My Soul Thirsts

Psalm 42

Dear friends,

Grace and peace to you in the name of God our Father and through the Lord Jesus Christ.

I begin with this question: does your soul thirst for God? As human beings, our souls are our unique capacity to, in spiritual essence, know the living God – the One who hung the stars and planets in place, orbiting over the sun. Are you thirsty to know the power of God, to know the love of God, or the presence of His spirit with you? The psalmist writes: “as the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul thirsts for You.” [Saint] Augustine [of Hippo] once wrote “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in Thee.” The Jewish writer Elie Wiesel, in his well-known book Night, describes his boyhood experiences during World War II as one of the countless victims in the Holocaust. Ripped from his home, and separated from everyone in his family except his father (who would later die in the death camps), Wiesel suffered a “dark night of the soul” as few would experience. It challenges views and beliefs about God. Wiesel’s innocence and faith became sacrifices on the altar of man’s evil and sin’s darkness. It isn’t always easy to feel connected to God, is it? Gerhard Frost, however, in his book The Color of the Night, writes this: “suffering is not peripheral but central to human existence. And to avoid situations of pain is to condemn oneself to the shallows of life. And God goes before us, still calling ‘Follow Me.’”

So we understand the psalmist who compares our soul’s first to be connected to the love of God with the deer that pants when it’s chased by the hunters through the woods. A. W. Tozer, in his book Knowledge of the Holy, writes:

We live in a world hot in pursuit of quenching its thirst with everything but God. That’s because we seek satisfaction in the wrong ways and in the wrong things. We run too hard chasing mirages that cannot satisfy. We get stuck in the mud in ruts of destructive behaviors that imprison us. We live in a culture that glorifies booze and drugs and sex without consequence. We chase frame or power or wealth. We purchase all kinds of toys to distract us. We want prestige, but in the end we’re left empty.

You ever heard U2 sing the song “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”? Bono, the lead singer of U2, says it’s a song about every heart’s longing for God. The lyrics read [paraphrased]:

I’ve climbed mountains and run through fields, scaled city walls, and I’m still running because I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. I’ve kissed on the lips and spoken with devils, but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. I believe in the kingdom come, where colors bleed into one. You broke the bonds, You loosed the chains, You carry the cross of my shame.

It’s a haunting lyric, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”

There’s an ancient tale from the country of India about a young man who was seeking God, and he went to a wise old sage for help.

“How can I find God?” he asked the old man.

The old man took him to a nearby river. Out they waded into the deep water. Soon the water was up just under their chins. Suddenly, the old man sees the young man by the neck and pushed them under of the water. He held the young man down until the young man was flailing the water in desperation. Another minute and the young man may have drowned. Up out the water the two of them came, and the young men was coughing water from his lungs. And, still gasping for air and reaching the bank, he turned and looked at the old man and said indignantly “what’d that have to do with my finding God?”

The old man asked him quietly, “while you were under the water, what did you want more than anything else?”

The young man thought briefly and said “I wanted air. I wanted air more than anything else.”

And the old man replied “when you want God as much is you wanted air, you will find Him.”

We need to thirst for God like a drowning man craves air.

There are many biblical figures who thirsted for God. Do you remember when Moses, from the mountaintop, prayed “Lord, show me your glory”? Do you remember when the prophet Elisha said to his mentor Elijah, just before the Lord took Elijah to Heaven in a fiery chariot, “Give me a double portion of your spirit,” which, of course, would be the Holy Spirit. Jacob wrestled with the angel of the Lord all through the night, and he repeatedly said “I’ll not let you go, I pray you bless me.” Do you hear the desperate passion to know God? And who can forget the New Testament story of Saul the spiritual zealot? The terrorist, who support of the stoning of Stephen and harassed and imprisoned many of the followers of Jesus, until he met Jesus himself on the road to Damascus. And his life was totally changed because he met the living Christ. Here’s what he wrote in Philippians 3: “I’ve suffered the loss of all things, and I count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ. That I might have the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” My soul thirsts for God – it’s the only place I’ll be truly satisfied.

But the psalmist, in Psalm 42, also writes about “walking in the darkness” or struggling with despair. You remember of the song Simon and Garfunkel used to sing? “Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again.” So the psalmist says “soul, why are you cast down in despair? I used to lead the procession of praise with joy and thanksgiving into the house of the Lord, and now I drink my sorrow. I drink my tears.” What kind of personal trauma or tragedy do you suppose of the writer experienced that turned his life upside down, to push him into dark despair?

One of the things might be fear. Fear can seize us by the throat and paralyze us, leaving us overwhelmed and powerless. We realize we’re at the end of ourselves. I want to remind you of what David wrote in Psalm 27, he said “The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the defender of my life, of what shall I be afraid? In spite of this, I will be confident. One thing I’ve asked the Lord and that I seek: that I might dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Our fears can paralyze us. Our nation, and our world right now, is affected by an illness – the coronavirus – and it is an imposing threat which instills fear in the hearts of people. We don’t want to contract the disease. We certainly do not wish to die. In correspondence to that illness that has a rampant fear, that paranoia is impacting the world’s economy, and the investment portfolios of many people are plunging as a result. What are we going to do with our anxiety and with our fear? What we do when we feel dissatisfied or discouraged or disillusioned? Where do we turn? The psalmist says “Hope in God.”

Another reason that we can be pushed to the point of despair is a sense of being betrayed. Somebody has lied to us, somebody has violated our covenant with them, somebody has violated our personal trust, somebody has unfairly “flipped” on us and “thrown us under the bus,” so to speak. When we feel betrayed we lose our capacity to trust, and we can despair.

A third source of walking in darkness, like Wiesel’s “dark night of the soul,” is pain. It might be physical or emotional or relational, but pain can throw us for a loop.

The fourth reason that, many times the human experience, we can be pushed into despair so dark that we can’t just think happy thoughts and will ourselves out is the death of the dear one. When we lose a loved one, especially prematurely or tragically by accident, when we stand by the grave of someone that we have cherished, the grief is palpable. How are we going to get past it? The psalmist says “Hope in God.”

The fifth and final reason I want to list today for why we might journey into despair, walking in darkness, is our own moral failure. If we fall in some terrible sin, the consequences of that choice to our relationship with God and with other people might be more than we can bear. And then you throw in the fact that the enemy, Satan, wants to taunt us in the darkness. “Where is your God? How to God help you now?” Satan, in the midst of our darkness, wants us to despair to the extent that we can no longer see the future, and we lose hope, and our faith dies. I take heart in the verse in 2 Timothy 2:13, where we read “If we are faithless, God remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.”

If you’re in the darkness today, if you’re struggling with despair, if you’re depressed, I encourage you to cry out to God. “Hope in God.” Let the prayer of your heart confess your fears and your despair. We walk in darkness, but we do battle with prayer and the promises of God’s word. Do you remember what Jeremiah the prophet wrote in Lamentations 3? “This I recall to mind, therefore I have hope. The Lord’s loving kindness never ceases. God’s compassions never fails. They are fresh and new every morning.” The focus of our eyes has to be on God and not from the source of our fears or the source of our despair.

Finally, in the midst of the darkness, I want to say to you boldly that the person of Jesus makes it all different. Jesus understands our human emotion and our human experiences. Jesus is the One who said “I am the light of the world.” John 1 says “The light shines into our darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.” A quote we read says “better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” Jesus understands our human experiences. Hebrews 4 says “we don’t have a high priest unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but One has been tested in all things as we are. Yet He was without sin.”

The second reason that Jesus makes our darkness different is that Jesus not only went to the cross to bear our sins, but to enter into our darkness so that we are never alone. No matter how dark the journey of your life become, Jesus whispers to you “I’m right here with you. I’m right here.” In the Psalms it says “even the darkness is not dark to Thee, O Lord.”

The third reason Jesus makes it all different is that He has broken the power of sin and death and the devil. So, we live our journey of faith from a position of victory. We don’t live the journey in order to gain victory, that’s already been won, and we are more than conquerors through Christ who loves us.

The fourth reason that Jesus makes it all different is that He is the fountain of life. He is the living water springing up to give us new beginnings, and the hope that tomorrow does not have to be a continuation of our past struggles. If we thirst in our souls for God, then Jesus is our living water.

And finally, Jesus makes it all different because He is the source of joy. God penetrates our darkness to shine with His love so that we can walk as people of hope.

May the Lord bless you in the light of His love, as your soul thirsts for God. Let His light shine in your darkness, and give you joy.

Amen.

Pastor Lee Laaveg

Living the Jesus Life: Be A Good Citizen

Philippians 1:27-30

Dear friends,

I love being a citizen of the United States. Yes, it has its flaws, but those flaws are few in comparison to the benefits and blessings I’ve received as a citizen. As you know, part of being a citizen is not only receiving blessings and privileges, it also involves responsibility and duty. It means paying taxes, participating in our community, serving our country, and being respectful and honest. Participate in the country.

I have a dual citizenship, by the way. Maybe you do too. Anyone who is a believer in Jesus Christ has another citizenship far greater than any other. It’s heavenly citizenship. And, as a citizen of God’s kingdom, I also have received many spiritual blessings and privileges that I enjoy: a restored relationship with God, forgiveness for my sins, a cleansed conscience, the promise of eternity. And I also have duties and responsibilities as a citizen of this heavenly kingdom. That’s what the apostle Paul tells us in our passage for today from Philippians.

Let me just set this up for you little bit: Paul’s been telling these folks of how he’s rejoicing because the gospel’s advancing, even where he is, and he’s in a prison in Rome. He reports in his letter that he’s been using his uncomfortable circumstances to bring Christ Jesus to the soldiers guarding him and that the whole Praetorian Guard has now heard about Jesus from Paul. And not only that, the Christians in Rome who had been kind of shy are now sharing the gospel of Christ more boldly, as they’re inspired by Paul. And Paul tells these Philippians that he’s all in when it comes to the gospel, “for to me to live is Christ, to die is gain.”

Now he turns the conversation away from himself, today, in this passage to the Philippian Christians (and to us as well) as he writes, “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel; conduct yourselves in a way that honors Jesus your King and represents Him well in this world of ours.” Paul was actually talking citizenship. The verb, “let your manner of life be”, is literally “live as citizens”. Live as citizens worthy of the gospel, he says, the gospel of Christ.  He’s telling us it’s important to conduct ourselves as good citizens of the kingdom of Christ. We’re His representatives in the world. You do that, first of all, with your character, and then also with your conduct. Paul keeps going, he says

Conduct yourself this way so that whether I come to you or am absent I may hear these things about you. That you are living life in a manner worthy of the gospel; that you’re living like our king Jesus would live, with a loving attitude, with kindness, and mercy, and grace, and truthfulness, and goodness , and integrity, and humility, and compassion towards others, and obedience to the great commandment to love God and love neighbor. Because how you act does say a lot, it tells the real story.

He says it’s also a continual standing firm in striving for the faith of the gospel. We’re to be evangelistic, called to spread the gospel of Jesus to other people. To intentionally, boldly, and gently sprinkle our conversations with others about Jesus and what He did for us at the cross and tomb. To tell others the good news of God’s kingdom plan of salvation. To invite people to turn to Christ and receive the forgiveness of sins. Paul says as you’re doing those two things, it’s so important that you do them together, as the church. It’s too hard to do this alone. He says, “I want to hear that you’re standing firm in one spirit, striving side-by-side for the faith of the gospel.” That striving side-by-side is a term from the world of athletics. He’s talking teamwork — everyone working together as a team for the advancement of the gospel in your community. We need to stay connected to one another, doing His work together, not only as a show of strength, but it’s a source of needed strength and encouragement as each of us goes with the gospel into our neighborhoods and various community settings.

Paul says,

I want to hear that you’re not afraid of anything, of your opponents who want to shut you up and shut you down. I want to hear that you haven’t clammed up about the good news for fear of what might happen to you, but that you’ve stood strong for Christ. I want to hear stories about your courage towards pressure and threats.

We need ask who these opponents of the gospel are that he’s talking about, and also do we have opponents like that today? All these opponents that, in all likelihood, that Paul was talking about, were the locals who bowed to Caesar as their lord. They had other gods they worshiped as well, and the people that were in power could make life hard on those who insist that Jesus is Lord, not Caesar. They could accuse them of sedition against the state, and persecute them. They could reject them, and ridicule them, and have them treated as outcasts. It still happens today, there are people who reject and ridicule the gospel and the people of Christ, calling our gospel nothing but a fairytale religion, trouble for all concerned. This faith of ours still has opponents in states, and countries, and of course other religions that consider Christians as infidels. And we even hear from atheists that this world would be so much better off without any religion at all, it should just be outlawed. They tell us to be quiet. There’s also Satan. In Ephesians Paul reminds Christians that, as we strive to serve Jesus in the world, we’re fighting not so much against flesh and blood, but principalities, and cosmic evil powers, temptations, trials, and suffering. Peter, in his letter, talks to the devil as a roaring lion, seeking to devour those of us who are citizens of the kingdom. Paul says,

Why do this? Why stand strong and courageous? Because this is a clear sign to them, who are opposing you, of their destruction and your salvation from God. It’s your witness. As people see you stand strong, and persevering in your faith, they’ll know that this gospel must be of God, and that maybe they’d better think twice about opposing or rejecting that which could lead to destruction for themselves.

And it sends a strong message to Satan, “Satan, you’re defeated! Your end is coming soon! Jesus is Lord, not you! The kingdom of God has won and you are doomed!” Jesus said to Peter, upon his confession of belief in Jesus as the son of the living God, “Upon this rock I will build my church. And the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.”

Paul says as you live a manner of life worthy of the gospel, it carries with it the possibility of suffering for the sake of Christ. You’re signing up to suffer. You’re saying, “I’m willing to suffer for Jesus.” Paul had experience suffering firsthand, and he knew that faithful, obedient followers of Jesus would suffer as well. Listen to what he says here: “It has been granted that you should not only believe in Christ for your salvation, but suffer for His sake, being engaged in the same conflict that I’m having.” Notice Paul here seems to be saying that suffering for Christ’s sake is a gift, a privilege. He wasn’t alone. In Acts 5, we’re told that the apostles, after they’d been arrested and been beaten by the Sanhedrin council, rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for Christ’s name.

What does suffering for Jesus look like today? Does it still happen? Well, we know there are parts of the world where you will suffer for your Christian faith: persecution in China, and the Near [Middle] East, and Africa. We read of persecution of Christians in the ‘Voice of the Martyrs’ reports that we receive on the internet. It’s tough out there in other parts of the world for Christians who are trying to represent Christ. But how about countries like the United States, is there suffering? Well, in comparison there’s not much suffering, not like that. Maybe some cynicism and skepticism of others toward you, or some will ridicule you, or view you as less than intelligent or open-minded. I’ve been called “narrow-minded” as I preach that Jesus is the way, the truth, the life. People respond to me sometimes, “Come on, you’re being arrogant, narrow-minded, and intolerant. I thought you were smarter than that.” But, real suffering for Christ? I can’t think of ever being seriously abused, or persecuted, or beaten for my faith in Jesus.

So this begs the question: Paul says that “is been granted to you, suffer for the sake of the Gospel”; how do you and I suffer for the sake of the Gospel in a country that has religious freedom? In my sphere of influence there probably is not physical suffering, like other parts of the world, for the faith. But there is suffering that I’m called to right where I live, suffering for the sake of the Gospel. There’s an old word that comes to mind; long-suffering.  It’s used in the King James version of Bible. Some people, you see, are difficult to love and serve. You know what I’m talking about. They can be mean and ungrateful, they can be just hard to tolerate. Long-suffering is a commitment to patiently keep on loving and serving that person (or persons) in the name of Jesus, no matter what. To get them into the kingdom, you suffer. There is suffering that can occur when I willingly choose to be different, holy, and set apart for God. Because I want to be obedient to Christ, I decide I won’t run people down with gossip at the office, or participate in it, or laugh at coarse jokes. I won’t swear or curse in order to be one of the crowd. I won’t reject the outcast in my school or at the nursing home who sits alone in the dining room, but instead I’ll go sit with them and befriend them at the risk of being scoffed at by others. I won’t sell out on my Christian values to fit in with the crowd. I won’t hate others because they don’t happen to believe as I do, or have the same color of skin as mine, or the same lifestyle. All of this can make people view you as acting “holier than thou” and being judgmental. And so you just might suffer some loneliness for this Christ-like conduct, and some emotional pain, as you find yourself left out, or singled out, or avoided.

Did you know we suffer when we show compassion to others?  Brennan Manning, in his book “Glimpse of Jesus”, writes, “We live the passion of Jesus through a life of compassion.” And then he explains the etymology of the word “compassion” lies in two Latin words, “com” and “patior”, meaning to suffer with, to endure with, to struggle with, and to partake of the hunger, nakedness, loneliness, pain, and broken dreams of our brothers and sisters in the human family. Commitment to Christ without compassion for His people is a lie.

Let me tell you a story about Joe:

Joe was a drunk, miraculously converted in a street outreach mission. He had a real reputation before his conversion, as a  wino for whom there was hope. But following his conversion to Christ, everything changed. He became the most caring person at the mission. He was compassionate. He spent his days doing what needed to be done. There was never anything he was asked to do that he considered beneath him. Whether it was cleaning up vomit left by a sick alcoholic, or scrubbing toilets after men had left them filthy, Joe did it with a heart of gratitude. He could be counted on to feed any man who wandered in off the streets, compassionately undress and tuck them into bed when they were too out of it take care themselves. One evening after the mission director delivered his evangelistic message to the usual crowd, one of them looked up, came down the altar, kneeled to pray, crying out for God to help them change. The repentant drunk kept shouting, “Oh God, make me like Joe, make me like Joe!” The director leaned over and said, “Son, wouldn’t it be better if you prayed, ‘make me like Jesus’?” And after thinking about it few moments, the man looked up with an inquisitive expression and asked the director, “Is He like Joe?” Do others see Jesus in you? Compassion that’s ready to suffer alongside them? Of course, being open about your faith in conversations with others and bringing up Jesus in social settings might cause you to suffer a bit of uncomfortableness: you’re ridiculed or looked askance at. Of course, there is the suffering that comes when loved ones walk away from the gospel and salvation. You’ve poured your lives into bringing your kids up in the faith. I’ve talked with many a broken-hearted Christian parent who raised their children in the faith, and now these children have rejected the faith of their parents. These parents suffer as they try to reason with the kids, as they pray for their return, and worry about their salvation. I don’t know if there’s any suffering that’s greater than that.

So, as we think of living lives that might involve suffering, suffering as a citizen of Heaven for the sake of the gospel shouldn’t probably surprise us. After all, we follow One who suffered on the cross for us first, to rescue us and make us citizens of His kingdom, that we might receive all the benefits and blessings of Heaven. And remember that He said something about following Him and living the Jesus life, one day. He said, “If anyone would be My disciple, let them take up his cross and follow Me. For he who saves his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake, and the gospel, will save it.”

My fellow citizens in Christ: may our manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our Savior is counting on us.

Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

Living the Jesus Life: What Matters Most

Philippians 1:12-26

Dear friends,

Many years ago we started seeing t-shirts with a logo on them which said something like this: “baseball is life, the rest is just details” or “fishing his life, and the rest is just details” or volleyball, or soccer, you name it. And then favorite pastimes as well started showing up on these t-shirts: “reading books is life, the rest is just details”, “science is life”… They humorously are stating to those around us what matters most in our life. What’s important to us, what we love. What would you put on your t-shirt? What matters most to you? That question, I imagine, can inspire a variety of responses. Some might say “well, my family is life” or “my job” or “my relationship with God” or “my integrity”, “my reputation in the community”, “my friendships”, “my security”, and the list would go on and on.

In today’s passage Paul writes about what matters most to him as he lives out the Jesus life. He’s reporting to the Philippians how things are going for him. Remember now, he’s in prison, and prison’s a nasty place to be. He knows that they’re worried about him. But Paul, when he writes, he doesn’t complain or ask for pity or sympathy from them at all. In fact, they hear some real encouragement. Let me just paraphrase the first part of Paul’s report:

Yes, I’m in prison and I’m chained up to a soldier every day. I know on the surface this doesn’t look good. But what matters most is the gospel of Christ Jesus is being advanced – were making some real headway. For instance, the whole Imperial Guard of Roman soldiers around the palace now know why I am here. It’s because of the gospel. That’s a whole lot of people hearing about Jesus. Others as well, who have come to visit me and find out why I go through all of this, as well as other prisoners, are hearing the gospel from me as well. The local Christians in Rome are actually becoming inspired by my boldness that they’re seeing, and are talking up the gospel themselves without fear. There’s all kinds of people hearing about Jesus.

Just as an aside, I’m reminded of a couple of my own congregation, Ron and Darlene, and their evangelistic boldness. Wherever they went whoever they talked with, all that mattered to them was getting the gospel message shared with people. Conversation always steered towards Jesus. And I have to tell you, they inspired me in my own witnessing of the gospel and my conversations. Just as Paul is talking about these Roman Christians that of been inspired by him. Well anyway, back to the report. Paul writes:

Some people are preaching the gospel for good reason, they are very sincere about it. But some are preaching the gospel from less than pure motives: out of envy and rivalry towards me. I don’t know why, I guess I threatened them or their prominence in the church, but there’s a jealousy I can’t figure out. I know some who preach very sound theology, good sermons, but they’re filled with selfish ambition and they seem to only be interested in promoting their own status in the Christian community, as if it’s a competition: who can get the biggest church. Oh well, I guess God can even use that – I believe it. What matters most is that the gospel is getting proclaimed in pretense and in truth. It’s moving forward, and in that I rejoice. The gospel’s getting out, that’s what matters most.

Paul’s T-shirt with say “the gospel is life, the rest is just details.” And he’s rejoicing because he sees God working in all these things, he’s amazed by it. This God will take circumstances which are bad and use them for good. He’s in charge. Paul could very well be thinking “I could whine and moan about this terrible situation, but I believe that I put here for a reason. It’s the advancement of the gospel. So I better take advantage of every opportunity to talk about Jesus Christ. And now others are doing it as well, and I rejoice in that”, Paul says.

Just another aside: I’m reminded of a friend of mine who was diagnosed with cancer. He’s going to require a lot of chemotherapy, experimental stuff, make him very sick – it could kill him. He said to me early on “Steve, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to use this to tell others of my hope in Christ as I go through this experience.” Wow!

At this point we need to stop and ask: what is this gospel that matter so much to Paul, or to my friends Darlene and Ron and Rob. The gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ. Through Jesus, you see, God has done something wonderful for us that calls for a response on our part. While we were still God’s enemies, sinners in His sight, God, out of love for us, sent His son Jesus into this world. You see, we were so lost in our sinfulness and in need of rescue. The wages of our sin is death – eternal separation from God. And we couldn’t fix the relationship with the holy and just God who loves us but must punish sin. God, in His love and mercy, gave us Jesus (that’s the good news) who lived the perfect life of obedience that we could not live. And He died for us on the cross as the perfect sacrifice for our sin. The wrath of God towards sin was poured out upon His son Jesus at the cross. The iniquity of us all was poured out upon Him. And God raised Him from the dead, exalted Jesus, and now He is Lord over this universe and Jesus holds your eternity in His hands. That good news calls for a response on our part; a response to turn away from the old life of sin and turn to Him in trust. And receive forgiveness for your sins and a new life with God that begins now and is everlasting. That’s the gospel that Paul is so concerned about.

In the second section of the text, though, Paul goes on to address the Philippians’ concern about what his future is. And again we’re told what matters most. He says basically this (I’ll paraphrase):

I know you’re wondering if I’m ever going to get out of this prison. Well, I know that through your prayers and the spirit of Christ (the Holy Spirit) this will turn out for my deliverance in some way: whether it be a temporal deliverance or eternal deliverance. But here is what matters most to me: my hope is that I stand up for Jesus well as I face my accusers in court. That I will not at all be ashamed or causing shame, but be full of courage, so that now as always Christ will be honored and exalted with my whole being, in my living or in my dying.

And then Paul gives his mission statement that his life is about: “for to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” As he looks at the future, there you have it: “for me to live is Christ, to die is gain.” Where he says “for to me to live is Christ” he is saying I have this unshakable faith that, regardless of the circumstances, I live for Christ. What controls his outlook? Jesus. It’s not about Paul and his comfort, his safety, and his happiness, and his economic security, and his sense of well-being. It’s all about Jesus Christ, and what He has done. Christ is the motive of Paul’s actions, that the goal of his life and ministry, the very source of all his strength. His life is about serving Jesus. He says “I know to remain in the flesh, that that means more fruitful labor for Jesus –  I can get some more good things done: serving Him in the world, and spreading the gospel to nonbelievers of what God has done for the world through Jesus Christ.”  And we know that it would not be an easy life, that it would continue to be filled with rejection and more jail cells and beatings and stressful situations. But Paul seems to be saying “but that’s fine with me, to live is Christ. To share His sufferings – it’s an honor, it’s all joy to me.”

And then he says “and to die: that’s gain.” Death does not bother Paul. Perhaps he sees death as something that can be used as his final testimony for Jesus. To really add wood to the fire of the gospel spreading. He doesn’t fear it. Paul knows, you see, where he’s going if he dies soon. He will be with Jesus, which will be wonderful beyond our wildest imaginations. That, to Paul, is gain. In fact, he says, “I’m kind of torn in thinking as to which I prefer. But it’s not my choice to make. My desire is to depart to be with Jesus,  that’s far better, I know, but to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” We see a strong faith expressed here that knows that God is in charge of his life and that he’s in the palms of God’s hands, and that his future rests in God’s hands. He says “if I am to live in the flesh and continue ministry, that’s up to God, but if I’m to die, as well that that’s up to God. But I have to believe,” he says, “God still has plans for me in this world. I’m convinced that, because of you and your prayers, the spirit of Christ, and the calling God has placed on my life, that I am to go on serving you and seeing to your spiritual progress, and give you a cause to boast in Christ all the more in His power when you see me again as a free man.”

I’m reminded of one of my senior members of my own congregation, Joanne, a delightful, outspoken lady who led many people to Jesus Christ. She was contagious and she seemed to have nine lives. I was always being called to the emergency room because she was supposedly on her way “out”. But she always ended up back home, it was amazing. So on one particular visit we were talking about that and she said to me “Steve, I’m ready to go be with Jesus. I can’t believe I’m still here. But I guess that God still has plans for me to reach somebody else for Him, so that’s okay with me. He’s in charge of my life.” The Gospel is life, the rest is just details. Turns out there was someone that Joanne led to Christ before she died.

So, I wonder how these Philippians felt when they first heard these words from Paul read aloud in their church service in Philippi. Were they moved? Were they inspired? This testimony is quite inspiring. The truth is, Paul’s words are meant to be inspiring, to spur us on as well as encourage us as we live the Jesus life right where we are. They’re meant to teach and reawaken the believer in Christ as to what matters most when you follow Jesus. It’s the gospel, and its advancement in the world. What matters most is using every situation, every opportunity, every opening in conversations to point people to Christ. What matters most is using your life to bring others to Jesus. Oh, we so easily lose sight of that one, friends, as a vision for our lives. We live as consumers in the church, but not contributors to the spreading of the gospel, and that’s not what Jesus had in mind for us. That’s not the life he calls us to. Paul’s testimony is simply reminding us of that today – of what matters most as we live the Jesus life: it’s the gospel. The gospel of Christ is life, and the rest is just details. And friend, Jesus is counting on you and me to personally take part in bringing the gospel, to get inspired like those Roman Christians were when they saw his boldness. To tell the good news of Jesus, bring it into this world of ours to our family, our friends, our coworkers, our neighbors, people we like, people we can’t stand; so that they, too, may live and experience the joy of the Jesus life.

Let me ask you: who has God placed with you? Who has God brought into your life that needs to hear the gospel, and who will tell them if you don’t? GO! Tell the story of what God has done for us in Christ. Be bold, be of good courage, God will use you to advance the gospel when you stand up for Christ. The One who loved you first is counting on you to honor Him with your whole being, and tell others the old, old story of Jesus and His love. That, my dear friends, is what matters most. One of the great Christian leaders of the last century was John Stott. Os Guinness writes:

I knew him over many decades, but I will never forget my last visit to his bedside, three weeks before he died. After an unforgettable hour and more of sharing memories over many years, I asked him how he would like me to pray for him. And lying weakly on his back and barely able to speak, he answered in a hoarse whisper, ‘pray that I will be faithful to Jesus until my last breath.’

Oh, would such a prayer be your passion, and my passion, and the passion of our generation, too.

Amen

Pastor Steve Kramer

Living the Jesus Life: His Plan for You

Philippians 1:3-11

Dear friends:

Has anyone ever made the statement to you: “I think God has plans for your life”? I remember hearing that from my pastor was a teenager. He would say to me now and then “Steve, I believe God has a plan for you. You’re going to be a pastor.” And I’d smile and chuckle and think “who knows?” Well now I’m a pastor, I guess he was right. As a pastor, I sometimes have had people say to me “I’m wondering what God’s plan is for my life. I wish I could figure it out.” By the way, how about you? Do you believe God has a plan for your life, and have you figured out what it is?

As we continue our series on “Living the Jesus Life”, today’s passage in Paul’s letter to the Philippians is helpful for us because it tells us that God does have a definite plan for your life and mine. A dream for you. He has things He wants to see happen in your life. You’ve heard the old saying “God accepts you as you are but He loves you too much to leave you that way”, well it’s true. He has plans for you.

Last week we studied Paul’s greeting to the Philippians where he reminds them of who they are in Christ, and also of the rich inheritance that is theirs to claim. Now, as Paul moves into the main body of the letter, he touchingly expresses his love for the Philippians and he also tells him that he’s praying for them. In fact, he goes so far as to tell them what he’s praying about for them. He says “I thank God for you.” He affirms their love for them and their partnership with him in spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. He basically says “from day one you have been such supportive friends and partners in my life and ministry, and I’m joyfully grateful for you.” They really had been supportive, financially as well as spiritually and emotionally. The statement from Paul had to make them feel loved and affirmed. Just think of how you feel when someone says they thank God for you and your friendship. Paul goes on, then, to write that he not only gives thanks to God for them but he prays for their spiritual progress, their spiritual growth. He knew when God plants the seed of the gospel in a person’s life, and with faith in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that God has this growth plan ahead for you. That you will bear fruit to the glory and praise of God. Jesus actually said something like that to His disciples one time. He said “I chose you and appointed you that you should bear fruit.” Here we’re told that at the top of the list of fruit that glorifies God is love. He says “I pray that your love may abound”, which means overflow, “more and more, with knowledge and all discernment. I pray that your love will grow.” The most important mark of a maturing Christian, you see, is love. Yes, doctrine is important, we need to think correctly. Service is good as well, and personal mystical prayer-like experiences may be nice. And faith is wonderful, but love is greater than all these. Paul says it this way in 1 Corinthians 13:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I’m only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge of God; if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I’m nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor, surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

Then he goes on to say, at the end of the chapter, “faith, hope, and love. The greatest of these is love.” Friend, the main evidence that we’re growing Christ is not exhilarating prayer experiences or giftedness or smarts, but it’s steadily increasing, humble love for other people.

Now the word for love that Paul is using here is the Greek word “agape”. It’s a sacrificial type of love. It’s an act of the will that gives of self to others. It’s self-giving love, and selfless. It’s Jesus-style love. It goes way beyond sentimental feelings. It actually acts on behalf of other people. Paul also tells us that this “agape love” must be grounded and informed by knowledge. It needs to be a “smart love”. He said “I’m praying that you going to grow in smart love.” Growing love needs knowledge, you see. Knowledge, he says, of the recognized truths and principles from the word of God about what love really is. Our human reasoning alone isn’t enough to discern truth from error. We are flawed people. The best protection against deception is to know God’s revealed truths, which we find in the Bible. You see, it’s in the Bible that we receive the knowledge of Jesus, and of His revealed love for you and all people. Ultimately laying down his life at a cross to be the sacrificial payment for our sins and rescue us. It’s there that we learn not only about God’s great commandment to love Him with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love our neighbor as ourselves, but we also learn answers to questions that we have like “well then who is my neighbor?”, and “what does it look like to really love people in the name of Jesus?”

Growing effective agape love not only requires growing in knowledge, but it requires growing in discernment, which means basically insight, wisdom. Not only must our love be smart love, it must be wise love. Life situations, as you know, can get complicated. Some things are clearly good and bad, but sometimes the boundary line is not so readily visible to us. And it takes discernment and insight as we discern what’s the best course of action. We need to be guided by scripture, of course, to have that. We also need to talk to our brothers and sisters of the faith community, especially the mature ones, for insight. And of course, we always should seek God’s direction in prayer, ask for His wisdom. We need ask questions as we consider love and options for loving: “is this harmful?” or “is it helpful?” In 1 Corinthians 10 we read “all things are lawful but not all things are helpful.” Is this action I’m thinking about doing going to cost someone else to trip in their faith? Will it harm my testimony? Will it be a turn-off for an unbeliever? Is it scriptural? Smart love, wise love.

Then Paul explains why it’s so important for our love to be growing and abounding with knowledge and discernment. He says “here’s why: so that you may approve what’s excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory praise of God.” “So that you may approve what is excellent,” the  first part of that statement. That simply means so that you may make the best God-pleasing, God-glorifying decisions in loving Him and loving other people. As we grow in our understanding of what it means to follow Jesus, we will increasingly be able to choose and to practice what is excellent in God’s sight. It will help us to be our, as the book says, “utmost for His highest.” Paul says “then you’ll start becoming pure and blameless”; not perfect, mind you, that’s not what Paul is talking about here. He’s talking about you’re going to start being conformed to the likeness of Jesus, looking more and more like Jesus with attitudes and His actions working in your life. He said “then you’ll be ready for the day of Christ.” You and I know Christ has come and is coming again in power, and every knee will bow before Him and call Him “Lord”. The day is going to come when you will find yourself kneeling before Him, and what do you long to hear Him say? Simply this: “well done good and faithful servant.”

And Paul says finally “and you be filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through life with Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.” Imagine this: automatically doing the right things, the God-pleasing things, the loving things; delighting in His will and walking in His ways, through the power the spirit of Jesus Christ working in you. Christ’s love will actually flow through you into the lives of others. That’s God’s vision, and he says “it will bring glory and praise to God.” And that, my friend, is what the Jesus life is all about: bringing God glory and praise.

I can’t help but think also about the personal advantages for us of having this kind of love working in our lives. Think of the improved and enriched relationships to be had at home and church and work, with God and the people around you, as you’re growing in this love. It will make you an improved, effective witness for Jesus. You’ve heard the statement “who you are speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying”, right? Well, it’s true – who you are speaks loudly to those around you. If you’re obnoxious and selfish and unloving, more than likely they’re not going to listen to you. But a person who is “walking the talk” will always get a fair hearing. There’s a story I came across in John Trent’s book that he co-authored for Promise Keepers. He tells this story:

When I led a Young Life group, I did my best to round up kids who really needed to hear the gospel when we went to summer camp. Mark was one of those kids.

Bob Mitchell, the main speaker that week, called most of the shots—including when meals would be served. So “Mitch” was always talking with the cook.

The cook loved her work, but it was exhausting. She always looked tired. Whenever she talked to Mitch, he got up and gave her his chair—and a moment’s rest—while they discussed meal plans.

Nobody noticed Mitch doing this . . . except Mark. Mark hadn’t come to hear about Jesus. But when he saw Jesus’ love lived out in that simple act of kindness by the camp speaker, he began to listen to Mitchell’s talks. Later that week, Mark asked Jesus to be his Savior.

It wasn’t because of the messages, Mark said, but because of the love he saw in Mitch. “If that’s what it means to be a Christian,” Mark said, “I want to be one.”

Finally, not only will your relationships and testimony be improved as you’re growing in love, doing the right and loving thing will lead you to greater joy in your life. You see, joy equals obedience to the directions of Jesus. He told His disciples one time, as He was instructing them about loving each other, He said “I said these things to you that my joy, joy I have, may be in you, and your joy may be full.” So no wonder Paul writes to them: I’m praying about your love life, that it will grow and you’ll begin to look more and more like Jesus. Because that’s where the joy is to be found. You might be wondering now: how can all this happen in a person’s life? How can I meet these spiritual goals that God has? Truth is: you can’t…on your own. But the good news is: God can. Back in verse six Paul says “I’m confident that He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it.” He’s saying there that God has stepped into their lives and only God can change a life, make you more loving than you could ever imagine yourself being. And we have to remember Paul is praying to God for these things to happen in their lives, because he knows only God can make it happen. You see, you and I are every bit as helpless and transforming ourselves into loving people as we are in saving ourselves from sin and death. But thanks be to God! God’s grace, which saves, also energizes and empowers. God, the Holy Spirit in you, can make this love happen. This kind of love that Paul is praying for in their lives is referred to as the “fruit of the Holy Spirit, whom God is given us in order to grow us up and conform us in the likeness of his Son, Jesus.” That great evangelical pastor and writer John Stott said years ago in one of his messages on spiritual growth: “consequently, all the glory and praise belongs not to believers but to God, for He has redeemed them by the work of His Son and has implanted within them His Spirit to produce the fruit of righteousness.” Did you hear that? “The fruit of righteousness” that Paul’s talking about here.

God is at work in us through His Holy Spirit. That’s the truth that lies behind those little saying you sometimes run across on Christian posters and on t-shirts: “be patient with me, God isn’t finished with me yet.” Or have you ever seen that one with the road sign which reads “construction zone”? Well we are a “construction zone” when we’re in Christ. God is working in us, doing an “extreme makeover” in our lives. He’s making us more loving.

Now, I don’t want to give you the impression that you are to just sit passively by and wait for that love to take over in your life; no, no, no, no! It’s vital, you see, that you put yourself in places and have practices that the Holy Spirit can use to build you up into a mature, loving person whose actions and attitudes look like Jesus more and more. There are a means of grace that God has provided to grow people like us in love. First of all, it begins with prayer. As Paul said “I pray for you”, we are to be praying for ourselves as well, and for one another, asking for His help in making us grow in love; helping us to love. To get past ourselves and start looking out for others. And, of course, there’s the word of God. As we go through the Bible and we study it and learn about God’s great love for us that He’s shown us in Jesus Christ so unconditionally, and we start believing in His love for us, and we start trusting in Him as we take His words and His directions about love and apply them and obey them, we grow. And worship: we need to get to worship. There, we get the Word fed to us, the gospel. And we come to the table of the Lord, and God builds us up. And as we live in community with others, brothers and sisters in Christ, we know from Proverbs that “iron sharpens iron”, “love sharpens love”. And then there’s service, as we step out towards others and give ourselves a way. Make the decision to do that: it’s going to grow us in our ability to love. It’s going to make us wiser and smarter in our love and compassion for people.

Living the Jesus life is about abounding and growing in smart, wise love for God and people, because love is the official trademark of the authentic Christian. And that, my loved ones, is God’s plan for your life: to grow you up, to shape you into a loving person like His son Jesus Christ. When you think about it, that really should not surprise us. After all, Paul did not dream this up on his own. Jesus himself has told us, and Paul knew this. Jesus said “a new commandment I give to you: love one another as I have loved you. By this all people will know that you’re My disciples.” So may our daily prayers for ourselves and other followers of Jesus always be: “Lord, shape me and mold me into a loving person. Empower me to love as Jesus has loved me. For Your glory and praise.”

Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

Living the Jesus Life: Blessings and Beginnings

Philippians 1:1-2

Dear friends:

I’d like to take you with me to an imaginary scene, if you don’t mind. The date is 60 A.D. A church service is about to begin… not in a church building though. This congregation is gathering to worship in a house church in a little town called Philippi. There’s excitement in the air as the Philippian Christians come in and sit down and greet one another. In fact the congregation is buzzing with anticipation. Why is this? Well, let’s listen in to a conversation and find out:

One of the people there named Octavius says to his friend Clement “I hear that we’re going to hear from Paul today. He’s written us a letter. Young Epaphroditus showed up with it yesterday. He’s finally back. I was beginning to wonder if he died.”

Octavius’ little boy sitting next to him overhears his dad saying this and asked “father who’s Paul?”

“Well Paul, he started this church years ago, son. If it weren’t for him we may not even know about Jesus and what He’s done for us. Paul is a missionary for Jesus. He starts churches. We’ve been supporting him with our money and our prayers. Everybody here loves Paul and is so grateful for him.”

Then Octavius turned back to his friend Clement and asks “do you know where Paul is? Is he still in prison, or has he been released?”

Clement says that “I hear he’s still in prison. He’s hoping to get out, of course, but who knows if and when. Poor guy spent more time behind bars, it seems, then being free from prison. Remember how he ended up in jail here, even, when he first came. And since then he’s been in and out of jail for his preaching. I admire him, though, for his sticktoitiveness. He really…”

“SHHHHH!” Octavius whispers. “I think the service is about to start. The he groans and says under his breath “are we going to sing Psalm 91 again this week? I don’t like that hymn. Let’s just skip the singing and get to pastor Paul’s letter.”

After the song and a prayer, one of the deacons named Zygos stands up with the parchment scroll in his hand and walks to the front. And as he unrolls the scroll he motions to a young man. “At long last our brother Epaphroditus is back. Welcome home, brother. Epaphroditus delivered our money to support Paul during his prison stay and has brought back a letter from him. I think you’ll enjoy hearing from our friend. I’ve read it myself already and was greatly encouraged by it.” Then he pauses and he begins to read it aloud as the congregation quietly listens. “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus…”

It turns out that it really was quite a letter. The congregation, and many congregations since, had described it as moving, inspiring, instructive, practical, and encouraging. In fact, it was so good that was circulated among the many early Christian congregations until, lo and behold, by the work of the Holy Spirit, it was included in our Bible. It still has the power to change people’s lives, even today. There is so much to offer the person who wants to spiritually grow in “living the Jesus life”. So, for the next several weeks, I thought it would be kind of fun for us to closely look at this letter together. Today, we’re only going to look at the first two lines. It’s the greeting of the letter, but this greeting… it’s loaded with some truth about the Jesus life. Instead of writing just “dear Philippian friends,” Paul goes about teaching us, right off the bat, as he writes:

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,

To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

There are two important reminders here for us; two truths that Paul’s expressing in these few words. First, he’s reminding us of our new identification when we come into a relationship with Jesus. Notice the titles that are used here, first for himself: “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus.” That’s how Paul sees himself now; he’s a servant of Christ. After his conversion, which we read about in Acts 9, Paul came to realize all that Jesus had done for him: that Jesus was Lord and that [Jesus] dying on a cross to pay the debt for his sins, he was now bought with the precious blood of Christ. Paul understood that, for some reason or another, that he, who once was a terrible enemy of the Christian faith, was now called to serve the cause of Christ in the world. That’s what happens when Jesus gets into a person’s life. His love overwhelms, and you realize you’ve been bought at great cost to Jesus. You become His servant out of gratitude for all that He’s done for you. You want to serve and obey Him, and stand up for Him, and put yourself out there for Him. You can’t help yourself.

But notice also the other title that Paul uses as he identifies the Philippians as “saints”. That’s what a person becomes when he or she trust in Jesus Christ. Now, being a saint doesn’t mean you become automatically a good and perfect person. That’s not what he’s getting at. You see, a saint is defined as “one who is set apart for God”. Now that’s what I call status in this world. You’re set apart for God if you’re in Christ. When Jesus comes into your life you are set apart for God’s purposes. You’re a saint. You have a new identity, a new purpose. So, when a person steps in a relationship with Jesus Christ, Paul’s first pointing out to us you get a new ID. New identification: servant, saint. Claim it!

But then, he goes on remind us of our new inheritance as well that we have in Christ. Not only do we get a title, but there is this inheritance called “grace and peace”. He says “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Why do you suppose he reminds them of grace? Could it be that we can’t be reminded enough of it, of how amazing it is? I mean, I’ve found in my own life that I need constant reminders of God’s grace because I “leak” grace. It so easily leaks, and we go back to our old natural way of thinking, which is a dead-end street and holds no joy for us whatsoever. So Paul is longing for them to claim and enjoy God’s grace in their lives, because God’s grace saves, it changes, it sustains lives, doesn’t it? I mean, what is saving grace? It’s God’s unmerited favor to us through Jesus Christ, it’s a free gift. We don’t deserve it, we can’t earn it. Someone once said you can use the letters of grace, the word g-r-a-c-e: “God’s riches at Christ’s expense”, that’s the definition. It’s God’s free gift of forgiveness and a restored relationship with Him forever. It’s something that to has to be given to us because all of us have sinned and we fall short of the glory of God. God is love, but He’s also just, and the guilty will not go unpunished, He tells us. If you break one commandment, you’ve broken them all. The wages of sin is death; that’s our predicament. We can’t fix it; we’re incapable – spiritually bankrupt. Well here’s what God did out of love for you and me, out of grace: He sent His son Jesus Christ to take upon Himself our sin. Jesus lived the perfect life of obedience, went to the cross for us as our substitute, and then He took the hit for us. The wrath of God towards sin was poured out on Jesus His son, and God’s perfect love and justice was satisfied that day at the cross. He purchased our forgiveness and a place for us in God’s Heaven. It’s all grace.

I’m reminded of an old story of a man who died and faced the angel Gabriel at Heaven’s gates:

The angel said “here’s how it works: you need a hundred points to make it into Heaven. You tell me all the good things you’ve done, and I will give you a certain number of points for each of them. The more good there is the work that you cite, the more points you’ll get for it. When you get 100 points, you get in.”

“Okay,” the man said, “I was married to the same woman for 50 years and never cheated on her, even in my heart.”

Gabriel replied “that’s great, that’s worth three points.”

“Three points!” said the man incredulously. “Well, I attended church all my life and supported its ministry with my money and service.”

“Terrific,” said Gabriel, “that’s certainly worth a point.”

“One point?!” said the man, with his eyes beginning to show a bit of panic. “Well how about this: I opened a shelter for the homeless in my city and fed needy people by the hundreds during the holidays.”

“Fantastic, that’s good for two points” said the angel.

“TWO POINTS?!” cried the man in desperation. “At this rate the only way I will get to Heaven is by the grace of God!”

And Gabriel said “come on in!”

It’s all grace. He offers grace to us that’s received through faith. And faith is… the best picture I can give for you is a beggar holding out empty hands to receive a gift from the king. With empty hands we received the riches of God’s forgiving grace and we get a clean conscience and a clean record and a clean heart. A new and full life in the present, and the promise of eternity.

Lewis Smedes writes, in one of his books, why grace is so amazing. He says

Why do we call grace amazing? Grace is amazing because it works against the grain of common sense. Hard-nosed common sense will tell you that you are too wrong to meet the standards of a holy God; pardoning grace tells you that it’s all right in spite of so much in you that is wrong. Realistic common sense tells you that you are too weak, too harassed, too human to change for the better; grace gives you power to send you on the way to being a better person. Plain common sense may tell you that you are caught in a rut of fate or futility; grace promises that you can trust God to have a better tomorrow for you than the day you have made for yourself.

That’s what’s so amazing about Grace. Not only is there saving grace, but there’s sustaining grace, as well, that is talked about in Scripture. That saving grace, that all-sufficient grace; knowing that God is with me in all circumstances. He’s there to strengthen me when I am weak with His love and the working of his Holy Spirit. And when I am weak, then I am strong.

God’s grace also, then, leads to peace. A peace with God, knowing where I stand with God: that I’m forgiven in His Son forever. That I’m loved and God sees me as His own. That gives peace, deep peace within. I don’t have to wonder anymore. I have a Father who loves me and is with me in every circumstance, and nothing can separate me from His love in Christ Jesus. And that gives me peace. In Christ I have everything I need. I know that when I die I’m going to Heaven because of what Christ has done for me, and that’s peace. A peace which we all long for – that whether I live or I die I’m His forever.

I work in prison ministry these days, leading worship at a nearby penitentiary. A couple weeks ago, the worshipers were asked by the speaker “what do you need in your life?” And he allowed them to raise her hands and respond. And a number of them said that they need peace in their lives. That it’s a hard life, they needed peace. Don’t we all? Well the good news is this: peace is available through the grace of God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. The Jesus life is filled, chock-full, of grace and peace.

So there you have it: that Jesus life begins with grace and peace, that’s how we become saints and servants of Christ. And I want to ask you today, personally: have you received these gifts in your life and are you enjoying them? Have they perhaps leaked out in your daily living? Well it’s not too late to step into the Jesus life, or step back into the Jesus life, to become saints in Christ set apart for God’s purposes. To have a fresh indwelling of His grace. It’s simply a matter of yielding, surrendering your heart, giving it Christ. When you give your heart to Christ you receive forgiveness and love as a free gift; grace. You just need to say “Jesus, I’m giving my life to you. I make a mess of it. I want to walk in Your grace every day. You know what makes my life work best. I want to live with You.” Some of you have already done this, and right now are just saying “thank you Lord!” Or, perhaps, “God, I want a fresh experience of your grace today.” Some of you have never done this, though, and some of you are thinking that your sin is too horrific to be forgiven. There’s no hope for you. Let me tell you this: the good news today is there is no sin that grace cannot cover. Forgiveness comes to us through our Lord Jesus Christ. Ask, and it will be given to you.

You know, Philippians has often been described as “the letter of joy.” When you read it in one sitting, you can’t help but be struck by Paul’s constant expressions of joy and rejoicing. And remember this: he’s in prison when he’s writing. Where do you suppose that joy comes from? For Paul, and for anyone, it comes from living in a relationship with Jesus Christ; receiving His grace, which saves and changes and sustains your life. The road to a life of real, sustainable joy always begins with having the grace of God the Father, our Lord Jesus in your life. Loved ones: it’s available! Grace and peace: receive it.

Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer