“Our Cup Overflows”

“Our Cup Overflows”

Psalm 23:5-6

James C. Denison

Pastoral transitions are always difficult times, for the church and for the pastor as well. For instance, Bill Austin, the former Baylor chaplain, once told me about a time when God called him from one pastorate to another.

An older member of the church came to him, absolutely distraught. “We’ll never find a pastor who is as good a preacher as you,” she complained. He tried to comfort her: “Oh, I’m sure your next pastor will be a much better preacher and leader and pastor than I have been.” “Oh, no,” she replied, “that’s what they said the last time.”

In the midst of the emotions of this day, my call from God this morning is simply to remind you of the identity of your true Shepherd. “Pastor” comes from the Latin word for “shepherd.” It is a kind title, but it’s not really true. Your real Shepherd is no mere, fallen mortal. You may not be able to see his hand today, but you can trust his heart.

David will show us how.

Know our love for you

Eleven years ago, the pastor search committee of Park Cities Baptist Church contacted Janet and me as we were serving Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta.

We were deeply in love with our church family there and tremendously excited about all God was doing in our midst. Even though we had long admired Park Cities, we had no sense of release from Second-Ponce and finally had to tell your search committee that we could not come to Dallas.

The next Monday, Janet and I had no peace about that decision. I spent the afternoon alone with God in prayer, and sensed God’s clear call to come to Dallas. She had the same experience. We called the committee back, and were preaching here ten days later.

Across all these years, we have been truly grateful to God for calling us to serve this wonderful congregation. Our sons were entering the seventh and fourth grades when we came to Dallas. Their first activity at Park Cities was Vacation Bible School, where they were welcomed with great love and compassion.

Ryan still remembers the water balloon fight which ended his week of missions projects. We have often said that God called us to Dallas so our sons could grow up in this church. Ryan is now in seminary, Craig a sophomore in college, both sensing God’s call to ministry.

You have encouraged and enabled Janet and me in wonderful ways as we have pursued our ministry calls.

You have affirmed Janet in her teaching, speaking, and writing ministry across all these years; the Father’s Day sermon she preached for me remains the best-selling sermon tape in the church’s history.

You have supported me as I have been led by God to expand my ministry of writing, teaching, and cultural engagement.

My mother loved this congregation, her Sunday school class, and her pew near the back of the Sanctuary on the left. You prayed for us with great compassion when she went home to be in heaven with my father last fall.

You have been God’s great gift to us for more than a decade. To paraphrase David’s statement, “our cup overflows” today. Now we follow God’s call into a new phase of ministry, but our hearts will always be grateful beyond words for you. We look forward to all the ways God will lead us to partner with you in Dallas across coming years. We step forward together in faith, trusting that the God we cannot see can see all we cannot.

There’s a place in your life today where you need to trust that God personally and intimately. A place where you don’t understand his ways or plan, where you cannot sense his presence or feel his power. What do we do then?

Claim God’s unseen provision

“You prepare a table before me,” David celebrates. “You prepare” is in the continuous tense in Hebrew: “you keep on preparing a table” is the sense here.

The “table” for a shepherd is the high mountain country, much sought after for grazing. But these tablelands must be prepared before the sheep arrive. Salt and minerals must be distributed over the range; camps located for bedding; vegetation assessed for food.

Poisonous plants must be dug up and burned; wolves and cougars and bears must be spotted, hunted, or trapped. The table must be prepared “before” the sheep can come.

God prepares this table “in the presence of my enemies.” In the very midst of trouble, strife, and danger we are invited to the table of our shepherd. We don’t need to wait until circumstances improve; we can come to our shepherd’s table right now.

“You anoint my head with oil,” the king continues.

Now David turns to his experience with sheep and their injuries. He knows that sheep often cut themselves on rocks while grazing. The shepherd must inspect them every night and put oil on these cuts so that they do not become infected.

Sheep also have a terrible problem during the summer months with flies. Nose flies will lay eggs on the sheep’s nose. But the shepherd puts oil—in David’s day, a mixture of olive oil with sulphur and spices—on the sheep’s face and nose, and these flies are killed.

Scabs are a skin disease which is highly contagious among sheep also, and oil is the only remedy to cure it and prevent its transmission.

And the rams fight during the summer for the ewes, butting heads until one is wounded or even killed. But if the shepherd puts oil on their heads and horns they slide off each other and no one is hurt.

Our shepherd knows exactly where we hurt, and knows precisely what oil will heal and help us. And so, in the continuous Hebrew tense, he constantly anoints us with oil where we need him most.

“My cup overflows,” David testifies. The shepherd had a large earthen jug of water for his sheep. He would dip down with his big cup and bring up a brimful running over. And the tired, thirsty sheep would drink to their fill. So God provides for us.

A Culture Facing Judgment

A Culture Facing Judgment

A Study of Nehemiah

Dr. Jim Denison

Nehemiah 1:8-9

So far we have learned to recognize God’s holiness (v. 5), to pray with humility (v. 6a), and to confess our sin with honesty (vs. 6b-7). Now we discover the urgency of such prayer commitment: The future of the nation is in jeopardy. If God does not forgive the sins of the people, their intermarriage and immorality, they will be no more. We’ll see how Nehemiah’s prayer relates to our culture, and what God wants us to do in response.

Admit your need of grace (v. 8)

Nehemiah’s prayer continues: “Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations'” (v. 8).

“Remember” does not mean that Nehemiah was reminded God of something the Lord might have forgotten. The Hebrew word in this context means to act in accordance with something previously determined and communicated. We say “Remember the Alamo” not in the sense of holding information in our memories but as a motivation to action.

Nehemiah begins his recitation of God’s previous revelation with the negative: “The instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations.'”

Nehemiah was well versed in the Hebrew Bible. Here he referenced Leviticus 26:27-28, 33: “If in spite of this you still do not listen to me but continue to be hostile toward me, then in my anger I will be hostile toward you, and I myself will punish you for your sins seven times over. . . . I will scatter you among the nations and will draw out my sword and pursue you. Your land will be laid waste, and your cities will lie in ruins.”

And again in Deuteronomy: “After you have had children and grandchildren and have lived in the land a long time—if you then become corrupt and make any kind of idol, doing evil in the eyes of the Lord your God and provoking him to anger, I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you this day that you will quickly perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess. You will not live there long but will certainly be destroyed. The Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and only a few of you will survive among the nations to which the Lord will drive you. There you will worship man-made gods of wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or eat or smell” (Deuteronomy 4:25-28).

The people had been unfaithful to God. They had worshipped the Baals and sacrificed their children to Molech, so the Assyrians destroyed the Northern Kingdom and Babylon enslaved the Southern Kingdom. Now the people had intermarried and committed all sorts of pagan immorality. Their plight was their own fault.

How do we know when we are facing the judgment and punishment of God? We know that God punishes sin, as Hebrew history illustrates. Did he cause 9-11 to punish America or the Holocaust to punish the Jewish people? Two facts may be helpful.

First, not all suffering is due to sin: the man born blind, ( John 9); Jesus’ innocent suffering (Hebrews 4:15). Paul suffered in the Mamertime dungeon for preaching the gospel, in response to his faithfulness to the call of God.

Second, when God punishes, first he warns: Noah (100 years), Moses before Pharaoh, the prophets before Assyria and Babylon, Jesus before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Any good parent warns before punishing.

If you wonder whether your suffering is your fault, you may ask God. Write on a piece of paper anything which is hindering the Spirit in your life. If you’re not sure, ask him and he’ll show you. Confess these sins specifically to God, and claim his cleansing. Cleanse your spirit and you will know the power of the Spirit.

Claim the grace of God (v. 9)

We’ve seen the bad news. Here is the good: “…but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name” (v. 9).

As with their punishment, so Nehemiah cited Scripture to claim their hope: “But if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul. When you are in distress and all these things have happened to you, then in later days you will return to the Lord your God and obey him. For the Lord your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your forefathers, which he confirmed to them by oath” (Deuteronomy 4:29-31).

“When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come upon you and you take them to heart wherever the Lord your God disperses you among the nations, and when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the Lord your God will gather you and bring you back. He will bring you to the land that belonged to your fathers, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers” (Deuteronomy 30:1-5).

God had centuries earlier designated Jerusalem as “the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name”: “I have chosen Jerusalem for my Name to be there, and I have chosen David to rule my people Israel” (2 Chronicles 6:6). Now Nehemiah claimed this promise as God’s grace to his people.

God Before Us

God Before Us

Psalm 23:1-3

James C. Denison

It has been a strange week in the news. In a village in eastern India, a young girl was married to a stray dog to ward off an evil spirit. The girl is free to get married later in life to a man, without seeking a divorce from her canine spouse. We have no word as to whether the dog is free to seek other companionship as well.

Newcastle University in England has proven that cows which are given names increase their milk yields by up to 500 pints a year. For all of you who are dairy farmers in Dallas, this is a tip worth remembering.

And we learned this week the exciting news that the United Kingdom has reclaimed the world underwater ironing title from Australia. Dozens of divers coordinated their efforts to win this coveted prize. How does underwater ironing work?

The weather has been unusually strange in Dallas this week, from an ice storm on Tuesday to something called “frozen fog” on Thursday morning to 69 degrees on Saturday. It could be worse—more than a million people lost power in Kentucky, and some won’t get it back until the middle of the month.

We live in a fallen, unpredictable world. And now the Arizona Cardinals are in the Super Bowl. What’s next, a World Series for the Rangers?

The one constant, unchanging fact of human existence is the God-shaped emptiness in each of us, the fact that our hearts are restless until they rest in him. In good times and bad, sunshine and ice storms, the created needs the Creator.

We have been working through the promises made by God to Solomon for awakening in the land. Now we turn to the faith experience of Solomon’s father.

David was the greatest king the Jewish nation has ever known, the only person ever described as a “man after God’s own heart,” a man who arguably knew more about personal awakening than anyone. His most famous autobiographical testimony of faith is recorded in Scripture as our Psalm 23.

I began my preaching ministry at Park Cities by exploring this remarkable confession of faith with you. We will return to it for these three weeks, seeking the kind of personal revival and awakening which was David’s experience with God.

How can you know God more intimately today? How can you experience personal awakening this week?

Know your need of God

The most famous poem in the world begins, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (v. 1). If he is our shepherd, we are his sheep. And not just in this passage. Forty-four times in the Bible, God calls us sheep. In fact, “sheep” is the most common metaphor for human beings in all of Scripture.

You need to know that this is not a compliment. Sheep are beautiful animals from a distance, but among the dumbest and most defenseless beings God ever made. Does anyone keep pet sheep? Have you ever seen a sheep in a circus? Sheep are defenseless against every predator. They must be guarded and led every day. The shepherd must live with them and watch them constantly, or they’ll wander into trouble. God is not attempting to increase our self-esteem by calling us sheep.

But surely this description doesn’t apply to all of us. Some of us are smarter and more self-sufficient than sheep. But Isaiah 53:6 says, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.” God says that every one of us is a sheep.

We don’t like to admit that we need God. But we can’t have a shepherd until we admit that we need one, that we are sheep. Jesus’ first Beatitude says, “Blessed are those who know their need of God” (Matthew 5:3). Do you believe that you need more of God than you are now experiencing?

Seek his direction

First I admit that I am a sheep in need of a shepherd. Then I seek his direction, trusting that his will is always best for me. That’s easier said than done. Don’t you sometimes worry that if you sold out to God he would make your life different than you want it to be? Less successful or wealthy or happy? Send you as a missionary to Afghanistan?

And yet this Shepherd promises that “I shall not be in want” (v. 1). Why not?

“He makes me to lie down in green pastures” (v. 2a). In the pastures of the Middle East grow poisonous plants which are fatal to the sheep, and other plants whose sharp thorns will stab their soft noses. The shepherd must lead them to pastures where good grass grows.

“He leads me beside quiet waters” (v. 2b). The sheep is a very poor swimmer because of its heavy wool coat. Its body weight multiplies five times when wet, like a man trying to swim while wearing five heavy wool overcoats. Instinctively, the sheep know they cannot swim in swift currents, so they will not drink from a moving stream. They must be led to quiet waters or they will die of thirst.

And he leads me “in paths of righteousness” (v. 3b). There are paths in Palestine which lead off cliffs, and the sheep will walk down them to their deaths. The good paths are called “the paths of righteousness,” and the good shepherd leads his sheep down them.

In every way the shepherd wants the best for his sheep—food, drink, and safety.

Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34). Do you want to know and do God’s will as much as he wants you to know and do it? The Psalmist prayed, “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God” (Psalm 143:10). When last did you ask God to do that? Paul admonishes, “Do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is” (Ephesians 5:17).

God Beside Us

God Beside Us

Psalm 23:4

James C. Denison

Before January 15, Chesley Sullenberger III was anything but a household name.

A former Air Force fighter pilot, he is also the founder of Safety Reliability Methods, Inc., a consulting business. According to their website, their mission is “to utilize our expertise to apply the most effective methods to your organization to achieve the highest levels of safety, performance and reliability.”

When Mr. Sullenberger safely landed US Airways Flight 1549 in New York’s Hudson River, I’m guessing his business clientele rose significantly. After the pilot saved the lives of the other 154 passengers, he then walked the length of the aircraft twice to be sure no one was left before disembarking himself.

Audio tapes of his exchange with air traffic controllers were released this week. Listening to them, I was amazed by his calm under pressure. If I ever need “the highest levels of safety, performance and reliability,” I know who to call.

I’ve read that bird strikes cause $600 million in damage to U.S. aircraft every year. You never know when one will strike your engines. It is extremely rare for both engines to be killed by birds, and even more rare for such an event to occur out of range of the airport where an emergency landing is possible.

What seldom happens to airplanes happens every day to souls. There are birds attacking your engines at this very moment. Events and people are conspiring to bring your plane down. If you’re not stepping into the “valley of the shadow of death” today, you will be soon. When that day comes, what good is it to know God as your personal shepherd? What help is personal spiritual awakening then? What does this issue say to our culture in crisis today?

Expect the valley

The most famous verse of the most famous Psalm is this sentence: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (v. 4).

There is a place in Palestine called “the valley of deepest shadows.” It’s a jagged gorge running from Jerusalem towards the Dead Sea, so deep that the sun’s rays never penetrate to its floor. Here wolves and thieves can hide behind nearly every rock, thorn bushes grow up to grab and slash at the sheep, and deep crevasses menace on every side.

This is a perilous place, but there are times when the sheep must go through it. To get to the green grass, quiet water and right paths, sometimes the shepherd has no choice but to lead his sheep through this valley. There is simply no way to the other side.

That’s why David says, “When I walk through the valley.” Not if, but when. Paul told new converts, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Jesus warned us, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33).

While the text doesn’t describe the specific nature of David’s “trouble,” rabbinic tradition identifies the setting of the 23rd Psalm as David’s flight from Absalom.

As you may know, Absalom was one of David’s sons. His sister Tamar was raped by their half-brother Amnon, but David did not punish him. So Absalom took matters into his own hands, arranging a feast at which Amnon was killed in revenge. David then exiled Absalom from the royal court for five years.

Absalom’s anger at David smoldered until it fanned into the flames of open rebellion. He staged a coup against his father, seizing his throne and sending his soldiers to arrest David. The greatest king in Hebrew history was forced to flee his throne and palace, and run from his own son.

The royal group fled Jerusalem to the east, crossing through the Kidron Valley to the region of the Mount of Olives; the Garden of Gethsemane would be located in this area. While fleeing his own son, the Kidron became his “valley of the shadow of death” and the setting for the psalm. Such is rabbinic tradition for this famous hymn of trust.

Imagine that your son wants to steal your throne and even kill you, and that many of your trusted advisors and supporters have joined his rebellion. Now you are retreating in humiliation to an unknown future. Whatever fear you face today, David has a word for you.

Stay near the shepherd

God is willing to walk with us through our deepest valleys, no matter why we are in them. During such days as this the sheep want their shepherd “with” them. Not out in front of them leading, but beside them, protecting.

David makes the “LORD” his Shepherd. “LORD” translates YHWH, the One who was, is, and ever shall be, the ever-present God. Of this Shepherd the King can say, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” David the shepherd knew his subject.

The “rod” was a short club, three feet long, with a heavy weight at one end. The shepherd used it to kill snakes, beat back wolves, and flatten thorn bushes. He threw it over the heads of his sheep to kill a charging wolf. He also used it to drive a wayward sheep back into the fold.

And his “staff” was eight feet long with a crooked end. He used it to keep the sheep together, to guide them, and to pull them back from thorn bushes and rocky crevasses.

His presence with them in the valley, and his rod and staff, “comforted” them. The Hebrew means “to preserve a feeling of security, peace, and joy.” Even as they walk through the valley.

And note this little word, “through.” Not “into”—you go “into” a cave because there’s no way out the other side. “Through,” as you go through a tunnel because it’s open at the other end. They’ll not stay in this valley, so long as they stay with their shepherd. He will protect and comfort them, and lead them through to the other side.

Men Seeking God

Men Seeking God

A Study of Nehemiah

Dr. Jim Denison

Nehemiah 1:10-11

The Book of Nehemiah opens and closes with prayer. This is the first of 12 instances of prayer recorded in the Book of Nehemiah, and the most crucial. If God does not answer this prayer, the story of the Hebrew nation ends.

So far we have learned to recognize God’s holiness (v. 5), to pray with humility (v. 6a), and to confess our sin with honesty (vs. 6b-7). Nehemiah has shown us to admit our need of God’s grace (v. 8) and then claim that grace for ourselves and our nation (v. 9). Now, how does Nehemiah approach God with his need? How do we?

Remember all God has done (v. 10)

Verse 10: “They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand.” “Your servants and your people” echoes a common theme in the Hebrew Bible by which God claims the Jewish nation as his own.

How are they his? He “redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand.” “Redeem” in the Hebrew involves the payment of a price to reclaim a slave. God did this in Egypt, and across Jewish history, including at the flooded Jordan River, at Jericho, and in delivering them from Babylon.

How has God redeemed you? Where have you seen his hand in your life? It has been well said, “All that God has done teaches us to trust him for all he will do.”

Pray for all God will do (v. 11)

First, seek his glory. Nehemiah’s request continues: “O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name.”

Jesus taught us to begin our prayers, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” God acts for his glory, or he commits idolatry. Pray always that he be glorified in answering your request.

Second, pray specifically. Now Nehemiah comes to his specific request: “Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.”

Artaxerxes was the one man who had stopped the rebuilding project (Ezra 4:21). He alone could reverse his order—there was no higher court. If the Supreme Court were to make a ruling, only the Supreme Court could reverse it. But Nehemiah knew that the king was only a man, “this man,” and that God is the sovereign of the universe.

So Nehemiah prayed for “favor” with the king, literally “compassion” with him. He asked God to do what no human can do—change a human heart. He prayed that God would make the king favorably disposed to him. Asking God to give you favor with a person is always a good way to pray.

Third, follow unconditionally. Having asking God’s favor, Nehemiah finally states his unconditional commitment to follow wherever his God leads: “I was cupbearer to the king.”

Such a person tasted the wine before it was given to the king, ensuring that it was not poisoned. Artwork from ancient Persia pictures a cupbearer with a cup in his right hand and a leaf over his left shoulder for the king to wipe his lips with. The cupbearer would pour wine from its container into a cup, then pour some from the cup into the palm of his left hand and drink it.

In the ancient world where the throne was all-powerful and coups were common, the cupbearer was essential to the safety of the king. It would take only one person in the kitchen to poison the king’s wine. Thus Pharaoh had cupbearers (Genesis 40:2), as did Solomon (1 Kings 10:5; 2 Chrononicles 9:4).

Many cupbearers were eunuchs, as they had personal access both to the king and to his queen and family. But it was by no means true that all were. If Nehemiah were a eunuch, it is extremely unlikely that he would have been able to exercise leadership among the Jewish people. Deuteronomy 23:1 says, “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord.” It is also likely that his opponents would have pointed out this fact in undermining his authority.

By virtue of this crucial position, Nehemiah thus had frequent personal access to the king.

What is more, the king owed his life to Nehemiah. He put his own life at risk, and would be the person most susceptible to bribery and plots against the king.

Because of his constant presence with the king, the cupbearer often became a person of unusual influence and counsel. He obviously would hear much of what the king would hear, and would serve as a source of objective wisdom. He became the king’s most trusted advisor.

Nehemiah adds this point to show us the providential nature of this episode. He was the only person on earth who could have been the human instrument of such a miracle.

But this unusual relationship was a double-edged sword for Nehemiah. At the very least, if his request is granted he will be trading the security and luxury of the greatest throne in human history for an uncertain future of risk and sacrifice. He knows that he will need to leave the king’s palace to go to Jerusalem, and must wonder if his position will still be available when he returns. Nehemiah’s request comes at personal loss.

And perhaps at the risk of his life as well. His request to leave the king could easily be seen as disloyalty to the throne, putting Jerusalem ahead of his own sovereign. It could even be interpreted as an act of intrigue, as if Nehemiah knew of a plot against the king and wanted to escape before it came to fulfillment.

If Artaxerxes viewed Nehemiah’s request with disfavor, he would likely have ordered his execution. If the king could no longer trust the cupbearer, he would have no use for him. Given his knowledge of intimate state secrets, he would become instantly a threat to the throne. If the king refused Nehemiah, he could no longer expect his loyalty and must instead assume his rebellion.