Building On Purpose

Building on Purpose

Luke 10:38-42

Dr. Jim Denison

I read this week an unusual list of instructions, purportedly written for those traveling the jungle regions of South America. The title: “What to Do If Attacked by an Anaconda.” The instructions are as follows:

If an anaconda attacks you, do not run. The snake is faster than you are. Lie flat on the ground. Put your arms tight against your sides and your legs tight against one another. The snake will come and begin to nudge and climb over your body. Do not panic. After the snake has examined you, it will begin to swallow you from the feet end. Always from the feet end.

The snake will now begin to suck your legs into its body. You must lie perfectly still. This will take a long time. When the snake has reached your knees, slowly and with as little movement as possible reach down, take your knife, and very gently slide it into the side of the snake’s mouth, between the edge of its mouth and the snake’s head.

Be sure your knife is sharp. Be sure you have your knife.

The events of this day are larger than any anaconda, and fortunately, far more exciting. Our faith family will begin today the largest and most expensive building project in our church’s history: a three-story garage for 750 cars, built beneath a three-story Community Life Center.

When our project is completed we will have the space we need to continue growing our preschool, children, and youth ministries; to gather in greater numbers for adult Bible study, fellowship events, and large weekday ministries; to reach more of our community than we have ever been able to reach before.

But how do we keep from being swallowed? How can we be sure to keep the main thing the main thing, to remember our purpose as we “continue the vision,” to keep our eye on the reason why we are stepping into this exciting chapter of ministry together? Where are life’s circumstances threatening to swallow you personally, to distract you from your purpose and calling in the will of God?

Invite Jesus into your home

Jesus’ words to Martha are God’s words to us today: “…only one thing is needed” (v. 42). We somehow believe that is true. Our culture is fascinated with life purpose in these days.

Seven Habits of Highly Effective People was a best-selling book and movement in the 80’s and early 90’s, similar to Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life today.

I remember often Winston Churchill’s statement to the House of Commons in June of 1941: “I have but one purpose, the destruction of Hitler; and my life is much simplified thereby.” Every time I think of his words, I am moved and challenged by them.

In my study are inscribed words from Abraham Maslow which I quote often: “An artist must paint; a poet must write; a musician must make music, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself.”

What purpose will give your life true meaning?

As our text begins, we find Jesus on his way to Jerusalem and the cross; he will die in four months. He stops at Bethany, a village two miles east of Jerusalem. Here Martha lives with her sister, Mary, and brother, Lazarus; their home is his when he is in Judea.

This family was so prominent that many friends would later come even from Jerusalem to console them on the death of Lazarus. Now, on this occasion, Martha “opened her home to him” (v. 38), meaning that she received him as her honored guest.

Martha’s name meant “lady of the house,” and she certainly lives up to it here.

She is making the preparations necessary for proper hospitality in the ancient Middle East—cooking food (without electrical appliances), cleaning the home, preparing the furnishings for the meal to come. All of this is good and necessary.

But Martha soon confuses ends with means. She becomes “distracted” by all her preparations—the word means to be “drawn around with anxiety” which shows on her face and in her soul. She thinks more about her food than her guest; she becomes consumed with the meal and forgets the Master for whom it is intended.

Mary, her younger sister, makes no such mistake.

She had been helping with preparations earlier, but now has “left” Martha (v. 40) and “sat at the Lords’ feet listening to what he said” (v. 39). Homes of their culture were often furnished with flat chairs about two feet tall, covered with soft material and cushions. We imagine Jesus sitting on one such chair, perhaps cross-legged, while Mary sat on a rug on the floor before him.

She “sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said” (v. 39). This is the position of a disciple before the teacher (we speak of “sitting at the feet” of a great person still today). It was extremely unusual for a Jewish rabbi to take on a woman as his student and disciple, but Jesus did so here with Mary. In the same way, he invites you to his feet today.

Note that Mary was not only in his presence, she was present with him. You are in his presence now; are you present with him? Are you listening to what he wants to say to you?

In so doing she has “chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (v. 42). “Better” refers to the best dish on the table, which is fellowship with Jesus.

Now Martha sees her younger sister at Jesus’ feet instead of in her kitchen. So she “came to him,” words which actually mean “she exploded into the room at him.” She “flew off the handle,” or “lost it,” with Jesus, and demanded that he send Mary back into the kitchen.

Making demands of the Lord of the universe doesn’t usually go well for us. It didn’t for her.

Jesus replies, “you are worried (internally divided, distracted, anxious) and upset (externally and visibly agitated, in tumult) about many things” (v. 41). This is the inevitable result of putting second things first.


Making Room for the Gentiles

God’s Power for God’s Purpose

Making Room for the Gentiles

Dr. Jim Denison

Acts 11

Jacob Walker was a lighthouse keeper on Robbin’s Reef, off the rocky shore of New England. After years of faithfully minding the light, he became ill and died. His wife buried his body on the mainland, in view of the lighthouse.

Later Mrs. Walker received appointment as the keeper of their lighthouse. For 20 years she carried on alone, and then a New York reporter went out to get her story. She told him, “Every evening I stand in the door of the lighthouse and look across the water to the hillside where my husband’s body is buried. I always seem to hear his voice saying, ‘Mind the light! Mind the light!'”

This weekend, Christians the world over will celebrate Palm Sunday, that marvelous and miraculous day which began the holiest week in human history. This was the day with the Light of the world came to bring that light to the darkest place in the world—the cross of humanity’s sin. He came to be rejected by his Father, that we might be accepted by him. He came to be made sin for us, that we might be made righteous. He came to die, that we might live.

Now we are called to “mind the light.” We are keepers of the light he brought, warning spiritual ships away from the rocky shores of sin and hell. We are to be as faithful to this task as was our Lord. Someone needs your light this week. Who comes to mind?

Defend the grace of God (vs. 1-18)

An insightful artist painted his subject, “A Dying Church,” in an unusual way. He pictured a beautiful sanctuary, sunlight streaming through stained glass windows, pews filled with worshipers, the pastor behind the pulpit and the choir in the loft. All looked healthy, even vibrant. But in the corner of the painting, on a table in the vestibule outside the sanctuary, he pictured a box with the sign, “Offerings for Missions.” There was a cobweb over the box. A dying church, indeed.

Not everyone agrees with the Great Commission. The church in America spends less than 1% to reach the unreached peoples of the world. It is true that the lighthouse which shines farthest, shines brightest at home. But it is also true that it must shine into the darkness to be a lighthouse at all.

After Peter’s remarkable experience with Cornelius, it is no surprise that the enemy would attack yet again. Remember that he prefers to strike at the point of unity, creating the greatest chaos for the least effort. The Gentile mission threatens his hold over the entire pagan world. We should not expect him to yield easily.

Peter had just returned to Jerusalem when “the circumcised believers” accused him of going into an “uncircumcised” home for a meal (v. 3). Note that these Jewish Christians made no mention of Cornelius’s conversion or baptism. Their first concern appears to be Peter’s apparent breach of legalistic etiquette.

The threat to Peter’s integrity and mission was very real. Paul would later recount to the Galatians the time in Antioch when Peter and even Barnabas withdrew from Gentile hospitality under threat of rejection from Jewish Christians (Galatians 2:11-13). Clearly “Simon” (sand) was still part of “Peter” (rock). As it is in us all.

But this time, “Peter” won out. He recounted specifically and clearly exactly his experience with the Spirit (vs. 5-17). He told the story just as it happened, leaving his critics to deal with the Lord. He made clear that it was not about him, stepping out of the conflict. With this result: “When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life'” (v. 18).

This would not be the last time the Jerusalem church would wrestle with Gentile conversion (cf. Acts 15:1-35). Paul would later speak of his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10); some scholars believe he was referring to the Judaizers, a group of Jewish Christians who followed him wherever he went and told his Gentile converts that they must become Jews to be Christians. But while the battle did not end with Peter’s testimony, the victory began. In time, the Church universal would adopt his position that God intends all to come to faith in his Son (cf. 2 Peter 3:9).

Now God calls you and me to defend and extend his grace to those who stand outside his love. We may believe that he intends all to come to Christ. But unless we tell them, the practical consequence is that the Judaizers win. The decision is ours.

Move to Antioch (vs. 19-21)

The Church is moving today from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern, and from the First World to the Third. The number of conversions in Communist China and sub-Saharan Africa are astounding, in the tens of thousands a day. More than a third (some say more than half) of South Korea is evangelical Christian. Many missiologists say that the center of the Christian movement has already shifted from America to Africa. The Fifth Great Awakening is occurring in countries all over the world.

This is not the first time the Church has shifted its missions headquarters. In the verses before us, the Christian movement will make a dramatic change from Jerusalem to Antioch of Syria. From the Holy City to one of the most pagan. From the capital of the Jewish world to one of the capitals of the Gentile. Such a significant city and movement is worth a moment of exploration.

At one time, at least five cities in Syria were named “Antioch,” before the city we are touring today was established. Nicanor I, the first ruler of the Seleucid dynasty, built the city around 500 B.C., naming it for his father Antiochus. Today it is the city of Antakya in the Hatay province of Turkey. In Luke’s day, its population numbered more than half a million.


on A Sling And A Prayer

On a Sling and a Prayer

1 Samuel 17:41-50

Dr. Jim Denison

A shipwrecked sailor spent three years on a deserted island. You can imagine his joy to see a ship drop anchor in the bay. A small boat came ashore, and an officer handed the man a bunch of newspapers. The survivor was confused. The sailor explained, “The captain suggests that you read what’s going on in the world and then let us know if you want to be rescued.”

Anyone here choose the island?

Psychologists say that 60 percent of us are going through some crisis right now. Six out of every ten persons on your pew is going through some crisis right now. Six out of ten would probably rather be on that island than in this church service right now. Do you?

Do you ever feel like a young boy with no training, no background, no credentials, sent to fight a warrior who stands over nine feet tall? Ever feel like David against Goliath?

You’re not alone. Moses had his Pharaoh, his Red Sea, and two million complaining Jews. Peter had his Herod seeking his life. Paul had his Nero. Jesus had the devil himself. You’re not alone.

Who is your Goliath? Where are you at war? Does the giant live in your home? Your health? Your finances? Your stress? Here’s the one point today: you can fight the giant in your strength, or in God’s. But not in both.

Fighting in your strength

We find ourselves part of the best-known story in the life of David, perhaps in all the Old Testament. We are standing in the Valley of Elah, 17 miles west-southwest of Jerusalem. We’re at war with the Philistines, a sea people who have settled in the area known today as the Gaza Strip. Their expertise with making iron weapons has given them military advantage over Israel, and they will remain a thorn in the nation’s side for another 500 years.

As we stand with King Saul and his soldiers, we watch the largest man we’ve ever seen stride into the valley between the two armies. His name is “Goliath,” and he is identified as their “champion” (v. 4), literally “a man who stands between the camps.” He did not fight with the rest of the soldiers, for he was an army unto himself.

We stare in disbelief. Samuel provides the most detailed physical description to be found anywhere in the Bible, recording what stands before us. Goliath is “six cubits and a span,” thus over nine feet tall. Such height is not impossible even today, as proven by one Robert Pershing Wadlow, a man 8’11” tall at the time of his death on July 15, 1940 at the age of 22.

Goliath’s armor is made of several hundred small bronze plates resembling fish scales, weighing 125 pounds. His spear’s point, shaped like a flame, weighs over 30 pounds. Its shaft is “like a weaver’s rod” (v. 7), meaning that it is wrapped with cords so it can spin through the air and thus be thrown with greater distance and accuracy.

Goliath marches out for hand-to-hand combat with his shield bearer before him to give added protection. He looks, and feels, invincible.

In contrast, Saul and his army have no iron weapons. They have no giant champion, except Saul, and he is cowering at the rear of the lines in fear. None will fight this man. And so Goliath will win by default, and his Philistines will continue to enslave Israel.

It is at this crucial point that a young shepherd boy enters biblical history. Saul scoffs at him: “You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you (emphatic) are only a boy, and he (emphatic) has been a fighting man from his youth” (v. 33). Saul and his army know only one way to fight: in human strength. With human weapons. Using human resources. And they don’t have enough. We never do.

A fascinating book is in the news these days: The Transformation of American Religion, by Boston College professor Alan Wolfe. The thesis is simple: religion in America is no longer about God—it is about us. It’s all about us.

Regarding worship services: “When they worship, Americans revere a God who is anything but distant, inscrutable, or angry. They are more likely to honor a God to whom they can pray in their own, self-chosen way” (pp. 9-10). Popular worship today is “as much designed to make people feel comfortable as it is to fill them with the majesty of God” (p. 16).

One-third of Americans subscribe to the proposition that “people have God within them, so churches aren’t necessary” (p. 38). The day of denominational loyalty is largely over. Now people join a church that meets their needs—whatever they are, whatever the church is.

Here’s an example. Gwinnett County, in suburban Atlanta, was for many years the fastest-growing county in the United States. In 1929, a town in that county named Dacula was 65.8 percent Baptist and 31 percent Methodist. Now its denominations include Christian and Missionary Alliance, Anglican, Assembly of God, Church of Christ, Christian Science, Episcopal, Nazarene, Presbyterian, independent Full Gospel fellowships, Southern and Independent Baptist, United Methodist, and African Methodist Episcopal. Not to mention the Eastern Orthodox, Unitarian, Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Hindu residents of the town, nor parts of a Wiccan coven or feminist spirituality groups (p. 112).

A group of church members were surveyed regarding the purpose of the church; 90 percent of the members said the purpose of the church is to meet members’ needs—10 percent said it is to fulfill the Great Commission. Only 25 percent of self-described evangelicals knew the Great Commission (p. 205).

We want to meet the needs of our members and community, of course. Jesus always started with felt need and moved to spiritual need. The woman at the well came for water, so Jesus started there and led her to spiritual water.

The problem comes when our faith becomes more about us than our Lord. When we ask God to help us solve our problems in our strength. When we want him to bless our decisions and our actions. When he becomes a means to our end, serving us. When we go to battle with our weapons and strategy, our strength and soldiers, and ask him to help us succeed. He is God and we are not.


Turning Fear Into Faith

Turning Fear into Faith

Mark 16:1-8

Dr. Jim Denison

In the last 20 years, the number of poodles registered in America has fallen by half, while the number of registered Rottweilers has increased 100 times. There are more private security officers than public police officers in our country. The average American child will see 8,000 murders and 100,000 acts of violence on television by the end of fifth grade. No wonder psychologists have catalogued 628 different phobias by name.

If you had “ecclesiophobia” (the fear of church), you’d not be here today. But you might have “melophobia,” fear of music; “chrometophobia,” fear of money (at least putting it in the offering plate); “homilophobia,” fear of sermons, or “homilextendaphobia,” fear of long sermons (I made that up, but I’ll bet you have it).

What do we do with all these fears?

Someone said, “The object is not to get rid of the butterflies, but to get the butterflies to fly in formation.” How do we do that? How do we live in a post-9-11 world, with war in Iraq and terror threats at home, with all the disasters and diseases of this fallen world? What fears did you bring to church this morning? How do we face our fears and worries in faith?

Meet Mary Magdalene

We are celebrating Easter today through the eyes of Mary Magdalene. Her given name was “Mary”; she was from the village of Magdala on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee; hence the name by which we know her.

Her only appearance in the gospels before Holy Week is this reference by Luke: “The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out” (8:1-2).

However, Mary figured prominently in Jesus’ death and resurrection. She followed him to the cross, watched where he was buried, and was with the first group to go to his tomb (more in a moment). She is mentioned 14 times in the gospels; in eight she heads the list of names where she is referenced; a ninth places her after Mary the mother of Jesus; and the remaining five list her alone.

How did Easter happen for her? We’ll follow Peter’s eyewitness account, as given to his young disciple Mark and the gospel which bears his name; we’ll supplement what Mark tells us with that which the other gospel writers record.

Meet the risen Christ

Mary’s Easter story begins: “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body” (Mark 16:1). The Sabbath extended from 6 p.m. Friday to 6 p.m. Saturday; this occurred on Saturday evening, as we keep time.

Then, “Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb” (v. 2). John says it was “still dark” when they set out (John 20:1); Matthew adds that it was “dawn on the first day of the week” (Matthew 28:1; Luke 24:1).

The three found the “very large” stone rolled away and the tomb unguarded (v. 4).

Matthew explains: “There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men” (28:2-4). That stone was but a pebble compared to the Rock of Ages inside.

They “saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed” (Mark 16:5). Luke adds that his clothes “gleamed like lightning” (Luke:24:4). And “they were alarmed” (Mark 16:5). We would be, too.

So the angel told them, “Don’t be alarmed” (v. 6). Matthew: “Do not be afraid” (28:5). Literally, “fear not” or “stop being afraid.” Why?

“He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you'” (vs. 6-7).

Nonetheless they responded: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (v. 8).

The other gospels tell us that these women eventually did go to the apostles with their experience at the empty tomb (Matthew 28:8; Luke 24:10). Peter and John then ran to the tomb and looked inside (John 20:3-10; cf. Luke 24:12). Mary Magdalene followed them and was left weeping outside (John 20:11; cf. Luke 24:12). To this point she has not met the risen Christ. She has heard from angels, but his body is missing and she is bewildered and upset.

Meanwhile, Jesus met the other women. They worshiped him, clasping his feet, and were sent to his disciples again (Matthew 28:9-10). Mary Magdalene then met “two angels in white” (John 20:11-13), and encountered the risen Christ for herself (John 20:14-17). She then told the disciples about the One she met (v. 18). And the rest is history.

Decide to manage your fear

On Easter Sunday, Mary Magdalene stepped from fear to faith. From “trembling and bewildered” to “I have seen the Lord.” How can we follow her example?

It has been noted that the Bible contains 366 “fear not’s”. Its most frequent prohibition is not about any of the seven deadly sins—pride, envy, gluttony, greed, lust, sloth, or wrath. It’s about fear. One “fear not” for every day of the year, including a leap year like this one. Why? Because we need to “fear not” every day of the year, including a leap year like this one.

Why is fear such a perennial reality in our lives? It’s because we’re made that way.

Now, some of us are more afraid than others. There is actually a “worry gene” you can inherit; it’s the slc6a4 gene located on chromosome 17q12, in case you’d like to go see if you have one.


Wake Up To A Miracle

God’s Power for God’s Purpose

Wake Up to a Miracle!

Dr. Jim Denison

Acts 12

This is the weekend following Easter. Jesus has risen from the dead, and we have celebrated his resurrection with hymns and words of triumph. Now our culture has returned to “normal.” What difference will it make in your life this week, that we remembered Jesus’ resurrection last week? Today we’ll focus on a practical, personal, daily answer to that question.

Archimedes, who died in 212 B.C., was the first scientist to recognize the power of the lever. He once famously said, “Give me a place to stand and rest my lever, and I can move the Earth.” We will learn this week how to use that lever.

Larry Dossey, chief of staff of a Dallas hospital, published a few years ago his findings that prayer lowers blood pressure, helps heal wounds, heart ailments and headaches, and even influences the action of bacteria and medications.

Ian MacPherson tells the true story of an atheistic scientist who attempted to find the wavelength of the human brain during different experiences. A woman who was dying of a brain disease consented to his test. Wires were connected to her brain, and a meter attached. Previously, this instrument had measured the power used by a fifty kilowatt broadcasting station in sending a message around the world—the needle had registered nine points.

As the last moments of this woman’s earthly life arrived, she began to pray aloud and praise God. She told the Lord how much she loved him, and how she was looking forward to seeing him face to face. The scientist was so engrossed in her prayer that he forgot his experiment. Suddenly he heard a clicking sound, and found that the meter on his gauge was registering 500 points.

Prayer is the lever which can move the world. Here’s how the lever works.

Hold a prayer meeting (vs. 1-4)

As Acts 12 opens, it is the early part of A.D. 44 and we find the infant Christian church in yet another crisis. King Herod, grandson of the Herod of Jesus’ birth, is ruler of the Jews. And he wants to placate and please them. Thus he beheads James, one of their leaders. Then he arrests Peter, the chief of the apostles, intending to kill him as soon as the Feast of Unleavened Bread passes. Jews by the tens of thousands will be in Jerusalem. Herod won’t miss this chance to impress his subjects.

So he seizes Peter and turns him over to four squads of four guards each (v. 4). He’s heard of Peter’s earlier escape at the hands of the angel (Acts 5:18-21) and wants to avoid a repeat fiasco. The apostle was probably imprisoned in the fortress Antonia, northwest of the temple area, where Paul would later be confined as well (Acts 21:31—23:32).

Four soldiers are with him at all times—two chained to his body, and two to guard the door. Not to mention the soldiers stationed at the main door to the fortress, or others patrolling the area. This is the highest security Rome can muster.

What does the church do? Organize a mob and storm the prison? Circulate a petition to get the names of leading Christians in Jerusalem to request Peter’s release? Take a collection to bribe Herod for his freedom? They hold a prayer meeting.

Could anything be more ridiculous and fruitless? Imagine praying for a man so securely incarcerated, so near execution. Suppose a family and friends kept vigil outside Huntsville, while their loved one was being readied for execution, praying for him to escape. How would we view their prayers? Here’s a better question: how would God?

Where are you in jail this week? Where is someone you love? Have you prayed yet? Have you asked others to join you in intercession? Have you held a prayer meeting? Will you?

Pray as they prayed (v. 5)

What now? Let’s make the example of our text the model we follow: “Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him” (v. 5). R. A. Torrey’s classic The Power of Prayer and the Prayer of Power contains an investigation of this verse which we will follow in our study.

Pray together

Luke notes that “the church” was earnestly praying for Peter. By now the followers of Jesus number more than 5,000 men, not counting women and children (Acts 4:4). They were scattered across the larger area (Acts 8:1), but news of Peter’s impending execution would travel quickly across the region. Luke is careful to note that the house to which Peter would go following his release was “where many people had gathered and were praying” (v. 12). But this was not “the church” in total. All who knew Jesus were calling on him, together.

Imagine having 5,000 families praying for you. Jesus promised great power in response to such unity: “If two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:19-20).

Two horses working alone can do the work of two. But two horses pulling together can do the work of 40 working alone. There is more power in praying together than the world knows. With this lever we can indeed move the earth.

With whom will you pray this week?

Pray with intensity

They were “earnestly praying” for Peter, as should we. The Greek is in the continuous tense; they were still praying in the morning when Peter escaped and came to them. Thus they prayed all night. “Earnestly” pictures a runner straining for the finish line. There is work in intercessory prayer, hard labor.

Paul informed the Colossians of one who was engaged in such work on their behalf: “Epaphras . . . is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. I vouch for him that he is working hard for you” (Colossians 4:12-13). Jesus himself furnishes our best example: “Being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44).