From Good To Great

From Good to Great

Acts 9:1-6

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.

How to Handle Doubts

How to Handle Doubts

John 20:24-31

Dr. Jim Denison

Thesis: Jesus will give every doubter who asks the miraculous gift of his presence

One of my favorite stories concerns a Baptist young man who went away to college and made himself obnoxious to his friends by bragging constantly about his Baptist heritage. According to him, everything about Baptists was right, and everyone else was wrong. That might have been tolerated at a Baptist college, but this wasn’t and most of his friends weren’t. They finally devised a plan to get even.

One Friday night they slipped some sleeping powder into their Baptist friend’s coffee. When he passed out, they loaded him into a car and drove him out of the city to a remote graveyard. They’d already done their work well. They had a large coffin there, with its lid open. They put their friend in the coffin and hid behind a nearby tombstone to see what would happen when he woke up.

For a long while, nothing happened. Night passed; dawn came. The sun began to rise and its long rays cast shadows through the mist collecting on the ground. And they were hiding and chuckling, “It won’t be long now.”

A moment later they heard a noise in the casket. Then they saw an arm come up and stretch itself. Then another arm. And then their Baptist friend sat up and looked around. And they were saying, “This is it. He’s going to look around, see where he is, scream and jump up and run out of the graveyard, and we’re going to laugh about it for the rest of our lives.”

Instead, the young Baptist looked around at the other grave plots and shouted, “Hallelujah! It’s the resurrection morning, and the Baptists are the first ones up!”

Easter is the highest and greatest day of the entire year. But a lot of people miss the celebration. In a recent survey, 46% of non-Christians said they didn’t even know why Christians observe Easter. This study will help.

On this Sunday after Easter, let’s meet a man for whom the resurrection occurred a week late. Thomas proves that it’s not too late for anyone to meet the risen Christ, no matter their doubts or fears. We know people who are struggling with their faith. And we know how doubts feel. What Jesus did for Thomas, he’s waiting this week to do for us.

Expect doubts (v. 24a)

Jesus made five appearances on the first Easter Sunday: to Mary Magdalene, to the other women, to the two on the road to Emmaus, to Peter, and then to the other Ten. He would make five other post-resurrection appearances over the next 40 days. But none was more significant than the event we’ll study this week.

Our story begins with the fact of spiritual doubt. The disciples had met on the first Easter “with the doors locked for fear of the Jews” (John 20.19). Now , a week later, their doors were still locked (v. 26). Their fear of the authorities was still very real. The same people who executed Jesus might be looking for them. The most dangerous place in Jerusalem was with these followers of the convicted and crucified carpenter. But Thomas joined them anyway. If a man of such courage could experience doubt, so will we.

Here is a person so committed to Jesus that he exhorted the other disciples to join him in following their Lord to Jerusalem, that they might die with him (John 11.16). He was the one disciple willing to admit his questions so that he might follow Jesus more fully (John 14.5). He was still “one of the Twelve” (v. 24), the term used for Jesus’ closest followers even after Judas’s death (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.5, Revelatiom 21.14). Doubts are not just for the weak.

In fact, they affect everyone. The Bible is filled with Doubting Thomases. Think of Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden, doubting God’s commandment regarding the forbidden fruit; Cain doubting God and slaying Abel; Abraham doubting God, and Sarah laughing at her Lord; Jacob wrestling with him all night; Moses doubting him at the burning bush; the children of Israel doubting him and wandering for a generation in the wilderness; Peter doubting Jesus and denying him three times.

Thomas was not the first to have spiritual doubts, or the last. Even after they met the risen Lord, “the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted” (Matthew 28.16-17). Every one of us has been a Doubting Thomas at some point in our spiritual lives. Some of us are standing at his side today.

Frederick Buechner is right: “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” We all have doubts. To doubt that statement is to have a doubt about doubts. Such questions are part of every human experience.

Questions about the faith are not confined to those who claim such faith. According to George Hunter, the most important issue keeping secular people from Christian faith is doubt. Secular people doubt the claims of God’s word, partly because of the plural truth claims confronting people today. They also doubt the intelligence, relevance, and credibility of the church and its leaders.

Historian Will Durant speaks for millions: “God, who was once the consolation of our brief life and our refuge in bereavement and suffering, has apparently vanished from the scene; no telescope, no microscope discovers Him. Nothing is certain in life except defeat and death, a sleep from which there is no awakening. Faith and hope disappear. Doubt and despair are the order of the day.”

F. W. Robertson was widely hailed as one of England’s greatest preachers. One of his church members said, “I cannot describe the strange sensation during his sermon of union with him and communion with one another which filled us as he spoke. Nor can I describe the sense we had of a higher Presence with us as he spoke—the sacred awe which filled our hearts—the hushed stillness in which the smallest sound was startling—the calm eagerness of men who listened as if waiting for a word of revelation to resolve the doubt or to heal the sorrow of a life.”

How To Pray For Your Kids

How to Pray for Your Kids

Matthew 6:9-15

Dr. Jim Denison

Today we celebrate with our graduates and their families as they near a most significant achievement and milestone in their lives. In light of the occasion, I thought an exit exam might be helpful for us all. Let’s see if we are as educated as those we celebrate this weekend.

How long did the Hundred Years War last? 116 years.

Which country makes Panama hats? Ecuador.

In which month do Russians celebrate the October Revolution? November.

What is a camel’s hair brush made of? Squirrel fur.

What was King George VI’s first name? Albert.

Where are Chinese gooseberries from? New Zealand.

How long did the Thirty Years War last? 30 years.

Perhaps more education is in order for us all.

This weekend we celebrate academic growth, but also spiritual. While our schools help our children to grow intellectually, we are responsible for helping them grow spiritually. So how can we pray for our kids?

As we return to the Sermon on the Mount, we find today the most famous prayer in human history. Let’s ask Jesus to teach us to pray for our children, whatever their age; for anyone we love; and for ourselves as well.

Praying through the week

Sunday: pray for their salvation.

“Our Father”—not “the” or even “my,” but “our.” The prayer begins with the promise of a personal relationship with the family of God. Note that Jesus was the first Jewish rabbi in history to address God as his personal abba or father. Now he invites us to do the same. And so our first prayer for our children is that they enter the family of God, that they become the children of God. We pray first for their salvation.

Pray for them to know Jesus as their Savior and Lord, early in life: “from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15).

Parents often ask me how we know when our children are old enough to trust in Christ. Here’s the short answer I give: when they know they need to become a Christian. Not just when they want to be “saved,” or to join the church or be baptized. When you sense that the Holy Spirit has convicted them of their sins, that they need to be forgiven and saved. The Father loves them even more than you do; he’ll help you know when the time has come. In the meanwhile, pray every day for their salvation.

If your children are Christians, thank God for their salvation and pray for them to live this week in a way which pleases their Father in heaven.

Monday: pray for their spiritual growth

“Hallowed be thy name.” Pray that they would hallow or honor God in all they do. This is to pray not just for their spiritual salvation, but for their spiritual growth. As they begin another week at school, pray for them to enroll in Jesus’ school of spiritual discipleship and growth again this week as well.

Pray that they would want to know the Lord personally: “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better” (Ephesians 1:17).

Pray for them to grow closer to God each day: “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being” (Ephesians 3:16).

Teach them to pray and to study Scripture. Model spiritual growth for them with your Bible study and prayer life. Pray with your kids. Read Bible stories to them. Share God’s word together. As you feed them physically, feed them spiritually.

Tuesday: pray for them to live in God’s will

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” His Kingdom comes wherever his will is done.

Pray for them to be yielded to the Spirit of God: “be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). This is a daily command and need for our souls.

Ask God to reveal his will to them: “We have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Colossians 1:9); “That you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ” (Philippians 1:10).

Pray for them to be yielded to all the ways God reveals his will: to those in authority over them (Romans 13.1), to parents (Ephesians 6:1-2), to Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16).

Pray for them to seek God’s will first: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). Pray that this becomes a reflex for their spiritual lives.

Wednesday: pray for their practical needs

Give us this day our daily bread

Pray for their needs this day and week—physical, emotional, relational, spiritual: “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

Be specific. Keep a prayer list for them, and teach them to keep one as well.

Thursday: pray for their moral purity

Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

That they will hate sin: “Let those who love the Lord hate evil” (Psalm 97:10).

That they will be caught when guilty: “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees” (Psalm 119:71).

That they will live in repentance and purity: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).

That they will stay pure until marriage: “Flee from sexual immorality…You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:18, 19-20).

Setting Captives Free

Setting Captives Free

Matthew 21:1-11

Dr. Jim Denison

This week has brought great victory to our coalition forces in Iraq. You’ll always remember the Saddam statue’s fall in Baghdad on Wednesday. Now we begin the process of rebuilding that nation. In that light, this story may be of interest to you.

When in England at a conference, Colin Powell was asked by the former Archbishop of Canterbury if our plans for Iraq were an example of empire-building by President Bush and America.

The Secretary of State replied, “We have gone forth from our shores repeatedly over the last hundred years, as recently as the last year in Afghanistan, and put wonderful young men and women at risk, many of whom have lost their lives, and we have asked for nothing except enough ground to bury them in.”

For instance, 65,000 young Americans were killed liberating France from Hitler, and lie buried in French soil. It is the same around the world.

With such courage, Americans and others have set captives free again this week in Iraq. You have watched the Iraqi people on television, as I have. So many are responding in joy, welcoming our troops with gratitude. Some reject our presence, and some are apathetic. These either don’t want to be free, or don’t know that they are.

Hold that thought, and join the crowds with me at the first Palm Sunday.

Join the crowd

The Israel of Jesus’ day was an occupied country, under the heel of their Roman oppressors. Caesar could be as despotic as Saddam Hussein, his troops as cruel. So when Jesus of Nazareth came to Jerusalem on Sunday, April 12, in the year A.D. 29, the crowds went wild with joy. They believed their Messiah had come—the one sent from God to liberate them from the evil Romans and set them free.

Had there been no joy that day, it would have been for one of two reasons. Either they didn’t want to be freed from Rome—thus the religious authorities’ rejection of Jesus. Or they didn’t believe they were—thus the apathy of those who watched this parade but refused its joy.

They missed the only One who could fulfill God’s plan for their freedom.

Matthew shows us that Palm Sunday “took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet” (v. 4), Zechariah’s prediction, made 567 years earlier.

Jesus made preparations for this event before it occurred, sending his disciples ahead to find the donkey he would ride into the Holy City. Jesus prepared on that day, but he began before the first day was created—he is “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world” (Revelation 13:8).

This fact proves that he is “the Lord” (v. 3), the only time in Matthew’s gospel where this title is applied to Jesus. Those who missed the joy of Palm Sunday missed the only One who could fulfill God’s plan for their freedom.

They missed the only One who would die for that freedom.

A Roman conqueror rode into a city in a chariot drawn by four horses, with a slave holding his crown above his head.—on white horses.

Jesus came on a donkey. He chose to. He had just walked the 15 miles from Jericho to Jerusalem, up an elevation of some 3,000 feet, through some of the most difficult landscape to be found anywhere in the world. He could have walked into the city. But he rode a donkey, a beast of suffering, a symbol of peace. He came as one “gentle” (v. 5)—the word means strength under submission. He came humbled before the Lord, and those he had been sent to save.

These crowds wanted a military ruler. If Jesus had been the Messiah they wanted, he would have set them free from Rome. But they would still have been slaves. Slaves to sin, to Satan, to death. So would we be.

So he died for them, and for each of us. Christ “died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6).

He “died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3).

He “laid down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

He “was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).

He “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13).

He “gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Galatians 1:4).

He “gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own” (Titus 2:14).

He has “freed us from our sins by his blood” (Revelation 1:5).

He “purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).

He “died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18).

The word of God is true: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

Some were overjoyed at his coming. Some were apathetic. Some rejected him. It is still the same today. We are each one in one of those crowds, this moment.

Choose your crowd

Which is yours? Let’s find out.

How did you feel about coming to worship today? As you got up this morning, what if your Sunday school teacher or a staff member had called your house to say that worship was cancelled. A water main broke, flooding the Sanctuary, and the service was impossible. How would you have felt—one less thing to do? Or a joyous opportunity missed?

How do you feel about the Christian faith in general this morning?

Many in the Arab world interpret America’s war in Iraq as another Christian crusade against Muslims.

Last Sunday’s “High Profile” in the Dallas Morning News profiled a lawyer who built a successful AIDS housing program. The column always asks among other questions, “If I could change one thing about myself, I’d ….” The man being profiled answered, “I’d rid myself of the Judeo-Christian and Western hang-ups that stunted my growth as a human being.”

Weapons Of Mass Construction

Weapons of Mass Construction

John 21:15-19

Dr. Jim Denison

Last Sunday morning, Dr. John Plotts announced this weekend’s events in a way which I have borrowed today. He referenced the war in Iraq, then showed that we are in a spiritual war in Dallas. In Iraq we are fighting to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction. In Dallas, he said, we are fighting to use “weapons of mass construction.”

Let’s learn the truth of those words today.

The big question

The point of our story is simple: if we love Jesus, we will serve him.

Peter had denied Jesus three times on the night of his arrest. Now Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him. To each question Peter replies honestly: “Lord, you know all things—you know that I love you.”

Jesus didn’t ask if Peter was sorry, or if he would promise not to fail again. He asked not for vows or conduct but for his heart, because he knows that when he has the heart he has everything. And Peter gave it to him.

Then Jesus called him in response to “feed my sheep.” He called him to service. He ordained him to ministry. And Peter would fulfill this service for the rest of his life. Because Peter loved Jesus, he served him. And the rest is history.

Now the same Lord asks us the same question: do we love him? Do we love Jesus today? If we do, we will serve him. We will find and use our spiritual gifts. We will become weapons of mass construction.

If we do not, it will be for one of two reasons.

Exposing words-righteousness

Our “ministry discovery” weekend has two enemies. One I call “words-righteousness,” the other “works-righteousness.” “Words-righteousness” is the spiritual malady, all too common for evangelicals, which assumes that our words of faith are enough for God. So long as we pray a salvation prayer, say the right words, know the right language, we’ve done all that God expects of us.

I prayed such a prayer on September 9, 1973, in the living room of the Holmes’ house, down Beechnut Street from College Park Baptist Church in southwest Houston. I asked Jesus Christ to forgive my sins and come into my life as my Lord. When I prayed that prayer I was “saved,” or “born again.” I “became a Christian.” Most of you have had a similar experience; I hope you will all trust Christ as your Savior in this way.

There is nothing else I must do to earn my salvation, and no way I can lose it. I am the child of God, and will be with in him heaven forever.

So why is ministry discovery vital to my life? Why must I find my spiritual gifts and use them as “weapons of mass construction”?

Such a lifestyle is wonderful for those who choose it, of course. They will have great reward in heaven for their commitment.

But unless ministry discovery is vital to my existence now, central to my life today, it remains an option to consider, an “extra” to add to my already-busy life, going the second mile when the first mile is hard enough.

I have “words-righteousness,” and that’s enough for now. Maybe I’ll get more involved in ministry later, when I have more time. But not today.

Exposing works-righteousness

The other opponent of our “ministry discovery” weekend is works-righteousness. Working as hard as we possibly can so we will be people of worth and value. Words-righteousness makes ministry discovery unnecessary, since we’re already going to heaven; works-righteousness keeps us so busy it is impossible.

Works-righteousness especially appeals to high performance people—those of us who measure our worth by our works, our accomplishments and grades and salaries and possessions. We are what we do. And nothing is ever enough—there is always the next business deal to close, the next semester’s dean’s list to make, the next season’s victories to win, the next person to impress. The next sermon to preach, or devotional to write.

We are busy, but for the wrong reasons. We serve so we will be people of worth, instead of serving because we already are. We work to be righteous, instead of working because we already are. We even become involved in ministry so that God will accept us, instead of serving because he already has.

And so we are so committed and busy that we cannot imagine doing anything else. There isn’t enough time for the work we have already.

Discovering our ministry

To both of us, those caught by words-righteousness and by works-righteousness, Jesus has a word today. To the first, he asks with Peter, “Do you love me?”

We say, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” If words-righteousness were enough, the text would end. Peter has prayed his salvation prayer, he is “saved,” he has spoken the right words.

But no. Jesus continues: “Then feed my sheep.” Serve my kingdom. Do your job. Use your gifts. Fulfill your calling. In essence he says, If you truly love me, you will serve me. Not because you must, but because you will. Not because works save, but because the saved work.

We owned a peach tree in Midland. We knew, because it produced peaches. It couldn’t help it—bearing such fruit was simply its nature. If it had not borne peaches, no matter how much it looked like a peach tree it would not have been one. A fruit tree bears fruit.

It is the same with our love for any person. I can say that I love our boys, but if I did nothing to serve them you would say that my love was not real. If I would not care for them, work hard for their future, provide for their needs, spend time with them, enjoy them, my words would be empty and false. My works do not prove my love, they express it. They are not love, but its fruit. They are the natural, inevitable result of a heart which loves.