Forward in Courageous Faith

Bible Reference:  Joshua 1:2, 3, 5-7a, 9

How is your memory?

On this Memorial Day weekend, I’m asking you to remember the faithfulness of God so you can move forward to face the present with confidence and the future with hope because God, time and again, has proven His faithfulness in all He has done through history.

Remember? It’s an invitation or an encouragement to stir our consciousness to a past event, a moment in time, or maybe a task yet to get accomplished. Buddies get together and reminisce about the days they had in adventure. “Remember when?” Or maybe a teacher gives an assignment. “Remember students!” Or a parent says, “Remember, son. You promised me you would do this.”

Throughout the scriptural witness over and over again, God says to all of us who hear His word, “Remember!”

Jeremiah said it this way: “This I recall to mind. Therefore I have hope. The Lord’s lovingkindnesses never run out. His mercies never fail. Great is God’s faithfulness” (Lamentations 3: 21-23).

The faithfulness of God in the past gives birth to courageous faith to move us forward into the future. It moves us forward not only to embrace all the promises God has made to us, but also so we can offer our lives for the purposes of Jesus Christ in the world.

The scriptural witness, over and over again, encourages us to remember a rainbow in the sky as a sign of the covenant that God would never again destroy the world with a flood. It encourages us to remember God’s promise to the patriarchs Abraham and his wife Sarah in their old age. She, barren, would have a child of promise after 25 years waiting. Then God would ask Abraham to show he trusted God and valued God’s love even above Isaac, this child of promise, by sacrificing him. God showed Abraham the truth – He will provide.

To Isaac who would later marry Rebecca – Remember? Jacob and Esau were born, and Jacob, later – the child of destiny – would be renamed Israel as he wrestled with the angel of the Lord and said, “I’ll not let you go. I pray you, bless me.”

To Jacob was born Joseph, the favorite son, hated by his brothers. With a many-colored coat, he was sold into slavery. Then, wrongly accused when he with integrity obeyed God’s covenant, he unjustly ended up as a prisoner in jail. From there, God elevated him to be second-in-command of the Pharaoh of Egypt, and God used Joseph’s life to spare Israel and all of God’s people through a worldwide famine.

Remember? Can you trace the finger of God’s faithfulness in history? Can you see the power of God’s Spirit at work in the events of time?

Remember. In the life of Moses – from a burning bush, God called him to go back to Egypt and face the Pharaoh. God used Moses to do ten powerful plagues to convince Pharaoh to let God’s people go from slavery, including the tenth plague called the Passover. God instructed Moses to have the people smear the lamb’s blood on the doorposts so the angel of judgment would pass over those households of faith, God’s people. With those ten plagues, God freed His people from slavery.

Then, at the Red Sea, He gave them great victory over Pharaoh as the Red Sea divided, and they crossed on dry land. Time and again, the power of God showed the faithfulness of God. We have a God we can trust with courage and with peace.

Through forty years in the wilderness, the people journeyed as God provided manna and water. Even quail flew into the camp. God was visibly present through a cloud at day and a pillar of fire at night as if to say to the people, Remember, I’m right here with you and among you. I will never leave you or forsake you.

Those forty years in the wilderness lead us to the very passage we read this day from Joshua chapter 1. Moses has died, and God has asked Joshua to be the leader of God’s people that they would move forward into the future, to embrace the Promised Land God had spoken about to Abraham many years ago. Joshua was frightened and sad. He lacked the confidence to move forward and do what God called him to do.

Maybe that’s our experience sometimes, too, as we in faith strive to walk with God. We believe in God. We believe we are His people, but we lack the confidence to fully embrace the promises of God into the abundant life Jesus promised us. Or we lack the confidence to move forward in faith to courageously embrace what God has called us to do – serve Him in the kingdom.

Why do we become paralyzed? Is it our fear of the challenges God might ask of us? It is just really hard work sometimes to obey God.

A fear of the unknown? I recall something Brennan Manning wrote: “Hope knows that if great trials are avoided, great deeds remain undone, and the possibility of growth into greatness of soul will be aborted.”

God has high expectations for us in His kingdom. He has great blessings in store for us. Our character can be strengthened and shaped by the Spirit of God as we move forward to do what God asks of us.

Maybe it’s just plain busyness. We don’t move forward in confidence because we’re preoccupied with the tyranny of the urgent in the daily responsibilities of life. So all those things push what God asks of us on the back burner.

Maybe it’s a lack of faith, like when the twelve spies went into the Promised Land at Moses’s request and came back with glowing reports of a land overflowing with milk and honey – abundance for all. But then also saying, Wow! The people are giants! Stronger and militarily powerful. We just can’t do it! Only Joshua and Caleb said, “If God has promised it to us, He’ll give it to us in great victory!” But the word of the ten spies prevailed, and the people of God doubted God’s promise. Thus, they were destined to wander for forty years in the wilderness. Their generation had to die off before they could cross over under Joshua’s leadership.

Maybe our past failures chase us like twin dogs of shame and guilt. We just don’t believe we can do it. The point is, a moment in time comes for all of us when we are called by God’s Spirit to move forward with courageous faith, to cross over and embrace the fullness of the promises of all God has for us in abundant life.

A moment comes when we either move forward in faith or turn back to the wilderness. Through the years, I’ve visited with a lot of recovering people struggling with a variety of addictions. They talk about a journey of faith, when they come to a certain moment in time where they realize that God loves them and forgives the past. Yet, they somehow are paralyzed from moving into a world of recovery, of new beginnings because they’re afraid.

I’ve also talked to a lot of women and men who into their adulthood are haunted by the painful memories of an abusive childhood. Maybe it’s a father who was mean spirited in his own bondage to drunkenness. Maybe he verbally or physically abused them in such a way that they struggle with depression or have low self-worth and no confidence to face life in their adulthood. Maybe they live with a desire to please people thinking the only way their lives will have value is if they keep everyone around them happy. This leads to some kind of weird perfectionism believing that by human achievement, they’ll finally matter.

Oh, that God would heal the hearts of His wounded people so they would believe the promise of His love, and in courageous faith, they would not only deal with the challenges of the present but be full of hope for the future God has in mind for us.

In Joshua chapter 3, it is interesting that as Joshua led God’s people to the Jordan River, God instructed the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant to step into the strong current of the Jordan River before the waters parted for them to cross over.

Often our life of faith is like that too. We need to move forward in faith, even if there is no visible proof that our God is at work in the circumstance. We need to move forward in faith, and then God will reveal His power to work to fulfill the promises He has made. We need to step forward in faith into the very current of the flow of life’s circumstance, and then God will act as He has promised.

Ultimately, God calls us to step into the sovereignty of His power and love. He rules with authority and power to fulfill all His purposes in time and history. He has the authority to do whatever He wants. He will fulfill all His purposes and all His promises in this world.

All those Old Testament victories and momentous events were curiously followed up by the people pausing to celebrate. Do you know what happened each time God did something fantastic for them? They built an altar and sang songs of praise. They worshiped Him as their God. They gave credit where credit was due. They worshiped God and acknowledged His power to do great and awesome things for them.

So, as New Testament people, we remember that it is Jesus who is the faithful One. He was faithful to do the Father’s will, to empty Himself of divine glory and power. He surrendered to become a servant, a man on earth. He surrendered to death on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins and mine. God exalted Him and raised Him from the dead. Death has no mastery over Him. Every promise of God is “yes”in Jesus Christ.

When Jesus makes us promises, we are not only forgiven, but we also belong to Him, the Resurrected One. He has filled us with the power of the Spirit, so we can approach life with confidence that we are never alone. We belong to God. He will go with us everywhere we go. He has given us victory everywhere we journey.

Romans 8:37 tells us, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through Christ who loved us,” and “Nothing will separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ” (vs. 39). I’m thinking about the young girl Mary and the Angel Gabriel who said to her, “Nothing is impossible with God.” And she said, “Let it happen to me just as you’ve said.” She moved forward to offer her life to be the mother of the Lord, the Son of God. She said “yes” to her part in the plan of God because she took God at His word.

Paul said, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:13). This becomes our profession of faith, too. So, as I remember the faithfulness of God, God’s Spirit gives birth to a courageous faith, and I am equipped to deal with the present. I am full of hope to move into the future God has in store for me.

Remember? God’s faithfulness fills you with courageous faith.  Amen.

Rev. Lee Laaveg
Christian Crusader

Stronger Inside

Bible Reference: Luke 11:1-13

If we want a stronger body, we begin to work it out and we eat a good diet. We lift some weights and watch our diets. If we want a stronger mind, we do some studying and work our mind – maybe reading a book. Some people, as they get older, like to work cross word puzzles and so on to keep a stronger mind. But how about the spirit inside of us? Don’t we want confidence, calmness in the midst of chaos, courage and strength for facing all that life throws at us?

Who doesn’t want an attitude that is more loving and joyful to face each day? What about the spirit?

I was recently at a YMCA conference, and they were asking that question. Their concern was they’ve spent so much time working on the body and the mind, they seem to have drifted away from the “C” part of their name. They were asking, How do we help people grow in spirit through our organization? Good question!

One thing I have figured out is I cannot, by myself, grow inside and make myself stronger. The good news is, God can and He wants to do it through a wonderful tool He has given. This tool is called prayer.

A few years ago I came across a statement in a book on prayer. It says, “As you grow in prayer, God will reveal more of himself to you, breathing more of his life into your spirit.” He wants to make us stronger inside.

God’s prevailing power is released through prayer into you. It may come in the form of wisdom, or an idea you are looking for, courage you can’t muster in yourself, or confidence, perseverance, staying power, patience with other people, changed circumstances, even outright miracles. God loves it when we pray and His power is released into our lives. Sometimes it comes as a miracle.

A few years ago when my mother was alive, she was in the midst of fighting a terrible disease called lupus. I had talked her into coming to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota for some tests. Maybe they could get some answers for her. That night she called me from her motel room, and she was crying. She said the doctors had run some tests and learned her kidneys were shutting down, (caused apparently by the medications she had taken). It didn’t look good at all. So my wife Julie and I went to Mayo and prayed with mom. We asked for healing and put her in the Lord’s hands.

The next day, when she went in for another battery of tests, the doctors were puzzled; her kidneys were looking better. So they ran some more tests and found the kidneys had totally cleared up from the day before. The doctors said, “I can’t explain this.” But my mother smiled and said, “I think I can!”

Now I ask you, was that simply a coincidence or the power of God answering prayer?

As we read the Old and New Testaments with some great stories about prayer, we learn some amazing things can happen inside of us and to us and through us when we take the time to regularly pray. So let me ask, How is your prayer life these days?

We talk about how wonderful prayer is, but some of us never get around to being much of a regular at it. There are so many barriers, I suppose, to prayer. Maybe it’s our autonomy – the attitude that I can fix this myself. God doesn’t have time. Or it’s our laziness. We just don’t develop the habit. We leave it until it’s time for a crisis to hit us, and then we find ourselves praying more. Or maybe it’s a disappointment along the way – God has let us down. Perhaps it’s a lack of trust in God. We wonder if He cares, and if He is able to do anything anyway. For others of us it might be we just don’t know how to pray.

Well, in response to the last couple reasons, Jesus has something for us to consider today.

The disciples came to Jesus after they noticed He was always about the task of praying. He prayed a lot! He seemed so strong, even in the face of opposition and rejection, attacks and pressures, and so on of life. He always seemed to maintain His cool and calm. So they decided to ask Him to teach them to pray. “Lord, teach us to pray.”

It’s interesting isn’t it? The men upon whose shoulders rested the responsibility of christianizing the world, came to Jesus with one supreme request. They didn’t say, Lord, teach us to preach; they didn’t say Lord, teach us to do miracles; they didn’t say Lord, teach us to be wiser. No, instead they said, “Lord, teach us to pray.” They obviously had seen the power of prayer at work in Jesus.

So Jesus gave them a model for prayer. We call it the Lord’s Prayer. It’s really better titled the disciples’ prayer for it asks for forgiveness, and Jesus was sinless. This prayer is not a magical incantation we put at the end of a meeting in order to give the signal its time to go. It’s not something to mindlessly ramble through. It is a model for approaching God in prayer.

Jesus says that when you approach God in prayer, first of all, talk to Him about His person. Call Him “Father,” an intimate image. Come as a trusting child to a loving trustworthy father.

“Hallowed be your name.” It’s a time of worship. God’s name has been dragged through the mud over the ages. Lord, may you be worshiped. I worship you, and may everybody come to recognize how wonderful You are. How wonderful Your name and Your person!

Jesus goes on to tell us, when we’re done talking with the Lord about His person, talk to Him about His program. “Thy kingdom come.” May Your program, Father, take over this world and bring it to completion. May there be signs of Your program at work in my life and in the lives of those who come in contact with Your Good News. May Your kingdom come.

When we’re done talking about the program, Jesus says to talk to Him about provisions. “Give us this day our daily bread.” Notice He didn’t say, Give us this day our daily cake, meaning whatever we want. He’s talking about our day-to-day needs. Declare your dependence on Him. Ask Him to provide.

When you’re done with the person and the program and the provisions, you should also ask Him for pardon. Say, “Forgive us our sins (our debts) as we forgive our debtors.” It’s something we need to do when our sins act as a barrier in our communication with God. We need His forgiveness and His help to forgive others.

Then He says, When you’ve talked about the person and the program, and the provisions and the pardon, ask your Father for protection. “Lead us not into temptation.” Jesus is using battle language here. Protect me and keep me from falling away, Lord. He is actually using a negative to state a positive. For instance if I were to say to you, that’s no small matter, what it really means is, it’s a big deal. So when Jesus is saying, “Lead me not into temptation,” He’s saying “Keep me away from temptation.”

I love how Jesus then goes on to give a couple pictures of the One we are talking to in this prayer in order to give us more confidence and assurance as we approach God in prayer. He tells the story of a man who is awakened by his friend in the middle of the night. His friend is asking for bread to serve someone else who is visiting. The man finally gives in to his friend. It is Jesus’ way of saying, if this friend responds after all this pestering, your heavenly Father is such a better friend than that. He’s so attentive to your needs. He’s not like that friend at all.

Some scholars will say Jesus in fact wasn’t really talking about the fact that the man was being pestered by a friend. Jesus was basically saying, Can you imagine a friend who won’t answer his door in the middle of the night? This would not happen in a Middle Eastern village. It would be a shaming thing for an individual to turn a friend away. If that man is able to get up in the middle of the night after been called upon by another friend, how much more will your heavenly Father respond to you and pay attention to your cries?

Then Jesus asks,“What father among you, if his son asked for a fish, instead will give him a snake? Or if he asked for an egg will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

God is greater than any friend, Jesus is telling us; He is greater than any father. His attentiveness, His grace and generosity, is unsurpassing.

I love the promise He finishes off with. He says He will give us the Holy Spirit. God wants to Himself, work in you, empowering you to give you His Holy Spirit. This is the Holy Spirit’s job description, the ultimate gift – to bring about change, to make us stronger!

Have you ever heard the phrase, “Prayer Changes Things”? Do you believe it? I do. But even more importantly, prayer changes me. Prayer changes me! As the Holy Spirit then is operating within me, He changes me making me stronger in love, kindness, joy, boldness, and self-control. Someone once said, “God’s power flows primarily to people who pray.” This is what’s being said here by Jesus.

Case in point. Remember the Pentecost story when the disciples are in the Upper Room and the Holy Spirit came upon them. What were they doing? You’re right – they were praying. However, before the Holy Spirit came upon them, the disciples were afraid. They were chickens! But after the Holy Spirit came upon them, they suddenly became courageous soldiers of the Gospel. Unstoppable!

Not only does God’s power flow primarily to people who pray, but God’s power also flows primarily through people who pray.

Again, a case study. The Pentecost story again. After the Holy Spirit came upon those disciples, they began to share the gospel. Then what happened? They were effective! They were fired up, ignited in the Holy Spirit. Thousands upon thousands came to believe and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ for their salvation. God’s power flows primarily to people who pray, and God’s power flows primarily through people who pray. We become a channel of grace, a conduit for the Holy Spirit’s power to have an impact on the lives of people with whom we come in contact. We become effective! More effective than we could ever dream of becoming! And yet, all too often within the Church of Jesus Christ today, prayer seems to be put on the shelf.

Jim Cymbala, in his book, “Fresh Wind and Fire,” writes, “Does anyone really believe that America today is lacking preachers, books, Bible translations, and neat doctrinal statements? What we lack is the passion to call upon the Lord until he opens the heavens and shows himself powerful.” We need to be plugging into the power connection God has offered us through prayer.

I sometimes wonder where our ministry would be in this country if the people of God grew in the habit of prayer. If we became known as people who turn to Him in prayer that we would be on our knees. Behind every work of God in the past, you are always going to find some kneeling form. Billy Graham was once asked what is the most important thing they do before going to a community to do their crusades. “The secret is pray, pray, pray.”

Could there be revival in America? Heaven knows we need one. If the people of God would begin to really pray. Pray for God to work inside of us, and pray for God to flow through us into the lives of others.

This is my appeal today. If you want to grow stronger on the inside and make a difference on the outside, it’s really very simple. Jesus tells us, pray, pray, and pray. Amen.

Stronger in Compassion

Bible Reference: Luke 10:25-37

Everybody needs Jesus. This truth drives Christian Crusaders’ ministry, and it drives me as a pastor. Everyone needs to see what a wonderful life giver Jesus is, and then step into a relationship with Him and follow Him.

Over the years, I’ve taught a number of evangelism training courses to people in my congregation. The desire is for them to be ready to share this wonderful Jesus with people around them. Everybody needs Jesus, you see.

One of the courses I’ve used is entitled, “How to become a contagious Christian.” This course teaches a formula: High Potency + Close Proximity to People + Clear Communication of the Good News will bring about Maximum Impact.

High Potency refers to Jesus’ challenge for us to be the salt of the earth. It is important for us to be salty and retain that saltiness. Saltiness involves having an authentic character and being sacrificial.

The course also talks about the importance of being a compassionate person. A statement in the materials says, “Uncaring Christianity does not attract inquirers into the fold. But a clear, consistent demonstration of Christlike love and compassion can be a powerful magnet to pull people toward Jesus. It can open up people’s hearts like nothing else can.” Max Lucado says, “Compassion is the best apologetic.”

When you think about it, there is a lot of truth to this. For example, Christians and non-Christians alike seem to really like Pope Francis. They are attracted by his compassion for people.

Richard Stearns wrote a wonderful book years ago called “The Hole in Our Gospel.” In it he said this: “When we are living out our faith with integrity and compassion in the world, God can use us to give others a glimpse of His love and character.” This should not be a surprise to those of us who really care. Caring and compassion for people, i.e., caring for the tangible needs of other human beings, has always been part and parcel of genuinely being God’s people in this world. We follow a compassionate God. The Bible tells us, “The Lord is gracious and compassionate” (Psalm 145:8).

In Deuteronomy 15:11, God speaks to His people through Moses, “There will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore, open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor in your land.” Be compassionate people.

James tells us in the New Testament, “Religion that is pure visits orphans and widows in their affliction” (vs. 1:27) That is compassion.

Peter writes to a group of people who are struggling to make a credible witness for the gospel in the world. “For this is the will of God that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (I Peter 2:15). Compassion.

Tenderhearted mercy and compassionate kindness were trademarks of Jesus Himself. Again and again the Gospel writers in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John point us to the compassion of Jesus, whether it’s healing a leper, feeding people, or spending time with the untouchables and the unlovables. Jesus showed compassion. When He saw people out in the wilderness coming to Him, He had compassion on them for they were like sheep without a shepherd. So He taught them about God’s kingdom and His love for them. Jesus touched the untouchable, the unlovable, the unnoticed. He seemed to see people with a different lens, and it attracted crowds to Him.

Today we find Jesus emphasizing the importance of loving compassion in our text. The expert in Old Testament Law asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life, Teacher?” Jesus showed remarkable restraint and patience with this question, because it’s a foolish question. An inheritance is something to be received, not earned or deserved.

Jesus answered, “What does the Bible say?”

The man responded, “Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus kind of shut it down right there. He said, “Do this and you will live.” But the man wanted to take this discussion further, perhaps to prove that he was very smart. He asked, “Who is my neighbor?” He seemed to want boundaries. There must be a limit, he was thinking. So Jesus told him the story about a mugging.

A man was going down from Jerusalem – obviously a Jew – to Jericho. He was mugged and beaten up by robbers, lying half dead on the side of the road. Two people, both of them very religious, passed by as he lay there, but they didn’t do anything. A third person came along and when he saw the man, he had compassion. He stopped and helped this individual.

(It would have been rather shocking for a Jewish person who was listening to this story to hear a Samaritan – whom they hated and was hated by Jews – was helping his enemy.)

When he was done with this story, Jesus asked, “Who was the neighbor in the story?”

The Old Testament expert couldn’t even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan.” He responded, “The person who showed mercy.”

Then Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

We learn this very important truth from Jesus today: Compassion is commanded of God’s commissioned. Go and do likewise.

David Tiede, in his commentary on the Gospel of Luke, writes, “It (The Good Samaritan story) is more than a morality lesson. It is Jesus’ instruction in the observance of the Law of God in accordance with the kingdom of mercy and service which he (Jesus) has inaugurated.” Go and do likewise.

Jesus is giving a picture in this parable of compassion in action. It was risky. Robbers could have been waiting behind a boulder to jump out and beat up the Samaritan. (We’ve read stories of that happening in our own day.)

His compassionate action was sacrificial. He gave of his own goods to take care of this man. He gave up his time and convenience to get this man to a place where he would be safe and could be helped.

The Samaritan was extravagant, not only taking care of the man on the spot, but also paying his bill at the Holiday Inn and then leaving money behind to take care of future expenses until he was back on his feet. Compassion looks beyond skin color and cultural differences – even religion – as the Samaritan shows us in the story today. It knows no boundaries.

How often have you felt compassion for people in need lately? How often have you followed up those feelings and actually helped someone by serving them, encouraging them, visiting them, or expressing love in some tangible way?

To help you quantify your response to this question, I challenge you to rate yourself on a scale of one to ten – one been pretty cold and ten being a Mother Teresa clone. Write down a number that represents your present level of compassion. And by the way, you can’t use a five.

Our compassion quotient can sometimes get dangerously low – I know mine does. And it can take away from our effectiveness to get everybody to see Jesus and receive Him. A number of reasons play into why we get low on compassion. Compassion busters are all around us and within us. Perhaps our own background works against us. Maybe we grew up in a home with little love and compassion – more judgmentalism and criticism than anything else. Maybe a wise Christian friend or a counselor is needed to help you with these issues in your life.

Our busyness can get in the way. We live such a hectic pace of life, and it can be difficult to love when we’re tired. It’s tough to even notice people when we’re rushing. We need to slow down. I think sometimes we’re so bombarded with needs on the news and on social media that we become desensitized. We see hungry, hurting people every time we watch the news or turn on a computer.

Perhaps we have compassion fatigue. Some of us are caregivers to a loved one and feel burned out. Maybe we’ve been burned along the way by those for whom we care, and we don’t want to experience disappointment and discouragement again. Maybe you need fresh touches of God’s compassion and love yourself. It’s difficult to give away something you don’t have.

Let me remind you how crazy God is about you. Let me reawaken you to the depths of His love for you. He gave His Son, Jesus Christ, to rescue you from your sinfulness and the consequences of it. He was nailed to a cross for you. Even if you were the only person who ever lived, Jesus went to the cross for YOU out of compassion. He wants you to have a relationship with the Father who created you and is crazy about you. He wants you to receive forgiveness and the promises God has in mind for you. He loves you!

So let me ask you this: how can a person grow stronger in compassion? How can they move their compassion quotient up a couple numbers – maybe from a three to a five or from a six to an eight? Well, there are a variety of things a person can do.

Expose yourself more to what’s going on in the world. Read this book, “The Hole in our Gospel,” by Richard Stearns. He is the President of World Vision International. It’s a great book that reawakens us to a world so much bigger than the little world we live and exist in. Max Lucado’s book “Outlive Your Life,” talks about following Jesus out into the world and what life in the Church can be. I like Ron Sider’s book, “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.” Study the newspaper more. Read stories about the hurts in the world. Educate yourself, and pray about those things. Put them in God’s hands. Start noticing people and studying them. It’s going to mean slowing your schedule down a bit. Step outside of your own little existence and step into someone else’s. Take control of things. Take time to notice people, their hurts, and what’s happening in their lives.

Something else that can really be valuable is to begin each day with this daily prayer: “Break my heart Lord, the way yours is breaking. Show me where there is hurt, and where I can help.”

Finally, take some steps to be involved. I really believe positive choices lead to positive actions and will result in positive feelings. It will enlarge your heart when you put compassion to work. So many people are by the side of the road and need you. Maybe it’s someone in a nursing home. When was last time you visited someone in a nursing home – when you didn’t have to go but you wanted to? Maybe someone needs you to adopt them as a friend. If you live in a senior citizens home, look around for a lonely neighbor who doesn’t get much company. Show them some compassion.

I know people who teach English as a second language and volunteer to the refugees to our country. Do you quilt? Do you knit? Maybe someone needs a prayer shawl or organizations like Lutheran World Relief that could use quilts to provide warmth to those who don’t have anything. Then study about the people for whom you quilt.

How about intercessory prayer for the hurting? Telephone calls to those who are lonely? A meal for someone who is hurting? Hospitality to someone who lives alone? Adopt a child from Compassion International. My wife, Julie, and I do that. Each month we send a payment to help a little boy named Alexander go to school and have materials like food and good clothes to wear. Pray for them; get to know them.

I want to seal this sermon with a saying from Saint Teresa that means so much to me. I hope it does for you as well.

Christ has no body on earth but yours;
no hands but yours; no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion for the world is to look out.
Yours are the feet for which He is to go about doing good,
and yours are the hands with which He is to bless now. Amen.

Stronger in Character

The Bible is full of challenges for Christians to enable them to have the highest possible spiritual influence on those around them. For instance, Jesus said to the disciples after His resurrection, “You shall be my witnesses to the ends of the earth.” On the mountaintop He said to them, “Go and make disciples of all nations.” Early in His ministry, Jesus told them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” “You are the light of the world. Let your light so shine . . .” He wants us to influence others.

The challenge I want to focus on today is, “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt has lost its taste, how do we restore saltiness?” I don’t know about you but I wish I were saltier, stronger, more savory, more potent in my influence for Jesus Christ.

For the next few weeks I want to take a look at some key areas of our lives where we could become stronger and increase our influence for Jesus as well as enrich our own lives along the way. Today our subject is “Stronger in Character.”

Perhaps you’ve heard the adage, Who you are speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you’re saying. It is talking about character. Character is a broad subject, I admit, but I want to look at what, I think, forms the core of character. That is, this whole matter of truth telling, honesty, and integrity.

We value integrity. If you are a follower, you are looking for it from your leaders. If you’re a single person, it’s probably near the top of your list of potential significant others with whom you can spend your life. Husbands and wives expect it from each another. Employees want it from their bosses, and vice versa. Citizens want it from their elected officials. Telling the truth is important to us. After all, I hate to be lied to, don’t you? I’ve seen what it can do to a relationship, and I’ve felt the pain of being lied to.

The irony is, even though I don’t like it, I’m not absolutely guiltless in this matter myself. I’ve told my fair share of white lies, stretched the truth, or exaggerated things along the way, and it bothers me about myself. I imagine it bothers you as well. This is why we have confession where the Lord promises to forgive us.

Yet, if it bothers a loser like me, stop and imagine what lying does to our God who always tells the truth. From the beginning to the end of Scripture, we know God values truth, and He hates lying. Proverbs 12:22 tells us, “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord.” The eighth commandment says, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Saul and David were both in great trouble for their lying.

“Jesus, the Son of God, entered the world full of grace and truth,” John’s Gospel tells us. God is about truth. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No.’” In other words, be a person of your word. Have integrity.

So, it’s not surprising to find Paul telling the Ephesian Christians in today’s text that, as new people in Christ, the truth matters. In the first three chapters of Ephesians, Paul reviews the blessings of being a follower of Jesus. What a wonderful thing it is to have Christ in one’s life – forgiveness for your sins, the promise of everlasting life, a restored relationship with God, new brothers and sisters in community of Christ.

When we get to chapter 4, he uses his big “therefore” hinge. For the rest of his letter, He talks about the practical matters of living out one’s faith. “Therefore, I appeal to you live your lives in a manner that is worthy of your calling.” Near the top of the list is this passage from verse 25. “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members of one another.” Be people who tell the truth, he saying. If we’re going to operate well as Christ’s representatives, as the body of Christ, if we’re going to be the salt and light in our society and be effective, then we as individuals need to be known as people of integrity and truth telling.

Why do you suppose Paul put this thought near the top of his list? I think he perhaps had a story in mind that he heard about from the very early days of the Christian Church.

If you will recall with me, after Pentecost thousands of people became attracted to Jesus Christ and joined the church. Miracles were happening. It was an exciting movement to be a part of. People who were well off had a real heart for taking care of others who weren’t so well off. One of those was Barnabas. When he saw some of the poor in his congregation, he sold his property and gave all the proceeds to the disciples to share with the poor. I’m sure it raised a stir and inspiration in that congregation.

When another couple, Ananias and Sapphira, saw the positive inspiration and acclaim Barnabas was receiving, they decided to do the same thing. So they sold their property and gave the proceeds to the disciples. However, before they gave the gift, they held back part of it for themselves and told the disciples a lie. Of course, they, too, received acclaim until Peter learned it wasn’t the truth. So he called Ananias, the husband, in and asked, “Did you really give all the proceeds?”

Ananias said, “Absolutely!”

Paul says, “Not only did you lie to us, but you also lied to the Lord. Then Ananias dropped dead as a door nail right on the spot. They took his body away and buried it.

A few hours, later Sapphira, his wife, came looking for Ananias. Peter asked her, “Sapphira, did you give all the proceeds from the sale of your land to the church? (Thank you for the gift.)”

She said, “Yes, we did.”

Peter replied, “Your husband just died telling me that lie, and now you’ve lied.” Then she dropped dead. The story ends this way: “Great fear came upon the whole congregation.” Can you imagine?

Of course there was fear – fear of God, fear of lying – because God was sending a very strong signal to the early Church about lying and truth telling. God was teaching this congregation, and us as well, that lying amongst God’s people is out! Truth telling is critical in the Church! It is critical in any relationship for that matter, because when trust and unity is lost because of a lack of truth, destructive things begin to happen. God loves His Church! He wants it to succeed. They learned a lesson that day.

We are surrounded by a society that has a lot of spin and deception, white lies, and so on. We hear it so much that we tend to be desensitized to it. We even tend to fall prey to it a bit ourselves as we live out our lives in this world. It’s easy to give in to the temptation of telling a lie. We tell white lies, fibs, and half-truths, or we keep quiet when the truth is needed. We don’t volunteer all the information. We stretch things a bit when doing our taxes perhaps or when telling a story. Why do we do that?

Well, for convenience’ sake for one thing. Sometimes it seems like the easy thing to do. We don’t want to get caught at something, or it’s a personal gain to be had. Perhaps we are trying to make an impression on somebody about how wonderful we are. Peer pressure can sometimes paralyze the truth within us from coming out, because we’re more fearful of what people might think of us than what God thinks of us.

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters, if we have truly tasted God’s grace through Christ and we love our heavenly Father for what He’s done for us, don’t we want to please Him with our lives? Don’t we want to live in a responsive way that just says, “Thank you! I love you, Lord!” Remember the verse in Proverbs I quoted earlier: “Lying lips are an abomination to Lord, but those who act faithfully are His delight!” Truth telling is His delight when it comes from His children! We delight Him as we tell the truth. And not only that, it also strengthens our testimony for Jesus.

Jim Bjorge was writing a story in one of his books about a devout Christian man from his congregation for whom he was conducting a funeral. He was a concrete contractor. Following the service, one of those who knew this man well said to Bjorge, “Al was quite a guy! His word was always his bond.” Isn’t that what you want to have said about you? I know I want it said about me. There is a person whose word is his bond. He can be trusted!

So, how do I get stronger in this whole matter of being a truth teller. I’ll give you five ideas here to consider.

1. First we need to fully grasp how it breaks God’s heart when we lie at any level. Let that be your motivation if you love your Father. Lying breaks your heavenly Father’s heart! After all, Jesus, the Son of God, actually said to us, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Well, The Truth gave His life for you, and He is counting on you to dedicate your life to the truth – His truth – as well as all truths.

2. Fully grasp the damage a lie can do. Think about how it can hurt others and ourselves. Someone has said, I’m so glad people aren’t struck dead for lying like Ananias and Sapphira were back in that Acts story. Well, I’m not so sure it doesn’t happen. Maybe it’s not the death of the body, but I’ve seen the death of a marriage. Lying is a dry rot in every relationship and destroys it at its center. I’ve seen it!

It’s the death of a conscience, too. “The tragedy of the second lie is that it’s easier to tell than the first one,” someone has written.

I’ve seen the death of a promising career. An employee who was fired and arrested for embezzling. A businessman who cheated his customer by telling him something had been done, but it didn’t get it done.

The student who was booted out of school for cheating. I’ve seen the death of reputations. That man swindled somebody; he’s not to be trusted.

And last but not least, it can be the death of your witness, your testimony for Jesus Christ. If people can’t trust you with the day-to-day, how do you expect them to trust you about eternal matters? Who you are speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you’re saying.

3. Fully grasp how much work it is to tell a lie. After you’ve told the lie, you always need to cover for yourself. You are always straining to remember exactly what you said in order to not be caught in the lie.

4. Make a deliberate decision. Choose a day when you decide all forms of deceit stop. Draw a line in the sand for yourself. Why do that? Because it must begin with a decision made at a point in time. If you ask an alcoholic or an addict how they found sobriety, it always begins with a day when a decision was made at a point in time. “Enough is enough; life is out-of-control; I surrender. I don’t want to do this anymore. God help me.”

Maybe today is that day for you. Can you imagine what could happen if we, as people of God, in our congregation were known as people who didn’t distort? Those who were known for verbal precision, didn’t spin things, twist the truth, or exaggerate? If we were known as people of our word? Imagine who it could impact those who need to hear about Christ.

I invite you today to make a pledge to God. We can use this pledge that I came across if you want to draw the line in the sand today. The first part of it says, I serve a God who always, only, ever tells the truth.

How wonderful this truth is. It is what I love about God! He is faithful and true. He doesn’t do spin. When He says, “I love you,” it’s the truth. How do I know it’s the truth? Because each one of us has fallen short. He’s told us this about ourselves. And because we can’t fix ourselves, He gave us Jesus, who died on the cross to fix things for us, to make things right. God proved it is true when He raised His Son from the dead on Easter to prove it is true! Sin is taken care of.

He tells us to make a decision about it. Receive the gift He wants to give us in Christ. If you do, He will give you His power – Holy Spirit power – to transform your life. It’s the truth.

I serve a God who always, only, ever tells the truth! Therefore, from this day forward with His help, I pledge to become a person who always, only, ever tells the truth – with His help – not on my own power.

Are you ready to make a pledge like this? I invite you today – no pressure – to say this pledge with me –

“I serve a God who always, only, ever tells the truth.
From this day forward,
with God’s help,
I pledge to become a person,
who always, only, ever tells the truth.”

5. The good news is, you do not have to attempt being a truth teller on your own power. God has given us the equipment. He’s armed us with His Holy Spirit, for one thing.

He has also given us prayer. As we surrender ourselves and pray daily – one day at a time – about this whole matter, God promises to be with us and help us. So let’s pray right now . . .

Lord, we want stronger families and marriages. We want a strong, vibrant Church community. We want to be known as trustworthy in our homes and in our church, in our workplace and schools and various places where you placed us to be salt and light. Help us, o God, by Your Spirit to cultivate truthfulness in our own lives so we can influence others for Jesus. It’s in His name we ask this. Amen.

Fearless About Dying

I have learned three lessons about life so far.

1. Life moves fast – too fast! I am 62 years old. I can’t believe I am already that age! I have to wonder where all the time went.

2. Life is short. I am reminded of this in a variety of ways. For instance, perhaps you’ve had to say goodbye to a loved one in the past year as you laid them to rest. We had that experience in our family. Homer Larsen, my father-in-law, passed away last spring. It hurts. But those deaths also remind us of our own mortality. Someday it will be me. It awakens us.

We open the newspaper and see that life is short as we read the obituary of celebrities that we grew up admiring – sports figures, music heroes, great leaders – everyday names in our growing-up years. Now they’ve passed away. Then we do the math and realize, Hey! That person was my age!

Or you open your Bible and read, “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14). Not exactly a day brightener, is it? It is a reminder that I am dying – we are all dying from the day we were born.

3. Life is fragile. Lives get taken earlier than we expect sometimes. We’re shocked when we read of young people dying in car accidents, of a disease that can’t be cured, or by taking their lives by committing suicide.

This topic of dying bothers a lot of people. A book written years ago by Ernest Becker called Denial of Death talks about our fear of death and living in denial of it. Some of us have interesting ways of coping with it.

We use humor to make jokes about it. We’ve all heard funny stories about meeting Saint Peter at the pearly gates, and so on. Others go out and buy all kinds of books. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote a best-selling book in 1969, On Death and Dying, and since then a number of other best-selling books have been written on death.

Popular these days are near-death-experience books. It seems a new one is always out on the market. Recently a member of my congregation gave me a book called Proof of Heaven about a neurosurgeon who had a near-death experience. “You’ve got to read this!” he said. “Let’s talk about it when you’re done.” Trying to come to grips with death . . . .

Some turn to philosophers, but they’re not much help. Aristotle said, “Death is to be most feared because it appears to be the end of everything.” Robert Ingersoll said at the funeral of a friend, “Life is a narrow veil between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities. We strive in vain to look beyond the heights.” Françoise Rabelais’s final statement before he died was, “I go to seek a Great Perhaps.” We chuckle at Woody Allen: “I’m not afraid of dying; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” The question – What’s to become of me when I die? – has messed with a lot of people’s minds.

If death is messing with your mind, Jesus has a promise for you in John chapter 14. “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go and prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself that where I am, you may be also.” Jesus is making a very radical claim here.

We hear this verse now and then when we attend the funeral of a Christian, but it must have caused the jaws of those first disciples to drop. Jesus is making a radical claim about a feat He was going to accomplish that no one had ever done before. He was going to die and then rise from the grave! He also promises to come back to those who trust Him and rescue them from the grave. Quite a claim isn’t it? Not only does Jesus talk about an afterlife, but He also talks about a better life with the Father in the Father’s house!

I didn’t realize until recently that the language Jesus is using here – I go to prepare a place for you – would’ve been familiar words to those disciples. Those are words a young groom-to-be would say to his bride after having asked permission from the family to marry her. He would go home to his father’s house to prepare a place for her to come and live a new life. Jesus seems to be telling us that the drive to the cemetery is merely a walk down the aisle to the Bridegroom and a better life.

Some people question whether we can trust this promise. If you are wondering this, it would be good to check the evidence.

Last month we looked at the Easter story. It was a great celebration! The first thing we come across in the Easter story is an empty tomb. Everyone agrees – even the enemies of Jesus – the tomb was empty. Nobody moved the body. The enemies wouldn’t have removed it, because it would continue the whole possibility of Jesus being who He said He was. The disciples couldn’t have moved the body because an elite Roman guard was guarding the tomb. Everybody agrees – nobody argues – the tomb was empty.

Another interesting thing to notice is no one expected Jesus to rise from the dead. I’ve heard people say it was the power of hyper suggestion. These women and the disciples wanted to believe that Jesus was going to rise. Yet, when those women went out to the tomb that day with their spices to anoint the body of their dead Friend, they did not wonder if He was going to be there. He was DEAD, as far as they were concerned. The disciples thought the women were just dreaming these things up because they were tired. They were just seeing things. The disciples would not be so gullible.

Then there were Jesus’ appearances. Jesus appeared on the road to Emmaus, in the Upper Room, along the Sea of Galilee. The disciples must have begun to peek around city corners wondering if they would run into the risen Jesus.

In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul gives evidence to the Christians who were having some doubts and needing evidence. “He appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (I Cor. 15:6-8). Five hundred people at the same time! A hallucination? I don’t think so. He’s alive!

Paul goes on to say, “. . . Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of the resurrection (I Cor. 15:20).

And what about the evidence of those fearless disciples after Easter? Before they ran into the resurrected Christ, they hid in the Upper Room. It should been called the henhouse – they were chickens! However, after Easter they couldn’t be shut up. They literally laid down their lives for this Message. Would you do that for a lie, for a conspiracy you concocted?

Outside sources even talk of the cross and the resurrection of Jesus. Greater minds than mine have examined all the evidence. Some of the greatest legal minds have come to the same conclusion. It’s true – Jesus rose from the grave! The life of Jesus is bracketed by two impossibilities: a virgin’s womb and an empty tomb. He entered through a door marked “No Entrance” and left through a door marked “No Exit.”

Now, why is this so important?

Dr. Gary Habermas, who has a doctorate in Resurrection Studies, explains, “Every single shred of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is also evidence for my eventual resurrection.” Christ is the first fruits! The same Jesus who lived and died and rose again, promised us, “Because I live, you shall live also.” He also announced, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me though he dies, yet shall he live.” And then we have today’s promise: “In my Father’s house are many rooms. I go to prepare a place for you that where I am, you may be also.” He is risen! He is risen indeed!

The purpose of this message today is to help you. It is my full intention to help you move from fear about dying to faith. Yes, we’re all going to die. We will all breathe our last in this world. But the Power of heaven has unplugged grave’s power cord. We have nothing to fear now! Death is no longer a period, but a comma. It is no longer a wall, but a door through which we pass to be with the Savior for eternity. It is possible for us – right now – to face dying fearlessly.

This is what I want to put into your life today with this message – the ability to die bravely. Like this guy named Paul. Listen to this attitude: “So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we’d rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (II Cor. 5:6-8).

To some other friends Paul said, “For me to live is Christ but to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21) Of course you know that great verse to the Roman Christians, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 8:39).

Listen to Janet, a friend of mine who is dying of cancer. As she prepared for her final breath, she wrote me a letter of instruction for her funeral, and she said something remarkable in that letter. “The one thing I’ve learned in all of this is I’ve got it made! It’s the survivors who have it awful. I’m going to be okay. At my funeral, make sure you have a rocking version of that old song, Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King. And, Steve, make sure you make a strong pitch for the Gospel promises of Jesus Christ!”

That is what I’m doing today with you; I’m making a strong pitch for the Gospel.

What about you? You are my concern. If you were to die today, are you prepared? Life is moving fast; it’s short and fragile. A person can do so many things to prepare for death, like perhaps write a will or draw up a living will, buy a plot at a cemetery, even pick a few songs for your funeral service. I know some people who have a stone. Some people give me directions, and I keep them on file in my office. But I’m not talking about these things.

Are you ready for eternity? In the end, you see, it’s not what you have or what you’ve done; It’s all in Who you know. Jesus told His disciples, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6).

What is your relationship these days with Jesus Christ? He went to the cross and paid for your sins. His heavenly Father raised Him on the third day so the promises He made might be yours to count on. I encourage you to place your trust in Him today. If you haven’t ever done this before, ask Him into your life and trust Him for what He has done for you. Let Him give you this testimony:

♬And when I come to die,
and when I come to die,
and when I come to die,
Give me Jesus.

Give me Jesus,
Give me Jesus.
You can have all this world,
give me Jesus.♪

Don’t miss out on this! You can die bravely trusting in Jesus Christ. That is our Good News! Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer
Christian Crusaders