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.


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.


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.


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.


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.