From Good to Great
Dr. Jim Denison
On April 17, AD 29, Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. On Easter Sunday he rose from the grave, and the rest is history. History we continue today. But so much has changed since then.
I read this week about a car remote now available. It will start your car from a quarter-mile away so the air conditioner will cool the car before you have to drive in the Texas heat. My first car didn’t have an air conditioner. My second car’s air conditioner worked great until it got hot outside. Much has changed.
The movie Phone Booth is popular these days. I’ve neither seen it nor recommend it. But it’s ironic that phone booths in real life are disappearing quickly, as the newspaper recently reported. Said the article: “It’s as if the movie Speed was about a runaway stagecoach.”
So much has changed since that first Easter Sunday. But so much has not.
We’re still afraid of death, even more so with terror alerts. Lincoln Continental has produced a $140,000 Town Car which can stop an AK-47 and block a grenade. BMW has a car which can be hermetically sealed in a gas attack. Full-metal jackets can be put on Cadillac Escalades and Hummer H2s, for $30,000 to $350,000. Breathing masks are common in Hong Kong and Toronto.
Much has not changed. We still want our lives to have meaning, significance, and purpose. But where do we look for them?
Refuse the seduction of secondary success
Let’s consider the wrong answer first. Woodrow Wilson said, “Many men are seduced by secondary success.” Words worth pondering.
My sermon’s title comes from a recent business bestseller: Good to Great. Says the author: “Good is the enemy of great.” Good schools prevent great schools; good government prevents great government; good lives prevent great lives. The seduction of secondary success.
I fear that God feels the same way about our society today. There was a time when we needed religion to give life meaning and significance. But in the last century, Darwinism taught Americans that we don’t need religion to explain our natural lives and world. Freud taught us that we don’t need religion to explain our emotional and psychological lives. Science and medicine have all the answers, or soon will. So what’s left for church?
Today we use religion to serve us. We use the spiritual to make us feel better about our secular lives, to give us peace, to help us get ahead. To meet our needs, to serve our agenda, to help us find success.
We’re not the first: “Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (v. 1).
“Breathing out” means that “murderous threats” were the air he was breathing, the atmosphere in which he was living. Why?
Because “Lord’s disciples,” to his mind was a malignant tumor which must be removed from the soul of Judaism. He would be the surgeon who would save his people and their faith from this malice.
So he went to Damascus, 150 miles to the north, walking from here to Waco. He held in his hand “letters,” extradition warrants to bring any Christians he might find in Damascus back to Jerusalem for trial and execution. And he was on his way.
This man desperately wanted a life of significance. He could see the high priest personally; can you get an appointment with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court? He was a Pharisee, the elite corps of Judaism; a scholar trained by Gamaliel, their finest theologian.
But it wasn’t enough. Now he would be known as the man who saved Israel from these malicious Christians. He would do this for God. He would achieve greatness in the eyes of his fellow Pharisees. He was seduced by secondary success, but didn’t know it.
He’s not the last.
Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles has written a fascinating exploration titled The Secular Mind. In it he quotes the poet William Carlos Williams, who knew a woman born in Italy who raised her family in America. She “told me a few weeks ago that it’s become different going to church here than it was when she was in Italy and when she first came here. She used to sit there and talk to God, and try to figure out what he wanted, and try to please him. Now, she says, she mostly thinks about what’s going on in her life, in her kids’ lives, and she asks God to make it better.
“She said to me, ‘It used to be I prayed to God, that I would learn what he wanted from me, and how he wanted me to behave…but now I pray to God that he help us with this problem, and the next one—to be a Big Pal of ours! It used to be, when I prayed to God, I was talking to him; now… I’m only asking him to help out with things'” (103).
And so our society comes to church on Easter and other Sundays to keep religious tradition, to be spiritual, to get God’s blessing, to ask God to “help out with things.” Why did you come this morning? Why am I preaching this sermon?
Experience the Easter encounter
Now comes the most famous conversion in Christian history.
It was “about noon,” Paul would later say (Ac 26.13).
He saw “a light from heaven.” Later he would describe it as “above the brightness of the sun” (Acts 26:13). In other words, a miracle, not a natural phenomenon.
It “flashed around him.” The Greek is clear: this happened specifically to Paul. God had his spotlight on him, as he has it on each of us today.
Then Paul “heard a voice”—the Greek means that he heard with understanding.
The others heard the sound but did not understand it or see anyone (v. 7). This call was specifically and personally for Paul, as is God’s call for each one of us. No one else can hear God’s will for you. God speaks a “language of the heart” which you alone can understand.