for us was our refrigerator. Not just the part crammed with leftover Chinese food and outdated milk and empty ketchup bottles. The freezer was the piece de resistance. It had been made years before self-defrosting devices were invented, and required regular defrosting by its users. Of course, we would never have thought to do such a thing. So the usable space shrank smaller and smaller while the frost and ice grew thicker and thicker, until our icebox was literally that.

My soul behaves in the same way, and so does yours. It fills with frustrations and disappointments and failures and sins until the usable space gets so small that I must do something about it. So I do.

I get up and read the Bible each morning, in a schedule I’ve been following for years. I read from some devotional literature I appreciate, then spend time in prayer. I confess my sins and ask God’s forgiveness. I plan to do better today. I head out into the day to serve God. To love him with all my heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love you as myself.

Except that all my defrosting doesn’t keep the ice at bay for long. The reason is that it can’t. Our text begins: “For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature . . .”

The “law” here is the Torah, the Jewish law containing the Ten Commandments and all the regulations applying them to our lives. There was nothing wrong with the law. If we could keep the Ten Commandments perfectly, all would be well. We would never be broken in our relationship with God or others. But we can’t, because of our “sinful nature.” The fact that we are prone to sin, that we want to sin, that sin is an ever-present pull and power living inside us.

But we don’t like to hear that. We think that we’re good people who sometimes do bad things, not bad people who sometimes do good things. So we try harder to do better. That’s how our culture solves problems–get up earlier, stay up later, work longer. Do more to please God and defeat sin and be good.

Work hard to be the people we want to be. Struggle and strive and strain. Do all you can and then do some more. How’s that working for you?

Henri Nouwen has been reading our mail and our minds:

“One of the most obvious characteristics of our daily lives is that we are busy. We experience our lives as filled with things to do, people to meet, projects to finish, letters to write, calls to make, and appointments to keep. Our lives often seem like over-packed suitcases bursting at the seams. In fact, we are almost always aware of being behind schedule. There is a nagging sense that there are unfinished tasks, unfulfilled promises, unrealized proposals. There is always something else that we should have remembered, done, or said. There are always people we did not speak to, write to, or visit. Thus, although we are very busy, we have a lingering feeling of never really fulfilling our obligations. The strange thing, however, is that it is very hard not to be busy. Being busy has become a status symbol. . . .


Dying to Live

Dying to Live

Romans 8:1-2

James C. Denison

When Tony Romo fumbled the snap in the Seattle game last year, one New York City sportswriter suggested the headline, “The fall of the Romo empire.” What a difference a year makes. Last year’s untested first-year starter is now a repeat Pro Bowl quarterback. He set single-season passing records for the Cowboys in leading them to the playoffs and today’s game with the Giants.

But none of this would have been possible without the support of team officials and coaches who refused to condemn or abandon him. And a player who accepted their support and refused to give up on himself.

Where do you need to learn the same lesson in your relationship with God today? What setback has discouraged you? Is there a person you’re ready to give up on? A dream you’re ready to abandon? A battle with temptation you’re ready to concede? A losing struggle with your health or job or finances or marriage or family?

The good news of Romans 8 is that “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (v. 37). Why? Because we are “set free from the law of sin and death” (v. 2). With this future: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (v. 18).

With this promise: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, and who have been called according to his purpose” (v. 28).

With this result: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?  As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

It all starts with this fact: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death” (vs. 1-2). This announcement literally changed the course of human history. Now the news has come to you, to change the course of yours. Let’s learn why this is the hope and the help your heart needs today.

Living to die

Our text begins: “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (v. 1). A powerful word, “condemnation.” In property, it means the order to demolish a building. In relationships, it means a strong rebuke. In legal terms, it refers to a guilty verdict, especially with regard to capital punishment. The dictionary says that it is the antithesis of salvation.

What kind of “condemnation” does Paul mean? Why does this word and issue matter to us today? Romans makes it clear that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). Now “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Apart from Christ, we are condemned by God in every way that the word can be used: We are rebuked, guilty, and soon to be demolished. There is a fence around us; the wrecking crew is on its way; we’re soon to be destroyed.

This problem applies to us all. The Apostle spoke for every member of the human race in one of the most transparent and self-disclosing passages in all God’s word: “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin…What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God–through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin” (Romans 7:14, 24-25).

Think about the last sin you committed. Why did you do it? What was true for Paul is true for us: We are “in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.”

We sin because we are sinners. We sin because we have a sin nature. There are days when we do better than others, times when we refuse to act on our nature, but that nature is still living inside us. And we cannot defeat it, at least not for long.

The present-tense fact of our sin leads to the present-tense fact of our condemnation. We think that we will one day face the judgment and wrath of God if we do not repent and turn to Christ, but that judgment has come already. We have been pronounced condemned already.

Jesus was blunt about this. Speaking of himself, he said to Nicodemus, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:18).

Colossians 2:13 says that without Christ “you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature.”

Paul told the Ephesians: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath” (Ephesians 2:1-3). Before Christ we were living to die–all of us.


God’s Peace for God’s Purpose

God’s Peace for God’s Purpose

Romans 8:5-8

James C. Denison

Starbucks is experimenting with a $1 cup of coffee. Now you know things are tough in the economy. It’s an eight-ounce serving they call the “short cup.” They may even start allowing free refills of traditional coffee. Your usual double cream latte espresso with hazelnut is not covered, I’m sorry to say.

This has been a tough week. The stock market has lost so much ground that economists are saying the word “recession” daily. The Federal Reserve announced a rate cut of unprecedented size; the president and Congress are meeting on economic stimulus packages; the presidential candidates are debating whose solution is the best. Meanwhile our other problems in Iraq and Afghanistan and the war on terror have not changed.

Where do we find peace in such challenging times? The answer doesn’t lie with our stock portfolios and retirement accounts, with our military strength or favorite candidate.

God’s peace for God’s purpose is available to every one of us right now, no matter how perilous the world seems to be. God has shown me this week how I can have that peace. Now he wants me to show you as well.

Decide to give your mind to God

I am holding today the strangest artifact I’ve ever brought back from Israel.

Over the years it’s been my privilege to take many study groups to Europe, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Israel. I’ve brought back souvenirs from every trip. The ring on my right hand, for instance, is a Greek key symbolizing eternal life; I bought it on the island of Rhodes last year. I have icons of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul from Greece staring at me as I work each day. A bust of Socrates from Athens stands nearby, telling me to “know thyself.”

But on a shelf to the side of my study, hidden behind some books, stands the figurine of Jesus I’ve brought to church this morning. It’s made of clear plastic, with a stopper in its head. I bought it at a roadside gift shop near the place at the Jordan River where I baptized a group of believers on one journey to Israel. It’s meant to bring back water from the Jordan, I suppose. It’s the most heretical thing I own. I keep it because it reminds me of how blasphemous we can be.

But it also serves to illustrate another fact: the plastic figure of Jesus is the container, not the contents of whatever I put inside it. If I pour clear water there, Jesus looks clear and clean to the world. If I put muddy water inside, Jesus looks muddy and contaminated to all who see him. The choice is mine.

It is the same with our souls. What we put in determines who we are.

Some of us “live according to the sinful nature” and “have our minds set on what that nature desires.” As we admitted last week, every one of us is tempted by our “sinful nature.” We want to sin. We want what sin offers. When we resist temptation, it’s not because we don’t want what sin is selling, but that we don’t want to pay that high a price. We don’t want to get caught, or deal with the guilt which will come, or pay the consequences. But we want to sin. That’s our nature.

My sinful nature may desire different things than yours does. Not all of you aspire to impress people with your speaking ability, but I do. I don’t care about the latest styles like some of you do. Drugs and alcohol happen not to tempt me as they do some of you; but performance-based self-esteem may not tempt you as it does me.

Paul’s point is that we please our sinful nature when we “have our minds set” on what it desires. “Have their minds set” means to be focused with intent purpose, to be thinking about something all the time, to make some goal or aspiration the focus of our lives.

And what our minds think, our lives become. “The mind of sinful man is death”–a sinful mind leads to spiritual, emotional, and eventually physical death. We do not submit to God’s law; we cannot please God.

The positive is also true: “those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires” (v. 5b).

The Holy Spirit is mentioned only once in Romans 1-7 (Romans 1:4), but nearly 20 times in Romans 8. When we “live in accordance with the Spirit,” we cooperate in his purpose for us. We submit to his authority and follow his leading. How do we do this? When we “have our minds set on what the Spirit desires.”

With this result: “the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace.” When we think God’s thoughts and want God’s purposes for our lives, our lives become what our minds conceive. And the result is “life and peace.” “Life” here means emotional, physical, spiritual, and eternal life. “Peace” here means a tranquility which transcends circumstances, a “peace which passes understanding” (Philippians 4:8).

What we think, we become. That’s a documented fact of psychology and human experience.

Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Stoic, wrote that the happiness of a man’s life depends on the quality of his thoughts. Psychologists and counselors have long agreed.

That’s why God’s word commands us to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). What you think, you become. Your peace is not ultimately dependent on the stock market or the war in Iraq or the presidential election, or your last medical test or your job status or your house’s value. It comes when we “set our minds on what the Spirit desires.” How do we do this?

Learn to give your mind to God

First, begin the day with the Spirit. The first thoughts in your mind go a long way toward determining your day, and how you spend your days is how you spend your life.