A Culture in “Great Trouble”

A Culture in “Great Trouble”

A Study of Nehemiah

Dr. Jim Denison

Nehemiah 1:3

The “gates” of Israel

The year is 444 B.C. Nehemiah is “cupbearer” to the Persian king Artaxerxes, his close personal advisor. A group has come to Susa, the winter palace of the king, with this report: “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire” (Nehemiah 1:3).

The Babylonians had destroyed the city and walls of Jerusalem 142 years earlier, in 586 B.C. After the Persians liberated the Jews in 538, a group had returned to rebuild the city and nation. They had attempted to rebuild the walls earlier in the reign of Artaxerxes, but the king had ordered them to stop the project.

Enemies of the Jews had written to the king, protesting the rebuilding project and claiming that the Jews would only rebel against Persia once their city was reestablished.

The king sent them this reply:

“The letter you sent us has been read and translated in my presence. I issued an order and a search was made, and it was found that this city has a long history of revolt against kings and has been a place of rebellion and sedition. Jerusalem has had powerful kings ruling over the whole of Trans-Euphrates, and taxes, tribute and duty were paid to them. Now issue an order to these men to stop work, so that this city will not be rebuilt until I so order. Be careful not to neglect this matter. Why let this threat grow, to the detriment of the royal interests?” (Ezra 4:18-22).

With the result that the project was halted and the people left defenseless (vs. 23):

“As soon as the copy of the letter of King Artaxerxes was read to Rehum and Shimshal the secretary and their associates, they went immediately to the Jews in Jerusalem and compelled them by force to stop.”

Now Nehemiah finds himself working for the man who would not allow his people to rebuild their nation. His first act must be to win royal permission to begin the project again; his second must be to rebuild the walls. Only then will the people be safe.

Why were walls and gates so critical in the ancient world? Cities were established wherever they could find water and defenses. Thus the ancient Jebusites had built their capital city at the top of Mt. Moriah, near the Gihon spring. David captured their citadel and made it his own, establishing “Jerusalem” as the capital of his empire. The name means “legacy of peace,” from salem or shalom.

Solomon built the first Temple and royal palace atop Mt. Moriah, at the very spot where Abraham had offered Isaac a thousand years earlier. This was the center of the Jewish world until Nebuchadnezzar destroyed it in 586 B.C.

Nehemiah would rebuild the walls; the people would eventually rebuild their temple as well. It would be further modified until Herod the Great (37-4 B.C.) set out to recreate it as the most magnificent building in the world. He created the Temple of Jesus’ day, a structure destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. Jesus had predicted the very catastrophe: “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down” (Matthew 24:2).

The walls made the Temple possible and safe. The “Old City” of Jerusalem stands approximately where the city was rebuilt under Ezra and Nehemiah. Its walls today, built by Sulieman the Magnificent in AD 1538, stand at the same places as the walls of Nehemiah. There are 11 gates today; 7 are in operation. The gates are essential for allowing the commerce and people into the city, and for keeping enemies out. A tour of the walls and gates is a tour of the history of Israel.

If the “gates are burned with fire,” the nation is defenseless. So it was in the time of Nehemiah. So it may be in our day as well.

The “gates” of America

When I planned to study Nehemiah with you, I had no idea that I would also be surveying the crises facing America on Wednesday nights. Last night we looked at the moral crisis. Today that discussion is vital to our understanding of our “culture in crisis” and our “burned gates,” so I’ll summarize what we discussed together.

Beginning and ending of life

More than 48 million abortions have been performed in America since 1973. Every year, approximately 40,000 people die on American highways. Every ten days, that many abortions are performed in America. Doctors conduct 1.5 million abortions every year in the United States, more than the total of all America’s war dead across our history. Depending on the year, an abortion occurs for every three or four live births in our country. If you believe that the Bible teaches that life begins at conception, as I do, then you must be troubled by America’s position on abortion.

Genetic engineering can be used to determine gender, eye color, and capabilities of children, and to clone humans as well. Euthanasia is supported by 72% of Americans. It is now legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, Great Britain, Mexico, Oregon and Washington.


Sixty-five percent of Americans see nothing wrong with sex outside of marriage. According to a recent survey by the age of 20, 75% of respondents had had premarital sex; by age 44, 81% had had premarital sex.

42% of Internet users have viewed online pornography. A person is first exposed to pornography in America at the age of 11. 90% of 8-16 year olds have viewed porn online, most while doing their homework.

Same-sex marriage is becoming more accepted than ever before in America. In 2001, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to recognize same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriages were then recognized in Belgium (2003), Spain and Canada (2005), Massachusetts (2004), South Africa (2006), and Norway (2008). California recognized them in 2008, before Proposition 8 repealed this position.

What does the Bible say about homosexuality?

Genesis 19: sin of Sodom

Leviticus 18:22: “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.”

Leviticus 20:13: “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”

Romans 1:26-27: “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.”

1 Corinthians 6.9-10: “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

1Timothy 1:8-10: “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.”

Lisa Miller, writing the cover story for Newsweek, December 15, 2008, calls the Levitical prohibitions “throwaway lines in a peculiar text given over to codes for living in the ancient Jewish world” (30). She claims that “the Bible was written for a world so unlike our own, it’s impossible to apply its rules, at face value, to ours (30). Her conclusion: “to deny access to any sacrament based on sexuality is exactly the same thing as denying it based on skin color—and no serious (or even semiserious) person would argue that” (31).

Class relationships

Racism continues to plague American culture. Sex discrimination is still a problem in America’s workplace (women make 77% as much as men for the same jobs).

Creation and the environment

We are now in the third climate change period of the last 2,000 years, and by far the most significant. Beyond dispute, the Earth’s temperature is climbing. The eight warmest years on record since 1850 have all occurred since 1998; the warmest was 2005. Temperatures at many individual locations were higher in the last 25 years than at any period of comparable length since AD 900.

Time reported recently that global warming will lead to enormous food shortages in the future, with less rain and greater heat.

What will happen to nature?

The Pine Bark Beetle, once controlled by cold winter temperatures, is killing entire Christmas tree forests in British Columbia.

Rising water temperatures could cause rainbow trout to disappear from the Appalachian mountains over the next century.

Indonesia estimates that 2,000 of its tropical islands could disappear by 2030 due to rising sea levels.

Giant squids are invading the hotter waters off California and even Alaska.

In Antarctica, an ice shelf larger than Rhode Island collapsed into the sea in 2002. An ice chunk the size of Manhattan broke off a Canadian ice shelf in 2005.

Since 1850, the number of glaciers in Glacier National Park dropped has dropped from 150 to 26. Within the next 25 to 30 years, it is likely that none will be left.

The Mediterranean Sea is becoming much more salty and stagnant, due to faster evaporation and rising temperatures. Many of the sea’s plant and animal species are in jeopardy, as is the fishing industry in this part of the world.

The Great Barrier Reef will disappear within decades as warmer, more acidic seas bleach coral.

Sea levels will rise. There are 5,773,000 cubic miles of water in ice caps, glaciers, and permanent snow. If all glaciers melted today, the seas would rise 230 feet.

Global warming will increase significantly if the ice caps melt. They reflect sunlight into space, further cooling the earth. If they are gone, the Earth will absorb more heat and warm more quickly.

Over the past century, the number of hurricanes which strike each year has more than doubled.

What will happen to our health?

The World Health Organization estimates that 150,000 people are killed every year by climate-change-related issues.

Canadian doctors say smog-related deaths could rise by 80% over the next 20 years.

Heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems are expected to rise, as atherosclerosis develops much more quickly in a warmer environment.

A Harvard study in 2004 showed that higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will lead to higher rates of asthma attacks, especially in children.

The World Health Organization has identified more than 30 new or resurgent diseases in the last decades, fueled by global climate change. As northern countries warm, disease carrying insects migrate north, bringing disease and plague. Known as the “deadly dozen,” these diseases include yellow fever, Lyme disease, plague, avian influenza (bird flue), babesia, cholera, Ebola, intestinal and external parasites, red tides, Rift Valley fever, sleeping sickness, and tuberculosis.

What does God think about the moral health of our nation? The answer lies in 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” The solution is to pray for awakening.

A Culture in History

A Culture in History

A Study of Nehemiah

Dr. Jim Denison

Nehemiah 1:1-2

Israel in history

“Israel” means “one who wrestles with God.” It was the name given to Jacob by God in Genesis 32. But the history of the nation begins with Abraham (ca. 2000 B.C.) and God’s promise: “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:1-2).

Abraham traveled from Ur of the Chaldees to the land of Canaan, Egypt, and back to Canaan. 25 years after God’s promise, Isaac was born. From Isaac came Esau and Jacob; from Jacob came the “12 tribes of Israel.”

After 400 years in Egyptian slavery, the people were led by Moses through the Exodus to the Promised Land. Joshua led them across the flooded Jordan River to the conquest of the land. After a period of judges, Saul became their first king. David and Solomon followed.

Under Solomon, the land came to its highest point of economic and military significance. The king’s net worth was 100,000 talents of gold (3.75 tons) and a million talents of silver; together they would be worth $58 billion today.

After Solomon’s death, the nation divided under Rehoboam (922 B.C.) The ten northern tribes were called “Israel,” while the two southern tribes were called “Judah.” In 722, the Assyrians (modern-day Syria) destroyed the Northern Kingdom. In 587 B.C., the Babylonians (modern-day Iraq) destroyed and captured the Southern Kingdom.

In 538 B.C., the Persians (modern-day Iran) overthrew the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return to their homeland, setting the stage for our study.

Israel and Nehemiah

It is December of the year 444 B.C., and disaster is upon the nation Judah. Nebuchadnezzar, general and leader of the hated Babylonians, had leveled their Temple and city 140 years earlier, in 587 B.C. Thousands died, and multiplied other thousands of people were enslaved. This was their 9-11, only al Qaeda has not only destroyed their nation—it has taken most of them back to Afghanistan as captives. Psalm 137 captures their lament and crisis.

But Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, has liberated them. In 538 B.C., having conquered the hated Babylonians, he sent the Jews home. But to what home? The walls of their city were destroyed, the city itself in rubble, the Temple in ruins. For 14 years they labored, but to little avail. They laid the foundation of their Temple, but nothing else. And the walls were still in ruins.

Why did the walls matter? Because to an ancient people, they were their most important physical and psychological possession. Physically, walls were their only defense against their enemies. There were no national armies or navies to rescue them in attack. Without their walls, they could not be a people.

Psychologically, their walls were the symbol of their land and people. If the walls were down, their pride was in ruins as well. Much like our own Statue of Liberty, every land has a symbol. When the symbol is in shambles, we feel that we are as well.

Enter Nehemiah.

“The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah.” “Nehemiah” means “Yahweh has comforted.” (It was sometimes shortened to Nahum; cf. the minor prophet by this name.) We know that he was “cupbearer to the king” (v. 11), a high office with regular access to the king. Some think he may have been second in command in the nation. We’ll say more about this matter in coming weeks.

It is “the month of Kislev in the twentieth year.” This was the ninth month of the Jewish calendar, November/December to us. Artaxerxes, Persia’s sixth king, began his reign in 464 B.C.; the “twentieth year” of his reign would have been 444 B.C.

Nehemiah was “in the citadel of Susa.” “Citadel” refers to the “fortress,” one of the royal palaces and fortified cities. “Susa” was the winter residence of the king; Ectabana was the summer palace. So we know that Nehemiah was with the king in his winter palace.

Then “Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men” (v. 2a). Hanani is a shortened version of Hananiah, “the Lord has been gracious.” These are Jews, as “one of my brothers” indicates. Nehemiah would later appoint his brother Hanani to a high position in the new government in Israel (7:2).

This is all we know about them. They may have been Persians who visited Judah and returned, or people living in Judah who came to Persia.

Nehemiah “questioned them about the Jewish remnant that survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem.” This refers to the Jews who had survived captivity in Babylon and returned to Judah beginning in 538 B.C., and their capital city of Jerusalem. The Hebrew may also indicate some who escaped from Babylon, as the ESV translates.

So our study opens with many of God’s people back in the Holy Land, but facing a nation in tatters, a country whose future was clouded at best. If enemies were to besiege them, they would have no means of defense. A drought or locust infestation could wipe them out. Their very survival as a nation was in doubt.

The Church in America

In the year 2000, approximately two billion people worldwide claimed to be Christians. Of that number, over 15%, more than 300 million, were found in North America. 500 years earlier, there had been virtually no Christians in this part of the world. The growth of Christianity here is both complex and fascinating.

The first Christians in North America were Catholic missionaries and their converts in Mexico and the southern part of present-day America. They were doing their work in the early 16th century, even as the Protestant Reformation was just beginning in Europe. Jesuits and other missionaries worked among French settlers and at Indian missions in Canada as well.

Other groups came to America in the early 17th century. The Protestant Church of England (Episcopal today) was established as the official religion of Virginia. Anglicans spread to the Carolinas as well. Calvinists founded five colonies in Massachusetts and Connecticut; these were the “Puritans.”

Maryland was settled as a refuge for English Catholics after the English Reformation. But all were churches with state sponsorship.

Non-established churches came to America as well. Quakers established a powerful presence in Pennsylvania. Dutch Reformed churches were begun in New York.

Baptists came with Roger Williams to Providence, Rhode Island in 1636. The First Baptist Church in the country was built there; Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta and the new chapel at DBU are copies. Methodists preachers arrived in 1769 and soon made their denomination the largest on the frontier.

Within a century of its founding, America would become home to some of the largest, most vibrant Christian movements in history. Why?

Faith in America

Space on the frontier is one factor in the explosion of the church in frontier America. By the end of the 18th century, every Protestant denomination in Europe had been transplanted to North America. The scale of this land is illustrated by the fact that the distance between London and Moscow is less than the distance between Montreal and Denver, or Montreal and Houston. The physical space bounded by Rome, Geneva, and Wittenberg (the centers for Catholicism, Reformed Protestantism, and Lutheranism) would fit easily into Arizona. Churches here had room to spread, grow, and thrive.

Ethnicity and nationality changed remarkably in the New World as a result. African Americans had opportunity to build and grow churches. Pluralism led to competition and the necessity of growth.

Religious freedom and the separation of church and state were critical factors in American Christianity. State-sponsored churches (such as Anglicans) were forced to develop ways of sustaining and growing themselves, while movements which had been persecuted in Europe found themselves able to thrive in America.

One example: Anglicans and Congregationalists were the largest denominations in America in 1776; within 50 years they had been far outstripped by the Methodists and Baptists.

But revivalism is much of the reason. The First Great Awakening came in 1734. The crisis in the colonies was severe. Moral conditions were dire. Not one in 20 people claimed to be a Christian. Samuel Blair, a pastor of the day, said that religion lay as it were dying and ready to expire its last breath of life in the visible church.

But Theodore Frelinghuysen, a Dutch Reformed minister who had come to the colonies from Holland in 1720, would not give up on his adopted homeland. He began praying fervently for revival to come to the colonies, first with himself and his church, and then with his larger community. Others began joining his fledgling prayer movement. The Spirit began to move.

Then Jonathan Edwards, an intellectual recluse who studied 12 hours a day and read his sermons, face buried in the manuscript, experienced the anointing and power of God. His sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” shook his church and then the young nation.

The preaching of George Whitefield gathered and galvanized thousands. Unlike established church pastors, he preached extemporaneous sermons in the open air to anyone who would listen, and cooperated with all kinds of Christians. At one point in 1740, he was preaching to crowds of 8,000 a day when Boston was not much larger than that.

The First Great Awakening was the result. As much as 80% of the colonial population became identified with a Christian church. It started with a group who prayed, trusting God’s providence, asking for his provision and experienced his power.

The Second Great Awakening began in 1792. After the War for Independence, social conditions became even more deplorable than before. Drunkenness became epidemic; out of a population of five million, 300,000 were confirmed alcoholics; 15,000 died of the disease each year. Women were afraid to go out at night for fear of assault. Bank robberies were a daily occurrence.

John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States, wrote to James Madison, Bishop of Virginia, that the Church “was too far gone ever to be redeemed.” A poll taken at Harvard University found not a single believer. Two were found at Princeton. Tom Paine claimed that “Christianity will be forgotten in 30 years.”

But he was mistaken. In 1784, a Baptist pastor named Isaac Baccus gathered together a number of ministers. They wrote a circular letter, asking believers to pray for awakening. Prayer groups spread all over New England. In 1972, revival broke out on college campuses, where hundreds were converted. “Camp meetings” spread across the frontier; eventually more than a thousand were meeting annually. Churches doubled and tripled in membership. One Baptist church in Kentucky with a membership of 170 baptized 421 during a single revival meeting.

In that year, William Carey began the modern missions movement. The American Bible Society, American Tract Society, and a variety of missions organizations began as a result of this Awakening. All because God’s people sought God in prayer, trusted his providence, asked for his provision and experienced his power.

The Third Great Awakening is dated to 1858. The Gold Rush of 1848 had led to a booming economy which crashed in 1857. If it were not for the Great Depression of the 1930s, the collapse of 1857 would have that title. Fear of civil war was increasing. Turmoil was everywhere.

In the midst of such fear and anxiety, a group of laymen began meeting for prayer on Wednesday, September 23, 1857 at the Old North Dutch Church in New York City. They were led by a Presbyterian businessman named Jeremiah Lamphier. The first day, six people came to his prayer meeting. The next week there were 14; then 23; then the group began to meet daily. They outgrew the church and began filling other churches and meeting halls throughout the city. The movement spread across the country.

The result was one of the most significant movements in Christian history. More than a million were saved in one year, out of a national population of only 30 million. 50,000 were coming to Christ every week. The revival continued into the Civil War, where more than 100,000 soldiers were converted. Sailors took the revival to other countries. Thousands of young people volunteered for mission service.

All because God’s people sought God in prayer, trusted his providence, asked for his provision and experienced his power.

The Fourth Great Awakening began in Wales in 1904 in the heart of a coal miner named Evan Roberts. He became convicted of his sins by the Spirit, and turned to God in prayer and repentance. He then began preaching to the young people in his church, calling them to prayer and repentance.

Prayer meetings broke out all over Wales. Social conditions were affected dramatically. Tavern owners went bankrupt; police formed gospel quartets because they had no one to arrest. Coal mines shut down for a time because the miners stopped using profanity and the mules no longer understood them.

The revival spread to America, where ministers in Atlantic City, NJ reported that out of 50,000 people, only 50 adults were left unconverted. In Portland, Oregon, more than 200 stores closed daily from 11 to 2 so people could attend prayer meetings. In 1896, only 2,000 students were engaged in missionary studies; by 1906, 11,000 were enrolled.


Now we find ourselves in circumstances similar to those of Nehemiah’s day. For reasons we’ll explore in coming weeks, our nation is facing a cultural, moral, economic, and spiritual crisis of the first magnitude. An Awakening is the spiritual answer to our nation’s situation.

That Awakening begins with you and with me. Gypsy Smith, a famous evangelist of the 19th century, was asked how to begin a revival. His advice: “Take a piece of chalk and draw a circle. Then get inside that circle and pray until everything inside that circle is right with God. Revival will then come.”

I will do that. Will you join me?

A Culture in Need Of Intercessors

A Culture in Need of Intercessors

A Study of Nehemiah

Dr. Jim Denison

Nehemiah 1:4

The crisis: The walls to Jerusalem are down, the city is indefensible, and the king is at fault (Ezra 4:18-22). When the walls around us are tumbling down, what is our response? Let’s learn from Nehemiah.

Nehemiah’s prayer

Nehemiah’s first response was to turn to God, not man: “When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 1:4).

Here’s the breakdown of what Nehemiah did:

Sat down and wept: Though he was 700 miles away, this became his personal concern and passion. He “sat down” for an extended time of weeping. Ezra wept for the state of the nation (Ezra 10:1); Jesus wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41); Paul wept over the Jews (Acts 20:19). What makes you weep? Ask God to break your heart with what breaks his heart.

Mourned: as for a death; typically done while sitting. Jews often tore their clothes when they were in mourning.

Fasted: required only on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29), often evidenced a person’s distraught condition. David fasted when his child with Bathsheba was ill (2 Samuel 12:16).

“Prayed before the God of heaven”: Before going to the “god of the earth,” the king of Persia, he went first to the true God of all the universe. Nine prayers of Nehemiah are recorded in this book. Jesus prayed before performing miracles, before beginning his Galilean ministry, and all night before choosing his Twelve. If we went to God first, we would find his power first.

“For some days”: Nehemiah 2:1 states that he finally went to the king “in the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes.” This is March/April of 443 B.C., four months after receiving the news. God’s will and God’s timing are both crucial.

Why he did it.

He knew that he must have God’s help before he needed man’s help.

He knew that only God could transform the king and thus save the nation.

He knew the risk he was taking—if rejected by the king, his position would never be the same. Since he was asking the king to reverse himself, he might even be seen as criticizing the throne and a threat to its future.

Our prayer

Jesus gave an example to his followers of how we should petition the Father. Luke 11:5-8 is one of the most fascinating and misused stories Jesus ever told. The problem is not the setting of the parable itself, for it was one of the most common of his time.

The first man in our story has a problem, much more of a crisis in Jesus’ day than in ours. A traveler has come to his home at midnight—not at all uncommon, since most people traveled at night to avoid the day’s heat. This man should have baked enough bread for anyone who might come to his home that night, as hospitality was and is a sacred responsibility in the Middle East.

To have someone come to your home and have nothing to feed them is for us an inconvenience; for them it was a very major failure. If you were to invite your family over for Easter dinner, then forget and have nothing to feed them when they arrived, you’d be in this man’s situation.

So he goes to his neighbor at midnight for help. He knows that his neighbor will likely have baked enough bread to solve this crisis, and apparently believes that he would want to help. But the man’s door is locked (v. 7), a very significant detail in the story. People didn’t usually lock their doors for security, as they had little worth stealing and lived in homes which were easily vandalized (cf. Matt. 6:19). They locked their doors only when they wanted privacy. The man and his family have gone to sleep and do not want to be awakened. A locked door was their “Do Not Disturb” sign. Cultural customs required the neighbor to honor their wish.

The reason was simple. Common homes in Jesus’ day were one room, with one window and a door. The front two-thirds of the room had a dirt floor where the animals slept for the night. The back one-third was a raised wooden platform with a charcoal stove around which the entire family slept. For this man to get up at midnight he must awaken his family, then his animals, just to get to the door.

All this to give the neighbor what he was already required by social custom to have. If your family came for Easter dinner and you were unprepared, so you went to your neighbor and asked her to give you her meal so you could serve your guests, you might anticipate her reaction.

In Jesus’ story, the neighbor gets up despite all this—the rudeness, the inconvenience, the breach of social custom—because of the man’s “boldness.” The Greek word means “shameless refusal to quit.” The neighbor simply will not go away until the man gives him what he wants. And so he does. Jesus concludes: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (v. 9).

How is Jesus’ story yours? Why do you need bread at midnight? Where do you need help only your Father can provide? Nehemiah’s God is our God today.

What does Jesus’ parable mean for us? How does it help us understand the logic of praying to an omniscient God? Let’s begin by dismissing what it doesn’t mean.

First, Jesus is not teaching that prayer notifies God of our need. In the parable, the man had no idea that his neighbor needed bread for a midnight guest, and would not have learned of the neighbor’s problem if it had not been made clear to him. But the man in the story bears little likeness to the omniscient God of the universe. Just as God knew about Nehemiah’s crisis before Nehemiah prayed, he knows our need before we seek him.

Second, Jesus is not teaching that we can wear God out if we ask for something with enough persistence. At first reading, it seems that God is the man inside the house asleep; if we bang on his door loud enough and long enough he will give us what we want. Even if he doesn’t want to, if we keep asking eventually we’ll receive what we want. Unfortunately, I’ve heard that very theology preached: if you have enough faith, God will give you whatever you ask. Whether you want to be healed, or wealthy, or anything at all, just ask in enough faith and it’s yours.

That assertion is absolutely not the point here. Jesus is using a very common rabbinic teaching technique known in the Hebrew as the qal wahomer; it translates literally, “from the lesser to the greater.” Applied here, the point is this: if a neighbor at midnight would give you what you ask if you ask him, how much more will God answer our requests when we bring them to him.

You see the qal wahomer again in verse 13: “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven given the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Jesus does not mean that we must inform and persuade God as the man informed and persuaded his neighbor. To the contrary, he means that your Father in heaven is even more willing to help you than the disgruntled man in the story.

If Jesus is not teaching us that prayer informs God or persuades him, what does he intend us to understand about praying to our Father? Here’s a principle which has been very significant for me: Prayer positions us to receive all that grace intends to give.

We all know the frustration of wanting to help people who won’t let us. If they’d only ask, we’d be happy to do what we can. Their request would not inform us of their need, or persuade us to meet it. Rather, their request would enable them to receive what we already wanted to give. So it is with praying to an all-knowing Father who loves his children but will not force them to accept his grace.

Nehemiah’s prayer doesn’t earn God’s favor any more than our prayers do. Prayer is not works righteousness or legalism. Nor does prayer inform an omniscient God about our problem. Praying opens our hands to his help. It allows our Father to guide and bless his child. If I will not receive his grace, he will honor my refusal, to his pain and my loss. Then I have not because I ask not (James 4:2). But if I will knock, the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7). Not because I deserved God’s favor, but because I was willing to receive it.

The same God who helped Nehemiah when the walls were tumbling down all around him wants to help us when our walls are tumbling down.

So we pray because praying enables us to receive what God wants to give and because praying changes us.

The necessity of intercession:

Required by God: “You have not because you ask not” (James 4:2).

He will not violate our freedom.

The practice of intercession:

Seek God’s glory.

Seek spiritual lessons.

Seek eternal good.

Be specific.

Be consistent (God may be preparing in ways you cannot see).

People of intercession:

For your family.

For your country: 1 Timothy 2:1-4.

For your church: Ephesians 6:18.

For your spiritual leaders: Ephesians 6:19-20).

Nehemiah’s first impulse was to pray. Is yours?



2 Chronicles 7:13-14

James C. Denison

If you thought 2008 was a long year, it turns out you were right. Time magazine’s online edition tells us that on New Year’s Eve, a leap second was added to atomic clocks around the world. It seems that Earth’s rotational period needed to be realigned with something called “Coordinated Universal Time.” Our planet is apparently decelerating at an average rate of two milliseconds a day, due to space dust, magnetic storms, solar winds, and our push and pull with the moon. At this rate, we will gain an extra hour in 5,040 years.

Do you think the world will last that long, that the Lord will delay his return until the year 7,049? I’m not sure he will tarry until 2010, and neither should you be. The first Christians lived in the daily expectation of Jesus’ imminent return. Those people who have known God most powerfully in the centuries since have shared that sense of urgency. Jonathan Edwards, for instance, resolved as a young man to do nothing he would not do if he knew the Lord were returning that moment.

Here’s the resolution I have made for this new year, the commitment I believe God would want to find me keeping if he were to return this morning: I will pray and work for spiritual awakening every day.

An “Awakening” can be defined as a socially-transforming spiritual movement. A “revival” is a spiritual rebirth which transforms a person or a church or even a community into New Testament Christianity; a “great Awakening” transforms a nation.

I believe that such a movement is the greatest need of our country in these days, and that believers should be praying and working toward this purpose in every way we can. Today and across this month, we’ll seek to understand what God is doing for Awakening, and learn how to join him.

Where are we?

As 2 Chronicles 7 unfolds, Solomon and the people of Israel have just finished their Temple. This is the high-water mark in the history of the Jewish people. Their borders extend from present-day Syria to the Sinai Peninsula. Their wealth and military might are unequaled in the region. The king has accumulated 100,000 talents of gold (3,750 tons) and a million talents of silver (37,500 tons; 1 Chronicles 21:14)—that’s a net worth of more than $58 billion. Solomon is also the wisest man who has ever lived. And now he has just constructed a fabulous house of worship for his nation’s God.

But Israel’s future prosperity was in no sense guaranteed.

Their Lord warned them that future rebellion would lead to his punishment. In this event he would “shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people” (2 Chronicles 7:13). In a world dependent on rain for crops, defenseless against ravaging locusts or plague, such events would be totally catastrophic.

As it turned out, their future was in greater peril than they knew. Shortly after Solomon’s death, their nation would be divided by civil war. The ten northern tribes would be annihilated and absorbed by Assyria; the two southern tribes would be enslaved by Babylon and then dominated by Persia, Greece, and Rome before their nation was disbanded and destroyed. Their nation would not be constituted again for 20 centuries, and today faces renewed hostility, as the conflict in Gaza demonstrates.

But all of this relates to Israel, the Hebrew people. Few of us gathered for worship here today are Israelis. Why is this warning in God’s word for all the generations and nations to come? Is it still relevant to our day and our nation?

America is the world’s only superpower. Our economy, even in these difficult times, is as large as Japan, China, Germany, India, and Great Britain combined. An atheist group has filed suit this week to prevent prayers or the mention of God at the presidential inauguration later this month, but they admit that they’ll lose their case. Meanwhile, more Americans go to church each week than in any other nation in the Western world. Surely our future is assured.

Or perhaps not.

We are facing the greatest financial crisis we’ve seen in 80 years. The Dow finished 2008 down 35%, the worst year for the markets since 1931. The crisis has wiped out nearly $14 trillion in market value. Tomorrow, members of the House Financial Services committee will begin their investigation of Bernard Madoff’s alleged $50 billion fraud. A yearlong recession has already destroyed 2.7 million jobs, pushing unemployment to 6.7 percent; many economists expect it to rise above eight percent this year.

Our military continues to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan as the conflict continues longer than our engagement in World War II. Global climate change is accelerating faster than even pessimists were predicting a few years ago. Militant Islam continues its ascent, constituting what I consider to be the greatest threat the West has ever faced. At its root it is a spiritual movement, and must be countered by a spiritual movement of even greater power and passion.

I am convinced that God redeems all he allows or causes. We can debate the degree to which God has caused all of this, but we must admit at least that he has allowed it. For what purpose?

What must we do?

What must we do? “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (v. 14). “My people, who are called by my name” includes us—you and me, all who have made Jesus their Lord. We are “Christians,” literally “little Christs,” those who are the children of God and thus own his name. Awakening in the nation starts with us, here, today.


Our first step is to “humble ourselves,” to admit our need of God. We will return to this momentarily. Once we admit that we need God’s help, we “pray.” The Hebrew word describes a national plea for repentance. This will be our focus next week.

Now we “seek his face.” The Hebrew phrase describes a person who is returning to God in individual repentance. We see the need of the nation, then we admit the need of our own hearts and souls. This will be our focus in the third week of our series.

In that light, we “turn from our wicked ways.” We decide to turn, to change, to realign with God, to submit to him in all our ways. This will be our focus on our fourth week.

When we do these things, God promises to hear from heaven and forgive our sin and heal our land. The spiritual transformation of the culture is the result, a rebirth of nothing less than New Testament Christianity.

So we begin with humility before the Lord. It is a spiritual fact that God cannot do for us what we try to do for ourselves. If you do not believe that our city and nation needs a mighty movement of God, you will miss that movement. A doctor cannot heal a patient who will not admit an illness. God cannot give what we will not admit we need. If we do not believe that we need more of God than we have, we will not have the God we need.

God will not share his glory. Humility is the indispensible factor in divine movement. Paul commanded us to “be completely humble and gentle” (Ephesians 4:2). James, the half-brother of Jesus, told us to “humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (James 4:10).

A Roman centurion told Jesus, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof” (Matthew 8:8). And the Bible says that “his servant was healed at that very hour” (v. 13). A Gentile woman told Jesus that “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (Matthew 15:27), and “her daughter was healed from that very hour” (v. 28).

Paul said of himself: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:15). And God used him to write half the New Testament and take Christ to the entire Western world.

John the Baptist said of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30, KJV). And Jesus said of him, “Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11). Now it’s our turn. We can point people to Jesus, or to ourselves, but we cannot do both. I cannot convince you at the same time that I am a great preacher and that Jesus is a great Savior.

The time has come for us to choose—will we humble ourselves? Will we seek to glorify God with everything we think and say and do? Will we be a means to his end, or will he be a means to ours?


I once heard Rick Warren say, “Stop asking God to bless what you are doing, and ask him to help you do what he is blessing.” What God Almighty is blessing is a global spiritual awakening, a movement of the Holy Spirit wherever God’s people humble themselves, pray, seek his face, and turn from their wicked ways. That is what God is doing in these days.

Here’s the question: Will you join him? Will you admit that our church and community and nation need more of God than we have?

Next week I will be speaking on the threat of Radical Islam and the need for spiritual awakening if the West is to defeat the greatest threat it has ever faced. I will be speaking to the global financial crisis and the ways God would redeem it by turning millions of people from their resources to his.

But let’s begin right here, right now, with us. Do you need to experience the power of God, a transforming spiritual movement? Do we? Will you admit your need of God, and humble yourself before him? Will you seek to glorify him with everything you think and say and do this week? Will you join me in praying every day for spiritual awakening to come to America, starting with you?

Emerson insisted, “One of our illusions is that the present hour is not the crucial hour.” He was right. We don’t have another year or another day to wait. The hour is upon us. The next step is yours.

Awakening and America

Awakening and America

2 Chronicles 7:11-14

James C. Denison

Last Thursday, President Bush was visiting with a group of second-graders when one asked him where he’s going to live next. The president said that he is relying on Laura’s judgment about their new house in Dallas, and for good reason—he has never seen it himself. “That’s called faith,” Mr. Bush said. I drove by their new home in Preston Hollow this week, and am happy to endorse Laura’s choice. I’m sure the president needs more advice these days.

Mr. Bush has just finished eight years in the most stressful job on earth. An article in this week’s news called “The graying of the presidents” states that American presidents apparently age twice as quickly as the rest of us. Their hair turns gray, their faces wrinkle, and they usually die prematurely. Theodore Roosevelt, for instance, died 15 years younger than actuarial tables would suggest; Woodrow Wilson lived seven years less than normal.

During prolonged stress, our bodies release hormones such as cortisol; these in turn damage blood vessels, leading to heart attacks and strokes. Presidents also suffer from a lack of friends they can trust. It’s all a prescription for stress and suffering.

Can you imagine the stress President-elect Obama will feel when he takes on this office? What is happening in America in these days? What is God doing, and allowing, and saying to us? What does it all mean for you and me this morning?

Is national judgment inevitable?

Remember our setting—Israel is at their high-water mark, with the largest geographical, economic, and military strength they would ever see again. If any nation’s future prosperity was guaranteed, it would be that of the “people of God.” But our text begins, “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain . . .” (v. 13). Not “if” but “when.”

So it had been all through their history. Moses led them to the edge of the Promised Land, but they refused to trust God by faith and wandered 40 years in the wilderness until that entire generation died. After Solomon, Rehoboam’s cruel despotism would split the nation; the idolatry of the kings and people would lead to the destruction of the Northern Kingdom.

Eventually the Southern Kingdom would be captured and enslaved by Babylon, then ruled by Persia, Greece, and Rome. Jesus predicted of their mighty Temple, “I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down” (Matthew 24:2). Within a generation it was so.

Will every nation eventually face periods of spiritual darkness and resulting judgment? Tradition dates the founding of Rome at 753 B.C., the conversion of Constantine at AD 313, the “Christianization” of the Empire soon to follow. The world had never seen a mightier army or civilization, but the people fell into immorality and idolatry. Rome was sacked in AD 476 and the Empire came to ruin.

If you were asked to name the world’s greatest military, strongest economy, and largest empire in the year 1900, the answer would be Great Britain. If you were asked to guess the army with the most troops, tanks, artillery, and nuclear weapons in 1980, the answer would be the Soviet Union.

Is America in crisis?

Can the same happen to America and the West? Is it happening to America and the West? Consider the cultural crisis of our time, our battle with Radical Islam.

All Muslims believe that God’s final and superior revelation is the Qur’an, and that he wants all people on earth to convert to Islam. Radical Islam takes two steps further. First, they teach that the West has been attacking the Islamic world since the crusades and especially with the establishment of Israel. Second, they believe that since the Western world is democratic, where we elect our leaders and our taxes support our military, none of us are innocent in this attack.

Since the Qur’an expressly forbids Muslims to initiate violence but requires them to defend Islam, these points are critical to understanding 9-11 and the mind of al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations like Hamas. In their minds, lobbing rockets into Israel is the defense of Islam mandated by the Qur’an.

We have been at war with Muslim extremists far longer than most people realize. You could begin with the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979. In April of 1983, Hezbollah attacked the American Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 and wounding 120. In October of that year, another Hezbollah suicide bomber attacked the American barracks at the Beirut airport, killing 241 U.S. Marines in their sleep. In 1984 and 1985, terrorists hijacked airliners and cruise ships, killing Americans each time. In December of 1988, Libyan agents bombed Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 270 passengers.

In 1993, a truck bomb exploded in the garage of the World Trade Center, injuring over a thousand people. In 1996, a truck bomb attacked American soldiers in Saudi Arabia, wounding 240. In 1998, our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were attacked on the same day, killing more than 200. On October 12, 2000, a boat carrying suicide bombers attacked the USS Cole, killing 17 American sailors. On September 11, 2001, 2,740 Americans were killed by Islamic terrorists.

I participated last Thursday in a fascinating discussion about Hamas, Gaza, and Israel. Dr. Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, was the keynote speaker. One of the most disturbing trends he is seeing in this conflict is the rise of public sentiment in the Arab world for Hamas and the Palestinians. Even Muslim governments sympathetic to America and the West such as Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey are facing uprisings among their people if they do not support Hamas. He is afraid that when this conflict is over, the enmity between Israel and the Arab world will be far greater than it is today. Who knows where that will leave us?

As I said last Wednesday night, Radical Islam is a spiritual ideology. This war is more like the Cold War than World War I or II. Killing Osama bin Laden will not end this battle. This is a war for the souls of mankind, the battle of our generation.

Madrassas are Islamic schools scattered around the world. Saudi Arabia has spent $100 billion exporting radical Islam through these schools. There are approximately 24,000 educational institutions in America; there are more than 37,000 Muslim madrassas in Indonesia alone.

So far, the West is not responding well to this threat. Four times as many Muslims go to mosque as Christians go to church in Great Britain today. Anglo birthrates in Europe average around 1.2 children per household; Muslim birthrates average around six children per household. Many are speaking of Europe as “Eurabia.” This is a spiritual movement, and must be countered spiritually.

This is to say nothing of the moral crisis of our day. You perhaps saw the recent Newsweek cover story, “The Religious Case for Gay Marriage.” Forty two percent of those who use the Internet view pornography on it. Sixty five percent of Americans see nothing wrong with premarital sex. Drunk drivers kill someone every 30 minutes in this country.

And the economic crisis of our day is graver than in 80 years. The nation’s retail chains confirmed on Thursday that they suffered one of the worst holiday shopping seasons in decades. Markets have continued their decline into the new year.

Our oil-based economy is more vulnerable than ever before. There can be no doubt that oil is the gold of today’s global economy. The United States has an estimated 29.9 billion barrels of reserves, ranking 11th in the world. The top five nations (in order) are Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, with a combined 716 billion barrels, 60 percent of the world’s supply. When the Muslim Arab world wants to shut off our oil, they can.


What can we do to face these cultural, moral, and economic crises? Undoubtedly our response must include military and economic measures. But you and I have a critical role to play in the future of our nation and culture. Our text calls us to “humble ourselves and pray.” The Hebrew word means to call for national repentance and turning to God. This is our mandate from our Maker for this day.

We must pray every day for the conversion of Muslims to Christ, for missions to the Muslim world, and for awakening to come to America. We must pray every day for a spiritual rebirth and moral awakening in America. We must pray every day for God to use this economic crisis to turn Americans from themselves to him. And we must ask for Awakening to begin with us.

A spiritual mystic once said, “There is one thing that must never be forgotten. It is as if a king had sent you to a foreign country with a task to perform. You go and perform many other tasks. But if you fail to perform the task for which you were sent, it will be as if you had done nothing at all.” Will you do what God has sent you to do for your nation?

An elderly father could not decide which of his two children should inherit his mansion, so he devised a test. He gave each of them $20, instructing them to buy something with which to fill every room in the estate. One bought straw and scattered it as far as it would go, but it did not nearly cover the mansion. The other brought candles, placed one in each room, and filled the entire mansion with light.

Which child are you?

Seeking the Face of God

Seeking the Face of God

2 Chronicles 7:11-14

James C. Denison

Unemployment is on the rise as the recession continues. In my desire to be a full-service pastor, I have come today with a job opportunity. Queensland, a state in Australia, announced on Monday that it is looking for someone to live on the beautiful tropical paradise of Hamilton Island on the Great Barrier Reef for six months.

This person will stroll the white sands, snorkel the reef, and report to a global audience via weekly blogs, photo diaries and video updates. The person will be paid $150,000 and given free airfare from the winner’s home to the island and back. All this to increase tourism to Australia in these tough economic times. Applications are open until February 22; the winner will begin living in paradise on July 1.

Queensland is calling this the “best job in the world.” I know one even better—a job which will take us not to an island in paradise, but to paradise itself.

We’re learning how to position ourselves for spiritual awakening in these days. If we humble ourselves, admitting that we need more of God than we are now experiencing, and pray for our nation to come to God, we are now ready to focus on ourselves.

God calls us to “seek my face.” This is the most amazing, exciting, transforming invitation a human being can ever hear. And the most urgent.

God is seeking you

The Bible clearly depicts a God who is seeking us. God sought Adam and Eve in the cool of the Garden of Eden. He sought Noah, calling him to build the Ark which would save the human race. He sought Abram in the land we call Iraq today, and called him to himself. He sought Jacob on that night they wrestled together, and Joseph in Egypt, and Moses at the burning bush. He sought David after the king had sinned horrifically, and the prophets to speak his word to the world.

Then he sought us in the most miraculous, unexpected way of all—he became one of us. He folded the glory and power which created the universe down into a fetus who grew into a baby who breathed our air, walked our dirt, faced our temptations, felt our pain, died on our cross and rose from our grave. We could not climb up to him, so he climbed down to us.

He sought fishermen beside the Sea of Galilee, and tax collectors in their booths and trees, and lepers in their abandoned loneliness, and demoniacs in their cemetery hideouts. He was the woman who sought the lost coin, the shepherd who sought the lost sheep, the father who sought the prodigal son. He sought Peter after his denials and Paul in the midst of his persecutions.

And then the day came when he made you. In fact, he’s been in the process of making you for a very long time. Bill Bryson, in A Short History of Nearly Everything, puts it well: “Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth’s mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result—eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly—in you” (pp. 3-4).

He made all that is, and he made all of you there is. Your God has given you a heart which pumps enough blood through your body every 24 hours to fill a railway tanker. Every day it exerts as much effort as it would take to shovel 20 tons of gravel onto a platform as high as your waist.

He has made you of protons, the core of atoms. Look at the dot on an “i” in your Bible. It holds something in the region of 500,000,000,000 protons, more than the number of seconds contained in half a million years. Your Father made all of that, for you.

You live in a visible universe is now calculated as a million million million million miles across. Through a telescope you can see around 100,000 galaxies, each containing tens of billions of stars. And you’re watching all this on a planet which spins at the speed of 1,000 miles an hour at its equator. Your Father made all of that, to make a place for you.

And then he made you. His Son died on the cross for you and rose from the grave for you. His Spirit led you to this worship service, and now to hear these words. The God of the universe wants an intimate, passionate, personal relationship with you. He is seeking you.

Are you seeking God?

The question is, are you seeking him? The other day a friend forwarded me this question: “Is there any logic in believing that God started his Church as a Spirit-filled, loving body with the intention that it would evolve into entertaining, hour-long services? Was he hoping that one day people would be attracted to the Church not because they care for one another, not because they are devoted to him, not because the supernatural occurs in their midst, but because of good music and entertainment?”

The world’s religions have always seen worship as a kind of transaction. Make a sacrifice to Athena so she will bless your olive harvest. Practice the four noble truths on the eight-fold noble path so you can achieve enlightenment. Declare that there is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet; pray to Allah five times a day; go to Mecca; fast during Ramadan; give to the poor—all so you will perhaps be accepted by God into his paradise.

Go to get. Transact business. Come to church, pray, read, give, so God will bless you or strengthen your marriage or help your family.

None of that is the biblical invitation. God says, “Seek my face,” not “Seek my favor.” Seek to know me, more intimately and passionately than ever before. Love me, for I love you. Want me, for I want you. Know me, for I know you. Seek my face.

“Seek” translates baqash, a Hebrew word which means to search out, strive after, ask, beg, beseech, desire, request, require. It describes a passionate search for something of great value.

Such is to be our desire for God: “Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always” (1 Chronicles 16:11); “devote your heart and soul to seeking the Lord your God” (1 Chronicles 22:19); Rehoboam “did evil because he had not set his heart on seeking the LORD” (2 Chronicles 12:14); good king Asa “commanded Judah to seek the LORD, the God of their fathers, and to obey his laws and commands” (2 Chronicles 14:4).

Scripture says of Hezekiah, “In everything that he undertook in the service of God’s temple and in obedience to the law and the commands, he sought his God and worked wholeheartedly. And so he prospered” (2 Chronicles 31:21). The Bible says of good king Josiah, “In the eighth year of his reign, while he was still young, he began to seek the God of his father David” (2 Chronicles 34:3).

David assures us, “The LORD is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. Those who know your name will trust in you, for you, LORD, have never forsaken those who seek you” (Psalm 9:9-10). He later prayed, “may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation always say, ‘The LORD be exalted!'” (Psalm 40:16).

Now the prophet exhorts us, “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near” (Isaiah 55:6). God told Jeremiah, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13), a passage Janet framed for me to put on my desk where I can see it every day of the week.

Seek “my face,” the Lord calls to us. “Face” translates paneh, the countenance or presence. To seek a person’s “face” is to seek an intimate, face-to-face encounter with them. I cannot see the faces of those in the back of our Sanctuary, but only of those who are close to me. To seek God’s “face” is to seek a closer relationship with him than you have right now.

How do we seek God’s face? Want to know God more than you know him now. Want to be in his presence, to experience his Spirit’s touch in your spirit, to draw close to him. Make some time to do this. As with any relationship, it takes an investment of time and energy to build a closer intimacy with God. It is best to do this at the start of every day. How?

Seek God’s face as did the people who came to worship him in the Temple which Solomon had just constructed. As they climbed the steps into the outer courts, they came singing psalms of praise to God. These were called “psalms of ascent,” because they were used as the people ascended to Jerusalem and then up the steps to the Temple.

In the same way, we enter the gates of the Lord with thanksgiving and his courts with praise (Psalm 100:4). Sing or say a psalm, a hymn, a chorus. Praise and thank your Father for all he has done for you. Remember his last blessing and give thanks for it. Come to him in worship.

Now continue in sacrifice. The Jews brought the sacrifices for their sins to the priests, where they were laid on the altar. Jesus’ death is the final sacrifice, the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). Bring him your sins and mistakes, anything which would separate you from your Lord. Ask the Spirit to show you anything which displeases your holy God, and confess it to your Savior. Claim his promise to forgive your sins and cleanse you from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

Now you are ready to bring your offerings to the Lord. The people brought offerings from the harvest and from all the blessings of God. In the same way, we are to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God as our spiritual worship (Romans 12:1).

Submit and surrender your plans, dreams, agendas, and problems. Yield them all to him, asking him to fill you with his Spirit and use you for his glory. Ask God to make his presence real to you, to fill you with his peace and joy. And they will be yours.


God wants you to know him more than you want to know him. You must now decide—do you want to know God intimately and personally? Do you want awakening to come to your heart and life? There is an Oriental saying: “No man can carry two melons in his hand.” There is room for only one on the throne of your heart and life.

Thomas Kelly, the monk and author: “Over the margins of life comes a whisper, a faint call, a premonition of richer living which we know we are passing by. Strained by the very mad pace of our daily outer burdens, we are further strained by an inward uneasiness, because we have hints that there is a way of life vastly richer and deeper than all this hurried existence, a life of unhurried serenity and peace and power.”

Is it yours? Will it be yours?

Turning to God

Turning to God

2 Chronicles 7:11-14 / Acts 13:1-3

James C. Denison

If you’ve ridden on a Ferris wheel, you know that there is a moment when your gondola swings up to the highest point of the ride. In that frightening moment you can see nothing but sky, before you crest the top and see the ground again. As long as you ride, as many times as you come to that scary moment, it never gets easy.

Today is such a moment for us. I’ve often said that if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. What has transpired in the last month in my life and work are now Exhibit A. And so once again we come to that moment when we cannot yet see the ground beneath us and must trust that the God who is operating the Ferris wheel of life is in charge of it all.

This morning I need to tell you what many of you already know, and then put it into biblical context for us all. This may be a day when your gondola is cresting the top as well. If it’s not, it will be one day soon.

What God has called us to do

A month or so ago, Dr. Randel Everett, Executive Director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, asked me to consider becoming Theologian in Residence for Texas Baptists. In this role I would be able to do all the things I love doing—speaking to current events in Christian perspective, writing, teaching, leading conferences, talking with pastors and Christian leaders.

He and I also discussed the need for an independent ministry we are now calling The Center for Informed Faith. Its mission would be to equip the Church to reach the world. The Center would promote cultural engagement, spiritual renewal and Awakening, and practical discipleship. It would be an independent ministry, hosted by the BGCT.

This ministry would speak to current events with biblical truth, addressing such issues as radical Islam, Israel and the Middle East, evil and suffering, science and faith, same-sex marriage, and so on.

Its discipleship emphasis would focus especially on people coming to Christ who need discipleship materials—new believers in Cuba, South Texas, the underground church in China, Latin America, critical places where the church is exploding in growth but few resources for spiritual maturity exist. It would partner with numerous other ministries in equipping Christians to reach their world.

From the time we began conversation together, it was obvious to Janet and me that God was calling us to do this. But from the beginning, both Dr. Everett and I intended this ministry to be done in partnership with Park Cities. I would preach on Sunday, teach on Thursday, and do this new ministry during the week.

However, in the last few days, as we began exploring the practical issues in this idea, it became obvious that both are full-time jobs. This new ministry would require a great deal of travel and attention. Park Cities deserves a full-time pastor. So we came to the difficult conclusion that we must resign this ministry in order to follow God’s call into this new work.

Jeff Byrd has been my best friend for 20 years in three churches together. He is resigning as Associate Pastor for Missions to become the Director of the Center. Minni Elkins, my longtime assistant, will join us in this ministry. Start-up funds for this new ministry are coming from friends who offered to help us, as well as other anonymous donors.

Church leaders have been incredibly gracious to us in this endeavor. The trustees spent a great deal of time praying for us last Monday night. The deacons laid hands on Jeff and me Thursday evening and prayed for us. Our congregation has been remarkably encouraging as we have sought God’s will together.

See your need of God

This experience has led us where we never intended to go. It illustrates for me again the fact that God’s will is a flashlight in the dark, showing the next step but no further. If we would experience true spiritual awakening, we must humble ourselves and admit that we need God’s power and purpose. We must pray for the nation and seek God’s face personally. Then we must align our lives with his call. That is the point of today’s text.

The last phrase of our key text makes the point in the negative: God’s people must “turn from their wicked ways.”

“Ways” translates a Hebrew word for road, path, journey, mode of action, course of life. It pictures the normal ways we live, places we travel, our lifestyles. “Wicked” translates a Hebrew word for superlative evil, that which is exceedingly wrong.

Note that God believes that “my people, called by my name” live in these wicked ways. We are not talking about radical Muslim terrorists, or serial killers, or child pornographers. We are talking about the things you and I do each and every day, the ways we live. God says that some of these ways are “wicked,” evil in the extreme.

Do you think of your sins as “wicked”? You probably haven’t committed adultery or murder this week. I doubt that you mean to harm other people. Neither do I. But the white lies, the sinful thoughts, the little things we know we shouldn’t do—all of them are called “wicked” by God. If we humble ourselves, pray, and seek his face, we will see ourselves in the light of his holiness. Then we will see our sins the way he sees them.

That’s what happened to Isaiah when he saw the Lord high and lifted up—he cried out, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (Isaiah 6:5).

That’s what happened to Peter when he saw the miraculous power of Jesus—he said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8). That’s what happened to John on Patmos when he saw the glorified Jesus—he fell at his feet as though dead (Revelation 1:17).

When we see our sins as God sees them, the way to get off of the wrong road is to stop now. The further we go, the further we’ll have to go back. Decide we want to go the right way, “turn from our wicked ways,” and go there. How?

Follow the call of God

Now we turn to the positive. Fast-forward with me a thousand years to the incredible church at Antioch of Syria in AD 46. Here we find “prophets and teachers,” preachers who shared God’s revelation and teachers who explained his word and will. Five are named, perhaps in order of importance:

Barnabas (literally “son of encouragement”), a wealthy man and (Acts 4:36-37) and spiritual leader.

“Simeon called Niger”: as “Niger” is Latin for “black,” some believe that he was African in race. He has often been identified with Simon of Cyrene, the man who bore the cross of Jesus (Matthew 27:32).

“Lucius of Cyrene”: “Lucius” is a Latin or Roman name; “Cyrene” was the capital of Libya in Africa (cf. Acts 6:9; 11:20). This man may have been a Roman, a converted Jew, or most likely another African.

“Manean (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch)”: a relative of the Herod who had beheaded John the Baptist (Luke 9:7-9). Suntrophos, “had been brought up with” can be translated “foster-brother.”

“Saul”: this was his Jewish name, as “Paul” was his Greek name. As he moved more and more among the Gentiles, he would increasingly be known by the latter (cf. Acts 13:9).

The church was capably led by these men of remarkable spiritual maturity and vocational and cultural experience. It would seem that their future was stable and secure. The church was “worshiping the Lord and fasting,” two words which indicate the spiritual fervor and depth of the congregation. Both are in the present tense—they were constantly worshiping God and fasting from food so they could focus on the Lord. This was not just their Sunday morning activity, but their daily lifestyle.

It was in the midst of such concentrated service to God that the Antioch Christians heard the next word from their Lord: “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (v. 2). “Set apart” means “to mark with a boundary,” to set something off by itself. “The work to which I have called them” was not specific; they did not know where they would go, what they would do, or how long they would do it.

The congregation responded with immediate obedience: “after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off” (v. 3).

They “fasted and prayed” to confirm that this was indeed the word of the Lord. Then they “placed their hands on them,” conveying their support and God’s blessing. And so began the second half of Acts and the missionary expansion of the gospel across the Roman Empire.

David Harper, our deacon chairman, read this text Thursday night at the deacons’ meeting. Then the men gathered around Jeff Byrd and me, laid hands on us, and prayed for us. It was a deeply moving and powerful moment. I did have to remind them of the way Paul’s story ended, with him in prison and then beheaded—I hope for a different end to our story.

But the text does show us how to follow God.

When we turn from our wicked and wrong ways to God’s paths of righteousness, we must first get alone with God. We must pay the price to listen for his voice. He speaks in stillness and solitude. He can seldom be scheduled into a Sunday morning hour. We spend time with our Father, fasting from the distractions of the world.

Then we do what his Spirit says, even if we don’t understand it. This ministry direction was nothing Jeff and I sought or expected; it is like nothing I ever thought I would do. But it is God’s clear and surprising voice, and we will follow it together.


Now, where does this message find you? What decision, problem, or opportunity stands before you this morning? How can you know and follow the call of God? First, turn from anything which is “wicked” and wrong. Ask his Spirit to show you anything displeasing to your Father, and stop in that road, confess, and ask God to forgive you and heal you.

Then get alone with your Father, asking his Spirit to reveal his word and will to you. Choose to submit and surrender—whatever he asks, wherever he leads, whatever the cost. You won’t know the future, but you will trust the One who does. The safest place in all the world is the center of the will of God.

We are all on pilgrimage with God. The good news for Janet and me is that we will step into this next chapter while staying in Dallas and in Park Cities Baptist Church, doing much which will partner with this church we love.

You will find and follow God’s next steps for your future together as well. Christians in Antioch had no idea that people in Rome would come to Christ because of their faithfulness. You cannot measure the eternal significance of present obedience.

This is the promise of God.