A New Heart

Ezekiel 36:26-29a

In physical life, emotional life, relational life, and spiritual life the heart is absolutely essential. February is often spoken of as the month of love. Because of Valentine’s Day, we emphasize love between men and women in a romantic sense, but it’s a good month for us to remember all expressions of love, matters of the heart. In I John 4:7, 8 it says, “Beloved, let us love one another for love is of God and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

The heart is essential to the expression of love in human life. A song in a musical says, “You gotta have heart. Miles and miles and miles of heart.” Our heart is physically critical – pumping blood in our circulation systems. The heart is vital to good health, to strength of energy, to stamina. No wonder the Bible uses the term “cardia” (translated heart) more than one thousand times.

The heart is our emotional center ranging from joy to sorrow, from turmoil and inner storm to peace, from feeling troubled inside to rejoicing, from be filled with love to being consumed with selfish ambition and lust. We might be filled with fear or have a deep trust of the heart. We might be full of pride or humility. We might be discouraged to lose heart or encouraged to take heart.

People speak of the heart as the seat of our desire, the source of our passions. It might be envy or lust. If the passion is directed to the One who gave us life – God – people would say, I seek the Lord my God with all my heart.

How is your heart today? The heart is a place of understanding, wisdom, and insight. It is also spoken of as our moral center. When Peter preached on Pentecost Day, he talked about how the sinfulness of humanity has caused the death of Jesus, the Son of God, on the cross. Scripture says the people were “cut to the heart.” They had a conviction of their responsibilities, their sinfulness, and they asked Peter, “What should we do?” Peter responded, “Repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

The heart is important to our relationship with God. Jesus once said, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” As I prepared to share this message, I read an article by Mark DeJesus who wrote, “8 Signs You Have a Broken Heart.”

The first sign he listed was someone has an untrusting approach to relationships. All too often we can have promises made that are violated. Somebody might abandon us, and as a result of people’s lies and deception, we have difficulty trusting in relationships.

Another sign we might have a broken heart is that we have unrelenting struggles with fear and anxiety and worry. We’re just paralyzed by those fears because we’ve been hurt too often in the past.

The third sign that your heart is broken is you have a hard time processing love, either in the giving of love or the receiving of love from someone when it’s offered to you. Again, almost as a way to protect our emotional vulnerability, we shut off the spigot of our love and we don’t give it or allow it to penetrate our inner soul.

Another sign that our heart might be broken is if we react in a volatile way, especially a dominant feeling of anger. It’s like we’ve been hurt so often, disillusioned so often, that it is our immediate response.

The fifth thing that DeJesus said is, “You have a broken heart if your body begins to break down.” He quotes Proverbs 17:22, “A merry heart does good like medicine for the soul, but a broken heart dries up the bones.”

Have you ever met someone who is seemingly healthy in every way except for the fact that they have been through some emotional trauma and, as a result of comprehensive physical health, was suffering? Often our hearts are broken when we are stuck in dysfunctional patterns of life. We may even find those patterns of behavior to be undesirable and unhealthy, yet we still continue to do those same old stupid things. Maybe it’s because our heart is broken. Perhaps we become robotic, very mechanical in our approach to life. We simply go through the motions.

The eighth sign you may have a broken heart is that you are a human. A broken heart is a universal part of life’s experience. We live in a broken world with broken, imperfect people, and it’s only a matter of time before somebody crushes our heart. So, in matters of the heart, we need God to heal us. Only He can do it.

Jeremiah 17:9 tells us that we have sick hearts. “The heart is deceitful above all else and desperately sick. Who can understand it?” In AA recovery circles, they speak of this weak vulnerability of the soul as an illness that is cunning, baffling, and deceitful. I have a sick heart. Luther called it the bondage of the will, and an old gospel hymn says we have a sin-sick soul that only Jesus can heal.

We have dirty hearts – patterns of behavior we’ve repeated over and over again when we have drawn our hearts through the figurative mud. We need to be cleansed.

This time of year in the upper Midwest of the United States, we have frigid temperatures. Our cars and trucks not only become dirty and caked on, but then it also is frozen to the metal. The only way to get it off is by a high-powered carwash. The warm, soapy water under high pressure can cut through the ice and dirt.

To have a deep cleaning down to the very metal paint is what I need in my spirit, my heart, and my soul. That’s why the promise in I John 1 is so beautiful when it says, “If we say we have no sin, we’re only deceiving ourselves. The truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We need to come before God in the name of Jesus our Savior and confess the specific sins we have done wrong that have violated God, hurt others, and caused our hearts to become dirty.

No wonder David, after his indiscretion with Bathsheba and then, using his power as king, ended the life of Bathsheba’s husband to cover up her pregnancy, said this to God in Psalm 51: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” We need Jesus to heal our sin-sick hearts. We need Jesus to wash our dirty hearts.

Our hearts also become hearts of stone, hard hearts. We become cold and cynical, lacking in compassion, ambivalent and indifferent, detached and aloof from people. We no longer love. We’ve lost the capacity to truly love others like the God who gave us life loves us. The only solution is for God to do a heart transplant. That’s what the prophet Ezekiel talks about in the Old Testament. God promises, “I will cleanse you and give you a new heart, not like the heart of stone. I will give you a heart of flesh, and I will put a new spirit within you, and you will be mine. And I’ll save you from your uncleanness” (Ez. 36:26).

A number of years ago, a blockbuster movie hit the theaters starring Denzel Washington. The plot line depicted his character’s son in a very difficult illness. He had a bad heart and was going to die unless he got a transplant very quickly. The father and mother were beside themselves for their boy. They didn’t want to lose their son, whom they loved so much. He was such a good boy. So they decided to go drastic. The father takes over the hospital and holds the entire staff – including the heart surgeons – hostage demanding that they find a new heart for his son.

Well, that’s easier said than done and time is running out, so the father decides he’s going to give his own heart to his son that his son might live. The heart doctor said, “No. That’s not ethical. You can’t do that,” but the father says, “You can’t stop me. I’m going to give him my heart!”

Later, the father goes in to talk to his son before the surgery. Thinking he is going to sacrifice his life in order that his son would have a heart, he says to him, “Hi, son. How are you doing?”

His son says, “Dad, did they find me a heart yet?”

Tears start streaming down Washington’s face as he says, “Yes, son. They found you a heart. You’re going to live!” And then he has the type of heart-to-heart conversation you can imagine a father would have with his son if he thinks he’s never going to talk to him again. He tells him to tell his mother he loves her every day. He tells him to treat girls like princesses, because that’s what they are. He tells him to stay away from the bad stuff, to be a good man, and to always remember (as he taps his own chest) that he, his father, would be right there in his heart.

Well, the boy gets a heart. His life is sustained, and the father lives too. This story is the story of the gospel in the Scriptures. The Father in heaven, who is the source of our life, loves us so much – even though we are imperfect sinners – that He is willing to sacrifice His own Son. He gave His Son, Jesus, to die on the cross in our place. Jesus gave us His heart. He forgave our sin and planted His heart and His Spirit within us so we might have life in His name. We have eternal life because of Jesus Christ. I owe God, my heavenly Father, my life. I’m grateful with all the passion within me for the love that God has shown me, for the willingness of Jesus to die in my place to forgive my sins, and, by His Holy Spirit, to come to live within my heart.

Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, was passionate in his loyalty. “Even if everyone denied you, Jesus, I will die for you!” Yet we know that before the day was over, Peter denied Jesus three times. He wimped out. He was disloyal, unfaithful. How do you think Peter felt when Jesus went to the cross? How do you think Peter felt when he ran to the tomb knowing Jesus was alive again, but then, not knowing what to do, went back to fishing – the life he lived before he met Jesus? When Jesus came to find him and did a miracle again of fish being caught, Peter knew it was the Lord. Jesus asked Peter,

“Do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord. I love you.”
A second time He asked, “Peter, do you love me?”
“Lord, you know all things. You know I love you.”
A third time Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?”
Peter was grieved that He asked him a third time. He said, “Yes, Lord. You know I love you.”

Our love for Jesus, even after He gives us a new heart, is a lot like Peter’s. Our love, our capacity for loyalty, is not perfect, but our faith trusts the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, who promises that we belong to Him. He forgives our sins, and His Holy Spirit lives within us. I praise God that, by the power of the Spirit, Jesus Christ makes His home in the heart of every believer who confesses His name.

May Jesus, by the power of the Spirit, live within your heart today and always. Amen.

Rev. Lee Laaveg

Fishing Lessons

Matthew 4:23-25

Do you remember your first day of school? I remember feeling nervous and unsure of what to expect, looking at the teacher and wondering if she was going to be nice and fun. I remember feeling a little separation anxiety from my home and my mom.

I remember heading off to college when I was older. As I rode the train from Montana to my school in Iowa 1,000 miles from home, I was filled with excitement, anticipation, and anxiety. I was leaving behind family, friends, and familiar surroundings of home. Those first days were really something!

In today’s reading, we find the first followers of Jesus beginning a new adventure – their first day of class on fishing for people for God. Jesus had called them promising to train them on how to fish for people. They dropped what they were doing, answered the call, and went with Him.

I’ve always wondered how those disciples must have felt as they set off from the familiar to go with Jesus. Were they nervous? Were they excited? What was going through their minds? While we can’t really know the answers, we do know what their training encompassed and what they experienced right off the bat.

For instance, Jesus didn’t take them to a classroom; He took them on the road all around the territory of Galilee (70 x 40 miles), which involved a lot of walking. He went to the people instead of waiting for the people to come to Him. The disciples watched Him do a lot of proclaiming (preaching) wherever they went as He boldly announced with authority that Good News had arrived!

I imagine that as He told this good news, Jesus was smiling and feeling confident, because this really was good news! It was the best news these people would ever hear. It was the Good News God’s people had long been waiting for – and now it was happening. God’s kingdom was arriving in Jesus. He was setting up His rule over the world. Now there is a hope for the future. God really does care about us! is the message those people were hearing from Jesus.

The disciples must have also noticed that Jesus’ preaching included an appeal to respond to this news with repentance and belief. It needed to be acted upon.

Not only did Jesus’ followers watch Him preach in the open air, but they also found themselves in the synagogues and various villages. He taught about Old Testament promises from the Law, Prophets, and the Psalms – such as, the Spirit of the Lord is upon me to proclaim, from Psalm 61. Old Testament prophecy was being fulfilled that very day through Jesus as He revealed God’s plan through the Scriptures.

The disciples also witnessed Jesus do many acts of compassion as He met people’s needs. He healed lepers, sick kids, the dying, the paralyzed, those with epilepsy and all kinds of human pains and tragedy, even the demon possessed. Jesus served them all. He had a big heart for them, and when He saw them, He had compassion on them.

The disciples also observed “God surprises” as they traveled with Jesus. People would come to Jesus who were considered unclean and uncomfortable to be around. Non-Jews from the Decapolis, Syria, and beyond the Jordan came. Jesus didn’t turn them away, but instead received them, shared the good news with them, and even served them with His healings.

Finally, through their time with Jesus, the disciples learned that kingdom work is hard work; it requires a real commitment. They didn’t do much sitting around. During that first campaign tour of Galilee, Jesus was constantly dealing with lots of people, which is tiring. He attended to a very large population. Estimates judge the population figures of those days in the region where Jesus was touring at more than 300,000 people in more than 200 villages. Even if He reached two villages per day, it would’ve taken Him three months without a break to reach the entire area.

And the encounters weren’t always pleasant. They would deal with questioners and critics. I can tell you from personal experience that preaching and teaching– even to friendly crowds – can be very, very tiring. And so can the give-and-take of debate and argument. On top of it all, Jesus was dealing with sickness and human misery, even the power of evil. It was exhausting, hard work. It was high commitment work, the disciples learned.

This really was remarkable, on-the-job training. The disciples were learning so much and were being equipped to do so much in the classroom with Jesus. They were learning about God’s kingdom (Jesus), and were beginning to understand God Himself – His plans and His hopes for His people. They were learning to be fishers of men as they followed Jesus. They were also being transformed from ordinary individuals to persons capable of doing significant things in the name of God’s kingdom. They were being prepared to go to the people and do the ministry of Word and deed that would change lives.

Eventually, Jesus sent them out on their own, and in Matthew chapter 10 He tells them to go to the people and share the good news with them. Bring about healings and works of compassion in their lives. He was realistic about what they would face, telling them that just as it wasn’t easy for Him, it wouldn’t be any easier for them either. But they should know this: their heavenly Father valued them and would be with them through all these situations.

Can you imagine how scary they must have been their first time out on their own? We know from Scripture that they came back from that mission trip rejoicing in all they had experienced and in all God had done through them.

After the resurrection of Jesus, we see the disciples in the book of Acts following the same patterns Jesus had passed along to them. Go to the people – all kinds of people. Share the Good News, act with power and in the name of Jesus, work hard, be open to God’s surprises and power along the way. Go everywhere He would send them, and with whomever God would add to the mission team – even non-Jews. Who would have imagined it! They suffered for Him. They worked hard. They were effective – THEY WERE EFFECTIVE – and they turned the ancient world upside down with the Good News of the kingdom of God, and what God had done for them through His Son Jesus.

The circle of believers widened as the disciples continued to work hard, following in the footsteps of their master, Jesus. The circle widened to the whole world as people carried out their ministry of the Word, the Gospel – compassionate deeds and acts in the name of Jesus Christ. Here we are even today – the fruit of their faithful following!

You might be wondering why we are going through all this. What is the point of all we are covering today?

The lesson for those of us who call ourselves the Church today is this: If you want to be faithful and effective in the calling of catching men and women for God, if you want to make a difference in this world and impact it for the cause of the kingdom of God, this is what it’s going to take.

First, you go to the people; you don’t wait for them to come to you. The old adage from the movie Field of Dreams – “If you build it, they will come” – doesn’t apply here. Or if you just advertise, they will come, isn’t true either. Not even if you just tweet it. No. It takes going to the people God has placed around you and ministering to them in His name. You have to get to know them, invite them into your life, and share your adventure with Jesus. You have to go to them.

It also requires some bold proclamation. We don’t have to call it preaching. However, you have to proclaim what we know to be true – the truth of salvation in Jesus Christ – with great confidence and a smile on your face.

This world may be looking quite precarious, for we have the predicament of sin, which can separate us from God forever. Yet, we have the Good News that God has come after us through His Son Jesus Christ. He took our sinfulness upon Himself at the cross and paid the penalty for us. God raised Him up on the third day, and a whole new future has been opened to those who call upon the name of Jesus, trust in Him, and follow Him. This message needs to be boldly proclaimed at every opportunity – whether we are together in a church building, at a work setting, or wherever. It needs to be clearly explained with a smile and with confidence.

We also need to teach and explain from God’s Word what He has done for every person, and what it means to live with Him in His kingdom. We need to tell of His values, His faithfulness to His promises, and His deep love for the individual as well as for the world. We need to let people in on His plan to bring the whole world to Himself. We need to teach Scripture.

We also need to pair up the ministry of the Word – preaching and teaching – with compassionate acts of help, healing, and mercy. We need to be willing to pray with people, serve them, and see to their needs and hurts. The Word indeed! The church tends to pit these two against one another all too often, but they really do belong together.

I’ve been observing and participating in an inner-city ministry run by a friend of mine named John. We call it the God-town ministry. He and a team of volunteers impact the neighborhood around him in the inner-city with the gospel. They not only take the Word of God’s love for them in Christ, but they also serve them and pray with them in their homes. They are servants to the neighborhood surrounding the community center out of which he works.

Word and deed truly belong together. It’s like the old saying, people don’t care what you know until they know that you care. Yet we cannot just be caring and not point people in the direction of why we are doing this in the name of Jesus. Those two go hand-in-hand.

We also need to be ready for God’s surprises along the way. This means staying open to whomever God might bring into your sphere of influence. It might be the most unlikely person you’d ever expect; someone who makes you feel uncomfortable. But they are your partners now.

We need to work hard. This is not an easy thing. It involves a cross, a passion to seeing lost people become devoted followers of Jesus. It requires an understanding that the church doesn’t simply exist for me; it exists to bring those who aren’t in a saving relationship with Jesus to Him.

We need to be going out to others with words and loving actions of service in the name of Christ. It requires tough, sometimes frustrating, work and commitment but it’s a good work! It is for Jesus, who gave His life for us and all people. And it has eternal implications.

Lastly, following Jesus is truly an adventure in a way of joy that too many church folks are missing out on. It is not a spectator sport, friend. It’s more than sitting in a pew, singing songs, and listening to sermons. It’s more than sitting in a Bible study class. It’s following Him onto the playing field and joining Him in His kingdom adventure, finding and ministering to people who need Him just like we do.

So let me ask you today, how is the fishing going in your life, or in the life of your church? When I look at the headlines and consider the tensions in the workplace and the households, the hurts and needs in our community, and the people who are missing out on Jesus in their life, it strikes me that the time is ripe. It is time for people like you and me in the church to drop what we’re doing and truly follow Jesus, applying these lessons we’ve learned today. Go to the people. Proclaim the Gospel boldly. Teach scriptural truths. Compassionately serve the hurting.

Pray that you may stay open to God’s surprises and work hard for the kingdom of God, because Jesus is counting on you. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

He Wants Us to Follow Him

Matthew 4:18-22

It has been said that the ultimate issue in the universe is leadership. Who you follow and what directs your life is the single most important thing about you. Everyone follows someone or something. The question is, Who are you following?

In today’s passage, we see Jesus beginning His kingdom ministry. He is pulling together His team. He goes to the fishermen by the Sea of Galilee – Peter, Andrew, James, and John – and says to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” What did He mean exactly with this invitation: “Follow me”? I can tell you what He didn’t mean.

He wasn’t talking about a purely intellectual exercise, like following someone’s story in a newspaper, or like a spectator following someone’s progress. He’s not really talking about simply believing, like following a specific philosophy, or following someone on Twitter or Instagram.

So what did Jesus mean when He told those fishermen to follow Him?

First of all, this is a personal invitation, which requires a personal response. “Follow me,” is an invitation to a personal relationship with Jesus and it requires you to take action. “Follow” means, “Come after Me.” Be My follower. Put your future in My hands. He is going to lead from that day forward.

One could actually call this scene, of calling those fishermen, an illustration of the repentance Jesus was calling people to when He said, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Repent.” It means to incorporate our life with Him leading and me learning and serving.

A biblical scholar named C. Blendinger said something very interesting about the relationship of a follower to the local rabbi in Jesus’ day. “The words, ‘Follow me,’ describe the relationship of a pupil to a teacher of the Torah. The pupil chooses to subordinate himself to a rabbi. He follows him everywhere he goes, learning from him, and above all serving him. The pupil’s obligation to serve is an essential part of learning the Old Testament Law. The goal of all his learning and training is a complete knowledge of the Torah and the ability to practice it in every situation.”

This is a little different, when you think about it, from the way some people think about following Jesus. In a strange, twisted sort of way, many have come to believe that Christ follows us and exists to satisfy our demands. This is a distorted perception of Christianity. It poses the power of faith and prayer as instruments designed to get Jesus to serve our impulses for peace and prosperity and sets Christ up as just one more commodity in life that we try to sell to others.

Following Jesus really means (as Blendinger says) “to adopt” Jesus as the local rabbi of our lives, so to speak, to sit under His wisdom in order to learn from Him about the heavenly Father and about life with the Father, and to serve Him in every possible way. It means to give Him the highest priority as the supreme relationship of life out of which every other relationship and activity is defined and directed. It means putting Him at the center. Following Jesus is giving Him the lead, learning from Him, and serving Him. As we watch those disciples live with Jesus those next three years, we discover we have so much to learn about the Father’s love for us, God’s power, faithfulness, and intentions for an individual’s life, what really matters in life, kingdom values, and how to live in faith and obedience. What He has to teach us is priceless.

Regarding serving Him, Jesus would later say, “If you are willing to come after me, pick up your cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24), meaning a willingness to actually lay down one’s life for His cause, leave the old ways behind, and stand up for Him no matter what. It means telling others about what Jesus has done for them at the cross and grave, and calling them to follow Him as well. It is actually trusting Him with your life because you know what He has done for you. He died on a cross and rose again to rescue you from sin and death, and He really is the life giver. “Follow me!”

Amazingly, these men did follow Jesus. They left behind their old lives for a new one with Jesus. They left behind their boats, their nets, their business, their families, their fathers to live with Him and go where He would go.

Did they totally understand Jesus and what He was about at that point in time? No, probably not, although we know from the other Gospels that they had heard Him teaching in the area. Even so, they saw something in Him that caused them to trust in Him. Maybe something about His preaching, His message of the kingdom, touched them and attracted them. Perhaps the possibility of getting closer to God or whom they had known from their religious background in the Jewish synagogue. This man seemed to know a lot about God. Perhaps He was getting in on this movement of God in this world to do something big with their lives. We can’t be sure, but the fact is they followed. They dropped their nets, and they followed Jesus.

And so began an adventure that changed and transformed their lives for eternity. They would gain all kinds of new insights about the living of this life and what’s really important. Jesus would teach them such things as, What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose his soul? Or the most important commandment in God’s sight: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and your neighbor as yourself. They would witness miracles, Jesus’ power, signs of the kingdom. They would see lives get changed. Eventually, they would watch Him die on a cross and leave feeling all was lost, then see Him alive three days later. They would then learn again about His power – even over death – and His promise for those who belong to Him. Because He lives, they shall live also.

They would be filled with the Holy Spirit of God many days later and know more of Jesus on that day than they had known about Him in the three years they were with Him. They would be on fire for Him, and each one of them would become so committed to Jesus Christ and the cause of His kingdom, they would one day be willing to lay down their own lives for Him and His cause. Not one of them would have looked back over the experience and thought, I’m sorry I ever followed Jesus.

For instance, we know that later on, John wrote a letter to some Christians in which he spoke of the “Jesus joy” he experienced and wanted them to have. Peter would urge others in His letter to keep following Jesus, because He’s the living hope. He’s the one who holds the great inheritance of eternal life.

The same Jesus Christ, who called the fisherman to Himself by the Sea of Galilee after His resurrection, has continued to call people through the centuries to follow Him. Millions upon millions of people around the globe have answered the call to follow Him over the centuries. Lives have been transformed and enriched. I’ve never heard or read of any of His followers say they were sorry they followed Jesus.

Well, enough about fishermen and about people in history. Today I want talk about you. As I said earlier, everyone follows someone.

Who are you following these days? Would you consider yourself a follower of Jesus? Are you living daily in close proximity to Him, learning from Him, and serving Him in this world? Are you unconditionally committed to the cause of His kingdom? If not, He’s calling you today. He says, Follow me. I have big plans for your life. What you’ll discover – like many have – is that life with Him in the lead, is an adventure you really don’t want to miss.

Maybe you’re wondering what is involved in following Jesus. First, it involves trusting in Him. Trusting in what He has done for you at the cross and the victory He gained for you at the empty grave. It involves also dropping your nets, like those disciples did, which symbolizes anything that might inhibit or prohibit your complete commitment to follow Christ. It might be people in your life. It might be things, possessions, or money that can control a person. It might mean personal dreams. It might be secret sins you need to give up. It might be personal pride that can keep a person from submitting to Christ, serving Him and doing what He says.

Are you clinging to any nets in your hand? Do you have any rope burns? Dropping those nets involves an ongoing relationship with Jesus, a passionate pursuit of getting to know Christ. This leads to the follower being transformed in the image of Christ. Fully devoted followers of Jesus are like mirrors in motion.

By definition, following – moving into a deepening intimacy with Christ – is coming to know Him. This close proximity transforms a person and results in a clear reflection of His character in our lives. As followers, we then begin to replicate the grace, mercy, love, justice, compassion, truth, and righteousness of Christ Jesus our leader.

It also means standing up for Him and speaking out for Him, even when it’s not the popular thing to do, even when it’s uncomfortable. It means sticking with Him and trusting Him, even when life gets rough and things aren’t working out well for you.

I really appreciate this quote by Joe Stowell. “Starting out as a follower is the easy step. Staying on the road with Him is the challenge. Jesus is looking for followers.”

I also like this quote, which I think is good for us to consider this as well. It says, “While true followers acknowledge Christ as their strategic center, most of us stop short of that. We’re quite satisfied to relate to Him; accept His liberation from hell; praise Him; find comfort, solace, and joy in Him, and be intrigued by Him. But few of us are bent toward following Him unconditionally, and that makes all the difference in the world – both in our own little world and in the larger world around us.”

How about you? Do you count yourself as a true follower of Jesus Christ? My appeal to you this day is that you would heed the voice of the Savior who is calling to you. Take the step. Commit yourself to follow Him, passionately get to know Him, learn from Him, and serve Him right where you are. You will find His yoke is easy, and His burden is light. You won’t regret it. I encourage you to join the host of witnesses who follow Jesus and now testify, “I followed Him, and I am so glad I did!”

Here is a prayer for you to use if you want to follow Jesus. May this be your prayer each day. It goes like this:

“Day by day; day by day;
O, dear Lord, three things I pray.
To see thee more clearly,
love thee more dearly,
follow thee more nearly.
Day by day.”

Jesus’ message is clear. “Follow me.” Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer

Jesus’ Big Idea

Matthew 4:17

I guess most pastors can probably remember the first sermon they ever preached. We remember those things that tend to be a bit nerve racking.

I remember my first sermon. It was on the David and Bathsheba text in the Old Testament. I talked about sin and grace and forgiveness. I was a nervous wreck, and I think I threw everything into it except the kitchen sink. It was a very long message.

I’m reminded of a funny story about a young, inexperienced minister who had been asked to be a supply preacher at a little rural church. He was nervous and excited as he drove out to the church that rainy, cloudy Sunday morning. This would be his first sermon.

But when he arrived, he was disappointed to discover only one person there – an old rancher. “The weather is so bad, I guess the people just stayed home!” he surmised. When the young preacher asked the old cowboy if he wanted him to go ahead and preach, the rancher replied, “Well, preacher. I’m not too smart, but if I went out to feed my cattle and only one showed up, I’d still feed him!” So the young preacher started the service.

When he got to the sermon, he began preaching and went on for an hour and half! As the old rancher was leaving the sanctuary, the young man asked how he liked the sermon. The cowboy said, “Well, preacher. Let me put it this way: if I went out to feed my cattle and only one showed up, I sure wouldn’t dump the whole load on him!”

What we have in today’s scripture text is Jesus’ first sermon. It’s very short. In fact, it’s a one-liner! Actually, in all likelihood, it’s a one sentence summary of His sermon – what preachers call these days – the big idea.

The text begins with the phrase, “From that time . . .” This phrase is a hinge statement of sorts announcing a new chapter of Jesus’ life, which is about to kick in. So Matthew says, “From that time . . .” This causes us to look back and ask, From what time?

Jesus’ preparation period is now over. He has been baptized by John the Baptist and has gone out into the wilderness to do battle with Satan. John the Baptist has been arrested, and Jesus has moved to Capernaum in Galilee to start his ministry. The table has been set for Him.

We’ve also learned from Herod’s attempt to kill the baby Jesus early on, John the Baptist’s arrest, as well as the temptation of Jesus, that this was not a friendly environment in which Jesus was stepping. It was more like a battlefield.

As Jesus goes public and begins His ministry, it’s interesting to note what He did on His opening day. It says He “began to preach.” As a preacher, I love that verse! It makes me feel affirmed. The word “preach” is borrowed from the ancient world, and is used to describe a herald from the king to the village. It is an announcement, a command given with authority representing the king.

A few verses later, Matthew tells us that Jesus’ preaching attracted great attention and crowds. It got many people very excited. Why, do you suppose? Perhaps it was the content of His message. The subject matter made people’s hearts beat a little faster with anticipation. It was the announcement He made about a kingdom, the kingdom of heaven. Mark puts it this way: “The kingdom of God is near” (1:15)

The people of Israel had been waiting a long time for this news. Ancient Jews prayed that God might rule on earth as in heaven one day. They prayed for the enemies of God and of God’s people to be cast down, and a new age begin in their time, as the Old Testament prophets predicted.

This thread runs throughout the Old Testament to the New – it is what unifies them. The people have been praying and hoping for the kingdom of God. In fact, during their weekly synagogue services, they would say, “May God establish His kingdom in our lifetime.” So when they heard Jesus preaching about God’s kingdom, their radar antennas when up. Finally! It’s about time! God is going to restore Israel, they thought to themselves. He is going to break the chains of oppression of the Roman empire. He will chase them out of here once and for all and establish a new empire.

When Jesus said “The kingdom of God is at hand,” He was actually pointing to Himself. He would continue to point to Himself through His words and His mighty works, which were signs of the kingdom. He was telling the people, All the hopes of Israel have now become present fact in Me. I am the completion of what you’ve been looking for. I am the Messiah. I am the Redeemer from God. His words brought great hope of better days ahead. This was heard as very good news. However, what the people were expecting and what Jesus was bringing were not exactly the same thing.

Where Jesus began His kingdom work must have looked a little peculiar to them. It was the unspectacular setting of Galilee of all places, not down south around Jerusalem. Jesus bore no halo, no king’s crown, no splendor, no servants, no army. He was simply a little-known carpenter from Nazareth with a message.

As Jesus described His kingdom and carried out His ministry, some people scratched their heads and walked away, because He spoke about a different sort of kingdom. He didn’t act like a new Moses or King David like they’d been expecting. He didn’t seem to want to organize an army. He didn’t seem concerned about the ceremonial laws and rules, which had been set up in holiness for holiness. He insisted on servantude as His calling, turning the other cheek and praying for our enemies, not overthrowing the Roman oppressors.

Eventually, by the end of the Gospel of Matthew, most people had rejected Jesus and the kingdom He was describing. At His trial, they screamed for His blood before He was crucified. Pontius Pilate asked, “What have you done that they want your blood?” Jesus replied, “My kingdom is not from this world.” I’m not what they expected.

So what did Jesus mean, then, when He announced His kingdom was at hand? First of all, He meant that God’s power was beginning to be asserted. His rule on earth was there in a new way. God was up to something big! As a king, He was exercising His rightful authority. God would reign over individuals and families, religious traditions, social mores, demonic powers, and even political institutions. He would establish His righteousness and justice aligning all things under His role. The beginning of this was about to happen.

When Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” He was talking not simply about change in an individual’s heart, but also about major change in this world. May God’s will be done in the world. God’s kingdom doesn’t come about through worldly power, armies, and politics, but through serving, love, and the sacrificial death of Jesus, which will change lives and change the world around us.

Jesus was just the beginning of the kingdom arrival. In His parables, He said The kingdom of God is like a seed this is planted in the ground. It grows silently and continues to grow – like a mustard seed. Soon it is huge and overwhelming. Kind of an already-but-not-yet kingdom. It is visible in Jesus, but will not come in its fullness until Jesus appears again in glory and majesty at His second coming.

We see signs of God’s kingdom even today as the Gospel opens people’s lives and brings light into the darkness. Great things get done in the name of Jesus.

God’s enemy was not Rome. Jesus came to defeat a bigger enemy: the kingdom of evil – the kingdom of Satan who held humanity captive in the darkness. Most of Jesus’ audience didn’t understand this. I hope you do, because Jesus’ message has not changed one iota. It is still our Good News for the world today. The kingdom of God has arrived in Jesus Christ.

Why is God’s kingdom message good news for us? Because, first of all, it means freedom – freedom from our sin and the guilt that accompanies it. Our ultimate problem is sin, which separates us from God. It separates us from God’s intentions for our lives. Christ Jesus’ payment at the cross for our sins reconciles us to God and restores our relationship with Him by taking away our sin.

God’s kingdom means freedom from the consequences of our sin, which is death. Through Jesus Christ, death has been defeated. It can no longer hold us. It is simply a gate through which we pass to spend eternity with our heavenly Father.

God’s kingdom frees us from the power of the evil one, the devil. He is now a defeated enemy, and we know that in the end he will be destroyed once and for all. We don’t need to live in absolute fear, panic, and anxiety over him. We’re free from those cares. Instead, we have Jesus to answer the door when the devil comes knocking.

This is good news because it means hope for you and me. Even though the world may look dark some days, and it seems like evil is winning over good, we know that in the end, God’s kingdom will come in its fullness. When Jesus reappears, nothing can ever separate us or snatch us from the hand of Jesus, our Shepherd. We can sing with confidence, “This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”

God’s kingdom means a new beginning for you and for me. When we come to Christ, we receive citizenship. We walk with God in a restored relationship as sons and daughters. It is a new status, and He shares with us a new way of doing life that actually works so much better than anything we can dream up on our own. As we operate by kingdom values, we come to understand that God knows what makes us tick and what makes us work so much better. We live for His purposes in His kingdom, in His honor, and for His glory.

I love this little statement I came across. “For too long, we’ve called unbelievers to ‘invite Jesus into your life.’ Jesus doesn’t want to be in your life. Your life is a wreck. Jesus calls you into His life – kingdom life. And His life isn’t boring or purposeless or static. It’s wild and exhilarating and unpredictable.”

You might be wondering how you can be sure this kingdom thing is true and reliable. Well, let ask you, Where does this opening day of Jesus’ ministry end? At a cross, and ultimately at an empty tomb where Jesus did battle with sin, the devil, and the power of death. And He won! This is God’s stamp of approval.

Through the resurrection, God tells us to listen to Jesus. Act on what He says, because He is offering you a new life that goes all the way into eternity. The resurrection is God’s “Yes!”

The message of the kingdom is the same for us today. So is the response Jesus is calling for when He says, “Repent.” The word means more than simply feeling sorry for my sins. To repent means to move from my self rule – running my own life – to God’s rule. It means totally reconfiguring one’s life under God’s authority and rule. It means coming under new management, restructuring, reconsidering our strategy. It’s a change of mind, of heart, and life, surrendering your whole life to His care and His leadership. It means letting go, turning from everything else that has been crying out for your allegiance (and maybe leading you astray), and following Jesus. Repentance means to turn from these things and follow Him.

I love the little story about a boy who got his hand caught inside an expensive vase. His parents applied soapsuds and cooking oil to get it off without any success. When they seemed ready to break the vase because it seemed the only way to get his hand out, the frightened boy cried, “Would it help if I let loose of the penny I’m holding?”

So it is with us all too often. We cause God and others great anguish and risk the truly valuable because we will not let go of the destructive things, the insignificant things we think we need to hang onto. Jesus says to let go of these things.

The message hasn’t changed. The kingdom of God’s arrival and the appeal are the same: turn from the life of “my kingdom come; my will be done,” to “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done” in my life and in this world. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer