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.


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.


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.


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.