Dining with God

Dining With God

Acts 2:42-47

James C. Denison

Alan Greenspan has called the current economic situation “the type of wrenching financial crisis that come along only once in a century.” The National Debt Clock in New York City, created in 1989 to call attention to what was then a $1.2 trillion debt, now marks the current debt of $10.2 trillion. It was announced this week that retirement accounts in America have lost $2 trillion in the last year.

Meanwhile, the Russian presence in South Ossetia continues; the former Soviet Union has more oil supplies than any other nation on earth, 16,000 nuclear warheads, and a million-man army. Indonesia has recently announced that it expects 2,000 of its islands to be submerged by the year 2030 as global warming causes polar ice caps to melt and seas to rise. This week we learned of a National Intelligence Estimate report which states that the war in Afghanistan is in a “downward spiral” due to corruption in the government and a rise in militant violence.

What about the world has you most afraid this morning? Is it the economy and your retirement? The wars or the election? Your job, or health, or family? Are you worried and angry? It’s easy to feel powerless these days. This morning I want to show you that it’s not so, that the most powerful Being in all the universe is on your side, holding you in his hand, walking with you wherever you go. He is for you, no matter what you fear this day. I can prove it today.

Believe it or not, the simple ceremony we will observe today is the answer to our fears and worries this morning. Here’s the setting in our text:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (v. 42). “Breaking of bread” in this context means more than eating together—it refers to what we call the “Lord’s Supper.” They did this in public and in private: “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (v. 47).

Why? Why was this simple act so important for them? Why did it produce “glad and sincere heart” in the midst of their fears and problems? How can it do the same for us today?

What we remember

Paul gives us the earliest record of the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament, a record he “received from the Lord” and documented even before the Gospels told the story: “The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

The bread represents Jesus’ broken, torn body. Jesus’ loaf was hard-baked—you would have to break it, tear it into pieces, and then crush it in your teeth. So with his body, for us.

Our Lord was beaten with a whip of leather thongs imbedded with pieces of bone and metal; this scourging often killed the victim. Huge, crude spikes nailed his wrists to the cross-beam, then his feet to the upright. There Jesus was left to die.

In 1968, archaeologists discovered the remains of a Jewish man named Yonanen; he had been crucified in AD 70 as part of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome. They found the spikes still stuck in his ankle bones. I’ve seen pictures; even they are gruesome, without imagining the flesh which they once bore.

Victims of crucifixion were helpless against the blistering sun and the insects crawling on their bodies and wounds. The strain on their arms often pulled them from their sockets and stretched the chest muscles to the point of suffocation. Crucifixion was so horrible that the Emperor Constantine finally outlawed it after he became a Christian.

Jesus did this for us. He was sinless and perfect; we were sinful and perishing. We deserved to die; Ezekiel 18:4 says, “the soul that sins, it shall die.” But he took our place on the cross, his flesh for ours.

As we have torn the bread into pieces, as we crush it in our teeth, we remember the flesh of Jesus Christ, literally torn and crushed on the cross for us.

The wine represents his spilled, shed blood. “The new covenant in my blood” can be literally translated from the Greek, “the new covenant which cost me my blood.”

In the Old Testament, sin always required a sacrifice. An innocent animal such as a sheep or bull would take the place of his sinful owner; the animal’s blood would pay the penalty for its owner’s sin.

So it was with the cross. Jesus’ blood was spilled by the whips which tore open his back, the thorns which lacerated his scalp and face, the nails which pierced the arteries of his body, and the spear which gashed to his heart.

This he did for us as well. We deserved to die in sacrifice for our own sins. He is the innocent lamb who spilled his blood in our place. He died in our electric chair, on our gallows, in our gas chamber. He did this for us.

Now the cup represents his blood to us. Wine is made by crushing grapes. The red juice—its “blood”—flows out, and we drink it. As we take it, we remember the blood of Jesus Christ, literally spilled on the cross.

Of course, other traditions see the Supper in different ways.

The Catholic tradition has long believed that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ when they are elevated by the priest during Mass, and that they convey the grace of God to those who receive them. Thus “Communion” is part of worship each week.


Have You Been Baptized Today?

Have You Been Baptized Today?

Acts 2:40-41

James C. Denison

We’re walking through Acts 1-4 and the earliest Christian faith, seeking keys to the power of God for our lives today. We began by observing the early church as they prayed for the power of the Spirit at the risk of their lives. They knew that they needed the Spirit’s empowering if they were to fulfill their purpose and find significance. They taught us that when we want God the least is when we need him the most.

Now we come to the results of that Pentecost empowering by the Spirit: “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (Acts 2:41). They believed and were baptized. So it was then; so it is in our church today. But not without some challenges along the way.

You may not know that the pastor wears fishermen’s wading boots under his robe during baptisms. The first time I saw a pastor baptize and return to the service in five minutes I thought it was a miracle. But these boots can be problematic. One Sunday morning in Midland, I was kidding around in the service and told the people that if they ever got angry with the preacher they should go back and poke holes in his waders. That night, baptizing during the Sunday evening service, my waders leaked. I maintain it was a coincidence.

In Atlanta we had a retired pastor on our pastoral care staff. He told us about the time years earlier when a Methodist pastor friend asked to borrow his baptistery, as he had a family who insisted on baptism by immersion. Our staff member was happy to consent. The Methodist baptism was to be that Sunday afternoon; when our pastor got to church that night for the Sunday evening service he found water everywhere. It was all over the baptistery steps and down the hallway. The waders were soaked; everything was a mess.

The next morning his Methodist pastor friend called to complain: “I had no idea baptizing was so hard. We got the first candidate in the wading boots and robe, got them in the baptistery and under the water, and the boots filled up with water. We had to dump them out to get the second person in, but they filled up again.”

So it was with the entire family—the pastor didn’t wear the boots, putting them on the candidates instead. Our pastor concluded, “Methodists aren’t as smart as they think they are.”

I’ve had my boots fill up in the baptistery. I baptized one man who got under the water, then pulled me down with him. I once baptized a woman who was so frightened of the water she wouldn’t get her face wet, then worried that she wouldn’t have a nose in heaven. Baptizing is dangerous—more so, in fact, than you may know.

Today we will focus on this strange and significant act, for three reasons. One: some of you have not been baptized and wonder if you should be and why. Two: some of you have been baptized but don’t really know why and what it all meant. Three: all of us need to be baptized again today. Not physically, but spiritually.

Being baptized every day is the single most important key to the power of God in your life this morning. It is my privilege to explain why that is so.

Why baptize?

The word “baptize” comes from a Greek word which means to “dip” or “immerse.” The word was often used in the ancient world to describe the act of dipping a cup in a stream or washing clothing at a laundry. To “baptize” something is, therefore, literally to immerse it in water. It was first done by the Church in the text before us today. This single verse seems straightforward, but there is much to know in its words.

“Accepted” translates a word which means to welcome or receive gladly.

“His message” was the gospel, the good news of God’s love in Christ.

They “were baptized”—the syntax indicates that this happened immediately after they “accepted his message.”

“About three thousand were added to their number” shows that their baptism was the step by which they entered into the fellowship of the church.

“That day” shows that this entire event, from acceptance to baptism to church membership, happened on the one day of Pentecost.

Skeptics wonder how the conversion of 3,000 was possible, much less their baptism on a single day. But the facts make the entire event completely understandable.

Jerusalem had a resident population of 55,000, swelling to 180,000 during festivals such as Pentecost. The Temple precincts could easily accommodate 200,000, and the acoustics were such that nearly all could easily hear Peter’s voice. All could understand enough Greek to make sense of his sermon, as the Spirit convicted them of their need for Christ.

The baptism of 3,000 in one day was very plausible as well. The Temple mount had numerous immersion pools used by worshipers for ritual purifications. There were numerous church leaders present to do the baptizing; if just the Twelve did this, each would need to baptize 250 new believers. If they said over each what I say in our baptistery, they could easily baptize five a minute, or the entire group in less than an hour.

But why did they do this? Publicly dipping someone in water seems a strange thing to do, but the fact is that the Jews had been doing this for centuries. When a Gentile became a Jew, he or she was baptized in public as an act of submission and repentance. The old person was symbolically washed away, the new raised up to life in Judaism.

John the Baptizer took this decision a step further, calling Jews to be baptized as an act of repentance. No one had ever challenged Jews to make this commitment. Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan for this baptism. Matthew reports: “John tried to deter him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ Jesus replied, ‘Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then John consented. As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased'” (Matthew 3:13-17).


Is God Green?

Is God green?

Climate change and the Scriptures

Dr. Jim Denison

Global warming is one of the most divisive subjects of our day. Some allege that the entire issue is overblown. Others claim that it is the most crucial moral and practical issue of our time. What are the facts behind the debate? What does the Bible say to this critical subject?

Learning the vocabulary

“Weather” refers to the atmospheric conditions on a given day; “climate” describes these conditions over an extended period such as a decade or more. The “weather” can be good today, but the “climate” can change in ways which are frightening.

“Climate change” is used synonymously with “global warming,” but the National Academy of Sciences says that “climate change” is becoming the preferred term. Rising temperatures are the best known symptom of the issue, but they are not the entire problem.

“Climate change” refers to any significant change in measures of climate (temperature, precipitation, or wind) lasting for an extended period (decades or more). It may result from:

Natural factors, such as changes in the sun’s intensity or slow changes in the Earth’s orbit around the sun

Natural processes within the climate system, such as changes in the ocean and its circulation

Human activities which change the composition of the atmosphere (such as burning fossil fuels) and the land (such as deforestation, urbanization, desertification).

“Global warming” refers to an average increase in the temperature of the atmosphere near the Earth’s surface, contributing to changes in global climate patterns. Most people use the phrase to refer to increased emissions of “greenhouse gases.”

“Greenhouse gases” have been produced over the last 200 years. Burning fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide. Farming practices and land use changes produce methane and nitrous oxide. Trees remove carbon dioxide, replacing it with oxygen; deforestation lessens this effect in the atmosphere. As a result, greenhouse gases have risen significantly. They prevent heat from escaping to space, similar to glass panels of a greenhouse.

The “greenhouse effect” helps regulate the Earth’s temperature. Without these insulating gases insulating the Earth’s surface and trapping solar energy which would otherwise escape into space, temperatures would be about 60 degrees colder than they are now and life could not exist. However, the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation have enhanced this natural greenhouse effect, causing the Earth’s average temperature to rise.

“Ozone” (also called trioxygen) is a molecule consisting of three oxygen atoms. It is found near the ground and also in the upper atmosphere. Its primary significance for climate change and health has to do with its ability to absorb ultraviolet light and energy. It is produced in the atmosphere when ultraviolet light interacts with oxygen.

The “stratosphere” or “ozone layer” exists between six and 31 miles above the ground. In general, the ozone layer is thinner near the equator and thicker toward the poles, and it varies with season, being thicker during the spring and thinner during the autumn in the northern hemisphere. The ozone layer filters out ultraviolet light from the Sun which would be harmful to most forms of life. If the entire ozone layer were compressed to the pressure of air at sea level, it would be only a few millimeters thick.

Has there been global climate change?

Climate change has occurred throughout the Earth’s history. Changes in the Earth’s orbit and tilt are thought to have led to the Ice Age around 21,000 years ago. Between 900 and 1300 AD, the planet was relatively warm. Cooling of the Sun led to a “little ice age” in the 1400s to 1800s, where global temperatures were cooler than normal. Volcanic eruptions emit aerosols and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Aerosols contribute to short-term cooling, but they are soon dissipated. For instance, an eruption in Indonesia in 1815 lowered global temperatures by as much as five degrees.

Volcanoes also emit carbon dioxide. For two-thirds of the last 400 million years, CO2 levels and temperatures were much higher than the present. However, human activities now emit 130 times as much CO2 as volcanoes.

We are now in the third climate change period of the last 2,000 years, and by far the most significant. Beyond dispute, the Earth’s temperature is climbing. According to data from NASA and NOAA, the Earth’s average surface temperature has risen by about 1.2 to 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit in the last century. The eight warmest years on record since 1850 have all occurred since 1998; the warmest was 2005. Temperatures at many individual locations were higher in the last 25 years than at any period of comparable length since AD 900.

What has caused global climate change?

“El Nino” is the strong warming of the Pacific Ocean near the equator; this occurs every two to seven years. Recent El Nino events have been very strong, contributing to record-setting temperatures. We’re not sure how much human-induced climate changes might affect El Nino, or the reverse.

Variations in the Earth’s orbit and tilt, and in the Sun’s heat, have caused climate changes over the Earth’s history. But except for the Ice Age, none brought anything like the devastation we are now seeing. And the human contribution to this crisis is beyond dispute.

The ozone layer

The ozone layer can be depleted by nitric oxide, hydroxyl, atomic chlorine, and atomic bromine. Concentrations of chlorine and bromine have increased significantly in recent years due to the release of large quantities of chlorofluorocarbons (called “freons”) and bromofluorocarbons (called “halons”) into the atmosphere. They rise into the stratosphere, where they interact with ozone molecules and break them down.

“Freons” were invented in the 1920s, and were used in air conditioning units, as aerosol spray propellants, and in cleaning electronics. They also occur as by-products of some chemical processes. No significant natural sources have ever been identified for these compounds; they are almost entirely manmade. A single CFC molecule takes 15 years to reach the upper atmosphere, where it stays for a century and destroys up to 100,000 ozone molecules. When the effect of these gases was finally understood in the 1980’s, they were phased out and have not been produced in large quantity since 1996.


Time, Trust, Touch

Time, Trust, Touch

Acts 3:1-10

James C. Denison

This week I came across some actual newspaper ads which caught my eye:

Dinner Special—Turkey $2.35; Chicken or Beef $2.25; Children $2.00.

For sale: an antique desk suitable for lady with thick legs and large drawers.

Now is your chance to have your ears pierced and get an extra pair to take home.

We do not tear your clothing with machinery. We do it carefully by hand.

Man wanted to work in dynamite factory. Must be willing to travel.

Four-poster bed, 101 years old. Perfect for antique lover.

Now that I have my AARP card, I may need to look into that.

Speaking of ads, I learned the other day that atheists in Great Britain have been buying advertisements on city buses. The ads read: “There’s Probably No God. Now Stop Worrying And Enjoy Your Life.” If there is probably no God, I’m going to start worrying even more. You know the reasons: the global economy is in crisis; global climate change is in the news every day; the conflict in Afghanistan is deteriorating; people are worried about the election and its aftermath. Closer to home, teachers at DISD are being laid off, companies are downsizing, retailers are worried about Christmas sales, real estate isn’t moving.

On a day like today, you and I could use some good news. That’s why I’m glad we have come to Acts 3 in our fall sermon series on early Christianity and the power of God. This text is in the Bible for your sake and mine. We need to learn this story today, so it can be your story this week.

The formula which changed the world

Our story begins as one of the most routine events in all of Scripture.

Peter and John are on their way to the temple at the hour of prayer, 3:00 in the afternoon. Josephus, the Jewish historian, says that by this time the Jews had moved their third sacrifice of the day to this hour.

This is the third time that day the Jews had gone to observe the sacrifice, to perform the ritual, to watch this rite. Up the same stairs, through the same gate, to watch the same routine, again and again and again. All routine. It’s like your typical Sunday morning. You get up at the same time, drive the same streets, park in the same place, sit in the same pew—you hope. All routine.

Even the beggar is routine. He’s been here over forty years, according to Acts 4:22. Then and now hurting and physically-challenged people gathered at the doors of religious places for help. For forty years they’ve seen him, heard him, walked by him. Routine.

But today something is different. Our text says that Peter “looked straight at him.” The Greek word means to stare with intense purpose. It’s the same word used when the disciples stared at Jesus ascending to heaven; the word used when Stephen stared at Christ in heaven as he was being stoned to death. To fix your gaze with intense purpose.

The others saw; Peter looked. The others heard; Peter listened. The others rushed by; Peter and John stopped. The others ignored; these followers of Jesus cared. They had a heart for the one. They made time for the one.

Now, it does no good for us to find the one if we can’t help when we do. So Peter says, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (v. 6). Very simply put, we are called to find the one and share the name.

The “name” of Jesus means his presence, his power, his help. Peter and John don’t trust their money, or their wisdom, or their programs, or their strength. This man needs what they cannot give—he needs the power of God. And so they share the name of Jesus. They trust the power of Jesus. Now finally they are ready to touch the hurt: “Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up” (v. 7).

The Jews thought that anyone like this man, handicapped from birth, was being punished for sin. Remember the disciples’ question about the blind man of John 9, “Who sinned, that this man was born blind?” You don’t touch someone like this. Toss him a quarter, pity him, but don’t touch him lest you become contaminated and unclean.

But Peter touches him. In fact, the Greek says that Peter “seized him.” He stoops down and picks this man up. And when he does, the man is healed. He walks, leaps, praises God, and all Jerusalem runs to see. But only when Peter touches the hurt.

Here’s the formula which changed the world: Time, trust, and touch. Time for a hurting person; trust that God can heal him; touch that shares God’s grace where it is needed most.

Watch Jesus heal the leper, cleanse the demoniac, and raise Lazarus—it’s the same formula. Watch him win Nicodemus and Zacchaeus, restore Peter and call Paul. Watch Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch, and Peter with Cornelius. It’s always the same pattern—time for the one, trust in God’s power, touch for the hurt.

The formula which still changes the world

Have you noticed that the lame man is never named in the story? Here’s why: He’s you. And the person sitting next to you this morning. And me. Our church doors are your “gate called Beautiful.” What God did for that man, he wants to do for you today.

But in a day like ours, that’s sometimes hard to believe, isn’t it? I can hear the atheists in England now—if there’s a God, how can he possibly have time enough for every one of us, every moment of every day? How can he really hear your prayer in English, and a Chinese believer’s prayer in Mandarin, and a Cuban believer’s prayer in Spanish, all at the same time? How can he have time for the two billion people on this planet, much less for you?