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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: James 4:13-17

We’re beginning today with a little test a friend emailed me this week. Let’s see how you score.

  • You are running in a race and overtake the second person. What position are you in? Second place.
  • If you overtake the last person, what position are you in? If you said that you’re second to last, you’re wrong. How can you overtake the “last” person?
  • Do they have a 4th of July in England? Yes–it comes right after the 3rd.
  • How many birthdays does the average man have? One–it comes each year.
  • Some months have 31 days; how many have 28? All of them.
  • Is it legal in California for a man to marry his widow’s sister? No–he’s dead.
  • How many two-cent stamps are there in a dozen? A dozen.

If you missed them all, we’re doubling your tithe requirement today.

Now take another test, a word-association quiz: what comes to mind when I say the word “disciple”? On DiscipleNow Weekend, with more than 400 students and their teachers involved in the most important single youth event of the year, it seems an appropriate question. What is a disciple? What thoughts come to your mind?

I grew up thinking that a “disciple” was a really serious Christian, a Green Beret church member. You have “Christians” and then you have “disciples.” A disciple spends an hour in prayer each morning, shares his or her faith each day, and memorizes Scripture each evening. A disciple is out on the front lines for Jesus–willing to go anywhere and do anything for the Kingdom. At least that’s what I thought.

Then I met some “disciples” in the Bible and got to know their stories. Peter, denying Jesus to a serving girl when he needed his friends the most; James and John, wanting to call down fire on some poor Samaritans; Thomas, questioning his Lord’s resurrection; Matthew, a crony of the hated Roman government; Simon the Zealot, a terrorist insurgent. Not a Green Beret in the bunch.

Finally I came to understand that a “disciple” is simply a person who follows a teacher. You are a coaching “disciple” of Bill Parcells if you approach the game the way he does. Avery Johnson is a “disciple” of San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich because he leads the Mavericks in the same way “Coach Pop” leads the Spurs. A violinist is a disciple of Itzhak Perlman if she tries to play the way he does. You are a disciple of a person to the degree that you do what they tell you to do. It’s that simple.

So let’s see if we are “disciples now.” Using the theme text of DNow weekend, we’ll answer two questions which make up the “Discipleship Test” and see how we score this morning. There is no more important exercise for the health of your soul, your family, and your legacy today.

Are you assuming the future? (vs. 13-16)

The author of our book calls himself simply “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1). If I were he, I would have said much more.

Our writer was the half-brother of Jesus, the oldest biological son of Mary and Joseph. He grew up in Jesus’ household. He knew him better than any other living person except his mother. However, he did not believe that he was the Messiah (cf. John 7:5) until after the resurrection, when the risen Christ made a special visit to his oldest half-brother (1 Corinthians 15:7).

The result was a new man. James quickly became the leader of the church at Jerusalem, the most visible spokesman for the gospel in all of Judea. His prayer life was so fervent that he was called “James of camel’s knees.” Eventually his faith and witness so threatened the authorities that they had him thrown from the temple and then beaten to death. His last words were a prayer, asking God to forgive them.

Now he calls himself a “servant” of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. “Servant” translates the Greek doulos, literally a “slave.” A slave belongs to his master. He has no will of his own. His only purpose is to do what his master wants. That was James. I’d say he knows something about discipleship.

In our text, he challenges his Christian readers in words which are eerily current: “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business, and make money'” (v. 13). When last did you say something like that?

“This fall, I will go to such-and-such a college and major in so-and-so.” Or, “Later this spring, we will sell our house and buy one in such-and-such neighborhood.” Or, “By March we will expand into such-and-such a market and increase our revenues by so-and-so.” Or, “Later this year, our church will begin such-and-such ministries and services and reach so-and-so people.”

What’s wrong with such assumptions? “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow” (v. 14a). Is that true? Do you know what will happen on Monday?

Did you know on 9-10-01 that we would never forget 9-11?

When Barbaro won the Kentucky Derby and started in the Preakness, did anyone expect him to break his leg and eventually be euthanized?

When the football season began, who thought that the New Orleans Saints would play the Chicago Bears for the NFC championship and the right to go to today’s Super Bowl?

When the Mavericks’ season began, who thought they would lose four straight and then achieve the best record in basketball?

When the Cowboys’ season began, who thought Tony Romo would be our quarterback of the future? When their playoff game began, who thought it would end with a fumbled snap on the winning field goal?

The truth is that “you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (v. 14b). When’s the last time you saw mist in the early morning? It wasn’t there the night before. It settles over the fields or streets, sometimes so thick that you can’t drive safely. But by mid-morning the sun has burned it off and it is gone.

So it is with our lives today. We are here this morning, but none of us is guaranteed that we’ll be back next Sunday. Some sermon will be the last I preach, and the last you hear. I can’t promise you that it is this one, but I can’t promise you that it’s not.

So we are to say before every decision, every day: “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that” (v. 15). Otherwise we “boast and brag,” though “all such boasting is evil” (v. 16). A slave seeks first the will of his master. A disciple seeks first the will of her teacher. Or she’s not a disciple at all.

When last did you do that with Jesus? When last did you ask him to guide you through Scripture, circumstance, and Spirit? To speak to your mind and your heart? To make clear his “good, pleasing and perfect will” for your life (Romans 12:2)?

My first job was at Dairy Queen; my specialty was the “dip cone.” It has to be done properly–pull the ice cream out of the chocolate too soon and it doesn’t get enough on it; leave it in too long and it falls in and glops around. At Dairy Queen I learned something even more important than making dip cones, a very valuable life lesson: the difference between an employee and a customer.

When I became an employee I had to go to the store when my manager said, do what she said, leave when she told me I could leave. If onions needed to be cut but I didn’t want to get onion smell on my hands because I had a date that night, she didn’t much care. If the floors needed to be mopped but I was tired from playing tennis earlier that day, she wasn’t sympathetic. I had to do what I was told, or I couldn’t work for her.

It made me yearn for the days when I was a customer: I could go there when I wanted, order what I wanted, and leave when I wanted.

Are you an employee of Jesus, or a customer of his church? When last did it cost you something sacrificial to follow him?

Are you obedient in the present? (v. 17)

A disciple learns his teacher’s will, and then he does it: “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins” (v. 17). “Anyone”–preachers, deacons, trustees, all of us. “Who knows the good he ought to do”–the Greek assumes the condition; the disciple knows what the teacher wants him to do. “And doesn’t do it, sins.” Not “makes a mistake”–“sins” against the Master.

Conversely, those who know the good they ought to do and do it, please God and position themselves to receive all that his grace intends to give.

“But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it–he will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:25).

Noah obeyed God and was spared on the ark. Moses and his people obeyed God and were spared at the Red Sea. Joshua and the people obeyed God and were spared at the flooded Jordan River and the fortified Jericho walls. David obeyed God and defeated Goliath, Saul, and the enemies of God’s people. Daniel obeyed God and was spared in the lion’s den. Jonah obeyed God and was spared from the fish. James obeyed God and became the most significant leader of the first Christian church.

But such obedience must be complete, for Monday as well as Sunday, when it’s easy to follow and when it’s hard. For his sake, not ours. Because we want to glorify him, not ourselves. Because we want to extend his Kingdom, not our own.

This week I read a challenging but honest statement in C. S. Lewis’s last sermon, “A Slip of the Tongue.” Lewis spoke for many of us when he said:

Our temptation is to look eagerly for the minimum that will be accepted. We are in fact very like honest but reluctant taxpayers. We approve of an income tax in principle. We make our returns truthfully. But we dread a rise in the tax. We are very careful to pay no more than is necessary. And we hope–we very ardently hope–that after we have paid it there will still be enough left to live on.

Conversely, it is those Christians who choose to be full-time disciples who experience the abundant life of Jesus.

They consent to build an ark and save the human race when it has never rained.

Or they decide to “go out not knowing” and become the father of the nation, like Abraham (Hebrews 11:8).

Or they agree to stand before Pharaoh and lead God’s people out of slavery.

Or they choose to step into a flooded river and march around a fortified city, and take the nation into the Promised Land.

Or they go out to fight Goliath with only a slingshot and win a victory which will be remembered forever.

Or they leave their boats and nets to follow a Galilean carpenter and write nearly half of the New Testament.

Or they turn from their religious ambitions to follow Jesus and write nearly the other half.

Conclusion

What needs to happen for you to be a “disciple now”? For you to know and do God’s next step for your life? Have you sought his will for this day, this problem, this opportunity, this temptation, this decision? Will you follow it, wherever he leads, whatever he asks, wherever he goes? Are you an employee or a customer? Are you a Christian or a disciple?

Remember the service a few months ago when Matt Elkins shared the story of his missionary experience in the Sudan? He read from the leather journal which recorded the events of those sacrificial, risky, frightening, miraculous two years. As he did, I noticed the words he had inscribed on the cover of that journal and read them to you: “Every man dies. Not every man truly lives.” When your journal records the last page of your story, which will have been true for you?