Defined By A Cause

Defined By a Cause

Isaiah 54.1-3

Dr. Jim Denison

The young preacher was shouted down. He had dared to suggest that the ministers in Nottingham, England discuss “The Duty of Christians to Attempt the Spread of the Gospel Among Heathen Nations.” The moderator of the meeting was greatly agitated: “Young man, sit down. When God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid or mine.”

But William Carey would not be quieted. On May 31, 1792, at a Baptist ministers’ meeting in England, he preached the most famous missions sermon of all time. Taking today’s text as his, his message was titled “Expect Great Things From God; Attempt Great Things For God”.

Within five months, on October 2, 1792, twelve of those who heard him that day had formed the Baptist Missionary Society of England. They began work to send Carey to India. And thus began the Modern Missions Movement which has circled the globe with the good news that our Creator loves us all.

We want our lives to matter. And so we engrave our initials on tree trunks and our children’s initials in wet cement. We affix our names to plaques on walls and buildings. We name streets and cities and stadiums for each other. We want to outlive ourselves. We want to leave a legacy, to be significant. Each of us wants to believe that this tiny planet and our brief lives on it are not all there is, that there is something more, something permanent, something eternal. We want our lives to be defined by a cause which matters.

All this month we are learning how to live for that cause. Today we’ll learn from a short, squat English cobbler whose faith and faithfulness changed the world.

Join the battle (v. 1)

I bring you shocking news today: “One month after their gay wedding shocked the world: Saddam and Osama adopt shaved ape baby.” The Weekly World News for November 4 says it’s true. And it adds this story: “Found: Hair from God’s beard! DNA tests prove it’s for real.” I didn’t bother reading the article, so that’s all I can tell you.

You are no less incredulous than the readers of our text today. Such news is no less outlandish, farfetched, and ridiculous. Here is Judah enslaved in the deserts of Babylon, Iraq to us. Their temple is rubble, their traditions shredded, their homeland ruined, they, themselves, captives to cursed pagans.

They are “barren,” unable to conceive a child. Worse, it is as though they “never bore a child.” Still worse, they are “desolate,” with no husband and no hope for one.

And so they have no child and no ability to conceive one. They can give birth to no future. Their hopes will die with them. They can have no tomorrow, no dawn on the horizon, no morning to the nightmare from which they cannot awake.

Theirs is a land without spiritual hope, a place of desolation lost to the love of God. And yet they are to “burst into song” and “shout for joy” because theirs will be more “children” than those who have husbands. In a place with no future, theirs is the brightest future of all.

Many still call Texas the “buckle of the Bible belt.” Why must we be concerned with missions in such a place? Because if such a belt ever existed, and if we ever served to anchor it in place, it is no longer so. We now live and serve in a spiritual Babylon.

8.5 million of our 17 million residents are spiritually lost. This is a number greater than the total population of 42 states in America and 52 foreign countries. Only 15 percent of our Texas Baptist churches are growing, and 85 percent of that growth is from our own children or other churches. Less than 1 percent of our churches are growing primarily through evangelism.

How many spiritual children have you borne this year? To what degree is your soul “barren” and “desolate”?

Look from our state to our globe. See a line stretching around it thirty times, spanning some 750,000 miles, growing 20 miles every day. It is the lost of our world, standing side by side.

We are called to them. We are called to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” of each person in that line. We are called to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth, to be his ambassadors to our neighbors and the nations.

Tuesday is Veterans’ Day. This week we remember with undying gratitude those men and women who have served each of us as they served all of us. As they fought for us, sacrificed family and future, plans and dreams for the greater cause of freedom. They know what it is for their decisions and lives to be defined by a cause.

In the spiritual warfare raging in our homes, our communities, our nation, our world, how many of us are veterans? How many of us are defined by this cause?

Attempt great things for God (vs. 1b-2)

We have heard the bad news: the world is lost in the darkness of sin, and each of us is responsible for bearing the light to that darkness. Here’s the good news: when we attempt great things for God, we can expect great things from God. Our lives can matter. Our work can achieve significance. Our days can affect eternity. Our gifts and abilities can change souls forever. The “desolate woman” can have more children than she “who has a husband” (v. 1b). There is hope—great hope. What are we to do?

Give generously: “Enlarge the place of your tent.” Make it bigger, and broader, and higher, and longer, so more can come in. Such enlarging takes material, substance, money. It costs to do this. And so we give what is required, sacrificially and generously.

On January 9, 1793, the Baptist Missionary Society took its first offering, in William Carey’s snuff box, to send Carey to India. It was not much, but it was enough to get him across the ocean and to the need. Without that offering, no missions movement could have been possible, then or now.


Grades Vs. Grace

Grades vs. Grace

Matthew 5:1, Galatians 3:23-29

Dr. Jim Denison

Do you remember the story of Prometheus, the god who gave fire to mortals? For his transgression he was chained and tortured by Might, Violence, and Hephaestus, servants of Zeus. And so the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus makes Hephaestus say to Prometheus, “Such is the reward you reap of your man-loving disposition… Many a groan and many a lamentation you shall utter, but they shall not serve you. For the mind of Zeus is hard to soften with prayer.”

There have been times when I’ve wondered if Hephaestus was right. Times when God felt distant from me, days when my prayers seemed to ricochet from the ceiling unanswered, when it seemed clear to me that I must do more to merit the attention and help of the Almighty. That I must be more religious, keep more rules, do more to impress God. Many of you have been there as well. But we were wrong.

John Claypool once called the church a community of grades rather than a community of grace. This morning we’ll explore the difference, as we begin studying the Sermon on the Mount together. We’ll see this Sermon as grades, and then as grace. And we’ll choose which Sermon we want to hear this fall. And which faith we want to live.

The sermon as grades

Consider first the Sermon on the Mount as grades. Religious legalism. Spiritual rules and dogma. That’s how the religious people of his day heard Jesus. And how many religious people hear him still.

Paul explains: “Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed” (Galaians 3:23). How did they become so imprisoned by legalism, rules, and dogma? The same way we do.

God created us for relationship with himself, but our sin drives a wedge between our hearts and our Holy Father. And we know it. We know something is wrong, misguided, missing.

So we create what psychologists call an “idealized self,” the person we wish we were, the person we lost, the person we want desperately to be. Then we spend our lives trying to become that person. We project that image to others, always frightened that they will see behind the mask to the ugly truth hiding inside. We try to become what we think God wants us to be. And so religion becomes rules. And rules for keeping the rules.

The Jews of Jesus’ day found in the Ten Commandments 613 rules. And then they made rules for keeping the rules. For instance, they were very concerned about the Sabbath prohibition against work. What constitutes work? 39 basic actions were defined and prohibited. And then each was further defined.

A woman could draw water with one hand but not two. A man could not wear his false teeth or a needle in his clothes, for this was carrying a burden. Any man who lit a fire, rode a beast, traveled by ship, struck anything, caught an animal, bird, or fish, fasted or made war on the Sabbath must be put to death.

To this day some of the stricter Jewish synagogues employee Gentiles who work on the Sabbath doing things like turning light switches on and off. All to keep the rules.

But don’t shake your heads just yet. We Baptists know a thing or two about religious activities, rules, and regulations. Early in my Christian experience, I learned how church “success” worked: the more you did, the better others thought you were.

Here was a typical week in my home church: Sunday school and church services on Sunday morning; Training Union and evening worship, followed by youth fellowship on Sunday night. Visitation on Tuesday night. Prayer meeting on Wednesday night. Bus Ministry and youth Bible study on Saturday morning.

Then there was the annual calendar, running like clockwork each year: January Bible Study, February Valentine’s Day Banquet; spring Easter pageant; Vacation Bible School; summer camp, mission trip, and choir tour; annual fall revival; High Attendance Sunday every October; and the Christmas pageant. Along with the special activities planned each and every month.

And we were graded through it all by how much we did and how well we did it. By how well we knew the rules and kept them.

Blaise Pascal was a mathematical and philosophical genius. Listen to this observation from his Pensees, and see if it rings true with your experience:

“All men seek happiness. There are no exceptions. However different the means they may employ, they all strive towards this goal. The reason why some go to war and some do not is the same desire in both, but interpreted in two different ways. The will never takes the least step except to that end. This is the motive of every act of every man….

“Yet for very many years no one without faith has ever reached the goal at which everyone is continually aiming. All men complain: princes, subjects, nobles, commoners, old, young, strong, weak, learned, ignorant, healthy, sick, in every country, at every time, of all ages, and all conditions….

“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.

“God alone is man’s true good, and since man abandoned him it is a strange fact that nothing in nature has been found to take his place” (Pensees #148).

You can hear the Sermon on the Mount this fall as grades. Rules to keep, things to do, religious activities and requirements. But in the end you’ll be more frustrated than you are right now. For only one person in all of human history ever kept these rules without fail. And he was God.


Hope In Hard Places

Hope in Hard Places

Isaiah 40:1-5

Dr. Jim Denison

The Presbyterian lay minister Fred Rogers (“Mr. Rogers” to us) once quoted an anonymous scrawling on the bulletin board of the great Notre Dame cathedral in Paris: “The world tomorrow will belong to those who brought it the greatest hope.”

Counselors and psychologists have long known the truth of those words.

Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychologist and concentration camp survivor, documented the fact that those prisoners who believed in tomorrow best survived the horrors of today.

Survivors of POW camps in Vietnam reported that a compelling hope for the future was the primary force that kept many of them alive.

A mouse dropped in water will give up and drown in minutes. But if it is rescued, it will tread water for more than 20 hours the next time.

Austin pastor Gerald Mann saw his church grow from 60 to 4,000 in 14 years. His explanation: “I know three things people want when they come to church: they want help, they want home, and they want hope.”

Where do you have hope? It’s not a rhetorical question. What causes you to feel that your life has a future, a purpose, a reason to be? Do you have such a reason for hope? If you do, is it the right reason?

Avoid the dead ends of hope

I reread this week C. S. Lewis’s essay on “hope” in Mere Christianity, and it changed my sermon completely. Listen to this paragraph: “Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality. I think everyone knows what I mean. The wife may be a good wife, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job: but something has evaded us…” (Mere Christianity 119).

We know there’s “something more” which has evaded us. What do we do about it?

Some of us live for tomorrow. We hope that the next job, the next girlfriend or boyfriend or spouse, or car or clothes or city will fill what is lacking. We put our hope in tomorrow, believing that it will somehow be better than today. But it never is.

So some of us settle for today. We give up our dreams of a better future, and settle into the present as we find it. We call ourselves “realists.” We decide that there is no such thing as real love, or purpose, or meaning in life. We’ll settle for what we can get with what we have.

And some of us escape the present. Medieval monastics retreated from the physical to concentrate on the spiritual. Simon Stylites lived nearly 40 years on the top of a pillar, 60 feet above the ground, refusing to come down. His example was widely applauded.

Others escape the present in less spiritual ways. Drug or alcohol abuse, sexual addictions, fixation on cults or the occult—anything to lessen the pain, the grief, the disappointment of hope abandoned.

In Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Fantine is a young single mother without a job, a place to stay, or a way to support her child. If you’ve seen the musical, you’ll remember her haunting song, titled “I Dreamed a Dream:”

I had a dream in time gone by

When hope was high

And life worth living

I dreamed that love would never die

I dreamed that God would be forgiving.

But her love has died, and she believes that her God is not forgiving. And so she ends,

I had a dream my life would be

So different from this hell I’m living

So different now from what it seemed

Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.

Make earth like heaven

Perhaps not. Perhaps there’s a fourth option: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God” (v. 1). “Comfort” means to give hope and courage in the midst of despair. He repeats it twice for emphasis. Comfort “my people,” God’s creation made in his image, the Father’s children. “Says your God,” not a man but the King of the Kingdom.

Why? Because “her hard service has been completed.” “Hard service” refers to the punishment of imprisonment. The sins which led Judah into Babylonian captivity have now been punished, and she is released from slavery to return to her Promised Land. “Her sin has been paid for,” as has ours.

How? “A voice of one calling: ‘In the desert prepare the way for the Lord” (v. 3).

The one calling is the messenger sent to precede the king. In the ancient world, the visit of the Sovereign would require that all roads be improved, valleys filled in, mountains leveled, terrain cleared. “The red carpet” was rolled out. Then “the glory of the Lord” would be revealed.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all found this promise fulfilled when John the Baptizer announced the beginning of the public work of Jesus of Nazareth. And John even quoted the Baptist: “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord'” (John 1:23).

“Advent” is from the Latin for “to come.” At Jesus’ first “advent,” he kept God’s promise. His suffering death completed our hard service and paid for our sin. He brought us hope that our past could be forgotten and our future secured, that our lives could have meaning and joy again.


Hope Is Born This Day

Hope Is Born This Day

Luke 2:1-7

Dr. Jim Denison

This week I’ve been saving a few headlines from various newspapers. Here are some I’ve collected:

“Debt woes nearing record: filings for bankruptcy protection on the rise” (USA Today 11-26-02 B1).

“‘Draconian’ budget cuts loom, governors group says” (USA Today 11-26-02 A1).

“Female HIV cases on rise” (Dallas Morning News, 11-26-02 1A).

“Identity theft case called a sign of crimes to come” (Dallas Morning News, 11-26-02 1A).

We’re talking about hope today. Some people have lost it.

Woody Allen’s speech to graduates begins, “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”

Robert Ingersoll was America’s best-known atheist in the 19th century. At his funeral, his brother said: “Life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities. We strive in vain to look beyond the heights. We cry aloud, and the only answer is the echo of a wailing cry.”

Others know how much we need it.

Gabriel Marcel: “Hope is for the soul what breathing is for the living organism.”

G. K. Chesterton: “There is one thing which gives radiance to everything. It is the idea of something around the corner.”

Samuel Johnson: “The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope.”

Langston Hughes:

Hold fast to dreams

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird

That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams

For when dreams go

Life is a barren field

Frozen with snow.

How are your dreams today? Do you have hope for your future? Do you believe that tomorrow will be good, even better than today? That our world is going somewhere that matters? That your life is accomplishing something significant? Do you have hope? In whom do you have hope?

Misplaced hope

Our text is among the most familiar in all the Scriptures. I’ve preached eight sermons from it over the years, and read it every Christmas season. But this week, as I studied it again, I was drawn to names I’ve never considered before. “Caesar Augustus,” who “issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.” “Quirinius,” the “governor of Syria.” And Herod the Great, the “King Herod” included in Matthew’s version of the Christmas story. I wanted to know more about them. And I was fascinated by what I discovered.

Caesar Augustus was born Gaius Octavius on September 23, 63 B.C. His mother, Atia, was the daughter of Julia, the younger sister of Julius Caesar. And so Caesar was his great-uncle. Octavius was 19 when Caesar was assassinated on March 15, 44 B.C.

Caesar named him his chief heir. And so the next year he was named Caesar’s adopted son, under the name Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus. On January 1, 43 B.C., Rome recognized Caesar as a god, and Octavian became known as divi filius, the “son of god.”

On November 27, 43 B.C., Octavian became ruler of the Roman world with Mark Anthony and M. Lepidus. By 29 B.C. Octavian had become the sole ruler of the Roman Empire, and was given the title Imperator. He declined the title “king” or “dictator,” considering them too insignificant for his greatness. So in 27 B.C., the Roman Senate bestowed on him the title of Augustus. The name means “one consecrated and honored by religion.” Our month “August” is named for him.

Caesar Augustus ruled the Roman Empire to his death on August 19, A.D. 14. It has been said of him that he found Rome brick and left it marble. He built roads which would cross the world, and a universal peace known as the Pax Augusta. The Senate built an altar to Pax Augusta which still stands in Rome today.

He was the single most powerful human being the world had ever seen; some consider him the most powerful person in all of human history. Across the empire he was hailed as “savior” and “god.” His birthday was celebrated as the birthday of god. His is the story of power—extreme, ultimate, unrivalled power.

“Quirinius” is not nearly as famous a figure, but he was no less important to the first Christmas.

Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was born in 51 B.C. in the Roman municipality of Lanuvium. He became a soldier, and fought especially well in the war in North Africa. In 12 B.C. he became a consul in Rome and very ambitious politician.

In 7 B.C. he came to Syria, the Roman area which included Galilee and Nazareth. While Varus was governor, Quirinius controlled the armies and directed all foreign policy. Thus he supervised the enrollment which moved Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

This was a periodic census for later purposes of taxation. The Jews kept their family records in the family’s hometown. Thus Joseph had to go to Bethlehem to register, much as we go to our home district to vote in elections.

From Syria, Quirinius moved to Asia as proconsul in 3 B.C. and continue his political ambitions. Six years later he divorced his first wife so he could marry Lepida, the woman who would have married the heir-apparent to the Roman throne had her fiancé not died suddenly. In 6 A.D. he returned to Syria as governor; in 9 A.D. he returned to Rome, where he remained to his death in A.D. 21.

Shortly before his death, Quirinius instituted legal proceedings against Lepida for attempted murder by poison and adultery, but she was acquitted. The Roman historian Tacitus spoke of “the combination of meanness with exorbitant power which had marked his later days.” His is a story of political ambitions unfulfilled.

Matthew 2:1 says, “Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod.” Herod was the third leading public figure of the first Christmas.

Herod was born in 72 B.C. At the age of 25 he was appointed by his father to be governor of Galilee. In 40 B.C. he was appointed King of Judea by Octavius; in 37 B.C. he captured Jerusalem. From 37 to 4 B.C., Herod was “king of the Jews.”


How To Live A Legacy

How to Live a Legacy

Matthew 5:21-24

Dr. Jim Denison

By now you’ve heard about the most sensational archaeological find in decades: the burial box of James, the brother of Jesus Christ.

The ossuary, a limestone burial box, is inscribed in the Aramaic language with the words “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” It dates to A.D. 63. Naming the brother was very unusual and almost never occurred, unless that brother was someone of very great significance.

One scholar has called this discovery “the most important find in the history of New Testament archaeology.” It is the earliest proof yet discovered for the historical life and importance of our Lord Jesus. And just one more way the greatest legacy of all time continues.

Beyond a tombstone, how will your legacy continue? We all want to leave one. In fact, if our survival and health are secure, legacy becomes our most important need.

According to recent surveys, the most important drives people feel today are to find a life purpose and mission, and to share this purpose and mission with others. In other words, we are looking for a life that matters, that leaves a legacy.

I am. My greatest fear is that I might stand before God one day and be told that I missed his purpose for my life. Do you share my fear? Do you want to outlive yourself, to know that your life will matter when it is done, to be sure that you don’t waste these years God has given to you?

Are you confident that people will remember you, be grateful for you, thank God for you? What will your legacy be? Will it be significant?

We’ll discover this morning that there’s only one way to leave a legacy, and that is to live a legacy. But such a legacy comes at a cost. Jesus will show us how to pay it, and why it’s the best investment we can make.

Refuse to hate or hurt (vs. 21-22)

Jesus continues his Sermon: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment'” (Matthew 5:21).

They “heard” this because the rabbis read the law to them in the synagogue each Sabbath, including this Sixth Commandment (Exodus 20:13).

A murderer was “subject to judgment,” the local tribunal composed of seven persons. These tribunals inflicted punishment with the sword for capital crimes.

Now we find Jesus’ commentary: “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment” (v. 22a).

Jesus is not dealing here with the simple emotion of anger. This is an inevitable human reaction to hurt or harm. And it was an emotion Jesus felt himself. In Mark 3:5 Jesus “looked around at them in anger” for their unbelief; in John 2:15 he drove the moneychangers out of the Temple. Ephesians 4:26 tells us, “In your anger do not sin.” The emotion of anger is not a sin.

He is dealing with a different thing here. In the Greek language, thumos describes the spontaneous and unavoidable emotion of anger; it is not the word here. Orge is this word; it means anger which is long-lived, cherished in the heart, nursed and kept alive. The deliberate choice to continue holding onto your anger. Absolute unwillingness to pardon and move on.

Such cherished anger makes us “liable to judgment.” In other words, hating my brother is as wrong as the murder which hate spawns.

“Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin” (v. 22b).

“Raca” was an Aramaic term of contempt which literally meant “empty-headed” or stupid. In ancient Judaism names were much more significant than they are for us. A name denoted a person’s character, and a word took on its own life and power.

So expressing your cherished anger by a term of contempt made you answerable not to the local tribunal but to the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of ancient Israel. They typically required reparations in money for such an insult to a person’s reputation and status.

“But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (v. 22c).

“Fool” was the worst, most slanderous term you could use against a person in ancient Israel. It comes from the Greek word for “moron,” and meant a person who is morally deficient, corrupted, immoral, a person with no character or value whatsoever.

This level of anger deserves “the fire of hell.” The Greek says, “the gehenna of fire.” The Valley of Gehenna stood to the south of Jerusalem. During the reigns of wicked kings Ahaz and Manasseh, children were sacrificed to idols there. King Josiah stamped out such heinous sin, and made the valley a trash dump. Fires were kept burning there constantly to consume the trash; worms lived there which lived off the refuse.

Jesus would later make Gehenna a metaphor for hell “where the fire never goes out … their worm does not die” (Matthew 9:43,48).

What is Jesus teaching us? Refuse to hate or hurt your brother. No matter what he may have done to you. In a moment Jesus will teach us how to reconcile with him. For now, how do we handle the anger our pain has caused?

Act on your anger immediately, before it takes root in your soul: “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold” (Ephesians 4.26-27). Deal with this infection before it spreads. Admit it, and give it to God.

Guard your tongue, especially while you are angry: “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless” (James 1:26). What we say shows who we are.

Choose to pardon, for your sake and his. Tim Stafford: “I would rather be cheated a hundred times than develop a heart of stone.” A wise old saint added, “I will never allow another person to ruin my life by making me hate him.”


Measuring Success As God Does

Measuring Success As God Does

2 Samuel 12:24-25

Dr. Jim Denison

The Pythagorean theorem in mathematics can be stated in 24 words. The Model Prayer takes 66 words to recite in English. Archimedes’ Principle requires 67 words. The Ten Commandments (in the King James Version) comprise 179 words. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was composed of 286 words. The Declaration of Independence was written in 1,300 words. And United States government regulations on the sale of cabbage require 26,911 words.

But if you had to pick one word as your favorite, the one word which creates in most of us the strongest emotional reaction, the greatest immediate warmth and gratitude, you would likely pick “mother.”

It has been so for a long time. Mother’s Day was first celebrated in ancient Greece. In the 17th century, England began “Mothering Day.” Mothers who worked as servants lived in the homes of their employers, but were allowed to go home to their families on this one day. Most mothers would still say they work as servants in the homes of their employers. Not much has changed. But the rest of us are grateful.

In our David series we have watched his greatest victory and greatest failure. Today we’ll consider his greatest legacy. Here’s the one simple point of the message: God measures our success as parents by our faithfulness to him. Not by our society’s definitions of our children’s achievements. By our faithfulness to our Father.

Here’s why: our children typically become what we are. For some of us, that’s not necessarily good news. But God can redeem anyone and any family who will measure success by faithfulness to him. We’ll prove it today.

The story of Bathsheba

No one names their daughter Bathsheba. Last week we revisited the sin with which her name is most frequently associated. Today let’s take a moment to remember the rest of her story.

After her first child with David died, the Lord gave her a second son they named Solomon. But the Lord gave their baby a second name, “Jedidiah,” meaning “loved by the Lord.”

And indeed he was. Through his life and work, Israel reached its zenith of significance and wealth. Through the family line he continued, the Messiah would one day come for all of humanity.

After bearing Solomon, Bathsheba would later save him. His older brother Adonijah tried to claim the throne. If successful, he would have killed Solomon and any other threat to the crown. But Bathsheba alerted the dying king David, and he guaranteed Solomon’s ascension (1Kings 1).

According to Jewish tradition, Solomon later wrote the beautiful Proverbs 31 in honor of his mother. This text, so often read from Mother’s Day pulpits across the land, closes with words which are ironic, given Bathsheba’s earlier story: “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate” (vs. 30-31). Despite the way her story began, her son knew her to be “a woman who fears the Lord.”

No matter how our story reads today, this is how it can end. And should.

Others in the family line

Now, let’s continue the story of mothers in the family of David. Matthew’s genealogy gives us four others, each worth remembering on this Mother’s Day.

Here is the first in his list: “Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar” (Matthew 1:3). Her first husband was put to death by God for wickedness, as was his brother, her second husband. When the third son grew to marriageable age, Judah was afraid for his boy’s life and refused to give him to Tamar. So she pretended to be a prostitute and slept with her father-in-law. The result was twin boys, Perez and Zerah, children of incest. But she’s in the story.

Second comes “Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab” (v. 5a). Rahab was the town innkeeper and prostitute in Jericho. You already know her story.

Third is “Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth” (v. 5b). While her courtship with Boaz is a story of romance and beauty, her heritage was anything but.

Ruth was from the Moabite race, located east of the Dead Sea. Moab was the son of Lot (Genesis 19:36-37). Lot’s daughters got him drunk, and became pregnant by him. Moab’s name sounds like the Hebrew for “from father,” a perpetual reminder of the incestuous beginnings of this nation.

Later the Moabites led the Jews into sexual and spiritual immorality, so that 24,000 of Israel died in the wrath of God.

The Jewish people never forgot what Moab had done to them: “No Ammonite or Moabite or any of his descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, even down to the tenth generation” (Deuteronomy 23:3). Further, the Jews were to remain perpetually at war with them: “Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them as long as you live” (v. 6).

And so we find in David’s family line a woman whose history should have barred her forever from such inclusion. Imagine a German descendent of Hitler as the mother of the Jewish prime minister, and you’d have a situation no less shocking than this. A woman forbidden by her race and history from ever entering into the worship of God, now an ancestor to the very One we worship.

Last we read, “Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ” (Matthew 1:16).

She is today the most famous mother in all of history, but things certainly did not begin that way. Mary was a young teenager, a seventh-grader if she were alive today, when Gabriel called her to be the mother of the Messiah. The Jews had taught their girls to pray every night that they might be chosen for this honor. But they all expected the mother of the Messiah to be chosen from the royal family in Jerusalem, or the powerful among the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Sanhedrin. No one would have expected a peasant teenager living in the country hills of Galilee.


The Cure For Affluenza

The Cure for Affluenza

Matthew 6.5-8, 16-18

Dr. Jim Denison

“They were running hand in hand, and the Queen went so fast that it was all [Alice] could do to keep up with her: and still the Queen kept crying ‘Faster! Faster!’… The most curious part of the thing was, that … however fast they went, they never seemed to pass anything … ‘In our country,’ said Alice, … ‘you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you ran very fast for a long time as we’ve been doing.’ ‘A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. ‘Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that'” (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, in Arthur Simon, How Much Is Enough? 49).

Psychologist Jessie O’Neill specializes in the treatment of what the doctor calls “Affluenza”—runaway consumerism which drives us to stress but leaves us unfulfilled.

Here’s an example of the problem. Gerard Straub, network TV producer, explains why he abandoned his lucrative career: “The joys I’ve experienced in life have all been lined with sadness … All around me, I see people fighting to suppress the sadness by searching for joy in a wide array of ways: sex, power, fame, fortune, drugs. We crowd into gigantic malls and gobble up all the goodies on display. We consume more than we need because we think we need more than we have … But the sadness remains” (How Much Is Enough? p. 19).

Author Art Simon comments: “The problem is not that we’ve tried faith and found it wanting, but that we’ve tried [materialism] and found it addictive, and as a result find following Christ inconvenient” (p. 21).

All the while the prophet Isaiah asks us, “Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 55:2).

Richard Foster says there is misery when people lack provision, but there is also misery when we try to make a life out of provision. He’s right.

How do we escape the affluenza which surrounds us? How do we find lives filled with purpose which lasts beyond the next promotion or purchase? Deep joy which cannot be lost in the stock market? Transcendent peace which the morning news cannot steal? Let’s ask Jesus.

Trust God with your time (5-8)

Jesus’ Sermon addresses two issues in our lives today. The first is prayer—dos and don’ts. What Jesus teaches may surprise you. “And when you pray,” he begins. Jesus assumes that his hearers would pray.

He was right. Frequency of prayer was not their problem.

The central affirmation of Jewish faith was the “Shema,” a statement which required memorizing 20 verses from Deuteronomy and Numbers. The Jews said it every morning as soon as possible, and every evening before 9 p.m.

They repeated another set of 19 prayer requests every morning, afternoon, and evening.

They prayed specifically when they lit a fire, saw lightning, comets, a new moon, a storm, or the sea, received good news, used new furniture, and entered or left the city.

Their Rabbi Levi taught, Whoever is long in prayer is heard.” The problem was not the amount but the motive.

Some would pray standing in the synagogues. Standing was the usual posture of prayer. The synagogue was where the religious gathered. To pray standing before them is obviously to be seen by them, as would be the case if any of you stood and began praying right now.

Some prayed standing on street corners. These were where crowds stopped for business or to talk, and could be seen from all four directions. Picture a street-corner in downtown Dallas, and you have the idea. Jews were required to pray each day at 9 a.m., noon, and 3 p.m. They could arrange their schedule so as to be in the synagogue or on a street corner when the hour of prayer arrived. And they often did.

To pray for these reasons was to be a “hypocrite,” literally an actor who played more than one role. Actors only act before crowds. Spiritual actors only pray where they will be seen praying.

Many kept on “babbling like pagans” as well (v. 7), thinking that they could impress God with their many and eloquent words.

Jesus had to warn his followers about praying to impress people, which shows that the problem is a very real temptation. It still is.

Last weekend Janet and I visited the LBJ library and museum. It was a fascinating trip back in time, and reminded me of the time Bill Moyers was at a meeting with the president and was asked to lead in prayer. As Moyers was praying, President Johnson said, “Speak up—I can’t hear you.” To which Moyers replied, “I wasn’t speaking to you, Mr. President.”

So how are we to pray?

Regularly: “when you pray” (v. 6a). Have a set appointment to meet with your Father every morning, and through the day.

Secretly: “go into your room, close the door” (v. 6b). “Room” meant a closet or storeroom where the treasures were stored. Set aside a place where you will not be distracted by work or anything else, where you can meet only and secretly with God.

Intentionally: “pray to your Father, who is unseen” (v. 6c). R. A. Torrey: “we should never utter one syllable of prayer, either in public or in private, until we are definitely conscious that we have come into the presence of God and are actually praying to Him.”

Expectantly: “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (v. 8). He promised through the prophet: “Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear” (Isaiah 65:24).

Let’s summarize.

Why pray? Not to tell God what he already knows, but to agree with his will. To surrender to his purpose. To trust our need and lives to his care. He can only give what we will receive. In prayer his Spirit molds our spirit, his heart our heart.


The Most Important Things In Life Are Not Things

The Most Important Things in Life Are Not Things

Proverbs 3:5-10

Dr. Jim Denison

Here are some of the least-important facts I know:

– Rubber bands last longer when refrigerated.

– There are more chickens than people in the world.

– Two-thirds of the world’s eggplant is grown in New Jersey.

– An ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain.

– A goldfish has a memory span of three seconds.

– It’s impossible to sneeze with your eyes open.

Here is the most important statement I know: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37, 39-40). As does your soul’s summer.

Last week we investigated the first great commandment, finding ways to draw close to God, to love him each day.

Today, we’ll explore the second great commandment. How will you love your neighbor as yourself this summer, thus proving that you love God? What will be your strategy for changing someone’s life, for living with significance and purpose, for making a difference that matters? How will you redeem this summer for God?

May I give you a proverb for these months, three words live by all summer long?

Learn God’s word (5-8)

When I was a high school senior, a dear friend gave me a topical Bible in which she inscribed two verses. They became the first biblical verses I ever learned: “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6, KJV). Let’s pitch our tents here and explore for a while.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart”:

“Trust” means to rely upon in total dependence. The Hebrew originally meant to lie helplessly face down, with no way to get up or save yourself. Not just believe intellectually, but trust personally. You do not “trust” the airplane pilot until you get on his airplane.

“In the Lord”—we all trust in something or someone to give us meaning and purpose. Some trust in the stock market, others in their job, others in their ability, health, parents, spouse, or children. The proverb says to put your trust in the Lord, to depend upon him for your life, meaning and future.

“With all your heart”—the “heart” is not just your emotions but your will and intellect. This is a command to trust in God with your decisions, plans, future; to trust him with your life, ambitions, and direction. With “all” your heart means that you trust completely and only in God to be your guide, source and strength.

“And lean not on your own understanding”—This is Hebrew parallelism, where the second line comments on the first. In this case, the second line restates negatively what has just been said positively.

“Lean” means to depend fully, to support yourself in the sense of leaning on a wall or a railing. When you have surgery you “lean” on the doctor to wake you up—you put your life in his hands.

“Not on your own understanding” is in the present tense; it actually says, “stop trusting in your own understanding.” To trust in the Lord with all your heart means that you don’t trust in yourself. You don’t trust your abilities, education, experience or circumstances to give your life meaning, purpose and direction. If you’re doing that, stop it now.

“In all your ways acknowledge him”—”All your ways” means every step, every action, every decision. Everywhere you go, everything you do.

There is no sacred/secular dichotomy here, no Sunday/Monday split. In every part of your life—your finances and friends and family and future.

“Acknowledge him” means literally to “know him” personally, intimately. Walk with God in everything you do, everywhere you go. God is not one of the electives in the school of life—make every choice with his will in mind. And take every step only after you ask him what to do. With this result: “and he will make your paths straight.”

The Hebrew means, “He will direct your paths” or “He will set you on the straight and narrow.” He will manage your life, guide your steps, take you where you need to go.

God wants to do this for us. He is waiting to “make your paths straight,” right now. But you must ask him to; you must follow his leadership. His will is your Global Positioning Satellite system, but it is no good unless you look at it and do what it says. It will not drive your car for you.

Bear in mind that walking down his paths will cost you something: “Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops” (v. 9).

The “firstfruits” were the farmer’s first and best harvest. The ancient Israelites lived by the crops they produced, but the Law required that their first harvest be brought to God as a sacrifice.

Your “firstfruits” are your best resources. The first hour of the day given to God in prayer, Bible study and worship. Your best preparations for the class you teach or the ministry you lead. Your sacrifice to help a hurting neighbor, to reach out to a lost friend, to care about a lonely soul. Your best service to God, whatever the cost. When God directs your path, you walk down it whatever its price.

But then you position yourself to receive the blessing God so wants to give: “then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine” (v. 10). Then God can meet your needs and make your life abundant and significant. Then you can make a difference that matters. And only then.

Ask God first

So the proverb for the summer is these three words: Ask God first. Before you make your plans. Before you plan your vacation, your job, your activities, your days, your life. Lean upon his word and not your wisdom. Ask him to direct your paths, and believe that he will use your life. Depend on him. Ask God first.


When The Lights Go Out

When the Lights Go Out

Matthew 7:28-29

Dr. Jim Denison

The flashlight can be the most valuable possession in your home.

In 1896, Mr. David Misell invented a device which connected the just-created “D” cell battery to a bulb. The bulb and batteries were so inefficient they could not provide a steady stream of light, so the device was called the “flash light.”

On Thursday, August 14, you could have sold Mr. Misell’s invention to 50 million people. The worst power outage in world history has cost New York City alone as much as $750 million dollars in lost income, taxes, and overtime costs.

No one thinks about a flashlight until the lights go out. And they often do. Last Sunday’s and Tuesday’s storms left thousands in Dallas without power, many through the night. Mr. Misell’s invention is what we need most.

It is a fact that you and I live in a world which is absolutely pitch-black with regard to the future. We do not know when the next power outage will occur. In fact, we don’t know what will happen an hour from now, or whether we’ll even be alive to witness it. Not a single human being knows with certainty what will happen tomorrow. Of all we don’t know, our greatest ignorance regards the next minute.

When the lights go out and all is dark, we have three options. We can feel our way alone; we can follow others who are just as blind as are we; or we can listen to the only One who sees the way, who is already where we want to be.

The psalmist chose wisely: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105). Let’s make the same decision.

Live by God’s word

When Jesus finished the discourse we have studied for more than a year, Matthew says that “the crowds were amazed at his teaching.” “Amazed” translates a word which means to be beside yourself with astonishment, to be spell-bound, literally “struck out of themselves.”

Why? Because “he taught as one who had authority.”

“Authority” means literally “out of your own being.” It is power which you possess, which no one need confer on you. I have authority to call a staff meeting, but not a special session of the Texas Legislature. You have authority to do some things, but not others.

Jesus had “authority” to speak these words.

“Not as their teachers of the law.”

The prophets typically began, “Thus says the Lord.” Jesus never did, because he was and is the Lord.

The priests and professors quoted the Law, the Prophets, and writings about both. They collected verse-by-verse commentaries (Midrah), topical commentaries (Mishna), commentary on legal matters in Scripture (Halakah) and devotional applications (Haggadah). Then they made commentary on the earlier commentary (Gemara), and collected it all into their Talmud.

A rabbi would quote a rabbi, who quoted a rabbi. If my sermon today were to quote Barclay quoting Bruce citing the Greek New Testament, I would teach as their “teachers of the law.”

Not so with Jesus. Twelve times in this Sermon he says, “I say unto you.” No rabbi in Jewish history had ever done this. His words were the word of God.

They will be so forever: “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:8); “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matthew 24:35).

They lead us to salvation: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).

They keep us from sin: “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11); “How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word” (Psalm 119:9).

They instruct and guide our lives: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).

Choose now to live by the word of God.

What decision is facing you today? Decide that you will consult Scripture before making it and live by the light of God’s word.

What actions or attitudes in your life are unbiblical? Where is there bitterness toward another person, coveting toward a possession, lust of eye or mind, pride of heart? Decide that you will confess it and live by the light of God’s word.

You face a future which is dark. Trust the only light you own.

Listen to God’s word

Now, listen to this, the greatest Sermon ever preached.

See the Galilean hillside, sloping gently down to the Sea of Galilee. Hear its waters as they lap the shore; listen to the calls of the birds as they circle overhead. Smell the flowers and grasses of the spring fields. Feel the sun on your face, the wind in your hair.

Join the crowds as they jostle together for a closer look at the One who is speaking. Close your eyes if you wish. Travel back 20 centuries. Join the first hearers of Jesus’ first sermon. Hear it again, for the very first time. And choose to live under the authority of these words, today and for the rest of your life.

Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.   Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.


When You’re Afraid To Follow God

When You’re Afraid to Follow God

2 Timothy 1:1-12

Dr. Jim Denison

We’re talking this morning about fear. Apparently, the experts think we have much to discuss.

It’s a new year, so you could have Neophobia, the fear of anything new. Given your location, you might suffer from Ecclesiophobia, the fear of being in church. Most people find this phobia increasing as the offertory time draws near. You might earlier have experienced Melophobia, the fear of music. You might now feel Homilophobia, the fear of sermons.

I’ll try to help you avoid my favorite phobia: Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia, the fear of long words.

Today I want to talk with you about Theophobia, the fear of God. More precisely, Fiduciatheophobia, the fear of trusting in God. As we begin the new year by seeking to live in the purpose and will of God, let’s discuss the greatest obstacle standing between most of us and such obedience: our fear of following God’s will.

The fact is that most of us, somewhere in our lives and stories, are afraid of what would happen if we were to trust God fully. Our Western culture likes to trust what we can see, measure, and predict. We like five-year plans and long range goals. We see history as linear, and the lack of contradiction as the test for all truth. We want our future to be planned and predictable. But we cannot see God. And we cannot plan or predict his will.

And so we’re afraid that he will ask more of us than we can give, more than we are able to do or give to him. He’ll ask us to teach when we can’t teach, or to give more than we can give. Or we’re afraid that he’ll ask more of us than we want to give, that he’ll lead us where we don’t want to go, that the price of following him will be higher than we want to pay.

Most of us have an area or person in our lives which we are afraid to surrender to God’s purpose and will. Do you? Where’s yours?

Remember who you are (vs. 1-7)

Fear of following God was young Timothy’s greatest problem in his life and work.

“If Timothy comes, see to it that he has nothing to fear while he is with you, for he is carrying on the work of the Lord, just as I am. No one, then, should refuse to accept him. Send him on his way in peace so that he may return to me” (1 Corinthians 16:10-11).

“Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12).

Timothy wept when the apostle left him in Ephesus on his departure to Macedonia (2 Timothy 1:4; cf. 1 Timothy 1:3).

His first fear was ours: we are unable. If we trust fully the will of God, he will want us to do things we can’t, to give more than we can give, to do more than we can do.

Moses stuttered, so he told God he couldn’t speak to Pharaoh. Jeremiah told the Lord he was too young. Isaiah confessed that his lips and life were unclean. When Peter saw Jesus perform a miracle he exclaimed, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

Most of us feel the same way. If you surrender your life and year to God, he might lead you to do more than you can do, and you’ll fail. Here’s what to do.

First, remember who you are: a child of God (vs. 1-2).

Timothy was Paul’s “dear son” in the faith (v. 2). And he was the child of God before he was the “son” of Paul. So are you.

Your culture says you are what you can produce, or how you look, or how well your kids do, or what you own. God says you are his child: “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Romans 8:16). And no good Father will ask his child to fail.

Next, remember where you’re from: your heritage in faith (vs. 3-5).

Timothy’s father was not a believer. The people of his hometown of Lystra stoned Paul and left him for dead; what might they do to this young disciple of his Lord? But God used his mother Eunice and grandmother Lois to lead him to Christ and nurture his faith. God protected him and then gave him the greatest apostle in Christian history as his ministry partner.

God has brought you this far. If your parents were godly, remember their gifts to your soul. Remember your salvation and those who helped bring you to Christ. Think of Sunday school teachers, pastors, friends who have helped you in the faith. Think of times and places where God protected you from harm. He didn’t bring you this far to leave you. He’s not going to fail you now.

Now, remember what he has given you: your spiritual gifts (v. 6).

Timothy was given spiritual gifts which are exactly what he needed to fulfill God’s will for his life. So have you. He has already given you whatever you need to do what he wants you to do.

But like young Timothy, we must “fan into flame” this gift. How do you fan a spark into flame? You feed it the fuel of wood and oxygen. You protect it from winds which would extinguish it. You continue to grow it, adding more and more fuel as it is able to use them effectively. You diligently focus upon it, not sporadically. You do this with urgency, for the fire is important to you in the cold or with the food to be cooked.

So with your spiritual gifts. Do you know yours? Are you feeding them through prayer, Bible study, and worship? Are you focusing upon using them to fulfill God’s will for your life? God’s gifts will not let you fail his purpose for you.


  • 1
  • 2