Red River of Grace

Ephesians 1:2-8

Every year, many people visit Itasca State Park in northern Minnesota to be at the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River. It’s only a little trickle stream, but as it flows toward Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico, it becomes a wide river, a powerful flowing river of current.

Likewise, the cross of Jesus Christ is the beginning point of the blood-red river of God’s grace, which flows to you and me, and to all the world for all eternity that we might be forgiven and reconciled into a relationship with the living God.

When I was a seven-year-old boy, the youngest of four sons born to Oscar and Viola Laaveg, we were boating one day on Clear Lake, Iowa. We had a 14′ maiden boat with a forty-horse, big twin Evinrude pushing it. When we, as a family of six, traveled in that boat across the water, I don’t think we had more than a two-inch clearance from the side of the boat to the water. We had many fun times in the boat.

At the end of the day, it was time to load the boat onto the trailer. The car my father owned to pull the boat and trailer was a ‘63 Belair Chevy with 3 on the tree. My brother, Joel, and I were in the car. I was behind the steering wheel messing around. I had moved the stick shift out of gear and into neutral and was pretending to drive. As I pulled the parking brake lever, the car swiftly began to roll down the incline ramp into the water. My dad yelled “Hit the breaks! Hit the breaks!” but by the time my little foot found the brake pedal, my head was underwater and the car was floating, all four tires off the ground. It was too late. My dad had to call a tow truck to pull the whole mess out of the water.

I remember watching as the tow truck hooked up to the car. My dad put his arm around my shoulders and said, “It’s okay. We can fix this.”

In every person’s life are moments where we’ve inadvertently, foolishly, or rebelliously pulled the parking brake off and rolled into a mess. We get underwater and can’t fix it. Everybody needs forgiveness. This is why God offers us mercy and grace in the name of Jesus. In the Old Testament, He established a system of sacrifice to offer mercy and grace – the sacrifice of lambs and goats. Mercy is pardon given, even though punishment is deserved. Grace is the undeserved, unmerited favor and blessing, love of God for us.

In the Old Testament system of sacrifice, God established a way for atoning sacrifice to be made for the forgiveness of sins. A sacrifice is something precious offered for a reason. Atonement is the satisfaction for a committed offense. God said, “The life of the creature is in the blood.” Sacrifice is my gift to make atonement at the altar, says the Lord. Blood makes atonement for your life.

Throughout the entire Old Testament covenant time, God’s people would worship on the Day of Atonement called Yom Kippur. Once a year the high priest would take two male goats. He would sacrifice one and carry the blood into the holy of holies. Then he would sprinkle the blood on the cover of the ark of the covenant (called the mercy seat) for atonement for the sins of all God’s people.

He would then take the second goat to the edge of the village and put his hand on its head to transfer the guilt and shame of all the people. The goat would travel off into the wilderness as a scapegoat bearing guilt and shame away. All of this foreshadowed the death and resurrection of Jesus for us. When Jesus came on the scene, John the Baptist looked at Him coming for baptism in the Jordan River and said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

Many passages in the New Testament make the connection between an atoning sacrifice by bloodshed, the forgiveness of sins, and reconciliation between God’s people and Him.

We find Jesus’ words:
•  “This is the blood of the covenant poured out for you for the forgiveness of your sins” (Matthew 26:28).

In today’s text we read,
•  “In Jesus Christ we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses according to the riches of his grace, which he has lavished upon us” (Ephesians 1:7).

We find Paul words to the Christians at Colosse:
 “It is the Father’s pleasure to reconcile all things to himself having made peace through the blood of the cross” (Colossians 1:20).

We read of the scene in heaven where it says,
 “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14).

Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross released a blood-red river of grace where God offers us cleansing and forgiveness in His name. Isn’t that awesome! In Jesus’ name we find forgiveness for all our sins.

Do you ever remember dealing with your child or grandchild who was reluctant to take a bath? Even if they were dirty or smelled a bit, they still didn’t think they needed to bathe. It reminds me of the story in the Old Testament of Naaman, the captain of the Syrian army. Naaman was a powerful and mighty warrior, a man of power and prestige in his nation. But he was also a leper. One of God’s people, his servant girl, had said that Elisha could heal him. So Naaman went with his big entourage – a parade of pomp and glory and prestige – to Elisha to be healed. He expected to be met by the same level of pomp and glory, but Elisha didn’t even go out to meet him. Instead, Elisha sent a messenger out of the house and told Naaman to go wash in the Jordan River seven time.

Naaman was indignant and refused. “Aren’t there clean rivers in Syria? Why have I been sent to this prophet and forced to bathe in the dirty waters of the Jordan?” Yet his servants impressed upon him that if Elisha had asked him for some noble sacrifice or dangerous action, he would’ve done it to be clean of leprosy. Give it a try, they said. So Naaman submitted and bathed seven times in the Jordan. Scripture tells us he was healed and his skin became clean like a little child. Naaman was so full of gratitude that he proclaimed, “There is no God in all the world like the God of Israel, Yahweh!” He expressed faith in Yahweh, and he worshiped the living God (II Kings 5).

When you and I understand the depth of our sin, the level of our imperfections, and that we are lost from God, then we understand what God has done for us in the purifying love of Jesus Christ. We are invited into a relationship of His mercy and grace. All of life changes. We realize we have been saved. We have been served sacrificially. We have been forgiven, and we are grateful.

In Old Testament times, the central saving story was the Exodus where Moses appeared before Pharaoh. God sent a series of ten plagues. The last plague was the loss of the life of the oldest child in every household unless they protected their house by smearing the blood of a perfect, unblemished lamb on the door post. When their faith was expressed in this way, they would be protected from the angel of death. The blood on the doorjamb marked the household as believers in God who belong to the Lord, those who in faith accept and believe the promise of God.

Today you and I can still, in the name of Jesus, take the blood of Jesus Christ as a protection covenant on our lives so we know we are forgiven, we belong to God, and we are alive forever in the promise of His love. All of life changes when we bathe in the blood-red river of Jesus Christ’s grace. The current of the Spirit’s grace carries us to a whole new way of life. The Spirit within us now shines with grace as it emanates from our life and shows love to the people around us.

I recently heard Dave Bohnet from Jefferson, Iowa tell the story of a time when he worked in a nursing home. He noticed a ninety-something-year-old woman sitting in a wheelchair in the corner of the room. “Young man,” she said to him.”Young man, come over here.” Well, Bohnet was in his upper fifties, not a young man, but he went over to the woman. She said, “I want to give you my business card.” Bohnet put her card in his pocket, made his excuses, and left.

Later he pulled out the old woman’s business card, thinking to himself, “What business does an old woman have?” The woman’s card said this, a prayer:

“Come, Holy Spirit. Enlighten our hearts so we can see the things of God and so we might know God in our soul. Sanctify all we say and do that we might live to the glory of God.”

Reading her prayer, tears streamed down Bohnet’s face as he realized that yet at this stage of her life, the business of the woman was to bear witness to her love for Jesus Christ who had shown her mercy.

The current of the red river of Jesus’ grace removes our bondage and moves us in to freedom. The old rhythms of life can fall away, and the manifestation of the love of God flows through our person in the power of the Holy Spirit. We move from being self-centered to being sacrificial in love.

I know a retired dentist here in Spencer – Dr. Terry Shively. He and his wife, Stevie, make multiple trips annually to the poorest rural areas of the nation of Haiti to do dental work. Natives from Haiti travel as many as four and five hours by foot so the dentist can serve their dental and oral needs.

Also in those twelve-hour days, Shively and his wife stand in one hundred-degree heat to serve those needy people. Why would they do that? Because the red river of Jesus’ grace has touched them and carries them. The love of Jesus Christ compels them to serve others in His love.

Dear friends, I want you to know the passionate love of God like the mighty rivers of the Mississippi. Regardless of the weather or the season of the year, the current of the river is always flowing. You may not want to drink from the water. You may not want to harness its energy. You may not want to boat on it, or ski on it, or fish in it, but you cannot stop the mighty river of the Mississippi from flowing.

Likewise, you cannot stop the love of God from flowing to you in the blood-red river of the grace of Jesus Christ. From the cross of Christ, His love flows to you forever that you might believe you are forgiven, reconciled to God, and His child forever after. Amen.

Rev. Lee Laaveg

Get a Grip on Faith

John 20:19-31

Mother was busy cooking supper in the kitchen and asked her five-year-old son to go into the pantry to get a can of tomato soup. The little boy was afraid of the dark and didn’t want to go in there. He pleaded his case, “Mommy, I’m scared.”

Mother responded, “Johnny, be a big brave boy. Just walk in and get it. I need it right away for this food I am preparing.”

Johnny repeated his fear, “Mommy, I’m too scared to go in there by myself.”

So his mother used a different approach. “It’s okay. Jesus will be in there with you. Now go and get mother the soup.”

Johnny went to the door and opened it slowly. When he peeked inside, it was dark and his hands trembled. But then an idea popped into his little head. “Jesus, if you’re in there, would you hand me a can of tomato soup?”

It is difficult at times to believe Jesus is “in there.” It’s not unusual for us to go through moments and seasons of frustration in our lives and even have doubts in our walk of faith. I’m sure many of you can identify with the words a man once spoke to Jesus, “I believe. Help my unbelief.”

A variety of reasons exist for this kind of struggling. It might be despair over situations that are overwhelming us. It might be a sense that the world is dark, threatening, out of control, and filled with pain and evil. It may be disappointment over the way life has turned out for you. You looked to God for answers, but He didn’t respond the way you had hoped.

Perhaps it’s physical and emotional suffering you or a loved one is going through. Maybe your peers are skeptical, cynical, and unbelieving, which can cause a person to struggle with faith. The question is, What do you do with those moments, those seasons? How can you get a grip on your faith? We have a story before us today from the Gospel of John, which I have found to be helpful.

First, notice the resurrection story is a Good News story announcing that Jesus is alive! He was dead, but now He is showing Himself to be alive to those disciples in the upper room. He has been transformed, able to go through locked doors and suddenly appear to His disciples. He took away their fears and gave them peace as He showed them His hands and side so they could know He was the same one who was crucified on the cross, but is now alive.

He came to assure them of His forgiveness for running out on Him. He also gave them an important commission – to tell the Good News to the world so all might believe and be saved. It is a good news story. Good news happens in the first half of the story.

However, Thomas wasn’t there. He had withdrawn from the fellowship of the others and didn’t experience the risen Jesus. We don’t know why he wasn’t in the Upper Room. We can surmise some reasons. From past mention of him in John’s Gospel, we know Thomas had a melancholy personality. He was a glass half-empty instead of half-full type of guy, prone to look for the worst. He didn’t hesitate to question Jesus when he didn’t understand.

Perhaps Thomas was feeling disappointed and even a bit angry as he grieved over the death of Jesus. He had such high hopes. He had followed this guy with his whole life. Now those hopes had been dashed. Where were you, God? he might’ve questioned.

Thomas could have been feeling a bit guilty. He’d run out on Jesus and deserted Him in His hour of need.

Maybe Thomas felt despair. He had seen the worst in human behavior from the people who destroyed Jesus. Such darkness and sinfulness can give a person a sense of hopelessness for the world.

Perhaps Thomas had just simply given up. I must have been wrong about Jesus. Surely you can empathize with him. When things go wrong and it’s too much to bear, we find ourselves wanting to run off sometimes, or curl up into a little ball to grieve and lick our wounds alone. We isolate ourselves and stay away from worship. We steer clear of others not wanting people to see how miserable we are. We’re afraid to fall apart in front of others, and we wonder, What’s the point of it anyway? We keep our distance and shut down relationally.

All these things could have been factors behind Thomas not being with them during Jesus’ first appearance. We can’t say for certain why, but we do know he wasn’t there the evening of that first Easter.

It’s really unfortunate, when you think about it, for Thomas would have to live with his doubts and disappointments. Yet he really didn’t need to. The other disciples took Jesus’ commission seriously and made their first attempt at witnessing to Thomas that they had seen the Lord. He is alive! However, it was met with skepticism and unbelief on Thomas’ part. He wasn’t buying it. I imagine he rolled his eyes as they talked, thinking to himself, This has to be just wishful thinking on their part. They’re caught up in their grief and want Him to be alive. They’re that delusional and unrealistic! Dead is dead.

So Thomas replies, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side where he was pierced by the spear, I will not believe.”

Fortunately, that is not the end of the story. A week later Thomas was with the others as they gathered in the house behind shut doors. Maybe the other disciples talked him into coming back to join them that day. They have even physically come and escorted him to the get-together out of their love for him. Sometimes it takes just that, in which case I say, “Way to go, guys!”

Anyway, Thomas joined them and was he glad he did, for Jesus appeared out of nowhere again saying, “Peace be with you,” just as He promised in the Upper Room the night before His crucifixion when He said, “I give you peace.” But before Thomas could say anything, Jesus looked him in the eye and repeated His earlier statement. “Here. Put your finger in my nail prints and your hand in my side. Don’t doubt, but believe.”

Thomas gasped. How could Jesus know what I said? Then it hit him. Jesus was there! When the disciples told Thomas they’d seen the Lord, He was there. He really is alive! The next moment we see Thomas dropping to his knees proclaiming, “My Lord and my God!” He was the first person in John’s Gospel to call Jesus, Lord and God. The flame of faith burned brightly within Thomas from that day forward. His faith was revived and renewed.

Church tradition tells us Thomas hit the mission field full blast with great enthusiasm, going first to what we today call Iraq, then to Iran, and eventually to India where he died a martyr’s death for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Folks, the same Jesus who met Thomas in the Upper Room and revived his faith is still available to you and me to help us get a grip on our faith. Jesus’ response to Thomas’ statement of faith is very interesting! He says, “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who have not seen and come to believe.” God blesses those who have not seen Him and yet believe.

Jesus, here, is really talking to you and to me in this statement, those of us who come onto the scene later. Although we can’t physically see Jesus, we still believe in Him. We can have encounters with the risen Christ in our own faith journeys.

A takeaway from this Thomas story for me is this: An important truth in the walk of faith is the importance of where you station yourself. In order to let the presence of Christ and His grace touch your life, station yourself in the places where He has promised to meet you. The story of Thomas points us to the value of stationing oneself in the community of faith, especially while feeling despondent.

It is true that in our moments of depression and doubt, we may need solitude. But we also need hours with fellow believers who can come alongside of us and encourage us. Remember Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20). In this story we see the danger of withdrawing from the community of faith. When we are alone and separated from other believers, we can easily err in thinking we can find healing on our own, but it’s not true. When we’re isolated, our minds can play tricks on us, and we lay ourselves open to Satan himself who sees us at our weak moment and makes it a point to deceive us and play with our doubts. We can begin to believe the sun will never shine again. We become filled with doubt and feel defeated. We despair. It happens; I’ve seen it.

I found an old illustration out of Scotland I think is quite helpful. A man stopped coming to church. He knew the pastor would soon be calling on him to inquire why.

When the minister showed up at his front door, the man invited him in, and the two sat by the fire and made small talk. The man wondered when the discussion would turn to his church attendance. As conversation dwindled off, the pastor took the tongs by the fireplace, reached into the fire, took a white-hot coal, and set it out in front of the fire. The two taciturn Scotts sat there smoking their pipes and sipping their tea. Minutes passed in silence. The coal, of course, cooled to red-hot. Slowly the color began to fade until it finally it became black. A wisp of smoke signaled the fire was out, and the man realized this was an object lesson.

“Yes, pastor,” he said. “I’ll be at church on Sunday.” The coals burned brightly while they were together, but when one was removed, it could not long sustain the heat, and it went out. So we need the fellowship of one another in the church.

You can also station yourself in the Word and sacraments. Interestingly, John throws in a little editorial statement after the Thomas story. He says, “Now Jesus did many other signs that are not written in this book. But these are written so you may come to believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing, you may have life in his name” (John 20:31-31). You see John and the disciples came to understand the power of the Word of God to feed their faith. They knew they would encounter Christ in the Word. We receive God’s grace in Christ as we open our Bibles and read and study His words.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is that you station yourself in the Word if you want to encounter the grace of God in Christ. Read the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Read them again and again and again. Get to know Him. Let Him walk with you and talk with you. I love the statement: Feed your faith and your doubts will starve to death. Feed your faith with the Word.

Jesus has also promised to be with us in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. We hear His words: “This is my body given for you; This is my blood shed for you.” Because He is present in the bread and wine, we taste Him, touch Him, smell Him, and hear His words of love and assurance. It is a reminder that we are not alone. We are forgiven.

Finally, station yourself in the company of the world’s needy, for Jesus promised to meet us there. We find His promise in Matthew 25, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. Jesus said, “I was hungry and you fed me; thirsty and you gave me drink; stranger you welcomed me; in prison and you visited me. Truly I tell you, when you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” Service is an amazing instrument for staying close to Jesus. You meet Him face-to-face.

Friend, if you are struggling with doubts and seeking to get a grip on your faith, know this: Jesus loves you. He longs for you to believe in Him. He went to the cross and rose again to have a relationship with you. He is calling you through His Word this day to make a commitment to station yourself in the right places. He will meet you there.

This is the way to get a grip on faith. Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer

Happy V-Day

Matthew 28:1-10

Happy V-Day! I’m not talking about Valentine’s Day. I’m not talking about Victory Day as we remember it with World War II. Today I am talking about Easter. Easter is our V-Day. Easter is not about bunnies or bonnets or bonbons. Easter is about victory. It is when Jesus rose victoriously over the power of death.

Christ has risen! He is risen indeed! He was dead. I mean really dead! He was crucified on a cross and suffered a horrible, excruciating death. He was stabbed with a spear to make certain He was dead and laid in a rich man’s tomb. Still, death could not hold Him, for three days later He showed up alive. Matthew lays out the evidence in our Easter reading for today.

First, there are the women who were the first witnesses to the resurrection. Women in those days counted for very little in Roman, Jewish, and Greek circles. They couldn’t testify in a court of law; they were more considered to be goods and possessions. They were discounted people of society. If the story of the resurrection were to be fabricated, women would be good witnesses. But this is how convinced Matthew was of the truth of the resurrection. He didn’t change a detail. It’s just like God to have two women be the first witnesses of His Son’s resurrection.

God is consistent. Jesus was born in an obscure province in a stable, raised in a town people made fun of. “What good can come out of Nazareth?” they’d say. He worked as a carpenter. He died on a cross – a place associated with God’s curse. And now this? Of course! Only God could have dreamed up something so remarkable.

We have the evidence of the empty tomb. Despite the guards and the huge stone covering the tomb, it was open and empty. The body was gone. No questions concerning Jesus as to the emptiness of the tomb.

Then there is His appearance. The disciples saw Jesus on the way back to town. They touched Him and heard His voice.

We also have the evidence of transformed lives. The disciples’ perspectives were totally changed. They moved from mourning and fear to joy and confidence.

We have the fulfilled predictions. Jesus predicted His death and resurrection three times, like the angel reminded the women at the tomb. “He is raised, just as He said.”

There is the commissioning. The women were told to go and tell the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee. By the end of the book of Matthew, the disciples were commissioned to go and tell the world and make disciples of all nations.

This is not something the disciples came up with on their own. This event began a worldwide movement for which they actually laid down their lives. Would you lay down your life for an untruth?

The Good News of Jesus spread. Here we are today, two thousand years later. How could it be if it were not true?

For me, the case is closed. I hope it is with you, too. Christ is risen! He defeated death. As Paul says, “Death has been swallowed up in victory. ‘Where death is your victory, where oh death is your sting?’ Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Cor. 15:15-57). The cheerleaders’ chant from my old athletic days is ours today: V-I-C-T-O-R-Y. Victory, Victory that’s our cry!

V-Day could also stand for Vindication Day, for Jesus was vindicated on Easter. His resounding message to His opponents, His disciples, and the world that didn’t understand Him was, God is strong! When the stone was rolled away and the risen Lord stepped back into the world from the tomb, God said to us, Jesus is the Savior of the world. He’s My Son. He’s the One you want to be trusting.

Now, let’s get personal. Jesus is the Savior you and I really need. Looking back at Scripture, we find we have a severe problem called sin. It carries terrible consequences. Our sinfulness, our rebellion against God, leads to a physical and spiritual death, for the wages of sin is death.

Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:1 that we are dead in our sins. It all began in a garden with the disobedience of a couple who wanted to run their own lives and be their own gods. Sin spread throughout the world to everybody. Because of sin and its consequences, we all need a Savior. Jesus entered our world and lived a life of perfect obedience to His heavenly Father. He lived the life you and I couldn’t live, which made Him the perfect sacrifice for humanity’s sinfulness. Ultimately, He went to the cross and suffered the punishment we were to receive, so everything could be made right. As He breathed His last, He cried out, “It is finished!” which means literally, Paid in full. Payment for sin was made at the cross.

How do we know it worked? The resurrection! The resurrection is God’s “Yes.” It is the vindication of His Son and what His Son has done. And so, because Christ lives, forgiveness is ours. A restored relationship with our heavenly Father is ours as we place our trust in Christ. Eternal life is ours as well. Jesus is the first fruits of the resurrection. We share in His victory. Death is no longer a wall for us but a door. It’s not a period but a comma.

In my congregation we talk about death as graduation time. We go to be with Jesus. I have had some tough funerals since last Easter. Thank God for Jesus. I have sat in nursing homes and at hospital bedsides as dying people testify to me, minister to me by saying things like I’m really not afraid. I’m going home now to be with Jesus, just as He promised. Just as He promised.

God’s Easter message not only gives us Jesus as Savior, but it also means Jesus is Lord! He lives and rules eternally. He is the Lord of Lords. All authority in this world has been given to Him. The earliest Christian creed was, Jesus is Lord.

What does it mean to say Jesus is Lord? Well, in the early Christian church, it was a way of saying Jesus is God. In I Corinthians 16:22, Paul shares a prayer that was common in the earliest Christian church just a few years after the resurrection of Jesus. The words were, Maranatha – Lord, come again. It wasn’t written in Greek by the way, but in Aramaic, which means it is a very early prayer. The earliest Church figured out Jesus had to have been God. Jewish folks only prayed to God before this, and now they are praying to Jesus.

In Philippians 2:1-11, Paul quotes an early Christian hymn, which was written before he came along telling us that Jesus is Lord God. He is in charge of the world, yet He stepped down, emptied Himself and humbled Himself at the cross. But God exalted Him at the resurrection and gave Him the name that is above every name. One day every knee will bow and every tongue confess this truth that Jesus is Lord.

This conclusion the the earliest Christians made about Jesus being Lord God didn’t just come out of the blue, by the way. They remembered things He had said about Himself, which now made sense. Things like “I am the good Shepherd”; “I am the resurrection and the life”; “Before Moses was, I am.” I am meant God in the Old Testament. When people asked where He got the right to claim authority to forgive sins, He responded, “I and the Father are one. When you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” Easter verified these claims, and so they came to the conclusion that Jesus is Lord.

If, then, Jesus is raised and God has exalted Him as Savior and Lord of the world, then it brings us to this point: What have you done with Jesus in your life? You do have a choice, you know. Some choose to ignore Him; some reject Him; some underrate Him simply as a good teacher; others keep Him on the sidelines of their lives. Some believe in a general way – like, I believe in mom, apple pie, and Chevrolet – but they have no relationship with Him. People can say all the right things and yet not be connected to Him.

What about you? Here is what He wants you to do: Trust Him as your Savior for your salvation, for your eternal life. Put your faith in His saving work. A person is saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Place your trust in Jesus and bet your life on what He has done for you. Lean on Him heavily for your salvation. Put your whole weight upon Him.

Trust Jesus with every area of your daily life, not just your salvation. Don’t leave Him on a shelf only to be taken down for emergencies. He is here with you. “Lo, I am with you always.” Talk to Him in prayer and seek His guidance in the Scriptures as you open the Bible and read the Gospels, where He teaches you about kingdom life.

Live a life of gratitude for the great rescue He has done in your life. Someone once remarked, “After I met Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord, the rest of my days have been a PS. Thank you, Lord.

Thank Him not only with words and songs, but with your actions. Become a living sacrifice of thankfulness for Jesus. A friend of mine for instance recently laid his father to rest. He was a great saint. This man had such enthusiasm for telling other people about Jesus and what He had done, all of it motivated by gratitude. Jesus saved his life in a remarkable way years earlier, and he was overflowing with gratitude for what Jesus had done for him. He couldn’t seem to help himself; he wanted everyone to know and trust Jesus. His motivation wasn’t out of obligation, but pure gratitude. “What Jesus has done for me, He can do for you” he’d say.

A friend of mine in the church retired recently from the corporate world. I probably shouldn’t even call it a retirement though, because he is working full-time for Jesus. He travels with our young people on mission trips. He attends their get-togethers on Wednesday evenings. He tirelessly works in an inner-city ministry reaching lost people during the week, and one evening a week he’s at the state prison hosting a Bible study. Early Friday mornings, he hosts another Bible study.

He could be taking it easy and spending all his time entertaining himself. However, he is so filled with gratitude for what Christ has done for him that he and his wife insist on serving Christ as long as their health allows them. Wow! That is a living sacrifice of thankfulness!

Jesus wants you to serve Him as your Lord. If Jesus is Lord, then we are His servants, and we owe Him unhesitating dedication and uncompromising obedience. It means we commit ourselves to doing life His way and doing His will with our lives.

One of the greatest Christian leaders of the last century was John Stott. He was director of All Souls Langham Place in London – a wonderful preacher, Bible teacher, author, global leader to many. An article written by Os Guinness states, “I knew him (John Stott) over many decades, but I will never forget my last visit to his bedside three weeks before he died. After an unforgettable hour and more of sharing memories over the years, I asked him how he would like me to pray for him. Lying weekly on his back and barely able to speak, he answered in a hoarse whisper, ‘Pray that I will be faithful to Jesus until my last breath.’ Would that such a prayer be the passion of our generation too.”

And if Jesus is Lord, then worship Him. Bend your knee to Him. Bow down and worship Him as God. Give Him His worth – not just on the weekends. Be a living sacrifice of worship to Him every day. Focus on Him in worship. Worship is all about Him. It’s not about you; it’s about Him. Give Him your all when you’re at worship in your church.

So happy V-Day! God has spoken. You have a Savior and a Lord. His name is Jesus Christ. What are you going to do with Him? God is calling you today, this V-Day, to trust Him, thank Him, praise Him, serve Him, and obey Him the rest of your days. Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer

 

Charles Blondin

What Jesus Says About Choices

Matthew 7:13-29

We have many choices and decisions to make in life. Columbia University recently did a study and found that the average person makes about 70 decisions every day. That’s 25,500 decisions a year. In a 70-year lifespan, it is 1,788,500 choices we’re making. We are truly fearfully and wonderfully made!

We are created in God’s image. We have a mind with which to think. We are eternal beings. We have a will, which enables us to make choices. What a wonderful thing that is! Think of all the choices we make: Where we live, who we will marry, which school we will attend, and what our career choices will be. In today’s passage, it turns out that we have an important choice to make in regard to our relationship with Jesus Christ.

Jesus is now at the end of His sermon on the mount. After He announced the kingdom of God was at hand and called people to repentance, He preached this sermon to a huge crowd and to His disciples. We call it the Sermon on the Mount. In that sermon, He describes kingdom-of-God living about Christian character, the way of being blessed by God, and the influence we can have in our world being salt and light. He is describing inner righteousness (not just external righteousness), but living from within in a right relationship with God. He talked about religious piety (how we pray, fast, and give) and our priorities (seeking first His kingdom). And He talked about our relationships and how we treat other people.

Now His sermon is drawing to a close. The main body of it has been given and the instructions have been laid out for all to hear. Notice how Jesus ends it. It turns out He wasn’t preaching for applause or just reflection, but for a decision. Every good sermon, I’ve learned along the way, goes for a verdict. It ends with a motion to act upon what has been preached. Jesus did this in the final section of His presentation. He gave us two options – only two. Not a third. No compromise. No middle of the road here. You have to choose between the two.

Jesus lays out the choices in this way. First, know this. We have two ways to go – two gates, two roads. One way is very broad. Jesus describes it as easy. It is popular and requires little of those who choose this way. It holds moral laxity and no boundaries of thought or conduct, no need for repentance or change. You can just follow the desires of your own heart. Little is required of you.

The other gate is narrow. It’s not the most popular choice. It’s difficult, uncomfortable, and inconvenient. Its boundaries have been given by divine revelation, by God’s Word. God deems what is true and good behavior.

This is not an easy path, for no one likes to be considered narrow by others, even though the truth is narrow. We know 2+2 = 4, no question about it. The truth is narrow. Jesus commands us to enter the narrow way.

Why? Because each way has its own destination. The broad way leads to destruction, the narrow way leads to life. Jesus says to choose the narrow way, which is Him. He is the way, the truth, and the life.

Jesus goes on to describe two trees – a bad tree, which bears bad, inedible fruit, and a good tree, which gives good fruit. He is actually warning us about false teachers within the Church. They may seem to have all the answers. They are very likable. They are charismatic, and their teachings are easy to swallow. They are dangerous though and deceptive as wolves. They are like wolves in sheep’s clothing. They are like bad trees, which yield bad fruit. They say things like,
Live for number one. You have to take care of you. It’s all about you.
It doesn’t matter what you believe; all roads lead to God.
You can earn your eternal life.

These people are dangerous to your spiritual health. Jesus says they can lead you to ruin. Instead, stick with good teachers who cling to God’s Word and teachings.

Good teachers pass on truths like those from the Sermon on the Mount:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who recognize their spiritual bankruptcy before God, and their need to ask for His grace.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who want a right relationship with God and to live rightly in His sight. They hunger for righteousness not only for themselves but also for the whole world. Their desire is God’s will be done.

These good teachers will tell you to
Rely on God in absolute dependency.
Know Him as your heavenly Father who loves you.
Expect to suffer for the cause of God’s kingdom and the Gospel.
Pray for your enemies instead of hating people.
Forgive as God has forgiven you.
Let your light shine before others so they see the good deeds you do and give glory to your Father in heaven.
This is what life is about in the kingdom.

Good tree or bad tree? The choice is yours, of course. But know this: one way gives life and the other leads to ruin.

Jesus also says we have two ways to respond to Him and His message. We can choose to just give Him lip service. Those who choose this way profess all the right things and even do religious things, but they continue to retain control of their own life. They post a “No Entrance” sign to Jesus in certain areas of their life. Deep down, they want to hang onto things that are spiritually unhealthy. They don’t want to change, so there’s no repentance, no surrender. They act like spiritual chameleons who like to blend in. They stand up for Jesus on Sunday, but will not stand out for Him on Monday. Jesus says that on the last day when they stand before Him and call out, “Lord, Lord!” “Lord, Lord!” He will respond that He doesn’t know them. He will refer to them as evildoers because they are just playing religious games.

Or we can give Him our life. Don’t just talk a good game. Do what He says, which is the will of the Father. He doesn’t want just lip service, but your life.

Finally, Jesus points out that you can choose to just hear Him and go on your merry way, or you can hear Him and act upon His message. He says, “Everyone who hears my words and then acts on them is like a wise man who builds his house upon a rock. It stands strong, even in the worst storm. But those who hear my words and do not act on them are like the foolish man who built his house on a foundation of sand. The storms came, and the house was easily destroyed.”

As you read all the statements Jesus makes in this section of Scripture, you really can’t miss what He wants us to choose. There really are only two options, two gates, two roads, two teachers, two responses, two foundations. Only one choice is right for you – devote yourself to following Jesus Christ. Jesus is not looking for your applause or your admiration. He wants people like you and me to make a choice to follow Him, to live under Him in His kingdom, love Him, and serve Him.

During the introduction and the closing of this sermon, Matthew tells us there were actually two groups of people listening to Jesus as He talked about living in the kingdom of God that day – the huge crowd and the disciples.

When Jesus called for a verdict, there were two responses. The crowds were astonished when Jesus finished His teaching. They were impressed and admired Him. “Such authority in the way He speaks!” they said to one another. But Jesus wasn’t looking for admiration. He wanted them to follow Him and live their lives under His authority. Yet only a few listeners dropped everything and followed Him that day, choosing to surrender their lives to His leadership and live with Him and under His authority. Those who surrendered their lives to His leadership and chose to live with Him and under His authority were right to do so. We discover at the end of the Gospel story that Jesus truly did have authority.

As we enter into this holy week, we know that Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world. We know He rose again on Easter morning, which was God’s “Yes!” to the authority of Jesus. He truly is the one to be trusted and followed!

What about you? What crowd are you in? Are you an admirer of Jesus or are you a follower? Have you made that choice yet in your life? Have you made a conscious commitment to be a follower of Jesus, to do what He says, to live with Him and under His authority, to let Him be the master of your life and to live for Him? Maybe you have never done that. Maybe you’ve never been given an opportunity. Many, even within the church, haven’t made the choice. Like drawing a line in the sand for Christ.

Samuel Shoemaker, an evangelist and wonderful pastor from the past, said “I am shocked to learn how many people in our churches have never anywhere made a decisive Christian commitment. They kind of oozed in the church membership on a conventional kind of basis, but no one has ever effectively dealt with them spiritually or helped them make a Christian decision.”

Have you made a decision to follow Christ? Let me share an image of what it means to follow Him. It’s the story about a man from the past named Charles Blondin, one of the best-known tight rope walkers in the world. He became obsessed with crossing Niagara Falls. So he strung a hemp cord 1100 feet across and 160 feet above the falls and announced he was going across from one side to the other. He was quite a showman, and a crowd of thousands gathered to watch him attempt the walk that day.

There he went – inch by inch. Tension was in the air. Life or death, no safety net below him. He crossed all the way over. People were taking pictures of him. So he did it again. He actually brought a camera with him that time and took a picture of the crowd taking pictures of him. He went another time with a chair, balanced the chair on the rope, and stood on the chair. When he went another time and took a wheelbarrow across, the crowd just went crazy. This man walks his rope with such authority!

Then he turned to the crowd and asked, “Do you believe I can do?” Of course they all believed. They cheered. Then he asked, “Who will get in the wheelbarrow with me?” And it got quiet. “Do you believe in me?” No one answered.

One man named Harry Colcord knew Blondin. He’d worked with him and had seen them do this hundreds of times. He got into that wheelbarrow, and they went step-by-step cross Niagara Falls. Can you imagine being Colcord, how it must have felt to take that ride? Well, they made it to the other side and the crowd went nuts again. But the crowd didn’t get in the wheelbarrow. They applauded him. They admired him. But only one man trusted him. The walk they went on together, neither one would ever forget.

My dear friends, have you gotten in the wheelbarrow with Jesus? Have you devoted yourself wholly to Jesus Christ as your Savior, the Lord and Master of your life? Maybe you’ve thought to yourself, I don’t know if I have a right to do something like that. I have some sins and regrets from the past. My life is not together enough to be a disciple of Jesus.

Jesus would say to you, I know you well. Your sinfulness is a big problem. Your heart is messed up and filled with all kinds of filthiness you can’t fix on your own and you can’t clean up in order to stand before God and look good. But I can take care of that! I died on the cross for you. If you will confess your sins and repent (which means asking God to forgive you and help you to change), I will wipe the slate clean. Just put your past sin and guilt in the wheelbarrow. Then put your present and future in the wheelbarrow – your time, your energy, your resources, your relationships, your mind, your emotions, your attitude, and your work. They don’t belong to you anymore but to me. If you say you can’t live this kind of kingdom life on your own, just ask me to come in and I will live my life in you.

Commit yourself to do what He says, knowing you will mess up along the way. You need His forgiveness and His power, and He will always give it to you. Simply form the intention saying Jesus, with your help I’ll try the best I can to do what you say. I give you my life, my time, my obedience.

Choose to get in the wheelbarrow today. Jesus has told us clearly that the day will come when all of humanity will be in one of two camps: those who choose to follow Him and those who reject Him. On that day, where will you be? This is your moment to choose.

Evangelist Billy Graham once said, “The destiny of your soul is in your own hands by the choice you make.” So friend, why not settle that today and choose to be a follower of Jesus Christ. In fact, if you want to be a follower, I invite you right now to close your eyes. If you are sitting, stand up so you can make a statement with your body as well as with your lips. Then repeat after me.

Jesus, I choose to follow you, to live under you in your kingdom, to do what you say, and serve you all the days of my life. Forgive my sins. Help me to change. I need you in my life. Amen.

If you prayed that prayer today with me, congratulations! You’re in for an adventure, and you can be sure that Jesus is smiling because He’s absolutely delighted by your choice. Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer

What Jesus Says About Relationships

Matthew 7:1-12

In Christian circles, we sometimes talk of the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ because it is important. There is no greater thing than placing one’s trust in Christ and following Him. It means life eternal. However, being a follower of Jesus Christ is not just an individualistic, but also a community affair. We are called into a Christian community, such as a church interrelationship, with new brothers and sisters in Christ. But we are also called to relate to the society around us as well. The follower of Jesus Christ is meant to live in a network of relationships. We are not to be isolationists.

How, then do we best conduct ourselves in this network of relationships as citizens of God’s kingdom? That is the question being answered today as we continue our study of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew 5, 6, and 7.

So far in this message, Jesus has been describing life in the kingdom of God. He describes Christian character, Christian influence, Christian righteousness, piety, and priorities. In today’s reading, He talks of the Christian’s relationships. Though these little paragraphs at the beginning of Matthew 7 appear to be unrelated to each another, there actually is a common thread running throughout this section – relationships. Jesus here instructs His disciples, His followers, on how to relate to people in our various networks.

First, listen to what He says about relating to people in the church – your sisters and brothers in Christ. “Do not judge so that you may not be judged.” Jesus knows the Christian community will never be perfect. We are both saints and sinners as we follow Jesus. We have a tendency to step on one another’s toes and sometimes misbehave. Ego, pride, and selfishness still rear their ugly heads in us, cause pain to others, and create tensions in our relationships in the church. So how do we behave in response to a fellow member who has misbehaved or who has sinned against us?

Jesus knows how easy it is for us to judge and criticize. It makes us feel like big shots, just a little more spiritually together than others. But He says in response, “Don’t judge, for by the judgment you make so will you be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you receive.”

What does He mean by that? Modern-day people today love to say, “Don’t judge me,” especially when they’re doing something they know is probably wrong. But I wonder, is this really what Jesus meant when He said that? Was it meant to be used this way? Was He saying that we ought not to exercise our mental critical faculties to distinguish between right and wrong, good and bad, moral and immoral. Did He intend for us to do away with the law courts in our society? Was He recommending turning a blind eye, ignoring the immoral or hurtful behavior?

No. He’s not saying that at all. In fact, we were created in God’s image with the ability to make value judgments. To suspend our critical faculties would be an absolute contradiction of how God made us and why he made us. We know from other places in Scripture that Jesus urges us to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong, and to act accordingly. He tells us when someone sins against us, we should go to them and try to fix things, make them right. So what does Jesus mean when He says judge not?

As we examine this text a little closer, we find He is actually talking against the spirit of harsh condemnation and criticism, being a fault finder who is negative and destructive toward other people and prone to write people off. He basically points out in this passage that this kind of behavior is sinful, because you are taking the place of God as judge. That is God’s job. Only God knows the whole story on a person – their heart, their motives. Scripture says man looks at the activity; God looks at the heart. Only He has the authority to condemn and judge. Jesus points out that if we insist on playing a harsh, condemning judge, God will use the same measures on us instead of showing us mercy.

By the way, some biblical commentators have pointed out that these words of Jesus could actually be considered a bit of a commentary on a petition from the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Jesus’ followers are to be people who exercise mercy and forgiveness instead of judgment toward brothers and sisters in our Christian community. So “judge not” is not a command to be blind to wrongdoings. Rather, it is a plea to be generous with mercy. In fact, later on Jesus tells a parable about a guy who is in debt to a king for more than $1 million. When he pleaded for mercy and a little more time to pay him back, the king showed mercy and took the debt completely away. He let the man go free.

When this servant came away from the king and ran into a fellow servant who owed him a mere $20.00, he has him judged and thrown into jail. When the king hears of it, he hauls the man back into court and judges him as wicked for not showing mercy to his fellow servant. Then the king throws him in prison until his debt is paid. That’s what Jesus is talking about here. Don’t judge so that you will not be judged by God. God has shown you generous mercy; now be merciful toward one another in the Christian community.

Why? Because if that doesn’t happen, the Church and the cause of Jesus Christ will suffer in this world. Nothing can tear up a fellowship quicker than a spreading spirit of judgmentalism and criticism. The reputation of the Christian church suffers, which means the gospel message suffers. People on the outside looking in on us, when asked about their view of Christians, say Christians are judgmental hypocrites. Why would I ever want to be involved with a movement like that?

Jesus then goes on to illustrate what he’s talking about using rather strange and comical images as a rationale for this statement about not judging. He says it is being hypocritical, because not only are you fallible yourself, but you are also fallen, a sinner. Listen to His words: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye but don’t notice the log in your own? How can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take that speck out of your eye while a log is in your own eye? You hypocrite!”

Before you try to fix someone else, take a good, long look at yourself. Look in the mirror, because it’s a lot easier to see the faults of others than your own, to have a rosy view of yourself and a jaundiced view of others, to exaggerate the faults of others and minimize your own. That’s why Jesus was constantly going after the Pharisees. Those super religious people of His day. He called them hypocrites and described one of them in a parable standing in the temple exalting himself for his goodness and disparaging someone else for their badness. Jesus castigates that Pharisee for that. He was playing the role of a moral superior with no sins and no love for others. Jesus points out that when we place ourselves in that role, it’s nothing more than hypocrisy.

“Recognize the log in your own eye before you pick at someone else’s speck.” You have to be very gentle when you’re trying to help someone get a physical piece of dust out of their eye. Can you imagine trying to do surgery on someone with a log in your eye? You’re too blind to help!

So we need to ask ourselves if we have a plank in our own eye – some sinful habits that need to be confessed and removed by God’s grace and mercy. First things first, Jesus says. Instead of condemning and hypocrisy, take the log out of your own eye. Take an honest look at yourself and ask for God’s mercy in your life. Then you can help your brother take the speck out of his eye – not with a sense of superiority, but with humility and love, not with the eyes of a judge but with the eyes with a doctor.

Oswald Sanders captures what Jesus meant, “What God has done for me, He can easily do for you. You only have some sawdust in your eye, but I had a huge log in mine.”

I am reminded of Paul communicating the same teaching of Jesus, “Brothers, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the spirit, should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1).

Then Jesus widens our circle of relationships to those who stand outside of a relationship with Jesus. They maybe don’t understand or are not interested in God matters. They might not even want to understand this “religious thing” that you’re into. When they hear the gospel, feel it being pushed on them, or hear talk about God, they act negatively toward you, irritated, sometimes even hostile. Jesus says this proverb about these relationships: “Don’t give what is holy to dogs, and don’t throw your pearls before swine or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.”

What an odd little statement! It is a proverb. Biblical scholars have been puzzling and arguing though the years about what it means. What are we to make of this? Well, let me take a shot at it.

Dogs and pigs back in those days were looked upon with a negative attitude. They were wild, unclean scavengers in the streets known to attack people. They could never appreciate something holy like a Bible or valuable like pearls. It would be insane to even attempt to throw something like that in their direction. They are only interested in what they can eat. Try dumping a load of inedibles upon them. It means nothing to them; they’ll just trample them into the ground. They might wind up even attacking you because at least you’re edible. Jesus says that anyone with sense would never think of doing that.

When Jesus describes the pearl or the holy, he’s describing the value of being a part of the kingdom of God, the gospel message of having God rule over your life as you trust in Christ. The holy could be the Word of God itself.

Well, just like wild dogs and pigs, Jesus says there are people who won’t and perhaps can’t understand and so they reject it. They even get hostile if you continue to push them hard enough with your little pearls. They just might get irritated enough to rip you to shreds physically or more likely verbally.

Jesus is not saying we shouldn’t bother with unbelievers. Don’t buy that. It goes against the Great Commission to go make disciples of all nations. Instead, He is telling us to show some discernment and sensitivity. Don’t force things down someone’s throat. It can only lead to a destructive response. Disciples of Jesus are not called to be storm troopers of the kingdom! We are to be equipped with sensitive radar systems. If you’ve shared the good news of Christ with a friend who rejects it, sometimes you need to just quietly move on.

Later, in Matthew 10, as Jesus sent the disciples out to be witnesses for the kingdom, He told them, “If they don’t receive you, shake the dust from your feet and move on.” The Apostle Paul exercised this advice in Acts 13 when the Jews rejected the gospel. So Paul and Barnabas left and went to the Gentiles.

One last word on this. To give people up is a very serious step to take. I can’t encourage you enough to turn to God in prayer and the Christian community’s counsel before you take a drastic step like this, because we know every soul matters to God.

It is no wonder Jesus then follows this up with the most important relationship of all in this talk: Your relationship with God. He says, In all of this, always turn dependently and confidently to your Father in prayer asking for His wisdom and help. Your Father wants to hear from you. He loves you more than any earthly father could. He is the giver of good things. As you go through life and your relationships, keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking with the expectancy of a son or daughter who knows their Father loves them, who is sure that God answers – sometimes in ways we might not expect – but according to His will. He always answers.

Finally, Jesus talks about a relationship for everybody in general. He says, “So in everything do to others as you would have them do to you, for this is the law and the prophets.” Some people call this the Golden Rule. It is one of the most misunderstood statements in the Bible. First of all, it is not the sum total of the Christian truth, nor is it God’s plan of salvation, as some will unknowingly claim. But it sure does sum up Jesus’ teaching about loving your neighbor as yourself, doesn’t it.

As you examine this positive imperative from Jesus, you find a lofty standard being expressed here – to do what we would want someone to do for us. That’s how you treat people. It takes sacrificial love. It requires putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes and asking, How would I want to be treated in this instance? It involves taking on a very generous attitude, going out of your way to encourage those who are depressed, forgiving those who have wronged you, helping disadvantaged people, and treating others as you would want to be treated if you were in their shoes.

There you have it! Jesus has given us a big boatload of instruction about living out our faith in the various relationships we have with people. You might ask, Why does He spend so much time on this subject? Why does God care about how we relate to everyone around us?! It is really quite simple.

Because how we Christians treat other people reflects on Him and His kingdom. Our love for Him, our love for one another in the fellowship of the Church, and our love for our neighbors out in the world bring Him glory and honor among others. That, my dear friends, is the ultimate purpose of the Christian’s life – to bring God glory.

What Jesus says about relationships begs the question, Can I really do this? It sounds impossible; I know myself too well. And the answer is, Yes, you can. Not perfectly, mind you, but you can. Remember the audience Jesus is talking to. These words are for people who have tasted God’s grace through Jesus Christ. They know they deserve judgment, but they have mercy through the cross. They no longer have to operate on their own because they have a heavenly Father who is approachable and available in prayer. They have been blessed by God’s grace and empowered by His Holy Spirit to walk in the ways Jesus describes.

So, yes. You can bring glory to God in your relationships when you belong to Christ.

This takes us back to the beginning of this message. It all starts with a personal relationship with Jesus who gave His life at the cross so you can enjoy a life-giving relationship with your heavenly Father as a member of His kingdom and glorify Him in everything you do, including your relationships to people. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer