A Warrior’s Joy

Zephaniah 3:14-17

Were you aware that God’s heart holds no greater joy than to surround you with His love and power, to whisper His love to you and sing for joy because you are His? God desires you to trust His heart and reciprocate His love as He holds you close.

What motivates a soldier to go into battle? What motivates a warrior to fight? In John 15:13-14a, Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends . . . ,” Jesus said.

In America this week, we celebrate our independence and the freedom we enjoy as citizens of this country. We would do well to remember, freedom is never free. We owe a great debt to the men and women who, through the years, have served in the armed services or sacrificed their lives all over the world so we might live free.

I think about the major wars in recent history all the way back to World War I where men froze in the trenches through the winter. Or World War II, where thousands of men sacrificed their life on the beaches of Normandy as they crashed to the coastline of France to gain a toehold on the continent of Europe, drive back the enemy and ultimately win the battle for the world. I think of the battle in Korea, the war of Vietnam, the Gulf wars, and the battles in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I think of how terrorism percolates up all over the world in a senseless destruction of innocent lives. Wherever it happens, men and women rise to fight for freedom and justice. They fight to protect the innocent and maintain the safety of citizens. We need to remember, freedom is never free. It comes at a cost, and it is worth fighting for. It involves self-denial and sacrifice. In the heat of battle, it might even include the spilling of blood. Men and women have died so we might live free in this land. I am grateful as we celebrate our freedom.

People of faith, however, also remember the Bible is full of images where the verses describe God as a warrior who does battle for us. God rescues us. He defeats our enemies. Jesus saves our lives, our souls. He forgives our sin and reconciles us to God the Father. Ultimately, God is the warrior who fights to win our hearts.

The Old Testament shares numerous stories of battles where God’s power gave the people victory. In the Old Testament book of Exodus, the major saving event happened when God sent Moses to face Pharaoh. God’s people were being held as slaves in Egypt, but Moses did not fight Pharaoh with an army. God used elements of nature to bring ten plagues upon the nation of Egypt and convince Pharaoh of His power.

Pharaoh finally said “Go. Go from my land. I give you my freedom.” But then he had the audacity to chase the Israelites into the desert. Pharaoh and his army mounted on horses and chariots and pursued them, armed to the teeth to destroy them. God used the Red Sea to defeat Pharaoh, drown the enemy, and give God’s people great victory.

Remember the battle of Jericho? Joshua and the Israelite army encountered a fortified, thick-walled city with God’s power going before them. God instructed Joshua to march around the city once a day for seven days. Then, on the seventh day they were to march around the city seven times, blow the trumpets, and shout praise to God. The walls of Jericho tumbled down, and God’s power gave them victory.

Do you remember when Goliath, the giant with the Philistine army, day after day brought challenge to God Himself and the Israelite army? The Israelite army shook in their sandals. But then the boy David wanted to fight Goliath. As David went out to face the Philistine giant, he said, “You come to me with sword, shield, and spear. I come to you in the name of the Lord our God. The Lord will give you to me in victory this day, for the battle is the Lord’s.”

David, the boy with a slingshot dropped the Philistine giant. The battle was the Lord’s. God was the warrior whose power gave the Israelites a great victory over Goliath and the Philistines that day.

Over and over again, God is the warrior who fights for us. The truth David spoke is true for us also. The battle is the Lord’s!

I don’t know what circumstances you face in life that are too powerful for you. I don’t know what enemies loom impossible for you to deal with in your own strength, but we would do well to, in faith and prayer, invite the Lord to release the Spirit’s power to do battle for us. God is the warrior who fights for us. God’s strength might change the circumstances of your life context totally, or He might change the hearts of those who are opposed to you and causing you difficulty.

God might heal your body physically. He might restore conflicted relationships, or His Spirit might be poured into your character and give you strength to persevere through the dark storm until you emerge on the other side and say, “God, thank you for seeing me through.”

In all these cases, God is the warrior, the champion who fights for us motivated by His love.

Zephaniah was God’s prophet in Jerusalem. He was the great grandson of King Hezekiah, a very godly King. He was the grandson of Manasseh, who was an idol worshiper. His father, Amnon, was in fact the worst, most evil king. Amnon promoted the worship of idols, child sacrifice, immorality, and worship practices with the priests and priestesses. Bloodshed, violence, and immorality were pervasive in the nation of Israel. The people lived in disregard of and ignorance for God’s Word.

Under the boy king Josiah (a colleague of Zephaniah the prophet), God’s book was rediscovered in the Temple, which led the boy king Josiah to institute major spiritual reform. Zephaniah the prophet, was a man of God, who begged God’s people to come back to Him so God would give them victory over their enemies, go before them to remove the evil from them, and open a new future. God in His love continued to fight to bring them back to His arms. He would fight the victory battle to remove their destructive habits and rhythms, which had been so harmful to them.

So Zephaniah paints a word picture of the Lord as a victorious warrior who has already won the battle and now comes back to sweep us up – His child – into His arms, hold us close, and sing for joy because we belong to him. We are safe, and we are loved. God cherishes us.

My granddaughter, Pema, just turned one year old. When I see her, which isn’t often enough, she is uncertain whether she is comfortable with me as her papa. She looks at her mom and dad as if they need to rescue her. Her trembling lip tells me she’s afraid, because she doesn’t know me yet. So I go into my “crazy papa” act. I sing, or I play, or I dance. I do whatever it takes so she may know she is okay with me, we can have fun together, and I love her.

Take that image and know it is God who holds you. He wants to break down your defenses and win your heart. He wants you to feel comfortable in the power of His love as you are held in His arms. He wants you to believe His promises and trust that His heart is good to you so you will reciprocate His love. He wants you to trust Him as you sing for joy because you belong to Him.

God is the warrior who has won the victorious battle over Satan and the enemy forces eternally. He is also the warrior who wants to hold us in His arms and win our hearts to Him.

I’d like to tell you the story about a Vietnam veteran named Dave Roever. Dave was raised in the state of Texas. When he was 21 years old, he married his high school sweetheart, Brenda, who just turned 18. Dave was drafted to fight in Vietnam, but because he was already enrolled as a seminary student, he had a letter of exemption. However, night after night, as he watched news reports of soldiers who were killed in action fighting for America in the far-off land of Vietnam, he felt the tug of his heart and enlisted in the Navy. He kissed his wife Brenda goodbye promising, “I’ll be back without scars.” Boy, was that a wrong statement!

Dave was trained to be a gunner on a river boat in a heavy combat area of Vietnam. Then came July 26, 1969, a very significant, momentous, day for Dave. He was holding a white phosphorus hand grenade about 6 inches from his right ear when a sniper’s bullet detonated the grenade.

“I looked down and saw my face on my boots. My chest was ripped open, and I saw my own heart beating, pumping blood out of an open artery. My skin was literally melting off my body. The rescuers flipped me face down on a stretcher but the phosphorus from my body caught the stretcher on fire.

“They finally got me to a helicopter to be airlifted out of that combat area. The medic sitting next to me was literally filling out the paperwork on how, when, and where I was killed in action. I finally yelled, ‘Medic!’ and they knew I was still alive.

“Eventually I was taken to a hospital in Japan. One day in my healing and recovery, I asked for a mirror. That day,” Roever says, “I lost hope. It was a worse day for me than the day I was wounded in Vietnam, worse than having my face, fingers, skin, and hair blown off. My life had been saved, but now I feared the rejection of my wife.” Roever knew Brenda could not love him anymore. After all, how could she love a freak, a scarred monster?”

Eventually, he was shipped back to a hospital in America, and the day arrived when his wife Brenda came to see him at the hospital. Roever was frightened of her rejection of how he now looked.

As the doctor and Brenda entered the unit where 13 men in a severe burn unit were being cared for, she walked up to his bed and said, “That’s not my husband.” The doctor said “Yes, ma’am. That is your husband, Mr. Roever.” She looked at his wrist band and said, “I guess it is him!”

Dave awakened, and Brenda smiled and said, “Welcome home, Davie. I love you. I’ll always love you. Then she bent down and kissed what was left of his face. When she straightened from that welcome-home kiss, scar tissue stuck to her lips. Dave shares, “I knew that if she could still love me, I could heal and still have a life.”

Now, with the help of Jesus Christ, Roever has healed, and he travels the world sharing his story of Jesus’ redemption. The United States armed services employs Roever as a resiliency coach, paying him to tell wounded soldiers his story and his hope is in Jesus Christ.

Remember, freedom is not free. Jesus is the warrior who comes to us wherever we are wounded and fallen. He has given His life, and His heart is committed to love us unconditionally. Jesus bends to kiss us in our broken places, in our wounds – whatever the cause. Jesus, you see, emptied Himself of all power and authority. He became our servant. He submitted to the will of the Father. He submitted to the warped justice of Pilate. He surrendered to the Roman soldiers to be crucified. Why?

Jesus, our warrior, was motivated out of love for you. He knew the shed blood spilled out and flowing down the cross was the only power that could rescue us so God would see us forgiven, with sins atoned. The door is opened wide to be reconciled to the Father.

God has fought the battle, and you now belong to Him. He has won our hearts forever. Amen.

Pastor Lee Laaveg

It's Suppertime

It’s Suppertime

Luke 14:7-24

When I was young kid, a familiar sound was often heard in my neighborhood about 5:00 p.m. It was the sound of my mother’s voice calling out, “Steve! It’s suppertime.” I would usually be playing with the neighborhood kids and within hearing distance. I cold heard her, but was busy playing, so I would ignore the call and not respond. A few minutes later she’d called again. “Steve, it’s time to come home! Supper’s ready,” but I would continue to play.

If I waited too long, I might hear a final call. This one was tinged with frustration and quite a bit of irritation. “STEVEN EARL KRAMER! You get home right now or you won’t get supper!” That’s when I knew mom meant business, and I’d better hustle on home. Looking back on it, I’m sure mom would not have followed through on her threat. She had a lot of grace in her.

I’m telling you this story because, as we continue our sermon series – Stories With Intent – we find Jesus telling a parable with a bit of the same sentiment and feeling. It also holds an irritated warning.

Jesus is sitting at a dinner table with Pharisees and scribes. It’s the Sabbath, and He is their guest. He observed things going on around Him at this party and eventually shared His observations with them. They probably weren’t very happy because it was a very tough critique.

To the other guests surrounding Him He said, I can’t help but notice you guys fall over each another trying to grab the place of honor at the table. Don’t do that! Humbleness is the name of the game.

To the host He said, A very select group is attending your dinner. You seem to have invited only the rich and pious in your circle of equal status. Instead of inviting those who can pay you back, invite the poor, the lame, and the blind – those who cannot reciprocate. It pleases God, and you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.

Ha! Tension must have filled the air when Jesus gave these criticisms. Perhaps a long, pregnant silence filled the room. AWKWARD! Who does He think He is, speaking to us like He is God or something! What does He know about the resurrection of the just anyway?

At that point, someone at the table spoke up and made a statement, a religious platitude. “Blessed is everyone who will eat the bread in the kingdom of God.” He was referring to the great day of God’s salvation, which had long been anticipated by the Jewish people. The day when Messiah comes, all would be well.

They commonly thought about the coming day of salvation as a great banquet as it was referred to in Isaiah 25. It would be a new day of peace and prosperity. God would be in charge. Experts among the Jews believed and taught that this kingdom would only be enjoyed by the Jewish faithful, meaning them. No sinners, outcasts, or unclean types would be allowed at the table – especially not Gentiles (the non-Jews of the world).

“Blessed are those who eat the bread of the kingdom.” Why do you suppose this person made the statement anyway? Was it because Jesus said something about the future resurrection of the just and just needed to respond with something religious? Perhaps. As if he was saying, Resurrection day, Jesus? We’re in! When the role is called up yonder, I’ll be there. Yes, sir! Or was someone trying to ease the tension in the room as if to say, At least we can all agree that when the kingdom comes, it will be great, and we will be blessed. Perhaps, but if it was the reason, it didn’t work.

In response to the man’s statement, Jesus told a parable, which had to have upset them all the more. It was the story of a man who once gave a great banquet and invited many people. His initial invitation was accepted by many at first, but when the man’s servant made the announcement that all was ready, it was met with excuses from the invited (weak excuses at that). The man’s generosity was treated with great rudeness and rejection. One said, I bought a field and have to go check it out. Please hold me excused. This excuse was weak, for no one would buy a field without examining every square inch of it before putting a penny down for it. It would be like someone saying today, I just bought a house, and I have to go see what it looks like. It is unlikely to happen, a made-up excuse. The host was made to feel that the field was more important than him.

Another man said, “I just bought five yokes of oxen I have to go examine them. Please hold me excused.” Again, the excuse limps. He would have checked those oxen out before buying them to see if they can work together in pairs and so on. It was the way things were done. A modern-day equivalent would be a man calling his wife and saying, I can’t make it home for dinner. I just bought five used cars and now I have to go down to the used car lot to see if they’ll start. What’s being communicated was those oxen were more important than the host and the commitment made to him.

Finally one said, “I just married. I need to be with my wife.” Notice he doesn’t even ask to be excused. He was really rude!

By the way, in that culture, women didn’t have much status, so his excuse would have been extra insulting to the host. She’s more important than the commitment you made to me, would be his feeling.

Well, Jesus went on with the story. The host became angry and changed the entire guest list. He wants a full house, so he sends his servant out – first to those who would be the least expected to be invited, the poor, the lame, the blind, people who couldn’t reciprocate his generosity. To those who didn’t deserve to be there – outcasts, unclean sinners upon whom the religious people looked down. And when the host sees the hall is still not full, he sends a servant out to invite travelers and strangers to join them in celebrating.

Some biblical scholars point out that this invitation was really talking about the Gentiles, the non-Jews. It’s almost like a prophecy pointing to the book of Acts. Gentiles and non-Jews were witnessed to about the resurrected Jesus who came to faith in Him.

Jesus turns to those at the table who were listening to the story and lowers the boom. He says, “For I tell you, NONE of those who are invited will taste my banquet.”

BANG!

Now remember Jesus has been announcing the kingdom of God throughout His ministry telling people that all is ready, and He is met with rejection and excuses. He eats with sinners and welcomes outcasts. He doesn’t keep the Sabbath like us. He doesn’t fulfill our theological and political expectations of the Messiah who would usher in God’s new day. He is a carpenter’s son!

Jesus is saying to those Pharisees and scribes through this parable, The kingdom of God has actually been staring you in the face. As you reject me, you are rejecting God’s kingdom. You will lose your place at the table if you don’t come to me. Know this: The party will go on with you or without you. The decision is yours. You are invited. Why don’t you come?

This message applies to us still today. The Good News God wants everyone to hear is this: The kingdom banquet with Jesus is ready for you. Everyone is invited, and everything has been prepared for you through the suffering, death, and resurrection of God’s Son, Jesus. The supper is ready; come and eat. As the psalmist says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good. Blessed is the one who takes refuge in him” (34:8). The invitation stands. It is up to you to accept it. This party will not be canceled, if you don’t come. But you will miss out on its blessings and joys (the forgiveness for your sins, eternal life, abundant living in the power and presence of God, and an intimate relationship with your heavenly Father). If we wish to enjoy these things, we must respond. Coming into the party involves placing your trust in Jesus Christ and what He has done for you. It means to follow Him as the Lord, the leader of your life.

While the announcement is made that God’s dinner is ready and available, it is still met with excuses even today. Just like in the parable, God’s generous invitation to receive Christ is rejected. Excuses are made.
• I’m busy with important things, like my work and career, or building my own little kingdom, success and recognition.
• I’m busy with pursuing, collecting, caring for earthly possessions.
• I have family activities, and other obligations to attend to.
• No thanks. Not now, anyway.

These things I’ve just described – work, career, possessions, and so on – are gifts from God. There is nothing wrong with them. However, they have a tendency become idols making us deaf to the invitation of Jesus Christ. They can cause us to miss God’s great banquet. What a tragedy it is when these blessings are allowed to shut out the claims of God who has made us for Himself! Remember, the party goes on – with or without those who have been invited.

I few years ago, a couple came into my office for some premarital counseling. It quickly became clear that they didn’t have much of a spiritual foundation and were missing out on the blessing we have been talking about. When I asked them, “If you were to die tonight, do you think you would go to heaven?” they didn’t know. I also asked, “If God asked why He should let you into His heaven, what would you say?” their response was, “Well, we’ve tried to live as good as we can. We haven’t hurt anybody too much.” So I shared with them the Good News of the free gift of salvation, which has been prepared for them through faith trusting in Christ. I then asked if they’d like to receive the gift from God right now. My invitation was met with silence. Finally, this soon-to-be husband said, “I don’t think so. Not now. We’re not ready for that kind of thing at this stage.” How sad.

Fortunately, though, some hear Christ’s invitation to His banquet, accept it, and gladly come. They come humbly, empty-handed knowing they don’t deserve this gift, for all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Salvation is only by grace. They come gratefully to receive forgiveness, a new start, and an intimate relationship with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A joy-filled future awaits them, which will last forever. They have a new purpose for living in this world. Their lives are blessed by the bread of life – Jesus Christ.

How about you? Have you accepted His invitation to come to the celebration banquet? I heard someone say years ago, As the invitation goes out, we are all writing our replies. It’s true!
Either the response is,

Please accept my apologies, but I’m busy right now,

which is another way of saying I have more important things to do than walk with God,

Or it is,

I know my heart’s deepest need. I am weary.
I need forgiveness from God.

You have offered it to me in Jesus Christ,
who died on the cross

and rose again to give me eternal life.
With all my heart, I accept it.

This is what God longs to hear from each and every individual.

The greatest invitation you will ever receive in your life has been given. God says, Everything is ready. It’s suppertime! Come home. I want you to come now, trusting in Christ Jesus, my Son, who laid down His life for you at the cross so you might attend and enjoy my banquet. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

The World’s Greatest Father

Luke 15:11-32

It’s Father’s Day! Today is the day many of us honor and remember fathers with cards, T-shirts, coffee mugs, and with sentiments like, “Thanks dad!”, “I love you, dad!”, “You’re the world’s greatest dad!” are being given to fathers all around the world.

Many of us, myself included, have had great dads. I have been blessed with a wonderful father who has shown me unconditional love through the years. He faithfully provided for me as I grew up, and he continues to be an encourager, a friend, and a great source of wisdom to this very day.

As great as my father is, however, he would be the first to say he is far from perfect. We fathers have our imperfections and shortcomings in love and in life. Some are easily seen; others are buried deep inside of us. We are all sinful creatures.

As I talk about fathers, I am mindful that my story is very different from others’ whose every thought of an earthly father is of pain. To those of you for whom this is true, I want you to know this: Grace and the love of God for you is found in our Abba Father.

In today’s text, we find Jesus drawing a story picture of the world’s greatest Father. It is probably one of the more popular parables of Jesus. Some call it “The Prodigal Son,” others call it “The Lost Sons.” I propose we call this parable “The Story of the Prodigal Father.” The word “prodigal” means extravagant, lavish, spendthrift, generous, which describes the father exactly in this parable.

By the way, this story is told in response to the grumblings of the religious people who are horrified as they observe Jesus welcoming tax collectors and other elements of society they considered lowlifes. He even sat at the table and ate with them! Everyone knew what crooks these tax collectors were. The Pharisees and scribes couldn’t believe that Jesus, a man of God, would give them the time of day, much less have table fellowship with them.

Table fellowship was a very important matter in that day, for it implied acceptance. The Jewish leaders called Jesus’ actions and character into question because He did this. Jesus, aware of their grumbling and criticism, told them three parables. One was about a lost sheep, another about a lost coin, and then finally the parable we have today about a father who had two sons.

Both of these sons broke their father’s heart. The younger son broke it when he rebelled. He wanted his independence and decided he didn’t want to live under dad’s roof any longer. So he demanded his share of the inheritance, which is the same as saying to his dad, I want you dead! He was selfish, insulting, and hurtful toward his father.

Surprisingly, the father gave in to him, thereby putting the entire farming operation in jeopardy. He had to liquidate his assets, because his wealth was in the property. One third of the property and goods needed to be liquidated, which would create hardship for both the father and the eldest son.

The younger son went off and squandered his inheritance in a faraway country. But when a famine hit, he wound up destitute and took a job feeding pigs for a local farmer (which is about as low as a Jewish kid could get). He then began thinking about home and how good he had it there. So he came to his senses and put together an “I’m sorry” speech: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Let me work for you as a hired hand.”

He started the long walk toward home, not sure what kind of reception he would receive. After what he’d done, his father had every right to drive him away and consider him dead to the family. But as he neared the house, he saw a figure running toward him. It was his father who had seen the son coming off in the distance! It seemed his father had looked off into the horizon and saw his son’s familiar walk. As he got closer, he knew it was his son. He had compassion and ran to the boy.

Running was considered an undignified thing for a grown man to do in those days. Children and young people run, not an older man with a reputation to protect. He would have had to lift his robe and expose his bare legs to everyone. How undignified! The children of the community would have giggled at the sight. However, he needed to get to his son before anyone else might see the boy and throw rocks at him for his insult to the community.

The father embraced and kissed his son before the boy could even fall down before him and humbly beg. As the first part of the rehearsed speech left the boy’s lips, his father broke in and said to the servants who had followed him down the road “Quick! Get the best robe, the signet ring, and sandals. Butcher the fatted calf, and let’s invite the entire village to celebrate with me! For this son of mine who was lost, now is found.” Amazing!

People only ate meat on really special occasions back then. The father was pulling out all the stops. Note the extravagance here. The father doesn’t forgive the way we tend to forgive. We prefer the father be gracious, but not overly so. Yeah, we’re glad you’re home, son. Now, let’s do away with the left earring and have a bit more responsibility out of you. We’re going to have a meal and talk about your application to law school.

But the father doesn’t do that, does he? He just celebrates! The father’s forgiveness of his son, his spending and recklessness. . . . It’s amazing! It’s crazy! The lost son was found and welcomed with open arms. He was thrown a party, though he did not deserve it.

The story isn’t over yet. Remember, the man had two sons. When the oldest son came in from the field, heard all the music and celebrating, and saw all these people coming and going out of the house, he asked one of the servants in the front yard, “What is going on in there?” The servant told him about his younger brother coming home and about the father killing the fatted calf. The older son became furious and refused to come into the house, thus embarrassing his father in front of the community.

When the father came out to him and pleaded him to join the celebration, the oldest son told him off. “Look, all these years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has devoured your property with prostitutes came, you killed the fattened calf for him!”

It isn’t fair. You haven’t treated me well. That son of yours has done harm, squandered everything away. Now having him home will cost us. And what’s left of the property will probably be divided again.

And as he spilled all this hurtful language out at his dad, we learn that although he stayed home, he was just as lost as the younger brother. He felt he deserved to have a say in all of this. We discover he wasn’t working out of love for the father, but for a reward, a payback for himself.

Even after all this, the father pleads: “Son, you’re always with me and all I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was lost and he is found, was dead is now alive.” This father shows such patience, grace, and love toward the rude, disrespectful, elder son, even though he is receiving no respect and honor from him. Extravagant, unexplainable, love, and grace is being shown.

Jesus ends the parable with the elder son standing outside of the house and the father pleading for him to come in. He doesn’t tie this story up neatly with a happy ending. We don’t know if the elder son went in.

We need to remember who Jesus is addressing: the self-righteous religious folks, the elder-brother types who were horrified that He’d give the dirty, crooked tax collectors the time of day. It’s as if He was saying to them, The kingdom of God has come! These folks have figured it out. They’ve come home! Rejoice! Come in. Join us, and celebrate God’s grace.

There we have it – from the lips of Jesus Himself. We have a prodigal Heavenly Father whose extravagant love welcomes sinners who come home to Him, even though they do not deserve it. In fact, He actually celebrates our return, even after all we’ve done to Him with our sinfulness and rebellion – how we thumbed our nose in His face. It’s amazing, crazy when you think about it: the love He shows!

This is the reason, my friends, why He deserves the title “The World’s Greatest Father”. Our Heavenly Father gives His all in all to sinful fathers and mothers and sons and daughters. An extravagant gift of forgiveness and grace is being offered to every sinful person who turns to Him, trusting in His Son Jesus Christ.

Remember, even though God gives grace freely, it is costly to Him. The Father’s Son, Jesus, who truly loved the Father from the beginning, came after us to bring us home. He lived the life of the perfect Son who obeyed His Father’s will all the way to the end. God gave Him to us to save us from our sin. Jesus ultimately paid for our debt at the cross to cover our sinfulness. On the cross, He experienced the rejection we deserve, and we hear Him cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me?”

Tim Keller writes,

If after service on Sunday morning one of the members of my church comes to me and says, “I never want to see or talk to you again,” I will feel pretty bad. But if today my wife or my lifelong best friend came up to me and said ‘I never want to see you or talk to you again,’ that’s a lot worse. The longer the love, the deeper the love, the greater the torment of its loss.

But this forsakenness, this loss, experienced by Christ on the cross, the relational loss, was between the Father and the Son, who had loved each other from all eternity. . .

Jesus was experiencing our judgment day. ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ It wasn’t a rhetorical question. The answer is: For you, for me, for us. Jesus was forsaken by God so we would never have to be. The judgment that should have fallen on us fell instead on Jesus.

What prodigal love the Father has shown us!

Jesus rose from the grave and lives to give us His inheritance! Eternal life with God, is freely offered to us as a gift.

The central focus and wonder of this parable, my friends, is not so much on the faithlessness and sinfulness of humanity. There’s no surprise there. It is on the faithfulness and love of God the Father. He is the main character in all three acts of the drama. The most remarkable aspect of the story is his unexpected, undeserved, extravagant love. This describes the father in this parable: extravagant. Jesus tells us, “That is your God, your Heavenly Father.”

This parable reminds me of a favorite saying I came across years ago. The Gospel is this:

You are more sinful than you dared believe,
and more loved than you dared hope.

This is what the Prodigal Son story or the Prodigal God story is all about. It is the Gospel truth. Believe it, trust it, build your life on it. It is told in hopes of getting a response from people like you and me.

Some are like the first son – far away, lost in our rebellion and independence, thinking I can live without you, God. I don’t need you. Come home is the message. Jesus is showing you what awaits you: a loving Father who will receive you.

Others are far away because they’ve gotten carelessly lost as they listen to other voices. They’ve thoughtlessly strayed. This story is to wake them up. Come home to the Father who loves you!

Some of us are far away from God in our self-righteousness. We are religious, keep the rules, but we’re still sitting in the darkness, keeping our Father at arm’s length. Trying to control our own eternal destiny, thinking I’ve done a lot of good, God owes me! Friend, that is as much of a dead end as the first son. The encouragement from Jesus is simply this: Give up that kind of thinking. Put down your religious trophies. Come home empty-handed. Your Father freely welcomes you. Receive His welcoming grace.

The bottom line of this parable is no matter who you are or what you’ve done, the world’s greatest Father loves you. He loves you so much He gave His Son to die for you. Come home, enjoy the party, enjoy the Father’s presence in your life. Trust Him.

If you find yourself identifying with one of these two sons, far away from the Father, the parable says “You can come home!” Your Father is waiting to receive you into His loving arms. So come home. Come to Him now, and you will be glad you did. Amen!

Pastor Steve Kramer
Christian Crusaders

Good News for Troubled Hearts

John 14:25-27

I have a riddle for you today. Can you name what I am describing? It is something a widower longs for and needs as he tries to go on without their beloved spouse. It is something parents need as they strive to raise their children correctly in a dangerous world of temptations and distractions. It is something the employee longs for who is being harassed at work on a daily basis and awakens each workday with a sense of dread and foreboding. It’s something a teenager desperately needs who is struggling to fit in, make the grade in school, and feel good about herself. It’s something a small child needs as he watches mom and dad argue. It is something the world has never had since the fall of Adam and Eve and, it never will on its own as hard as it may try.

So what is it? If you guessed peace, you are right! We long for peace in our world as political parties and nations rage against one another. We pray for peace in the lives of our loved ones as they face hardships. I have friends who battle depression and anxiety, and I pray they would receive peace of mind.

We also desire peace in our own lives. Sometimes we get so troubled and worried inside – even fearful – in our fight to raise children, battle health issues, wrestle with financial issues, or struggle with relational issues. I just read an article saying Americans are among the most anxious people on earth. As one teenager put it in this article, “We’re the first-generation who cannot escape our problems at all. We’re like little volcanoes. We’re getting this constant pressure from our phones, from our relationships, from the way things are in the world today.”

More people yearn for one thing more than anything else: inner peace. Without it they have no lasting happiness or security. You have to agree with me, life has gotten more complicated, and we are all looking for peace within.

In today’s passage, Jesus is promising peace to His disciples in a not-so-peaceful situation, in a not-so-peaceful world that hates Him. The anxiety and stress hung thick in the air that evening in the Upper Room when Jesus announced He would be leaving them to be arrested and crucified on a cross. Little did they understand the cross was all part of God’s plan to save His sin-sick world.

As Jesus tells them He’s leaving them, He also tells them they can’t come along. Of course, this made them feel troubled and afraid. They were filled with anxiety and fear. They had to be thinking, Leaving us? No! We’ll be on our own, abandoned, and alone. What will we do without Jesus? Oh, no!

The disciples had been with Jesus for three years, and they had a special bond of friendship they did not want to end. So they responded with their questions. Peter and Thomas both asked, Where are you going? Philip said, Lord, show us the Father, and that will satisfy us. Judas (not Iscariot) asked, How will you reveal yourself to us and not to the world. These men were very afraid and anxious about the present and the future without Jesus.

Jesus responds to their troubled hearts and minds with words of assurance. You will see me again someday. I am going to prepare a place for you in my Father’s house. I will come back and take you to me that where I am, you may be also. Nothing will end their relationship.

He went on to promise, I am giving you another Helper to be with you forever – the Holy Spirit. I won’t leave you orphaned. I’m coming to you. Those who love me and keep my word, my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.

Finally, Jesus said these words that we read earlier:

I said these things to you while I’m still with you, but the helper, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.

The word Jesus uses here for the Holy Spirit is “Paraclete,” which has a wonderful cornucopia of meanings for us. It means advocate, helper, comforter, counselor. The Holy Spirit, Jesus says, will be with you like I have been with you to remind you of all I have said to you.

Who is He? He is God. He is Christ’s continuing presence with us, the Spirit of the living God. He is here to remind us of what Jesus said about the love of the Father for us. He directs us with His commandment to love one another as we have been loved. He is here to continually point you to the cross and the empty tomb. He reminds you that in Christ you have been died for, and you are a child of God forever. Nothing can separate you from His love. This Good News brings peace to the troubled soul.

Jesus said of the Holy Spirit, He is my peace given to you, my followers, as you live out your days in this broken world following and serving Me. The Holy Spirit = peace (Christ’s peace).

“Peace” was the usual Jewish greeting when friends met and parted, but Christ’s farewell words of peace were different from that which was current in the world. The peace the Spirit gives us is something deeper and more lasting. It is a peace which banishes anxiety and fear. It guards our hearts and our minds, according to the apostle Paul in the book of Philippians.

On this particular Sunday, we are celebrating a special day in the life of the Church called Pentecost. The book of Acts tells us the Lord’s promise was kept – the Holy Spirit has come. Those same disciples were in an Upper Room fifty days later in Jerusalem, waiting. Suddenly a great wind and tongues of fire hung over their heads, and they were empowered to preach the Gospel effectively in different languages. Peter gave a dynamite sermon, and three thousand people repented and received Christ that day.

The rest of the book of Acts describes the acts of the Holy Spirit in and through the disciples and those who came to believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord. Imagine the scene later on Pentecost evening when things quieted in the Upper Room. Andrew says to Peter, It’s true. We’re not really alone, are we? Peter responds, You’re right, little brother. He came just as Jesus said. Three thousand people! No way we could have done that! It’s only by the Spirit’s power. I’m sure of it. Peace replaced anxiety in the Upper Room. Peace filled the deepest part of their beings as they looked ahead to the difficult assignment, which lay before them, given by Jesus to make disciples of all the nations. They knew they were not alone. The Holy Spirit gave them His peace.

The Spirit’s presence and help continues. Over the centuries and around the globe, He continues to awaken faith in Christ as the Gospel message of Jesus is communicated to people. He continues to guide and lead, comfort and help, empower followers of Christ as they live for Him as His witnesses in the world. We hear about conversions all the time. Lives are being changed through the Gospel.

Author Lee Strobel tells of his conversion story and the difference God made in his life:

“My daughter, Alison, was five years old when I became a follower of Jesus. All she had known in those five years was a dad who was profane and angry. I remember I came home one night and kicked a hole in the living room wall just out of anger with life. I’m ashamed to think of the times my little girl hid in her room to get away from me.

“Five months after I gave my life to Christ, my little girl went to my wife and said, ‘Mommy, I want God to do for me what he’s done for daddy.’ At age five! What’s she saying? She never studied the archaeological evidence regarding the truth of the Bible. All she knew was that her dad used to be hard to live with. But more and more, her dad is becoming this way, and if that is what God does to people, then sign her up! At age five she gave her life to Jesus.”

So what are we to do with this wonderful news of the Holy Spirit, our peace giver? Jesus tells us, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled, and don’t be afraid.” Trust in Him and in His presence. We’re really not alone or abandoned. That, my dear friends, is our peace.

When I was a little boy, my dad made a bedroom for me in the basement of our home so I could have my own space. It was very dark down there and a lot of noise came from our furnace. It was very spooky. I was afraid, so my dad came down to be with me. I could sleep peacefully knowing someone – my dad – was with me. This is what the Holy Spirit does for us. He makes Himself known to us as we believe in Jesus.

Our call today is to believe in Jesus, and the same Holy Spirit will be present to guide you and empower you for witnessing. He will keep you in God’s peace. Pray each day for Him to breathe His life into you, fill your sails with His power and love to keep you confidently going, and shape you to be like Jesus – full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, which Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit. Living in God’s Word, let Him speak words of life into your soul, bring to remembrance and enlighten you with His grace and love. Pray He will guide you, direct you, and speak to you. It is simply a matter of yielding to the Spirit, a willingness to obey what He tells you in the Word. Then you will realize, like so many have, you are not alone. He is with you, and you can experience Christ’s promised peace, which passes all understanding.

My wife Julie and I attended a funeral last month for a stillborn baby. As we sat in the sanctuary with family and friends, sorrow and grief was in the air. The baby’s parents gave the eulogy, and it was remarkable! Yes, they were sad, but they were also filled with strength and peace. Where did their peace come from? They told us it was the peace of knowing Christ. It was Gospel peace, the peace of the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God to strengthen, reassure, and promise them, You are not alone. Your little one is in good hands, and so are you. I am with you.

May you have that kind of peace in your life. The Spirit is available. You simply need to ask Him in. It’s like the old gospel song,

“Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
Melt me. Mold me. Fill me. Use me.
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.”

May this be your prayer today.

This, my friend, is the way to find peace. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

I’ve Got a Whole New Outlook

Luke 24:44-53

The temple area in Jerusalem was abuzz. People were talking and asking questions about the disciples of Jesus. They were saying things like, Those guys are different now without their Master around. They don’t even seem like the same men from a few days ago when they came to the temple with Jesus.

As you read from the beginning of Luke chapter 24 all the way to the end, you can’t help but notice a change was happening in the disciples of Jesus. They moved from confusion, sorrow, and unbelief to great joy and faith. They were actually worshiping and praising God in the Jerusalem Temple! People had to have been scratching their heads and wondering, What in the world is going on with these guys? What’s come over them? After all, they had just gone through a horrific week watching the leader they trusted be crucified like a common criminal. Yet here they are praising God and being so joyful! What was behind those smiles, the praise, and the confidence that they exude?

I would like to invite you today to use your imagination with me a little bit. Let’s say there was a newspaper in that day called “The Jerusalem Post.” This paper heard of the odd, fascinating behavior of the disciples of the crucified Jesus, which had people talking. Sounding like a great human interest story, the editors of this good newspaper sent a reporter down to interview one of the disciples around the temple area.

The reporter stops James, the brother of John and asks him,

What gives here, James? Your leader, Jesus, has been crucified! Why aren’t you going back home to Galilee, back to your fishing business? Why stay in Jerusalem? And why are you acting so happy and worshiping in the temple every day among the same people who actually called for the blood of Jesus? Tell me, James; the public wants to know!

The reporter waits for James to respond. This is what I would imagine James would say:

Well, we’ve been given a whole new outlook from Jesus, Himself. You see, Jesus is alive! I know you think He is dead, but we have seen Him with our own eyes. We’ve even eaten with Him! He appeared to us more than once or twice.

So I’m here to tell you, Jesus was very dead, but He is now very much alive. We are praising God because He told us that anyone who trusts in Him will receive the gift of forgiveness and everlasting life.

Earlier on He said, “Because I live, you shall live also.” God confirmed this promise for us by raising Him from the dead. So as a follower of Jesus Christ, friend, I am heaven bound! Of course it makes me happy!

Besides that, the risen Jesus has explained everything to us now. He led us through an in-depth Bible study, which was a real mind opener and changed our perspective on all that happened. He said to us, “These are my words I spoke to you earlier that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then He opened our minds to understand the whole of Scripture saying, “Thus it is written that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day.” Jesus helped us to understand that all of what has happened is a part of God’s plan. Even the cross was no accident, and neither was the resurrection.

You see, “must” is the key word here, which Jesus used a lot. All that happened to Him must happen because it is part of God’s plan. Earlier on He told us three times, “I must go and suffer and die, and on the third day, rise.” He kept saying, I must do this and I must do that. We didn’t understand then what He was talking about, but now, now we know He was carrying out His heavenly Father’s plan.

He filled us in on how the whole Old Testament points to Him. He is the fulfillment of God’s promises for the world, His rescue plan. He took us back to Genesis where God told Abraham, “I will bless you and your descendants to be a blessing to all the families of this broken world.” Jesus said this promise has been fulfilled in Him. He led us through Isaiah chapter 53 with the suffering servant who dies for the sins of sinners. He fulfilled that too. He told us of how His resurrection fulfilled Psalm 16, which describes One who is not overcome by the power of death.

In fact, He actually took us all the way through the Old Testament where we find Him in every book. • In Genesis He is the seed that crushes the serpent’s head, the promised blessing to the families of the earth.
• In Exodus He is the Lamb who saves His people from destruction.
• In Leviticus He is the scapegoat that takes on the sins of the people.
• In Numbers He is the bronze serpent on the pole that heals the snake-bitten Hebrew people.
• In Deuteronomy He is the spokesman, the prophet raised by God to be listened to.
• In the Psalms He is the cornerstone.
• In Isaiah He is the suffering servant by whom His wounds we are healed.
• In Jeremiah He is the righteous branch that saves.
• In Joel He is the Savior.
• In Amos He is the bringer of abundance.
• In Jonah He is the grace of God for all the nations.
• In Micah He is the King born in Bethlehem.
• In Habbakuk He is God’s anointed One who brings salvation.
• In Malachi He is the Son of Righteousness who comes in victory.

I know I didn’t cover all the Old Testament references, friend, but they are all there in Scripture. Jesus told us it all points to Him. We didn’t know it before, but now we know that God is in control of this broken world of ours. He wants to restore it to Himself. History is “His story.” God has His plan, and we are on God’s team. This is another reason why we are praising instead of grieving. All is well.

Jesus also told us that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in Christ’s name to all the nations. Repentance and forgiveness is our Good News. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Jesus paid for our sins on the cross and rose from the grave so we might be forgiven. Everyone who turns from their old dead-end ways to Jesus will see forgiveness, a new start, and eternal life.

Now, get this – Jesus commissioned US – the eleven of us – to get that message out to everyone! He told us we are witnesses of these things. In other words, we are His chosen team! This was really good news to us because with this commissioning He seemed to be saying that He forgives us and we are still “in” with Jesus. We have messed up and let Him down before, but He still wants to use us as His witnesses in the world. All is forgiven, and we are on His team. This was such a relief to hear! It was an honor and a privilege. This is why we are praising God. It is why we are happy.

Along with the commission, Jesus also gave us a big promise. He promised a Helper from the Father. So we are to stay in Jerusalem until we had been clothed with power from on high. We don’t have to do this on our own, for power is coming to help us work for Jesus. This helper is the Holy Spirit who will convict and convince people to repent and receive Christ.

We are excited, of course. When He comes, we will turn this world upside down. We will really be fishers of people as He promised we would be when He first called us.

I am joyful because He blessed me. After the Bible study, He took us to a mountaintop outside of town, lifted His hands, and pronounced His blessing upon us, like a priest giving a benediction that God will bless us and keep us, make His face shine upon us and be gracious to us, and give us His peace. It was an empowering moment for me to receive that blessing from Jesus. We go on the mission He has given us with His blessing!

But then came the grand finale. You may find it hard to believe, but we saw something which brought us to our knees in worship. As Jesus was blessing us, He was suddenly carried up into heaven. He disappeared into a cloud!

The cloud has always been a symbol of God’s presence. In the Old Testament, God led His people in a cloud. And I saw a cloud on the mountaintop with Jesus early in His ministry; God spoke to us from it. God didn’t speak this time, but we figured that Jesus was just withdrawing Himself from us visibly so He could somehow still be with us anytime, anywhere till the end of the age. Although Jesus would no longer visit us visibly as after the resurrection, He would still be with us in a mysterious way. Wherever we are, He is available to be called upon as we serve Him.

This is what He promised us. I’ve learned that He keeps His word. I have no reason to doubt that He is with me. Maybe He was talking about the Spirit He is sending us; I don’t know. My little brain can only fathom so many things. But what I do know is this: Jesus is the Son of God. He keeps His word. You can trust Him, and He can do anything. His ascension showed us just how big He really is and how big this whole thing is! He is now the Lord of heaven and earth. He is in charge, and by His grace I’m His and He is mine forever. Someday He will reappear in power and glory and all things will be new under His reign.

This is why we are in the temple every day praising God. Jesus has given us a whole new outlook on the past, the present and now the future! And in case you’re wondering why we’re not out there doing our job yet, He told us to wait. Jesus is Lord! So when the boss speaks, we listen and obey.

Hey, now that you’ve heard all of this, why don’t you join us in worshiping Him? Trust Jesus as your Savior and Lord for forgiveness. You’ll be glad you did!

Thanks for sticking with me in this imagined interview with James. While the interview is imagined, the truths he gave the reporter were not. It’s a fact: JESUS IS ALIVE! He is risen! Jesus has conquered death.

Eric Reed tells a funny story about Easter, 2003. Following the service, a woman approached the pastor and asked, “So what happened with Jesus after the resurrection?”

“Well, He ascended into heaven, and He’s still alive,” the pastor said.

“I know He was resurrected, but He’s alive?” she said.

“Yeah! He’s alive!”

“Alive! Why didn’t you tell me?”

For the next two weeks, she telephoned everyone she knew and exclaimed, “Jesus is alive! Did you know He’s alive?”

Well, He is, and no moment of your life will be faced alone when you’re trusting in Christ Jesus.

Trusting in the risen Christ, you are heaven bound, just like James said. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. He’s carried out God’s salvation plan from the very beginning. Everything points to Jesus.

Trusting in Him means eternal life, which begins here and now and goes all the way into eternity. Turning to Him in repentance and placing your trust in Him means a clean slate with God, the forgiveness of sins, a new start.

Jesus is Lord. He’s the beautiful Savior, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords that we sing about in our hymns. At His ascension, Jesus was installed in a position of absolute rule. In the Apostles’ Creed, we say He sits at the right hand of the Father. It’s a way of saying He’s in authority. All men and women in His creation live under His rule. His reign trumps all other thrones, principalities, and powers because Jesus is Lord of all. He is the beginning and the end. All authority is His, and He holds us in the palm of His hands. This is our joy and our confidence. We follow Him.

The world may look hopeless as you listen to the news, and it may feel like evil is winning over good, but dear friend, nothing could be further from the truth. In the end God wins. He’s in charge.

This is our Good News for today! Jesus is alive! The plan has been carried out. He is Lord. All is well. When the disciples had their minds opened to this great truth, they had a new outlook on life.

My hope is that today’s passage and message help give you a whole new outlook on life. Sorrow, fear, and discouragement do not have to be the final word in your life. Jesus is alive and present for you. He’s Lord – your Lord. He’s powerful and mighty, so trust the Good News. Turn to Him daily for strength, peace, and joy because He is there for you!

Did you notice what the disciples did in response to Jesus’ resurrection and ascension? They believed and worshiped Jesus. They bowed down, submitted to Him, worshiped Him as the Son of God. Worship in this case was a posture, not just a bunch of singing – which is fine, but they worshiped Him. They submitted their lives to Him.

So can you. By the power of the Holy Spirit, you can believe in Him, bow before Him, and give Him the honor and praise He deserves. So can you enter a church and give God blessing and praise for all He has done on a Sunday morning or whatever day of the week you want.

They also obeyed Jesus’ command to stay in Jerusalem and wait for power from on high. So can you obey His commands to love God above all else and neighbor as self, to love one another as He has loved us. Because if you’re in Christ, Christ lives in you and you are powered by His Spirit.

The disciples said yes to the call, the commission, to bring the Good News of Jesus to all the nations, telling them what He’s done for us. So can you.

Friends, the goal for today was to give you a new outlook with this Good News. He is alive! Jesus is Lord! I appeal to you by the Spirit’s power to join James, the other disciples, and the millions of others since in trusting in Jesus Christ. Worship and obey Him, serve Him and live with a whole new victorious outlook on life. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer