The Essence of the Gospel

Matthew 27:11-26

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther nailed the Ninety-five Theses to the Wittenberg church door in Germany setting in motion a series of events we now call the Protestant Reformation. The prominent themes accompanying that period are Grace Alone, Word (of God) Alone, Christ Alone, and Faith Alone. I’d like to look again at those significant themes by re-examining the trial of Jesus before Pilate.Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther nailed the Ninety-five Theses to the Wittenberg church door in Germany setting in motion a series of events we now call the Protestant Reformation. The prominent themes accompanying that period are Grace Alone, Word (of God) Alone, Christ Alone, and Faith Alone. I’d like to look again at those significant themes by re-examining the trial of Jesus before Pilate.

Have you ever served as a juror? I served once for a man who’d been arrested for drug possession with intent to deliver. The prosecution had lots of evidence establishing the man’s guilt, but the defense attorney over and over said, “Do you have a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt?” I, as a member of the jury, had to decide whether the man was guilty or innocent, whether he deserved punishment legally or whether he should be set free.

There is a sense in which every time we hear the message of Jesus Christ or the story of Jesus on trial, we become jurors. We decide what the evidence tells us who Jesus is. What does Pilate say about Jesus in the story? What does Pilate’s wife, Claudia, say about Jesus. And what do you say?

Historians tell us Pilate did not have a wealthy upbringing. He was middle-class. He served in the Roman army in Germany and then married into the family connected to the Emperor Tiberius. Because of this connection with the man on the top, Pilate was given a position that would never have been given to him any other way. In AD 26 on the recommendation of Sejanus, Tiberius’s right-hand man, Pilate was appointed governor of Judea. That is nepotism at its strongest – a man appointed to a position of authority simply because he knows the right people.

In Judea, being governor carried a lot of responsibility. As the Roman procurator, he was responsible for maintaining law and order and peace in the region. Pilate’s normal headquarters were in Caesarea, but during the Jewish Passover tensions often ran high. So Pilate was in Jerusalem to maintain law and order. Hence, when Jesus was brought before him for trial, it was in the city of Jerusalem.

Pilate, we are told, was a tactless, stubborn, and ruthless governor. He thought that because he had power and authority, he could bully the people to enforce his will. He exploited them for personal gain and manipulated them for political advantage.

For example, the city of Jerusalem needed a water supply, which was always a problem. So Pilate constructed an aqueduct, a channel to bring water into the city. He concluded that because it benefitted the Jews, he would use the Temple treasury to pay for it.

As you can imagine, the people were very indignant that Pilate would steal from the holy money of the Temple treasury to pay for the aqueduct, so they rebelled and rioted. Pilate sent his own people into the crowd wearing plainclothes and carrying clubs and daggers. At an appropriate signal, they turned on the people, clubbing and stabbing them. Many were killed that day. That’s why in Luke 13:1 it speaks of the Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices. Pilate was not a kind governor. He was ruthless.

On this trial day, Jesus is brought before Pilate, and they have a conversation about the charge made of Jesus being king of the Jews. “Are you a king?” Pilate asks. Jesus has an unusual response. “You say that I am,” or “You have said I am.”

Could it be, in the manner with which Pilate was going to treat Jesus, that he was saying he was King because he was fulfilling the prophecy of the crucified Messiah, or did Pilate actually believe Jesus was a king of sorts? Remember the sign over Jesus’ head when He was executed on the cross. A sign always told the crime for which the person was being put to death. It read, THE KING OF THE JEWS. The Jewish leaders came to Pilate and said, “Don’t say ‘The King of the Jews,’ say, ‘He claimed to be the King of the Jews.’” But Pilate said, “What I have written, I have written.”

On seven occasions Pilate declared Jesus was innocent of any crime. He had done nothing deserving death. But Pilate did not wish to push against the Jewish leaders or the mob crowd. Seven times he declared Him not guilty, yet he wouldn’t release Jesus in a sentence of justice. He did try to release Jesus with the common practice of the release of one prisoner at that point in the year. He gave the choice between Barabbas – a thug, a murderer, a riotous rebel – and Jesus – the Son of God. The people, at the Jewish leaders’ instigation, called for the release of Barabbas and screamed for Jesus to be executed. “Let His blood be on us,” they said.

Pilate, even then, didn’t want to deal with Jesus. So he sent Him to Herod because Jesus was from Galilee. Herod, after wanting Him to do magic tricks, sent Him back to Pilate saying He had done nothing deserving death.

Claudia, Pilate’s wife, interrupted Pilate’s time on the bench in the midst of the trial and said, “I’ve had a dream about this man. Have nothing to do with this innocent man.”

So let’s recap.
• Pilate seven times said No guilt. No fault. He is innocent. He is not a criminal. He has done nothing deserving death.
• Claudia, his wife, interrupts the trial itself to say He is an innocent man.
• Herod said He’s innocent.
• Judas Iscariot, after the trial was over, said, I have sinned for I betrayed innocent blood. 
• The thief on the cross said to his colleague thief across the way, Don’t you fear God, for we deserve what we’re getting? But this man (meaning Jesus) has done nothing wrong. Then he asked Jesus as the King to remember him when He came in His kingdom.
• The Roman centurion in charge of His execution, observing the courage with which Jesus faced death, said Certainly this man was righteous. He was innocent, and this man was the Son of God.

So what’s the point of this Passion Story and the execution of Jesus, the end of the life of the one claiming to be Messiah of whom the story narrative says over and over and over again by all those different characters that Jesus is innocent? Here is the essence of the Gospel: Jesus, the holy Son of God, pure and faultless and sinless Son of God, the One who in compassion healed the sick and made the lame to walk, who took the children into His arms and blessed them, who raised the dead, who exuded compassion, who taught about the kingdom of God – this Jesus, who had done nothing to deserve it, was put to death. It was the worst abdication of justice in the history of humanity. Jesus, the Son of God, was unjustly condemned then whipped, beaten, mocked, and crucified, hung between heaven and earth bleeding out until His life was gone and the blood spilled out of Him. The innocent died for the guilty.

This is the Gospel – that Jesus the Son of God – is the Savior. John called Him the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Pilate’s huge problem was that He was entrusted with the authority to maintain justice, but he washed his hands of the sentence of justice in declaring Jesus’ innocence. He was afraid of the mob. He was afraid the Jews might report him to the Romans, and he would lose his position of power. He was afraid, so the gross violation of justice of the innocent was turned over to the mob to do what they will, and this innocent man died.

But Pilate’s washing of his hands did not absolve him from guilt. In an irony in the story, the mob says Let His blood be on us and on our children. The blood of Jesus’ death is on all who have sinned, all who caused His death, all who have done immoral deeds or rebelled against God’s right to be God. The blood of Jesus is on me for I am a guilty man.

The beauty of the Gospel is that, in love for you and me, Jesus was willing to take our place. As the innocent Savior of the world, He took the guilt of all people of all time in history and died on the cross with it to wash away our sins and our guilt, to lift our shame from us, and to give us a pure heart and a new beginning in His unconditional love.

That is what is called The Great Exchange. It was not only Barabbas, the murderous thug who was replaced by Jesus. Jesus also took my place. The innocent died for the guilty, and His purity lifted my shame.

Through the years, I have talked to so many people who were afraid that they were not at peace with God. They were afraid that they were not saved or that when life was over they would be banished to hell instead of welcomed into the presence of God in heaven. They were afraid that they were not good enough, their faith wasn’t strong enough, their profession of faith not sincere enough, or the morality of their life not transformed enough.

Don’t kid yourself; none of us can be good enough by our effort. No resolve of heart to be good will save us, our children, or those we love. It is only God who can rescue us. So God sent Jesus to die in our place, and Jesus the pure, innocent, and perfect Son of God, laid down His life so you could believe that He forgives your sin, and you belong to God.

It is because of the cross of Jesus that God declares you forgiven. Because of the cross of Jesus, you are not condemned. Because of the cross of Jesus, we are freed from our guilt. Because of the cross of Jesus, God calls us His beloved children. Because of the cross of Jesus, we are resurrected to a new beginning. We are His forever. In grace alone – the grace provided by Jesus’ death in our place (the innocent for the guilty) we are free and we are loved.

So I believe in the promise of God, in the name of Jesus for us. I believe I am a child of God. That is what’s so wonderful about the injustice of the trial of Jesus and the execution of Jesus on the cross. The moment in time where Jesus lays down His life for us is the greatest Good News for all who believe. Amen.

Pastor Lee Laaveg

It’s a Hard Knock Life – How Do I Get Through It?

II Corinthians 4:7-18

I am sure you’ve figured out by now that followers of Jesus Christ are not exempt from hardships just because we happen to be following Jesus. There is no special inoculation from suffering for the Christ follower. This truth can really bother us, especially when a hardship comes. We sometimes we get it in our heads that we ought to have a little bit of entitlement since we’re connected to God through Jesus. I am sure you’ve figured out by now that followers of Jesus Christ are not exempt from hardships just because we happen to be following Jesus. There is no special inoculation from suffering for the Christ follower. This truth can really bother us, especially when a hardship comes. We sometimes we get it in our heads that we ought to have a little bit of entitlement since we’re connected to God through Jesus.

I remember a humorous little story about St. Teresa Avila. She seemed to have a bit of that feeling about her. She was a little spitfire nun from the early days of the Church and was instrumental in setting up many convents. One day she was walking to one of those convents when a rainstorm came up. Her path became slippery, she lost her way and fell face first off an embankment into a mud puddle. As she picked herself up from the puddle and wiped the mud away, she looked up to the heavens and said to God, “If this is how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few of them!”

Maybe you have wondered that yourself. Paul the Apostle knew this truth well. As he describes his life to a congregation in Corinth, a nation of Greece, he reflects on his tough times with them. He shares these truths that have proven helpful for him to keep going and I believe are helpful for us in our own journey through life. Sometimes life throws hard knocks our way.

First of all, Paul announces to them, I want you to know, I’m not thinking I am any big deal at all. I’m a clay jar. But I have this treasure in me. That can be said about any one of us if we have Jesus Christ in our life. When Paul talks about the treasure, he’s talking about the Gospel, the Good News of what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. We were lost in our sinfulness, but God came to be with us through His Son Jesus Christ. Christ went to the cross and died for us. God is for us! He paid for our sinfulness. When we receive Him into our lives, God dwells in us through the power of the Spirit forever and ever. We have salvation.

This was Paul’s message. He says, I have this treasure. I am a clay jar but God chooses to use clay jars. They knew exactly what he was talking about when he used a clay jar to describe himself. A clay jar was an ordinary utensil that may not look very impressive, but was usable. Clay jars are fragile, easily cracked, and chipped. Paul says, I am a clay jar chosen by God to bring this treasure within me into the lives of others.

Why does God use clay jars? Paul explains it is so people can see the extraordinary power comes from God not from us. God is working in us. He uses the weak to bring Himself glory. This work we are doing is God’s doing. All the results are to His glory. We, as messengers, are the ordinary vessels through which the Gospel is carried to the ends of the earth. Rather than sit around and regret our weaknesses, we rejoice that God so wondrously uses that very weakness in us to His glory. I am a clay jar. I have this treasure within me.

Next, Paul tells us this clay jar has taken quite a beating. Jesus said one time, “In this world you will have trial and tribulation. But fear not. I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Paul experienced that firsthand. He said, “I have been afflicted in every way.” To be afflicted is to be pressured, stressed, feel trapped, under great, great strain.

He says, “I have been perplexed, bewildered, oftentimes confused, wondering, ‘So what now?’” Have you ever experienced being perplexed?

Paul also says he was persecuted – hounded by his foes, picked on, beaten, jailed. People even tried to take his life! He was struck down again and again, literally knocked to the ground.

Maybe he had in mind his time at Lystra (from the book of Acts) when they tried to stone him to death on the outskirts of town, but he managed to escape. In chapter 11, he describes in detail being flogged and whipped, and putting himself in danger – the danger of mother nature as he traveled, the danger of bandits, the danger of people who hate him. He talked about the pressures of the churches he was trying to start and keep going. He knew firsthand what Jesus meant when He said, “You’ll have trouble.”

Paul spent about a quarter of his ministry time in prison. Christian History magazine describes what life in prison was like. Roman imprisonment was preceded by being stripped naked and then flogged – a humiliating, painful, and bloody ordeal. The bleeding wounds went untreated as prisoners sat in painful leg and wrist chains. Mutilated bloodstained clothing was never replaced, even in the cold of winter. The cells, especially the inner cells of a prison like the one Paul inhabited in Philippi, were dark and unbearably cold with a lack of water. Cramped quarters and sickening stench from the lack of toilets made sleep difficult and waking hours miserable. Because of the miserable conditions, many prisoners begged for a speedy death. Others simply committed suicide. It was in settings like this that Paul would oftentimes compose letters to his congregations.

Notice though, even with all of this hardship Paul describes, there are four “buts” in this poetic passage he is sharing with them.
• I’m afflicted in every way, but not crushed. (I have been hard-pressed but never driven to give up. I keep going.)
• I’ve been perplexed but not driven to despair. (I’ve been bewildered along the way but I never wanted to quit or give up.)
• I’ve been persecuted but never forsaken or abandoned by God. (He’s never left my side.)
• I’ve been struck down but not destroyed. (I’ve been knocked to the ground but not permanently grounded.)

And then he sums it up. “I’m always carrying in my body the death (the suffering) of Jesus so the life of Jesus may be made visible in my body.” Paul believed living the life of suffering for the sake of the Gospel would have an impact on people’s lives.

Leith Anderson, a fellow pastor, told the story of the daughter of a missionary to the Congo Republic. As a little girl, she participated in a daylong rally to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the coming of missionaries to that part of Africa.

At the close of a long day of speeches and music, an old man stood before the crowd and insisted on speaking. He soon would die, and if he didn’t speak information he alone possessed, it would go with him to his grave. He said that when the missionaries arrived, his people thought them strange and their message dubious. The tribal leaders decided to test the missionaries by slowly poisoning them to death. Over a period of months and years, missionary children died one by one. “It was as if by watching how they died,” the old man said, “we decided we wanted to live as Christians. You see, those who died painful, strange deaths never knew why they were dying or what the impact of their lives and deaths would be. But through it all, they did not leave. They kept going. They stayed because they trusted Jesus Christ. And lives were changed.”

Now, imagine you are a reporter for the Corinth Gazette. You’ve heard about Paul, and so you do an interview with him. He shares stories filled with adventure and success as well as stories about the hardships he went through by serving Christ. At one point in the conversation you ask, Paul, how do you do it? What keeps you from giving up? What keeps you from losing heart? What keeps you going instead of getting caught up in a never-ending pity party, cowering in the corner crying, “Nobody likes me; everybody hates me. Guess I’ll go eat worms!” 

Paul replies, It’s quite simple. Number one – in all of this, God is with me. It’s not me keeping myself going. It’s the presence and the power of God in me. He had a personal relationship with God, and the Lord was saving him from being crushed, from despair, from abandonment, from destruction. He says, The results of my ministry and the power to persevere during the hard times came not from me – but from God! He gave God the glory.

Paul also says, By the way, another reason why I was able to keep going is I’m staying plugged into the power God offers. Verse 16: “So we don’t lose heart, for while our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” How did Paul receive daily renewal within? We read again and again that he was a man of prayer. He was always asking for prayer from others as he wrote them letters, and he talked about how he was constantly in prayer. We find it also in the stories of Paul from the book of Acts. He was a man of prayer, and when you’re a person of prayer, you have the working of the Holy Spirit in you. You’ve opened up your life. He’s promised to come in and sup with you and you with Him. That’s all prayer is – opening the door and inviting Him in.

He says, And besides that, I’m keeping my eye on the big picture. That’s the third thing. I know where I’m going. I’m going to heaven someday. These afflictions are really nothing compared to what’s waiting for me in heaven. 

He talks about the weight of glory. I keep my eye on the big picture; I know suffering is not the last word. I managed to stay focused on my purpose remembering daily that I’m an ambassador for Jesus Christ. I have a calling on my life, and I am always on call whether I’m feeling good or not. I am on call to share that eternal life with others. 

Then Paul says, Finally, I don’t just endure my problems, you see, I employ them. I don’t just endure problems; I employ them. When you think about it, Paul is basically giving a testimony to the power of God in his life. As he talks about his suffering, he is using it to promote the Gospel. God is getting me through this. When people see the scars and wounds in your life, they listen as they watch you keep going. The light of Christ has an opportunity to spill out of you when your clay jar is cracked, when you’re taking it on the chin, and it pours into the lives of others.

A 90-year-old friend of mine, Phyllis, recently fell down the steps and broke her hip. When I saw her in the hospital a couple days later after surgery, I asked, “How did you manage to get to the ambulance to come?” (She lives by herself). She said, “I crawled over to the couch, hoisted myself up on one leg, opened the closet to get my cane, and then I dragged myself over to the phone and called the ambulance.”

“That must have hurt!”

“It was very painful.”

“How did you do it?”

She smiled and said with a twinkle in her eye, “Well, you know, God was with me.”

That sounds just like Paul, doesn’t it? Using her suffering to give a testimony to the power of God working in her.

I have another friend who recently passed away. He had ALS. Last Thanksgiving he spoke before our congregation as we talked about how we can give thanks, even in tough circumstances. He said, “Life has dealt me a rough hand.”

“How do you do it?” I asked

“I have a Bible verse I hang onto: ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.’” My friend promoted the Gospel with his suffering.

I’ve been with many a family around a hospital bed watching a loved one – a mother or a father or a grandparent – ready to graduate into heaven. This person smiles and says to their children, You don’t have to worry about me; I know where I’m going. Jesus has prepared a place for me in His heaven, and I’m ready to go. Then they talk about how important it is to trust Jesus. That person is not just enduring a problem, but also employing the hardship as they give a testimony to bring God glory.

So my fellow cracked pots, here’s what worked for that ordinary, fragile, cracked pot named Paul in his times of suffering. I invite you today to take this list of how to keep going and use it. Scripture isn’t just for us to know, it’s for us to apply in our lives. I encourage you to let the treasure within you – the Gospel – leak out into the lives of the people around you so they might join you in giving glory and praise to the God who has saved you through His Son, Jesus Christ.

Go ahead. Take what you’ve learned today. Put it to work.

God bless you in your ministry. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

It’s a Hard Knock Life Why?

Genesis 3

I love my job. After 37 years, I consider still it a privilege to be the pastor of a congregation and a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But like any job, it has its hard parts. When I watch people suffer (especially people I know and love), it’s tough to know what to say or not to say. I think of grieving couples who’ve lost their children, a teenage son killed in a motorcycle accident, a young couple holding their stillborn and asking, “Why? Why is this happening to us?” I love my job. After 37 years, I consider still it a privilege to be the pastor of a congregation and a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But like any job, it has its hard parts. When I watch people suffer (especially people I know and love), it’s tough to know what to say or not to say. I think of grieving couples who’ve lost their children, a teenage son killed in a motorcycle accident, a young couple holding their stillborn and asking, “Why? Why is this happening to us?”

I think of the young cancer patient in the hospital room who’s being told nothing can be done for him. Why is this happening? he wonders. I have a family to take care of. It’s apparent to me after all these years of ministry that the song in the musical “Annie” is right. It is a hard knock life.

Why is that? It is an age-old question. People observe starvation and disease-ravaged populations, wars and atrocities between nations, mistreatment and cruelty toward others, natural disasters, and personal calamities that shake up our lives.

Along the way I have learned there are two ways of dealing with suffering in this world. One is to deal with it on an intellectual level. Maybe if we could just wrap our heads around this question and come up with an answer, perhaps it would give us some peace. Today’s message is going to touch on the more intellectual level.

The other level is what I call it the survival level. Instead of asking why, it asks how. How am I going to live with this and get through it? The Apostle Paul in II Corinthians is going to be our teacher in the next few weeks on this level.

We talk about the reasons behind a hard knock life on an intellectual level, but as Christians we also look to the Scriptures for answers, because it is our authority. The thing is, we find no single answer in the Scriptures, just a mix of answers, which can be fairly confusing and unsettling.

Scripture, in places, will tell us our suffering comes because of something we’ve done. The book of Deuteronomy is filled with blessings and curses God lays out for Israel. If you don’t obey me, you will receive curses. Ezekiel 18 tells us everybody is responsible for the suffering that has come upon themselves. It is caused by our sin.

Sometimes we choose suffering, according to Scripture. We pick up our cross and follow Jesus. The cross is a symbol of suffering and shame.

We also find passages telling us Satan is the cause of suffering. He is on the attack, seeking to destroy devour us and ruin our faith. In other places it says God lets it happen for our own good. Sometimes it’s a means of disciplining us, growing us in character, and so on. Other times people just throw up their hands – like in the book of Ecclesiastes – and say there’s no good answer.

I found Genesis 3 to be helpful. It takes us back to the beginning and tells us the story of what happened to God’s perfect world. God created this world. It was perfect and there was harmony between God and humanity, harmony between human beings, and harmony between humanity and nature. It was perfect.

But, as you know, something happened. Creation broke. It happened with a transgression – Adam and Eve ate the fruit they weren’t supposed to eat. They were promised they would be like God and able to run their own lives. Temptation was too great, so they ate the fruit. God then interrogates them and they point the finger away from themselves. “I ate, but it was because of the woman you gave me.” And Eve says, “It was because of the serpent. He tricked me!”

Then we have the consequences for their disobedience. God lays out the future. There will be pain and broken relationships, thistles and thorns. You will have to toil in the land to even survive. There will be death – from dust you came, to dust you shall return. It is going to be a mess! The entire creation is infected. In Romans 8, for instance, Paul reflects on this by saying the whole creation groans for renewal.

The story moves on to Genesis 4. All the way through Genesis 11, we see the spread of sin and its consequences. By the end, it is quite a messed up world.

Matt Woodley, the editor of Preaching Today, tells a story from his childhood. When I was about ten years old, my dad, a medical doctor, received a special gift from one of his patients: a beautiful globe with shiny sequins. The globe spun around on its base and played one of my dad’s favorite songs. My dad proudly demonstrated how it worked: grab it by the base, slowly wind it counter-clockwise. Then release it, letting it spin clockwise while playing beautiful music. He told us, ‘You can touch it, but don’t wind it, because you might break it.’

A week later, while my dad was at work, I found the globe and brought it to my room. Although I heard my dad say, ‘Don’t wind it up,’ I decided to wind it up anyway. I gave it a little twist and let it play. It played, but only for five seconds. So I gave it another twist and another twist and five more twists and then—snap! The globe separated from the base. I desperately tried to fix it. I tried forcing the two pieces together. I tried gluing it. I tried taping it. Finally, as I stared hopelessly at the two pieces of the globe, I realized it was broken beyond repair. So I went into my closet, shut the door, and hid from my dad. It was Genesis 3 all over again.

Our world is like the broken globe: it’s been twisted too far, and we can’t put it back together again. Relationships break, our sexuality breaks, we’re slowly breaking the Earth. Our hearts break, nations break down and go to war, our health breaks, our politics break. All the glue, tape, and positive thinking can’t put it back together again.

Why the suffering? Because we live in a broken world where people suffer.

Some amazing things happened in this Genesis 3 story, though. For instance, grace. Notice what God didn’t do. After He got them to confess, He didn’t turn His back on them or walk away. That would’ve been despair.

And He didn’t destroy them. And at the end of the story, we see He even clothed them. After they ate the fruit, they realized they were naked. In the Old Testament, nakedness is symbol for shame and feeling exposed and embarrassed. God clothed them and covered up their shame and guilt.

Scholars have pointed out that God covered them with animal skins. Animals had to be sacrificed to cover their shame. Thus the beginning of sacrifice for sin and a glimpse ahead to being clothed in righteousness by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for our sin. Grace.

Now thankfully the story doesn’t end at Genesis 3 with the brokenness and the mess. After 11 chapters in Genesis, God puts His plan into place as He calls Abraham and Sarah and promises to make them a blessing to the nations of the world. He promises to build them into a nation, which we call Israel. The rest of the Old Testament is God in relationship with Israel – loving them, sticking with them even in their disobedience, still having plans for them.

Then we get to the New Testament, and we run into another picture of a garden in Mark 14. There is a person. He is on His knees. His name is Jesus Christ. He’s the Son of God. He’s getting ready to suffer and die for us on a cross. He says to His Father, “Father, all things are possible with you. Take this cup of suffering away from me. Not my will but thy will be done,” and He obediently, innocently, went to the cross as a sacrifice for the sin of the world. In Him is forgiveness and a new start with God.

If you are wondering if God cares and understands, look at the cross. It represents atonement for our sinfulness – forgiveness – but also is a symbol of empathy.

Wheaton College Provost Stan Jones provided a helpful perspective on all the questions about suffering as he faced his own debilitating disease. He said we sometimes find it difficult or even impossible to answer why. He said:

“Long ago, I read a book about suffering, and the author made a point that I have had to return to time and time again. Me said most of our why questions about suffering are ultimately unanswerable. God does not seem to be in the business of answering the why questions, and most of our philosophical responses to the question of suffering amount to various forms of taking God off the hook for the problem of suffering. But this author pointed out that God doesn’t seem to be interested in getting off the hook. In fact, the answer of God in Jesus Christ to the problem of suffering is not to get off the hook at all, but rather to impale himself on the hook of human suffering with us in the very midst of our suffering.”

When trouble comes and places a giant question mark over our existence, we should remember Jesus and the empathy of the Cross.

We serve a great High Priest who sympathizes, empathizes with our weakness.

I remember Jesus in the John 11 story shows up late for His friend Lazarus who has died. Everyone is wailing and mourning as Jesus says, “Take me to him.” What did Jesus do as He sees the pain going on all around Him and the dead body? What did He do, the One who said, “I and the Father are One”? He wept! He wept. He knows suffering and cares.

Finally, remember the cross isn’t the last word. Jesus rose again! Death is defeated, and it cannot hold us.

I love the vision God gives us at the end of the Bible in Revelation 21. John is shown a vision. He says, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth descending, and the new Jerusalem. A voice spoke and said, ‘Now the dwelling place of God is with men. God will be with them. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more suffering, no more crying, no more death, and no more pain.’” It’s like the old gospel song says,

“There’ll been no more cryin’ there, We are going to see the King.
No more dyin’ there, we are going to see the King.
There’ll been no more cryin’ there; We are going to see the King.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! We are going to see the King.”

This is the promise, the vision for the believer in Jesus Christ. God has the last word over us, and that word is not brokenness and suffering. He will wipe away the tears, and there be no more death, no more suffering, pain, and crying. It’ll be perfect, beyond our wildest dreams.

Now, I began by saying sometimes it’s hard to know what to say to those who are suffering as a pastor. Let me give you a tip – when you’re sitting with someone who is experiencing suffering in his or her life, I think it is okay, when they ask why, to say It’s a broken world. Beyond that I don’t really know. You are evidence of that brokenness. 

But then, instead of trying to rationalize anymore with them, the best you can do is to keep your rationalizations to yourself. Move on with compassion saying, “But know this: I care about you; I am here with you, and God is here with you. We just have to keep trusting Him.” Leave it at that. It’s the best ministry you can do for your suffering loved one. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

Life Is Better Serving

John 13:1-17

Those who are around Christians and the church will oftentimes hear us talk about Jesus as our King. Some churches even use King in their title – Christ the King Church, for instance. And if you follow the common lectionary, you know the church celebrates Christ the King Sunday. Many hymns describe Jesus as King – Beautiful Savior, King of Creation; Crown Him with Many Crowns. On and on the list can go. Those who are around Christians and the church will oftentimes hear us talk about Jesus as our King. Some churches even use King in their title – Christ the King Church, for instance. And if you follow the common lectionary, you know the church celebrates Christ the King Sunday. Many hymns describe Jesus as King – Beautiful Savior, King of Creation; Crown Him with Many Crowns. On and on the list can go.

Even contemporary music talks of Jesus as King. Jack Hayford’s song, “Majesty” describes Jesus as the King of all Kings. In our church, we sing another favorite song called, “You are my King, Jesus.” Preachers describe Him as King from the pulpits because Scripture uses the language as well.

When you think about it though, it’s churchy language, which can be puzzling to contemporary people both inside and outside the church. People may wonder what we mean by calling him king. We don’t talk about kings in our everyday conversations, and we don’t have kings in a democratic society. Our only experience with kings is looking back in history and at the present day figureheads in Europe. So, what does it mean to call Jesus the King?

We could respond, He is the king of the universe. He reigns over history itself. He has come to be our Savior and our King. The day will come when all knees will bow to him.

Someone else might say, Well, there is a personal side to this as well. To call Him my King is to say He’s my leader, my boss, my authority in life, my control center. He is the One I trust as I live out my days. 

Why describe Him as a King? It is a very lofty title. I suppose we could say it’s because we call Him “Jesus Christ,” which is actually “Jesus the Christ,” the Anointed One. It has the image of a King.

But there’s more. We call Him “King” because of the resurrection, because of Easter. He overcame sin and death, ascended to heaven, and sits at the right hand of God in power and authority over the whole creation. He is in charge. All of history is His story. The final word is His! If you have come to know Him and what He has done for you at the cross, how wise and how great He is, and how much He knows about what makes a person’s life work best, you know it’s best to serve Him and obey Him as the authority in your life – the King! That is why we describe Him as King. Jesus rules over creation, and He is a great King as He rules over the lives of those who surrender themselves to Him.

What kind of king is Jesus? How would you answer that question. Well, you might say He is a great King; He is a good King; He is a loving King. All of those would be correct. But have you ever heard the phrase “A picture is worth a thousand words”? Jesus gives us a picture of His kingship in today’s reading.

It was the night before Jesus is to be crucified on the cross for the sins of the world. He was with His disciples in an upper room in Jerusalem. He knew what was going to happen to Him. They were celebrating one last Passover meal together. Before the meal started, Jesus got up from the table, put a towel around His waist, and took a basin of water. Then He stooped and washed the feet of His disciples. Peter tried to stop Him, but Jesus insisted. He washed their feet, which was the work of a servant in those days. Jesus was doing the work of the servant. He is a humble King stooping to wash the feet of His disciples.

He is the servant King, as many have described Him. He is the One who said, “I came not to be served but to serve and to give my life as a ransom for many.” That’s the kind of king He is – a humble servant King.

By the way, washing of the feet was actually a metaphor of sorts, symbolic of the ultimate cleansing that would take place at the cross when Jesus poured out His innocent blood for our sins. Remember when He spoke to Peter’s hesitation in this story? He said, “You don’t understand now, but later you will.” And to Peter’s protest He said, “Unless I wash you, you can have no share with me.”

This story begins with the words, “(Jesus) having loved his own (disciples), he loved them to the end.” What end? The cross. He washed them clean of their sins.

I would be neglectful as preacher if I didn’t stop and ask you a personal question as the listener: Have you been washed of your sin by the crucified, servant King? Forgiveness is awaiting the unclean sinner who is lost and needs to come home, who repents and turns to Christ trusting in what He has done for you, because His innocent blood covers our sins and gives us a new start. Have you been washed? He is waiting for you today. He wants to wash you, to be your King, your servant King.

You might be wondering, If Jesus is my King and I am His subject, how do I live the rest of my days under Him? He doesn’t leave us guessing. After He washed the feet of His disciples and there was silence in the room (because I’m sure they were wondering what He was doing), Jesus said to them, “Do you see what I’ve done for you? You call me Teacher and Master. . .  If I have washed your feet, you should wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do what I have done to you.”

If Jesus is my King, I’ll be a doer of the Word. I’ll do what He says and follow His example. I’ll take a step to serve others. Notice, Jesus didn’t say, I gave you an example that you should study about it on Sunday mornings, or I gave you an example that you should form a discussion group and meditate on this. Or even, I gave you an example that you should memorize my words and repeat them often. No, no, no! Jesus said it plainly. He was looking for action, not theory. I gave you an example that you should do as I did to you.

What does serving others look like? In the church, for instance, Jesus tells us to wash each other’s feet. I think of Luke and Jack who faithfully show up at church each Friday. It is Jack’s day off and Luke is retired, but every week they do custodial work and help in the office to get us ready for Sunday mornings. They are serving. They are giving their time and skills away.

I think of the nursery workers who faithfully serve parents who want to worship in peace without having to wrestle with a two-year-old. They are serving. I think of those who help people who can no longer drive to church. So they pick them up and bring them to church.

I think of people who open their homes. They are great hospitality people. They host groups of people for Bible studies. And I think of those who are leading those studies, who have the gift of leading and facilitating groups.

I think of Jamie who comes every Wednesday to get things ready for our youth events. She is great at organizing things! Or the Helping Hearts and Helping Hands folks in our church who help people move, or mow their lawn, clean their house, take them to doctor appointments, and so on. Or the women who sew prayer shawls a couple times a month to be given to hurting people around us. Those with the gift of hospitality who serve communion, are greeters and readers, ushers, you name it. They are giving; they are serving. They are serving in Christ’s name.

I think of people who work with our children and youth faithfully each week. We have one of the best children and youth ministries around the Twin Cities, I believe. We serve hundreds of kids each week. Why is it happening? Because faithful servants are taking a step Jesus has called them to take. Serve. I’ve given you an example; do what I’ve done.

There are opportunities to serve outside the walls of the church as well – people who can’t make ends meet so they get help with groceries and so on. We have people hand out groceries to folks down in the inner-city, folks who don’t have anything and need someone to help them have a better life. We have folks who serve Loaves and Fishes ministry meals to the poor.

There is the opportunity for global serving. Teams go to Honduras and Haiti (Teen Challenge), and China. Quilters make quilts for Lutheran World Relief to give to refugees. The list goes on and on because the needs go on and on. Christ says, “I’ve given you an example that you should do also what I have done to you.” Wash feet.

Maybe you are homebound. Pick up a phone and call someone, because there are those who need words of encouragement, someone to let them know they are being thought about. When was the last time you wrote a card to someone and said, I’ve been thinking about you and praying for you, or to congratulate them for something they have accomplished?
How about prayer? You can pray. You can bathe people in prayer. It goes on and on.

I’ve given you an example, Jesus said. Do what I’ve done to you. If Jesus is your King, you will be a doer of the Word.

I want you to also notice the promise attached to this command of Jesus. “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” Blessed are you if you do them. There is a blessing in the doing. The primary reason Jesus calls us to servanthood goes beyond people who need our services. He also calls us because of what happens when we take a step to serve. We get blessed!

Have you ever felt blessed after doing something nice for someone? It was such a blessed experience, you say. I went to be a blessing but I’m the one who was blessed! Many stories exist about people who receive a blessing by giving themselves away to others. Jesus seems to be saying with this promise, Your life is better by serving in My name.

How is it better? We receive the blessing of growth. How do we grow?

  • We grow in our relationship with God, which is God’s plan for us.
  • We grow in humility. Healthy self-forgetfulness begins to happen when we are caught up in serving others and giving up a side of ourselves.
  • We grow in joy as we step into the adventure instead of just sitting around waiting to be waited on by others. As you step out and serve others, you find adventure and joy. You feel so alive in your faith, and your prayer life becomes more active because you are in over your head and need God’s help to make it happen.
  • We grow closer to Jesus who said, “I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. As you did it to the least of these my brethren you did it to me.”

In USA Today is wonderful story out of Portland, Oregon. Homeless people gather under a bridge called Burnside Bridge. For more than three years, carloads of Christians from a ministry called Bridgetown Ministries have shown up on Friday nights to minister to these needy men and women. In addition to providing hot meals, shaves, and haircuts, some of the volunteers wash the homeless people’s feet. The writer for USA Today, Tom Krattenmaker, was stunned by the display. He called it one of the most audacious acts of compassion and humility he’d ever witnessed. The group of outcasts had their bare feet immersed in warm water, scrubbed, dried, powdered, and placed in clean socks. One man said with a smile, “I can’t find words to describe how good it feels.”

Krattenmaker commented on the significance of this foot washing in the article. “Washing someone’s feet is an act best performed while kneeling. Given the washer’s position, and the unpleasant appearance and odor of a homeless person’s feet, it’s hard to imagine an act more humbling.” In preparation for their night of outreach, the leader of the ministry offered these words to those servants, “When you go out there tonight, I want you to look for Jesus. You might see Him in the eyes of a drunk person or a homeless person. We’re just called to go out there and love on people. You’ll grow closer to Jesus. You just might look into the face of Jesus as you serve.”

  • Finally, we grow closer to one another. With the closeness is a sense of belonging as you work shoulder to shoulder with other people for the cause of Christ, for the cause of serving in His name. You have ownership in the mission of the kingdom of God, something bigger than ourselves. It is an amazing blessing waiting to be experienced.

You might think you don’t have any ability to serve. Someone once told me the most important ability is availability.

The big ask today is, Will you trust Jesus on this one? Will you take a step of trust – a step toward being a blessing and receiving blessing and growth in your own life? I encourage you to make yourself available. Take that step, and you will be blessed as you do what He says. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

Live Better Connected to God’s Word

II Timothy 3:14-17

I’ve always been fascinated by the last words of well-known people. These words might hold a touch of advice or some wisdom, inspiration, or humor for those of us who are still on life’s journey. For instance, recently I came across John Stott’s last words of advice to his assistant back in 2011 before he passed on. John Stott was a great, great preacher and teacher of the Christian faith and a wonderful writer. His last bit of advice to his assistant was, “Do the hard thing.” Stott believed that choosing the easy trail, the road most taken and the path of least resistance can only end in mediocrity, even it comes with praise or prosperity.

Most recently, I read the last words a Christian writer I’ve enjoyed over the years, Dallas Willard, gave to his granddaughter. They were, “Give them heaven.” Give them heaven.

Have you ever thought about what last words of advice you’d like to pass on to your loved ones on your deathbed? Tom Wright, a Bible scholar was asked what he’d say to his children. He said, “I’d tell them, ‘Look at Jesus.’” Then he explained, “The person who walks out of the pages of the Gospels to meet us is just central and irreplaceable. He is always a surprise. We never have Jesus in our pockets. He is always coming at us from different angles. So if you want to know who God is, look at Jesus, and if you want to know what it means to be human, look at Jesus. If you want to know what love is, look at Jesus, and go on looking until you’re not just a spectator but part of the drama with Him as a central character.

How about you? What would your last words be? For myself, I think I’d say, “Stick with Jesus.” Or for my kids who are quite solid in their own Christian walk, maybe it would be, “Let your light keep shining for Jesus Christ.”

I’m talking about last words today because we have some last words of advice before us in our reading. It’s from an old pastor named Paul, and it’s the final letter he ever wrote. He’s written it to a young church leader, a pastor named Timothy, who was struggling in his own ministry. Timothy was experiencing some hardships, crises in his congregation. Paul is in a jail cell and about to be executed. The end is near, but he takes time to write one last letter to this young man whom he loved.

In the first section, he talks a bit about his special feelings toward Timothy, how he loved him like a son. He then moves on to anguish over what a messed-up world Timothy is working in. People are easily getting misled by philosophies, world views, and mixed-up theologies around them. Lacking God’s truth in their own lives then, they end up adding to the mess by passing on these error-filled teachings to others. They are finding their way into Timothy’s congregation, and faiths are getting shipwrecked.

The congregation needs a pastor, a leader to keep them on track with God’s truth. Paul knew that and so did Timothy. Paul reminds him of it. He and his congregation, you see, need some solid footing in the midst of the shifting sands of the times in which they lived.

Recently Julie and I had to have a new deck put around our house. Our old deck had become so spongy, we were afraid it might cave in if more than four or five people were on the deck with us. When the person came to tear it apart and put on a new one, he found there were no solid footings, just some posts that had been poked in the ground and now were rotten. We needed solid footing.

Likewise in our Christian walk with the Lord. We need solid footing. It happens so easily that we can get mixed up.

I had some folks in my congregation call me some years ago and asked, “Will you come visit us? We’re just really needing to talk with you.” When I got to their home, I learned some Jehovah Witnesses had started a Bible study in their living room. They were mixed up and didn’t know what to believe. So we sat down with our Bibles and addressed their questions. I’m glad to say they no longer are letting Jehovah Witnesses into their home for Bible study.

It happens so easily. We get mixed up by the world around us and need solid footing. Paul points Timothy to the solid footing. He says, “But as for you, continue in what you’ve learned and firmly believed and from whom you learned it — me, Timothy – how from childhood you’ve known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” There is your solid footing. Stick with the Word of God.

That word “continue” means ongoing action. Keep working with the word, Timothy. Stick with it! Share it with your congregation and get them into it. I love this statement I heard years ago: “A Bible that is falling apart probably belongs to someone who isn’t.” It is solid stuff for us! The important thing, Paul says, is it is able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ. It leads us to Jesus Christ our Savior, the Savior of the world.

The main point of the Bible is to show us how to enter into a relationship with God through His Son, Jesus Christ. Scriptures testify to Him from Genesis all the way to Revelation. The Bible contains sixty-six books, and a common thread runs all the way through. It has one storyline from beginning to end – God’s rescue plan to bring us to Himself through His Son Jesus Christ. As Martin Luther one time testified, “The Bible is the cradle that holds the Christ child.”

Paul reminds us of what makes Scriptures so special. He says, “All Scripture is inspired by God.” The word “inspired” literally means it is breathed into. God has breathed His Spirit into it. It is Spirit-filled. It is God’s way of speaking to us. It’s powerful, and it can change the life that engages with it.

I love going to Gideon banquets. I get invited because I have Gideons in my congregation. These banquets always include a testimony about some soul who is in a motel room alone. Their life is falling apart. But they find a Gideon Bible and begin to study it, engage with it. They have a spiritual awakening and ask Christ into their heart. Wonderful, wonderful testimonies of the power the Word of God.

Martin Luther says, “The Bible is alive; it speaks to me. It has feet; it runs after me. It has hands; it lays hold on me. It’s alive.”

I know there are skeptics about the Bible. They will say it isn’t reliable. It’s just a bunch of stories written by men not to be trusted. The truth is, though, of all ancient literature, the New Testament, for instance, is the most well-authenticated document with an overwhelming amount of evidence supporting its reliability. There are more New Testament manuscripts copied with greater accuracy at earlier dates than any other secular classic from antiquity such as Herodotus or Plato or Aristotle. Did you know three hundred thirty-three Old Testament prophecies about Jesus were written hundreds of years before Jesus was born? All these prophecies were fulfilled with the coming of Jesus Christ. All sorts of evidence is out there in terms of archaeology. If you are looking for some other places to build on the reliability of Scripture, pick up a book by Lee Strobel called, The Case for Christ. It’s a wonderful read. The Case for Faith is another one. It’s reliable.

Somebody might say, It may be reliable, but I don’t think it is very relevant for this modern day and age.

A young man said to his pastor, “I live in the technological age. Those people in the Bible rode camels! What do a bunch of camel drivers have to say to me?” A legitimate question, I suppose, but it’s a question we can answer. The basic issues of life – sin, guilt, hope, faith, grief, and death – have not changed. Those “camel drivers” have something to say to us. That book, which was written so long ago, has great relevance for contemporary men and women.

Paul, in our text, then goes on to say, And you know what Timothy? The Bible is useful. It’s good for you. It’s good for teaching! You want to know about God, His character, how He feels about you, how He operates, what is important to Him? Read your Bible. There you will find your doctrine of God. Do you want to know about Jesus, who He is, what He has done, the kingdom He preached? Open your Bible. Want to know more about the Holy Spirit – His job, and who He is? Want to know about the Church? And on and on. Everything we say in the Apostles’ Creed is based upon what was found in the teachings of the Bible.

The Bible is great for reproof, as well. Reproof means to set straight, convincing a person of the error of his ways, of his thinking. I love having a GPS in the car. As we drive along, when I don’t trust the GPS and start going my own direction, it suddenly it says, “Recalculating!” I need to be corrected, which moves us on.

The Bible is good for correction. It changes us, moves us in a different direction. Improvements occur in our moral posture or behavior.

Finally, the Bible is good for training in righteousness so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, which means useful, equipped for every good work. It trains us to follow Jesus so we can carry out God’s purpose in our lives.

It’s no wonder the Church refers to the Bible as God’s means of grace. It is a real gift. He speaks words of grace and peace into our lives, words of wisdom and hope, showing us Himself so we can know Him, understand Him more intimately, and know what His purpose is for our lives. This is not just for our own sake; it is also useful to God and others so we might bring Him honor with our lives.

Paul is basically telling us, The world is crazy. It is so easy to get lost. It is so easy to get mixed up and find yourself away from God and His truth. You will live better connected to God’s Word. God’s Word keeps you going.

Many people in my congregation know that for a fact. They testify to it when I walk into a hospital room for a visit, and there on the table over their hospital bed is their Bible. They’ve brought it along with a devotional book, because they know the Word of God in this time of crisis can keep them going.

And it keeps us growing – growing in Christ. My little grandson Henry turned two last week. He is healthy and growing. He is thirty-three pounds already! Why? Because dad and mom are feeding him! I don’t know what they’re feeding him – obviously a lot!

Isn’t it interesting that the Bible talks about us as infants in Christ who need spiritual milk. Peter, tells us we need food, and what is in the Bible is God’s spiritual milk for our growth. That is how He feeds us and gets us healthy. We need a steady diet of God’s Word in order to grow. Unfortunately many of us are spiritual anorexics when it comes to God’s Word. We’re starving ourselves.

Let me ask you, Do you own a Bible? I’m sure most of you are nodding your heads. It doesn’t surprise me. It is the top-selling book in the world. However, the problem is too many people, including people in the Church of Christ, don’t use them. They do not engage with the Word of God.

This is what we are being pointed to today – the importance of engaging with the Word of God. It’s important to read your Bible on a daily basis. Set aside some quiet time alone with God. Ask Him, even before you even open it, to show you what He wants you to see in the Word. It means being reflective on what you’re reading. Study it and look at it like a student. Ask questions about what you’ve read. Asking who, what, when, where, why, and how will help you get deeper into your study.

I have found for myself that one of the best ways of engaging with the Word of God, besides going to a class, is to join a small group. There is such value in being part of a small community that is committed to being immersed in God’s Word. There is the discipline of learning, the accountability of studying before I go to the meeting. The Holy Spirit works on me at the meeting, but He also works on me all the more as we share our findings with one another and ask about how we can be doers of the Word as well. How do I apply this in my life?

I asked a young man named Rich to share with the congregation a few weeks ago. He said, “The experience of being in a group has changed my life. It has made me a better husband and father as it’s gotten me deeper into the Word and God’s will for my life. It has increased my understanding of the Lord.”

People sometimes say, I wish God would just speak to me. As a pastor my response to that statement is, He already has spoken to you. Open your Bible. Read it, study it, treasure it. Read it prayerfully. Learn of His love and His will for your life, and you will discover that life is better connected to God’s Word.

That is our truth for today. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer