A Tale of Two Sermons

A Tale of Two Sermons

Luke 16:19-31

James C. Denison

I have been preaching for 32 years, but I’ve never done what I’m going to do today–preach two sermons in one service. I’m going to preach first the sermon I had planned before Tuesday’s Dallas Morning News was published, and then the sermon I need to preach in light of its front page.

Since I’m not Joshua and cannot make the sun stop or time stand still, both of my sermons will be as brief as I can make them. Then I’ll show you how they relate to each other, and why I believe they are so crucial to our souls today.

The story

First let’s walk through our parable, one of the most striking stories in all of Scripture. It begins: “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day” (v. 19). Jesus could not have painted a more picturesque image.

He “was dressed”–the Greek means to dress continually in this way. “Purple” was made from the shellfish murax, requiring ten thousand to produce an ounce. “Fine linen” was imported from Egypt, and was extremely expensive.

He “lived in luxury”–the Greek is lampros, “to shine brilliantly.” He was one of the leading social figures of his day, wealthy beyond measure, someone like a famous movie star, athlete, or tycoon today.

By contrast, “at his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores” (vs. 20-21). This is the only character to be named in any of Jesus’ parables. Note that he receives a name, but the rich man does not.

He was “laid” by the gate–Luke’s Greek means that he was thrown there every day. He was “covered with sores,” a medical term occurring only here in the New Testament; it means to be covered with ulcers or bedsores.

He was “longing to eat”–the original means to desire without satisfaction, to yearn for something you cannot have. He wanted to eat “what fell from the rich man’s table.” Wealthy people used bread to wipe their hands after a meal, then threw the bread out.

This beggar longed to eat such bread, but “the dogs came” and most likely ate it. Dogs were not pets in Jewish society, as they might eat or touch something which was legally unclean. They would gather in packs around the doors of the wealthy and eat the bread which was thrown out. That’s Jesus’ picture here.

In contrast to the rich man’s purple robes, Lazarus’ rags are so poor that they do not even cover his body. As a result, “the dogs came and licked his sores,” rendering him ritually unclean as well.

Now comes the shock: “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried.  In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side” (vs. 22-23).

In Jesus’ day it was conventional wisdom that the wealthy are blessed by God, while the poor must be cursed and punished by him. For Lazarus to go to “Abraham’s side,” a metaphor for heaven, was a great shock. For the rich man to go to “hell, where he was in torment,” was an even greater shock.

The irony is remarkable. Lazarus was likely not buried, his body thrown out into the garbage called Gehenna, a biblical image for hell. The rich man was buried with great pomp and ceremony. Now the rich man is in hell, and Lazarus is in the paradise and palace of heaven.

The rich man makes two responses. First, he asked Abraham to “have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire” (v. 24). This is what a servant would do for his master.

Failing this, he wants Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers (v. 28). This again is something a servant would do for his master. But Abraham refuses to send his impoverished saint in heaven to serve this wealthy sinner in hell. What a powerful story Jesus told that day.

The first sermon

Here’s the point of the sermon I was planning to preach before Tuesday: our relationship with Lazarus reveals our relationship with God. It doesn’t create it, but it reveals it. The way I love my neighbor shows the way I really love my Lord.

How you treat my children shows your real regard for me. How we relate to those we don’t have to treat well reveals the nature of our relationship with God. Here’s the biblical logic behind my assertion.

The rich man is in hell. Scripture clearly teaches that we don’t go to hell because of our relationships with people, but our relationship with God. Jesus was blunt about this: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:18).

If the rich man was condemned purely for his treatment of Lazarus, our salvation would be based on works, not grace through faith. He is in hell because he has rejected the word and love of God.

But Jesus’ story shows us the best indication of that spiritual condition: his treatment of Lazarus. He could have fed him the bread which the dogs ate. Better, he could have brought him into his mansion, cared for his wounds, and given him a new life. He had the means to change Lazarus’ life, but he did not.

Even in hell, he continues to treat Lazarus as his servant, asking that he be sent to give him some water or to bring a message to his family. His relationship with Lazarus reveals his true relationship with God.

This fact is taught throughout Scripture. For instance, Jesus told us that when we feed the hungry or clothe the sick or visit the imprisoned, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). James requires us to care for the poor as well as the rich. How we relate to people we don’t have to treat well is the best indication of our true character.

I heard recently about an employer with a very perceptive hiring practice. He would schedule a prospective employee interview, but make the person wait in his assistant’s reception area for 15-20 minutes. Afterwards he would ask her how the person treated her. If he was kind and gracious, he was usually hired. If he was condescending or demeaning, almost never. The employer said he had found this test to be the truest indicator of an employee’s real nature.

Who is your Lazarus? Who is that person you don’t have to treat well this week? When you meet him, remember that you’re really meeting Jesus.

The second sermon

Such was my first sermon this week. Then Tuesday’s Dallas Morning News featured on its front page an article titled, “On religion, there are few absolutes.” The Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life released an extensive study of American attitudes on religious subjects. Here we learn some troubling facts.

70% of the religious public, 65% of Texans, and 61% of Southern Baptists believe that many religions can lead to eternal life.

Only 59% of Americans believe in hell.

Only 50% of college graduates believe that religious is very important.

There are some perplexing statistics in the survey as well. For instance, 10% of atheists say they pray daily. To whom, we’re not sure.

The survey reflects a pattern which has been going on in America for more than a generation: the shift to truth as subjective and personal. There are many philosophical and sociological reasons for this pattern, but the result is that truth is what you say it is, the way your mind interprets your sense data. You have no right to force your beliefs on me. I may say homosexuality or abortion are wrong for me, but I have no right to judge you. If you want to sleep together before marriage, who am I to judge?

93% of Americans say that they are their own sole determiner of moral truth. Oprah Winfrey encourages us to find and live by our “personal truth.” Be sincere in your beliefs and tolerant of the beliefs of others–this is the mantra of our day.

What Americans don’t stop to realize is that our opinions don’t change reality. C. S. Lewis remarked that the man who denies the sunrise doesn’t harm the sun. To deny the existence of hell makes it no less real. As a pastor, it is very important to me that you know the biblical truth on the subject. Jesus’ parable makes some facts crystal clear.

One: Hell is a real place, mentioned 23 times in the New Testament, 15 times by Jesus himself. The Bible describes it as “fire” (v. 24) and “darkness” (Matthew 22:13). It is a place of separation from God (v. 26). It is permanent (v. 26), the “second death” (Revelation 20:14).

Two: Who goes there? Jesus was clear: He is the way, truth, and life; no one goes to the Father except through him (John 14:6). Those who refuse Jesus’ offer of eternal life, choose hell instead. The word of God is clear: those whose names are not found written in the “Lamb’s book of life” are cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20.15).

Three: Is hell fair? The rich man in our story never protests. He knows he deserves to go there. Heaven is a perfect place. One sin would ruin it. So Jesus died to pay for our sins, to cleanse us from them. But if we refuse his salvation, we must pay for them ourselves. This means that we are unable to come into the presence of God, forever.

I especially appreciate the way Calvin Miller puts it: “God, can you be merciful and send me off to hell and lock me in forever?” “No, Pilgrim, I will not send you there, but if you chose to go there, I could never lock you out.”

Let me be clear and urgent: You must ask Jesus Christ to forgive your sins and become your Savior and Lord, or you will go to hell. If you do, you will go to heaven.

The same is true for every person you know. It’s not enough to be a good person who believes in God, or to go to church or join a church. You must have a personal encounter with the personal God of the universe. Salvation is a gift only he can give. But you must open that gift before it is yours. Have you opened yours? Are you praying for those you know to open theirs?


I just finished a fascinating book, titled 50 years from today. The famous journalist Mike Wallace edited a collection of essays written by 60 Nobel laureates, brilliant scholars, and political leaders from around the world, each predicting what the world will be like in the year 2058.

These scholars envision a world transformed by nanotechnology, minute computers which will do everything from killing cancer to reproducing limbs and tissue. Some of them see space cities which provide unlimited resources of new energy and materials.

Ocean resources will be developed further, and “aquaculture” will be a common term. The era of robots and artificial intelligence will arrive, enabling us to communicate merely by thinking. Globalization will replace nationalism. Environmental pollution will be reduced, and poverty lessened if not abolished. The average life expectancy will exceed 100 years.

Of course, Albert Einstein said in 1931, “There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable.” It’s hard to predict the future with clarity.

Here’s what I do know: in 50 years, most of us will be in heaven or hell. All of us will be there some day, based on our relationship with Jesus Christ. The way we relate to our Lazarus, the person we don’t have to treat well, reveals that relationship.

So here are the questions of the day: do you know Jesus? Would your Lazarus say that you do?

Fish or Foul?

Fish or Foul?

Matthew 13:47-50

James C. Denison

Now that the Democratic presidential primaries are finally over, I can declare my allegiance. I am for Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton, and John McCain. At least that’s what their campaigns apparently believe. I am fascinated by politics. I’ve read biographies of at least 20 presidents, and follow elections with great interest.

When this year’s process narrowed to those three, I went to their websites and signed up for email alerts. Since doing so, I have been given approximately 240,486 opportunities to donate to their campaigns. Every message I receive is sent personally to me and thanks me for all my support for their campaign. Even though I’ve done nothing but read their emails and delete them.

This summer we’re seeking a more intimate relationship with God by studying Jesus’ parables, short stories which lead us personally into the kingdom of heaven.

Last week we learned from the parables of the treasure and pearl that making God our King is a wise decision, an investment worth all it costs and more. This week we learn that knowing him as our King and Lord is not what the world thinks it is. It’s not what you may think it is. We’ll study no more surprising parable this summer than the story which is before us today.

A net for all fish

It begins: “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish” (v. 47). Literally, “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to what happens when a net is cast into the sea.”

One kind of fishing net was the amphiblestron, a circular apparatus with lead beads around the circumference and a rope tied in the center. The fisherman standing in his boat would see a fish or school of fish swimming beneath him, and would quickly throw the net over them. The weights would pull the net through the water, catching the fish. The fisherman would then pull them into the boat. Here the fisherman chooses the fish he wishes to catch.

The other kind of fishing net was called the sagene. This is the word in our text, used only here in the New Testament. We get the “seine” net from this word. This was a drag net, shaped as a square with ropes from all four corners and weights along its bottom twine and floats or corks on the top. It was six or so feet deep, and could be hundreds of feet wide, sweeping as much as a half mile of water in its operation.

It was positioned in the water, and took several boats to operate. The net was let down but held so that it stood up in the water. The boats then rowed through the lake, dragging the net as a kind of cone behind them.

The sagene “caught all kinds of fish,” Jesus said. Everything in the lake was swept into the net–fish, plants, debris. “All kinds” is literally “all races.” The Sea of Galilee is said to contain 54 different kinds of fish. It’s interesting that Jesus’ words can be translated literally, “all races.”

Then, “when it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away” (v. 48). The net was dragged to the shore, where the desirable fish were put into containers or baskets while everything else was thrown away. This process could take several hours. Note that “they sat down” in a considered, deliberate process.

Some “baskets” were filled with water or even lowered into the water, keeping the fish alive for transport to distant markets. Others kept the dried fish which would be sold locally.

“Bad” translates sapra, literally “rotten.” The word describes fish which had died and begun to rot before the fishermen could get to them. But it also describes unclean fish and other materials which have not yet rotted, but they are as bad as if they had.

Fish without scales and fins (such as catfish or eels) were ritually unclean (Leviticus 11:9-12), and thus could not be eaten. And the sagene would bring up all sorts of debris and plant life which would be discarded as well.

Now Jesus makes his point: “This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (vs. 49-50). He issued this warning earlier with the parable of the weeds (vs. 40-42), and repeats it now.

Lessons for all of life

Now, why was this story so shocking to Jesus’ first hearers? What is it meant to teach us today? Let’s begin with the good news: all are welcome in the Church. Everyone is invited and included, even you and even me.

The sagene cannot choose what it will catch. Anything in the lake ends up in its net, and can end up in the Church. This fact alone would be a shock to Jesus’ hearers. To think that cursed Gentiles, half-bred Samaritans, and hated Romans could be the children of God was revolutionary in the extreme. But that’s how it was and is. We are called to make disciples of “all nations,” all people-groups. We are called from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.

The Christian global mission was the first multi-ethnic, multi-racial movement in human history, embracing all who would embrace it. From the wealthy like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, to lepers, tax-collectors and prostitutes, the Church welcomed all.

As does God. His word assures us that God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9), for he wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). If you’re good enough for God, you’re good enough for us. We need to be sharing God’s love with every person we can, in every way we can. No one is outside the bounds of our compassion and ministry. That’s the good news of the Gospel.

Now, here’s the bad news: not all are included in the Kingdom. Not everything in the lake is a fish. Not all fish are “clean.” Some are put in the basket, but others are not. Some will end up in Paradise, but others in the “fiery furnace.”

As Augustine put it, the Church has some that God hasn’t, and God has some that the Church hasn’t. We will all be surprised at those who are in heaven and those who are not. There is a Judgment coming. We leave this to God, but know that it is real. And inevitable.

Universalism says that everyone goes to heaven, regardless of their commitment to Jesus. Except that Jesus said of himself, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:18).

Pluralism says that there are many ways to God, Christianity being only one. Except that Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). And Peter preached, “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). And the Book of Revelation says, “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15).

The Bible teaches clearly that “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). Not today, perhaps, but one day. And we’re one day closer to that day than ever before in human history.

People swim around in the net as if they were free and the net were not real. But George Buttrick, one of the 20th century’s greatest expositors and Preacher to the University at Harvard, said it well: “Day by day the net is being drawn, for the kingdom is an event. By sorrow and joy, by work and play, by testing and pondering, and by the thrust into the world of Christ himself, God draws the net. No man can escape: life is not in our control. Every breath brings us nearer to the shore, every sickness and recovery, every decision made or evaded. Foolishly we imagine that we can slip through the meshes” (Buttrick, IB 421).

Our job is to fish, leaving the sorting to the Judge of the universe. But all the while we draw our nets through the lake, we must know that not all will be kept by God. Who is?

Our question leads to the final life-transforming fact contained within our parable: religion is not relationship. To a society fenced in by the legalisms and rituals of an all-encompassing religious system, this fact must have been a tremendous shock. But the parables of Matthew 13 could not be more clear: God seeks a personal, intimate relationship with every one of us. Look over the chapter with me.

God measures soil not by its appearance but by whether or not it receives the “seed” of the gospel and produces fruit as a result (vs. 1-23). You and I cannot tell wheat from weeds, but God can (vs. 24-30). We learn from the mustard seed and the yeast that God measures faith not by its size but its reality (vs. 31-35). God wants us to put him before all else, selling everything we have to gain the treasure and pearl of a personal, dynamic relationship with himself.

Being in church doesn’t mean that you are in Christ. Being in a lake doesn’t make you a fish. Being in a garage doesn’t make you a car. Being in church doesn’t mean that you are in Christ.

Christine Wicker’s article in last Sunday’s Dallas Morning News has been much discussed this week. “Fewer faithful” excerpts her book, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church. Her research documents these facts about our so-called Christian nation: only 20 percent of Americans were in any church last week; four percent were in a Sunday school or Bible study class; the number of non-believers in America doubled from 1990 to 2001. Being American doesn’t mean that you’re Christian. And being in church doesn’t mean that you’re in Christ.

The practices of spiritual disciplines and religious observance are valuable only as a means to an end. The Bible is only a book unless you seek God in its pages. Prayer is only words mumbled into space unless they express a heart yearning to know God. Worship is an hour wasted at church unless it you came this morning to connect with your Creator. Did you?


Are you fish or foul? You look like fish to me. If I were the fisherman, you’d all be in my basket. But does the God who looks at the heart see what I see? We’ll spend this summer seeking a more intimate relationship with our Father. But first, as we saw last week, we must want that relationship. Now, as we see this week, we must do whatever it takes to have it.

What is keeping you from passionate intimacy with God? Don’t judge your faith by appearances and religion. Ask yourself these questions: when last did Bible study or prayer change something you did? When last did you leave worship so different that anyone else would notice? When last did you pay a sacrificial price to serve Jesus? When last did you refuse a temptation because you didn’t want to hurt him, or did something simply because you knew it would please him? When last did you spend a few minutes listening to God? When last did you tell Jesus that you love him?

Every day can be an encounter with the living God, or a day wasted for eternity. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was right: “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush aflame with God. But only those who see take off their shoes. The rest sit around and pluck blackberries.”

Which will you do today?

Humility and How I Perfected It

Humility and How I Perfected It

Luke 18:9-14

James C. Denison

This is my tenth anniversary Sunday, I’m told. I didn’t keep track, but our deacon leaders have told me that Janet and I began with you on June 21, 1998. It’s been a wonderful ten years for us; we are so grateful to God for the privilege of serving him with you and raising our sons with you. You have been and continue to be God’s gift to us.

Since I’ve been with you ten years, it seems that full disclosure is now in order. There are some things about my past which I didn’t feel comfortable sharing ten years ago, as they would have seemed like bragging.

But now I think I can tell you the full story: When I was in college, I made the intramural softball all-star team. I know that’s a stupendous achievement, and I didn’t want to brag about it earlier. I was quite a hitter in those days. Or at least I thought I was, until some friends and I went to one of those batting cages where you put in quarters and the machine throws balls for you to hit. I went immediately to the major league level and deposited my dollar. I watched the arm come up, and then heard the ball hit the screen behind me. I never saw it, or the 20 which followed it. I was a good baseball player until I compared myself to real ones.

I used to be a good tennis player as well; I played all through junior high, high school and college, won lots of matches, and was quite confident in my abilities. Then we moved to Midland, where a man in the church who had heard of my prowess asked me to help him with his game.

He had been a professional tennis player years earlier, ranked in the low 100s, and had even played Jimmy Conners twice. But he hadn’t played in a long time and was just starting back. He wondered if I would help him with his game, so I graciously consented to play. He beat me 6-0, 6-0. I was a good tennis player until I played one.

I used to be a good golfer as well, breaking 80 twice and feeling pretty confident in my game. Then I went to the Masters for the first time and watched Tiger Woods hit sand wedge into the green for his second shot on par 5s, all day long. I was a good golfer until I watched one.

The same is true spiritually. We can feel confident in our relationship with God so long as we compare ourselves with each other. But if we’ll compare ourselves with God, we’ll then arrive at the kind of humility which is essential to an intimate relationship with him. Jesus will make that crucial point today much better than I can, in one of the most shocking stories in all of literature.

Who they were

Jesus was concerned about “some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else” (v. 9). If you think that your relationship with God is satisfactory and certainly better than some people you know, this parable is for you.

His story begins: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector” (v. 10).

The Jews prayed three times a day, at 9 a.m., noon, and 3 p.m. They had a set of prescribed prayers called the Shemoneh Esre (“Eighteen Benedictions”), which they said every day in full. They were something like the Book of Common Prayer for Episcopaleans or creeds and liturgy for Catholics and most denominations.

The first one will give you a feel for the rest: “Blessed are you, Oh Lord our God and God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, the great, mighty and revered God, the Most High God who bestows loving kindnesses, the creator of all things, who remembers the good deeds of the patriarchs and in love will bring a redeemer to their children’s children for his name’s sake. Oh king, helper, savior and shield. Blessed are you, Oh Lord, the shield of Abraham.”

They thought that these prayers offered within the Temple area were more effective, so they went there to pray whenever they could. What Jesus described was a standard fact of daily life for his hearers.

One of the men who went to the Temple on this occasion to recite these prayers was a Pharisee; the other was a tax collector. They lived at the extreme ends of their society.

We know the Pharisees for their rejection of Jesus and persecution of his disciples. But in their day, these were the holiest men on earth. They had saved the Jewish religion during its decades of slavery in Babylon, when the priests couldn’t offer sacrifices and the rabbis couldn’t teach. These lay leaders rose to the occasion, preserving the Law and obeying its every detail.

There were never more than 6,000 of them in the entire nation. They were respected and even revered by others for their dedication to the law, something like priests or nuns in the Catholic or Orthodox traditions today.

By contrast, the “tax collector” was the worst man in his society.

When the Romans conquered a nation they usually hired people from the society to collect taxes for them. They would allow this turncoat to take as much money as he liked, so long as he paid them their share. Imagine that al Qaeda conquering us, and then someone took our money, bankrupted us, and paid it to the terrorists and to himself. They were the traitors, the despised.

In the ancient world, this profession was considered the most profane and immoral work a man could do. Lucian listed among those destined for hell the adulterers and tax-collectors.

And the Jews despised tax-collectors even more than the rest of ancient society. Tax-collectors could not testify in court as a witness, for they were assumed to be liars. They could not attend worship in the Temple or synagogue, for they were unclean.

How they prayed

It is very interesting that the tax collector in Jesus’ story came to the Temple to pray, as such men were not allowed near the Temple. Of course Jesus’ story could be fiction, as if I were to speak of Osama bin Laden coming to church this morning. If he did, he would be arrested before he was allowed to sit on a pew. Maybe Jesus meant the figure simply to represent the worst part of society.

But if so, this is the only parable he taught which was not true to life. All the others use events and people exactly as they were–a sower planting his seeds, a mustard seed growing, a man robbed on the way to Jericho. It seems more likely that this was one of the very rare tax collectors who paid the price necessary to be restored to his community and culture. Even if he did not exist in reality, he must have paid such a price to be realistic in Jesus’ story.

We think of Zacchaeus, the tax collector who paid back all he had stolen with an additional gift of repentance. We know that Matthew left his booth and profession, and that he was eventually permitted into the Temple precincts as a result. This man would have done the same thing to be in the Temple.

He would have left his booth, abandoning his trade. He would thus have forsaken the protection of the Roman soldiers, exposing himself to abuse or worse. He would have encountered great difficulty securing another job. He would have paid back what he had taken, impoverishing himself. He would have done all the things required by his society to return to good standing; thus he was able to come into the Temple to pray. That fact will be important to us in a moment.

The two men prayed exactly as their society would have expected them to.

The Pharisee “prayed about himself,” not about God. Note all the “I”s which follow. Some of the Pharisees really prayed like this. We have several of their recorded prayers, in which they thank God that they are not women, slaves, Gentiles, or tax-collectors. Jesus is quoting a prayer his audience all heard prayed.

Though the Law required fasting only on the Day of Atonement, he fasts twice a week. Their tradition was to fast on Monday and Thursday, as these were market days in the city and more people would see them fasting.

And he “gave a tenth of all I get.” The Law required the tithe only of produce from the land or vocation, but he tithed on all he bought or received from others as well. Jesus described the Pharisees as tithing even the spices they put on their food (Matthew 23:23).

If you were a Pharisee, you would set aside a tenth of the salt you put on your lunch today so you could donate it to the church later, or a tenth of the gas you put in your car tomorrow (a valuable commodity). If I were a Pharisee, I would give the church a tenth of our house (you can have the garage–it will never be finished). A more specific, zealous, sacrificially religious man you will never meet.

By contrast, “the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner'” (v. 13).

Prayers were offered in the Court of Women so both genders could participate. The Pharisee stood as close to the Temple itself as he could get, where everyone could see and hear him. The tax collector stood as far to the back as he could get, so no one would see or hear him.

He “would not even look up to heaven,” though this was the usual Jewish posture in prayer (cf. Mark 6:41; 7:34). He “beat his breast,” a Jewish sign of grief and sorrow, used to express great loss. The Pharisee would have done this if he had lost his wife or child; the tax collector did this because he had in some sense lost his soul.

And he prayed, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” In the Greek he said, “on me, the sinner.” He deserved punishment, but was asking for grace and mercy instead. Jesus’ hearers would have all been nodding their heads in agreement that this was exactly how such a sinner should have prayed.

Now comes the twist: “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God” (v. 14a).” If you were Catholic and I told you a story in which God heard Osama bin Laden but not Pope Benedict or John Paul II, and I was serious, you’d be just as shocked. Here is Jesus’ reason: “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (v. 14b). “Everyone,” with no exceptions by the Son of God.

Which are you?

Here’s the point: when we compare ourselves with others, our pride pushes us from God. When we compare ourselves to God, our humility pulls us to him. There is no third choice. The closer we get to God, the further away we realize we are.

You may be able to relate to the Pharisee today, having done nothing significantly wrong. Like most of you, I have never murdered, or cheated on my taxes, or stolen from others. I have not committed adultery, or embezzled, or been arrested (except for a bogus illegal turn ticket I got two years ago, which I have completely forgotten).

You can say the same: you go to church and Sunday school; you taught at VBS; you will be a sponsor at Youth Camp or Fish Camp; you serve on the finance committee or usher on Sunday morning or sing in the choir. You can say of your neighbors sleeping in today, “I am not like other men.” But are you like God?

Or you might relate to the tax collector in the Temple. You’ve done what it took to build a relationship with God. You’ve confessed the sins of your past and made restitution. You’ve paid the price to follow God this week–you’ve read your Bible and prayed, you’ve given and served, you’ve done all you could to please God. I’m like that as well. We would never claim to be Pharisees in their legalistic perfection, but we’ve done what we needed to do to be right with God.

But when was the last time you grieved for your sins? When was the last time you couldn’t even look up at God for shame? When was the last time you admitted that you were “the” sinner, as bad as the worst person you’ve seen on the news this week?

I know when–it was the last time you compared yourself not to others or to the person you used to be, but to God. It was the last time you compared your attempts at service to his universe-producing power; the last time you compared your relatively uncheckered past to his eternal perfection; the last time you compared your relative morality to his perfect holiness.

St. Francis of Assisi said, “Whatever a man is in the sight of God, that he is, and no more.” When was the last time you saw yourself in his sight?


I must tell you that this parable terrifies me. It terrifies me to think of all the times I thought I had met God when I didn’t; all the times I thought I prayed, or praised, or worshiped, but my self-sufficient, complacent pride kept me from him. It terrifies me to think of all the times my church family didn’t meet God but thought they did. Does this parable terrify you? If it doesn’t, you of all people need to be terrified most.

Why does God ask us to measure ourselves by him and come to him with humility and repentance? Because he loves us. He is a spiritual oncologist who wants to remove the cancer we won’t admit we have. That’s why Jesus’ first sermon began, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). That’s why his first Beatitude states, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who know their need of God, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Are you comfortable where you are, or do you have a humble passion to know God as he is? Are you a Pharisee or a tax-collector? There is no third option.

As usual, C. S. Lewis said this better than I can. I was reading in Mere Christianity yesterday and found a paragraph worth considering.

Lewis says that “what man, in his natural condition, has not got, is the spiritual life–the higher and different sort of life that exists in God.” Our biological life comes to us from nature and is always tending to decay and run down, so that it must be incessantly subsidized by nature in the form of air, food, water, and so on. The spiritual life is with God from eternity, and created the whole natural world.

Lewis also points out a “shadowy and symbolic resemblance” between the natural life and the spiritual life, but it is the kind of resemblance which exists between a picture and a place or a statue and a man. A man who changed from natural life to spiritual life would have undergone as great a change as a statue which changed from carved stone to being a real man.

Lewis concludes, “And that is precisely what Christianity is about. This world is a great sculptor’s shop. We are the statues, and there is a rumour going round the shop that some of us are some day going to come to life.”

Why not today?

Of Mustard and Men

Of Mustard and Men

Matthew 13:31-32

James C. Denison

Why are you paying $4 for gas? Blame Deng Xiaoping and a speech he gave in December of 1978. I just finished Fareed Zakaria’s eye-opening new book, The Post-American World. He tells the story: at a gathering of the Third Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, the General Secretary urged that the regime focus on economic development and modernization.

The result? The Chinese economy has doubled every eight years for three decades. In 1978, China made 200 air conditioners; in 2005, it made 48 million.

The 20 fastest-growing cities in the world are all in China. They have the world’s largest air terminal; by 2010, Starbucks will have more cafes in China than in America. China is the world’s largest country, the fastest-growing major economy, the largest manufacturer, the second-largest consumer, the largest saver, and the second-largest military spender. Their economic rise has been the fastest in history.

Along with India and other new superpowers, they are consuming oil at unprecedented levels and driving up the price around the globe. And it all started with a speech.

From tiny seeds come giant trees. That’s the point of this week’s parable, especially relevant for every one of us on this Father’s Day. It is my privilege to show you why.

The parable

The best-known of all Jesus’ short parables begins: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field” (v. 31). There were two kinds of mustard seeds in Jesus’ day; Sinapis nigra was the garden variety, producing a shrub, while Salvadora persica produced the mustard tree.

Both were “the smallest of all your seeds.” There’s been much discussion of that statement over the years.

The cypress tree or wild orchid actually produce smaller seeds. But Jesus was talking about “garden plants.” “Seed” in the New Testament always refers to agricultural plants, those grown for food.

And the mustard seed is by far the smallest of these, so much so that it served as a proverb in the day. The rabbis could speak of a drop of blood or a transgression against the law as being the size of a mustard seed. Roman writers used the same proverb.

Jesus’ point was made by contrast: “yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree.” The mustard seed could grow into a ten-foot-tall plant in a single season, and could reach heights of 15 feet around the Sea of Galilee. Jesus might have been pointing to just such a tree when he said these words.

Then “the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.” Birds love the tiny black seeds produced by the mustard tree, and flock to it from all over. They “perch” or dwell there, living in the tree for a period of time. The point is clear: no one would look at a tiny mustard seed and imagine that it would produce such a tall and vibrant tree, filled with birds from all over Galilee.

So it is with the Kingdom of God, all across the word of God.

A lonely, ridiculed man building a boat saves the human race. A childless Bedouin named Abram becomes the father of three faiths. A renegade shepherd faces down the most powerful man on earth and brings his band of slaves to freedom and destiny. Another shepherd boy kills the mightiest warrior in the land and leads his people to their greatest days of glory. His son, the product of an adulterous relationship, becomes the wisest man in human history. All grew from mustard seeds to men of eternal renown.

Then the day would come when a baby was born in a cow stall and placed in a feed trough. He grew up in a town so insignificant it is mentioned not a single time in the Old Testament and was the butt of jokes in the New Testament. None of his disciples came from the leadership of the nation. They grew to 120 by the time of Pentecost, a small church by any standards today. Mustard seeds, all, but the birds of the air flock in their branches today, more than two billion strong.

Who would have seen this itinerant Galilean carpenter teaching his band of peasant followers and imagined that we would be studying his words in Dallas, Texas 20 centuries later? That this mustard-seed movement would one day topple the mighty Roman Empire and spread the Kingdom of God to the four corners of the earth? That it would become the largest, most significant spiritual movement in human history?

We enter the Kingdom when we make God our King. We extend the Kingdom when we help others make God their King. When we do this, when we plant the seed of the gospel, it will grow. We are not responsible for growing, but for planting. The seed contains within itself all it needs to become a tall tree. But only when it is planted. That’s our job. Are you doing yours?

Life lessons

What does Jesus’ parable say to us on this Father’s Day? Jesus’ point is simple: influencing souls for the King bears a harvest all out of proportion to its cost. What we do to serve God and to help other people serve God lives long after we are done, and produces far more than we could produce.

Some of you are not fathers or mothers, but there are other souls you can influence. Family members, colleagues, friends, neighbors, clients, patients. Every word you speak for God, every note of encouragement, every act of compassion, every stand for the King you take–all of it plants seeds you may not be able to see and may never watch grow. But they are growing nonetheless.

Some of you have been given the inestimable privilege of fatherhood. Your culture defines your success in a variety of ways. You are a good father to the degree that you provide for your family’s financial and material needs; to the degree that you spend time with your children; to the degree that they succeed in academics, sports, and popularity. We’re all grateful for fathers willing to love and serve their children in these ways.

But this parable tells us that planting and nurturing the seed of the gospel in the souls of your children is the most significant, eternal thing you can do as a father. Scripture is clear: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children. Instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).

“Exasperate” means to discourage or provoke. Said positively, this command is, “Parents, encourage your children.” How? “Bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” How do we do this?

Model the Christian life for them. No child will think more of his Heavenly Father than he does of his earthly parents. We cannot lead our children farther than we are willing to travel. Show them Christ consistently by your words and actions. Be the same person when you talk on the phone as when you hang up; the same person in the car driving to church as you are at church. Show them Jesus.

Teach the Christian life to them. Tragically, gone is the day in most homes when parents pray with their children daily and teach God’s word to them. It’s never too late to begin. And it’s never been more urgent. Make time every day to pray together. Keep a prayer list so you can watch God answer your prayers. Spend time studying the Bible together every day. Worship God together with your faith family every week. You would not think of going a day without feeding your children physically. Take the same responsibility for feeding them spiritually.

Your church has your school-age children one percent of their time, their school 16 percent of their time. You have them 83 percent of their time. And the first responsibility for their souls.

It is never too soon to begin. Prayers for your unborn children will be answered in years to come. Words spoken when they are babies will be felt long before they are understood. Every action for the King will be planted in their eternal souls.

And it is never too late to begin. No matter your age or that of your children, the gospel does its work wherever it is planted. You may never have prayed with your kids–if you pray with them today, they’ll never forget your humility and courage. You may never have read Scripture with them or discussed the things of God with them–if you start now, they’ll remember your commitment for the rest of their lives. And God will honor it forever.

You may not see much result of your spiritual planting. But seeds do not grow so as we can witness their progress. It takes time for seeds to become trees. Yours may just be starting from the ground, or beginning to bear their first leaves, or growing to your waist in height. But the seed is doing its work, always.

So never give up. Godly fathers, be encouraged. As you pray for your children and model the faith for them and seek to help them follow Jesus, your seeds will never be lost. Fathers who want to be godly, be encouraged. Everything you do to help your children make God their King, you do forever.


Is the seed of the gospel planted in your soul today? Have you come to that most significant of all decisions, asking Jesus to forgive your sins and become your Lord? Is that seed growing in your soul this morning? Are you watering it, feeding it, tending it, sheltering it, nourishing it? If so, it is growing and nothing on earth can stop it. Nothing on earth is more important than its growth and harvest. Nothing.

I know that our culture does not agree.

I am evaluated in the same ways as you. If the church grows, if my sermons are appreciated, if my work is valued, so am I. We are what we do and how well we do it. Most men I know are performers like me–seeing ourselves as others see us, measuring success by what we do and have.

We know that all of this will one day be gone and that the spiritual is eternal. We’ve heard the poem, “Only one life–will soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last.” But it’s hard to value the mustard seed of the gospel above the forest of oaks and redwoods which surround us and clamor for our attention and judge our lives and work. It’s hard to measure success by our children’s souls more than their achievements.

Let me ask you to agree with the Lord of the universe that the best gift you can give your children or anyone you influence is to help them follow Jesus. Let me encourage you to know that they will be grateful long after you are done and gone.

I experienced the truth of that claim this week in a very personal way. On Thursday morning, as I was working on this message, I received an email with the news that Julian Unger was on his deathbed in Houston.

Mr. Unger was a successful businessman in Houston, with a gift for automotive mechanics as well. He heard about a new idea called “bus ministry,” just becoming popular in those days. Churches were buying buses and using them to bring neighborhood kids to Sunday school and worship.

His church had just been through a rough time and didn’t have the money to do such a thing, so Mr. Unger bought an old school bus, repaired it with his own money and time, and used it to begin a bus ministry in our community. He led the effort to knock on doors and find children willing to ride that bus to church.

In August of 1973 he knocked on my door. My brother and I rode his bus to his church, where we heard the gospel of his Savior and soon trusted his Christ as our Lord. When I heard that Mr. Unger was near death, I had to go.

Janet and I drove down to Houston on Friday so I could thank him for the fact that I would be in heaven because of him and the seed he planted in my soul. When I arrived, I learned that I was not alone, that Mr. Unger had “kids” all over the world who came to Christ because of his bus ministry and mission work.

I suspect there may be a special place in heaven reserved for “Mr. Unger’s kids,” and I will be only too honored to be among them.

Who will be in heaven because of you?

The Progress Paradox

The Progress Paradox

Matthew 13:44-46

James C. Denison

Inspirational posters are all the fashion these days. You’ve probably seen them in a doctor’s waiting room or bank lobby or business office. This one, titled Winners, says, “While most are dreaming of success, winners wake-up and work hard to achieve it.” Another is titled Imagination, quoting Theodore Roosevelt: “Keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground.”

A friend recently sent me some inspirational sayings which didn’t make the cut:

Eagles may soar, but weasels don’t get sucked into jet engines.

Doing the job right the first time gets the job done. Doing the job wrong 14 times gives you job security.

Rome did not create a great empire by having meetings–they did it by killing all those who opposed them.

Teamwork means never having to take all the blame yourself.

A snooze button is a poor substitute for no alarm clock at all.

The beatings will continue until morale improves.

And my favorite: If at first you don’t succeed, try management.

Today we begin a summer series in the parables, the short sayings and stories of Jesus. Some would fit on a poster; all are suitable for framing and living. Each one will show us how to find and follow Jesus, to live in his will, to experience his abundant life and purpose and joy.

My suspicion is that most of us want more of God in our lives than we experience today. I’m the same way. As I was praying about this message last Thursday morning, the thought gripped my soul that I need God to be more real to me than he is. More than the object of my Bible study and recipient of my prayers and Savior of my soul, I need him to be real in my life.

I need to interact with him, to listen to him, to feel him, to experience his direction and help and power. Are you like me?

I’m convinced that Jesus’ parables are the keys which will lead us to a more intimate, passionate, dynamic experience with God this summer. We will take each one as it comes and see where it leads us.

We begin today with two of the most misunderstood of all Jesus’ parables. We will contrast their truth with the most popular spirituality writer in America today. And we’ll choose which to follow this morning.

What Jesus said

Our first parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field” (Matthew. 13:44). This situation sounds strange to us, but reflected completely the culture of Jesus’ day and hearers.

“The kingdom of heaven” is another expression for the Kingdom of God, the place where God is King, where his kingdom comes and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). What is it like? Jesus says that it is like “treasure hidden in a field.” How could treasure be “hidden in a field” for someone to find?

“Field” in the Greek points to cultivated land in the country, not property in the city. It wasn’t unusual for people to bury treasure in such a place. In Jesus’ day, only the very wealthy could afford banks. Most hid their money or valuables in the ground. In fact, the rabbis taught that the only safe depository on earth was the earth.

The most common reason why people hid their treasure in a field was that war was coming and they would have to flee. If they brought their money, jewelry, or heirlooms with them, they could be seized by the enemy or stolen by thieves. So they would bury their possessions, looking forward to the day when they could return and reclaim them.

But the owner of this particular treasure has not done so. He may have died, or been exiled or enslaved. One commentary I read told of a man in South Carolina during the Civil War who buried $500 in gold coins in a field before the Yankee soldiers could take his farm. He died before he could disclose its location to his family, so it’s been lost ever since. Some day a person may find that treasure in a field.

That’s what happened for this lucky fellow. He was likely a migrant farm worker cultivating the field when he found the buried treasure. The rabbis taught that if he removed it from the ground he had to give it to the owner of the field. But if he left it in the earth, then bought the field, the treasure could be his. That’s just what he did.

Our second parable concerns a treasure found as well: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls.  When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it” (vs. 45-46)

The Greek word translated “merchant” is emporos, a wholesaler who traveled the world looking for goods he could buy and then resell. In this case, a pearl trader. In Jesus’ time, inferior pearls were found on the shores of the Red Sea; better ones came from the Persian Gulf, the costs of Ceylon and India, and from Britain. This merchant traveled to such places, or traded with pearl exporters from around the world.

Pearls were the most valued gems in that time, like diamonds today. They were worn as a show of a person’s wealth (cf. 1 Timothy 2:9). The Bible says that heaven will possess gates made of pearl (Revelation 21:21).

Pearls could be enormously valuable. According to the ancient Roman historian Pliny, Cleopatra owned two very valuable pearls, each of which was valued at 25 million denarii (a denarius was a day’s wages for a laborer). If discovered today, they would be worth several million dollars.

This particular trader has found such a pearl. Being a merchant, he knew how to buy and sell goods. So before someone else could get it, “he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” According to Jesus, “the kingdom of heaven is like” such a person.

What it means

What are we to learn from these parables of the kingdom? How can they lead us into a more intimate, dynamic, empowering experience with God today? Every parable is intended to teach a significant single point. With today’s text, the point is clear: living in the Kingdom, making God your king, is an investment worth all it costs and more. Whatever you must give up to serve God unconditionally is the wisest sacrifice you can make.

What does it cost us to make God our King? In a word, everything. We Americans don’t know much about kings and kingdoms. We elect our leaders and turn them out of office if we don’t like them. But in kingdoms, the king owns everything. He runs everything. If this were a kingdom, you’d be sitting on the king’s chairs and wearing the king’s clothes. Everything you do would be in his service, for the sake of his kingdom. You wouldn’t serve him only by coming to church or reading the Bible or praying, but with everything you did, every moment you did it.

This is the consistent call of Scripture on our lives:

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it” (Luke 9:23-24).

“I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1).

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

The process begins first thing in the day, when we sell ourselves to purchase God’s treasure for this day. Then, all day long, we face the same decision. Will I choose this temptation over God’s best for me? Will I repeat this gossip, consider that illicit thought, choose this untrue word, do that selfish thing, or will I sell that to experience God? Will I serve him or myself? Will he be my king, or will I?

I grant you, this is not the way most people see spirituality today.

I grew up in a world which separated the spiritual from the physical, Sunday from Monday, religion from the “real world.” Go to church so God will bless you. Pray so he will help you. You’re the king and he’s the servant. Measure this sermon by whether or not you liked it; measure worship by how it makes you feel. Make God a means to your end.

These days it’s even worse. Now popular spirituality says that you can be your own god, that salvation depends on your own inner enlightenment; no sin, confession, repentance, forgiveness required. These are outdated, antiquated traditions.

Perhaps you’ve heard about the on-line class being taught each Monday night by Oprah Winfrey and Eckhart Tolle. More than a million people have signed up. I’ve read Tolle’s two bestsellers, and am frightened. In The Power of Now, Tolle teaches that “Christ is your God-essence or the Self,” “your indwelling divinity.” Here we learn that “the man Jesus became Christ, a vehicle for pure consciousness” (p. 104). We are told that “the ‘second coming’ of Christ is a transformation of human consciousness. . . not the arrival of some man or woman.” Tolle warns us, “Never personalize Christ” (p. 105). Sin and guilt are outdated. Salvation comes when you live in the Now.

In A New Earth, Tolle’s newest bestseller, he claims, “you are the Truth. If you look for it elsewhere, you will be deceived every time. The very Being that you are is Truth. Jesus tried to convey that when he said, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’…Jesus speaks of the innermost I Am, the essential identity of every man and woman, every life-form, in fact. He speaks of the very life that you are” (p. 71, emphasis his).

What about our need for salvation and eternal life? Tolle tells us, “there is no such thing as ‘my life,’ and I don’t have a life. I am life. I and life are one. It cannot be otherwise” (p. 128, emphasis his).

Tolle’s books have sold millions of copies because they speak to the need inside every human heart for completeness, healing, hope, joy. They offer us a choice which began in the Garden of Eden: you can be as god (Genesis 3:5).

Tolle and Oprah call us to live in the Now, seeking salvation from within ourselves. There are many other ways to do this as well. Your life will be complete if you can just get into the college you dream of attending, or buy the car you really want, or move into the home you’ve long aspired to own, or get the job you’re aiming for.

The Home Depot slogan defines the role of the church today: “You Can Do It. We Can Help.” It’s all on you. It’s all about you.

Or you can sell all of that and buy what Jesus alone can give. Here’s the progress paradox: when you make God your King, he can do far more with your life than you can.

The omnipotent, omniscient Creator of the universe has a “good, pleasing, and perfect” will for your life (Romans 12:2). He has plans to prosper you and not harm you, to give you hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11). But he can lead only those who will follow. He can heal only what you’ll put into his hands. He can use only those who will be used.

Let’s say Tiger Woods is available to give you a golf lesson this afternoon, but I’m ready to help you as well. Steve Jobs wants to help you program your new iPhone, but you could ask my advice. Warren Buffett wants to manage your money, but so do I. Which makes sense?

You can seek salvation and enlightenment from within yourself, or from the Father who sent his Son to die on your cross to purchase your salvation. You can look within for help with your greatest problem today, or turn to him. You can try to heal your broken relationships by focusing on the Now or by turning to the Lord. You can make your decisions based on your wisdom or the omniscient God.

The progress paradox is simple: the more of self you give, the more of God you have.


Now the choice is yours. What is your greatest decision, problem, struggle, challenge today? Self-dependence is spiritual suicide. Eckhart Tolle and all who tell you to look within are lying to you.

Don’t look in–look up. Make God the King of this problem, this issue, this challenge. Put it into his hands and do whatever he says. Search his word; seek him in prayer; listen for his voice. Do whatever would most glorify him. Make yourself the servant of the King. And the more of self you give, the more of God you’ll have.

Many years ago I learned this lesson in a way which has changed forever my ministry. I had been pastor of First Baptist Church in Midland, Texas for a year or so. The church scheduled Dr. Sam Cannata to speak at a Sunday night missions emphasis.

Dr. Cannata was a doctor who gave up a lucrative medical practice to become a medical missionary in Africa. Shortly after arriving, he was treating a sick child who coughed in his face and cost him his eye. One was perfect; the other was cloudy and useless. But that setback did nothing to dampen his enthusiasm for the Lord and his call to service.

Dr. Cannata and I were praying in my study before the service when he said something I’ll never forget. With his Bible and sermon notes in his hand, he prayed, “Lord, take away any word I’ve prepared in this sermon if it is not your word, and add any word you wish. I will say whatever you want me to say. This sermon is yours.”

I know that sounds like a simple thing, but for a preacher who has labored all week over a message to let God change it any way he wants, it was a profound lesson. I have prayed it every week since, just as I am stepping up to speak. On the weeks I mean it, God shows up. On the weeks I don’t, not so much.

Why do you need Dr. Cannata’s prayer for your soul today?