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.

Sexuality

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.


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.


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.


Awakening

Awakening

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.

How?

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.


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?


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.


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).