“You Can Shoot Me if You Want”

“You Can Shoot Me if You Want”

John 21:15-19

Dr. Jim Denison

Jeremiah Neitz is a former football player who dropped out of high school, moved out of his parents’ home at age 18, and fell in with, to use his word, “gangstas.” He got his girlfriend pregnant and asked her to move in with him. Convictions on charges of theft and assault landed him on probation. Then he decided to get back in touch with God, so he called his former youth minister at South Wayside Baptist Church in Fort Worth.

He was sitting in the back of the auditorium at Wedgwood Baptist Church on September 15 as part of a youth rally, when Larry Gene Ashbrook entered and began shooting. Jeremiah said to Ashbrook, “What you need is Jesus Christ in your life.” Then he stood to his feet and walked to Ashbrook, who leveled his gun at Jeremiah’s head. Jeremiah said, “Sir, you can shoot me if you want. I know where I’m going—I’m going to heaven.”

Ashbrook looked at Jeremiah, stopped shooting, and killed himself instead.

Our church’s history and heritage prove that God has a plan and purpose for us. Now, how can we be as visionary as our founders? Can God use every one of us, no matter who we are or what we’ve done? Let’s find the answer, and see why it matters so much to your life today.

A breakfast which changed the world

Jesus has been raised from the dead, and now comes for Peter and his other disciples who were fishing on the Sea of Galilee. He makes them breakfast, for he knows they will be hungry. Just as he revealed himself to the Emmaus disciples at dinner (Luke 24:29-32), here he meets them at breakfast. God wants to meet with us, to relate to us, wherever we are.

Now he addresses his wayward disciple, the man who denied him three times.

“Simon, son of John,” he calls him. Jesus had nicknamed him Peter, which means “rock,” but now he uses his given name Simon, which means “sand.” For this is what he has been. His behavior has not lived up to his name.

A deserter named Alexander was brought before Alexander the Great, who thundered at him, “Change your behavior or change your name!”

Jesus has only one question for him: “Do you love me?”

Note that Jesus doesn’t ask Peter if he is sorry for what he did, or if he will promise never to do it again; he doesn’t ask for obedience, service, or vows, because he knows that when our hearts are given to him everything else follows as well. We serve Jesus, and obey him, and know about him—do we love him?

Jesus asks him three times, because Peter had denied him three times; thus Peter was hurt the third time he asked. But this gave Peter opportunity for public recommitment to Jesus.

“Do you love me more than these?” Jesus asks.

Do we love Jesus more than we love our friends? More than our fishing boats and nets? More than anything? Will we pay any price to love and follow Jesus?

When Peter says that he will, Jesus responds with two commitments:

“Feed my sheep,” he commissions him. They are his sheep, not Peter’s. His job is to feed and shepherd them—to reach out to the people Jesus loves, which is every person you know. People matter to God, and now they will matter to Peter. And they did—he became the preacher of Pentecost, wrote two books of the Bible, and helped lead the entire Christian movement. “Feed my sheep”—love my people.

And bear my cross. When old, Peter would “stretch out his hands” on the cross and die. Eusebius (d. 340) says that he was crucified upside down, at his own request (Ecclesiastical History III.1.2). Glorify God in life and death.

So Jesus’ ultimate call is clear: “follow me” (v. 19).

I must know Jesus before I can introduce him to you. Only that which happens to me can happen through me.

Authenticity and passion are the keys to ministry today. Follow Jesus, and help the people we know follow him. This is Jesus’ call to Peter, and to us.

Peter before breakfast

Now, where are you in our story? Every person in this sanctuary is either Peter before breakfast, or Peter after breakfast. Perhaps you’re where Peter was before his breakfast with Jesus. Maybe your life seems to have little real direction or significance, or perhaps you’ve experienced enough failure to wonder if you’ll ever really succeed in life.

Well, join the crowd.

We are lonely people. Mother Teresa said that loneliness is the greatest epidemic in the Western world. Look around, and you’ll see that she was right.

Surgeon General David Satcher recently released evidence that suicide is the eighth leading cause of death in the US. It claimed 30,000 lives in 1997, compared with fewer than 19,000 homicides. Since 1980 the suicide rate has doubled among children ages 10-14.

People are flocking to support groups, primarily along gender lines. They will apparently pay any amount of money to find someone who cares about them.

Even our families have lost a sense of community. Author Mary Pipher spoke recently at SMU on this subject. Dr. Pipher pointed out the fact that today we get our stories from boxes—television, computers, and stereos—not from each other. We only know the stories of make-believe people, so that violence, substance abuse, and extramarital sex are now the norms.

We are lonely people. We need a community which cares.

We are displaced people. When my grandfather entered the work force, he could anticipate changing employers three times on average during his career. Those entering the work force today will change their careers seven times. We don’t know who we are.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that nearly two thirds of the companies surveyed employ “virtual expatriots”—people who live in one country but work in another, using technological communication. Their number is up 44% in two years. People who don’t really know where they are.

Does God Have a Plan for Us?

Does God Have a Plan for Us?

Jeremiah 29:4-14

Dr. Jim Denison

I was recently given this list of important, essential facts: there are more chickens than people in the world; a cat has thirty two muscles in each ear; an ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain; when the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers play football at home, the stadium becomes the state’s third largest city; a dragonfly has a life span of 24 hours; a goldfish has a memory span of three seconds; and the microwave was invented after a researcher walked by a radar tube and a chocolate bar in his pocket melted.

Useless facts, all.

So with the circumstances of our text today, it would seem.

The Jewish king Jehoiakim rebelled against the vastly superior forces of the Babylonians, and was deposed and deported in December 598 B.C. His successor, Jeconiah, withstood the Babylonians all of three months before surrendering the city. Then he was exiled to Babylon, along with the temple treasures and the best of his citizens, on March 16, 597 B.C.

Now, Jeremiah the prophet, living in occupied Jerusalem, writes a letter to the enslaved captives in the far-off pagan nation of Babylon. To us, this is ancient history, of no relevance to the problems we face today. But, is it really?

Here we find answered the question every one of us wonders: Does God have a plan for us? For your life? Your future? Your marriage? Children? Career? Finances? And if he does, are we free to choose? Or is all of life dictated by God?

Today we’ll learn how to resolve an age-old theological dilemma, celebrate God’s providence in our church, and trust God’s plan for our personal lives. All from “useless facts.”

Does God have a plan for us?

Our first question is: Does God have a plan at all? Some evolutionists say that life began as a chance coincidence, with no particular plan or purpose at all. Existentialists say that this life is all there is, and life is chaos. Martin Heidegger, for instance, wrote that we are actors on a stage, with no script, director or audience, and courage is to face life as it is. Postmodernists say that truth is relative and there is no overriding purpose to life. So, does God have a plan for us, or is life a random coincidence? In the words of Shakespeare, are we “sound and fury, signifying nothing”?

In Jeremiah’s letter God claims, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future (v 11). How detailed is this plan?

He has a plan for where and how they should live: “Build houses and settle down, plant gardens and eat what they produce” (v. 5). He has a plan for the families they should have: “Marry and have sons and daughters” (v. 6).

He even has a plan for the country which has enslaved them: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (v. 7).

A plan for where and how we lived, the families we raise, and the country we inhabit—what is left out? God has a plan for every part of our lives, according to our text.

Did not God have a plan for Adam and Eve—where and what to live? A plan for Noah—how to build his ark, right down to the exact specifications and building materials he should use? A plan for Abraham, including where he should live, how old he would be when he had his son, and even that son’s name? A plan for Joseph, using his slavery and imprisonment to save the entire nation? A plan for Moses, encompassing the very words he should say to Pharaoh? A plan for Joshua, showing him where and how to take the land? A plan for David and Solomon, for their kingdom and the temple they would build for him? A plan for Daniel, even in the lion’s den?

Jesus had plans for his first disciples—plans they could not have begun to understand. He had a plan for Saul of Tarsus as he left to persecute the Christians in Damascus. He had a plan for John on Patmos.

God had a plan for George Washington Truett, when he led his father and family westward from the mountains of North Carolina in 1888. A plan for him in 1890 when B.H. Carroll asked him to head the fund-raising drive to save Baylor University, when Truett was 23 years old. A plan for him when he enrolled as a freshman at Baylor after saving the school; a plan for him when First Baptist Church of Dallas called him as their pastor at the age of 30, before he could go to seminary. A plan for him in that great ministry of some 46 years.

God had a plan for him and for us when, in 1939, he led George Truett to make the statement, “There ought to be a church” in the Park Cities.

And God fulfilled that plan.

God had a plan for the four men who stopped to talk on the steps of the Gaston Avenue Baptist Church in Dallas following a morning worship service in early May of 1939. Their conversation turned to the need for a new Baptist church in the far north suburbs of University Park and Highland Park. God had a plan for their new church when they had no sponsoring congregation, no money, no building, no pastoral leadership, not even a name, as three dozen people met on Thursday evening, October 26, 1939, in the auditorium of University Park City Hall and constituted this church. God had a plan.

God still has a plan for this church. A plan to reach more nonbelievers than ever before through Saturday night worship, media outreach, local missions, and global strategies; a plan to train every member for ministry through LIFEtime, Sunday school and the Internet; a plan to start ministries all across this community and beyond, helping people follow Jesus wherever we can.

How to Know God’s Will

How to Know God’s Will

Romans 12:1-8

Dr. Jim Denison

My first Bible was given to me by the Gideons on March 27, 1969, as I left my fifth grade class at Bonham Elementary in Houston. When I became a Christian four years later, I carried this Bible in the hip pocket of my jeans, which is why it is so tattered and torn today. But it is precious to me.

That Gideon had no idea his ministry would so influence my life, or that I would preach from this Bible today. He did God’s will for his life that day, and I will forever be grateful.

We are in the midst of our Heritage Month, celebrating God’s providence across our church’s history and finding ways to trust his plan for our personal lives. Last week we agreed that God has a plan for us, a plan better than any we could make or know.

Now we ask the second question: how do we know God’s plan, God’s will for us? I want to give you some brief convictions about the will of God, then we’ll explore our text together.

These are foundational principles:

God has a plan for your life, and it is good.

God wants you to know his will for your life; in fact, more than you do.

God’s word is his will. He will never act contrary to it.

God’s will is for today. No one in the Bible knows where he or she will be next year, but he or she always knows what he or she should do this day. God’s will is first and foremost for now.

Have you transferred ownership of your life to God?

Now, with this foundation in place, let’s decide if we are in the will of God, and if not, how to be. In Paul’s day, people used animals to worship God, to sacrifice to him, to be right with him. Today we don’t think in agricultural, but financial, terms. So let’s change the analogy to our culture.

To know if you’re in God’s will, here’s the first question to ask: have you transferred ownership of your life to God?

Our text begins: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship” (v. 1).

“In view of God’s mercy”—Paul said it well two verses earlier: “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?” (11:35). God has given us life, and life eternal, this day, and every possession and ability which is ours. Remember his mercy.

Now, yield your life to him in gratitude. “Offer” is a technical term for making a sacrifice at the Temple.

How do we do this?

Make a total commitment. “Your bodies”—to the Hebrew, this meant all of life. They did not separate body and spirit the way the Greeks did. To them, the body stood for everything. Not just Sunday, but your time all week; not just a tenth or less of your money, but all of it, obedient to God; not just your ethics at church, but at work or school. Everything.

Make a daily commitment—”living sacrifices” means that we do this constantly. Not just when you became a Christian, or made a significant decision to follow God a few years ago, but today. In Luke 9:23, Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” When did you last yield your life and will consciously to God?

Make a sacrificial commitment—”sacrifices” is just as true for us as for them. In Acts 14.22, Paul said, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” It will always cost you to follow Jesus.

This is our “spiritual worship.” This is how God evaluates our worship this morning. Not by the fact that we came to church, sang the hymns, prayed the prayers, gave some money, and listened to the sermon, but by whether or not we transferred ownership of our lives again to God today.

This is counter-cultural, in the extreme. We’re told to be self-sufficient and self-centered. Looking Out for Number 1, Pulling Your Own Strings, Winning Through Intimidation, and Unlimited Power are just some of the recent bestsellers which describe the current culture. But God’s word stands opposed to this culture. It says, if you want to be in the will of God, first you must yield your will and life to him.

Quite simply, God will not reveal his will to you as an option for you to consider. Only when you’re willing to follow God’s will can you be in that will, or know it for your future. Oswald Chambers was right: we only understand that part of God’s will that we obey.

So if you want to be in God’s will, transfer ownership of your life unconditionally to God. For the first time, or again today. This is the indispensable commitment God is calling you to make today.

Withdraw from the world’s account

The second principle for knowing God’s will is the mirror of the first: withdraw from the world’s account: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world” (v. 2a).

You cannot be right with God and right with your culture at the same time. Jesus said, “No man can serve two masters; either he will hate the first and love the second, or be devoted to the first and despise the second” (Matthew 6:24). You must choose.

So, what is the “pattern of this world”? It boils down to three basic principles:

Possessions over people. One T-shirt slogan says, “The one who dies with the most toys wins.” Our culture judges the worth of people by their possessions and appearance. Money, possessions, what you drive, where you live, what you wear. American Protestants give to foreign missions exactly what Americans spend on Nintendo games.

Stones to Stand On

Stones to Stand On

Joshua 4:1-9

Dr. Jim Denison

Today we reenact a biblical scene given to us in Joshua 4. Here we discover the first Heritage Day in Scripture. I want simply to show you its relevance for our church and your life this morning.

Stones from the river

We are standing on the banks of the Jordan. It is late April—the snows from Mt. Hermon have melted and the rainy season has swollen the river into a torrential flood. We must cross it to claim our land and future.

So God calls our priests and leaders to step into the water while it is still flooded. Here’s what has just happened: “As soon as the priests who carried the ark [of the covenant] reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water’s edge, the water from upstream stopped flowing. It piled up in a heap a great distance away” (3:15-16). We have now all crossed over, trusting God to hold the waters and save our lives and families.

And we have seen the mighty power of our God, in response to the faith of our leaders and people.

Now God calls us to make a memorial to this miraculous event. Not to honor Joshua or our leaders, but our God. We send twelve men, representing us all, as our “heritage committee.” They take rocks which would otherwise be inaccessible to us, which have been at the bed of the Jordan River for centuries and longer, and make of them a “grand jury of stones” to stand as a permanent reminder of God’s providence and love for us.

And God is pleased.

We have gathered this morning under the leadership of our heritage committee, for the very same purpose. To see the power of God in our history and lives. No flooded river ever presented more challenges than the founders of this church faced. They had no property, buildings, sponsoring congregation, money, pastor or name. But God called them to step onto these plains as surely as he called the ancient Israelites to step into that river. And they did.

What “stones” from the crossing could we assemble this morning as a memorial to the greatness and providence of God?

Stones from the plain

What people come to mind?

John Boggs, Dr. T. C. Gardner, and J. M. Hefner, members of Gaston Avenue Baptist Church, who birthed the idea of this church in far-north Dallas in May of 1939.

George Truett, who said “there ought to be a church” in the Park Cities, and Estelle Bates, one of his most faithful workers, whom he assigned to help make it so.

The first members of the church, who set out to telephone every person living in the Park Cities to invite them to services while others went door-to-door with personal invitations. Their effort laid the missionary heart of our church in place. And thousands of people have followed in their steps.

Think of the pastors God has called here: Dr. R. Alton Reed, who resigned from Lamar Avenue Baptist Church in Wichita Falls to lead this fledgling congregation. He helped us secure our first building and property. Without his ministry, would our church have survived and thrived?

Dr. Herbert R. Howard, who left Immanuel Baptist Church in Tulsa to come to a church without a permanent location and taught us for 28 years that everybody is somebody. Without his visionary courage, would we be on this campus, in this building?

Dr. Jim Pleitz, who came from Pensacola in October of 1977 knowing that it’s hard to follow a long-term successful pastor, but he did it! His personal outreach ministry, warm pastor’s heart, and media ministry to the city combined to lead 2,200 people to join our church in his first ten years here.

Dr. Allen Walworth, who began on September 11, 1994 and led years of change: redrafting our articles of incorporation, the shared vision process, and a variety of staff additions and changes which brought some of the key leaders on this team today.

Think of the property God has led us to develop:

The house on Lovers Lane, because Dr. Reed and some men “happened” to stop there on March 17, 1940 while looking at location sites. It wasn’t on the market, but the church bought it anyway.

This land, purchased in 1945 from Mr. Harris Yarbrough, church member and University Park mayor, sold to us at his cost—on a two-lane blacktop county road, with nothing but knee-deep Johnson grass and chiggers to commend it.

These buildings, begun in 1948; this sanctuary, twice the size recommended by the architects, because Dr. Howard said their plans were too small.

Rejoice in the projects God has led us to undertake:

Mission church sponsorships such as Richardson Heights and Midway Road.

Millions of dollars invested in missions.

The Denominational Affairs Committee, which has kept us from being polarized over Baptist political issues.

Uniquely innovative ministries like the Andrew Club in 1954 to reach out to the community, the University of Christian Life in 1960, televised services in 1964, the denomination’s first full-time singles minister, remarkable music ministry to the city, the STEP ministry to the poor, and now Saturday night worship, a seminary for lay people, and missions and media outreach to the city.


Across our history on this plain, as at that river, we have seen stone on top of stone, each one showing us God’s providential care, power, and purpose for our church. Each stone not in our honor, but his; this day, not for our glory, but his alone. He stops the water—all we must do is trust and obey.

Now, what about your life? What river is God challenging you to cross? What ministry is he calling you to fulfil? What person is he telling you to reach? What stones will others stand on, because you were as faithful to God as those whose vision we celebrate today?

If we step into our river, God will part it and the stones of heritage will be ours. Stones to stand on, forever. Where will you get your foot wet?