Christian Faith in the Life of College Students

Rev. Larsen: I am speaking today with my grandson, Timothy Larsen, who is a student at the University of Iowa. Tim was with us a year ago, and we had very favorable response from people. I would like to visit some more with him.

Tim, what does a typical college student think of the church?

Tim: Based on what I have seen, the typical college student does not go to church. The reason is he views it as an empty religious exercise and fails to find any significance for it in his life.

It seems to me that this is a reflection of the church. The church today lacks authority, and it is a reflection of poor teaching and preaching of the truth.

Rev. Larsen: You are currently attending a church that is not a part of the denomination in which you were raised. Tell me about your church, how you found your way there, and what causes you to return each Sunday.

Tim: Throughout my life I have learned that what sets a great church apart is the way in which it treats the Word of God. That is the reason I began attending this church, and why I return each week. It is an Evangelical Free church. I was raised in a Lutheran church. However, the trend in the Lutheran church is to move away from the authority of God’s Word, which has consistently been accepted as truth for two thousand years; it is watering down the Gospel.

Because I was aware of that fact when I went to college, I no longer wanted to be a part of it. So I began attending a church where the truth is communicated with authority, and people leave worship with no doubt about the Gospel and the role Christ is to play in their life.

I have learned a church is not worthwhile unless it is willing to treat the truth as the truth, and communicate it as effectively and unapologetically as possible.

Rev. Larsen: Tell me, Tim, what is the primary mental obstacle to a college student regarding faith?

Tim: For many college students, it is the first time they have lived away from their parents. They are not really accountable to anybody, and therefore have to face their own independence and make their own decisions. That is the theme in part during the college years. Many begin to believe the mentality: what is true for me may not be true for someone, so I will not be too dogmatic in what I say is true.

I believe this is a major obstacle for the college student regarding the Church and the Christian faith. Christianity claims to have authoritative answers on these questions: Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where will I spend eternity? This causes some to shy away from Christianity and view it as intolerant.

Rev. Larsen: I have had the privilege of living near the campus of a university, and I have always found it a challenge to preach there.

What difference can a strong Christian body (the Church) make in the life of a college student?

I think many college students are looking for certainty. Things we experience on a university campus shatter many of our foundations. Many belief systems are present that claim to have the answers. There is so much complexity, people wonder what they can know for sure.

Tim: That is where the church can step in. College kids are wandering about, questioning their purpose. If the church can step in with the truth spoken in love, it can make a big difference in a college student who wants to know what is truth. Deep down, college students do not want phoniness, political correctness, generic answers to questions. They want to know what is true. The church, if it can just be honest and unashamed of the truth, can make a big difference in the life of that student.

Rev. Larsen: Do you think some college students, when faced with the truth every Sunday, will turn their backs and go their own way? Will we lose some that way?

Tim: Yes, we will definitely lose some, and others will not know what to think of it all. However, although you may lose some, and you may not move a confused person out of his indecision, the only way to make true, authentic believers is by presenting the truth. That is the way for people to feel a stronger sense of their place in the world, and the significance of their life. They need honest answers to tough questions.

Rev. Larsen: If I am hearing you correctly, you are saying the churches that are using the popularity appeal to get students to church are making a terrible mistake.

Tim: The politically correct (or soft) approach will work in the short term. It can probably get people to come out, enjoy themselves, and meet new people. However, in the end, I firmly believe people will see through the phoniness.

That is not true for everybody; some would shy away. Still, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that churches wanting to make a real difference in the lives of kids are the ones that do not shy away from providing tough answers to tough questions.

Jesus worked very much the same way in the New Testament. He did not shy away from anybody, but always came back with an answer, given in love. That is the spirit of love, and it reaches out and touches the hearts of people, young and old alike.

Rev. Larsen:What are college kids, deep down, really looking for?

Tim: Experts often talk about generational traits. They say my generation, (people in their late teens and twenties) lacks purpose and hope. We are wandering aimlessly about without a purpose. We lack a mission and a strong sense of ourselves.

If this is indeed the case, then what a college kid really needs, deep down inside, whether he or she knows it or not, are answers. The answers that really make a difference in a person’s life – regarding eternity – have to come from the Christian faith.

It is so easy to wonder about our purpose – why we are here. If the church would step in and authoritatively explain the answers to questions dealing with purpose, people’s lives would be changed.

Rev. Larsen: I used to tell my confirmation students that we had a lot in common. Young people have the whole world in front of them. Yet, they are pretty much self-centered. When a person reaches their 60s, the world is behind them, and they begin to think about how they will spend their last years and eternity. Then, again, we become self-centered.

Tim, are college students too self-centered to consider faith?

Tim: We have to divide the question into two categories: the short-run and the long-run. In the short-run, yes, there is a lot of selfishness from people my age, just as there is from any generation. They believe life is about them, with no purpose beyond that. There is a god-shaped vacuum only God can fill.

In the end, however, even the most selfish people, in their hearts, know there has to be more to life than their own happiness. They may just not be able to put their finger on what it is. Something within even the most selfish of us is crying out.

So, I do not believe that even college students are too selfish to consider faith. Even people, who on the surface seem self-centered to the greatest degree, have the same longings as the rest of us.

Rev. Lasen: Down deep in your heart, what do you feel should be the church’s message to the college student?

Tim: The message to the college student needs to be a set of truths, which may be difficult for people to accept. It is tough from one standpoint, but simple from another, for it all starts with God. These truths are that God created us in His image. However, since time of the fall in the Garden of Eden, we have all been born with a sinful nature. It is not just that we do bad things from the time we were born. God, being perfect, cannot exist side-by-side with evil and sin in our world. There must be a bridge between us and God. That bridge, as God provided for us, is Christ. Christ died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead. If we will just accept that message and believe and trust it in faith, we will spend eternity with God in Heaven.

That is as simple as it gets: God created us; we are sinners; Christ provided a sacrifice for us – Himself. If we will just accept that in faith, we will be saved and will spend eternity in heaven.

That is the pure Gospel, there is no question about that. It is also the message that needs to be proclaimed, no matter what age we are. It is a privilege to proclaim this Gospel.

Rev. Larsen: Are any of your close friends considering the ministry?

Tim: I do not know how many of my friends are considering serving as a pastor. However, I do have several close friends who, in a deeper sense, are already in the ministry. They are striving to serve God in their lives already, no matter which career they choose. They view their life as “being in the ministry” by bringing

glory to God.

Rev. Larsen: In your opinion what will the Church of tomorrow be like in light of the people of your age today?

Tim: I would divide it into two separate churches: those churches whose mission is to proclaim the truth, and those who are not. It will depend a great deal upon who is in what church and the revival (or awakening) in that church.

It seems to me that the Church is going in two separate directions. You have the church that is not speaking the truth as effectively as they can. They teach a watered-down, compromised message. They are shying away from teaching Christ as the only way, and difficult truths such as, even a loving God would allow people to go to hell.

However, other churches are proclaiming the biblical truth. They are on a mission to communicate the Gospel as effectively as they can. This group can make more of a difference in people’s lives and in eternity. I would much rather be in this type of church.

Rev. Larsen: Thank you, Tim, for this time that you have spent with us. Our prayers go with you and your friends. We believe that God will use you in a mighty way.

Amen.

Out Recruiting

I have a close friend who coaches in the Big 12 Football Conference. When I ask him what is the most challenging part of coaching, he says without reservation, “Recruiting is a major part of any university coach’s job. If you are going to have a winning team, you must have talented people with strong commitment. Not all players will have the same talents, but each will have a contribution to make.”

Today in our text we find Jesus out recruiting. He was looking for disciples whom He would train, and then send out with the Gospel to change the world. They differed in personality and talents. Some were extroverts; others present themselves as introverts. But each had his own role to play.

Luke tells of the day Jesus chose the twelve disciples. There must have been a large group of followers, because Luke writes, “One of those days Jesus went out to a mountain to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called the disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles:

Simon (whom he named Peter),

Simon’s brother Andrew,

James, John, Philip,

Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas,

James the son of Alphaeus,

Simon who was called the Zealot,

Judas son of James, and

Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor” (Luke 6:12-16).

Peter is the best known of the disciples. He was a strong leader and the spokesperson for the group. After they had been in training for a while, Jesus asked him: “Who do you say that I am?”

Peter gave the answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

Hearing this answer Jesus replied, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:15-18).

Jesus selected Peter, James, and John to be with Him during his most trying times. It was Peter who denied Jesus in the courtyard on the night He was led off to be crucified. Yet he went out afterward and wept bitterly. Peter knew what repentance was all about Ñ something lacking in the life of Judas.

It was also Peter who had some private time with Jesus following the resurrection. After a night of fishing, Jesus met the disciples and asked to speak personally with Peter. Jesus asked this disciple three times: “Do you love me?” Each time Peter replied he did love Jesus. Then Jesus not only forgave Peter, He also commissioned him to go out and serve people with the Gospel.

Peter was the preacher on Pentecost Sunday (Acts 2) when 3,000 people came forward and confessed their faith in Christ. These new believers were baptized, and the Church was born.

Peter may have been the leader, but John was not far behind. This disciple left five inspired books behind that are a part of the New Testament. He too was with Jesus in those crucial hours. John gives us great insight into the person and work of Jesus. He tells us the babe of the manger was not just another baby; He was the God Incarnate. God came to this world and clothed Himself in the form of a man.

John also gives us insight into the life to come. He assured Mary, Martha, and all believers that Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in Him, though they die, will continue to live (John 11:25).

On another occasion John reminds the believers Christ has prepared a place for them in the kingdom of Heaven, and one day He will come and receive them (John 14:1-4). He also adds these words, which are rejected by many even in the religious communities today: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one will come to the Father but by me” (John 14:6).

James was the third disciple to be with Jesus in the most crucial hours. We do not know much about James, with the exception that he was John’s brother, and the first one to be martyred for the cause of Christ.

Matthew was an interesting disciple. He was a tax collector, and hated by the Pharisees. He left a lucrative career to follow Jesus. The Lord was severely criticized for choosing a tax collector to be a disciple. “How could a man from such a sinful and corrupt profession be used in the Lord’s work?” was the Pharisees’ question. After his appointment to serve as a disciple of Jesus, Matthew entertained Jesus at a dinner; the other guests were tax collectors. When the religious group asked how it could be that Jesus would eat with such people, our Lord replied, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

Andrew and Philip cannot be overlooked. From what we learn in reading the Bible, these men worked in the background. Andrew brought his brother, Peter, to Jesus. Philip brought Nathanael whom Jesus described as a person who was “true-blue.”

We know little about the other disciples of Jesus. Thomas is supposed to have carried the Gospel to India. He was not afraid to let his doubts be known, and Jesus was most gracious in helping him over this spiritual hurdle. Simon, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot were the unknowns. Judas Iscariot is the sad case. We have no word from Jesus about Judas, so it is well for us to remain silent also.

What do we learn from this brief study of the disciples? The number one lesson has to be there is a place for us in carrying the Gospel to the world. There is someone in this world with whom you can share the Gospel better than any other person. We never know what some of the people will accomplish as witnesses for Jesus.

I am reading the autobiography of Robert Schuler. How you feel about Dr. Schuler’s ministry is not our subject. All of us have to admit he has introduced millions of people to Jesus. In this book telling of Schuler’s life, it is interesting to note this man might never have studied for the ministry had it not been for his sister who paid his college and seminary tuition. Few people know her name, but she is an important person behind this man who has held up Christ as the Savior to people around the world.

We learn it takes commitment to be a disciple of Jesus. Doubts come to the lives of all disciples, but the Holy Spirit will see us through those difficult hours.

The great witnesses in our day Ð Billy Graham, Chuck Colson, Mother Theresa, and others like them Ð cannot overshadow the unknown witnesses who work silently with others telling them of Jesus and His love for the world. We all have a role to play. There are no bishops and popes in God’s family. All of us are brothers and sisters who come as penitent sinners seeking His grace and the forgiveness of our sins.

Jesus Christ is still out recruiting. Next week we will see how Jesus took twelve men who were most inadequate and made them so committed to His cause they gave their lives for Him.

The Day Jesus Made a Decision

Decisions! Decisions! Decisions! From the cradle to the grave, that is what life is all about. Most of these decisions are not too serious and are made automatically. Others are very serious and demand much thought. Whether people believe it or not, our most important decision in life is to answer the question: where do we stand in relation to God? This is the decision that determines our eternal destiny.

In the first part of this sermon, I am changing the question and talking about the day Christ made a decision for us. It was the day of His baptism. He was thirty years old.

We know very little about those first thirty years. There is one incident recorded in St. Luke’s Gospel that tells of Mary and Joseph taking Jesus to the Temple. During this visit Jesus got separated from his parents who must have been traveling with a group of family and friends from Nazareth. They assumed their Son was with the group, and it was a full day before they became aware he had been left behind.

While the Bible gives a few details about what happened when Joseph and Mary found Jesus, I wonder if they were not plenty disgusted with their son. Not only was it a long walk back to Jerusalem, they had to search for three days to find Him.

Finally, they discovered Him sitting among the teachers in the temple courts, listening and asking questions. Luke says, “All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were also astonished (and certainly relieved). His mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.’

“Jesus replied, ‘Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he was saying to them” (Luke 2:47-49).

There is only one other piece of information that tells us anything about what happened in Jesus’ life during His first thirty years. Luke writes, “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52).

From this we learn Jesus grew intellectually, physically, spiritually, and socially. It is this insight – He grew socially – that interests me. This tells me Jesus loved people, He loved to be around them, and he could have been the life of the party. I believe He had a great sense of humor and enjoyed a good laugh.

I guess my reason for being interested in this part of Jesus’ development is that it corrects the idea that He was so pious he could not relate to the ordinary person. Had he lived on this earth in our day, I believe he would have enjoyed seeing the Packers play the Vikings and then listening to a marvelous musical concert in some gorgeous auditorium. Is that too far out? Maybe I am making Jesus into my own image, but I like to think my Savior (and my best friend) enjoyed life.

Now came the day of Jesus’ baptism. A full-grown man, age thirty, appears before his cousin, John the Baptist. John had been preaching to the people telling them to repent of their sins. He had sensed their religion was very traditional and routine. They attended the synagogue and read the Law, but then went out and lived as they pleased. John addressed their hypocrisy by saying, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:7-8).

It was in this setting that Jesus came to John and requested to be baptized. John tried to discourage Him saying he needed to be baptized by Jesus. However, Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15).

One of the many unanswered questions in the Church has been, Why was Jesus baptized? John the Baptist had no answer for this question, because his baptism was related to the forgiveness of sin, and Jesus had no sin.

These questions can be debated, but the complete answer will not be found in this life. One answer is that it is the beginning of Jesus’ redemptive ministry. From that day on His life would be different. He would point to Himself as the Messiah who had come to bring people back into a living relationship with God and to establish His Kingdom that has no end. This is the day Jesus Christ made a decision for us.

Whether or not Jesus, on that day, was fully aware of His deity is an issue for scholars to debate. Yet, if He had any questions, this was the day He got the needed answers. Here are three of them:

The voice of God spoke and identified Jesus. “You are my Son.” He was God’s natural Son, born without sin. We need to note this Bible verse. This is who Jesus was to God: His Son.

The voice of God defined the relationship between the Father and the Son: “whom I love.” Jesus needed to know His Father loved Him. It was this love from the Father that motivated Jesus to complete His redemptive work. It mattered little that people hated Him if he knew God loved him.

Then came the words of encouragement: “With You I am well-pleased.” There is a note of Fatherly pride in these inspired words from the Father to the Son. It is necessary for a parent to encourage the child, a coach to encourage the player, and an employer to encourage the employee. Remember Jesus emptied Himself while performing His redemptive work, and he had become the obedient child of God. He needed encouragement.

The Spirit anointed Jesus, and His work to redeem the world began. What can this mean for us?

1. It identified whom we can become – the adopted children of God. Paul picks up on this thought when he writes, “But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4). Jesus was the natural-born child of God; He knew no sin. We are the adopted children of God. When our sin is taken away by grace through faith in Christ, God makes us His own. Because we are His sons and daughters, we can call God our Father. This was offered to us because, on the day of His baptism, Jesus made a decision for us.

2. We experience God’s love daily. It is an unconditional love. Though we are often disobedient, Christ still loves us. His arms continually reach out to us. The prodigal is forever being invited home. As we are immersed in this love from the Father, we, who are His children, grow in our love for Him. This is offered to us because, on the day of His baptism, Jesus made a decision for us.

3. Our Heavenly Father offers us words of encouragement. We are called to be His witnesses. Who of us can say we have done a great job of witnessing? However, our Father encourages us with the words used by Jesus in His teaching: “Well done, good and faithful servants.” Some of Paul’s last words are proof that he lived with the praises of His Father: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not to me only, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (II Timothy 4:7f).

Paul is not teaching that we are saved by our faithful serving. Anybody acquainted with the writings of St. Paul knows his strong message is that our salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. But, as God’s redeemed children, we will serve Him. In this relationship, we will hear our Father say, “With you I am well pleased.” Our years can be summarized with these words: “A life well spent.”

On the day of His baptism, Jesus made a decision for us. He is now able to offer us life’s most important treasures – far more important than Powerball can offer us. It is an offer. We can reject it, or by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can receive Christ and be the recipient of these eternal gifts. What is it going to be?

Christianity is confrontational. It is with these offers that He confronts us today. Amen.

Herod Got Angry

A threatened and suspicious person is capable of behaving in a vicious manner. Most of us have our little kingdoms, and we are quite defensive of them. Today our country is being threatened by three countries labeled as “the axis of evil.” The leaders of these countries have demonstrated their lack of respect for human life, which makes their threats to destroy us very serious. This leads us to the international question: “Should we destroy their threats by going to war?” There are a variety of opinions to that question.

It was suspicion and insecurity that was getting the best of Herod. Human nature does not change. Herod of Judea and Hussein of Iraq display their low value of human life. If someone becomes a threat to their kingdoms, there is only one thing to do Ñ get rid of them. It is reported Hussein killed thousands of his own people when they became a threat to his power. It did not bother Herod to kill children if they were going to be a threat to his kingdom in the future.

William Barclay, a noted Biblical commentator, writes, “He was called Herod the Great, and in many ways he deserved the title. He was the only ruler of Palestine to succeed in keeping the peace and bringing order into disorder. He was a great builder; indeed, he was the builder of the Temple in Jerusalem. He could be generous. In times of difficulty he remitted the taxes to make things easier for the people. In the famine of 25 B.C. he had actually melted down his old gold plate to buy corn for starving people. But Herod had one terrible flaw in his character: he was almost insanely suspicious. He had always been suspicious, and the older he became the more suspicious he grew until, in his old age, he was Ôa murderous old man.’ If he suspected anyone as a rival to his power, that person was promptly eliminated. He murdered his wife, her mother, and several of his sons. Augustus, the Roman Emperor, said it was safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.

With this suspicious personality, it is no surprise that Herod was upset when he learned of Jesus’ birth. That babe was a potential threat to his little kingdom; therefore, Jesus had to be killed. Herod’s tricky approach to the Christ child was to use the Magi, who had come from the east and asked, “Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

Learning from the high priests that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem, Herod sent the Magi on their way to worship Him. Finding the house in Bethlehem, these men presented Jesus with gifts; then they bowed down and worshiped Him. God warned them in a dream not to report back to Herod. When Herod heard he had been outwitted, he was furious and gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and younger.

Herod is an example of a threatened person behaving in a vicious manner. The history books present hundreds of examples of how world leaders have acted in a like manner. Hitler and Stalin were not bothered by killing millions of people who threatened their plans in building their kingdoms.

That same anger reveals itself in many of us who would never think of carrying it to the extreme of doing physical harm to another person. We have our own ways of showing anger to those who might be threatening our little kingdom. It can come with false accusations aimed at destroying a person’s worth. It can come through political manipulation, which dismisses people from the social scene. We can be as tricky as old Herod, for inwardly we are perhaps as angry as he with those who threaten us.

We hear the expressions of many people who have become suspicious of God. They are convinced He has destroyed their little kingdoms, and they carry anger toward Him.

I think of my friend who never goes to church. One day I asked him to attend our Easter service. He replied, “Thanks for the invitation. I wondered how long it would take for you to invite me to church. However, I had enough of Jesus when I was a kid. I want no more of him. He robbed me of some pleasures I could have enjoyed had I not been restricted by His teachings that mother was always quoting.” There was hostility in his voice that sent a clear message: this man, even in retirement, continues to be angry with God.

A grief-stricken mother asks, “Where was God when my daughter died leaving behind her children to be raised by another woman? If God is so all-knowing and merciful, why did He let this happen? My kingdom collapsed when I lost my daughter.”

God is a threat to this woman. She realizes God has the power to do the miraculous. Nevertheless, by not healing her daughter, she believes He threw a vicious attack against her family. She does not deny God’s existence. She is just angry with God and perhaps will remain that way until her dying day. How would we respond had it been our daughter? It would be understandable that we would question the truth of the Biblical passages that present God as a loving, heavenly Father. It is so easy to speak piously of God when all is going well. How natural it is to be angry with Him when life threatens us and we feel He does nothing about it. Our little kingdom has been attacked, and God, with His almighty power, could have prevented it.

Herod never knew how Jesus could have enriched his life. Had Herod been sincere in his desire to come and worship Jesus, his life could have drastically changed to be a blessing to others in the last years of his life. He could have reconciled with his family, who must have hated him for killing their mother and brothers. He could have won the admiration of his constituents had he governed as a man of God and not as a tyrant to be feared. The sad ending is that Herod, as far as we know, died with the same suspicious and insecure personality that tortured him throughout his life.

My friend who had enough of Jesus when he was a young man never experienced what the Lord could do for him. He did not believe that Christ only takes away from us that which can destroy us. He gives us blessings to enrich our life. Those teachings of Jesus did show my friend his sinfulness, but they also assured him of forgiveness and freedom to live with new goals and purposes in life. Sad to say, he died still angry with God.

The mother who continues to be bitter over her daughter’s death is robbing herself of the comfort and peace that only God can give. Instead she lives with insecurity, because she is not at all sure she can trust God’s Word. She is truly suspicious of God.

There are plenty of people in the world who can threaten us, but Jesus Christ is not one of them. He is the One who can make us secure and mature people. In faith we can say with St. Paul, “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” This is a promise that cannot be taken from us.