God + One

God + One

Judges 7

James C. Denison

“Extinguish Lights” is a bugle melody played by the military for nearly two centuries to signal the end of day and call soldiers to bed. It was apparently first played at a military funeral during the Civil War, and has since come to be identified especially with that purpose.

A government resolution adopted eight years ago asks each of us to pause on Memorial Day at three o’clock tomorrow afternoon to remember all those who died in the service of our country. The resolution asks us to spend that moment in silence or in listening to “Taps.” We will do both today.

This morning we will listen to another trumpet call as well, one which predates “Taps” by 32 centuries. For 40 days after Easter we celebrated the gospel, the good news that God loves us. Now we’re learning how to experience that good news personally, wherever we need God’s help and hope today.

On Mothers’ Day, Hannah taught us to surrender our Samuel, giving our best to God, believing that he can do more with us than we can do with ourselves. Last week, David taught us to ignore our critics and trust God’s power over God’s enemies, believing that a slingshot in God’s hand is mightier than the tallest giant.

Now you and I are called to the kind of courage which will follow this God unconditionally. All through Scripture, it takes courage to find the power and victory of God. It took courage for Moses to face down Pharaoh and march across the parted Red Sea. It took courage for Joshua and his people to step into the flooded Jordan River and march around the fortified city of Jericho.

It took courage for David to face Saul, for Daniel to face his lions, for Peter, James and John to leave their boats to fish for men. It took courage for Paul and Barnabas to leave Israel with the gospel for the Gentile world. It took courage for John to worship Jesus on the prison island of Patmos.

Where do you need courage today? Are you fighting an enemy more powerful than you? Facing a future you cannot see? Struggling with temptation you cannot seem to defeat? Carrying grief or guilt which is too heavy for your heart? Called by God to serve him at personal sacrifice?

What is his next step for your walk with him? If it didn’t require courage, you’d already have taken it. How do we find courage to follow God? One of the most fascinating stories in Scripture will give us the answers we need.

Seek God’s help

As our text begins, we find the Midianites at war with the children of Israel.

Midian was a son of Abraham (Genesis. 25:2). His descendants had good relations with the Hebrews in the time of Moses but soon became Israel’s fierce enemies. They were a nomadic people, camping to the southeast of Israel in the region of the Sinai Peninsula today and roaming far and wide.

These desert nomads had large herds of camels (Isaiah 60:6), the battle tanks of the day. With their help, the Midianite soldiers were far faster than the farmers who made up the footsoldiers of the Hebrew army.

Judges 6 describes their devastation: “They camped on the land and ruined the crops all the way to Gaza and did not spare a living thing for Israel, neither sheep nor cattle nor donkeys. They came up with their livestock and their tents like swarms of locusts. It was impossible to count the men and their camels; they invaded the land to ravage it” (vs. 4-5).

When they exhausted the resources of one area they moved on to another. They conquered, enslaved and killed the people they met along the way. They were human locusts, taking what they wanted wherever they went. Now they threaten the very existence of the Hebrew people.

For seven years they have oppressed the Jewish nation (Judges 6:1). God has raised up Gideon as his “judge” and deliverer; his name means “one who cuts down the enemy.” But only 32,000 farmers and other civilians will help him fulfill his name, going to battle against 135,000 battle-hardened warriors in the Midianite army (Judges 8:10).

Who or what are the Midianites in your life today? In what way are you being oppressed or discouraged? Identify the enemy for which you need God’s help and guidance this morning. Repent of the self-reliance which is so endemic to our culture. Admit that you need your Father’s strength and direction. And know that nothing is too great or too small for his help.

Pursue his glory

Now we come to the crucial battle. It begins in the strangest way imaginable: “The Lord said to Gideon, ‘You have too many men for me to deliver Midian into their hands'” (Judges 7:2). When was the last time a general faced this problem? Imagine a pastor saying to his deacons, “We have too much money for our ministries this year.” Or a mission leader saying to missionaries, “We have too many people for that mission field.” Yet that is precisely what God said to what must have been an astounded Gideon.

Remember the size of their foe: “The Midianites, the Amalekites and all the other eastern peoples had settled in the valley, thick as locusts. Their camels could no more be counted than the sand on the seashore” (v. 12).

No wonder the place where the Hebrew army camped came to be known as the spring of “Harod” (v. 1), a word which means “trembling” in Hebrew. Picture a vast army filling an entire valley, its tanks as numerous as sand on a seashore, and you’ll get a sense of Gideon’s problem. Any wise general would want all the men he could muster in attacking such a foe.

But the outcome of the battle was not in question, for God had already promised, “I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites together” (Judges 6:16). In question was whether his people would learn something significant from the victory they were about to gain. Whether they would depend on themselves or learn to trust in the one true Lord. Whether they would follow Gideon or follow God.


God’s Power for God’s Purpose

God’s Power for God’s Purpose

Acts 1:1-8

James C. Denison

Have you ever run out of gas? I don’t mean figuratively but literally. These days our cars tell us how many miles we have left in the tank, and all kinds of lights and bells go off when we get close. It wasn’t always that way.

I’ve run out of gas twice. The first time was in Midland when I had just bought the car of my dreams, a 1965 Ford Mustang fastback. White, candy-apple red interior, four on the floor English racing transmission. And a defective gas gauge, as it turned out. My first week to drive the car, it said I had a quarter of a tank of gas left when I ran out. Janet was not amused when I called for help.

The other time was also in Midland. I drove one of the church’s vans to Brownwood for a trustee meeting at Howard Payne University. The staff gave me the key to the vehicle, but not the key to the locking gas cap. I pulled into town, running on fumes, to discover that I had no way to get gas into the tank. A locksmith had to save the day.

Both problems are also parables for us this morning. We’ve heard about the gospel and us, the gospel and relationships, the gospel and the church, the gospel and the community. Now we need to know how to take the gospel to the world. Jesus’ last words to the church are clear: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Here we discover the purpose of the church: “you will be my witnesses,” taking Christ to our city and world. Here we discover the people who fulfill the purpose: “you” will receive power and “you” will be my witnesses. The Greek is plural, including every one of us listening to these words today.

Here we discover the priority by which the people fulfill the purpose: “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” But how do we do this? How do we reach the “ends of the earth”?

You’re just one person sitting in a church service on a Sunday morning. The world is very large and very lost. War in Iraq and Afghanistan; tensions in the Middle East; economic turmoil at home. Newspapers this week told of people selling heirlooms to buy gas. Life can feel overwhelming today. Now you come to church and hear that you are supposed to take the gospel to the entire world. How is that possible?

My job today is to talk to you about the power by which the people fulfill the purpose and accomplish the priorities of the church: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.” The power of God really is sufficient to accomplish the purpose of God.

But there are two obstacles to receiving that power this morning. Like my Mustang, we need to remember that we need power. Like my church van, we need to know how to receive it. Let’s look at each of these decisions in turn.

You and I live in Dallas, the most entrepreneurial, can-do culture I’ve ever known. There’s nothing people in this city won’t try, no challenge they won’t accept. It’s the air we breathe, the water we drink.

There’s no natural reason why Dallas-Fort Worth should have become the nation’s fourth-largest metropolitan area–no great rivers, mountains or ports. Just some people on a prairie willing to work very hard, to do whatever it takes.

That spirit is infused in everything this city attempts. We’re close to finishing the Cultural Arts Center, raising $335 million, nearly all of it through private donations. Our mayor is in China working to enhance our status as a world-class city. From the High Five to the new Trinity River Bridge, we’ll envision anything.

But that spirit can be a problem. We can rely on ourselves rather than God, trusting in our abilities and education and expertise rather than the Holy Spirit. Like my Mustang, we can run out of gas and not know it.

Today I must remind you that none of us can convict a single person of a single sin or save a single soul from hell for heaven. We cannot do anything spiritual using human ability. God’s word is clear: “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty” (Zechariah 4:6). If Peter, James, and John, Jesus’ closest friends and greatest apostles, had to seek the power of God to fulfill the purpose of God, so must we. Do you know that you need the power of God today? Do you know how to receive it?

Driving that church van, I knew I needed fuel, but didn’t have the key to unlock the tank. Do you have that key this morning?

Jesus told the first Christians to “Wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (vs. 4-5). So they prayed and waited, and the Spirit fell.

Paul told us how to have their experience: “Be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). First, ask the Spirit to show you any sin which would keep him from using you, and confess it with a repentant heart. Second, ask the Spirit to take control of your life and empower you to be used by God. Surrender and submit every part of your day to him. Third, believe that he has done what you asked, that he will empower and use you as you trust him. And he will.

This must be the daily routine of our lives, the way we begin every morning of the day. You put gas in the tank before you drive the car. You plug a computer into the socket before you turn it on. This is how God wants you to begin every morning this week, and for the rest of your life.


Graduates and Giants

Graduates and Giants

1 Samuel 16:1-14

James C. Denison

I am holding a stone which changed the world. I know this because I picked it up last month in the Valley of Elah. It was the very stone used by David to slay Goliath. It’s been waiting there 30 centuries for me to find it. That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it.

I did actually find the stone in the valley, at the very place where the famous battle was fought, but ours was one of about ten tour groups who came through picking up stones that day. I’m guessing that someone working for the Israeli tourism industry must truck in stones periodically to replenish the supply. But I’m sure that mine is the correct one.

It was a stone like this one, in the hands of a young shepherd boy, which changed the course of human history. What God did with that boy, he waits and longs to do with your life and mine. But it’s hard for us to believe that we can be a David today.

On this Senior Recognition Sunday, Pike and I are speaking to graduates and their families. You’re stepping into a hard and harsh world, with earthquakes in China, cyclones in Myanmar, explosions in India, and economic uncertainty around the globe. You’re looking at a future you cannot see, with giants of fear and uncertainty lurking on every hand.

But I am also speaking to Christ-followers of all ages and places in life. You have your own questions and struggles, doubts and decisions, worries and guilt and fear. You know a Saul who refuses to believe in you and a Goliath who is taunting you this morning. But you also have a God like David’s God ready to use your life to change the world. How do we slay the giants we are facing this morning? The answer may surprise you.

Expect the call of God

Saul has been chosen as Israel’s first king, but his pride and arrogance soon replaced God on the throne of his heart and work. He kept goods which should have been sacrificed to God, and usurped the place of God over the nation. So God “rejected him as king over Israel” and chose another in his place (v. 1). Samuel, the last judge and first prophet of Israel, was sent by the Lord to find and anoint that new king.

God sent Samuel to Bethlehem, then an obscure village on the outskirts of Jerusalem, to meet with a man named Jesse and his sons (v. 5).

The custom then and now in the Middle East is for the firstborn to inherit the majority of the estate and take his father’s place one day as head of the family. So when Samuel met Eliab he was sure that “the LORD’s anointed stands here before the LORD” (v. 6).

God’s response still echoes as one of the most significant statements in Scripture: “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (v. 7).

The second in line came before Samuel, but God did not choose him. So with all seven sons (vs. 8-10). If Samuel had given up at this point, how would history have been different?

But the prophet instead asked, “Are these all the sons you have?” Jesse explained that the youngest “is tending the sheep.” We think of this as a routine kind of chore, something like walking the dog or mowing the lawn. But in this agrarian culture, “tending the sheep” was akin to managing the bank or running the office. The youngest son was doing something more significant than any of the others.

Jesse sent for this youngest, still unnamed son, and Samuel noted that “he was ruddy, with a fine appearance and handsome features” (v. 12a). “Ruddy” means “red,” describing his hair or complexion, or perhaps his sunburned features. Then God said, “Rise and anoint him; he is the one” (v. 12b). Samuel did as God asked, “and from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came upon David in power” (v. 13). At the same time, “the Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul” (v. 14). God has transferred his anointing from the former king to the new leader of the nation.

And that’s the story of the most significant royal ascension in biblical history. No next steps or plans or preparations. As best we can tell, David went back to tending sheep. Samuel returned to his home in Ramah. Saul continued as king of the nation. Nothing of our text would have made the day’s news.

And yet the entire future of God’s dealings with humanity shifted with this moment.

Saul’s attendants hear that this young shepherd is a fine musician, and call him to serve and comfort the king he would one day replace (vs. 21-23).

The Philistines are at war with the Israelites, and Jesse sends his young son to check on his older brothers serving with Saul in the army.

Here he meets the giant whose death would catapult him to national fame and start him on the trajectory which would lead to the throne and the glory that was the Kingdom of David.

This is a day like that day for you. The prophet who came to Bethlehem has come to Dallas. The world may not see the historic significance of the day when God calls you, as they did not see the importance of that day when God called David. But that fact makes this day no less important.

God had a call for David, a purpose and a plan. His plan for David was different from his plan for Samuel or Jesse, Eliab or his other brothers. He has a specific and unique call for you, a purpose and a plan. He has a will for every one of our graduates and every one of us.


Loving God for Life

Loving God for Life

1 Samuel 1:1-11

James C. Denison

This has been a tough week for me. It started so well. A wonderful weekend of ministry last Saturday and worship on Sunday. I was excited about this week and all it held. Then I came home from work Monday evening to find my AARP application waiting for me.

I will turn 50 later this month. I will then be half a century old. It’s a milestone worthy of reflection. Over these 50 years, what events stand out as most significant? There’s no contest: my salvation, my marriage, and the birth of our sons.

Every parent would feel the same way. There is no greater privilege in life than being a father or a mother. And no challenge more important or overwhelming. To be so responsible for another person–to be the most important influence on an eternal soul–is a daunting assignment.

If you’re a mother, you’re facing such a challenge today. The good news is that God wants to help. He wants to help every mother and every mother’s child with the burdens and responsibilities we carry. But there’s a catch, as we’ll see this morning.

How to give your child to God

Here’s the setting of our text.

Hannah had no children, in a day when this was a terrible stigma and shame. In their culture a woman’s highest privilege and responsibility was to be a mother. Women did not work outside the home, and had no social standing outside their father or husband. From the time they were small girls, they were told that their primary work in life was to raise children. But this Hannah could not do. This was literally the greatest tragedy a woman could face.

It’s still hard to want to be a mother and be unable to have children. Even today, with all the strides we’ve made in recognizing the importance of women before God and in society, it’s still hard for those who cannot be mothers. For people like Hannah in this room today, Mother’s Day is not an easy day. You have some sense of her pain and grief.

And there are others today for whom Mother’s Day is difficult. Some of you no longer have your mother with you, and this day brings back the pain of that loss and grief. Some have had mothers who were not godly. Some have experienced the pain and trauma of abortion. Some are estranged from children. Many of you know how Hannah felt.

In the face of such difficulty, Hannah did exactly what we should do–she went to God. She went directly to him, in the tabernacle which preceded the Temple, to pray.

Her intercession came from the heart, praying in “bitterness of soul” (v. 10). The Hebrew literally says that she was “weeping much in her prayer.” She prayed with such emotion that Eli the priest thought she was drunk. No rote prayer, going through a prayer list, keeping the routine.

If your mother prayed for you like this, thank God and thank her. If you’re a mother, this is your best gift for them. Godly parenting starts with godly people. Are you praying every day for your children and your witness to them?

Next, we dedicate our children to their Father (v. 11). Hannah prayed for a son so she could give him back to God. He will be a Nazirite, a very special class of people in ancient Israel. We’ll say more about them in a moment.

By promising him to the Lord’s service, she would never be able to know the joy of raising him herself. She could visit him at the tabernacle, but not be in his life every day. But she wanted God’s glory, God’s best, not her own.

Have you surrendered your children to God? Do you want him to bless your plans and ambitions for them, or can he do anything with them he wants? Can he call them to missions and ministry? Can he lead them in a direction you would never have intended? Do they belong to him before they belong to you?

Once we submit ourselves to God in prayer and our children to him in commitment, we leave the results with him (v. 18).

Hannah left the tabernacle with a deep sense of inner peace, even though she had no tangible answer to her prayer. She trusted the future to her Father, and had his peace which passes understanding as a result (Philippians 4:6-7).

So can we. So must we. Why?

Why to give your child to God

Why should you follow Hannah’s example with your most precious possessions today? With your children, or family, or future, or vocation, or dreams? The simple answer is that God can do more with your child than you can. The more your children are submitted to him, the more he can lead and bless and use them. Samuel is proof.

Hannah committed her unborn child to be a Nazirite. These were a kind of monks or nuns of ancient Israel. Numbers 6 describes their four-fold commitment: abstain from all alcohol and products of the vine, keep the hair and beard uncut, refuse to touch a dead body, and refuse all unclean food.

Some people kept this vow for 30, 60, or 100 days. Samson and John the Baptist were Nazirites; the Apostle Paul took a Nazirite vow for a period of time; and Samuel was made a Nazirite for life by Hannah.

What’s more, she dedicated him to live and work at the tabernacle. She would give him when he was “weaned” (v. 21), three years of age according to Hebrew tradition. He would then serve the Lord for the rest of his life. Levites served from the age of 25 to 50 (Numbers 8:24-25), and priests in various rotations, but Samuel would spend every day of every year in the service of God. From the time he was three, Hannah would see him only when she came to the tabernacle for worship.