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Turning to God

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: 2 Chronicles 7:11-14 / Acts 13:1-3

If you’ve ridden on a Ferris wheel, you know that there is a moment when your gondola swings up to the highest point of the ride. In that frightening moment you can see nothing but sky, before you crest the top and see the ground again. As long as you ride, as many times as you come to that scary moment, it never gets easy.

Today is such a moment for us. I’ve often said that if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. What has transpired in the last month in my life and work are now Exhibit A. And so once again we come to that moment when we cannot yet see the ground beneath us and must trust that the God who is operating the Ferris wheel of life is in charge of it all.

This morning I need to tell you what many of you already know, and then put it into biblical context for us all. This may be a day when your gondola is cresting the top as well. If it’s not, it will be one day soon.

What God has called us to do

A month or so ago, Dr. Randel Everett, Executive Director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, asked me to consider becoming Theologian in Residence for Texas Baptists. In this role I would be able to do all the things I love doing—speaking to current events in Christian perspective, writing, teaching, leading conferences, talking with pastors and Christian leaders.

He and I also discussed the need for an independent ministry we are now calling The Center for Informed Faith. Its mission would be to equip the Church to reach the world. The Center would promote cultural engagement, spiritual renewal and Awakening, and practical discipleship. It would be an independent ministry, hosted by the BGCT.

This ministry would speak to current events with biblical truth, addressing such issues as radical Islam, Israel and the Middle East, evil and suffering, science and faith, same-sex marriage, and so on.

Its discipleship emphasis would focus especially on people coming to Christ who need discipleship materials—new believers in Cuba, South Texas, the underground church in China, Latin America, critical places where the church is exploding in growth but few resources for spiritual maturity exist. It would partner with numerous other ministries in equipping Christians to reach their world.

From the time we began conversation together, it was obvious to Janet and me that God was calling us to do this. But from the beginning, both Dr. Everett and I intended this ministry to be done in partnership with Park Cities. I would preach on Sunday, teach on Thursday, and do this new ministry during the week.

However, in the last few days, as we began exploring the practical issues in this idea, it became obvious that both are full-time jobs. This new ministry would require a great deal of travel and attention. Park Cities deserves a full-time pastor. So we came to the difficult conclusion that we must resign this ministry in order to follow God’s call into this new work.

Jeff Byrd has been my best friend for 20 years in three churches together. He is resigning as Associate Pastor for Missions to become the Director of the Center. Minni Elkins, my longtime assistant, will join us in this ministry. Start-up funds for this new ministry are coming from friends who offered to help us, as well as other anonymous donors.

Church leaders have been incredibly gracious to us in this endeavor. The trustees spent a great deal of time praying for us last Monday night. The deacons laid hands on Jeff and me Thursday evening and prayed for us. Our congregation has been remarkably encouraging as we have sought God’s will together.

See your need of God

This experience has led us where we never intended to go. It illustrates for me again the fact that God’s will is a flashlight in the dark, showing the next step but no further. If we would experience true spiritual awakening, we must humble ourselves and admit that we need God’s power and purpose. We must pray for the nation and seek God’s face personally. Then we must align our lives with his call. That is the point of today’s text.

The last phrase of our key text makes the point in the negative: God’s people must “turn from their wicked ways.”

“Ways” translates a Hebrew word for road, path, journey, mode of action, course of life. It pictures the normal ways we live, places we travel, our lifestyles. “Wicked” translates a Hebrew word for superlative evil, that which is exceedingly wrong.

Note that God believes that “my people, called by my name” live in these wicked ways. We are not talking about radical Muslim terrorists, or serial killers, or child pornographers. We are talking about the things you and I do each and every day, the ways we live. God says that some of these ways are “wicked,” evil in the extreme.

Do you think of your sins as “wicked”? You probably haven’t committed adultery or murder this week. I doubt that you mean to harm other people. Neither do I. But the white lies, the sinful thoughts, the little things we know we shouldn’t do—all of them are called “wicked” by God. If we humble ourselves, pray, and seek his face, we will see ourselves in the light of his holiness. Then we will see our sins the way he sees them.

That’s what happened to Isaiah when he saw the Lord high and lifted up—he cried out, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (Isaiah 6:5).

That’s what happened to Peter when he saw the miraculous power of Jesus—he said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8). That’s what happened to John on Patmos when he saw the glorified Jesus—he fell at his feet as though dead (Revelation 1:17).

When we see our sins as God sees them, the way to get off of the wrong road is to stop now. The further we go, the further we’ll have to go back. Decide we want to go the right way, “turn from our wicked ways,” and go there. How?

Follow the call of God

Now we turn to the positive. Fast-forward with me a thousand years to the incredible church at Antioch of Syria in AD 46. Here we find “prophets and teachers,” preachers who shared God’s revelation and teachers who explained his word and will. Five are named, perhaps in order of importance:

Barnabas (literally “son of encouragement”), a wealthy man and (Acts 4:36-37) and spiritual leader.

“Simeon called Niger”: as “Niger” is Latin for “black,” some believe that he was African in race. He has often been identified with Simon of Cyrene, the man who bore the cross of Jesus (Matthew 27:32).

“Lucius of Cyrene”: “Lucius” is a Latin or Roman name; “Cyrene” was the capital of Libya in Africa (cf. Acts 6:9; 11:20). This man may have been a Roman, a converted Jew, or most likely another African.

“Manean (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch)”: a relative of the Herod who had beheaded John the Baptist (Luke 9:7-9). Suntrophos, “had been brought up with” can be translated “foster-brother.”

“Saul”: this was his Jewish name, as “Paul” was his Greek name. As he moved more and more among the Gentiles, he would increasingly be known by the latter (cf. Acts 13:9).

The church was capably led by these men of remarkable spiritual maturity and vocational and cultural experience. It would seem that their future was stable and secure. The church was “worshiping the Lord and fasting,” two words which indicate the spiritual fervor and depth of the congregation. Both are in the present tense—they were constantly worshiping God and fasting from food so they could focus on the Lord. This was not just their Sunday morning activity, but their daily lifestyle.

It was in the midst of such concentrated service to God that the Antioch Christians heard the next word from their Lord: “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (v. 2). “Set apart” means “to mark with a boundary,” to set something off by itself. “The work to which I have called them” was not specific; they did not know where they would go, what they would do, or how long they would do it.

The congregation responded with immediate obedience: “after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off” (v. 3).

They “fasted and prayed” to confirm that this was indeed the word of the Lord. Then they “placed their hands on them,” conveying their support and God’s blessing. And so began the second half of Acts and the missionary expansion of the gospel across the Roman Empire.

David Harper, our deacon chairman, read this text Thursday night at the deacons’ meeting. Then the men gathered around Jeff Byrd and me, laid hands on us, and prayed for us. It was a deeply moving and powerful moment. I did have to remind them of the way Paul’s story ended, with him in prison and then beheaded—I hope for a different end to our story.

But the text does show us how to follow God.

When we turn from our wicked and wrong ways to God’s paths of righteousness, we must first get alone with God. We must pay the price to listen for his voice. He speaks in stillness and solitude. He can seldom be scheduled into a Sunday morning hour. We spend time with our Father, fasting from the distractions of the world.

Then we do what his Spirit says, even if we don’t understand it. This ministry direction was nothing Jeff and I sought or expected; it is like nothing I ever thought I would do. But it is God’s clear and surprising voice, and we will follow it together.

Conclusion

Now, where does this message find you? What decision, problem, or opportunity stands before you this morning? How can you know and follow the call of God? First, turn from anything which is “wicked” and wrong. Ask his Spirit to show you anything displeasing to your Father, and stop in that road, confess, and ask God to forgive you and heal you.

Then get alone with your Father, asking his Spirit to reveal his word and will to you. Choose to submit and surrender—whatever he asks, wherever he leads, whatever the cost. You won’t know the future, but you will trust the One who does. The safest place in all the world is the center of the will of God.

We are all on pilgrimage with God. The good news for Janet and me is that we will step into this next chapter while staying in Dallas and in Park Cities Baptist Church, doing much which will partner with this church we love.

You will find and follow God’s next steps for your future together as well. Christians in Antioch had no idea that people in Rome would come to Christ because of their faithfulness. You cannot measure the eternal significance of present obedience.

This is the promise of God.