Mustard Seed Kingdom

Bible Reference: Matthew 13:31, 32

When Jesus burst on the public scene after His baptism, He said the Kingdom of God is here. By His presence, Jesus brought the reign of God and established it in a whole new way. In much of His ministry, Jesus taught us about the Kingdom of God. It is a bold thought to say God reigns over this world, over the events of time and eternity, and over people of all nations and cultures. But what does it mean for us, as believers in Jesus, to know we are embedded into this world and part of God’s growing kingdom?

Using Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed, I’d like to explore a little bit about how what is tiny will become huge, how the kingdom is organic, how God calls us to a unique type of holiness, that the Kingdom is inclusive, and that the Kingdom offers the ultimate refuge in the tree outside Jerusalem’s Gates.

Jesus used the tiniest seed – the mustard seed – to illustrate how it becomes a large tree in the garden, where Jesus says even the birds find shelter and build a nest. The Kingdom of God might seem small or experiencing setbacks, but it’s going to grow huge.

In American business many stories exist of small, meager beginnings becoming huge. For instance, Walt Disney began sketching animated characters in his garage before giving birth to the vision of Disney World. Did you know an electronics hacker named Steve Wozniak and his longtime friend Steve Jobs started building personal computers in their garage in 1976? It exploded to become the company we call Apple.

Or that in 1891, a 29-year-old man named William Wrigley, Jr. moved from Philadelphia to Chicago and began selling soap, offering baking powder as an incentive. His baking powder was so popular that he shifted to offering chewing gum as an incentive. The popularity of the gum made him again switch so that in 1893 he produced Juicy Fruit, which became the number one chewing gum in the country. Now a baseball field in Chicago, where the lovable losers – the Chicago Cubs – play. Their field, Wrigley field, bears his name.

A newly-married couple, Ruth and Elliot Handler, founders of Mattel, began manufacturing picture frames and used the remnant wood to build dollhouse furniture. They soon discovered the toy niche was a much more lucrative place to invest their energy, so they began manufacturing dollhouse furniture. Eventually that endeavor led them to sponsor a TV program called the Mickey Mouse Club. Then, in 1955, they released their iconic toy, the Barbie doll, and it is just went huge!

Let’s apply small becoming huge to the followers of Jesus. A small handful of disciples has now become a worldwide Church, the Body of Jesus Christ. It all began when Andrew (who had been a disciple of John the Baptist), invited his brother, Simon (whom Jesus would call Peter), saying, We found the Messiah. Come and see. A small band of twelve motley fishermen and blue-collar boys and a few women began to share the Good News of the Kingdom of God in the name of Jesus the Messiah. It is a kingdom of grace, a kingdom of hope that has spread to people of every nation, culture, color, and language, worldwide. Small can become big.

I just returned from a week of vacation at Big Wolf Lake near Bemidji in northern Minnesota. Every time I go there, the chiggers, deer flies, and mosquitoes start salivating; they love to feast on the body of Lee Laaveg. Chiggers are especially a problem to my poor legs. They eat in Norwegian delicacy food from my calves, thighs, and feet. Those little chiggers are so small, your eyes can’t even see them, but they have an amazing impact, impossible to ignore. That is a negative impact of small with huge indications.

However, that same week in Minnesota, as I was putting my grandson to sleep one night, I sang to him, “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam to shine for him each day,” and it occurred to me that, while those insects have such a negative impact, the opposite could also be true. If every child could hear and understand the invitation of Jesus to shine like a little sunbeam of love and light in their circle of life, they could offer hope to the whole world.

Dear believers in Jesus Christ, Jesus invites you to be a little sunbeam of light, grace, and hope. If each of us who own the name of Jesus, would shine with that kind of love, it would have a worldwide impact. We look around us today and find much that discourages us. We wonder if the Christian Church, the Body of Christ, is going to lose. However, the message of this Mustard Seed Kingdom says no. What began small will spread to the world, and the reign of God will prevail. Jesus is Lord, and in the end, Jesus wins.

The Kingdom of God like a mustard seed; it is organic in life. It is continually growing and active. It is not always visible, but God’s Spirit – the power of life – is making it happen. It is not programmatic in technique. It’s not a political platform or agenda. The Kingdom of God cannot be established by military force or strength. You can’t legislate it. It’s like the mustard seed planted in the dirt. By the power of God’s Spirit, it emerges with life that cannot be suppressed. The Kingdom of Jesus Christ will grow. It is a power of life outside of human capacity. It is God’s power, and you cannot stop that which God gives life.

Third, God’s Mustard Seed Kingdom is the call of the Spirit to holiness, Qodesh. The ancient Jewish understanding of holiness had to do with separating. It’s understandable that God would want the tiny nation of Israel, which was sandwiched between great empires who wanted to swallow up and assimilate them, to be qodesh, separate, a distinctive identity crucial for their survival as God’s people. Eventually it led to a whole Jewish life permeated in purity codes. If you didn’t stay pure according to the legal code, you could no longer be part of the worshiping community.

But I believe Jesus ushered in a whole different understanding of holiness. I came to understand this new revelation as I read from the book, “If Grace Is True,” written by Quaker pastors Philip Gulley and James Mulholland. They write, “Holiness is God’s ability to confront evil without being defiled. God’s holiness doesn’t require him to keep people at arm’s length. In fact, evil cannot alter God’s love, for his gracious character is beyond corruption.

“That’s what it means to say God is holy. His love is incorruptible. Holiness and love are not competing commitments. God is love, and His love endures forever. That enduring love is what makes God holy. No manner of evil done to us or by us can separate us from God’s love. God transforms His morally imperfect children through the power of His perfect love. Our experience of God’s love inspires us to holiness. So when Jesus says, ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect, He’s not talking about moral purity.

“In the same verses, Jesus says, ‘Love your enemy. So moral purity or holiness is not a demonstration of God’s character, rather His extravagant love. We are like God in holiness not when we are morally pure, but when we are extravagant and gracious in love.”

So the Parable of the Mustard Seed at heart is a teaching not about separation, but about radical inclusivity. It’s a parable about inviting all the barriers to come down and all people to be included. Jesus, remember, said that the mustard seed grows to be a mustard tree, and that all the birds find their shelter in its branches.

Israel, a nation of 70 x 270 miles, has 400 species of birds. Israel is in the main bird migration part of the world. I think of a phrase in the Psalms, “Yea, the sparrow has found her a place where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O Lord God of Hosts . . .” (Ps. 84:3).

So every species of bird (every person) is invited. We might find some birds to be attractive and desirable and some to be repulsive. If I say eagle, you think majestic, strong, wonderful. If I say vulture, you probably want to throw up. If I say hawk, you are attracted; if I say crow you’re repelled. If I say bluebird, robin, goldfinch, or lark you would say, Wonderful! Listen to their songs. But if I said grackle, you might say get hmm, get him out of here. We judge what is attractive and desirable, and what is not.

We do the same thing with people. We desire certain people to be welcomed into the Kingdom of God and some to be not. But just like the birds of the air, how many of them did God create? All, of course. How many of them does God love? All of them! Jesus says all the birds are welcome to find shelter in the branches of the mustard tree. All the species that migrate through Israel in their diversity, all can find shelter and refuge in the tree that begins with the most meager and tiny beginnings.

Jesus makes it clear that although the invitation is inclusive, it is exclusive in that it is in the name of Jesus we are all invited to be part of the Kingdom of God. Acts 4:12 tells us that there is no name given under heaven except the name of Jesus whereby people might be saved.

So it is in the profound truth of Jesus the Son of God coming to the world and being embedded into the evil and the dirt and the brokenness of this world that He Who is the Seed of Life gives birth to a new kingdom. The smallest of beginnings grows to the entirety of created order and is reconciled to God.

Ultimately I want to talk with you about another kind of tree that God has planted. That is the tree upon which the Son of God hung and died, where He bled to take away the sins of the world. “Cursed is the one who hangs upon the tree,” it says in Scripture. Jesus took the curse upon Himself, into His body as the Savior of the world. You need never carry your shame nor let your guilt or imperfection keep you from believing that in the invite of God’s love, you are safe in His arms.

It is on the cross of the tree of Calvary planted on a place called Golgotha outside the gates of Jerusalem that you’re invited. All people – no matter who you are, no matter where you’ve been, no matter what you’ve done – in the love of God, the cross of Jesus Christ rises up and towers over creation and eternity and all peoples. And Jesus on the cross opens His arms and extends them wide to say, “Whosoever will, come. Come unto me all who are weary and heavy laden. I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).

In the name of Jesus we find rest and grace and new life. In the name of Jesus, the blood spilled from Immanuel’s veins becomes the seed drops in the created soil that gives birth to the reconciliation of the whole world.

You are invited to find your hope in the tree of life, the cross of Calvary upon which the Prince of Glory died. His name is Jesus, and He has now been raised from the dead to offer you to come today and believe that, in Him, you have security and refuge and life.

May you believe in Jesus, and may you find refuge in Jesus forever. Amen.

Rev. Lee Laaveg

A Song for Answered Prayer

Bible Reference: Psalm 116

I have some good news for you today: God answers prayer! He attests to it in Scripture – both Old and New Testament. We hear Jesus say, “Ask and it will be given you; seek and you shall find; knock and the door will be opened unto you” (Luke 11:9). We hear testimonies of people who have prayed and God answered. I imagine many of you have stories to tell of God’s faithfulness to you in answering your prayers. The truth in all of this is God does not operate with a hands-off policy toward this world. He not only hears us when we call upon Him, but He is also active in His creation.

Martin Luther, in his definition of the first article in our Apostles’ Creed, has written that when we profess, I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, we are saying, “I believe God has created me and all that exists. He has given me and still preserves my body and soul with all their powers. He has provided me with food and clothing, home and family, daily work in all I need from day-to-day. God also protects me in time of danger and guards me from every evil.”

God is present. He hears prayer. He is active in this world. He answers prayer. This is good news for the likes of you and me, because we are sinners – sometimes very lost, helpless sheep – continually needing help in life.

Psalm 116 tells us God answers prayer. In fact, it is a story about an answered prayer. It begins, “I love the Lord.” When was the last time you said, “I love the Lord”?

Why? Because He heard my prayers and rescued me. The story is, the songwriter was once deathly sick. “The snares of death encompassed me.” He was on the edge of dying.

He was emotionally suffering as well. “I suffered distress and anguish.” He was a nervous wreck, hopeless and helpless.

“Then I called upon the name of the Lord. O Lord, deliver me!” He knew God’s character. He is gracious, righteous, and merciful. When I was at my lowest, God saved me.
So relax! Trust in God even when days are dark. Look how good He’s been to you!

And he talks to God, “You have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling. You took care of my every need; I trust in You. I knew I could count on You, Lord. As bad as things were, I never stopped believing in You.

Then this testimony is finished in the song, and a second stanza begins. Love like this calls for a response. So the psalmist asks, “What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits to me?”

The old gospel song, “My Tribute,” begins like this: How can I say thanks for the things you have done for me? Things so undeserved . . .” This is what our psalmist is asking today – How can I say thanks? He answers his own rhetorical question with a list of things he intends to do. I will call upon Him as long as I live. Whether the times are good or times are bad, I will trust God in all things and turn to Him.

I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living. In other words, I will live my life for Him – an audience of one – my God. I will live my life out before Him seeking to bring Him pleasure.

I will go to worship the Lord; I am going to church! And when I am there, “I will lift up the cup of salvation,” which is what they did in those days. (It is a Thanksgiving type of cup.) “And call on the name of the Lord.” In other words, I’ll raise my cup and make a toast to God. I want everyone to hear that God is due my gratitude. He has done a great thing in my life!

“I will pay my vows to the Lord . . .” (This is our way of saying I will give my offering of thanks), “. . . in the presence of his (God’s) people (meaning in worship).”

“O Lord, I am your servant.” From this day on, I want to serve you. I will testify to your greatness and grace in the service and give thanks to you for what you’ve done in my life in front of my fellow worshipers. And Lord, when I am outside of the church building, when I am out in the courts, I will share what you have done for me with others. I want everyone to know about your faithfulness to me so they can be built up in their own faith or start believing in you.

This is how we say thank you to the Lord for answered prayers. We keep praying and trusting in God. We play our lives out for an audience of one – the God who saved us in Christ. We commit ourselves to serving Him, to being the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. We worship Him by offering not only ourselves but also our resources to further His cause so all might know the greatness of God. We go public for Him and fearlessly tell others about what He has done in our lives. This is how we say thanks for answered prayers.

It is so easy to take answered prayers for granted and move on to the next thing that has captured our attention, or to even act less than gracious.

I’m reminded of a humorous story about a mother and son who lived in a forest. One day they were surprised by a tornado. The mother clung to a tree and tried to hold onto to her son, but the swirling winds carried him into the sky, and he was gone. The woman began to weep and prayed, “Please, O Lord, bring my boy back. He’s all I have. I’d do anything to not lose him. If you bring him back, I’ll serve you all my days.”

Suddenly, the boy toppled from the sky, right at her feet, a bit mussed up, but safe and sound. His mother joyfully brushed him off and hugged him. Then she stopped for a moment, looked up to the sky and said, “He had a hat, Lord.”

What do you think of this kind of response to answered prayer? There is a better way. Listen to this modern-day story about responding with thanks to answered prayer.

Ten years ago Bob’s life was totally out of control. Bob, you see, was addicted to alcohol. He could not stop drinking, and it was wrecking his life. He was losing everything: his home, his family, his job, and his health. He was killing himself with his drinking.

One day, a Christian friend, who was also an alcoholic, invited Bob to attend an AA meeting. Bob agreed to go, and continued to attend with his friend. During those meetings, Bob learned about twelve steps to help him gain sobriety. One of the steps told him he needed to admit his life was totally out of control. He needed to surrender himself to God’s care.

Finally, Bob prayed to God for help to stop drinking and build a new life without alcohol. It has now been ten years. Bob continues to attend his meetings and work the program. He counts on God daily, living one day at a time, asking for God’s help to not drink. He will humbly tell you that God saved his life. I’ve heard him say it. These days, Bob makes himself available to help others find sobriety. He inspires them as he shares his story of redemption with other alcoholics who are looking for hope and for help.

Another story. H. B. Charles, who is a pastor, tells about a woman who showed up at his church and prayed the same simple prayer each week: “O Lord. Thank you, Jesus!” The kids at church laughed every time she opened her mouth, because they knew it would be the same prayer – ‘O Lord. Thank you, Jesus!’

“Finally somebody asked her why she prays the same prayer. She replied, ‘Well, I’m just combining the two prayers I know. You see, we live in a bad neighborhood. Some nights bullets are flying, and I have to grab my daughter and hide on the floor. In that desperate state, all I know to do is cry out, ‘O Lord!’ But when I wake up in the morning and see we’re okay, I say, ‘Thank you, Jesus!’

“When I take my baby to the bus stop, and she gets on the bus for school, I don’t know what’s going to happen to her while she’s away. So I cry ‘O Lord.’ Then, when 3:00 p.m. rolls around, the bus arrives, and my baby gets off safe, I say, ‘Thank you, Jesus!’ Those are the only two prayers I know.

“When I get to church, God has been so good, so I just put my two prayers together. ‘O Lord. Thank you, Jesus!’” Just like the psalmist, isn’t it.

God is not a lonely soul who needs our thanks in order to keep His composure and continue His gracious works in our lives. But He does deserve our gratitude, and we need to give thanks to Him in order that we might retain a proper perspective and balance, and a sense of values in this world in which we live. We need to remember who really is the life giver.

God answers prayer. Do you give Him thanks?

This Psalm, by the way, is about a guy who was saved from death. He makes an interesting statement about God and death near the end of the song. The words go like this:

Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.

Our death matters to God. Death is not our friend. It matters to God so much that He sent His only Son, Jesus Christ, to die upon a cross and rise again so you and I could be rescued from death as we trust in Christ.

The follower of Jesus has this sure and certain hope that the psalmist didn’t even know. We can shout, “Death is swallowed up in victory. Oh, death, where is your victory? Oh, death, where is thy sting?” (I Cor. 15:55). O saints in Christ (and that is what you are if you trust in Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior), when you and I arrive at the gate of death, we will simply be passing safely through to the God who loves us and will welcome us home to the place He has prepared for us. This is our good news!

Thanks be to God for His inexpressible gift – salvation from sin and death and the power of the evil one through His Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and our Lord! Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer

A Song for Remembering Our Purpose

Bible Reference: Psalm 67

Last year a book was published that was entitled Mission Drift – The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders Charities and Churches. I found it to be a thought-provoking and challenging read.

One particular quote that interested me in this book is a warning: “Without careful attention, faith-based organizations will inevitably drift from their founding mission.” The authors had some case studies to prove their point. Para church organizations such as Christian Children’s Fund, which eventually became Child Fund International, started out strong with a Christian emphasis, but then came the drift.

The YMCA was another case study. It was founded on Christian principles in England – the Young Men’s Christian Association. By 2010, it had dropped everything in its title but the “Y.” Drift.

Now this should be no surprise to us as God’s people. It happened to Israel, for instance, in the Old Testament. They were called to be a light to the nations of the world, yet by the end of the Old Testament, they were pretty much in survival mode, looking out for themselves instead of reaching to others. It happened in the New Testament Church as well. Some of the Epistles warn against it. In the book of Revelation, we see Jesus chiding various congregations for their drift.

It also happens in today’s Church. We wind up just doing church, going through the motions. There is a loss of vision, a mission creep that happens. Wrong motivations kick in. We start out like gang busters with such good intentions, but years later we’re just trying to survive.

A drift also happens in the life of individual followers of Jesus Christ. When an evangelical emphasis is placed on a personal relationship with Jesus, which is a good thing, we can have a tendency to make Christian faith about me and Jesus – too bad about the rest of the world. We’re all prone to drift.

I want to examine a text from God’s Word that I believe will prove helpful to stave off mission drift and keep us anchored to our purpose. It can help put us on a new trajectory. In fact, because our sense of mission leaks, I recommend you read it on a daily basis.

I’m talking about Psalm 67, which has been referred to by the church as the”Missionary Psalm.” It begins with a prayer, a throwback to a blessing given by Aaron the priest to God’s people on their way to the Promised Land.

May God be gracious to us (extend His favor upon us)
and bless us (provide for our needs),
and make his face shine upon us (keep His eye on us and smile).

So far this prayer doesn’t sound like it has anything to do with what we’ve been talking about. In fact, it sounds quite self-centered. But the Psalm doesn’t end there. It goes on to give the purpose for asking for the blessing.

That your way be known upon the earth,
your saving power among the nations.

The key word in this Psalm is that.
That your way would be known upon the earth, your saving power among all the nations.
That all the peoples would praise you.
That the nations would be glad and sing for joy and enjoy you, God.
That all the ends of the earth would fear you (which means revere God as the authority).

Lord, bless us so that the nations may be blessed. The prayer is not saying, Bless us so that we can be comfortable, or Bless us so that we don’t have to work so hard to make a living. No. It’s saying, Bless us so that we can be a blessing to all the peoples. It implies that God will bless His people as we bless the nations. The blessings flow through. The world, you see, is God’s concern. You’ve heard the song, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”? I think we ought to rewrite it as, He’s Got the Whole World in His Plan.

Psalm 67 actually reflects the promise God made to Abraham, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. . . . and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3). God cares about the whole world. He wants everyone to worship him.

▸ After the rescue from slavery in Egypt, God promised the Israelites, “I have called you to be my treasured possession. If you keep my command, you will be a holy nation, a kingdom of priests among the peoples” (Exodus 19:5-6).
▸ In Isaiah 49:6, He reminds them, “I’ve given you as a light to the nations that my salvation shall reach to the ends of the earth.”
▸ After Jesus turned the Temple upside down in the New Testament, He said, “You have turned my Father’s house into a den of thieves when it was meant to be a house of prayer for the nations.”
▸ He talked of God so loving the world in His conversation with Nicodemus.
▸ In his second letter, Peter says, “The Lord does not wish that anyone should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
▸ John had a vision in Revelation 7:9, “Before me a great nation was gathered, and every tribe and every nation and every tongue under heaven was praising, giving glory to God.”
▸ After Jesus rose from the dead and met with His disciples, He said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18, 19).

Do you think God answered the prayer in Psalm 67? Did He keep His promise to bless Abraham with land and descendants, to be a blessing to the nations of the world? You bet He did! He gave Israel land. Abraham’s descendants became a great nation. The family tree in Matthew one explains God’s fulfillment of His promise to make Israel a blessing to the nations of the world. When Jesus Christ entered our world, He did it for Israel and for us – to make us a blessing. He blessed us with the Gospel so that we might be a blessing to the nations of the world.

What is the Gospel? We were once lost in our sinfulness far from God. However, in His love and grace, God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, into this world. He lived the perfect life of perfect obedience, which made Him the perfect sacrifice. He was nailed to a cross to pay the penalty for humanity’s sins and restore us in a relationship with our heavenly Father. The promise is sure – that whoever places their trust in Jesus shall have everlasting life and a restored relationship with the God who loves them. This is how we have been blessed.

Let me ask you a personal question today. Have you personally been blessed by the Gospel message in your life? Have you received Jesus Christ? Are you walking in a personal relationship with Jesus? God wants you to have that blessing.

If you have received Christ, your status has been changed. You are no longer part of the mission field. You are now part of God’s missionary force to rescue His world. Psalm 67 is our theme song!

I love what John Piper, another preacher of the gospel, says in regard to this Psalm. “When the psalmist says, ‘Let all the people praise you,’ he means, ‘Let all the peoples know there is one true and living God, and let them stop praising and serving other gods.’ If this were not true (if this were not the true purpose of God), missions would be the most audacious and presumptuous enterprise in the world. But if this is true, then missions are the humble, daring, obedient response of a people who love those who are perishing.

Psalm 67 serves as a reminder to the church, to ministries like Christian Crusaders, and to individual followers such as yourself of our true purpose in life. We are all Christ’s missionaries right where we are. On call. We as the Church of Jesus Christ do not ultimately exist for us. The Church is the only organization that exists for the sake of those who aren’t in it yet. The Church is about those who have yet to come to worship the God who has revealed Himself to us in His Son Jesus Christ.

Our mission and our prayer, as followers of Jesus, could be restated in the words of this Psalm. Lord, bless Your Church that Your Way, Truth, and Life – Jesus Christ – may be known among the earth. That the nations would know Your saving power and trust in Christ. That all the peoples would praise You for what You have done. That everyone would be glad and sing for joy as You reign over us and guide the nations. That all the earth would revere You. That day will come. Your kingdom come. But as we wait, Lord, bless us that we might be a blessing, a shining light, to the nations.

David Platt, a modern-day Christian writer, says, “We are prone, as Christians, to disconnect God’s blessing in our lives from God’s purpose for our lives.”

I came across a story shared by Tony Campolo, who is a preacher I have enjoyed in the past. He tells about attending his ten-year high school reunion and seeing all his old friends.

“My best friend was there. We played basketball together on the team. We ate together every lunch hour going through high school. When we saw each other and started talking, he got all excited and said, ‘The most wonderful thing has happened to me this past year, Tony. I’ve become a Christian!’ He went on and on about what joy he had walking with Christ in his life.

Tony broke in and said, ‘I’m so glad you are a Christian. I’m a Christian too!’

Jerry asked him, ‘When did you become a Christian?’

‘Well, when I was a kid, a child.’

Then Jerry said to Tony, ‘Wait a minute. If you were a Christian when we were in high school together, how come you never told me about Jesus? How come you never introduced me to Christ?’”

Tony didn’t know what to say to him. We are prone to disconnect God’s blessing in our lives from God’s purpose for our lives.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we have been blessed with the most profound life-changing gift and message the world will ever receive. But it needs to not only be protected and enjoyed by ourselves, but also propelled into our neighborhoods, our communities, our workplaces, our broken nation, and our broken world. While you and I need to hear this Gospel story again and again each week when we gather for worship, let us not forget that the society in which we live needs to hear the blessing too.

I am afraid a dangerous drift is happening in the Church of Jesus Christ. A consummeristic attitude is taking over. The Church has become about me and my preferences. Serve me. What will you give me if I join your church? Feed me. See to my comforts. Grow my family and my personal walk with Christ. It’s all about me!

I am reminded of a story I came across about a young kid who was interviewing for a movie usher job. The manager asked during the interview, “Suppose there were a fire – what would you do?” The kid replied, “Don’t worry about me. I’d get out okay!”

This is how we respond sometimes. What would you do if Jesus came back tomorrow? Don’t worry about me. I’d be okay.

BUT YOU’RE AN USHER! It isn’t enough just to get out yourself, you are responsible for helping others get out. Lord help us if we take our eyes off our mission statements. Christian Crusaders is here to proclaim Jesus Christ as Savior and Redeemer of the world. My church at Shepherd of the Valley is here to connect all people to Jesus Christ in a growing relationship with Him. We are to bring all peoples to not only have a saving knowledge of Christ, but also to worship Him. This is the great vision Jesus has given us.

Now, let me get personal with you. Have you personally embraced God’s purpose for your life? Have you said, Yes, Lord. At this particular time and place I am committed to play my part in the great redemptive drama to see that You, my God, are known, praised, enjoyed, and feared among the nations. Are you willing to give generously of your resources to reach others with the Good News of Jesus Christ? Since God has blessed you with so much, are you willing to give it to Him? Are you available?

Ask yourself, Am I prepared to tell the story of Jesus Christ if I were given the opportunity? Am I training myself? Am I walking my neighborhood and praying for my neighbors that they would come to know Christ and be blessed by God? Are you willing to let your desk at work serve as a lighthouse for Jesus Christ?

I recently had a wonderful conversation with a young man who is 22 years old. He told me of the blessings he has been experiencing in his life lately. “I have a great woman whom I love. I have got it a great job. I just love it! Now I’m moving into a house, and I never could have dreamed this would happen for me. My only fear now is I might blow it.” When I asked what he meant, he replied, “I don’t want to get so wrapped up in my blessings that I forget God’s purpose for my life.” I say Amen to that! I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to blow it either.

Years ago, my father was coming to town to golf with me. Since I am a terrible golfer, I took a lesson to learn how to drive before he arrived. When the day came, my father had me go first. I took a swing at the ball – and missed it completely. Instead, a spray of ants filled the air.

Dad let me try again. So I took another swing – and there sat the ball. Even more ants were now dead.

As I kneeled down to put my ball back on the tee again, I overheard some noise below me. So I put my ear to the ground and heard two ants talking to each another. “If we’re going to stay alive, we’d better get on the ball.”

Church of Jesus Christ, if you’re going to make a difference moving people toward Christ, if we’re going to stay alive and vital for the cause of Jesus Christ, we’d better get on the ball! Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer
Christian Crusaders

A Song for Those in the Depths

Bible Reference: Psalm 130

A middle-aged man from my congregation visited me in my office a while back. I could tell something was wrong when he walked in. He looked tired, a little nervous, and a little sad. He said he didn’t know where else to turn. He talked of how he was feeling depressed and overwhelmed by various things going on in his life – everything from work pressures to his aging parents.

I listened as carefully as I could. At one point though, when he mentioned some tension at home, I happened to hit upon the right question, and it came out that his marriage was on the rocks. He confessed he had been unfaithful to his wife of many years. She’d found out and was very angry with him.

At first, he tried to rationalize the relationship and play it down as not a big deal. After all, it wasn’t a physical affair; it was just emotional. Perhaps his wife was just overreacting. Besides, if things were better home, maybe this sort of thing wouldn’t have happened to him. But the more he talked and the more I prodded, it became obvious – this man had a tortured soul. He had done something wrong. He knew it, and he was wallowing in the depths of guilt.

Guilt happens to all of us. I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to really mess things up. I am a sinner, and I’m prone to look out for “number one”. I’m full of pride, capable of cutting words, impure thoughts, and selfish actions. Now and then I tell my congregation, If you knew me like I know me, you wouldn’t want to come and hear me preach. But then again, if I knew you like you know you, I probably wouldn’t want to.

Even some of the biggest names in Christianity have had their falling out from grace. They’ve participated in various indiscretions and then tearfully confessed their sins to the public telling how sorry, guilt-ridden, and full of shame they feel. The truth is, however, we are all in the same boat. We all sin.

John has it right when he says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us . . .” (I John 1:8). We all sin, but what we do with our sin is what matters.

Some people try to ignore it. Others act rather flippantly about it. Some rationalize it. Some blame others. Some make comparisons to others (I’m not as bad as that person). All these excuses are dangerous and unwise for our spiritual health. They can pull us down into the depths just like the man I described in the opening paragraphs of this message.

Have you ever been at a place in your life where you felt totally lousy over some sinfulness in your life? Then Psalm 130 is for you. You see, it teaches us a healthy way to handle our sin and guilt.

It begins by turning to God. Listen to the songwriter’s emotional cries to God.

“Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD! O Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!”

This man sounds quite miserable as he cries for mercy, doesn’t he. He’s in the depths, he’s depressed, and he’s feeling far from God. He cries out in an agonizing way: God, come on! Hear me. I’m calling out to you! I need your help!

What problem has gotten him to the state that put him into the depths? Is it sickness? I don’t think so. Is it his enemies like in some of the other lament Psalms? No. Listen to these words as he goes on . . .

“If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities (sin), O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.”

This psalmist is overcome with guilt and sorrow over his sinfulness. He refers to them as his iniquities. He’s looking for forgiveness.

For a long time, the Church has classified Psalm 130 as a Penitential Psalm. It is assigned to be read during the first Sunday in Lent, which is a season of penitence. It is a prayer for those of us who are repentant over our sins. If you should mark iniquities, he says, If you would keep a record book of all my sins, no one who could stand before you, O God, for we are all sinners! He admits he doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

I’m reminded of Psalm 32, which was written by King David after his affair with Bathsheba. He was emotionally distraught. “When I kept silent about my sins, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For days and nights your hand was heavy upon me. My strength was dried up as in the heat of summer.” He was convicted of his sinfulness.

The Psalm writer has done a very wise thing. He calls to God for forgiveness. “But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared,” (feared meaning to be worshiped, revered, and served).

I know you are a forgiving God, he says. This is a faith statement, based on Israel’s long history. God has always proven to be forgiving. He operates with the policy of forgiveness, being slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. This guy knows he ultimately needs God’s forgiveness in his life if he’s going to move on.

Martin Luther placed forgiveness at the center of all God’s gifts. “Where there is forgiveness of sins, there is life and salvation.” We have a new lease on life; a new life has been breathed into us.

The prayer moves on to express the Psalmist’s affirmation of trust. Having confessed, he says,

“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.”

Notice those words – In His Word I hope! Studies of the Psalms say these words are a pronouncement – perhaps made by a Hebrew priest. It is an absolution of sorts after the admission of his need for forgiveness from sin.

Perhaps. Or was the writer was simply reflecting upon God’s promises to always love and forgive. Maybe he was thinking about the past.

I’m reminded of a story about John Wesley, the great founder of Methodism. On May 24, 1738, Wesley was depressed. He had been wrestling with spiritual questions. Was faith alone enough for his salvation? If so, could a man be converted instantaneously?

That afternoon, in the midst of this pondering at London’s St. Paul Cathedral, Wesley heard an anthem sung based on Psalm 130, which opened up his heart. “Out of the depths of long distressed, the borders of despair . . .” Wesley was greatly moved, because this anthem was telling his personal story.

That afternoon he happened to attend a meeting in a chapel on Aldersgate Street, and he heard a reading from the introduction to Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans, which really focused on God’s grace and forgiveness. He reported that he felt his heart strangely warmed. It was a turning moment for him. He had taken the leap from verse one in this Psalm – out of the depths – to verse five – and in his word I hope.

By the way, the word hope doesn’t mean wishful thinking in this context. It means absolute confidence. This song writer is saying, “I have absolute confidence in God’s grace and forgiveness.”

But he also is saying he is waiting. Waiting for what? He is waiting for the Lord to step into his life again, to make His presence known, and to help him face the rest of life with Him, and to be Immanuel, God with us. He’s waiting – “like a watchman waits for the morning.” It’s like a guard on the midnight shift who knows dawn is coming for certain! A new day lies ahead. As sure as the morning sun will rise, you can count on the Lord.

Again, we’re hearing words of trust. A conviction is being voiced in these words. God is actively involved in His creation, and He’s at work in our redemption. He’s not a hands-off God who is far away, who wound up the world and left it to run on its own like an alarm clock. No, He is God with us. Active. Not even the depths of the writer’s despair is out of bounds for this God. Neither heights nor depths nor anything else in all creation can separate him from the love of God.

Finally, as so often happens in these lament Psalms, the psalmist makes an appeal to the people of Israel to turn in repentance and trust God with their lives and their future. Hear these words:

“O Israel, put your hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love and full redemption.
And he will redeem Israel from all their sins.”

Some biblical scholars have wondered if this Psalm was actually written during the time of Nehemiah when Israel was in exile. Upon hearing that the city of Jerusalem lay in ruins, Nehemiah prayed, cried, fasted, and confessed his and the people’s sins to the Lord asking for God’s forgiveness, redemption, and help.

The picture seems to fit the scenario. After confessing his own sin, the writer turns to Israel. O Israel, hope in the Lord with me. Why? Because with the Lord is steadfast love. God’s love is like the prophet Hosea’s love for his wife. When he discovered she was unfaithful, and he kept loving her anyway, and begged her to come back.

God’s love is like the father in the Prodigal Son parable. Though his son ran away from home and broke his father’s heart, the father kept loving him. When the boy came to his senses and went home, he was welcomed with open arms.

The psalmist says, With Him is plenteous redemption, and He will redeem Israel from all her sins. The word redeem is a marketplace word meaning a payment being made to rescue someone who had fallen into slavery. Israel’s redemption is plenteous. God has plenty of grace to go around, no matter how grave their sin. This Psalm seems to be saying, No matter how deeply you are mired in your guilt and despair, you can cry out to God for mercy and forgiveness. He will redeem you.

This Psalm has a lot of emotional movement. The writer moves from darkness to light, from the depths to the heights, from despair to hope. My dear friend, so can you. This is our Good News. We have forgiveness with God for He has kept His word to redeem Israel (and us). Listen to the words of Zechariah the priest after the birth announcement of John the Baptist. He talks of Jesus, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel for he has visited and redeemed his people” (Luke 1:68). John the Baptist later cried out, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” (John 1:28).

Jesus talked of himself as coming to rescue the lost sheep of Israel. Listen to Paul’s words: “He (God) has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13-14). Jesus came into the world, lived the perfect life of obedience, and went to the cross while we were lost in our sinfulness. He paid the price for our sins that we might be redeemed. By trusting in Him, we have forgiveness for sins and eternal life.

This Psalm has truth for you and me as we face times of guilt and sorrow over sin. No matter how deep you’ve gotten in over your head, no matter how low your life has sunk, no matter how badly you messed up, you are never out of the range of God’s love and forgiveness. Turn to Him, for with Him there is forgiveness.

I encourage you to consider the last line of this Psalm as a personal invitation to confess and receive forgiveness and redemption. You can put your own name in there. O Israel (O Steve, O Bill, O Mary, O Dorothy), put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is steadfast love and full redemption. And the Lord will redeem you from all your sins. Trust in that one.

By the way, the man I talked about earlier asked God for forgiveness that day, and he asked Jesus to help him in his marriage. We prayed together, he confessed his sins to God, and when we opened our eyes, I pronounced absolution. He had tears in his eyes. As he walked out of my office, he felt relieved and was ready to put his marriage together with God’s help. Then he went home to ask for forgiveness from his wife. God is working with him and his wife to this day to rebuild their marriage.

Praise God for his plenteous redemption. Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer