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.

When we bank on the present and ignore eternity, we are a “fool” indeed. The parable can apply to us all: “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God” (v. 21).

All we can see is but a means to all we cannot see. The only safe way to handle the present is to use it for the eternal. Your “grain” may be money, stock, land, a house, cars, clothes, degrees, abilities, whatever you possess. It can all be gone today, unless it was used for God.

Are you living for the Creator?

“A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions”—that’s the point of Jesus’ story. Why must he make it? Why must he remind us that possessions are temporal while life is eternal, that we must use the visible for the invisible, the material for the eternal?

The point would seem obvious. Despite all our medical advances, the mortality rate is still 100 percent. “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27), the Bible bluntly reminds us. We know that “the world in its present form is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31). You’ve heard the saying: there are no U-Hauls attached to hearses or pockets in burial shrouds.

Yet we live as though it were not so. Western culture measures success by possessions and prosperity, and always has. The golden rule is simple: the one with the gold makes the rule. “The one who dies with the most toys wins,” the t-shirt proclaims. If religion can help us succeed in life, so much the better. If praying and reading the Bible and going to worship will lead to the blessing of God, they’re sound investments.

Religion has always functioned this way in the West, going back to the ancient Greeks. They were the first to divide the soul from the body, “religion” from the “real world.”

They didn’t love their gods. No one wanted to live for Zeus or Apollo; no one wanted to know Poseidon or Athena more personally. You worshiped the gods to placate them so they would give rain for your crops and children for your family. You built the largest altars you could afford, to bribe their favor and prosperity.

I’ve seen the foundations of the Zeus altar at Pergamum, larger than this Sanctuary. I’ve walked beside the colossal Parthenon in Athens, built to give Athena a home so she would favor their city. From then to now, religion in the West has been a means to an end—salvation from hell, reward in heaven, and prosperity on earth. The more you go and give and pray, the more God will bless you. Religion is a way to bribe God so he will give us what we want.

Our culture has made prosperity the end and God the means. But what we can see and own and spend is not enough for our souls. It never is.

Consider Ruth, a single mother in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, who began buying $5 worth of Illinois lottery tickets every week. She said that she needed these periodic “doses of hope” to counter her occasional feelings of depression. Then the miracle happened: Ruth won $22 million.

She was beside herself with joy. She quit her job wrapping gifts at Neiman-Marcus and bought an 18-room house, a Versace wardrobe, and a robin’s-egg-blue Jaguar. She sent her twin sons to private school. Strangely, however, as the next year went by, her mood became more and more depressed. By the end of that year, her expensive new therapist diagnosed her as having a case of dysthymic disorder, or chronic depression (Authentic Happiness).

Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, who wrote about Ruth, is the former president of the American Psychological Association and the author of twenty books in his field. His research indicates that once a person has the basic necessities of life, added money adds little or no happiness. He concludes: “Materialism seems to be counterproductive: at all levels of real income, people who value money more than other goals are less satisfied with their income and with their lives as a whole….” He finishes his sentence, “although precisely why is a mystery.”

There was no mystery to Jesus. He warned us: Life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions. Bribing God by doing religious things doesn’t work. The reason is simple: we were not made that way. We were made for personal, intimate relationship with our Maker.

God made us to walk in the Garden of Eden at his side, to work with him in tilling and keeping the world he made, to partner with him in service and love him in worship. He made the world as a necessary means to that end, as a place for us to live while we live for him. But we sinned, and everything changed. We were supposed to use creation to worship the Creator, but now we use the Creator to worship creation.

But bribing God doesn’t work. Making religion a means to our end, using religion to build bigger barns so we can rest, eat, drink and be merry is a dead end. There is no joy or fulfillment or significance in such faith this morning. And there is judgment tonight.


So what do we do? Jesus said that we should be “rich toward God” (v. 21). What does that mean?

As I mentioned earlier, I spent a week of my study leave teaching at a conference in Switzerland. During one of the evening worship services, I had an epiphany. I really did. I cannot tell you who was preaching or what he was preaching about. But as he spoke, God spoke to me.

I had been thinking all week about the state of the church in the West. Many of the pastors and church leaders I taught that week came from churches across Europe, working in places where the Christian movement is weak at best. I had talked that day with a pastor in England who told me that there are 250,000 people in Great Britain who claim “Jedi Knight” as their official religion. In England, four times more Muslims go to mosque on Friday than Christians go to worship on Sunday. Many other places on the Continent are suffering in similar ways.

What is the answer to the decline of the church in western Europe and much of America, I wondered. Why is the church advancing so powerfully in Communist China and sub-Saharan Africa, in Latin and South America, in South Korea and Australia? Everywhere that church is a movement, not a building; where Christianity is a lifestyle, not an institution; where faith is an adventure, not a religion?

In the midst of my contemplation, while the preacher was preaching, I heard the Spirit speak simply and powerfully to my spirit: It’s all about Jesus. Christianity is about Jesus. It’s about knowing him and making him known. It’s about loving him and following him and helping other people follow him.

As simple and basic as that sounds, it’s the essence of biblical Christianity. It’s about him. Wherever the Church knows and lives that truth, the Church is building the Kingdom of God on earth. Wherever it is not, it is not.

We come to worship to bless him, not so he will bless us. We read and pray so we can know him and serve him, not so he will serve us. It’s not about us—it’s about him.

I know how basic that sounds. But let me ask you: why did you come to worship today? Why do you teach your class, or sing in the choir, or serve as a deacon, or work on a committee, or go on a mission trip, or read and pray and give? Why am I preaching this sermon? In our innermost being, what motivates us today?

Our lives do not consist in what we possess, but in the One who possesses us. Are we here today to bribe God, or to bless him?

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.

Let me ask you: when did you last think about the devil, before this sermon? When last did you pray for protection from him, or worry that you might be tempted by him, or think about his role in world events? Why is this? We live in a naturalistic, materialistic culture. We measure things by test tubes and empirical investigation. It’s hard to care much about a being you’ve never seen, or felt, or experienced. Add our revulsion at “fire and brimstone” sermons and puritanical scare tactics, and it’s easy to see why we don’t think much about the devil any more.

Satan, for one, is delighted with such confusion. If your doctor says that you have cancer but you deny the existence of the disease, you’re more likely to die from it. Satan is very real, and he is working right now wherever God is working. Even here. Especially here.

Second, see his work in the world. Jesus warned us: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). In John 8 he added, “He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (v. 44).

Wherever you find theft, murder, destruction, or lies, you are seeing Satan at work. He probably sowed his weeds at night, so that you could not see him in the field. But when you see the darnel, you know the devil has been there.

You only have to read the news. For instance, Satan is happily at work in the escalating destruction and death in Georgia. Russia says that Georgia provoked the conflict by attacking the capital of South Ossetia. Georgia says that Russia invaded their sovereign territory and is launching a permanent occupation. Some historians are worried that Russia may be testing the resolve of the West, and may extend its reach to Ukraine next and even Poland.

The United States just signed a treaty with Poland allowing us to place defensive missiles there. Russia says that this is an act of aggression. They note that these missiles are only 115 miles from their soil, approximately the distance from Cuba to the U.S., and remind us of the Cuban missile crisis. Will the situation escalate further? Yes, if the enemy has anything to do with it.

Satan is busily sowing weeds in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan. He wants discord and destruction in the Middle East, and in your work and school and family. Of course humans cooperate. There is not a devil behind every bush. But when Satan steals and kills and destroys, the fault is not with God. Wherever someone steals and kills and destroys, you know you are seeking the enemy’s handiwork.

Third, expect his attack in your life. He sows weeds especially where God sows wheat. 2 Corinthians 4:4 calls Satan “the god of this age”; John 12:31 describes him as the “prince of this world.” You and I are living in a world dominated by the devil. We are soldiers stationed on enemy soil, living in an occupied country. And Satan knows we’re here.

He lied in the Garden of Eden to Adam and Eve about the authority of God’s word; expect him to do the same to you. Whenever you hear a voice calling into question the trustworthiness or relevance of Scripture, know that you are hearing from the enemy.

He tempted Ananias and Sapphira to lie to the church about their possessions and offering. Whenever you hear a voice tempting you to lie, to manipulate the truth, to say something that is less than completely honest, to put things in a way which benefits you but is not truthful, know that you are hearing from the enemy.

He prompted Judas to deny and betray Jesus. Whenever you are tempted to be silent about your Lord, to refuse a courageous stand for your Master, know that you are being manipulated by Satan himself.

The closer you are to God, the more of a threat you are to Satan. If you’re thinking that this message is irrelevant to you, guess why.

Last, fight with the power of God. Remember that Satan is a defeated foe. His destiny is the lake of fire. Meanwhile, your Father promises that he will allow no temptation without giving you the strength to defeat it (1 Corinthians 10:13). The moment the enemy appears in your life, stand on that promise. Assume the victory which it guarantees.

So resist him in God’s strength: “Submit yourselves to God, resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). Peter exhorts us: “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings” (1 Peter 5:8-9).

Do it now. It will never be easier to refuse sin than when it first appears in your mind or heart. Don’t fight back with your strength or resolve. Give the temptation or struggle immediately to your Father, and ask him for his power and victory. Then they will be yours.

Never give up. You are in this battle until you go to God or God comes to us. Satan tempted Jesus at the beginning of his ministry and at its end. He will tempt you until you are with the Lord. Every time the temptation strikes or the struggle returns, give it to your God. Discouragement is of the devil. Guilt is of the enemy. But grace is greater than all our sin.


Where has the tempter found you today? Is he sowing weeds of deception and manipulation in your soul? If you’re dancing with the devil, he will eventually want to lead. He will take you further than you want to go, keep you longer than you want to stay, and cost you more than you want to pay. Every time.

But victory is yours in the power of God, now and for eternity. Take your temptation to Jesus. Run to him now. Ask for his wisdom, or encouragement, or resolve, or courage, and they will be yours. Then take the advice found on my favorite t-shirt: “The next time Satan reminds you of your past, remind him of his future.”

Why do you need this message today?

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.

“New wine” had not yet fermented and expanded. If someone poured it into an old wineskin, it would expand and burst the skin, ruining both the wineskin and the wine. Everyone knew that you needed a new wineskin for new wine.

Then Jesus made this prophetic point: “And no one after drinking old wine wants the new for he says, ‘The old is better'” (v. 39). Despite his explanation to his critics, he knew human nature. He knew that it is easier to trust the past we can see than the future we cannot. It feels safer to keep doing things the way we’ve always done them—to repeat the same traditions, keeping things the same way they’ve always been.

Going on with God

What’s wrong with old wine in old wineskins? Only this: God doesn’t live in the past. He isn’t bound by what we know of the way life works. He is always ready to do a new thing, to lead his people in a new way, to inspire and empower a new direction and vision and destiny.

God told Noah that a flood was coming. For a hundred years he warned the people while building his ark. They didn’t believe him, for the simple reason that it had most likely never rained to that point in history. A mist came out of the ground, Genesis says. So far as we know, no rain had ever fallen from the sky. It had never rained, so it never could. Or so they thought, until it was too late. Their survival as a people wasn’t behind them—it never is.

For 400 years the Jewish people lived in Egyptian slavery. They forgot that they had ever been free. They knew the Egyptian language and customs. They were familiar with Egyptian ways. When this upstart Moses came forward to lead them across the impassable Red Sea and through the uncharted wilderness, their repeated cry was, “Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians” (Exodus 14:12). But the Promised Land wasn’t behind them—it never is.

Joshua and the people stood on the bank of the flooded Jordan River. The Promised Land lay on the other side, but more than two million people needed to cross with their children, animals, and possessions. No one had ever done anything like this before. They could have stayed east of the Jordan, settled the land, and been assimilated into the civilization of the region. But their future as the people of God wasn’t behind them—it never it.

Jesus came to call fishermen and tax collectors, as well as rich young rulers and Sanhedrin members. Some went away sad; others fled at the cross; but some chose to follow this risen Messiah as he came to build God’s Kingdom on earth.

The way he led them looked nothing like they had expected. Gentiles were as included as Jews. God would lead Philip to an Ethiopian eunuch, a man unwelcome in any Jewish house of worship. He would lead Peter to evangelize a hated Roman centurion. He would lead Paul west when Paul wanted to go east, bringing the gospel to the entire European continent. He would station this Pharisaic rabbi in the house of Nero himself and use him to bring the gospel across the known world.

But only because they trusted more than they could see. Only because they believed that God’s future was better than their past. Only because they would go wherever God led and do whatever God asked. Only because they knew that the Kingdom of God wasn’t behind them—it never is.

Here is the one distinguishing mark of those used fully by God: They are willing to follow wherever he leads—wherever he leads. He can change any plan they have made and redirect any step. He can send them where they never imagined going and use them in ways they never intended. Their transmissions are in neutral, their strategies held lightly, their hopes and ambitions surrendered to him. He uses them because they are willing to be used.

Are you?


Dwight Moody never wanted to be a preacher, and in fact was never ordained. But when he discovered that his church in Chicago wouldn’t take in street children, he was compelled to start a Sunday school for them on the shores of Lake Michigan. Then he heard a preacher named Henry Varley say, “The world has yet to see what God will do for and with and through and in and by the man fully dedicated to him.” Moody resolved to be that man, and shook two continents for Christ.

Billy Sunday was a ballplayer, not a preacher, when he heard hymns spilling out of a rescue mission and gave his heart to Jesus. He became the most famous preacher of the gospel in a generation and pioneered ways of doing evangelism which are still practiced today.

Billy Graham thought he’d be a college president and pastor; both jobs lasted a little more than a year. His son Franklin was far from God and far from his family when the Lord seized his heart and made him a “rebel with a cause.”

All Rick Warren knew when he graduated from Southwestern Seminary was that God wanted him to plant a church in Southern California. He walked into a bank in Orange County and told the banker, “I’m here to start a church. Can you help me?” He asked the man if he went to church; the man said that he did not; Rick said, “Great, you’re my first member.” 25,000 members later, the man is still his first.

Bill Hybels was a youth minister who wanted to reach young people. He started a Sunday night service using contemporary music, but they soon grew too loud and too large for the church. They got permission to use the Willow Creek theater down the street, beginning what is today the largest church in America.

None of them had any idea God would use them the way he has. But all of them were willing for him to use them any way he would.

It’s been said that the seven last words of the church are, “We never did it that way before.” They are the seven last words of the soul as well. Are they living in your soul this morning?

When was the last time you gave God permission to change your plans? To redirect your agenda? To call you to a new thing or to do something in a new way? Why not today?

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.

The woman’s continued complaints will eventually engender the sympathy of the judge’s public. He will “give her a black eye.” There is no end in sight, so he gives her justice.

Here’s the point: “Will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off?” (v. 7). Here’s Jesus’ answer: “I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly” (v. 8a). Jesus doesn’t mean that God will always answer our prayer “quickly,” but that when he does, he acts swiftly. In the meanwhile, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (v. 8a). Will he find people who are waiting on God in faith?

Trust God to do whatever is best

Jesus’ parable is a powerful example of a very common rabbinic teaching technique called the qoi whomer, literally “from the lesser to the greater.” If an unjust judge would hear a widow’s persistent pleas, how much more will God hear ours? In both cases, persistence is required. Remember the point of the parable: Jesus “told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up” (v. 1). But with God, persistence is needed for another reason—not to wear God down, but to receive whatever he intends to give.

Why pray persistently to an all-knowing God?

Not to inform him of your need, but to receive his answer. God gave you freedom of mind and will so you could choose to worship him. He has chosen to limit himself at the point of this freedom. As a result, he will not act in your life without your permission.

As Jesus said, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). By contrast, “You do not have, because you do not ask God” (James 4:2). Praying persistently positions you to receive all that God intends to give.

Why pray persistently when God hasn’t yet answered your prayer? Because prayer changes circumstances, in ways you cannot see. He might right now be working to answer your prayer, but you cannot yet see that work. You’re needing a new job, and have prayed for one. Today God is engineering circumstances in such a way that a person is being promoted to the home office of her corporation. Then someone in her office will be moved into her position. Then that person’s job will be yours. It is going to take another two months for that process to become obvious to you, though God is working on the issue right now. You just don’t know it.

Why pray persistently when God hasn’t answered your prayer? Because prayer changes you. In prayer, the Holy Spirit is able to touch, shape, and mold you. In prayer, God works on you. Oswald Chambers, the great spiritual genius, said that “prayer is the way the life of God is nourished. We look upon prayer as a means of getting things for ourselves; the Bible’s idea of prayer is that we may get to know God himself.”

So pray persistently. Don’t give up on God.

Blaise Pascal believed that “all the troubles of life come upon us because we refuse to sit quietly for a while each day in our rooms.”

Gordon MacDonald adds: “I have begun to see that worship and intercession are far more the business of aligning myself with God’s purposes than asking him to align with mine.”

God is working in ways you cannot see or measure. George Mueller, the great minister and man of faith, prayed patiently for five personal friends who did not know the Lord. After five years, one came to Christ. In ten more years, two more were saved. After 25 years, the fourth friend came to Christ. He kept praying for the last friend for 52 years, then died. The fifth friend came to know Jesus a few months afterward. Keep praying.

When we pray persistently, God gives us whatever we ask or whatever is best.

There will be times when we don’t understand how that can be true, times when God’s delays are discouraging and debilitating to our faith and souls. There are times when the divine “no” seems harsh, times when the divine “wait” is intolerable. But our God is holy and perfect. He never makes a mistake. He always does what is best. One day we will see him face to face, and know as we are known (1 Corinthians 13:12).

In the meanwhile, persistent prayer is the way God molds and shapes our lives and eternal souls. Prayer is not so much about getting answers as it is about knowing God. It is about walking with our Father, communing in his Spirit, knowing him. Janet gave me a quote this week which says it well: “It is good to have an end to journey towards, but it is the journey that matters in the end.”


Where are you waiting on God? Keep waiting and keep praying. God is moving in your life and in your circumstances to do whatever is best. He is molding you and molding your world. And one day you will understand why you had to wait, and how his ways were best.

Perhaps this man’s experience will help. An anonymous Confederate soldier wrote,

“I asked God for strength that I might achieve; I was made weak, that I might learn to serve. I asked for health, that I might do great things; I was given infirmity, that I might do better things. I asked for wealth, that I might be happy; I was given poverty, that I might be wise. I asked for power, that I might earn the praise of men; I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.

“I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life; I was given life, that I might enjoy all things. I got nothing I asked for, but all I hoped for. Despite myself, my prayers were answered. And I am, among all men, most richly blessed.”

So can we. This is the promise of God.