A Royal Inauguration

A Royal Inauguration

Isaiah 9:1-7

James C. Denison

Christmas is the season for miracles. Someone with too much time on his hands has calculated that if Santa brought a Beanie Baby to every child on earth, his sleigh would weigh 333,333 tons. He needs 214,206 reindeer to pull that sleigh (plus Rudolph, of course). To deliver his gifts in one night, Santa has to make 822.6 visits per second, sleighing at 3,000 times the speed of sound. It’s a miracle that all his toys get delivered each Christmas.

We need more miracles from Santa this year, don’t we? You don’t need me to depress you with the week’s reports of continuing financial crisis, the terrorist attack in India, threats made against New York City’s subways, job losses close to home.

While President-elect Obama is announcing financial advisors in preparation for his inauguration in January, we don’t have to wait to learn about the administration of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He has already been installed on the throne of the universe. We have never needed the help of this Wonderful Counselor more than we do today. Where do you want his counsel this morning? How can it be yours?

Admit that you need a counselor

Let’s begin with good news for hard times. Isaiah’s promise that a child was coming to be inaugurated as the Messiah was announced to a nation in crisis.

Their world was at war, as ours is today. Assyrian would soon destroy the ten northern tribes of Israel and threaten the southern nation of Judah. Babylon would then overthrow Assyria and enslave Judah for 70 years. War clouds were brewing, with no blue sky in sight.

In the face of such chaos and calamity, the people were seeking counsel from everyone but God. They turned to “mediums and spiritists,” consulting “the dead on behalf of the living” (Isaiah 8:19). They were ignorant of the “law and testimony,” the revealed word of God (v. 20). As a result, they saw “only distress and darkness and fearful gloom” (v. 22).

Now they are “walking in darkness” and “living in the land of the shadow of death” (9:2). They feel the “yoke that burdens them,” the “bar across their shoulders,” the “rod of their oppressor” (v. 4). They have known the “warrior’s boot used in battle” and the “garment rolled in blood” (v. 5). Their nation was in chaos, distress, spiritual confusion.

Sound familiar?

To them and to us, the Lord promises a “Wonderful Counselor.” “Wonderful” is used throughout the Hebrew Bible to describe God and his works. It means “so full of wonder as to be divinely miraculous.” “Counselor” describes a person of such wisdom that he advises kings, the wisest man in the land. The words together can be translated, “He who plans wonderful things.”

Think of all the ways Jesus proved Isaiah right. As a boy of 12, his wisdom confounded the greatest scholars of his nation. Repeatedly the Gospels report that Jesus knew the thoughts of men before they spoke them. When he was accosted by the sharpest lawyers and debaters of his day, he left them defeated and astounded.

As the God of the universe, his wisdom transcends all time. This Counselor knows what the markets will do on Monday and two years from Monday. He knows what will happen in Iraq and Afghanistan and with your job and health and family. He has all of eternity to hear your next prayer and to advise your next decision.

But you must seek his help, of course. A counselor can’t do much for your marriage unless you’ll first admit that you need counseling. A husband or wife dragged into the counselor’s office is not going to experience much help.

If you think that you can solve your problems in your wisdom, you won’t seek God’s. If you buy into the self-sufficiency gospel of our contemporary culture, you’ll leave this sanctuary in the same shape as when you entered it.

If you’re listening to this sermon just because it’s Sunday rather than because you know you need a word from God, I won’t say much today that you’ll remember tomorrow. That’s why Jesus began his Sermon on the Mount with the observation, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” literally “blessed are those who know their need of God” (Matthew 5:3). If they didn’t know they needed what he would say, they would miss his wisdom. So will we.

The first step to getting help from the Wonderful Counselor is admitting that you need such a counselor. Why do you?

Why do you need this counselor?

We’ve seen the good news: the God of the universe is ready to be your Wonderful Counselor. Now let’s ask some hard questions. First: why should we trust him? If the Christ of Christmas is such a wonderful counselor, if God is truly on his throne, if Jesus is really omniscient and all-loving and all-powerful, why is his creation so broken?

Many of us ask that hard question every day. We know we should love and trust the God who made us, but the rest of his creation doesn’t often inspire such a commitment.

The atheist Sam Harris says that a single innocent, suffering child anywhere in the universe calls into question the existence of an all-loving, all-powerful God. Of course it does. If Jesus is such a Wonderful Counselor, why are times so hard? Why is there so much innocent suffering in a world created by such a wise God?

I was once having such a discussion with a skeptical friend, thinking of all the ways I could justify God’s wisdom with regard to the problems in our world today. You’ve heard the familiar arguments: God made us with free will so we could choose to go to heaven; when we misuse our freedom, the fault is not God’s but ours.

And that’s true for suffering we deserve, as when a drunk driver smashes his car. But it doesn’t help much with innocent suffering, as when a drunk driver smashes your car. It doesn’t explain why greed on Wall Street has to traumatize the global financial system and cost you your job or your pension.


Strength in Seismic Times

Strength in Seismic Times

Acts 4:23-31

James C. Denison

These were the headlines one day last week:

Pakistan quake kills 170, leaves thousands homeless

Paterson calls for federal rescue package for states

Fighting in Congo approaches Goma

Suicide attacks kill dozens in Somalia

China investigates tainted eggs in new food scare

Boy is 23rd child abandoned at Nebraska hospital

Market motion sickness to continue

Panel rebukes FDA on plastic bottle safety

It makes you want to throw away the paper before you read it and refuse to open the Internet, doesn’t it? Sixteen years ago, historian Francis Fukuyama spoke of the times as “the end of history.” He meant that history defined as the clash between nations and cultures was at its end. The demise of the Soviet Union ended the Cold War and would bring democracy to Russia and Eastern Europe. The technological revolution would create a new global economy, one in which progress was inevitable. “The world is flat,” Thomas Friedman wrote—the Internet would make the world smaller and the nations more cooperative and synergistic than ever before.

How different things are today. Russia has turned to autocratic leadership; the rise of radical Islam and the war on terror has embroiled America and the West in protracted armed conflict; the dot.com bubble burst, then the housing bubble burst, and now we are dealing with the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Consumer confidence is at an all-time low. Anxiety abounds.

We’ve been here before. Believers in the first months of Christian history were facing a challenge even more dire than ours. We are not on trial for our lives, but they were. Our families are not facing systemic persecution and even annihilation, but theirs were. What they did then, we can do today. If we do, the God who helped and blessed and empowered them will do the same for us. Here’s how to find strength in seismic times.

How to turn to God

When we left them last week, Peter and John had just experienced the first healing miracle in Christian history. Crowds had run to hear the gospel; multitudes were brought into the Kingdom. But it didn’t take long for the enemy to strike back. The two apostles were quickly arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin, the assembled Supreme Court of ancient Israel. This body had the power to confiscate their homes, to flog and imprison them, even to ask Rome to crucify them.

Prior to this time, the fledgling Christian movement was not on the authorities’ radar. Jesus had been executed; with his death, they assumed his movement would die out. They had done nothing to seek or persecute the first Christians. But now all that has changed. Now their group is out in the open, their lives threatened, the future of their movement in doubt.

Peter preached the gospel fearlessly before them; the fisherman who had cowered before a serving girl proved again that the Holy Spirit can empower anyone to do anything. But the authorities were not persuaded. They “commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:19) and let them go. If they broke the law again, the consequences would be severe.

Now Peter and John have returned to their Christian family and reported all that they had heard (v. 23). What would the movement do? They could tremble before the threats made by the Sanhedrin, abandoning their Great Commission and even their faith commitment to Jesus. This was the safe route to take, to be sure. Christian history could have ended here. The New Testament could have become just another ancient religious book describing a bygone spiritual movement, now interesting only to historians of antiquity. Everything was hanging in the balance.

Rather than retreat, these brave Christians advanced.

First, they sought God in prayer. They raised their voices together in prayer to God (v. 24a)—nothing private or secret about this.

Second, they trusted God’s providence. They announced that their God is the One who “made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them” (v. 24b). Not Caesar, not the high priest. They refused to recognize the authority of the Sanhedrin or anyone else before that of their God. Quoting King David and Psalm 2, they chose to see this as yet another time when “the kings of the earth” and “the rulers” stood against the God.

Third, they asked for God’s provision. They described their specific challenge: “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed” (v. 27). Someone said that when a person persecutes your faith, “tell God on them.” They gave their struggle immediately to their Father, as nothing surprises him (v. 28).

Fourth, they experienced God’s power. In direct violation of the Sanhedrin’s order, they asked God to do two things:

Enable them to speak his word “with great boldness.” They knew that continuing to preach could cost them their lives and families, so they asked God for the “great boldness” they would need. Then confirm their message with his own power—heal, perform miraculous signs, and do great wonders. But they wanted him to do them “through the name of your holy servant Jesus,” so that no one could misunderstand the Source of this power.

With this result: “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (v. 31). In seismic times, they had seismic power. And the movement continued; the word of God spread; the Kingdom marched; and today two billion people name Jesus their Lord.

The pattern continues

Was this prayer meeting an isolated event, something which happened on the other side of the world but bears little relevance for our lives and times? Absolutely not. There have been four Great Awakenings in American history. Every one of them followed the pattern we have seen this morning. Every one of them shows us that what God did in Jerusalem, he wants to do again today. When there is a crisis, if we will seek God in prayer, trust his providence, and ask for his provision, we will experience his power. He will shake the meeting, and fill his people, and glorify himself. Always.


The Battle is Not Yours, But God’s

The Battle Is Not Yours, But God’s

2 Chronicles 20:20-26

James C. Denison

Matthew Henry, the great Bible scholar, was once attacked by thieves and robbed of his wallet. He wrote these words in his diary: “Let me be thankful. First, I was never robbed before. Second, although they took my wallet, they didn’t take my life. Third, although they took all I had, it was not much. Fourth, let me be thankful that it was I who robbed and not I who did the robbing.” There’s always reason for thanksgiving.

Can you remember a Thanksgiving week more difficult than this one? The markets are down 1,600 points in three weeks. America’s automotive companies are near bankruptcy. Last Thursday, America’s Office of Director of Intelligence released a 110-page report titled “Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World.”

They predict a global shift in power and economic wealth from West to East on a level “without precedent in modern history.” They see a world increasingly conflicted over scarce food and water supplies, rogue states and terrorists, and global warming. They fear that extremists will have access to increasingly lethal technology, including nuclear and biological weapons.

What are the headlines of your heart? Why give thanks in hard times? This week we need a very simple message with a very practical application for our times, whatever we are facing today. Let’s begin with a story.

When we give thanks

Jehoshaphat (“Yahweh judges”) was one of the greatest kings in Jewish history. He came to the throne around 873 B.C., at the age of 35. By this time, the ten northern tribes constituted the nation of “Israel,” while the two southern tribes constituted the nation of “Judah,” centered in Jerusalem. Jehoshaphat was the fourth king of this southern nation.

Immediately he began to institute religious reforms, rejecting the worship of Baal and banishing idolatry from the land (1 Kings 22:46).

He soon sent religious officials across the nation to instruct the people in the word and will of God (2 Chronicles 17:7-9).

His good and godly reign ushered in a period of remarkable peace and tranquility. He even made peace with Israel, the nation to the north, establishing a truce and common cause which aided both peoples.

He created a national system of jurisprudence built on the law of God, fostering a period of great integrity and character (2 Chronicles 19:7).

Nonetheless, despite his diligent leadership and service, this good and godly man would face the greatest crisis the Jewish people had seen since leaving Egypt. Innocent people still face enemies and hurt. They still lose their savings and jobs. They still face recession and calamity and fear. What happened to him still happens to us.

Judah’s ancient enemies, the Moabites (living east of the Dead Sea) entered into a military alliance with the Ammonites to their north and the Meunites to their southwest, for the purpose of attacking Judah from all sides. So it was that “some men came and told Jehoshaphat, ‘A vast army is coming against you from Edom, from the other side of the Sea'” (2 Chronicles 20:2).

If these invading armies are successful, they will not merely occupy Judah—they will destroy the nation. They will kill every man, and take the women and children as their slaves. The very survival of the nation is in jeopardy.

And so their king does the right thing. He goes to God first (v. 3a), not last as we are prone to do. He calls the nation to come to God as well, through a national fast and prayer meeting (vs. 3b-4). Then he leads the people to do something remarkably unexpected—praise God.

He praises the Lord for his power over all the nations (v. 6). He honors him for his blessing to the people throughout their history (v. 7). He defines the crisis before the people (v. 10). He declares his absolute trust in the Lord: “We have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (v. 12). The entire nation, in peril for their lives, joins him in worship before God (v. 13).

And God answers their cry.

He gives them a prophet to announce: “Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s” (v. 15).

He instructs the nation to march against their enemies, knowing that “you will not have to fight this battle.” Why not? “Take up your positions, stand firm and see the deliverance the Lord will give you, O Judah and Jerusalem. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Go out to face them tomorrow, and the Lord will be with you” (v. 17).

Go out to fight this army of vastly superior numbers and forces? Don’t surrender to them, or flee from them? March out to certain death and destruction? Don’t give up or give out or give in? Here is the king’s response: “Jehoshaphat bowed with his face to the ground, and all the people of Judah and Jerusalem fell down in worship before the Lord. Then some Levites from the Kohathites and Korahites [the worship leaders of the nation] stood up and praised the Lord, the God of Israel, with very loud voice” (vs. 18-19).

Now watch what happens on the day that saved a nation. The king calls to the people, “Have faith in the Lord your God and you will be upheld; have faith in his prophets and you will be successful” (v. 20).

Then he arranges his army for battle. What soldiers did he station at the front—his best and most experienced veteran warriors? No—the worship leaders. The king “appointed men to sing to the Lord and to praise him for the splendor of his holiness as they went out at the head of the army, saying: ‘Give thanks to the Lord, for his love endures forever'” (v. 21, quoting Psalm 136).