Bribing God

Bribing God

Luke 12:13-21

James C. Denison

The latest Batman movie has grossed $300 million faster than any film in history. I’ve seen it, and was amazed and frightened by Heath Ledger’s Joker along with the rest of the audience. It’s called The Dark Knight for good reason—don’t go expecting a comedy. But while I enjoyed seeing Batman at work, he’s not my favorite superhero.

When I was a boy, I wanted to be Superman, more than anything in the world. I wanted to fly so badly that once, as a boy of six or so, I actually cut out cardboard wings, taped them to my t-shirt, and jumped from the roof of our house. With predictable results, unfortunately. But the reason I so wanted to fly wasn’t just to miss the traffic on the Tollway—it was because I wanted to know what is really “up there.” I still do.

Have you ever looked up into the sky and wondered if this is all there is? If there isn’t something beyond what you can see, more to life than what you can touch and measure?

In the last month I’ve been privileged to study and speak in some beautiful places—from Interlaken and the Swiss Alps to the hill country of Texas. I watched people in Switzerland paragliding from the tops of towering mountains to green meadows thousands of feet below, and decided they were insane.

I’ve eaten German sausage in restaurants where cholesterol was invented. I’ve written Bible studies and sermons for the fall from the porch of a glorious hill country home overlooking majestic sunsets and tree-topped ridges as far as the eye can see.

And through it all, in my deepest soul I sensed that there is something missing, something more. You know the feeling, don’t you? You’ve stood before paintings produced by artistic genius and felt that they were not enough. You’ve heard concerts where world-class orchestras played some of the greatest music ever composed, and felt that something was missing. You’ve read literary masterpieces or seen great movies and sensed it in your spirit. You’ve watched a sunset and known there was something beyond. In our deepest being, we sense that this is not all there is. Don’t we?

I’ve come today to ask some momentous questions. According to Jesus, your life does not consist in the abundance of your possessions. Why not? In what does it consist? Let’s walk through his parable, then learn why it is God’s word for us this morning.

Are you living for creation?

A “crowd of many thousands” has gathered to hear Jesus (Luke 12:1). One of them shouts out to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me” (v. 13).

The law was clear: two-thirds of the estate to the older brother, one-third to the younger (Deuteronomy 21:17). This dispute didn’t require a rabbi but a judge, so Jesus replied, “Man [better translated ‘Sir’], who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” (v. 14).

On its surface, the question seems simple enough. But Jesus knew somehow there was more to the story, that greed was the true motive here. Perhaps the man wanted his part of the estate before their father died, or their mother passed away, or their family’s needs had been met.

So Jesus said to “them,” not just “him,” addressing the entire crowd: “Watch out!” The Greek is strong: “Take cover!” or “Look out!” For what? “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (v. 15).

“Greed” translates “covetousness” in the original, the sin of coveting. The basic theological definition is choosing to sin for material gain. “Greed” is one of the so-called “seven deadly sins,” because it leads to all sorts of other sins. People steal out of greed, and lie, and manipulate, and kill.

By contrast, Jesus’ life lesson is simple: “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Such a statement was shocking to their culture, as it is to ours. Jesus knew he had to prove his point, so he told them a story.

It starts this way: “The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop” (v. 16). In this particular year, his land yielded even more than they expected.

Now he had a problem: “What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops” (v. 17). If his grain was not put under shelter, it would mold and be useless. He has already filled his normal storage silos, and has nowhere else to put his crops.

Imagine you’re the CEO of an oil company which makes a discovery so large you have nowhere to store all your oil or gas. Or you’re Tom Hicks and the Rangers have finally found a pitching staff, so more people are coming to games than the stadium will hold. Or we suddenly start seeing bigger crowds than our Sanctuary and Great Hall and gymnasium can accommodate. What would we do?

We’d do what he did: “This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods” (v. 18). Nothing unusual in this, just good business sense. So far, so good. But then comes the almost-inevitable result of such financial prosperity: “I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of good things laid up for many years'” (v. 19a). That’s true. He has enough grain, enough money in the bank as it were, to live and prosper for years to come. But then he says to himself, “Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry” (v. 19b). The Greek literally says, “keep on resting, eat and drink when necessary, and be merry always.”

In all his calculations for his prosperous future, our rich farmer has forgotten one simple fact. For any of us, it can be true that “this very night your life will be demanded from you” (v. 20a). When it is, “who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” (v. 20b). Not you.


Dancing With the Devil

Dancing With the Devil

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

James C. Denison

You may know that Miller Cunningham, our Pastor of Worship, drives a pickup truck. I read in this week’s Dallas Morning News that it’s a good thing our church isn’t located in Frisco. They have a city ordinance prohibiting all trucks from parking overnight in the street or driveway, charging $50 per violation. If we start charging Miller for parking in front of the church, we could make some serious money.

That’s not the only strange news in the news.

I read that the Dallas City Council is considering a variety of ways to close the budget deficit. One idea is to rent idle police patrol cars to businesses which would park them in front of their stores to thwart thieves, at least the really dumb ones. Perhaps we should put police lights on Miller’s pickup to protect the church.

I learned that laparoscopic surgeons who played video games were 27 percent faster at advanced surgical procedures and made 37 percent fewer errors than nongamers. Next time you’re having a procedure, ask whether or not the surgeon is good at Guitar Hero. If the surgeon hasn’t heard of the game, keep looking.

And I learned that singer Phil Collins divorced his third wife, agreeing to pay her $46.76 million. His second wife got $34 million; his three divorces have cost him a total of $84 million. Marrying Phil Collins is now a Fortune 500 business.

We live in a strange and troubled world. The Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan; suicide bombings continue in Iraq; now Russia is on the world stage with its military action in Georgia. We are arming Poland, and Russia threatens reprisals. Pakistan’s leadership is in chaos. Not to mention the continued turmoil regarding Palestine, or government repression in China.

Why would an all-loving, all-powerful God allow such a world? Why would he allow you to face the struggles and pain you face today? This morning we’ll explore Satan’s role in current events and in your life and problems. What we discover may lead you to a victory you’ll win in no other way.

Explore the parable

Our story begins: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field” (v. 24). Jesus is standing in the fields of Galilee, near the Sea of Galilee, surrounded by farms and farmers who illustrate precisely his parable. One may have been sowing seed at this very moment, so that Jesus pointed to him as he told the story.

Unfortunately, an enemy did what enemies often did and still do in the Middle East: “while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away” (v. 25). This crime was so common that the Romans had laws punishing those who committed it.

The “weeds” to which Jesus referred are called “bearded darnel.” They are poisonous to humans, causing dizziness and sickness. But it is impossible to detect them until the harvest time comes: “when the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared” (v. 26).

In the meantime, the owner must simply let the weeds grow. The enemy “sowed weeds among the wheat”—literally “over” or “throughout” the wheat. If the man pulled up the weeds, he would pull up the wheat as well (v. 29). But when the harvest comes, the weeds will be burned and the wheat gathered into the barn (v. 39).

Now, what does the story mean to us?

Who is the “man”? “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man” (v. 37), Jesus’ favorite self-designation. He tells us that the “field” is the world, while the good seed signifies “the sons of the kingdom” (v. 38a).

Who is the enemy? “The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil” (vs. 38b-39). Satan and his demons prefer to work under cover of darkness, while people are not watching or preparing for their attack. We cannot keep our enemy from sowing his seeds in our field, no matter how diligent we might be.

Satan sows his weeds throughout the field, all over the world. We are naïve if we do not expect his attacks. Satan “entered Judas, one of the Twelve” (Luke 22:3); he “filled” Ananias’ heart and caused him to lie to the early church (Acts 5:3). Wherever God plants his seed, Satan plants his weeds.

But God has the last word. He knows the weeds from the wheat. He will burn up the former and shelter the latter.

Revelation 19:20: “The two of them [the beast and the false prophet] were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur.”

Revelation 21:8: “the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”

Malachi 4:1-2: “‘Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.'”

Do battle with the enemy

So we know that Satan is right now sowing his “weeds” among the “wheat” of God’s people and Kingdom. What is the relevance of Jesus’ story to events occurring around us? To your temptations and troubles? What should we do about Satan today?

First, admit his reality. I was shocked to read a recent Barna survey which discovered that only 34 percent of Baptists believe Satan is a real, literal being. Their research included all Baptists, not just Southern Baptists, but is still frightening. It is actually higher than the general public, according to recent surveys. Most people see Satan as a mythological or symbolic figure, a cartoon character in red tights gripping a pitchfork or a leftover from Puritan days.


The Seven Last Words of the Soul

The Seven Last Words of the Soul

Luke 5:33-39

James C. Denison

Here’s news you need to know: Singer Jessica Simpson has told People magazine that Tony Romo is her “perfect guy.” How do we know? She wrote a song for him titled “You’re My Sunday,” featured on her new album coming out September 9. And even more, she changed her cell phone number and e-mail address so her ex-boyfriends can’t communicate with her any more. That’s true devotion. Now if she’ll just stay away from Cowboys playoff games we’ll all be happy.

It’s good to move on with your life, even if such a decision is 400 years late. This week’s New York Times reported that the Roman Catholic Church is considering a statue for Galileo Galilei, its most illustrious heretic.

Four centuries ago, the Church condemned Galileo for insisting that the Earth revolves around the sun. Galileo was not a perfect man—he savaged his critics in print and had three children out of wedlock. Nonetheless, the Church’s condemnation of his scientific declarations has been a black eye for the Vatican ever since.

They allowed some of his works to be published in 1718; in 1992, Pope John Paul II expressed regret over the episode. Now an anonymous donor wants to fund a statue of the Italian astronomer, to be displayed somewhere in the Vatican. (I’m guessing the basement men’s room may be its final location.)

Change is tough. It’s far easier to live in a past we can remember than a future we cannot see.

In that context, today we’re going to discover the single most important characteristic in lives which God uses fully. People who make a real difference, who live with true significance, who know all that God can do with them. People who count for eternity, who find the real joy and power and purpose of Almighty God.

There is a single thread running through the lives of every person ever used fully by God. It’s not in their abilities or achievements, their opportunities and circumstances, their background or education or possessions or social status. It’s something else entirely. Let’s unpack Jesus’ parable, then find the secret to a life used fully by God. What you do with what you discover is your choice.

New wine in new wineskins

Our text begins, “They said to him, ‘John’s disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking'” (v. 33).

Matthew’s version of our story tells us that “they” were some of John’s disciples (Matthew 9:14). Jesus and his followers have just come from a feast at Matthew’s house, probably on a Monday or Thursday.

Though the only time the people were commanded to fast was the annual Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29), Pharisees and apparently some of John’s followers fasted on these days each week, eating and drinking nothing from sunup to sundown. They chose Monday and Thursday because these were market days, when more people would see their pious sacrifice.

By contrast, Jesus’ followers “go on eating and drinking.” Jesus fasted during his wilderness temptations (Luke 4:2); early Christians sometimes fasted as well (cf. Acts 9:9; 13:2, 3; 14:23). But for the most part, they lived life with all its normal events and circumstances, ignoring the legalistic rituals of his critics.

Jesus’ answer was one of the funniest things he ever said. In the English it comes across as rather stilted and formal: “Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?” (v. 34). But the statement was actually quite humorous and ironic.

“Can you make…” assumes a negative answer in the Greek and is better translated, “You certainly cannot make….”

“Guests of the bridegroom” were akin to groomsmen today, except that they were in charge of all the wedding arrangements. They are now standing with the bridegroom as the wedding is underway. Suddenly they announce that the entire event must wait while they observe a fast. We can picture the bride at the altar, holding her bouquet, her bridesmaids standing in line, everyone waiting in the pews while the groomsmen go on a fast for a few hours or even a few days.

That’s what it would be like for Jesus’ disciples to fast while he is still with them. However, “the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast” (v. 35).

“Taken away” translates a word which means to grab suddenly and violently. It is Jesus’ first reference in the gospels to his approaching death.

He is saying that the Bridegroom will one day be put to death. When that happens, of course the groomsmen will mourn and fast. But in the meanwhile, to impose Old Testament rituals on New Testament grace is like holding up a wedding while the groomsmen fast for the rest of the day.

Jesus knew that John’s disciples wouldn’t understand or believe him without further persuasion, so he told them two similar parables. The first: “No one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old one. If he does, he will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old” (v. 36).

A “new garment” has not yet been washed and shrunk. If someone “tears” a piece from it and sews it on an old garment which is washed, shrunk, even tattered, nothing good will happen. The new garment is ruined by tearing out a piece of cloth. It will shrink and further tear the threadbare fabric it is intended to patch.

The second parable: “And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins” (vs. 37-38).

Wineskins were typically made from the skin of a young goat. The skin was removed without slitting it; the openings at the feet and tail were then sewed shut, leaving the neck as the mouth. Such wineskins are still made in the Middle East today. The skin was soft and pliable when it was fresh, but became stiff as it grew old.


Waiting on God

Waiting on God

Luke 18:1-8

James C. Denison

When I yawn, you want to yawn, don’t you? No one knows why. Scientists aren’t even sure why we yawn. We live in a confusing world, or at least I do. I don’t know why we drive on parkways and park on driveways, or call it “rush hour” when no one moves, or sterilize the needle for lethal injections.

This week’s news has me even more confused. The Chinese women’s gymnastics team apparently uses several athletes who are nowhere near the required 16 years of age, but Olympics leaders won’t intervene for risk of offending China. Russia signs a cease-fire with Georgia then continues its aggression. Barack Obama wins the Democratic nomination, but Hillary Clinton will still be nominated. And the first presidential debate of 2008 is hosted by a Baptist pastor in his church, just last night. Who would have imagined it four years ago?

There’s much about the world I don’t understand, and even more about its Creator. I’ve been doing formal theology for 32 years, but I’m still not sure how to understand the Trinity, or explain the Incarnation, or resolve God’s providence and our freedom. And I’ve long wondered why we pray to an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God.

If he’s omniscient, presumably he knows what I’m going to ask before I ask it. In fact, Jesus told us that God knows what we need before we pray (Matthew 6:8).

If he’s all-loving, he would want to do the right thing without being asked. Surely my prayer doesn’t talk God into doing the right thing, as though he wouldn’t have unless I convinced him. I might need convincing to skip dessert or join the PTA, but presumably God doesn’t need persuading to do whatever is best.

If he’s all-powerful, he can do the right thing without my request or permission. Why pray, then?

And why pray when he hasn’t answered your prayer the way you wanted him to? What are you still waiting on God to do? What problem are you waiting for him to help you solve? What relationship still needs to be reconciled? What circumstances need to be changed? What illness needs to be healed? What job needs to be given? What bills need to be paid? Why pray to a God whose answers you’re still waiting to see?

Let’s walk through Jesus’ parable, then see why it answers our hardest questions about prayer today.

Pray persistently

Jesus is on his final journey to Jerusalem, most likely in the spring of AD 29. Along the way, Luke says that he “told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up” (v. 1). The Jews typically prayed three times a day—Jesus wants us to pray “always,” and never “give up.” That’s why the New Testament tells us to “pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Even when God doesn’t seem to answer. Especially when God doesn’t seem to answer.

To make his point, Jesus told our parable. It involves two main characters. First, “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men” (v. 2). This was a Gentile, not an Israeli; Jewish judges always worked in threes, not alone. This was a paid magistrate appointed by Herod or the Romans. He “neither feared God” as the Jews did, “nor cared about men” as Gentile judges were expected to do. These judges were notoriously corrupt, so that bribery was the only way to get them to act on a complaint or a problem. The person with the most money usually won.

Now Jesus introduces the other character: “And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary'” (v. 3).

Women typically married when they were 14 or 15, usually to men who were in their 30s. Men didn’t live many years after that, leaving their wives as widows for years to come. When her husband died, his property was inherited by his children or brothers, leaving his widow with nothing. As a result, the Bible continually commands God’s people to “look after widows in their distress” (James 1:27). Exodus 22:22 is clear: “Do not take advantage of a widow.”

But someone has. A family member has taken the estate and left the widow with no provision. Or someone in the community has stolen her property, or refused to pay her for services provided, or harmed her in some other way.

Their religious leaders discouraged the Jews from going to Gentile magistrates, preferring to settle matters with the elders and within their religious community. People usually went to them when they wanted the judge to do something the Israeli judges would not. Given the biblical injunction to support widows, it is likely that whatever wrong was done to this woman was permitted by a Gentile judge. The fact that this woman went to such a Gentile judge probably indicates that her adversary had done the same earlier, and that he had rendered the very verdict she is now asking him to reverse.

She “kept coming to him”—the Greek indicates continued, repetitive action. She has no money with which to bribe the judge, as she cannot even afford a lawyer to make her case. Her adversary has already secured the judge’s favor through bribes, political power, or social status. Persistence was her only weapon (Fitzmyer, Anchor Bible Commentary 1179).

Not surprisingly, “For some time he refused” (v. 4a). He wouldn’t listen to the woman’s pleas, or even admit her into the court. But then, “finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!'” (vs. 4b-5).

“Wear me out” translates a Greek idiom which literally means, “give me a black eye” and symbolizes personal shame, disgrace, or loss of face. The judge is not worried about physical assault, but he is concerned about his status and reputation.