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Commencing well

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: 1 Samuel 20:35-42

Thursday evening we each had a second once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: the final episode of Friends aired, again. And in case you missed it, it will air again the following Thursday night. And probably each Thursday night for the next decade.

More than 51 million people watched the episode the first time, myself not among them. But I understand Ross and Rachel got back together, again. Apparently someone cares—ads for the show sold for $2 million per 30 seconds.

Now there’s more good news: a DVD of the entire last season will be available soon. For slightly less than $2 million.

Today our church joins thousands of others across the nation in honoring our graduates. Since the Middle Ages, we’ve been graduating students through an exercise called “commencement.” I’ve been given five diplomas, and don’t remember a single commencement speech, including the ones I’ve given myself. I know that the best ones are always the shortest. And that the speaker usually comments on the fact that “commencement” comes from “commence,” meaning “to begin.” Not the ending of high school, or college, or whatever—but the beginning of what comes next.

So, what comes next?

In our series on relationships from the life of David, today I’d like to contrast television’s Friends with David’s best friend. Here’s the point: more than ever before in American cultural history, our graduates (and the rest of us) have two competing visions from which to choose. Two radically different views of the world. Where you get in determines where you come out. Commence wisely.

“Friends” and family

Let’s first look at the world of Friends, one of the highest-rated shows on television for ten years. Here is its message, as fairly and succinctly as I can describe it. Sexual activity is how we express our affection for each other. Marriage is optional, unnecessary to leading fulfilled lives. I read that Ross and Rachel, for instance, fell in love, got married, got divorced, had a baby, then got back together again. A second marriage remains to be seen. And given their issues with their parents, the “friends” taught us that friends are our real family.

A second top-rated comedy left the air the week after Friends. On Frasier we learned that relational decisions should be based on whatever makes you happy. Your own fulfillment is the key to “good mental health.” Frasier’s brother Niles taught us that marriage can get in the way of love. And so even though he was married to Maris, his unseen wife, we were pulling for him to get with Daphne, his father’s therapist. And millions of viewers rejoiced when he finally did.

Of course, Frasier got his start on the earlier television comedy, Cheers. Here we learned to laugh at Norm’s unseen wife, knowing that his real family is at the bar with him. Sam defined success by his previous life as a Red Sox pitcher, and now by his sexual exploits. And life was always good at a bar “where everybody knows your name.”

Going back still farther, John Ritter’s recent death caused many of us to remember his most famous television show, Three’s Company. Ritter’s character pretends to be gay so he can room with two female friends. The three must fool their intolerant buffoon of a landlord who wouldn’t let them live together otherwise. And Jack’s “lifestyle” is of course his own business—the show made that clear.

By contrast, a week ago we were treated to a reunion of The Dick Van Dyke Show. I’m old enough to remember the program—everyone was married, and no one slept with anyone who was not their spouse. How quaint.

Learning about life

So, what would Hollywood have us know as we commence on the next chapter of our lives?

Our friends are our family. So long as we have them, we have all we really need for life.

All moral standards are relative. So long as our actions are not illegal or harmful to others, they are legitimate.

All beliefs are equal in value. Our faith system is no more right than anyone else’s—it’s just our personal preference.

At its root, absolute truth does not exist. This is an absolute fact.

A new religious synthesis is emerging in this culture. Simply stated: God is whatever we see him/her/it to be. There is no uniquely true revelation, whether Scripture or any other source. We all share in the divine, so that enlightenment is possible within our own abilities and experiences. Because we share in the divine, no forgiveness for “sin” is needed (only 2 percent of Americans are afraid they might go to hell).

This new religious synthesis has been emerging for years. James Herrick’s new book, The Making of the New Spirituality, makes this transformation clear.

He quotes eminent psychologist Carl Jung: “We are only at the threshold of a new spiritual epoch.”

And author Wayne Teasdale: “We are at the dawn of a new consciousness, a radically fresh approach to our life as the human family in a fragile world … Perhaps the best name for this new segment of historical experience is the Interspiritual Age.”

And Harvard graduate and former Green Beret Gary Zukav, who speaks of “the evolution of our souls.” Zukav writes that science now suggests a new understanding of God, not as the personal Deity of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but as “conscious light” and “Divine Intelligence” that animate the universe. His books have sold more than five million copies.

Here’s Dr. Herrick’s evidence for this new religious synthesis:

12 million Americans are considered active participants in alternative spiritual systems, and another 30 million are actively interested.

1,000 to 2,000 new religious movements arose in the United States in the 20th century, almost all standing outside the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The Dalai Lama’s Ethics for the New Millennium sold more copies than business books by Bill Gates and Stephen Covey. In 1960, some 200,000 Buddhists lived in America; now the number exceeds 10 million.

Self-professed belief in astrology, reincarnation and a non-personal divine energy characterizes 30 percent of Americans. One popular astrology website created for Time Warner Electronic Publishing attracts 1.3 million visitors every month. AstroNet, established with the support of America Online, attracts 300,000 visitors every day.

David and Jonathan

Now, let’s contrast the world of Friends and its friends with the biblical world-view. We are told in Scripture that a sovereign and personal God intervenes continuously in human history; the Bible is his uniquely true revelation; fallen humanity is incapable of correcting our spiritual predicament; and forgiveness is grounded in the divine act of redemption given to us by Christ on the cross.

Watch that biblical world-view unfold with David and his best friend, Jonathan. Four decisions will challenge us as we step into the next chapter of our lives.

First, believe that God is sovereign. In Jonathan’s first appearance in the Bible, he and his armor-bearer are preparing to attack a much-larger army of Philistines. Jonathan proclaims, “Perhaps the Lord will act on our behalf. Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few” (1 Samuel 14:6). And he and his armor-bearer killed 20 men (v. 14). There is but one God, and he is in control of the world.

Second, accept God’s will, whatever it is. God made clear to Jonathan that David was to inherit the throne of his father. How did he react?

“After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself” (1 Samuel 18:1). He proved that love with his actions: “Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt” (vs. 3-4). The robe represented the kingdom itself, given by Jonathan to David in acceptance of the will of God.

Third, follow God’s will at all costs.

Earlier, Saul sent Jonathan to kill David. He could have done so and gained the throne for himself, but instead Jonathan talked his father out of such sin (1 Samuel 19:1-6).

Later Saul tried again, but Jonathan rose to protect his friend again. Saul knew the sacrifice Jonathan was making: “As long as the son of Jesse lives on this earth, neither you nor your kingdom will be established. Now send and bring him to me, for he must die!” (1 Samuel 20:31).

When Jonathan refused, “Saul hurled his spear at him to kill him. Then Jonathan knew that his father intended to kill David” (v. 33).

So he warned him to flee: “Go in peace, for we have sworn friendship with each other in the name of Lord, saying, ‘The Lord is witness between you and me, and between your descendants and my descendants forever.’ Then David left, and Jonathan went back to the town” (v. 42). Again and again, Jonathan risked his life to follow the will of God.

Last, trust God’s will to make your life significant.

After Jonathan was killed in battle by the Philistines, his best friend immortalized him: “How the mighty have fallen in battle! Jonathan lies slain on your heights. I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women. How the mighty have fallen!” (2 Samuel 1:25-27).

And through David, Jonathan’s faithfulness would live on. If Jonathan had not protected his best friend from Saul, the Old Testament would have ended with Goliath. No King David, Solomon, the Temple, the line of David leading to the Messiah. We owe our Judeo-Christian faith and heritage to this unsung hero who lived in the will of God.

Conclusion

Now you have a choice as you commence the next chapter of your life. You can choose Hollywood’s Friends, or David’s friend. You can trust the lie that there is no truth, that all beliefs are equal, that the only will which matters is yours. Or you can believe that God is sovereign. You can believe therefore that living in his will, at all costs, is the key to significance.

As you make your choice, remember that long after Ross and Rachel have faded from fame, Jonathan’s life and faith will matter to the world. God used this friend of David to help bring the Son of David to the earth as our Savior and Lord. The Lord of the universe made his life valuable beyond description. If you will live in the will of God, you will have the significance of God.

I’ll close with a personal word. When I was preparing to graduate from high school, choosing God’s will or my own was the major issue before me. My dream was to be a professional trumpet player or tennis player. My parents, being a bit more realistic, would have preferred that I become a doctor. I knew God wanted me in the ministry of the Word. But I wanted my will to be done.

Finally, through a series of events, I chose to submit my life to God’s purpose as I understood it. Looking back on that decision made 28 years ago, I will always be grateful I chose his will over my own. Always.

And so I can make you a personal promise: if you will choose David’s friend over Hollywood’s Friends, God’s will over your own, you’ll be glad you did. There will be hard days and good days, valleys and mountains, rain and sunshine. But there will be an abiding sense of God’s purpose and significance through it all. I can testify that it’s so.

Let’s close with this prayer by Sir Francis Drake:

Disturb us, Lord, when

We are too well pleased with ourselves,

When our dreams have come true

Because we have dreamed too little,

When we arrived safely

Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when

With the abundance of things we possess

We have lost our thirst

For the waters of life;

Having fallen in love with life,

We have ceased to dream of eternity

And in our efforts to build a new earth,

We have allowed our vision

Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us Lord, to dare more boldly,

To venture on wider seas

Where storms will show your mastery;

Where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars.

We ask You to push back

The horizons of our hopes;

And to push into the future

In strength, courage, hope, and love.

This we ask in the name of our Captain Jesus Christ.

Commence well.