Come to the Party

Come to the Party

Matthew 28:18-20 / 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Dr. Jim Denison

According to tradition, Queen Victoria of England looked out her castle window one morning and saw a beautiful flower blooming. It was early spring and the flower was unusual. Delighting in its beauty, she stationed a palace guard by the flower to keep people from trampling it, then soon forgot about it. Centuries later, a guard still stood at that plot of grass.

Sometimes we do things and never know why.

Today we have baptized, and soon we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Let’s be sure we know why. And let’s make these ordinances symbols of the larger Christian faith we should celebrate every week in worship and every day of the week. For Christianity should be a continued celebration, a party of faith. Unfortunately, often it’s not.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in his diary, as though recording an unusual event: “I have been to church today, and am not depressed.” Oliver Wendell Holmes said he would have become a clergyman except that so many clergymen looked and acted like undertakers. You’ve perhaps heard about the man who went to the airport to pick up the visiting preacher, whom he’d never met. He walked up to a man getting off the plane and said, “You must be our minister.” The man said, “No, it’s my ulcer that makes me look that way.”

The routine and ritual which sometimes characterizes our faith stands in sharp contrast with the kind of joyous faith I witnessed last week in Cuba. Their Sunday morning worship service began at 9:00 and ended at 12:50. The exuberance of their worship and their faith was thrilling. In the midst of oppressive poverty and governmental control, their joy in Jesus was contagious.

Mother Teresa said, “You’ll never know that Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.” They have only Jesus. And he’s enough.

Today let’s learn from them, and from the ordinances Jesus has given to us. Let’s learn to celebrate our Christian faith with exuberance and joy.

Why baptism matters

Years ago, a machinist at Ford Motor Company in Detroit became a Christian and was baptized. He took his baptism seriously. He had been stealing parts and tools from Ford for years. The morning after his baptism he took all the stolen parts and tools back to his boss. He explained his situation and his recent conversion and baptism, and asked for forgiveness.

This response by an employee was without precedent. Mr. Ford was visiting a European plant at the time, but he was cabled concerning the details of this matter. His response was requested. Mr. Ford immediately returned a cable with his decision: “Dam up the Detroit River, and baptize the entire city.”

Jesus went even further. In his Great Commission he ordered his church to baptize all nations (Matthew 28:19). Why?

The word “baptize” comes from a Greek word which means to “dip” or “immerse.” The word was often used in the ancient world to describe the act of dipping a cup in a stream or washing clothing. To “baptize” something is literally to immerse it in water.

John the Baptist was the first person in the New Testament to baptize people. He did this in the Jordan River when they repented publicly for their sins and chose to follow God in faith. This was their witness to their community.

When Jesus began his public ministry, he started by being baptized by John. He was not repenting of his sins, of course, since he is the sinless Son of God. Rather, he was giving witness to his faith in his Father and supporting John’s ministry.

Later, Jesus commanded all his disciples to continue this work of baptizing: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Baptism thus began with John and is commanded by Jesus Christ for us today.

The symbolism is simple. Jesus has washed away our sins, purging the person we were before faith in him and raising us to new life. Baptism pictures this event: washing away the “old man” and raising the “new man” in Christ.

Who should be baptized?In the New Testament, the only people who are baptized are those who have come to personal faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Because baptism “pictures” your faith commitment, it makes sense that it should follow it.

As you know, many other traditions baptize infants upon their parents’ faith. This is a beautiful dedication of a child to God, but it has no New Testament precedent. We believe in dedicating children to God as well, and do so often in worship, but we don’t use baptism to do so.

This is not a denominational issue. If your baptism followed your personal salvation and was done by immersion as in the New Testament, we would certainly add no other requirements. Typically one of our staff members or counselors would talk with you regarding your faith and baptism experience, and prepare you to join our church family.

If you have not been baptized by immersion, why should you be? Not merely to join a church, as though this were “hazing” to join a fraternity. Biblically there are two reasons: to be obedient to the will of God, and to show others your faith in Christ.

First, consider the obedience of baptism. Jesus commanded us to do this. The early Christians followed that commandment very carefully, baptizing those who became Christians at Pentecost (Acts 2:41) and those who trusted Jesus as a result of personal witnessing (Acts 8:38). Baptism does not make you a Christian, but it is an important act of obedience to Christ.

Second, consider the witness of baptism. The water does not wash away your sins—it symbolizes the fact that Jesus has already done this. But it makes this symbol public. You say, “Jesus is my Lord,” repeating the statement of faith used for twenty centuries. You tell the world that you love Jesus, then you show them by submitting to baptism and picturing the forgiveness and salvation Jesus has given to you.


Finding Joy in Strange Places

Finding Joy in Strange Places

Luke 10:1-24

Dr. Jim Denison

Americans lead the world in consumption of aspirin, and in physical problems caused by stress. Depression is a very real issue in our country and culture.

More than 35 million Americans take Prozac. By 2020 depression will likely be the world’s second-most disabling disease, after heart disease. The World Health Organization already ranks depression as first in prevalence among females and fourth overall.

Uncertainty about our political future has sent stocks tumbling and consumer confidence sliding. Many are pessimistic about our financial future over the coming months. Many are discouraged.

And the upcoming holidays make things even harder for many. 41% of Americans say they find the holidays stressful. There are entire ministries and psychological support groups which exist to get people through the holidays. Family, finances, and time pressures are hard, and those who have experienced the loss of a loved one have an especially difficult time.

We all need joy, especially in these days.

Where can we find true joy, a deep-seated sense of tranquility and serenity in the face of challenging times? In the unlikeliest of places, from a subject which typically causes us more fear and angst than joy and delight. As we begin a three-week emphasis on global missions, ministry, and evangelism, I wish today to make this single point: your greatest joy will be found in sharing Jesus with others. Your greatest sense of significance, purpose, and fulfillment is waiting for you, right here. Let’s see why this is so, and what this fact means for your life and mine.

How the first evangelists found their joy

Jesus is coming near the end of his earthly ministry, and has now set his face towards Jerusalem and the cross. But there is one last group of cities and peoples he has not yet touched—the Jews and Gentiles who live to the east of the Jordan river, outside Israel itself, the area called the Trans-Jordan. Self-respecting Jews would not go over there. But Jesus did.

On his way, he sent seventy of his followers ahead (v. 1). Why seventy? Because there were seventy nations among the Gentiles, according to Genesis 10. One per nation, figuratively.

He “sent” them—this is the word for “apostle,” one sent with the authority of another and on his behalf.

He sent them “two by two,” because we are to do ministry together.

He sent them to “every town and place” because everyone matters to him. 2 Peter 3.9 is clear: God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.

“Where he was about to go.” We are “advance men” for Jesus. Our job is simply to get people ready to meet him.

Now comes the good news: “The harvest is plentiful” (v. 2). Jesus saw the harvest when he was up in Galilee (Matthew 9), and in Samaria as well (John 4). And now with these Gentiles across the Jordan River. Everywhere he looked he saw a harvest ready to be reaped. So should we.

Keith Parks, the former head of the International Mission Board, has said that more nations are open to the gospel today than at any time in Christian history.

We hear stories of 28,000 conversations every day in sub-Saharan Africa; of 20,000 a day in Communist China. South Korea had perhaps not a single Christian a century ago; now the nation is one-third born-again.

Closer to home, we see a hunger for spirituality beyond any in memory. Television shows such as the one on Genesis this week, movies, newspapers and books and magazines all focus on spiritual things regularly.

George Barna’s surveys indicate that one-fourth of those who do not go to church would come if only someone would invite them. Imagine 25,000 lost people here next week—Jesus does.

So what are we to do about this harvest field, just waiting to be reaped?

Pray first: “Ask the Lord of the harvest …” We can do much for God after we pray, but nothing until we pray.

Then go (v. 3). This is Jesus’ command, addressed in the second person plural to every Christian. No exceptions, no options.

Go in his power. We are “lambs among wolves,” and our only protection is in staying close to our Shepherd. Do not depend on your own resources such as a purse or bag or sandals (v. 4a). Do not be distracted by others (4b).

Go wherever you are welcome (v. 5). Build relationships—”eat what is set before you” (v. 8). They would be Jews in Gentile homes, offered non-kosher food. Eat it—make friends—build relationships.

Meet the needs you find: “Heal the sick who are there” (9a). Earn the right to tell the good news of God’s love, by showing them your love.

Ultimately, tell them about Jesus: “The kingdom of God is near you” (9b). Tell them about Jesus. Invite them to enter his kingdom, through faith in him as Savior and Lord. Wherever you go, the Kingdom and the King go as well. Invite them to Jesus.

Will everyone come? No: “when you enter a town and are not welcomed …” (v. 10). We will be rejected by some. But they do not reject us—they reject our King: “He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (16).

When we share our faith, we feel as though we are on trial and the one with whom we are speaking is the prosecutor, trying to show us how wrong we are. In truth, Jesus is on trial. Satan is the prosecutor; the Holy Spirit is the defense attorney; the person with whom you are speaking is the jury. You are simply a witness, called to the stand to tell what you know. You may be the first witness, and leave the courtroom without a verdict; you may be the last witness, and watch the jury decide for Jesus. But he is on trial, not you. Just tell what you know.


Stepping From Success to Significance

Stepping From Success to Significance

Acts 11.19-30

Dr. Jim Denison

Nearly six million people voted for president in the state of Florida, and the margin between the candidates stood at 930 votes before the recounting by hand, and 537 after. That is a margin smaller than the number of people in this sanctuary, by far, to determine the occupant of the most powerful office in the world. Sometimes people count.

But not often enough.

How many people know your name, out of a Dallas population of 1,075,894? If you died today, you would be just one of 140,000 who will die this day—how many people would notice? Americans earned $7,789,600,000,000 last year—how much money did you make? 400,000 babies will be born—how significant in the larger world is your child or mine?

Conflict rages in the Middle East, political turmoil in Peru and so many other countries, and of course, the political future of America is very uncertain. But what can you and I do about any of this? How much difference does your life make?

Today we continue our focus on global missions, ministry, and evangelism. But why? Isn’t this all really about making more money for missions programs? Or is there more to it?

Would you like to spend the years left to you doing something that matters? Something that touches all of humanity and leaves the world a better place? Something that gives your life deep satisfaction and your soul a sense of real significance?

Who wouldn’t? God says that you can. His word tells us how to step from success to significance. Let’s take the first step today.

What they did …

Let me take you to Antioch, one of the most immoral cities in the ancient world, and surprisingly, home to the greatest missionary church in the New Testament.

Antioch of Syria was the third-largest city in the Roman Empire, with a population of half a million people. It was located 300 miles to the north of Jerusalem, where the city of Antakya stands in modern-day Turkey.

Antioch was a great commercial center, as trade from the world over flowed through its banks and markets. This was a city of cosmopolitan culture, much like San Francisco or New York City today.

But Antioch was best known for its moral corruption and decadence. The cult of Artemis, located five miles to the south, practiced temple prostitution and all kinds of sexual immorality. Every kind of illegal activity was found here. If you crossed Las Vegas with Sodom and Gomorrah, you’d have Antioch of Syria.

It is amazing that this city would be home to the most missionary church in early Christianity. We can never give up on any city, Dallas included.

Here’s how that church happened.

Verse 19 tells us that the persecution which began with Stephen’s martyrdom scattered Christians out from Jerusalem as far as Phoenicia along the western coast of Syria, the Mediterranean island of Cyrus, and Antioch to the north. However, these first missionaries preached only to fellow Jews.

But then some courageous Christians from Cyprus and the north African town of Cyrene came to Antioch to evangelize the Gentiles as well. Most Jewish Christians simply did not believe that Gentiles could become Christians. But this unnamed group of missionaries believed we could. And we will forever—literally—be grateful.

And God gave them immediate success, in four ways.

First, against all odds, “a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord” (v. 21). Among them was Luke, the physician and author of Luke and Acts. When you follow Jesus in missions and evangelism, you never know the ultimate result. Tony McGrady and Julian Unger had no idea when they knocked on my apartment door and invited me to church in 1973 that I would one day be your pastor and tell you their names. We cannot know the eternal significance of immediate obedience to Jesus.

Second, the mother church at Jerusalem sent Barnabas to investigate this phenomenon; he “saw the evidence of the grace of God” (v. 23) and encouraged the people, and again “a great number of people were brought to the Lord” (v. 24). When God is honored, his church must expand. Our church must expand. We cannot help it. All healthy things grow.

Third, Barnabas went to Tarsus, 100 miles to the north, to recruit Saul for this ministry. Saul (Paul to us) had not been mentioned by the Book of Acts for nine years; but somehow Barnabas knows that God wants Saul for this ministry. And so Paul the Apostle reenters the stage of global missions. God’s plan for Antioch was far larger than Antioch. His plan for Dallas is far larger than Dallas.

Fourth, as a direct result of the teaching Barnabas and Saul provided for these new Gentile believers, “the disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (v. 26). “Christian” literally means “little Christ.” These Gentile converts so took on the character, the priorities, the morals, the personality of Jesus that even the skeptical pagans around them saw Jesus in them. How we want this to be true for us!

Now watch their Antiochian success become global significance.

Some prophets from Jerusalem warned this vibrant, exploding church that bad times are ahead: “a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world” (v. 28). This happened during the reign of Claudius, around A.D. 45.

These Gentile believers in Antioch have enormous resources, given the economic prosperity of their city. This famine will likely not affect them greatly. They don’t need to care. I knew a man who lost $57 million dollars in the oil collapse of the early 1980’s, and was still one of the three wealthiest men in his city. The Antioch Christians had enough resources not to worry too much about the coming hard times.

But the Jerusalem Christians are in for disaster. Jews in their culture have ostracized them for their faith; they have lost their jobs, many have lost their homes. A famine will mean starvation for them.