How to Find Your Heart

How to Find Your Heart

Matthew 10:1-10

Dr. Jim Denison

This past Tuesday, amid much ceremony and tradition, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI. I wish my experiences in church work could be so dignified.

I should have known pastoral ministry was not all pomp and circumstance in my first pastorate, on the Sunday when a scorpion which crawled inside my wading boots as I was preparing to baptize. And the time the baptism waters were freezing cold, but the 6’7″ candidate insisted on being baptized anyway; I got his face under water, then he grabbed me and dragged me under with him. We counted two baptisms that night.

There was the staff member in First Baptist Church in Midland who wore his lapel microphone into the restroom, and the entire sound system was on. He was the same beloved friend who dressed for Sunday morning, checked on his horses, then walked through the church building making sure all was ready. Only when he reached the platform for the service to begin did we realize that he had brought his horses with him. The carpets were cleaned that week.

And of course, there was the infamous Saturday afternoon at Park Cities when I climbed up to the fifth-floor bell tower room to see if it would work as a prayer room, without my cell phone; the door locked behind me, with no keyhole on my side. I finally used a two-by-four to break out the window in the door, and carefully reached my key through and let myself out. Otherwise I’d still be up there. I was so grateful to the staff member who heard the story the next week and asked, “Who left the two-by-four in the room?”

Some mistakes in church work are worse than others. Today we’re going to examine the worst mistake in all of Christian history, and the most subtle. This mistake has robbed millions of Christians of the joy Jesus gives, the direction his Father provides, the purpose and power of his Spirit. Let’s see if it has affected your life:

Do you feel that you are accomplishing all you were made to do in life, or is something missing?

Do you consistently seek opportunities to serve the Lord and his people, or do you more typically wait to be asked to serve?

Who was the last person you led to faith in Christ? The last person whose faith was strengthened significantly because of your direct influence on his or her life?

Do you experience each day the satisfaction of knowing that you are walking in the Spirit’s power and purpose?

The mistake we’ll discuss today has kept millions of Christians on the sidelines of significance. It has kept many of you from the life God wants you to live, from the direction and purpose he made you to experience. If you don’t understand the tragedy of this mistake, that’s all the more evidence for its damage.

My goal today is simple, and ambitious: I want us to repent of this sin, this tragic mistake, once and for all. I want us to put it to rest, now and for the rest of our lives. I want us to settle the matter this morning.

Why members don’t minister

Jesus’ last words before his ascension are familiar to us all: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). “You” is plural, commissioning them all.

These first Christians took his word seriously: at Pentecost, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:4).

At this early point, everybody knew that ministry was for all members, that every one of us is equally called by God to serve and grow his Kingdom.

But over the coming generations, things changed.

As their movement grew beyond its Jewish boundaries, pagan heresies began infiltrating its theology. So the church decided to confine theology to the theologians, ministry to the ministers. Around AD 250, Cyprian of Carthage coined the word “clergy,” meaning the “called-out.” He separated them from the “laity,” from the Greek word laos for “people.” When Constantine legalized the church in the next century, a massive building campaign ensued. Now the clergy had a place to work and do their ministry. Over time they moved into those buildings and made them monasteries.

From then till now there’s the unstated supposition in the church: if you don’t work here, you’re not a real minister. I can work on old cars, but since I don’t work at a mechanic’s shop I’m not a real mechanic. You’re not a real football player unless you play on the team–throwing the ball in the street doesn’t count. You’re not a real economist unless that’s your living. Ministry is the work of ministers.

So it’s your job to support those of us who do this for a living. Come to church, give financially, do what we ask you to do, but leave the real ministry to the ministers. Leave surgery to the surgeons, law to the lawyers, and ministry to the ministers. Ministry is not your job.

The second fact explains the first: you don’t know how.

As “clergy” grew, so did vocational training for their work, now called “seminaries.” Doctors read medical books, but the rest of us don’t. I didn’t study before my knee surgery, and learn to do the procedure. I trust those who know more than me.

If you’re in a court of law, it’s best that you let the lawyers talk. If someone here today stops breathing, it’s best that you find someone who knows CPR to help. Otherwise you might make things worse.

You don’t know Greek and Hebrew; you haven’t been to seminary; you’re not called to do this as your vocational work. This is what you pay us for. You do what volunteers do–teach Sunday school, sing in the choir, work on committees. But leave the heavy lifting of ministry to the ministers. That’s the “clergy lie.”


Making Peace with Your Past

Making Peace with Your Past

Matthew 9:9-13

Dr. Jim Denison

We’re discussing today the topic, “making peace with your past.” There’s apparently a lot of past to make peace with.

For instance, this week’s New York Times reports on the growth of the armored car industry. Car makers are producing vehicles with windows two inches thick, armor plating, gun storage, and smoke machines to obscure the car during gun battles. They are all the rage right now. One manufacturer said, “One-third of the people who buy these cars are under threat, one-third think they are under threat, and one-third want to be in the first two categories.” Armor-plating your car is one way to deal with your past.

No one is immune from the issue.

John Bolton’s nomination for ambassador to the United Nations was attacked this week by an associate who criticized Mr. Bolton’s past dealings with subordinates.

Officials at the National Health Institutes are being accused of sexual harassment spanning the last several years.

Last Sunday, two Florida families opened fire on each other, part of a long-running feud. When a girl from one family began dating a boy from the other, the battle began. Two people are hospitalized. The past can be deadly in the present.

What about your past are you most grateful we don’t know today? What about your past most bothers you this morning? There is an authentic, transforming way to make peace with your past. Let’s discover it together.

Give your guilt to God’s grace

Our text describes the call of “a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth” (v. 9). It seems appropriate for us to meet a tax-collector on the Sunday after April 15. But IRS agents and tax preparers today bear no similarity to Matthew’s profession.

In the first century, tax collecting was the most profane and immoral work a man could do, akin to prostitution for a woman. The Empire employed locals to take money from their neighbors, sending a portion on to Rome and keeping the rest for themselves. Even Roman writers considered these turncoats and traitors to be destined for hell (cf. Cicero, De Officiis 1.42; Lucian, Menippus II).

Matthew’s sins were on public display in Capernaum, the fishing village on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee which served as Jesus’ ministry headquarters. To invite such a man into his movement was unwise at best. But Jesus said to him, “Follow me,” and Matthew did. After this notorious man gathered his equally notorious friends for a party with his new Master, the self-respecting Pharisees asked why Jesus would eat with such “sinners.” His reply: “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (v. 13). That’s good news for us all.

God’s word is clear:

The Lord “forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases” (Psalm 103:3).

Micah asks, “Who is a God like you, who pardons sins and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:18-19).

David, a man who knew something about sin and forgiveness, rejoiced in this fact: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12). In fact, God promises, “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more” (Isaiah 43:25).

Now, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Confession does not earn his grace–it positions us to receive it.

Our holy God can forgive us because in his Son “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace” (Ephesians 1:7). Sin separates us from our perfect God; the consequence of this separation is death. Jesus’ sinless death fulfilled this consequence, paying this debt, so that God can be holy and just in forgiving us. Such is the grace of God.

By contrast, our society is built on works. Materialism–the belief that the material is the ultimate reality–has been at the very heart of our culture from its beginning. Success is quantifiable. The more you do, the more a success you are. If you fail, you’re a failure. You are how you perform. Isn’t that true of every dimension of your life–work, academics, sports, music? Performance equals success. Past crimes cannot be forgiven, only punished.

Even if others won’t punish us, we’ll punish ourselves. We inflict guilt on ourselves until we think we’ve paid enough penalty for our sins. For some of us, such self-inflicted guilt has plagued us for years. But you need to know that guilt is not of God. He forgives and forgets, no matter who you are or what you’ve done.

You may have seen this week’s news report from the World Health Organization, announcing that nearly 5,000 labs in 18 countries were mailed samples of the Asian flu virus, a strain which killed between one and four million people 50 years ago. The labs are urged to incinerate the samples immediately.

The sins of your past can be incinerated in the furnace of God’s passionate love for you, before they infect your soul and poison your life. You don’t have to pay for them–Jesus already has. You don’t have to work them off, doing time in the jailhouse of guilt. Today you can give your guilt to his grace. Name that failure or sin which most troubles your conscience. Confess it specifically to your Father. Ask his forgiveness, and trust him to keep his word. Know that the One who loved Matthew, loves you. Give your guilt to his grace, this morning.

Give your soul to his Spirit

Matthew hears Jesus’ call, and gives his life to it. He “got up” from his tax-collector’s booth and “followed him” (Matthew 9:9). He exchanged his old life for the new, his previous failures for God’s future. So can we.


When God Lets You Down

When God Lets You Down

Matthew 8:1-17

Dr. Jim Denison

Ed Diener, a University of Illinois psychologist, has news which may be bad or good, depending on your point of view. He compared the overall happiness and well-being of the billionaires and millionaires on the Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans, and the Maasai herdsmen in East Africa, and found no significant difference. It seems that $40,000 a year is the threshold. Once you’re making that amount, no increase in income will increase your happiness. Life is more than green paper.

By any standard, our congregation and community would be considered affluent. But let me ask you: where has life disappointed you recently? Where was money not enough? Where are you dealing with unhappiness, discouragement, frustration and pain today? Why has God allowed you to hurt?

Our text tells us that God heals and helps his people. Our problem is, why doesn’t he always? What do we do when he lets us down? You’re Terry Schiavo’s parents keeping vigil outside her hospice, praying for intervention which does not come. Why not? I think of my father’s death; dear friends in our church who were not healed; difficulties and pain along the way. I prayed, but God didn’t work as I wanted him to. Why not? What do we do then? Why be committed daily to a God who lets us down?

Wrong answers

Limit God’s power.

The first character in today’s story is a leper. There were several skin diseases classified as “leprosy” in the ancient world. The most common was Hansen’s disease, a disorder which affects the skin and nervous system. Over time the person loses the ability to feel his fingers or toes. He wears them off, bloodies them, infects them. And they simply rot and die.

The disease was incurable until the late 1940s, certainly an impossible disease to treat in the first century. At least, for everyone but Jesus. He touched this untouchable man and healed him. If he could heal leprosy, he can heal any disease, anybody, any problem. The wrong answer is to limit God’s power.

Limit God’s love.

Our second character in the story is an even more unlikely candidate for a miracle from a Jewish rabbi. He was a Gentile, considered by the Jews to exist only so there would be firewood in hell. And he was a “centurion,” a Roman military officer in charge of 100 soldiers. Part of the force occupying and enslaving their land. Part of the army which forced them to pay exorbitant taxes to Rome, and subjected them to pagan, idolatrous oppression.

Imagine an impoverished Jewish rabbi helping a Gestapo officer, and you’ll have the picture. But Jesus answers his prayer and heals his servant, to the shock of the incredulous crowd of hostile Jews. The wrong answer is to limit God’s love.

Blame the person suffering.

Now a third person enters the story. Peter’s mother-in-law is so sick that she cannot get out of bed. But Jesus heals her so fully that her strength is instantly restored and she makes them all a meal.

There is no indication of any sin on her part, anything wrong which she has done. We live in a fallen world, where disease and disaster are inevitable. Some suffering is our fault, as with an alcoholic with liver disease. But the wrong answer is always to blame the persons suffering. We often make their pain worse.

Blame the will of God.

Now the demoniacs take their places in the story. As best we can tell, Satan and his demons are fallen angels. They steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10), seeking to devour (1 Peter 5:8). They are looking for people they can control and malice they can cause.

And we have the freedom to let them. God created us to love him; love is a choice before it is anything else; if we misuse our choice, sin and suffering result. These demoniacs in some way participated in their plight, gave control of themselves to evil. And now they are paying a horrible price.

So we discover a fourth wrong answer to suffering: it is always the perfect will of God. The Lord is sovereign, so everything that happens must occur by his will. It is therefore his will, his choice, his fault that you must endure this pain, heartbreak, setback. It must be part of his will for this to occur. We blame the coach when he calls the wrong play and our team loses. We blame the boss when his business plan fails. So we’re entitled to blame God whenever bad things come our way.

But not everything that happens occurs by the perfect will of God. He is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9); he wants all of us to be saved and come to knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). And yet not all are saved. Some misuse their freedom and choose to reject the saving love of the Father. When this occurs, they experience not his perfect will but his permissive will. All that happens comes by his permission, but not all by his perfect plan. We are fallen people in this fallen world. It is a wrong solution to blame always the will of God.

Right approaches

So what are we to do when it doesn’t seem that God has answered the prayer we prayed, that he didn’t heal when we asked his help, when our leprosy did not get better, the servant did not recover, the mother-in-law died, the demoniacs were not healed?

Judge the dark by the light.

The leper and the centurion both called Jesus “Lord,” as they should. The word translates “kurios,” and was used of Caesar, kings, owners, those in control. Jesus is Lord. And he didn’t change when my father died, or my friend committed suicide, or my hero was fired. He is still on his throne. He is still Lord.