Abortion And The Mercy Of God

Abortion and the Mercy of God

By Dr. Jim Denison

Every year, approximately 40,000 people die on American highways. Every ten days, that many abortions are performed in America. Doctors conduct 1.5 million abortions every year in the United States, more than the total of all America’s war dead across our history.

Since the U. S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion in January of 1973, more than 48 million abortions have been performed in America. This is a number larger than the combined populations of Kentucky, Oregon, Oklahoma, Connecticut, Iowa, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kansas, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, West Virginia, Nebraska, Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware, South Dakota, Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming.

Depending on the year, an abortion occurs for every three or four live births in our country. Abortion is the moral issue of our time. It seems impossible to wrestle with the difficult issues of our day without addressing this crucial debate. Most conservative Christians believe that life begins at conception and abortion is therefore wrong. But are we sure? Is this a biblical fact? If the answer is clear, why have so many denominational leaders taken pro-choice positions? Is there a biblical, cohesive, practical position on this difficult subject?

I began this essay with the conviction that the pro-life position is most biblical. But I did not know much about the legal issues involved, or the theological arguments for a woman’s right to choose abortion. As you will see, the debate is much more complex than either side’s rhetoric might indicate. But I believe that there is an ethical position which even our relativistic society might embrace.

Choosing sides

An “abortion” occurs when a “conceptus” is caused to die. To clarify vocabulary, “conceptus” is a general term for pre-born life growing in the mother’s womb. More specifically, doctors often speak of the union of a sperm and an ovum as a “zygote.” A growing zygote is an “embryo.” When the embryo reaches around seven weeks of age, it is called a “fetus.” However, “fetus” is usually used in the abortion debate to describe all pre-born life.

A “miscarriage” is a spontaneous, natural abortion. An “indirect abortion” occurs when actions taken to cure the mother’s illness cause the unintended death of the fetus. A “direct abortion” occurs when action is taken to cause the intended death of the fetus.

Why do so many people in America believe that a mother should have the right to choose direct abortion?

In 1973, the Supreme Court issued Roe v. Wade, its landmark abortion ruling. In essence, the Court overturned state laws limiting a woman’s right to abortion. Its decision was largely based on the argument that the Constitution nowhere defines a fetus as a person, or protects the rights of the unborn.

Rather, the Court determined that an unborn baby possesses only “potential life” and is not yet a “human being” or “person.” It argued that every constitutional reference to “person” relates to those already born. The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees protections and rights to individuals, but the Court ruled that the amendment does not include the unborn.

The Court further determined that a woman’s “right to privacy” extends to her ability to make her own choices regarding her health and body. Just as she has the right to choose to become pregnant, she has the right to end that pregnancy.

The Court suggested several specific reasons why she might choose abortion: “specific and direct harm” may come to her; “maternity, or additional offspring, may force upon the woman a distressful life and future”; “psychological harm may be imminent”; “mental and physical health may be taxed by child care”; problems may occur associated with bearing unwanted children; and “the additional difficulties and continuing stigma of unwed motherhood” should be considered.

Since 1973, four positions have been taken in the abortion debate:

•There should be no right to an abortion, even to save the life of the mother. This has been the Catholic Church’s usual position.

•Therapeutic abortions can be performed to save the mother’s life.

•Extreme case abortions can be permitted in cases of rape, incest, or severe deformation of the fetus. Most pro-life advocates would accept therapeutic and extreme case abortions.

•Abortion should be available to any woman who chooses it. This is the typical “pro-choice” position.

Moral arguments for abortion

“Pro-choice” advocates make five basic claims: (1) no one can say when a fetus becomes a person, so the mother is the most appropriate person to make decisions regarding it; (2) abortion must be protected so a woman who is the victim of rape or incest does not have to bear a child resulting from such an attack; (3) no unwanted child should be brought into the world; (4) the state has no right to legislate personal morality; and (5) a woman must be permitted to make pregnancy decisions in light of her life circumstances. Many theologians, pastors, and denominational leaders consider these claims to be both biblical and moral.

First, “pro-choice” proponents argue that a fetus is not legally a “person.” They agree with the Supreme Court’s finding that the Constitution nowhere grants legal standing to a pre-born life. Only 40 to 50 percent of fetuses survive to become persons in the full sense. A fetus belongs to the mother until it attains personhood, and is morally subject to any action she wishes to take with it.

Second, abortion must be protected as an alternative for women who are the victims of rape or incest. While this number is admittedly small in this country (approximately one percent of all abortions), it is growing in many countries around the world. As many as one in three women may become the victim of such an attack. They must be spared the further trauma of pregnancy and childbirth.

Third, no unwanted children should be brought into the world. If a woman does not wish to bear a child, she clearly will not be an appropriate or effective mother if the child is born. Given the population explosion occurring in many countries of the world, abortion is a necessary option for women who do not want children. The woman is more closely involved with the fetus than any other individual, and is the best person to determine whether or not this child is wanted and will receive proper care.


Are You Awed by God?

Are You Awed By God?

Exodus 3:1-6

James C. Denison

It was my first day on the faculty of Southwestern Seminary in Ft. Worth. I parked my pickup truck outside our church in Mansfield before driving to school. The only parking spot I could find was adjacent to President Russell Dilday’s car.

I happened to see Dr. Dilday come and go two or three times during the day; once it seemed that he looked in the back of my truck, but I thought nothing of it. When I came out at the end of the day, I saw what he might have seen: the empty 12-pack beer carton someone had thrown in the back of my truck when it was parked outside the church that morning. Not the best way to start a new career.

Most of us have been awed by someone we respect or fear. Your first meeting with the president of your college, or the CEO of your new company, or the famous athlete you happen to meet. The first president I ever met was Jimmy Carter. I would see him for five minutes one day at the Carter Center in Atlanta. I worried all week that I would do something to embarrass myself for the rest of my life.

When last were you awed by God? This summer we explored the church, the people of God. Now let’s meet the God of the church. Recent movies have brought us Bruce Almighty and Evan Almighty–now we’ll meet God Almighty. Each week we’ll be introduced by a person who met God and was never the same.

We start with a man who was awed by God. He is ready to show us that we have not experienced all God can do in and through our lives until the same thing happens to us. Where do you need divine power and presence today? What you need even more is to be awed by God.

Let me show you why.

Being awed by God

One of the most pivotal events in human history occurred in one of the most mundane settings imaginable. The region was known as “Horeb,” a Hebrew word meaning “desolation” or “desert.” The traditional site is called Gebel Musa, “Moses’ mountain,” an elevation of 7,467 feet. Here Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law when he heard the voice of God.

From within a burning bush, God called Moses by name (v. 4). It is an astounding thing to realize that the Lord of the universe knows your name and mine. He is watching as you listen to these words. He knows your thoughts and heart. And he loves and accepts you anyway.

He called Moses to venerate his holiness by removing his sandals. Slaves were typically barefoot; here Moses humbled himself to the lowest level of social importance. He bowed before this holy God in the reverence which is his due. And God revealed himself in greater detail than any human had yet known him. But it all started when Moses was awed by God.

Are you awed by God?

“Fear not” is the phrase God says to humans more often than any other in the Bible. He said it to Abram when he first called him: “Fear not, Abram–I am your shield and very great reward” (Genesis 15:1). He said it to Hagar in the desert (Genesis 21:17). He said it to Isaac: “Fear not, for I am with you” (Genesis 26:24). He said it to Jacob: “Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there” (Genesis 46:3).

He said it to Moses when he was afraid of his enemy (Numbers 21:34). Gabriel said it to Zacharias in announcing the coming of John the Baptist (Luke 1:13); he said it to Mary in announcing the coming of the Messiah (Luke 1:30); the angels said it to the shepherds in announcing the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:10).

Jesus said it to his disciples when he called them to fish for men (Luke 5:10). God said it to Paul before his shipwreck (Acts 27:24). The exalted Christ said it to John on Patmos: “Fear not” (Revelation 1:17).

All through the Old Testament we see the same pattern.

When Isaiah saw the Lord he cried out, “Woe to me! I am ruined!” (Isaiah 6:5). When Jeremiah heard his call he responded, “Ah, Sovereign Lord! I do not know how to speak–I am only a child” (Jeremiah 1:6).

When Ezekiel saw the Lord he fell facedown (Ezekiel 1:28). When Daniel received the vision of God, he says that his face “turned pale” (Daniel 7:28). When Hosea heard the word of the Lord he called the people to repent (Hosea 14:1-2).

Joel called the sinful nation to mourn and grieve in a solemn assembly before Almighty God (Joel 1:13-14). When God spoke to Amos, the prophet recorded, “The Lord roars from Zion and thunders from Jerusalem; the pastures of the shepherds dry up, and the top of Carmel withers” (Amos 1:2). Every prophet had the same message: repent before the God of the universe.

The Old Testament closes with these words from Malachi 4: “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse” (vs. 5-6).

But this is the God of the Old Testament, a God of law and legalism and judgment, we often hear. The New Testament God of grace is different, some people say. Those people are wrong.

When Jesus first demonstrated his miraculous power to Peter, the burly fisherman pled with him, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8). At the Mount of Transfiguration, where Jesus revealed his heavenly glory to them, his disciples “did not know what to say, they were so frightened” (Mark 9:6).


Hinduism and You

Hinduism and You

Dr. Jim Denison

Introduction

Hinduism is the most ancient religion in the world–there is no time in literature when there was not some form of this religion.

Most philosophical foundations are found in the Upanishads, a collection of treatises based on about 300 years (800-500 B.C.) of religious reflection by various sages. Under their religion, philosophy became paramount in Hinduism.

The principle underlying the Upanishads is that humanity’s spiritual problem is resolved neither by religious practices such as worship, nor by works or social service, but by life-changing knowledge of what is actual reality or truth.

Today Hinduism is the religion of 80% of India, a nation of 700 million people. Recent estimates of the number of Hindus worldwide put its population at approximately 650 million.

It is growing in influence in America:

Spiritual unity of all reality, and reincarnation leading to “enlightenment”–the basic premise of the New Age Movement

Baha’ism, rooted in Hinduism, with its pluralism

Personalized Nature in transcendental meditation

Darwin’s unity of humanity and animals–monism

Physical reality as “maya” (illusion); cf. Christian Science view of evil and physical suffering

Categories for comparison (taken from Woodfin 149-55):

View of God, gods, or ultimate reality

Basic understanding of humanity

Central focus or basic understanding of reality

Concept of redemption or “salvation”

Eschatology or interpretation of ultimate destiny

Ultimate reality–“Brahman”

According to Hinduism, Brahman is the “supreme soul of the universe,” without beginning or ending, unchanging and eternal, beyond all description.

Not the creator of the world, but the very essence of all reality.

Not to be “worshiped.”

The Many “gods” which Hindus worship as part of Brahman, include:

“Kali”–a threatening, near-demonic goddess

“Siva”–dynamic yet ascetic

“Vishnu”–glorious and gracious

“Krishna”–loving and invincible; incarnation or descent of Vishnu

Many others, from simple provincial deities to cultic gods which are approached through elaborate images, idols, and ritual. “Bhakti” is Hindu devotion to one of these gods as their personal god of worship.

View of humanity–“Atman”

Hindus see Atman as a “manifold conglomerated collection of changing finite phenomena” (Woodfin).

Not “real” in the sense of separate physical identity:

Is one with and part of Brahman

Only appears to be real because of “maya” (illusion)

The apparent world is a mere illusion; we should see the world as a spiritual unity, not a duality of body and spirit.

“Atman” is innermost, true being of mankind; like Brahman, it is eternal and unchanging.

Atman is simply part of Brahman, as the air inside a jug is the same as the air outside it.

Suffering and the need for “salvation” arise through our ignorance of this identity of Brahman and Atman.

Central focus–the identity of Brahman and Atman

Learning and living out this identity is the goal and purpose of Hinduism. This goal leads to belief in the commonality of all humans and, in fact, all reality. This worldview is “monistic”–it sees all reality as one.

Concept of “salvation”–“moksha,”

Hindus believe salvation comes from our understanding and experiencing the identity of Atman in Brahman. Our greatest burden is not sin but ignorance of the true nature of our identity with Brahman. We can overcome this ignorance only through properly understanding and experiencing this identity.

Moksha is available to us all through our own efforts; once we realize our Brahman consciousness and live it out, we will no longer be deluded by maya and will transcend all suffering and need. The goal:

“The highest state for a human is a waking trance in which the self is disciplined to such an extent that the world is not experienced and awareness of the One is complete. But even this experience is a foretaste of a still higher form of existence, when a person is released from the cycle of birth and rebirth and has immediate awareness of bliss (Newport, Life’s Ultimate Questions 385).

“Yoga” (“yoke” or “union”) is the spiritual discipline required to reach this goal of identification with Brahman.

In this discipline one yokes himself to a chosen deity to achieve enlightenment and union with Brahman.

Note that these three methods correspond to the three basic personality types or ways of knowledge (the pragmatic, rational, and intuitive):

Karma Yoga–stresses the importance of good works and self-less actions; pragmatic, emphasis on doing. One yokes himself or herself with Spirit through the chosen deity by disinterested good will and service; thus all deeds are holy deeds and acts of worship.

Jnana Yoga–for intellectual persons; stresses the path to oneness by yoking with the chosen deity through knowledge or contemplation; made up of the “Six Philosophies,” one of which the intellectual will choose to follow.

Bhakti Yoga–simplest form of yoga; emphasis on loving or feeling; places primary stress on emotion or devotion, unites with chosen deity through acts of love, and is closest to Christian worship.

According to most Hindus, Christianity is simply one of the Bhakti paths.

The “Four Goals” of the Hindu lifestyle are:

Material happiness

Loving and being loved

Doing one’s duty

Working to achieve liberation

Ultimate destiny–absorption into Brahman

The individual soul (“jiva”) is responsible for good works. According to the doctrine of “karma,” it will be rewarded with an exact equivalent of merit or demerit according to the nature of its deeds.

The soul is this subject to “samsara,” reincarnation, in keeping with the merit it obtained in the previous life.

This belief system leads to the caste structure, by which we are rewarded or punished for our previous deeds:

Priest

Warrior or leader

Worker or merchant

Servant

“Outcastes”–outside the system, with no caste rights whatsoever

The “Four Stages” of life through which a Hindu passes:

Student–training is accomplished

Householder–one earns a living and provides for family

Forest dweller–one leaves the family after providing for them adequately and attempts to learn religious wisdom

Renouncer–wisdom is achieved at a certain level and all material goods are renounced.

The ultimate goal: escape from the cycle of rebirth and karma and absorption into Brahman to whose essence we already belong.

Hinduism today

Followers of Shankara (9th century A.D.)–stress impersonal monism and need for self-less identity with Brahman.


Islam, 9-11, And You

Islam, 9-11, and you

Dr. Jim Denison

History

Islam was founded by Muhammad (A.D. 570-632), in the midst of religious pluralism, idolatry, and division among his Arab people in Mecca and the Arabian peninsula.

Muhammad’s hatred of idols led him to place an immense emphasis on the unity and transcendence of God. Islamic theology thus holds that God is too highly exalted to enter into any kind of relationship–he reveals only his will to us. Even in paradise, people will not know God as he is.

Muhammad’s day was characterized by tribal warfare, brutality, and promiscuity; he thus emphasized divine control, and opposed religious liberty and separation of church and state. Since Allah is Lord, he must be Lord of all. Thus Muhammad created a civilization, not merely a religion–a way of life for all people, governing personal autonomy and all morality. Islam attempts to provide the answers to every conceivable detail of belief and daily life.

The religion of the day was extremely complex and polytheistic; thus Muhammad constructed a faith which emphasizes simplicity. There is only one central idea: there is but one God, who is Maker and Absolute Controller of all things and people.

Sunnis and Shiites

Muhammad left no designated heirs. The “caliphs” (Arabic for “successors”) continued his movement, led first by Abu Bekr.

Soon, however, divisions began to emerge. Most Muslims followed the caliphs and their successors; these are known as Sunni’s today. But some believed that only the fourth caliph (Muhammad’s son-in-law) was the true successor Muhammad, and have supported his successors; they are the Shiites. 90% of Muslims are Sunnis; 10% are Shiites, living primarily in Iran.

Beliefs

Islam means “peace” or “surrender.” Muslims worship Allah, the Arabic name for “God.” It views mankind as free yet under the sovereignty of Allah. The Koran is the central focus of Islam. “Koran” means “the reading.”

View of God and ultimate reality: all reality is grounded ultimately in the one sovereign personal being of God who has created the world–Allah.

View of mankind: freedom, overshadowed by the sovereignty of God.

Central focus: the Koran, as Allah gave it through Muhammad. It was given over a period of 23 years in the Arabic language, and contains 114 Surahs (chapters) and 6236 verses.

In addition to the Koran, the Hadith (a collection of the “sayings” of Muhammad) and the Sunna (the record of the personal customs of Muhammad and his community) give guidance for Muslim life. But the Koran is the only divine revelation.

Salvation: “Islam” means “peace” or “surrender.” Salvation in this faith involves our submission to the sovereign will of God, along with an almost dominating emphasis on the necessity of good works. These words are detailed in the “five pillars of Islam,” found in the Koran:

The “witness” (“shahadah“): “La ilaha illal lah Muhammadur rasulul lah”–“There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is Allah’s messenger.” Every Muslim must declare this aloud at least once in his life very slowly, with deep meaning and full commitment; most Muslims repeat it many times each day.

Prayer (“salah“): with directed motions, five times a day, facing toward Mecca, the holy city.

Almsgiving (“zakah“): approximately 2 1/2% of all one’s income and permanent annual worth, to the poor. This is an act of worship.

Fasting (“sawm“): especially during the month of Ramadan, which commemorates the giving of the Koran. From dawn to sunset every day of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, a Muslim refrains from eating, drinking, smoking and sexual relations.

Pilgrimage (“hajj”): to Mecca at least once from every believer who is physically and financially able to make the journey.

In addition, jihad (“holy war”) can be declared the unequivocal religious duty of the Muslim man, as the will of God.

Note that strict morality is a hallmark of Muslims. They obey strong prohibitions against drinking wine, eating pork, gambling, and practicing usury. They invoke the name of Allah at the slaughter of all animals. They also require a specific dress code: men–covering from navel to knees; women–covering of whole body except face and hands, with women above the age of puberty required to cover their face while going out and meeting strangers; pure silk and gold not allowed for men; prohibition of women’s clothes for men and vice versa; symbolic dress of other religions is not allowed.

Final destiny: a final day of judgment, consummation of history, and the assigning of heaven and hell to all persons on the basis of their acceptance or rejection of the message of God and their accompanying good works.

Allah is depicted as weighing the good and bad works on a delicate scale of balance which is accurate even to the weight of a grain of mustard seed (Koran 7:5-8; 21:48; 23:103-5; 101:6-8).

Those in heaven will be rewarded with sensual pleasure; those in hell will live forever in unspeakable pain.

Growth

Islam’s spread worldwide has been the fastest of any religion in history. Within a single decade, A.D. 622-632, Muhammad united the nomadic tribes of the Arabian peninsula into a single cohesive nation, gave them a monotheistic religion in place of their polytheistic, tribal faiths, organized a powerful society and state, and launched his world-wide movement.

Muhammad died in 632 and was succeeded by Abu Bekr. Under his reign and afterward Islam continued to spread, promoted by extensive military campaigns.

Within a century after the death of Muhammad, the Islamic empire stretched from Arabia west through North Africa, to Southern France and Spain; also north of Arabia through the Middle East and east throughout Central Asia, to the borders of China. In the process, Islamic expansion took in much of the oldest and strongest Christian territory.

The spread of Islam in western Europe was finally checked by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours (in France) in A.D. 732, exactly a century after the death of Muhammad. Spain was later reclaimed for Christianity, but a wide belt of territory from Morocco to Pakistan and Indonesia remained Muslim, and has so to this day.


Legions of the Unjazzed

Legions of the Unjazzed

Jeremiah 1:4-10

James C. Denison

The number of text messages sent and received today will exceed the population of the planet. If MySpace were a country, it would be the eighth-largest in the world. 2.7 billion searches are performed on Google every month. More than 3,000 new books are published every day. China will soon become the number one English speaking country in the world. One hundred percent of the college graduates in India can speak English.

One out of every eight couples married in the US last year met online. By 2013 a supercomputer will be built which exceeds the computing power of the human brain. By 2023, it will cost less than $1,000. By 2049, that $1,000 computer will exceed the computational capacities of the entire human race.

No one knows where the future is going. I read Alan Greenspan’s new book this week, and was fascinated. As you know, he was the chairman of the Federal Reserve for nearly 20 years, working with four presidents. I had no idea that economists had so many tools at their disposal to use in predicting future financial trends.

But despite the greatest sophistication in human history, we still don’t know what the future will bring. Will there be a recession? Will the subprime mortgage crisis affect us all? Will the dollar hold its value against foreign currencies? No one knows.

There’s only one Chairman who can see tomorrow today. He is God Almighty, the awesome and holy Lord of the universe. But he is also intimately interested in you. Today we’ll learn how to return the favor–why you and I should pay the price to know this God more intimately than ever before. And we’ll see what happens when we do.

What God has done for us

God “knew” Jeremiah. The Hebrew word is a completed action: he knew all about him. Everything. Everything he would ever do, and say, and think, and feel. Before he made him at conception and brought him into the world. He knew the good–the achievements, the success, the faithfulness to God. He knew the bad–Jeremiah’s times of depression, of despair, of feeling rejected by God and his people. Jesus says that even the hairs on our heads are numbered by God. He knew him.

He formed him: “Before I formed you.” The same word is used in Jeremiah 18:4 for a potter making clay. It is used in Genesis 2:7 for God making of man from the earth. It means that he made him as he wished him to be. As a potter can make anything from clay, so God made Jeremiah. He formed him as he was and is.

He sanctified him: “before you were born I set you apart.” The word means to separate something for a job, a task, a purpose. The New Testament speaks of God’s people as “saints”–the “separated ones.” God made us for himself. We are a means to his end. We exist for his glory. He made us for his purposes.

And he called him: “I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” “Appointed” means to set apart for a task. For Jeremiah, it was to be a prophet to the nations. To speak and record the word of God for the people and for posterity. God clearly brought his plan to pass, as we are reading the words of that prophet today.

Why is this episode in Holy Scripture? Jeremiah obviously knew all of this. The Holy Spirit led him to record this for your sake and mine. So we could know that what God did for Jeremiah, he has done for every one of us as well. He “knew” you–everything you would ever do, before he “formed” you. He made you, then set you apart for himself. And he has called you to a purpose in his Kingdom. He has a plan for your life–a plan to prosper you and not harm you, a plan to give you hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11). His plan is good, pleasing, and perfect (Romans 12:2).

All of this is what God has done for us. And he’s not done yet.

What God will do for us

Here’s what God will do for us. First, he plans our lives (v. 7). Jeremiah thinks that he cannot speak, that he is too inexperienced. God says: I have a plan, and you’re in it. I will send you, and I will tell you what to do. If you know where to go and what to do, you know all you need to know.

He protects us (v. 8): “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you.” When you don’t want to follow his plan, to go where he sends and say what he says, remember that he will protect you when you are in his will. But only then–he cannot protect those who will not follow him, any more than a shepherd can protect a sheep which wanders from his care. The safest place in all the world to be is the center of the will of God.

He provides for us (v. 9): “Now, I have put my words in your mouth.” Why words? Because this is what a prophet would need. Jeremiah would need to say, “Thus says the Lord.” Whatever you need, God will give you as well. He equips the called–he does not call the equipped.

And he uses us (v. 10). God has a global purpose for our lives. Jeremiah could not imagine a use this great, but God could. He couldn’t imagine affecting nations and kingdoms–to uproot and tear down, destroy and overthrow, build and plant.

But this is what God did with Jeremiah. He used him to call his people to repentance. When they refused, he used him to call them to judgment and exile. Eventually they would return from their slavery in Babylon and never be the same again. No more idolatry–they would worship the one true God. And through their nation would come the Messiah for all the world.


Love in Four Tenses

Love in Four Tenses

Jonah 4:1-11

James C. Denison, Ph.D.

Barry Bonds hit his 756th home run on August 7 of this year, surpassing Hank Aaron as the all-time home run hitter. The ball will soon land in the Baseball Hall of Fame. We learned this week that when the ball arrives, it will be branded with an asterisk. Marc Ecko, the fashion designer who bought the baseball for $752,467, asked fans to decide how he should treat the memento.

After 10 million online votes, an asterisk was the winner, reminding us of the steroids controversy which has surrounded Bonds for years. The Hall has agreed to accept the asterisked ball.

I don’t know what I think about Barry Bonds, but I do know what I think about myself. If every sermon I preached had to come from a sinless person, they’d all be asterisked. So would everything you’ll do this week, I would imagine. But God Almighty doesn’t use asterisks in his Lamb’s Book of Life. He forgives all we confess and forgets all he forgives. He buries our sins in the depths of the deepest seas and separates them from us as far as the East is from the West. That’s how much he loves us.

Today we’ll learn that the awesome, fearsome, holy God of the universe, the God who wants an intimate relationship with each of us, is the God of love. He is love all the time, whether we deserve his love or not. Whether our circumstances reflect his love or not. Whether we feel his love or not. This morning we’ll learn why that fact is the best gift you can receive today. And the best gift you can give tomorrow.

Who was Jonah?

Jonah was God’s prophet, his preacher, in the eighth century before Christ. He had earlier predicted that King Jeroboam of Israel would restore the nation’s borders and bring relative peace to the country (2 Kings 14:23-25). His was apparently a successful and faithful ministry. Until, that is, he was called to go to Nineveh (Jonah 1:1-2).

Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the most wicked nation on earth. They were a conqueror nation, the Nazi Germany of their day, employing al-Qaeda-like terrorist tactics wherever they went. They would literally peel the skin from their victims and use it to paper their walls. And the nation they hated worst on earth was Israel.

You see, they wanted to control Egypt, the other superpower of the day. But Israel was in the middle, and Israel wouldn’t cooperate. So the Assyrians hated the Jews. One day, 30 or so years after Jonah, they would come and destroy Israel, the ten northern tribes. They would make them “the ten lost tribes of Israel.”

No Jew would go to Nineveh any more than one would have wanted to preach in Hitler’s Berlin or an American preacher would be happy with a call from God to preach to the Taliban.

But that’s not why Jonah didn’t want to go there, as we’ll see in a moment. He wasn’t afraid of Nineveh. He had preached God’s word faithfully before a corrupt king in Israel. He would soon sacrifice himself in the storm to save the sailors. When God finally brought him to Nineveh he did not hesitate to preach to them. He didn’t flee Nineveh out of fear, as we’ll learn shortly. But he did flee Nineveh.

In fact, Jonah “ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish” (Jonah 1:3). Nineveh was directly to the east from Israel; Tarshish was directly to the west. In fact, since it was located in southwestern Spain, the city was as far west as their known world extended. In those pre-Columbus days, this was as far from Nineveh as a man could get. So Jonah went to Joppa, a Jewish port city on the Mediterranean coast, boarded a ship, and ran from God.

But that never works. When you run from God you run into him. That’s what happened to Jonah. God “threw” a storm at him (v. 4 in the literal Hebrew). The sailors threw their cargo back to lighten the ship and make a sacrifice to the god of the weather. But it didn’t work. So at his request they threw Jonah overboard, and turned their hearts to God (v. 16).

Then the same God who made the storm to catch Jonah made a “great fish” to save him. After the fish brought Jonah to Nineveh, he didn’t try to run again, for obvious reasons. Instead, he began doing what God told him to do: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” (Jonah 3:4).

With this shocking outcome: “The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth” (v. 5). Even the king joined them, and required the nation to join him. This would be like Hitler converting to Judaism and requiring the entire German nation to join him. And “when God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened” (v. 10).

Who is your Nineveh?

But Jonah wasn’t happy: “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2).

That’s why he didn’t want to go to Nineveh–not because he was afraid the Ninevites would reject his message, but because he was afraid they wouldn’t. He was afraid that they would repent and then God would forgive them. He was afraid that the Lord would love the mortal enemies of his people. And then he’d have to love them as well. And this Jonah would not do.

Do you remember Jeffrey Dahmer, the man who was convicted of torturing, murdering and then cannibalizing his victims, some of them children? A Church of Christ minister named Roy Ratcliff said that he baptized Dahmer in the penitentiary whirlpool in May of 1994, shortly before he was killed by other inmates. Does the idea that God could forgive Jeffrey Dahmer and bring him to heaven bother you?


The Church God Can Bless

The Church God Can Bless

Matthew 16:13-20

James C. Denison

The Dallas Cowboys begin their 48th season today. They have won five Super Bowls, tied for most in NFL history. They have 16 players in the NFL’s Hall of Fame in Canton, and will send another when Emmitt Smith becomes eligible in three years. They will soon occupy a $1 billion stadium, the most expensive ever built. They have a payroll of $82 million. But none of that matters when they play the New York Giants tonight, does it? They believe they can win the Super Bowl this year. If they don’t, nothing else they do will count.

Today we pause to celebrate all that God has given our family of faith. A $34.7 million facility, nearly paid for in full. We begin our fourth morning worship service today. We again ended the year with a giving surplus because of the faithfulness of our people. You’ve heard some of the good news from our summer ministries, as we have completed another successful season of Vacation Bible School, children’s sports and day camps, Youth Camp, and mission trips around the globe.

For what purpose? What is our Super Bowl? What is the victory which matters most? There is only one purpose God can bless, and therefore only one kind of church he can bless. If we want to be that church, we must fulfill that purpose. If we want God to bless our lives and our families, we must fulfill that purpose. In this league, there is no prize for second place.

Why to attack Hell

Let’s get the setting in our minds again.

Two years or so into his public ministry, Jesus and his disciples have taken some time to get away, retreating to Caesarea Philippi on the far northern edge of Galilee. This was the resort center of antiquity, the Vail or Jackson Hole of the first century. High in the hills, its climate is always cool.

Jesus and his friends were gathered in one of the most beautiful places in that part of the world. Surrounded by forests and hills, with a creek meandering at their side, they finally had some rest and quiet. I’ve been there twice–it is my favorite place to visit in the Holy Land.

Now they had time to reflect on their years together. Jesus asked them, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (v. 13). They answered with the popular speculation. “But what about you?” he pressed the point. And Simon Peter, their impetuous, boastful, mercurial leader, got something right. He became the first person in history to utter the words, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 16).

To this declaration Jesus replied, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (v. 18). When we began our summer series with this text, we emphasized the first part of Jesus’ proclamation: the fact that this is his church.

His Greek was emphatic: “I will build the church of me.” It is a genitive of possession: this church belongs to Jesus and to him alone. Not to Jesus and us, or Jesus and the deacons, or Jesus and the culture. This is his church, or it’s not a church.

If we’re calling the shots and running the show, we can build a wonderful benevolent organization, a religious society, a Rotary Club with a Bible study, but we cannot build a church. Only Jesus can build a church. And he builds only the church that is his. We are his, or we are not a church.

Today we need to emphasize the second half of his sentence: “and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” Literally, “the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” The word means “to have strength against,” “to stand up to.”

Gates do not attack–they defend. We put signs on our gates that say “Bad Dog” to warn people away. When last did you see a sign, “Bad Gate”? Who has a vicious gate at their house, a gate which attacks you when you come near?

We had to replace the backyard fence at our house a couple of years ago, and put up a new gate as well. It has since warped in the weather so that I’ve had to cut and saw and sand it several times. Try doing that to a Doberman. But my gate just sits there in silence. It opens and shuts, and does nothing else. That’s what gates do.

Here Jesus speaks of the “gates of Hades.” He was pointing to a cave high on the cliff overhead, a cave which leads to a cavern which bores down into the earth. The ancients called it the “gates of the underworld” or the “gates of Hades.” It’s still there today. It hasn’t moved. It doesn’t threaten anyone. You can look at it, and climb up to it, and say what you want about it, and it can’t strike back. It’s just a gate.

In Jesus’ metaphor, it’s the gate which leads to Hades, to the lair of the dead, to the realm of the enemy.

Everyone and everything on earth is on one side of that gate or the other. You either belong to God or you belong to Satan. You serve your Lord or you serve his enemy. There’s no middle ground, no neutral Switzerland of the soul, no demilitarized zone. Every person on earth is claimed either by God in Christ or by Satan and his demons.

It is our job to attack the gates of Hades so we can rescue those who are imprisoned on the other side. It is our job to reclaim souls from hell for heaven. This is why Jesus said he builds his church. It is our one reason for existing. It is the only purpose he will bless.

How to attack Hell

Everything we celebrate today has been built by God for this one purpose. How do we fulfill it? How do we win this victory? How can we be the church and the people God can bless?


The Need for Speed

The Need for Speed

2 Corinthians 5:16-21

James C. Denison

BlackBerries and other personal digital assistants are so much a fact of life that Hyatt hotels now offer a special hand, arm, and thumb massage called “BlackBerry Balm.” Google considered changing its search engine to show 30 results rather than 10, but people didn’t want to wait the extra half-second. Ninety one percent of us watch TV while we eat; 26 percent admit they “often eat while driving,” and 35 percent of us eat lunch at our desks while working. A “Labor Day” to rest from labor has never been a better idea.

Since 1955, our average income after inflation has tripled, while life expectancy has increased roughly 10 percent. So we have more to spend and do, but not more time to do it. The result is a world obsessed with speed, and filled with stress as a result.

Our problem began when we shifted from agriculture to industry. We migrated from the farm, where our work and our lives were intermingled, for the factory. We left home for work, and left work for home. But now technology follows us everywhere we go. And we feel incredibly stressed by the fact that we can never quit (The Age of Speed: Learning to thrive in a more-faster-now world).

The answer is not to work less, or work faster and harder. The answer is to work on purpose. It is to find a life purpose which gives you significance, direction, and joy. Then make everything you do serve that purpose, “work” and the rest of your day–when you’re at school, in the office, sitting at home. We will resolve our need for speed, our stress and struggle to survive in a breakneck world, when we have a simple, single purpose and align our lives with it.

Easy enough. What should that purpose be? Your Maker has an answer for that question.

Be reconciled to God

“Reconciliation,” the concept of restoring the relationship between God and humanity, was unknown to the Greco-Roman world before Christ. No Greek writer ever used the word in this way, for none had ever considered the possibility that we would want a personal relationship with the gods. You wanted to stay as far from Zeus and his thunderbolts as possible. A man on a sinking ship cried out to the gods for help, when a fellow sailor said, “Quiet! Better not to let them know where we are!”

But our King and Lord wants precisely this with us. He took the initiative. He made us right with himself “through Christ Jesus,” through his death on the cross. He paid our debt; he took our punishment; he died in our place. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (v. 21).

Then he “gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”

“Gave” means to bestow favor and privilege. It is the greatest possible privilege to be used in reconciling the human race to God. You and I did not earn or deserve this honor. We are no better than those we are sent to reach. Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven. We are beggars telling other beggars where we found bread.

Ours is the “ministry” or “service” of reconciliation. This is a service we perform, a ministry we provide. We are not pushing our beliefs on others. One of the reasons evangelism is hard for so many of us is that we don’t want to offend people. But the doctor isn’t being offensive when she prescribes the medicine you need; the pharmacist isn’t being offensive when he gives it to you. The coach who helps you play better golf; the mechanic who makes your car run; the IT person who fixes your computer are all performing a service. They’re not judging you–they’re helping you.

Our message is clear and simple. “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.” The “world,” for “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16); God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9); God wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4).

God is doing this. You and I cannot convict a single person of a single sin, or save a single soul. We cannot get people from hell into heaven. This is not our job. Our job is to deliver the message, and trust God to use his word by the power of his Spirit.

God has “committed to us the message of reconciliation.” He has “committed” it to us–the word means to give over, to lay aside for another. God has given this message to us and to no other. We are the world’s only hope.

Invite the world to God

With this result: “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (v. 20).

If you were to be America’s ambassador to another country, which would you choose? I’d choose England hands down. If there were two of me, one would live in Dallas and one would live in London. Our Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Robert Holmes Tuttle, has my dream job. Let’s use him as an analogy for God’s call to us.

Ambassadors belong to the country they serve. Ambassador Tuttle serves at the sole discretion and pleasure of President Bush. He does not serve America and England, the president and the prime minister. He is an American citizen, living in American property. He retains his American citizenship all the time he lives in London.

In the same way, you and I are “Christ’s ambassadors”–the original is a genitive of possession, signifying that we belong to him and to no other. We do not serve Christ and our job, Christ and our school, Christ and our friends, Christ and our ambitions. We serve only Christ. We belong only to Christ. We live in his property, our lives at his disposal. We are his alone.