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The gift your soul needs most

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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Topical Scripture: Colossians 2:9-15

Last Tuesday morning I needed to get a book at one of the local bookstores. I had not yet purchased Janet’s Valentine’s Day card, and knew time was running out and nothing would be left. Turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The side of the Valentine’s Day card display which held cards wives would buy for their husbands was completely picked over. Scavenged. A few envelopes stuck down in the cracks at odd angles. The side which held cards husbands would buy for their wives was pristine. Undisturbed. Five o’clock that afternoon would be a different story–a rugby match, arms broken, blood on the ground, fighting for the last card with a pink heart on it.

I told that story to some of our staff at lunch that day, and one of them told me about the year when she got a card from her husband which read, “Happy Valentine’s Day on our first year together.” The problem was, they’d been married 25 years. He didn’t even notice.

Speaking for guys everywhere, we want you to know that it’s the thought that counts–if we had one.

At least with my Valentine’s Day habits, we don’t run the risk of gifts unopened. One year Janet bought birthday and Valentine’s Day cards so far in advance that she couldn’t find them when the days rolled around. I’ve never had that problem. Imagine buying chocolates and forgetting where you put them, so they sat there and grew rock-hard and moldy. Flowers still in the box, wilted and dead. Airline tickets in the drawer, unused and expired. Years ago the comedian Robin Williams remarked: the greatest gift is life. The greatest sin is to return it unopened.

In Colossians we’ve learned that Jesus expects us to live for the glory of God, in his fear, radically committed to him as the Lord of every part of our lives, not just our religious activities. This week we receive the gift which enables us to do all of that, to experience the victorious and joyful, radical and free life Jesus offers. Like all gifts, this one must be opened. Don’t return it today.

Open the gift of God

What is this gift? Think of it as four packages, one inside the next. The first package is the largest, because it contains all the others: “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (v. 9). The first present is God himself.

“In Christ,” and in no other. Mohammed, Buddha, or Confucius never even claimed to be God. From the beginning, despite The DaVinci Code’s fabrication, Christians have worshiped Jesus as God.

“All the fullness of the Deity”–not just part. It’s found in him and nowhere else. Jesus claimed, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6); “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (v. 9). He was omniscient, omnipotent, sinless; every attribute of God the Father belongs to God the Son.

“Lives in bodily form”–God became one of us, that we might be one with him. We couldn’t climb up to him, so he climbed down to us. Traveling in England this past summer, I encountered a number of cathedrals with stunning architecture and artwork in their vaulted ceilings. Knowing that tourists like us wouldn’t be able to stare straight up for long, the church wardens placed large mirrors angled on the floor. Looking down, we were able to look up.

In precisely that way, Jesus is the mirror image of God, God come down for us. In Christ, God has come to present himself to us. If Jesus is your Lord, your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. You have God dwelling in you today.

The second package comes from the first: the nature of God, now available to us: “you have been given fullness in Christ…in the putting off of the sinful nature” (vs. 10, 11).

“You have been given”–this is a gift, something done for us, not earned but received at our salvation. “Fullness in Christ” means the full nature and capacity of Christ. His Spirit has come to replace the “sinful nature” with his holy presence. The former tenant has been evicted; the new owner has moved into the house. The same Spirit who indwelled and empowered Jesus indwells and empowers us.

Now we can experience the nature of Christ. Be “Christians”–“little Christs.” We can manifest his character to the world–his love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). We can conquer temptation and defeat sin. We can live the victorious, abundant life of Jesus. We can literally be the presence of Christ today.

The third package is contained in the second: the power of God. When we asked Jesus into our lives we received “the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (v. 12). The same Spirit who raised Jesus from the grave lives in us.

Jesus promised: “Anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” (John 14:12-14).

In answer to prayer, the Holy Spirit living in the first believers enabled them to heal the sick, raise the dead, stand with courage before the Empire, die in victory, and live in joy. Everything Jesus did, they did. That same gift is ours now.

The last package is contained in all the others: the forgiveness of God. “He forgave us all our sins” (v. 13), not just some. Not just the negligible ones. He forgave Moses and Paul their murders, Peter his denial, David his adultery and murder, the crowd their cross. He has forgiven every sin you’ve ever confessed.

He “canceled the written code”–the word was used for wiping writing away. Ancient writing materials were expensive, and did not absorb ink. So a scribe could wipe it off and reuse the papyrus or parchment. When you erase a chalkboard, the writing that was there is now gone forever. So it is with our sins. They are wiped away, the debt cancelled, the record expunged forever.

Now the spiritual “powers and authorities” of the enemy have been defeated publicly at the cross. They are vanquished foes, their power over us broken forever. We can start over, our past forgotten forever.

The will of God never leads where the power of God cannot sustain. God has called us to live for his glory, in his fear, radically committed to him in every part of our lives. Here’s how he will help us: he gives us himself, his nature, his power, his forgiveness. The strength to live for his glory, in his fear, radically surrendered to Jesus.

But now I must ask you: do these commitments mark your life? Do they describe your experience? Did you truly live for his glory, in his fear, radically surrendered this week? If not, why not? If this gift is available to us, why haven’t we opened it?

Why we don’t open this gift

I cannot speak for you, but I can give you my answer to the question. For a long time I would have to answer honestly that I did not live in the power of God, for several reasons.

One: I didn’t know I could. For the longest time, I thought Christianity was a life of religious achievement performed in gratitude for salvation. Going to church, reading the Bible, praying, giving, witnessing, serving–all the things we do for God.

I had no idea that the same Spirit and power which resided in Jesus was available to me. I had no idea that I could ask God for his help in defeating temptation, for his courage in witnessing to my neighbor, for his wisdom in making my decisions.

Deism is the belief that God made the world but has nothing to do with it now. This was the theology which motivated Thomas Jefferson to cut all the miracles out of the New Testament.

It is still dominant today. Do you really expect God to heal terminal illness? To save notorious sinners? To give you victory over temptation every hour of every day? We get what we expect in life. Do you know that you can do what Jesus did? That you can have his character and his ministry as God wills? That you can literally be the presence of Christ today?

Two: I didn’t pay the price. Even Jesus had to get up a great while before day, and go to a solitary place to pray (Mark1:35). He had to pray all night before choosing his apostles. He had to pray before his miracles, and in his Gethsemane, and on his cross. Even he needed to connect with God to have the power of God.

I didn’t do that. I prayed at the start of the day, and occasionally if a problem arose. I had my “quiet time” and thought I had done all God expected. I didn’t keep the drill plugged into the socket, and wondered why it ran down so quickly. I didn’t begin the day by surrendering it to Jesus, and keep it before him all day long. Do you?

Three: I didn’t want more of Jesus than I had. I wanted to live in two worlds. I wanted to serve God’s agenda but mine as well. I wanted people to trust in Jesus, but also be impressed with me. I wanted the Kingdom to grow, but my church as well. I wanted God’s plans to succeed, but I wanted my career to succeed also. I bought into the spiritual/sacred division, and wanted a foot in both.

I didn’t have all of Jesus I needed, but I had all I wanted. Meanwhile, my soul was shriveling up. I was burning out and didn’t know why. My faith had become routine, my ministry a job, my life overcast and dull. Because I had all of Jesus I wanted.

All the time, the gift of God himself, his nature, his power, his forgiveness, his victory and joy, lay on the shelf unopened.

When did any of that change for me? I’ve told you the story before. It was a silent retreat in 1997, at Ignatius House, a Jesuit retreat center in Atlanta. I was sitting on a deck overlooking a waterfall one Monday afternoon, when God spoke directly to me. When God showed me that I had lost my soul, that I was no longer dependent upon him or close to him.

I could not remember the last time I prayed except to deal with some specific problem, the last time I read Scripture except to complete my morning quiet time or to prepare a message, the last time I listened to his Spirit. I could not remember the last time I told him that I loved him.

During those two days, God called me back to himself. He called me back to loving him and depending on him and not myself again. He called me back to an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. The two days of that retreat were as transforming for me as my salvation experience. I have gotten away from them several times since, and had to return to Jesus.

God has led us to the changes we are making at Park Cities with Miller Cunningham’s coming, in part so I can get back to my soul with my Savior. In part so I can stop running a church and yet trying to listen to the Spirit, responsible for an organization and yet responsible for God’s word to our souls. I have learned that I cannot do both and do either fully. I am grateful and thrilled for the privilege of returning to my first love, and sharing him with you each week.

Conclusion

Do you need an Ignatius House for your soul today? Do you need to repent of self-sufficiency and make him your first love again? When last did you ask Jesus to give you his character, his power, his forgiveness and victory? When last did you ask him to be in your body what he was in his own? When last did you exchange your life for his?

That’s the last time you opened the gift your soul needs most. Let’s open it again today.