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From good to great

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Acts 9:1-6

On April 17, AD 29, Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. On Easter Sunday he rose from the grave, and the rest is history. History we continue today. But so much has changed since then.

I read this week about a car remote now available. It will start your car from a quarter-mile away so the air conditioner will cool the car before you have to drive in the Texas heat. My first car didn’t have an air conditioner. My second car’s air conditioner worked great until it got hot outside. Much has changed.

The movie Phone Booth is popular these days. I’ve neither seen it nor recommend it. But it’s ironic that phone booths in real life are disappearing quickly, as the newspaper recently reported. Said the article: “It’s as if the movie Speed was about a runaway stagecoach.”

So much has changed since that first Easter Sunday. But so much has not.

We’re still afraid of death, even more so with terror alerts. Lincoln Continental has produced a $140,000 Town Car which can stop an AK-47 and block a grenade. BMW has a car which can be hermetically sealed in a gas attack. Full-metal jackets can be put on Cadillac Escalades and Hummer H2s, for $30,000 to $350,000. Breathing masks are common in Hong Kong and Toronto.

Much has not changed. We still want our lives to have meaning, significance, and purpose. But where do we look for them?

Refuse the seduction of secondary success

Let’s consider the wrong answer first. Woodrow Wilson said, “Many men are seduced by secondary success.” Words worth pondering.

My sermon’s title comes from a recent business bestseller: Good to Great. Says the author: “Good is the enemy of great.” Good schools prevent great schools; good government prevents great government; good lives prevent great lives. The seduction of secondary success.

I fear that God feels the same way about our society today. There was a time when we needed religion to give life meaning and significance. But in the last century, Darwinism taught Americans that we don’t need religion to explain our natural lives and world. Freud taught us that we don’t need religion to explain our emotional and psychological lives. Science and medicine have all the answers, or soon will. So what’s left for church?

Today we use religion to serve us. We use the spiritual to make us feel better about our secular lives, to give us peace, to help us get ahead. To meet our needs, to serve our agenda, to help us find success.

We’re not the first: “Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (v. 1).

“Breathing out” means that “murderous threats” were the air he was breathing, the atmosphere in which he was living. Why?

Because “Lord’s disciples,” to his mind was a malignant tumor which must be removed from the soul of Judaism. He would be the surgeon who would save his people and their faith from this malice.

So he went to Damascus, 150 miles to the north, walking from here to Waco. He held in his hand “letters,” extradition warrants to bring any Christians he might find in Damascus back to Jerusalem for trial and execution. And he was on his way.

This man desperately wanted a life of significance. He could see the high priest personally; can you get an appointment with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court? He was a Pharisee, the elite corps of Judaism; a scholar trained by Gamaliel, their finest theologian.

But it wasn’t enough. Now he would be known as the man who saved Israel from these malicious Christians. He would do this for God. He would achieve greatness in the eyes of his fellow Pharisees. He was seduced by secondary success, but didn’t know it.

He’s not the last.

Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles has written a fascinating exploration titled The Secular Mind. In it he quotes the poet William Carlos Williams, who knew a woman born in Italy who raised her family in America. She “told me a few weeks ago that it’s become different going to church here than it was when she was in Italy and when she first came here. She used to sit there and talk to God, and try to figure out what he wanted, and try to please him. Now, she says, she mostly thinks about what’s going on in her life, in her kids’ lives, and she asks God to make it better.

“She said to me, ‘It used to be I prayed to God, that I would learn what he wanted from me, and how he wanted me to behave…but now I pray to God that he help us with this problem, and the next one—to be a Big Pal of ours! It used to be, when I prayed to God, I was talking to him; now… I’m only asking him to help out with things'” (103).

And so our society comes to church on Easter and other Sundays to keep religious tradition, to be spiritual, to get God’s blessing, to ask God to “help out with things.” Why did you come this morning? Why am I preaching this sermon?

Experience the Easter encounter

Now comes the most famous conversion in Christian history.

It was “about noon,” Paul would later say (Ac 26.13).

He saw “a light from heaven.” Later he would describe it as “above the brightness of the sun” (Acts 26:13). In other words, a miracle, not a natural phenomenon.

It “flashed around him.” The Greek is clear: this happened specifically to Paul. God had his spotlight on him, as he has it on each of us today.

Then Paul “heard a voice”—the Greek means that he heard with understanding.

The others heard the sound but did not understand it or see anyone (v. 7). This call was specifically and personally for Paul, as is God’s call for each one of us. No one else can hear God’s will for you. God speaks a “language of the heart” which you alone can understand.

He knew it was God: “Who are you, Lord?” “Lord,” kurios, God and King. Then came the shock that would change his life forever: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” “I am Jesus”—he is alive. His church is his body “whom you are persecuting.”

And this “Lord” had a purpose for him: “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do” (v. 6).

Here is the moment of decision, the crisis of life and soul.

Commentator William Barclay: “There is all of Christianity in what the Risen Christ said to Paul…Up to this moment Paul had been doing what he liked, what he thought best, what his will dictated. From this time forward he would be told what to do. The Christian is a man who has ceased to do what he wants to do and who has begun to do what Christ wants him to do” (71, emphasis his).

Remember what the Italian grandmother said: “‘It used to be I prayed to God, that I would learn what he wanted from me, and how he wanted me to behave…but now I pray to God that he help us with this problem, and the next one—to be a Big Pal of ours!'”

Paul would do what God wanted him to do. God would no longer be a means to his end, but his life a means to God’s. And you know the results.

This morning you and I face the same decision. What will you do with the risen Christ?

Religion as a means to your end? Easter worship as a tradition to make you feel good or spiritual? Christianity to help you with your problems, to help your life succeed?

Or will you “go into the city” and do as you are told? Will you make the risen Lord the Lord of your every day? Will you meet him every morning in Bible study and prayer, to get your directions for the day? Will you serve him in witness and ministry? Will you worship him each Sunday and each day?

Will it be God for you, or you for God?

Meet him today

We know what we should do, that the risen Lord should be our Lord every day. But someone is saying this morning, I have plenty of time. I can do this later.

My friend and fellow church member Robert Riggs was a reporter in Iraq during the war. He was embedded with a Patriot missile battery. One day, two fighter pilots on a bombing run to Baghdad picked up the Patriots as Iraqi surface-to-air missiles, and launched two missiles at them. But a technician inadvertently pushed a switch which caused the Patriot battery to project its radar signature 75 yards to the north, so that’s where the missiles landed. That’s why Robert is still alive.

The Bible says, “Now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). No one is promised another day.

Someone else says, It’s too late. I’ve done too much wrong—God can’t use my life.

Robert gave me the story of James Kiehl, one of the soldiers baptized in the desert of Kuwait on March 12, before the war began. He told Robert his life had been anything but spiritual, that he had made many wrong choices. Before he left, his stepmother told him he was facing a crossroads, and he needed to make the right decision. There in the desert, a fellow soldier led him to Christ. Robert told me the change in James’ life was immediate and joyous. His baptism in that hole dug in the desert and filled with bottled water was a true celebration. James was a member of the 507th Maintenance Company which was ambushed—the same unit Jessica Lynch and the five POWs who were found and released were members. James fought, but was killed. He’s in heaven today. And God is using his life and story this morning.

If God could use Paul, the murderer of Christians, it’s not too late for you.

Someone else says, I cannot serve Jesus. I don’t know how. I don’t have opportunities. It’s too hard.

My friend and fellow church member Abraham Sarker came to the United States as a Muslim, seeking to convert others to Islam. Through a series of miracles, he came to faith in Christ. His father disowned him back home in Bangladesh, and put out a warrant for his arrest should he ever return. A few months ago Abraham and his wife Aimee went back anyway. And Abraham led his father to Christ.

The same Lord who commissioned us to “make disciples of all nations” also promised, “I will be with you always” (Matthew 28:20).

And someone else says, I don’t need God’s help. I’m doing just fine. You have all the Jesus you want. Christianity is a part of your life, like a Rotary Club. Are you saying that even though the Almighty Lord of the universe has a plan for your life, you don’t need to follow it? That you can do better with your life than your Creator, the God whose Son died to pay for your sins and rose on Easter to give you eternity in paradise?

Paul aspired to be the man who helped first-century Judaism remain pure. God aspired to make him the man who would change the world. Whose plan was better?

Conclusion

Now the risen Christ has come to Dallas, and to you. His spotlight is on you. His Spirit is calling your name. Will it be God for you, or you for God? Your life may be good this morning. Will it be great?

As you know, NBC reporter David Bloom died in Iraq on April 6 from a pulmonary embolism at the age of 39. Last Wednesday his colleagues paid tribute to his professional success. But there’s more to the story.

Two years ago, Bloom came to a personal relationship with the risen Christ, and started a very real faith journey. In Iraq, he had been listening each day to Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost For His Highest. That day he heard the reading from April 5, which closes, “Every human being can get through into the presence of God now because of what the Son of Man went through.”

Moments later he climbed out of his tank, took a few steps, and collapsed. His last words were this e-mail he had just composed to his wife Melanie: “Here I am, supposedly at the peak of professional success, but I could, frankly, care less. It’s nothing compared to my relationship with you and the girls and Jesus. I’ll tell you Mel, I am at peace.”

He went from good to great. So can you.