James C. Denison
I want to try a trick on you. Let’s say that I have a bow and arrow in my hand, and I’m about to shoot it at you. I’m at point A, and you’re at point B. Before the arrow can get to you, would you agree that it has to get halfway there? We’ll call that point C. Before the arrow can get to point C, does it have to get halfway there? We’ll call that point D. Before the arrow can get to point D, does it have to get halfway there? We’ll call that point E. And F, and G, and so on. The arrow never moves.
That’s known as Zeno’s Paradox. This ancient philosopher had other such riddles, but that’s the most exciting one. He told his little puzzles to prove that nothing ever changes. And given the dimensions of his argument, despite dissertations written on the subject, he’s never been proven wrong.
We could have told him the same thing this week, just reading the news.
The Secretary of State was back in the Middle East, trying to broker yet another peace agreement. Nothing seems to change in Iraq, or Israel, or Afghanistan, or the next Afghanistan. Will the headlines ever really get better?
Are you tired of school? These are the dog days between Christmas and Spring Break. The new wore off a long time ago. You’re tired of your teachers and your parents, and they might be tired of you. Everyone’s been playing together too long. Most of us are ready for a break. Warm weather like we’ve had this week teases us, but we know better than to think winter will leave us alone just yet. Life treadmills this time of year.
So can our souls. The Bible tells us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). But it’s easy to settle down where we are, to be happy with our spiritual lives and health.
When was the last time you took a major step forward in your faith? A real risk for Jesus? When last did you have a genuine, transforming experience with the God of the universe? How can you take the next step in following him today?
Refuse what refuses God
Paul told the Colossians to “set your hearts on things above” (Colossians 3:1). Why did he have to tell them this? What was keeping them from going on with God? The same things which keep us from going on with God today.
Theological knowledge, for one thing.
Paul had warned them: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (v. 8). He’s talking about Gnosticism, the first heresy Christians had to fight. They said that correct knowledge was enough for salvation. So long as you had your theology all worked out, you’d done all that God expects.
You and I are tempted in the same way today. If you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, crucified and raised from the dead; if you believe that the Bible is the word of God; if you believe in the essentials of the faith, you’ve done all that God requires. But knowing about God is not the same thing as knowing God. Believing in marriage doesn’t make you married. I’m afraid that millions of people in America are going to miss heaven by 18 inches, the distance from the head to the heart.
You may have your theology all worked out, but when last did you meet Jesus?
Worship experiences can keep us from God as well. Paul cautioned them: “do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (vs. 16-17).
He’s talking about the religious festivals and rituals of their Jewish faith. If he were writing to us he’d talk about Christmas and Easter and DNow and Thee Camp and Sunday worship and Wednesday CrossWalk.
These are but a “shadow,” for the “reality” of the faith “is found in Christ.” What we feel in worship isn’t the point–meeting Jesus is. What we “get out of church” isn’t what matters so much as encountering him. It’s not about us. We can come to worship each Christmas or each Sunday and Wednesday or every day of the week, and still miss him. Being in church doesn’t make us Christians any more than being in a garage makes us a car. Standing in a bank lobby doesn’t prove that I know the bank manager. Visiting the White House doesn’t mean that I know the president.
You may be in worship each week, but when last did you meet Jesus?
Religious morality can keep us from God: “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (vs. 20-23).
The apostle is dealing with the religious legalisms of his day. On the Sabbath you weren’t allowed to draw water from a well with two hands, or wear false teeth or a clothes pin, or carry your mat, or walk more than 3/8 of a mile. So long as you kept these and the rest of the 613 laws governing daily life, all was well.
Baptists used to have our own version of all that: no drinking, dancing, cards, movies, gambling of any kind. The problem is that our religious morality can make us think we’re all God wants us to be. Be good, go to church, believe the right things, and you’ve done all that Christianity requires. All while we’re missing Jesus.
Make Jesus your ultimate concern
It takes more than Bible studies and worship services and good lives to meet Jesus this morning. You and I must “set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” Two imperatives are clear: “set your hearts on things above” (v. 1); “set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (v. 2). That’s it. That’s the sermon. That’s what God wants us to do today. But how? What does this mean?
“Set your hearts” translates the Greek for “seek.” This is the present active imperative–God’s command for every one of us, every day. The word can be translated, “require, demand, crave, put above everything else.” The word means to put this one priority ahead of everything else in life.
Jesus wants us to do that with him. The Bible tells us to “offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1). The command means to put him ahead of your girlfriend or boyfriend, or husband or wife or children. To put him ahead of success at work or status at church. To put him ahead of popularity or possessions or positions. To put him first in every part of our lives, every day of our lives.
We in the Western world don’t understand such a demand. We have successfully separated the spiritual from the secular, Sunday from Monday. We think that so long as we’ve prayed a salvation prayer and now come to church and try to be good, we’ve done all that Jesus requires. But if we think that, we’re wrong:
“Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes, even his own life–he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:25-27).
“Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it'” (Matthew 16:24-25).
Paul could testify: “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8).
Jesus has always wanted to be Lord of all, King of every part of our lives. Why? Because he is an egotist who needs to control us? No, just the opposite. He wants to be King of your dating relationships and money and time and temptations and jobs and plans, so he can include you in his “good, pleasing and perfect” will (Romans 12:2). So he can bless you and use you and reward you forever. But he can use only what we surrender to him. He can lead us only if we will follow.
Would Jesus say that he is your ultimate concern today? That you have “set your heart and mind on things above” this morning? Is there anything you would not do if he asked? Anywhere you would not go? Anyone you would not forgive, or help, or seek to bring to Jesus? Anything you would not give? Any sin you would not commit?
That’s your next step with your Father. That’s his next call on your life. Remember that we progress in life in proportion to the fare that we are prepared to pay.
Perhaps I know some words which will encourage you. Henri Nouwen, the beloved Roman Catholic theologian and spiritual writer, once said:
“I am growing in the awareness that God wants my whole life, not just part of it. It is not enough to give just so much time and attention to God and keep the rest for myself. It is not enough to pray often and deeply and then move from there to my own projects.
“As I try to understand why I am still so restless, anxious, and tense, it occurs to me that I have not yet given everything to God. I notice this especially in my greediness for time. I am very concerned to have enough hours to develop my ideas, finish my projects, fulfill my desires. Thus, my life is in fact divided into two parts–a part for God and a part for myself. Thus divided, my life cannot be peaceful.
“To return to God means to return to God with all that I am and all that I have. I cannot return to God with just half of my being…God’s love is a jealous love. God wants not just a part of me, but all of me. Only when I surrender myself completely to God’s parental love can I expect to be free from endless distractions, ready to hear the voice of love, and able to recognize my own unique call.
“It is going to be a very long road. Every time I pray, I feel the struggle. It is the struggle of letting God be the God of my whole being. It is the struggle to trust that true freedom lies hidden in total surrender to God’s love.
“Jesus came to open my ears to the voice that says, ‘I am your God, I have molded you with my own hands, and I love what I have made. I love you with a love that has no limits, because I love you as I am loved. Do not run away from me. Come back to me–not once, not twice, but always again. You are my child. How can you ever doubt that I will embrace you again?
“I am your God–the God of mercy and compassion, the God of pardon and love, the God of tenderness and care. Please do not say that I have given up on you, that I cannot stand you any more, that there is no way back. It is not true. I so much want you to be with me. I so much want you to be close to me. I know all your thoughts, I hear all your words. I see all of your actions. And I love you because you are beautiful, made in my own image, an expression of my most intimate love.
“Do not judge yourself. Do not condemn yourself. Do not reject yourself. Let my love touch the deepest, most hidden corners of your heart and reveal to you your own beauty, a beauty that you have lost sight of, but which will become visible to you again in the light of my mercy. Come, come, let me wipe your tears, and let my mouth come close to your ear and say to you, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”‘
“God’s voice does not offer to us a solution, but a friendship. It does not take away our problems, but promises not to avoid them. It does not tell us where it will all end, but assures us that we will never be alone” (Journey to Daybreak).
Amen and amen.