Imagination Remixed

Imagination Remixed

Colossians 1:15-20

James C. Denison

This morning we’re going to try perhaps the strangest experiment you’ve seen attempted in this Sanctuary. You may not feel up to this. But those of you who do: while sitting in your pew, lift your right foot off the floor and make clockwise circles. Now, while doing this, draw the number “6” in the air with your right hand. Could you do it? Neither could I. I have no idea why.

The older I get, the less I understand.

Last Monday, computer engineers announced the invention of a chip which will do a trillion calculations in a second. It took me 10 seconds just to write out one trillion and count all the zeroes it requires.

Cosmologists measure space in “light years,” the distance light travels in a single year. That’s 5,865,696,000,000 miles. Here’s my question: how do they know? When I turn on a flashlight, I haven’t the first clue how to measure the speed of the light it produces. Do you?

The cosmos bewilders me. But it’s no challenge for its Creator.

In the first century, Caesar was Lord. His power was absolute. His armies seemed omnipotent and omnipresent. To worship and serve a Galilean carpenter before the ruler of the world was subversive and foolish. A person could lose his job or his life that way.

To worship and serve that carpenter at a sacrifice seems equally foolish today. You and I have gone as far with Jesus as we can go at our present level of sacrifice. So it is with every area of your life. Your portfolio or annuity is all it can be without further investment. Your marriage is all it can be without further commitment of time and energy and passion. You have gone as far at work or school as you can unless you make further sacrifice of time and energy. William Barclay was right: we progress in life in proportion to the fare we are prepared to pay.

Why pay a higher fare to follow Jesus? Why take the next step, whatever it costs? Let’s ask Paul.

Make Jesus your only God

Our text comprises one of the most exhaustively studied paragraphs in all the New Testament. One commentary in my library (O’Brien, Word) devotes 71 pages to it. This is a single sentence in the Greek, probably one of the earliest hymns in Christian worship. It begins with this phrase as the title of all that follows: Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” (v. 15a). These six words capture the very essence of the Christian faith. This truth claim changed the world. This is the heart of our hope today. Why?

The Bible teaches that “no one has ever seen God” (John 1:18). The Lord told Moses, “No one may see me and live” (Exodus 33:20).

You cannot look at the sun for more than a second or two without significant damage to your eyes; I read this week that you’d have to get as far away as Neptune or Pluto before you could stare at it for as long as you like.

So it is with the holy God of the universe. Sinners cannot be close enough to him to see his face, or they must perish.

But Jesus is his “image” (icon in the Greek), the exact representation or “mirror image” of God.

Many European cathedrals include ceilings which are exquisite works of art, but they are too tall to be viewed comfortably. So pitched mirrors are placed on the floor; by looking down, we can look up. By looking at Jesus on earth we can see God in heaven.

However, in Greek the word also shares in the nature of that which it reflects. A mirror is not a person, though it reflects one. But Jesus is God, not just his reflection. He is “God made visible.”

None of this is politically correct speech today. We’re supposed to be sincere in our beliefs and tolerant of all others. Saying that Jesus is God, the only final revelation of God, the only way to God, is viewed as intolerant in the extreme.

When Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6), he violated our cultural insistence on inclusion and pluralism.

When Peter announced, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12), he committed the same transgression.

But here it is: “Jesus is “the image of the invisible God.” Buddha or Confucius or Mohammad never made such claims. But when the High Priest said to Jesus, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God,” Jesus replied, “Yes, it is as you say” (Matthew 26:63-64). Upon such testimony he was sentenced to die for blasphemy (v. 65). The Roman administrator Pliny the Younger recorded in AD 112 that Christians “sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ as to a God.” Paul agrees. And that’s just our first phrase.

Make Jesus your only King

Jesus is the only God–our text makes that fact clear. So what? Why does this claim matter? Because this God is also the only King. He wants to be your only King today. Paul proves it six ways. First, Jesus is “the firstborn over all creation” (v. 15b).

Paul does not mean that Jesus was “firstborn” in the sense that he was born in time. I was the firstborn of my family, born on May 20, 1958. By contrast, Jesus has no birth date: “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Jesus could say, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58).

Paul means that Jesus rules creation, as the firstborn rules the family. The firstborn male was the leading heir of the Father. He had the greatest responsibility in the family. Under the Father, he is the ruler of all that is.

How do we know? Because Jesus is the one through whom “all things were created” (v. 16a). John 1:3: “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”

He alone made all things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible. He rules all that, because he made all that. A biologist told God he could have made a better world than God did. God told him to prove it. The man bent down and scooped up some dirt. God said, “Get your own dirt.” Jesus rules all things, because he made all things.

And now he is the one through whom “all things hold together” (v. 17).

He is God; he is God over the world; he is God the creator of the world; he is God the sustainer of the world. He has a lot of sustaining to do today.

Your planet is spinning on its axis at 1040 miles per hour. The earth is spinning around the sun at 66,600 mph. Our solar system is moving around the Milky Way galaxy at a rate of 558,000 mph. And the Milky Way is moving through the universe at 660,000 mph. I get dizzy just being on one of those spinning rides at Six Flags. Jesus is holding our entire universe together, right now.

Jesus not only holds the universe together–he holds the Church together as well. He is “the head of the body, the church” (v. 18a).

He is the “head” in the sense of the ruler, the leader, the one in charge. He told his disciples, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). The Church belongs to him. This church belongs to him.

You are sitting on Jesus’ pews. You are the body of which he is the head. I am not your employee–I am his. So are you. We together serve a single King.

Jesus is the only God, the ruler, creator, and sustainer of the universe and the church. How do we know? Because he is “the firstborn among the dead” (v. 18b).

He was the first in human history to be resurrected. Lazarus was resuscitated but died again. Jesus will never die again. And because he lives, we will live also.

His resurrection changed human history. It proved Jesus’ divinity. It sparked the explosion which propelled the Church across the world. It was the event which marked time and eternity. It proved in history the truth of all that Paul is teaching today.

As the risen One, Jesus is our only redeemer: God chose “through him to reconcile to himself all things” (v. 20). Jesus’ death makes it possible for us to be “reconciled” with our holy God and creator. God could not be holy or his heaven perfect if he permitted my sins in his presence. The debt I owed had to be paid. This Jesus paid on the cross for me, and for you.

If he had not done this, we would still be in our sins. We cannot worship him perfectly or serve him completely. What was your last sin? It would be enough to keep you out of heaven. By God’s grace, it is not.


So we learn today that Jesus is our only God and our only King. He is the “image of the invisible God,” the God of heaven made visible on earth. He is our only King, for he rules the creation he made; he sustains the universe, leads his Church, defeats death, and redeems his people. Jesus alone does all of that, for every one of us.

Now, what’s your problem? What is your next step in worshiping this God and serving this King? What price have you been unwilling to pay? Where does he want more of your time, more of your abilities, more of your money, more of you? What service is he asking you to render? What witness to give? What sin to refuse? What forgiveness to ask or offer? Why haven’t you taken that step and paid that price?

He is the only God there is–his word and will are perfect. Does he not deserve your obedience?

He is the only King there is–as he makes, rules, and sustains the universe, so he will sustain and help you. Does he not deserve your trust?

He is the only Redeemer there is–as he rose from the grave for you, so he has made you one with your Father in heaven. Does he not deserve your best?

This is the dot before the line, a blink before eternity begins. The best way to prepare for heaven is to do now what God rewards forever. The most fulfilling and joyful way to live on earth is to do now what God rewards forever. Because whatever it costs to follow Jesus fully, he more than repays eternally.

I heard that point powerfully made last Tuesday at the Dallas Christian Leaders’ Prayer Breakfast. Dr. Ken Blanchard, famous author of The One Minute Manager and other bestsellers, was the fascinating speaker. Trying to convince us to sell out for God and lead like Jesus, he told a story he heard from John Ortberg, a marvelous pastor in California.

John grew up close to his grandparents. He and his grandmother loved to play Monopoly together. Except that his grandmother always won. She was vicious. She had everything and he had nothing, every time. After she won she’d always say, “John, some day you’ll learn to play Monopoly.” He wanted more than anything to beat her.

Then a new kid moved next door. This kid was a genius at Monopoly. John played every day with him, learning all his new friend knew. A few weeks later, his grandmother came for another visit. John challenged her to a game of Monopoly. She accepted gleefully. He beat her terribly. Got every property–left her nothing–wiped her out. When the game was done, she grinned at her grandson and said, “John, you’ve learned how to play Monopoly. Now I’m going to teach you a lesson about life: when the game is over, it all goes back in the box.”

Let us pray.

Story Remixed

Story Remixed

Colossians 2:20-3:4

James C. Denison

I want to try a trick on you. Let’s say that I have a bow and arrow in my hand, and I’m about to shoot it at you. I’m at point A, and you’re at point B. Before the arrow can get to you, would you agree that it has to get halfway there? We’ll call that point C. Before the arrow can get to point C, does it have to get halfway there? We’ll call that point D. Before the arrow can get to point D, does it have to get halfway there? We’ll call that point E. And F, and G, and so on. The arrow never moves.

That’s known as Zeno’s Paradox. This ancient philosopher had other such riddles, but that’s the most exciting one. He told his little puzzles to prove that nothing ever changes. And given the dimensions of his argument, despite dissertations written on the subject, he’s never been proven wrong.

We could have told him the same thing this week, just reading the news.

The Secretary of State was back in the Middle East, trying to broker yet another peace agreement. Nothing seems to change in Iraq, or Israel, or Afghanistan, or the next Afghanistan. Will the headlines ever really get better?

Are you tired of school? These are the dog days between Christmas and Spring Break. The new wore off a long time ago. You’re tired of your teachers and your parents, and they might be tired of you. Everyone’s been playing together too long. Most of us are ready for a break. Warm weather like we’ve had this week teases us, but we know better than to think winter will leave us alone just yet. Life treadmills this time of year.

So can our souls. The Bible tells us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). But it’s easy to settle down where we are, to be happy with our spiritual lives and health.

When was the last time you took a major step forward in your faith? A real risk for Jesus? When last did you have a genuine, transforming experience with the God of the universe? How can you take the next step in following him today?

Refuse what refuses God

Paul told the Colossians to “set your hearts on things above” (Colossians 3:1). Why did he have to tell them this? What was keeping them from going on with God? The same things which keep us from going on with God today.

Theological knowledge, for one thing.

Paul had warned them: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (v. 8). He’s talking about Gnosticism, the first heresy Christians had to fight. They said that correct knowledge was enough for salvation. So long as you had your theology all worked out, you’d done all that God expects.

You and I are tempted in the same way today. If you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, crucified and raised from the dead; if you believe that the Bible is the word of God; if you believe in the essentials of the faith, you’ve done all that God requires. But knowing about God is not the same thing as knowing God. Believing in marriage doesn’t make you married. I’m afraid that millions of people in America are going to miss heaven by 18 inches, the distance from the head to the heart.

You may have your theology all worked out, but when last did you meet Jesus?

Worship experiences can keep us from God as well. Paul cautioned them: “do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.  These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (vs. 16-17).

He’s talking about the religious festivals and rituals of their Jewish faith. If he were writing to us he’d talk about Christmas and Easter and DNow and Thee Camp and Sunday worship and Wednesday CrossWalk.

These are but a “shadow,” for the “reality” of the faith “is found in Christ.” What we feel in worship isn’t the point–meeting Jesus is. What we “get out of church” isn’t what matters so much as encountering him. It’s not about us. We can come to worship each Christmas or each Sunday and Wednesday or every day of the week, and still miss him. Being in church doesn’t make us Christians any more than being in a garage makes us a car. Standing in a bank lobby doesn’t prove that I know the bank manager. Visiting the White House doesn’t mean that I know the president.

You may be in worship each week, but when last did you meet Jesus?

Religious morality can keep us from God: “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’?  These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings.  Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (vs. 20-23).

The apostle is dealing with the religious legalisms of his day. On the Sabbath you weren’t allowed to draw water from a well with two hands, or wear false teeth or a clothes pin, or carry your mat, or walk more than 3/8 of a mile. So long as you kept these and the rest of the 613 laws governing daily life, all was well.

Baptists used to have our own version of all that: no drinking, dancing, cards, movies, gambling of any kind. The problem is that our religious morality can make us think we’re all God wants us to be. Be good, go to church, believe the right things, and you’ve done all that Christianity requires. All while we’re missing Jesus.

Make Jesus your ultimate concern

It takes more than Bible studies and worship services and good lives to meet Jesus this morning. You and I must “set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” Two imperatives are clear: “set your hearts on things above” (v. 1); “set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (v. 2). That’s it. That’s the sermon. That’s what God wants us to do today. But how? What does this mean?

“Set your hearts” translates the Greek for “seek.” This is the present active imperative–God’s command for every one of us, every day. The word can be translated, “require, demand, crave, put above everything else.” The word means to put this one priority ahead of everything else in life.

Jesus wants us to do that with him. The Bible tells us to “offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1). The command means to put him ahead of your girlfriend or boyfriend, or husband or wife or children. To put him ahead of success at work or status at church. To put him ahead of popularity or possessions or positions. To put him first in every part of our lives, every day of our lives.

We in the Western world don’t understand such a demand. We have successfully separated the spiritual from the secular, Sunday from Monday. We think that so long as we’ve prayed a salvation prayer and now come to church and try to be good, we’ve done all that Jesus requires. But if we think that, we’re wrong:

“Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes, even his own life–he cannot be my disciple.  And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:25-27).

“Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).

“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it'” (Matthew 16:24-25).

Paul could testify: “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8).

Jesus has always wanted to be Lord of all, King of every part of our lives. Why? Because he is an egotist who needs to control us? No, just the opposite. He wants to be King of your dating relationships and money and time and temptations and jobs and plans, so he can include you in his “good, pleasing and perfect” will (Romans 12:2). So he can bless you and use you and reward you forever. But he can use only what we surrender to him. He can lead us only if we will follow.


Would Jesus say that he is your ultimate concern today? That you have “set your heart and mind on things above” this morning? Is there anything you would not do if he asked? Anywhere you would not go? Anyone you would not forgive, or help, or seek to bring to Jesus? Anything you would not give? Any sin you would not commit?

That’s your next step with your Father. That’s his next call on your life. Remember that we progress in life in proportion to the fare that we are prepared to pay.

Perhaps I know some words which will encourage you. Henri Nouwen, the beloved Roman Catholic theologian and spiritual writer, once said:

“I am growing in the awareness that God wants my whole life, not just part of it. It is not enough to give just so much time and attention to God and keep the rest for myself. It is not enough to pray often and deeply and then move from there to my own projects.

“As I try to understand why I am still so restless, anxious, and tense, it occurs to me that I have not yet given everything to God. I notice this especially in my greediness for time. I am very concerned to have enough hours to develop my ideas, finish my projects, fulfill my desires. Thus, my life is in fact divided into two parts–a part for God and a part for myself. Thus divided, my life cannot be peaceful.

“To return to God means to return to God with all that I am and all that I have. I cannot return to God with just half of my being…God’s love is a jealous love. God wants not just a part of me, but all of me. Only when I surrender myself completely to God’s parental love can I expect to be free from endless distractions, ready to hear the voice of love, and able to recognize my own unique call.

“It is going to be a very long road. Every time I pray, I feel the struggle. It is the struggle of letting God be the God of my whole being. It is the struggle to trust that true freedom lies hidden in total surrender to God’s love.

“Jesus came to open my ears to the voice that says, ‘I am your God, I have molded you with my own hands, and I love what I have made. I love you with a love that has no limits, because I love you as I am loved. Do not run away from me. Come back to me–not once, not twice, but always again. You are my child. How can you ever doubt that I will embrace you again?

“I am your God–the God of mercy and compassion, the God of pardon and love, the God of tenderness and care. Please do not say that I have given up on you, that I cannot stand you any more, that there is no way back. It is not true. I so much want you to be with me. I so much want you to be close to me. I know all your thoughts, I hear all your words. I see all of your actions. And I love you because you are beautiful, made in my own image, an expression of my most intimate love.

“Do not judge yourself. Do not condemn yourself. Do not reject yourself. Let my love touch the deepest, most hidden corners of your heart and reveal to you your own beauty, a beauty that you have lost sight of, but which will become visible to you again in the light of my mercy. Come, come, let me wipe your tears, and let my mouth come close to your ear and say to you, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”‘

“God’s voice does not offer to us a solution, but a friendship. It does not take away our problems, but promises not to avoid them. It does not tell us where it will all end, but assures us that we will never be alone” (Journey to Daybreak).

Amen and amen.

Success Remixed

Success Remixed

Colossians 1:1-14

James C. Denison

Last Sunday’s Super Bowl was watched by an estimated one billion people worldwide. And quickly forgotten by everyone except the 800,000 or so residents of Indianapolis. Quick: who won last year? The Pittsburgh Steelers. Who lost? The Seattle Seahawks. Who made it all the way to the Super Bowl but lost the year before, and the year before? I had to do some research: the Philadelphia Eagles and the Carolina Panthers.

America loves winners. We don’t hate losers–we just forget about them, the Chicago Bears now included.

The Bears are not the only recent Super Bowl losers. A study suggests that U.S. businesses lost as much as $810 million in productivity during the week leading up to the big game. The report assumes that employees spent 10 minutes a day talking about the game, surfing the Internet, or shopping for a new television. The estimate does not include losses this past week as employees discussed the game or the commercials, or called in sick.

We measure success by winning and owning. Nothing else comes close. Things were no different in the ancient world. Rome was the greatest empire the world had ever seen because they won more battles and owned more real estate than anyone ever had. Not because of their ethics, or contributions to the arts, or social advancement. In spite of them, in fact.

To a world consumed by consumption, the Apostle Paul wrote a little letter which gave the lie to all that. A small epistle whose definition of success would birth a subversive, counterrevolutionary movement which would eventually topple that Empire and extend the Kingdom of God across the world.

If you agree that success is all about winning and owning, you won’t care much for Colossians. If you want to measure and experience success God’s way, you need to master this little book. As soon as possible.

Hope in heaven (vs. 1-8)

Colossae was an insignificant town 100 miles east of Ephesus in that part of the world we call Turkey today. Their church had been founded a few years earlier by a man named Epaphras. He was from their city (Colossians 4:12), and brought some good news to Paul in Rome.

Through him, Paul has heard of “your faith in Christ Jesus” (v. 4a). The phrase means their faith developed in relationship with him, practicing the presence of Jesus.

He has heard of “the love that you have for all the saints” (v. 4b), their unconditional commitment to all God’s people.

And he knows that their faith and love come from “the hope laid up for you in heaven” (v. 5). They are living for heaven on earth. Eternal reward motivates all that they do.

They heard about this hope, this purpose for living, in “the word of truth, the gospel.” It changed their lives, and is changing their world. Everywhere it goes it is “bearing fruit” in spiritual reproduction.

So the key to their spiritual success lies in this phrase: “the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel” (v. 5, emphasis mine). Because their hope was in heaven, they had faith in God and love for God’s people on earth. Let’s work on this idea for a moment.

What does it mean to have “hope in heaven”? In the Bible, “hope” means to be so sure of something you cannot see that you’re depending on it. In this sense I am “hoping” that my microphone will continue to amplify my words so I don’t have to wear out my voice. I cannot see what it’s doing, but I’m not going to take it off and start yelling at you. After church, I’m “hoping” that the cook who prepares my lunch doesn’t have a fetish for cyanide seasoning, since I am not going to test my food before eating it. To have biblical “hope” is to depend on something we cannot see.

We can have “hope” in the wrong thing, in which case our hope will not become reality. Years ago I bought a 1965 Mustang in the “hope” that it had been fully restored and would be reliable. Wrong on both counts. I finally sold the car so I could stay married.

You could have “hope” that your good life or church attendance today is enough to get you to heaven, but the Bible says that you’d be wrong: “by grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves–it is the gift of God, not of works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

If you have asked Jesus to forgive your sins and become your Savior, you now have the biblical “hope” that you will live forever in heaven with God. Now God wants you to live for heaven on earth. To live for eternal reward now, “the hope that is stored up for you in heaven.”

To decide that you will take a stand for Jesus even if that stand costs you business or friends, in the hope or belief that you will be rewarded in eternity for your obedience. To refuse temptation even if it doesn’t seem that anyone would know about your sin, in the hope that you will be rewarded in eternity for your commitment. To tell others about Jesus even if you’re afraid they’ll reject you, in the hope that God will reward your witness in paradise. To tithe from your income to God’s Kingdom even if your stewardship comes at a cost, in the hope that God will reward your sacrifice forever.

That’s hard to do, isn’t it? You and I live in a culture built on the principle of immediate gratification. If we want something, we just charge it. If we feel like doing something, the ads says to “just do it.” I remember an old beer commercial: “You only go around once in life, so go for the gusto.” Life is short–eat dessert first. We can start our diet tomorrow. Get that new car–we can find a way to pay for it later. Our entire economy is built on consumption. The more we have, the more successful we are.

You and I want to be right with God or we wouldn’t be here today. We want to please him, to be rewarded by him. But it’s hard to put eternal reward ahead of present-tense pleasure.

That’s why hope is tied to faith and love. If we will decide today to do on earth whatever God rewards in heaven, that decision will require “faith in Christ Jesus.” The more we hope for heavenly reward, the more we’ll trust in Jesus to give it to us.

And that decision will free us to have “love for all the saints.” We don’t need anything from anyone. We’re not trying to impress them, or sell to them, or use them. They’re not a means to our temporal success or employees of our agendas. They’re part of our eternal family. We will spend forever together, so we may as well get started now.

Such hope is still “bearing fruit and growing” all over the earth.

We’re hearing reports of 10,000 conversions a day in Communist China, as the underground church is doing on earth what God rewards in heaven. We’re seeing reports of 25,000 conversions a day in sub-Saharan Africa, as impoverished Christians are doing on earth what God rewards in heaven.

The secret to the explosion of spirituality in Cuba is the same: oppressed Christians are doing on earth what God rewards in heaven. And people are standing outside the windows and doors of their worship services, wanting what they have. I’ve seen it myself. I want what they have, myself.

Are you doing on earth what God blesses in heaven?

Seek God’s will on earth (vs. 9-14)

How can you? Now we come to the last part of our text, where Paul prays for the Colossians, “asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (v. 9b). Paul prays that the Colossians will understand what God wants them to do in every situation, and that they will do it.

Why? Then we “may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way” (v. 10a). Living in his will is the only way to please God.

“Bearing fruit in every good work”–then we reproduce spiritually, helping others follow Jesus.

“Growing in the knowledge of God”–then we grow spiritually, becoming more and more like Jesus.

“Being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience”–then we live with his power, enduring all problems and trusting God in all situations.

“Joyfully giving thanks to the Father”–then we live in joyful gratitude every day to the God who has rescued us from the darkness of sin and hell and transferred us into his kingdom, redeeming and forgiving our souls.

If you’ll decide to do on earth what God rewards in heaven, and ask him to show you that will through every day this week, you will please God. You will help others follow him. You will grow spiritually. You will live in his power. You will experience overflowing joy. But only then.

It all comes down to your definition of success. If you think that the one who dies with the most toys wins, that you are what you have and how you look and where you live, you can ignore the last 20 minutes we’ve spent in God’s word. If you want success as God defines it–the eternal reward and present significance which come from doing on earth what God rewards in heaven–then these last 20 minutes will be crucial to your soul this year. The choice is yours.


Last December, I lost one of my dearest friends when the Lord called Leroy Summers home. Our long-time senior adult minister and then minister with the Baptist Foundation of Texas, Leroy lived by our text. His hope was in heaven, his faith in Jesus, his love for his people obvious. He did on earth what God rewards in heaven, and now his reward is eternal.

Leroy’s last email to me, sent just a few days before the illness which took his life, contained a poem which I read at his memorial service. It’s by Michael Josephson and is titled, “What Will Matter”:

Ready or not, someday it will all come to an end.

There will be no more sunrises, no minutes, hours or days.

All the things you collected, whether treasured or forgotten, will pass to someone else.

Your wealth, fame and temporal power will shrivel to irrelevance.

It will not matter what you owned or what you were owed.

Your grudges, resentments, frustrations, and jealousies will finally disappear.

So, too, your hopes, ambitions, plans, and to-do lists will expire.

The wins and losses that once seemed so important will fade away.

It won’t matter where you came from, or on what side of the tracks you lived.

It won’t matter whether you were beautiful or brilliant.

Your gender and skin color will be irrelevant.

So, what will matter? How will the value of your days be measured?

What will matter is not what you bought, but what you built; not what you got, but what you gave.

What will matter is not your success, but your significance.

What will matter is not what you learned, but what you taught.

What will matter is every act of integrity, compassion, courage or sacrifice that enriched, empowered, or encouraged others to emulate your example.

What will matter is not your competence, but your character.

What will matter is not how many people you knew, but how many will feel a lasting loss when you’re gone.

What will matter is not your memories, but the memories that live in those who loved you.

What will matter is how long you will be remembered, by whom and for what.

Living a life that matters doesn’t happen by accident. It’s not a matter of circumstance

but of choice.

Choose to live a life that matters.

Why not today?

What Are You Waiting For?

What Are You Waiting For?

James 4:13-17

James C. Denison

We’re beginning today with a little test a friend emailed me this week. Let’s see how you score.

You are running in a race and overtake the second person. What position are you in? Second place.

If you overtake the last person, what position are you in? If you said that you’re second to last, you’re wrong. How can you overtake the “last” person?

Do they have a 4th of July in England? Yes–it comes right after the 3rd.

How many birthdays does the average man have? One–it comes each year.

Some months have 31 days; how many have 28? All of them.

Is it legal in California for a man to marry his widow’s sister? No–he’s dead.

How many two-cent stamps are there in a dozen? A dozen.

If you missed them all, we’re doubling your tithe requirement today.

Now take another test, a word-association quiz: what comes to mind when I say the word “disciple”? On DiscipleNow Weekend, with more than 400 students and their teachers involved in the most important single youth event of the year, it seems an appropriate question. What is a disciple? What thoughts come to your mind?

I grew up thinking that a “disciple” was a really serious Christian, a Green Beret church member. You have “Christians” and then you have “disciples.” A disciple spends an hour in prayer each morning, shares his or her faith each day, and memorizes Scripture each evening. A disciple is out on the front lines for Jesus–willing to go anywhere and do anything for the Kingdom. At least that’s what I thought.

Then I met some “disciples” in the Bible and got to know their stories. Peter, denying Jesus to a serving girl when he needed his friends the most; James and John, wanting to call down fire on some poor Samaritans; Thomas, questioning his Lord’s resurrection; Matthew, a crony of the hated Roman government; Simon the Zealot, a terrorist insurgent. Not a Green Beret in the bunch.

Finally I came to understand that a “disciple” is simply a person who follows a teacher. You are a coaching “disciple” of Bill Parcells if you approach the game the way he does. Avery Johnson is a “disciple” of San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich because he leads the Mavericks in the same way “Coach Pop” leads the Spurs. A violinist is a disciple of Itzhak Perlman if she tries to play the way he does. You are a disciple of a person to the degree that you do what they tell you to do. It’s that simple.

So let’s see if we are “disciples now.” Using the theme text of DNow weekend, we’ll answer two questions which make up the “Discipleship Test” and see how we score this morning. There is no more important exercise for the health of your soul, your family, and your legacy today.

Are you assuming the future? (vs. 13-16)

The author of our book calls himself simply “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1). If I were he, I would have said much more.

Our writer was the half-brother of Jesus, the oldest biological son of Mary and Joseph. He grew up in Jesus’ household. He knew him better than any other living person except his mother. However, he did not believe that he was the Messiah (cf. John 7:5) until after the resurrection, when the risen Christ made a special visit to his oldest half-brother (1 Corinthians 15:7).

The result was a new man. James quickly became the leader of the church at Jerusalem, the most visible spokesman for the gospel in all of Judea. His prayer life was so fervent that he was called “James of camel’s knees.” Eventually his faith and witness so threatened the authorities that they had him thrown from the temple and then beaten to death. His last words were a prayer, asking God to forgive them.

Now he calls himself a “servant” of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. “Servant” translates the Greek doulos, literally a “slave.” A slave belongs to his master. He has no will of his own. His only purpose is to do what his master wants. That was James. I’d say he knows something about discipleship.

In our text, he challenges his Christian readers in words which are eerily current: “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business, and make money'” (v. 13). When last did you say something like that?

“This fall, I will go to such-and-such a college and major in so-and-so.” Or, “Later this spring, we will sell our house and buy one in such-and-such neighborhood.” Or, “By March we will expand into such-and-such a market and increase our revenues by so-and-so.” Or, “Later this year, our church will begin such-and-such ministries and services and reach so-and-so people.”

What’s wrong with such assumptions? “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow” (v. 14a). Is that true? Do you know what will happen on Monday?

Did you know on 9-10-01 that we would never forget 9-11?

When Barbaro won the Kentucky Derby and started in the Preakness, did anyone expect him to break his leg and eventually be euthanized?

When the football season began, who thought that the New Orleans Saints would play the Chicago Bears for the NFC championship and the right to go to today’s Super Bowl?

When the Mavericks’ season began, who thought they would lose four straight and then achieve the best record in basketball?

When the Cowboys’ season began, who thought Tony Romo would be our quarterback of the future? When their playoff game began, who thought it would end with a fumbled snap on the winning field goal?

The truth is that “you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (v. 14b). When’s the last time you saw mist in the early morning? It wasn’t there the night before. It settles over the fields or streets, sometimes so thick that you can’t drive safely. But by mid-morning the sun has burned it off and it is gone.

So it is with our lives today. We are here this morning, but none of us is guaranteed that we’ll be back next Sunday. Some sermon will be the last I preach, and the last you hear. I can’t promise you that it is this one, but I can’t promise you that it’s not.

So we are to say before every decision, every day: “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that” (v. 15). Otherwise we “boast and brag,” though “all such boasting is evil” (v. 16). A slave seeks first the will of his master. A disciple seeks first the will of her teacher. Or she’s not a disciple at all.

When last did you do that with Jesus? When last did you ask him to guide you through Scripture, circumstance, and Spirit? To speak to your mind and your heart? To make clear his “good, pleasing and perfect will” for your life (Romans 12:2)?

My first job was at Dairy Queen; my specialty was the “dip cone.” It has to be done properly–pull the ice cream out of the chocolate too soon and it doesn’t get enough on it; leave it in too long and it falls in and glops around. At Dairy Queen I learned something even more important than making dip cones, a very valuable life lesson: the difference between an employee and a customer.

When I became an employee I had to go to the store when my manager said, do what she said, leave when she told me I could leave. If onions needed to be cut but I didn’t want to get onion smell on my hands because I had a date that night, she didn’t much care. If the floors needed to be mopped but I was tired from playing tennis earlier that day, she wasn’t sympathetic. I had to do what I was told, or I couldn’t work for her.

It made me yearn for the days when I was a customer: I could go there when I wanted, order what I wanted, and leave when I wanted.

Are you an employee of Jesus, or a customer of his church? When last did it cost you something sacrificial to follow him?

Are you obedient in the present? (v. 17)

A disciple learns his teacher’s will, and then he does it: “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins” (v. 17). “Anyone”–preachers, deacons, trustees, all of us. “Who knows the good he ought to do”–the Greek assumes the condition; the disciple knows what the teacher wants him to do. “And doesn’t do it, sins.” Not “makes a mistake”–“sins” against the Master.

Conversely, those who know the good they ought to do and do it, please God and position themselves to receive all that his grace intends to give.

“But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it–he will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:25).

Noah obeyed God and was spared on the ark. Moses and his people obeyed God and were spared at the Red Sea. Joshua and the people obeyed God and were spared at the flooded Jordan River and the fortified Jericho walls. David obeyed God and defeated Goliath, Saul, and the enemies of God’s people. Daniel obeyed God and was spared in the lion’s den. Jonah obeyed God and was spared from the fish. James obeyed God and became the most significant leader of the first Christian church.

But such obedience must be complete, for Monday as well as Sunday, when it’s easy to follow and when it’s hard. For his sake, not ours. Because we want to glorify him, not ourselves. Because we want to extend his Kingdom, not our own.

This week I read a challenging but honest statement in C. S. Lewis’s last sermon, “A Slip of the Tongue.” Lewis spoke for many of us when he said:

Our temptation is to look eagerly for the minimum that will be accepted. We are in fact very like honest but reluctant taxpayers. We approve of an income tax in principle. We make our returns truthfully. But we dread a rise in the tax. We are very careful to pay no more than is necessary. And we hope–we very ardently hope–that after we have paid it there will still be enough left to live on.

Conversely, it is those Christians who choose to be full-time disciples who experience the abundant life of Jesus.

They consent to build an ark and save the human race when it has never rained.

Or they decide to “go out not knowing” and become the father of the nation, like Abraham (Hebrews 11:8).

Or they agree to stand before Pharaoh and lead God’s people out of slavery.

Or they choose to step into a flooded river and march around a fortified city, and take the nation into the Promised Land.

Or they go out to fight Goliath with only a slingshot and win a victory which will be remembered forever.

Or they leave their boats and nets to follow a Galilean carpenter and write nearly half of the New Testament.

Or they turn from their religious ambitions to follow Jesus and write nearly the other half.


What needs to happen for you to be a “disciple now”? For you to know and do God’s next step for your life? Have you sought his will for this day, this problem, this opportunity, this temptation, this decision? Will you follow it, wherever he leads, whatever he asks, wherever he goes? Are you an employee or a customer? Are you a Christian or a disciple?

Remember the service a few months ago when Matt Elkins shared the story of his missionary experience in the Sudan? He read from the leather journal which recorded the events of those sacrificial, risky, frightening, miraculous two years. As he did, I noticed the words he had inscribed on the cover of that journal and read them to you: “Every man dies. Not every man truly lives.” When your journal records the last page of your story, which will have been true for you?