The Message Matters

Romans 1:13-17

When I was at the seminary training to become a pastor, I had a mentor who had a big impact in my life. His name was Pastor Homer Larsen. As I was preparing to go to my first church, he said to me, “Always work hard on your message. Make sure you preach the gospel! Nothing else really matters in comparison to the message you give your people.”

Through the years I have followed his advice, and it has been a blessing to me. I have even said to my congregation, “This hour that you spend with me in church today could make a significant change in your life. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t stand up here in front of you like this and preach. I wouldn’t give my life to be a pastor or a personal witness.”

The apostle Paul would concur with the advice Homer gave me – The message matters; Work hard on it. As he is preparing to go to Rome, Paul writes a letter to believers there. In that letter, found in the New Testament, he shares a bit about himself. After he tells them all the good things he’s heard about them, he says, I am so eager to be with you who are in Rome in order that I may proclaim the gospel to you!

Paul is eager! He can’t wait to share! He says, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel.” He was not embarrassed by it. People may have questioned the “odd” message he had. They may have looked at the cross as foolishness. They may have even thought the whole idea of grace was absurd, but he was not ashamed of the gospel.

Why? Because “. . . it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.”

The word power is the Greek word dynamis from which we get the word dynamite. The gospel is God’s dynamite! We all know the power of dynamite to change things all around it when it goes off. The gospel is God’s dynamite. It is a power that can and does change a person’s life. It’s not simply another philosophy of life. It changed the trajectory of Paul’s life.

Speaking from his own personal experience, Paul calls it the power to bring salvation. The word salvation means wholeness. The gospel makes us whole again! It restores us into a saving relationship with the God who made us.

“For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith,” Paul says, “for faith.”

Through faith (meaning Paul’s faith, the one who is bringing the gospel) for faith so we might believe.

“In it the righteousness of God is revealed” – God’s righteous plan, His plan to make us right with Him through His Son Jesus. It is good news.

So we ask, What is the gospel specifically?

Let me first tell you what it’s not. It’s not the Golden Rule – Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s not a form of music that makes us tap our toes. It’s not simply information we find in the Bible about the life of Jesus, and it’s not a tradition of good news we hear at certain times of the year like Christmas or Easter or when grandma and grandpa die.

Here is what it is: The gospel is the good news of what God has done for us calling us to a response. It is not simply good advice to men and women, but good news about Jesus Christ. It’s not an invitation to do anything, but a declaration of what God has done. It’s not a demand, but an offer.

The gospel is a story, which goes like this: I am a person who was created by God in His image for a relationship with Him. I am precious in His sight and the crown of His creation.

But I am also a sinner who has broken that relationship with my sinfulness. Ever since the time of Adam and Eve, a great gap between God and humankind has existed and needs to be taken care of. No matter how hard we try to save ourselves and look good in God’s sight, we always fall short. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. I can try to build my spiritual resume to get myself into a relationship with God and go to His heaven, but it’ll never be good enough.

Someone once explained it this way: suppose you have friends over for breakfast and you are to prepare an omelette for them. You have five good eggs and one rotten egg, which gets mixed in with the five. You surely cannot serve it up to your guests; it would be unacceptable.

In the same way, we might have all of these good eggs in our lives (according to what human beings calls good things, even though we know from Scripture that all of it is filthy rags in God’s sight.) But just one thing, one bit of rottenness in us, means we cannot serve it up to God and expect to be acceptable.

We have a problem. God is merciful – He loves us – but He’s also just. There are consequences for our sinfulness. It is death! Not just an earthly death when we take our last breath in this world, but also a spiritual death – life apart from God, the source of real life. This death reaches all the way into eternity. God loves us, but He is just.

So here is what our God did for us . . . Out of love for sinners like you and me, He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die upon a cross and pay the debt, which I could not pay, for my sin. On the cross, He suffered the wrath and punishment for sin that I was supposed to receive. In some mysterious and wonderful way, it was like He became a sponge on that cross. He became sin who knew no sin, and God poured out His wrath on Him.

As we hear Jesus cry out – “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?” – He was experiencing the judgment day I am supposed to experience. As He says His last words on the cross – “It is finished” – He is announcing God’s plan to save us has been accomplished. The debt is paid in full.

Then God raised Him from the grave! Yes! He said “yes” to Jesus’ sacrifice. He opened the way to a restored relationship with Himself, which lasts for eternity all the way to heaven! That is the good news Paul is talking about today, which he is so eager to bring to those people in Rome.

John Stott, a wonderful Christian scholar and preacher, said one time, “Christianity is in its very essence, a rescue religion. The gospel is all about a rescue that has taken place through Jesus Christ.”

Tim Keller, a favorite author of mine these days, says, “Christianity’s basic message differs at root with the assumptions of traditional religion. The founders of every other major religion essentially came as teachers, not as saviors. They came to say: ‘Do this and you will find the divine.’ But Jesus came essentially as a savior rather than a teacher (though he was that as well). Jesus says, ‘I am the divine come to you, to do what you could not do for yourselves.’ The Christian message is that we are saved not by our record, but by Christ’s record.” We’ve been rescued by Jesus Christ – that is the gospel.

The gospel calls for a response. It’s not enough to simply know we have been rescued by Jesus Christ. It calls for a personal response from the individual, the response of believing in Jesus Christ and holding out an empty hand like a beggar to receive the gift God wants to give. To believe in Him is so much more than intellectual assent, like mouthing a creed of some sort. It’s trust. It is trust. It is betting your life on what Jesus has done for you and receiving the gift. It is entrusting your self to follow Him and trust Him all the way into eternity.

Have you received it in your life? I would be neglecting you today if I didn’t ask you this. Have you received the gift God wants to give you? Have you accepted the good news and put Jesus Christ at the center of your life? When you do, you will discover the gospel gives you assurance, forgiveness for your sins. You don’t have to carry around your past any longer. You don’t have to worry about what God thinks of you, for when He looks at you, He sees the righteousness of Jesus.

The gospel gives us assurance that even though I will die in this world someday, I know where I’m going. I’m going to be with Him in eternity in heaven because I am His child.
I also know He is going to walk with me throughout the rest of my days in this world. He is available to me in prayer. I can call out, Father. I can open His Word, and He is longing to speak to me. I have the assurance that I’m not alone! I’m His forever.

The gospel gives a new life with a new set of values to the person who receives Christ. It gives God’s values because Jesus shows me what God’s priorities really are and what God’s will is for my life as I live with Him in those Gospels.

God does not move us beyond the gospel ever. We don’t graduate from the gospel by saying yes to Jesus and then find some graduate-level work to do in my life. No, we stay with the gospel. It’s where life is for us. We never get beyond the gospel. Instead, Jesus moves us more deeply into the gospel because all the power we need in order to change and mature comes through the gospel.

We can’t change ourselves. Only the gospel can change us. The gospel ignites the Christian life, but it is also the fuel that keeps Christians going and growing every day. Real change in us cannot happen apart from the gospel.

I not only receive assurance and a new set of values, a new life, I also get a new purpose. I have a new motivation in my life. I’ve been loved by the God who created me through His Son Jesus Christ. I am rescued. I am saved. Therefore, I want to spend the rest of my days living for Him and serving Him, not because I need Him to love me but because He already has loved me through His Son, Jesus Christ.

There you have it! This message has blessed my ministry in my congregation, and it has blessed Christian Crusaders over the years and made us effective in our mission for Christ.

It’s so easy for the church to get caught up in the latest news stories, politics, or favorite social issues or get into doing how-to messages, which sound more like psychological jargon than anything else in order to attract people to the doors of the church. BUT THIS IS NOT WHAT WE HAVE BEEN CALLED TO DO. It is not what the Church of Jesus is to be about. We are in the business of calling people to a trusting relationship with Jesus Christ. Eager to share the gospel. Point them to Jesus who is saying, “Follow me!” Tell people that Christ holds the key to life for now and into eternity.

We are about the gospel! What’s been done for us through Jesus Christ. It is good news! This world needs good news, and we’ve got it! As we consider the future of Christian Crusaders, there are some things about us that must never change – the emphasis on the gospel. The message matters! It’s life for the individual.

We work hard to be creative and get attention so people will hear the gospel, but the bottom line is, Has the gospel of what God has done for us through His Son Jesus Christ been proclaimed? I hope our listeners will always hold my feet to the fire on that one, because it is really all we have to offer this world. It is what differentiates us from every other organization. Christian Crusaders (or the church) – we’re different. We have the gospel.

Over the years, I have learned that God blesses the faithfulness of His Church to proclaim the gospel. He uses it, and people get rescued. He blessed Paul’s ministry, didn’t He? What an impact Paul had on the world of his day and even into this day now as we read his letters and are changed by his message! God blessed Martin Luther’s ministry. Thus, the Reformation.

We know from experience God has blessed our ministry along the way. Many lives have been touched and changed by the gospel. In my own congregation, we recently had a couple stand up and share their testimony. The wife said something remarkable afterward. “When we came to this church, it was the first time we really heard the gospel, and it changed us! We committed our lives to following Christ. It changed us so much that Christianity for us is not a ‘hope so,’ but a ‘know so.’ I know where I’m going when I die.” They also talked about a new mission to bring the gospel to others around them. It was a very, very inspiring story they shared with us that day.

The rescue message of what God in Christ has done for us is the only life-giving thing we really have to offer this world. So let us commit ourselves not to be ashamed, but to be faithful and bold for the gospel – not only insisting it be preached, but also shared one-on-one by all of us who know Jesus with those whom God has put into our lives to reach so they might be rescued as well.

May this good news about a good story of Jesus Christ and what He has done continue to be proclaimed. Amen!

Pastor Steve Kramer

 

It’s a Hard Knock Life – Where to Find Comfort

II Corinthians 1:3-11

When my children, Sam and Martha, were little, my wife and I enjoyed reading to them. One of the books we especially enjoyed was Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. The story goes like this – from the moment this young boy named Alexander wakes up, things just don’t go his way. As he gets up, the chewing gum that was in his mouth the night before is now in his hair. He trips on his skateboard as he gets out of bed and drops his sweater in the sink while the water is running. His brothers, Nick and Anthony, find prizes in their cereal at breakfast time while Alexander does not. The whole day is filled with one disappointment after another for Alexander. Even at bedtime his nightlight burns out. He bites his tongue. His brother Nick takes back a pillow he said he could keep, and the cat chooses to sleep with his other brother Anthony.

A funny statement runs throughout the book after each disappointment. Alexander says, “I think I’ll move to Australia.” He thinks it’s perhaps better there. The book ends with his mother’s assurance that everybody has bad days – even those who live in Australia.

In our life, we know some days, some weeks, some months, and some seasons can have challenges, hardships, and suffering. Some days we will have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

The apostle Paul knew this firsthand. As we read some reflections of what he went through, it’s amazing the bad days he experienced. In 2 Corinthians, Paul talks about being whipped, beaten, stoned, and shipwrecked. He faced danger from bandits, enemies and dangers in the city and wilderness, toil, hardships, sleepless nights, hunger, thirst, cold, and even nakedness. He was under daily pressure over the churches he wanted to see grow. He talks of being afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down. He mentions a thorn in the flesh, which many scholars believe was a physical ailment. In Philippians Paul told them, “For Christ’s sake, I have suffered the loss of all things.” He regarded all the things he had as rubbish.

In our text for today, he even talks a bit about despair while on his mission trip to Asia. He thought he was going to die. As you read the passage, you notice that affliction and suffering are keywords used redundantly. That is the biblical writer’s way of making an important point. No one goes through life affliction free or immune from suffering.

But here is some good news to hang onto during those times – We are not on our own. In the midst of our terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days, we have a Father. Paul describes Him as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, as if to tell us, Remember what He did to make you His own, all the trouble He went through to make you His sons and daughters. Jesus suffered and died on a cross to save us from our sin and restore us to a relationship with the heavenly Father for eternity.

This God has gone all out for you! He is our Father, just as Jesus taught in the Lord’s Prayer. We can pray, Our Father, and know He cares for us more greatly than any earthly father can.

He is the Father of all mercies, which means He is filled with compassion. He has a BIG heart for us. He has care and concern. He gives, and He helps.

He is the Father of all comfort. Paul also tells us God comforts us in all our afflictions. When life is caving in on us, He comforts us.

The word “comfort” here doesn’t mean ease and relaxation. It basically means something like encouragement. The word doesn’t imply that God rescues us from discomfort but gives us the tools, the instructions, and the essential guidance to endure the problems of this life and keep us going.

In the final two verses of this passage, we learn that Paul is not just waxing eloquently here. He is speaking from personal experience as it relates to them about what happened on his mission trip in Asia – how he despaired. He thought he might die, but God took care of him and delivered him. He testifies, I am confident even now that He will continue to do it again. All of this has taught me to rely on my heavenly Father.

Suffering and hardship also brings good news. As we walk with Him, God comforts us, so we may be able to comfort others who are in any affliction with which we ourselves have been comforted by God.

God has a purpose for comforting us. It is not just for ourselves but also for others who comforting. Remembering the word “comfort” means encouragement, we encourage those around us as God has encouraged us.

Years ago Billy Graham, the great evangelist, said, “Our sufferings may be hard to bear but they teach us lessons, which in turn equip and enable us to help others.” I believe that! Suffering can help us become more empathetic with those who are hurting. It gives us a bit of a perspective, some sensitivity, and actually move us toward a person who is hurting.

I have friends who are involved in Alcoholics Anonymous. They know what bondage is from personal experience. They understand the disease and how it can take over a person’s life. As they come together in AA meetings, they encourage one another and say, You are not alone in this. You’re my brother/my sister. I’ve been there too, and you will get through this.

I think of a family in our congregation who lost a child. Another family who also lost a child came right alongside of them soon after and walked with them. They seemed to know the right things to say and the right things to do from their own experience.

Hardships can equip us, as Billy Graham says, to be encouragers as we share what has worked with us or for us with words, with actions, and with the Good News of the Father’s faithfulness and love for us.

I believe comfort and encouragement is one beggar showing another where to find food. It the healed one telling about the skills of their doctor. It’s passing on the good that we have received and allowing it to multiply by sharing.

We see this displayed in the life of a well-known figure in Christianity, Charles Colson, who wrote the book, BORN AGAIN. He was special counsel to President Richard M. Nixon, a position at the center of political power in the United States. His involvement in the Watergate cover-up led to his own arrest, conviction, and imprisonment. But the events of those days also led Chuck Colson to a personal faith in Jesus Christ.

Following his conversion, Colson was NOT miraculously freed from his convictions. To the contrary, he was sent to Maxwell Federal Prison. Yet God was able to use the experience of imprisonment to open Colson’s heart to the needs of prisoners and to give him a special ministry, a special calling to serve those men and women in the name of Christ. Colson puts it this way in his book: “God often uses what we least expect for His divine purposes. That has certainly proved to be true for me. Out of the depths of my prison experience came the vision for Prison Fellowship Ministry, which now involves thousands of volunteers and brings the hope of Christ to prisoners throughout the United States and abroad.” Chuck Colson’s difficulty became a source of blessing to thousands of men and women behind bars who have been influenced for Christ.

It’s a vivid example of Paul’s assertion in verse five when he says, “For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.” Each of us will undergo suffering in life. Not one of us is immune from trials or difficulties. But if we allow Him, Christ can take even that suffering and produce from it blessings in our lives and in the lives of others.

Hardships also turn us into carriers of hope. When I say hope, I do not mean wishful thinking, but confidence. It is sure did for Paul. This passage, you see, was meant to instill hope and confidence in its readers.

Usually Paul opened his letters by telling them how he was thanking God for working in their midst. But this time Paul doesn’t do that. He instead launches right into holding up a picture of God being our encourager, our comforter. He seems to be saying right off the bat in this letter, Yes. It is a hard knock life. I’ve experienced it. But know this – you and I have a Father who has been faithful in the past, and He will be in the future. This Father wants you to have hope and strength for today, to rely on Him now, believing in the depths of your heart that He is with us. As the old hymn says, “Present to cheer and to guide. And He walks with me, and He talks with me, and the promise of Jesus is sure and true. Lo, I am with you always to the end of the age.” Let that be your confidence today, if you’re going through a hardship.

But this God, our Father, wants you to have a bright hope also for tomorrow knowing the future is securely in His hands. He wants us to be able to concur with the apostle Paul that this God who raises the dead as he did Jesus Christ will deliver us again and again, ultimately for eternity. We will live with Him in His heaven, and nothing can separate us from His love through Jesus Christ our Lord until we join Him in the place Christ has prepared for us. We know, from the bottom of our hearts, we are headed to that life where there are no more tears, no more sorrows, no more suffering.

We have a wonderful Father who is there to comfort us. If you are going through something now, He is there to comfort you. Call upon His name. Lean heavily upon His promises. Open His Word and let Him speak to you.

If you are not a believer, find a community of believers and tell them, Share with me your strength. What is your hope in Christ? Whatever you do, don’t go through this alone. You don’t have to. You have a Father who loves you. He gave His only begotten Son to die for you in order that you might become His own. He has gone to a lot of trouble to bring you to Himself and give you the life He desires for each and every individual He has created.

It’s great to have a Father who is absolutely perfect, don’t you think? Praise God. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

It’s a Hard Knock Life, But God Is Reliable

II Corinthians 9:6-15

I’d like to share with you a story I came across years ago about a little boy named Chad.

Chad was a shy, quiet young fellow. One day he came home and told his mommy he’d like to make a Valentine for everyone in his class. Her heart sank. Each day as she watched the children walk home from school, her little boy was always behind them. They laughed and hung onto each other, but Chad was never included. Nevertheless, she went along with his idea. So she bought some paper, glue, and crayons, and for three whole weeks – night after night – Chad worked on his thirty-five Valentines. 

When Valentines Day dawned, Chad was beside himself with excitement! He carefully stacked them up, put them in a bag and bolted out the door! His mom just knew he would be disappointed so she decided to bake his favorite cookies and serve them up nice and warm with a cool glass of milk when he came from school to ease the pain a little. It hurt her to think he wouldn’t get many Valentines, if any at all.

That afternoon she had the cookies and milk sitting on the table. When she heard the children outside the house, she looked out the window and sure enough! Here they came, laughing and having the best time as they walked down the sidewalk. As always, Chad was way back in the rear and walking a little faster than usual this day. 

His arms were empty, she noticed, and she fully expected him to burst into tears as soon as he got inside. When the door opened, she choked back the tears and said, “Mommy has warm cookies and milk for you.” But he hardly heard her words. Instead, he just marched right on by, his face aglow. 

“Not a one! Not a one” was all he could say. Her heart sank. 

Then he added, “I didn’t forget a one – not a single one!” 

I like Chad, don’t you? Do you know why? Because generous people are very attractive.

Would you consider yourself a generous person? When you pass away, will people say, “There lies a generous person”? The Apostle Paul today is making an appeal to some folks in Corinth in Greece to be generous toward the famine-stricken people in Jerusalem.

They had heard about the famine, the starvation, and the church starting to fall apart under hardship, and they pledged to help the poor. However, the offering was never taken, and now they seemed to be reluctant. We don’t know why. It could be there was financial hardship in their own lives. Perhaps the economy was not going well, or maybe they were caught up in the materialism of their day (Corinth was known for that), and they didn’t have anything left over to give. Paul is appealing to them to be generous givers – but not just for this offering. Their generosity was to be a lifestyle.

The dictionary defines generosity as liberal, magnanimous, openhanded. The Greek word for generous used here in Scripture means openhearted. You have a big heart and are pouring it out into other people’s lives. It’s just the opposite of fear and stinginess. We know Jesus liked the widow’s attitude as He watched her put two pennies in the offering. He even pointed to her and said, Now there’s someone special! For her, you see, giving was more important than a crust of bread or a sip of milk. God loves generosity.

The Apostle Paul offers us three pictures to consider when deciding whether we’re going to be generous or not, whether we’re going to live with open hands or a clenched fist through life.

The first picture is of God Himself.
God is very generous to us. Paul, at the end of this chapter, says “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift,” meaning Christ! In 8:9 he says, “You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich!” God withheld nothing to save us from our sinfulness and restore us into a relationship with Himself. He is a generous God.

God is our Creator. He is able to do anything. He holds this world in the palm of His hands. He causes it to spin on its axis and sustains it. He provides all we need.

I love it when Martin Luther, in the meaning to the first article of the Small Catechism, says, “I believe that God has created me and all that exists. He has provided me with food and clothing, home and family, daily work and all I need from day-to-day.” Paul is basically saying the same thing. “He gives seed to the sower; he waters the fields.”

God is faithful. He will provide abundantly. You will have everything you need to continue to be generous, He promises, because God is faithful.

We have this generous, able, providing, faithful God held up for us as we consider becoming a generous person of God, one who has tasted of His grace through Jesus Christ.

The second picture Paul holds up is of the people of God – you and me. Scripture tells us, “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation” (II Cor. 5:17). We belong to God. We are people of God. Paul pulls this text from the Old Testament to give us a vision of ourselves as God’s people.

Whenever Paul quotes an Old Testament passage – and he quotes three here – you need to look at the whole passage. Go back to the Old Testament and look at it to get the gist of why Paul is using it. He is saying, You are God’s people. This is your goal in life now, and generosity is a vital part of it.

God’s people are, first of all, cheerful givers not grudging or grumpy or reluctant. God loves the cheerful giver. Paul gets this from Proverbs chapter 22 where it says this is how a righteous person of God acts. In the original Greek language, which the Corinthians used to study scripture, it does not say God loves a cheerful giver, but God blesses the cheerful giver. We’re not called to be stingy but cheerful givers. It is part of our makeup as God’s people.

Paul continues. You are all called to be righteous givers. He quotes Psalm 112:

“He scatters abroad; he gives to the poor;
His righteousness endures forever.”

This is not a reference to God, but to the person of God who acts generously and gives. It is a wisdom Psalm. Your giving is an act of righteousness. Your behavior reflects gratitude for God’s faithfulness in your life and the righteousness He has given you through Christ.

Paul also says we are faithful, obedient givers. He quotes Isaiah 55:10 as he says, “He who supplies seed to the sower and bread.” (I will supply and multiply your seed for sowing.) God is promising Israel to save them from exile and use them as a part of His mission. Paul seems to be saying, You are a called people.

Generosity is part of the calling. If you know the gospel of grace and you’re one of God’s sons and daughters through Christ. God wants you to be radically generous, trusting Him all the way. This is how I glorify Him.

The third picture is a vision of people who are receiving help in Christ’s name. They are giving thanks to God because of your generosity. The question, you see, is not what do I get out of this, but what does God get out of it when I’m generous? He receives thanks and praise as people give thanks for what has been provided to them.

It becomes apparent then, that Paul is telling us this: As people of God, living under a generous God, with the possibility of stirring their hearts to give thanks to God and glorify God, we are to be generous with what He has given us.

Now, there are a lot of obstacles to generosity, I know. One is worry, for instance. We play the “What if?” game. What if the economy tanks? What if I get sick? What if I live too long and eat up all my savings? What if I lose my job?

There’s not only worry, but also greed. We can become captive to greed without even realizing it. It sneaks up on us. We want it all! Jesus, on more than one occasion, cautioned His disciples to beware of greed. Be on guard! We can become overwhelmed by greed.

Another obstacle to generosity is expectations. We compare ourselves to others around us to define what is enough. It defines our happiness and our self-esteem. Someone once said Americans of forty years ago would be shocked to see what Christians today think of as necessities. We define the basics the way the consumer capitalist culture wants us to, which has always been upward and fast.

Of course, materialism is another obstacle – the excessive concern for and love of wealth and possessions. It is the thought that I need this and I need that in order to be secure or to have a sense of significance before others, to feel all right about myself. We trust in those things instead of God who says we are precious and important in His sight. We don’t want to admit our captivity to possessions or perhaps just don’t realize it.

A narrow world view, a lack of awareness of the needs around us in this world, is another obstacle. We’re kind of sheltered, when you think about it, living in our nice little world here in America. Did you know the rest of the world considers us quite rich? We have most of the wealth. A lot of needs are out there and a lot of starving people are not making it. We sometimes find ourselves not seeing it anymore. We think everybody is living like us.

Finally, our hard knocks of life. Maybe you are facing financial difficulties. A catastrophe of some sort has hit that you hadn’t planned for, and you’re thinking to yourself, I can’t afford to be a generous person.

Paul would say, I know where you’re coming from because, you see, I went through financial hardships myself. As we read about Paul describing his ministry, we see him again and again talking about how he has learned to live with plenty and to live with want. What it means to be starving, to be thirsting. He knew what it meant to live hand to mouth, without a roof over his head. But he always believed Jesus’ words – it’s more blessed to give than to receive – and he wasn’t disappointed by them.

Paul’s testimony to us today is God has seen to his needs, and He’ll see to ours as well. He’s not just blowing smoke or waxing eloquently with some philosophy or clichés about giving. He is talking about what he saw at work in his own life. God is faithful and generous and will provide for our needs. Paul believed it, and he saw this very promise fulfilled in his life. God is able to provide us with every blessing in abundance so that by always having enough of everything, we may share abundantly in every good work.

May I ask you a question today? How much do you really trust God? You might say, Well, I trust Him with my salvation. I know that without Jesus Christ and what He’s done for me, I’d be lost. So I trust God’s provision for my salvation. I trust Jesus. Wonderful!

Do you trust Him with your hurts and sorrows? Absolutely! I am a person of prayer. I come to Him first. 

Do you trust Him with your finances and your resources? It seems so much easier to trust Him with our eternities than with our daily living.

Today’s passage is an appeal to trust and share from what you have – no matter what your circumstances. Exercise generosity in your life. Our generous God is counting on us to be generous people in all circumstances.

Let me give you one last story about what this looks like. Richard Stearns, the president of World Vision United States, tells the story.

In 1987, the largest, single-day stock market crash since 1929 took place. In one day my wife and I lost more than one-third of our life’s savings and the money we had put aside for our kids’ college education. I was horrified and became like a man obsessed, each night working past midnight, analyzing on spreadsheets all that we had lost, and the next day calling in orders to sell our remaining stocks and mutual funds to prevent further losses.

I was consumed with anguish over our lost money—and it showed. One night when I was burning the midnight oil, my wife came and sat beside me. “Honey,” she said, “this thing is consuming you in an unhealthy way. It’s only money. We have our marriage, our health, our friends, our children, and a good income—so much to be thankful for. You need to let go of this and trust God.” Don’t you hate it when someone crashes your pity party? I didn’t want to let go of it. I told her I felt responsible for our family and that she didn’t understand. It was my job to worry about things like this.

She suggested we pray about it—something that hadn’t occurred to me—so we did. At the end of the prayer, to my bewilderment, she said, “Now I think we need to get out the checkbook and write some big checks to our church and ministries we support. We need to show God that we know this is His money and not ours.” I was flabbergasted at the audacity of this suggestion, but in my heart I knew she was right. So that night we wrote some sizable checks, put them in envelopes addressed to various ministries, and sealed them. And that’s when I felt the wave of relief. We had broken the spell that money had cast over me. It freed me from the worries that had consumed me. I actually felt reckless and giddy – “God, please catch us, because we just took a crazy leap of faith.” 

This is what Paul is appealing to us to do. Trust God in all things. He is reliable. Take a crazy leap of faith, and be generous. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

The Essence of the Gospel

Matthew 27:11-26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pastor Lee Laaveg

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

II Corinthians 4:7-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That must have hurt!”

“It was very painful.”

“How did you do it?”

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

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

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

“How do you do it?” I asked

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

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

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

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

God bless you in your ministry. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

It’s a Hard Knock Life Why?

Genesis 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pastor Steve Kramer

Life Is Better Serving

John 13:1-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pastor Steve Kramer

Live Better Connected to God’s Word

II Timothy 3:14-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is our truth for today. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

In the Hands of Jesus

Matthew 14:13-21

Do you ever have problems so large, you can’t cope from your own strength? What do you do? Where do you turn? In the story of Jesus and the miracle of feeding the five thousand, the disciples and Jesus were facing a problem that required supernatural power to solve it.

Jesus had just been rejected in His hometown of Nazareth and said that He could do no miracles there because of their unbelief. He also just learned that His soul mate – His cousin John the Baptist (the forerunner to the Messiah) – had been beheaded by the king because John the Baptist confronted him for the sin of sleeping with his brother’s wife.

Jesus was grieving the death of John the Baptist. But the crowds, it says in the Gospel, still came. Large crowds with great need. The compassion of Jesus was stirred for them, so He healed the sick and taught about the kingdom of God. All through the day, they still came with their tremendous need.

Jesus was tired, and now there were 5,000 men – if you counted women and children, it may have been up to 15,000 people – in a desolate wilderness area without food. That’s a problem. The disciples, perhaps because they were tired or indifferent, said to Jesus, Send these people away to the nearby village so they can eat. We can’t feed them.

Jesus said, They don’t have to go away. You feed them. There is a contrast here between the attitude of the disciples – indifference or dismissal of the problem, not wishing to deal with it at all, running from it – and Jesus’ compassion – engage the problem in a practical way and offer help.

I can understand the attitude of the disciples, not only what I meet problems in my life so big I can’t cope with them, but even when God calls me to do something about world issues that feel too big for me. If I hear on the news of a child who has been abducted and missing, I grieve. If I see a video on TV about a poor, starving person, I know the complexities of the problem are so deep that a few dollars offered isn’t going to solve it, and yet Jesus asked me to do something about it.

When I hear stories about white supremacists who literally believe they should rule or dominate and control and put down other people because of the color of their skin or their nationality, I get angry at the injustice, at the prejudice. But I’m blind at the prejudices that operate in my own soul. Or I hear stories around the world of terrorists who have put innocent people to death senselessly, like not long ago in Barcelona, Spain. I wonder, Where will it end? and How can I fix it? I’m kind of like an ostrich that puts his head in the sand and says, ‘It’s not my problem.’ My resources are limited. I can’t fix it. I’m overwhelmed. I don’t want to deal with it. Send them away, Jesus. But Jesus in compassion says, ‘You help them. You love them.’

So I ask you again, when you face life’s problems, do you focus on your limits and your lack of capacity, or do you look to Jesus and invite His power to be released into the problem or into the context of the challenge? Remember the verse in Ephesians 3:20, “God is able to do exceedingly, abundantly beyond all we ask or think according to His power that works within us.” Maybe you’ve heard this faith quote, “God is never at His extremity. Therefore we are never at our extremity.” We put our problems and our lives into the hands of Jesus, and then miraculous things can happen.

In the story of the feeding of the five thousand, the disciples bring five loaves and two fish, but protest, “What is this among so many?” They are focused on their limits. But remember, they are in the presence of the all-powerful Lord Jesus. From John’s telling of the story, we actually learn that it was a boy who brought the five loaves and two fish to the disciples. This boy’s generosity becomes the means by which Jesus turns the impossible into the possible. When we put our problems into Jesus’ hands, He does miraculous things for us and with us. We actually are invited to become participants in Jesus’ miracle to bless the people.

God uses imperfect, limited people to experience the thrill of having God work through us. God is never at His extremity, therefore we are never at our extremity. We have learned in the biblical story from Genesis to Revelation that God takes impossible circumstances and reveals His power and grace are possible for a word of hope for all people.

Remember when Abraham and Sarah were promised a child who would be the beginning of a great nation? Twenty-five years later when Abraham was one hundred and Sarah was ninety, a child was born. A miracle. They named him Isaac, which means, “He laughs.” The Lord had asked, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” The answer, of course, is no!

Moses stood before Pharaoh, the most powerful leader of Egypt, who refused to let his country’s slaves (God’s people) go. Ten supernatural plagues later, God’s power convinced Pharaoh to let them go. They no sooner left Egypt when they were confronted by yet another problem – the Red Sea as a barrier. But then, by the calling of Moses and the people, the Red Sea divides and they cross over into the promised land. Now that, which was the problem, becomes the very means God uses to defeat Pharaoh and his army and give them the victory.

David slays the giant Goliath saying, The battle is the Lord’s. And of course, in the incarnation story of sweet Jesus Himself, an all-powerful God takes on limits in an emptying of His power and glory. A child is conceived within the womb of a virgin named Mary. God becomes a man, and the impossible becomes possible in the context of human history.

Jesus goes on to live a perfect life; He goes to the cross on false charges. He dies for the sins of the world of all time; and God raises Him from the dead so that in His name the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to all who would believe. That is how the impossible becomes possible in individual lives like yours and mine as we are invited to be reconciled into a relationship with the living God.

God is in the business of the impossible becoming possible. An extraordinary God lives in the hearts of ordinary people to do miraculous things. This miracle shows us He truly is the Son of God. One man feeding five thousand, everybody eating until they are satisfied with twelve baskets left over, shows us the power of Jesus – that He truly is the Son of God. He is the Lord. He is the Savior of the world. Just like God fed His people in the wilderness with manna, now Jesus as the bread of life satisfies the soul of all people.

The miracle also shows us the compassion of Jesus that always meets us at the point of our need.

What is your problem today? Where do you struggle? You can invite Jesus into that very point of life, and His compassion will release power and love into your life context.

The miracle also shows that Jesus desires to come into our lives and bless us abundantly, to lavish His grace upon us. The same compassion that released Jesus’ power to feed the five thousand, took Jesus all the way to the cross. The ultimate need of humanity was that our sins would be forgiven so we could be reconciled into a relationship of love and peace with the Creator God who made us. We can place, not just our problems, but our very lives into the hands of Jesus Christ.

We can pray as intercessors for other people who have needs inviting God’s power to work for them.

I love the story told by Bill Bright in his magazine Campus Crusade for Christ. The article was called, “How You Can Pray With Confidence.” He tells the story from the mid-1950s of the Mau Mau terrorist uprising in the country of Kenya. This uprising was a terrorist plot to overthrow a certain segment of the people. During that time, missionaries located in Kenyan named Matt and Laura Higgins had to drive through the heart of Mau Mau territory on their way to the city of Nairobi. They were well aware that many had met a violent death at the hands of terrorists in that very area.

It was after dark, and they were still 17 miles from Nairobi when their Land Rover stalled. Missionary Matt tried in vain to repair the vehicle in the dark, but he was unable to get it started. Fearfully the couple locked themselves in the car and prayed aloud Psalm 4. “I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone make me dwell in safety.” When they awakened in the morning in the daylight, Matt repaired the Land Rover and they were able to get to Nairobi.

The following week, a local pastor – their friend – told Matt and Laura what happened while they slept. Three Mau Mau terrorists, in fact, had crept up to the car intending to do them in, but they saw sixteen men surrounding their vehicle, and so they fled in fear. Matt, and Laura were thrilled but bewildered by that strange story. “What sixteen men?” they wondered.

Sometime later, they were on furlough back in America, and the rest of the story came to light when Matt’s dear friend asked him, “Have you been in any danger lately?” Matt told his friend about the Mau Mau rebellion, their stalled vehicle, and the sixteen men. The friend nodded excitedly. “Yes! It was March 23!” he said. “God burned my heart for you. I called the men of our church, and sixteen of us met for emergency prayer, praying on your behalf.”

Now, God does not always work that way in our human lives. He does not always release miraculous power to deliver us from all harm or spare us from all suffering, but in this particular case, the intercessory prayer of dear friends delivered those missionaries. We can, in prayer, put our life problems in the hands of Jesus.

Author Stephen Ambrose in the book, Band of Brothers, told the story of an American paratrooper unit during World War II. One of the stories was about one Sgt. “Skinny” Sisk, who was one of the few to survive from beginning to end. After the war, Skinny Sisk had a hard time shaking his wartime memories. In July 1991, he wrote a letter to explain to his old captain, Dick Winters, what happened after the war. My career after the war was trying to drink away the truckload of Krauts I had stopped in Holland, and the diehard Nazi as I went up into the Bavarian Alps and ended his life. Old Mo Alley made a statement that all the killings I did was going to jump into bed with me one of these days, and they surely did. I had a lot of flashbacks that haunted me after the war, and I started drinking.

Then my sister’s little daughter, my four-year-old niece, came into my bedroom. I was too unbearable for the rest of the family – either hung over or drunk. So she came in the bedroom and told me that Jesus loved me, and she loved me, and if I would repent God would forgive me for all the men I kept trying to kill all over again. That little girl got to me. I put her out of the room, and sent her back to her mommy. But there and then I bowed my head on my mother’s old featherbed. I repented of all my sins, and I asked God to forgive me for the war and for all the other bad things I had done down through the years. I later was ordained into the gospel ministry in 1949.

I love that story that skinny Sisk tells about how the Lord redeemed him, because it tells me two things: the Lord is still in the business of redeeming lives. Jesus is still pouring grace and power into lives to redeem us and start over again. But also it tells me that even a little four-year-old girl can be the one who shares the message of Jesus Christ.

In prayer, we can place our problems and our guilt and our very lives into the hands of Jesus Christ, and when we do, powerful life-changing things happen. Amen.

Pastor Lee Laaveg
Christian Crusaders

This Is Us – The Bride of Christ

Ephesians 5:25-32

Some people in the world today enjoy poking fun at the church, even running it down and talking negatively about it. In some parts of the globe, people persecute the church. Sometimes we will hear criticisms of the church even from within. Someone once compared his church to Noah’s ark. “If the flood on the outside were not so bad, you couldn’t stand the smell on the inside.” That’s not exactly a positive thing to say about the church, is it?

Some will make statements such as, The church is full of hypocrites or It’s irrelevant; it’s behind the times. Some from the outside will point to some of the sordid history, such as the Crusades or more recently of clergy misconduct. Others tend to treat the church as kind of an extra in life, a non-necessity, nice to have around. What matters though is my personal walk with the Lord, they’ll say.

Let me ask you, What is your attitude toward the church? Do you love her or are you a critic? Do you cherish her or do you treat her as an extra in your relationship with the Lord? We have been talking about the Church of Jesus Christ for the past two Sundays in our series called, “This Is Us.” Along the way we’ve learned that there are two ways of talking about the church. The Church can be talked about as the Church Universal – all believers in Christ on earth. As we say in our Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the holy catholic Church.” Or we can talk about the church as a local congregation of believers in Christ who are called together and then sent out into the world to serve Him.

In the book of Ephesians, the Apostle Paul uses various images to help us better understand what a special and glorious thing the Church of Jesus Christ really is. We’ve seen that He calls us the family of Christ, Christ’s body with many parts – each one important.

Today he uses another interesting image to describe the wonder of the Church, one which we don’t talk about much. We find it in the fifth chapter of Ephesians as he is instructing husbands how to treat their wives. In the instruction, he describes the Church as the Bride of Christ. In verse 25 he makes this very interesting statement: “Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the Church.”

Now we have a marriage imagery. The Church is the Bride of Christ, and Jesus loves her. He cherishes her with a superior type of love. Sometimes after we’re married, we will jokingly say, Well, the honeymoon is over! But the love Christ has for His Church is a superior type of love, and the honeymoon for Him is never over. He is affectionate; He loves His church.

How has He loved her? In verse 25 we see that He gave Himself up for her to make her holy, which means set apart for Him. He has cleansed her for Himself with the forgiveness of sins. You see, this bridegroom was willing to pay any price for her – even going to a cross. He sacrificed His life for her good.

I love the way Martin Luther talks about this in his writing, The Freedom of a Christian. Listen to this: “Who can understand the riches of the glory of His grace? Here this rich and divine bridegroom, Christ, marries this poor, wicked harlot, redeems her from all evil, and adorns her with all his goodness. Her sins cannot now destroy her since they are laid upon Christ and swallowed up by him. And she has the righteousness in Christ, her husband, of which she may boast as of her own and which she can confidently display alongside her sins in the face of death and Hell and say, ‘If I have sinned, yet my Christ in whom I believe has not sinned, and all his is mine and all mine is his.’”

Isn’t that a beautiful statement of how Christ has loved His Church? He went all the way to the cross to make us His own.

We also see in verse 23, prior to today’s reading, that He leads the Church. Christ is the head of the Church. He has been given responsibility for the Church, to care for her, to lead her, to take the initiative for her welfare, to help her be all she was meant to be. He’s always up to something good on behalf of His bride.

The Church has no idea what Christ is up to a lot of the time. He surprises us with all kinds of things. Sometimes in history He surprised the Church with revivals. He moves in ways that surprise the Church with joy and health and growth. I’ve seen this in my own congregation. Jesus has led us through some exciting adventures with the evangelism ministry and outreach ministry and small groups ministry and prayer ministry. He even took us into a relocation we never anticipated. He was leading. He was the initiator, the head.

In verse 29 we also read that He nourishes and cares for His church as one cares for his or her own body. How does He do that? He feeds the Church through His Word and the sacraments. In that Word, He cleanses her with the water and the word. This is a reference to Ezekiel 16 where God is cleansing His bride Israel, making a covenant with her. He protects her, takes care of her. He builds her up. He sees what she needs and what she can become, and He provides for her. He does everything in His power to shape and mold His body through the Holy Spirit’s work. He cares for her as we care for our own bodies.

Finally, we learned He actually has a stake in her future. He holds her future, her destiny. In verse 27 it says He is preparing us for the great wedding day. Listen to these words of Paul: “So as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so she may be holy (set apart) and without blemish.” The beautiful bride on the day of the wedding. I think of my beautiful bride of 40 years ago this year on our wedding day coming down the aisle. All I could say as she came toward me was, She’s beautiful!

Jesus will present her to Himself on the great consummation day without stain or wrinkle. We were betrothed to Him at our salvation; at the consummation we are received as His bride. At the end of the Bible in the book of Revelation, the Apostle John is given a vision of the wedding of the Lamb. There is a great shout – hallelujah and praise – for Christ has made His bride ready. The Church has a great destiny awaiting us.

So this is us! In this world, which can be so critical and condescending to the Church, remember – we are the bride of Christ! Are we perfect? By no means! We won’t be without blemish until the great wedding day of the Lamb. We are still a group of saints and sinners. It resides within each of us. We are blemished, in need of God’s grace and forgiveness time and again. But we are forgiven, and we are loved by Jesus. We are a covenant people being shaped and molded by His Holy Spirit, and called into service for the glory of God. We are the bride of Christ.

I hope you understand the passion, the love this bridegroom, Jesus, has for the bride. I hope you see and understand the value of the bride in the bridegroom’s sight. You will find joy and assurance in that. I hope you can feel your attitude toward the Church rise a little bit under the Word of God as we look at the image of the bride of Christ, and I hope you are coming to understand that the hymn writer is right when he says, “She’s the Apple of His Eye.”

Now the question is, If Christ is the Bridegroom and the Church is His bride, how then would He have us view the bride and treat the bride (our local church)? Listen to this statement: If you love the bridegroom, then you will love the bride. For as Paul says, “They are one.” There is a special union of the two becoming one. Hear His words from the last part of this reading for today: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.”

Remember when Paul, who once was called Saul – the great, persecutor of the Church – was knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus and had a conversion? He saw a bright light and heard these words: “Saul, Saul! Why are you persecuting me?”

Saul asked, “Who are you?”

The voice of Jesus replied, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” When you persecute the bride, you are persecuting the bridegroom. Then Jesus called Saul (who became Paul) into service for the bride. If you love the bridegroom, then you’ll love the bride.

Imagine a scenario – A man invites a friend into his home for dinner. They enjoy a delicious meal the man’s wife has graciously offered to make. The man and his friend casually catch up on life, but then halfway through the meal the invited guest starts to do something unbelievable. He starts listing things his wife’s friend could’ve done better. The chicken’s too tough, he says. You should have marinated it longer. And the broccoli’s overcooked. My twelve-year-old daughter could cook a better meal than that! And you really should do something else with your hair. Then he begins to criticize her character and even ridicule her.

I’m guessing his visit would be cut short and the guest would simply be sent away with a few choice words by the husband. Even if he might’ve been right about certain things, the typical husband simply wouldn’t tolerate someone openly and caustically criticizing his wife. He loves her, and for a husband that means accepting and honoring his wife despite her quirks and shortcomings. On the other hand, if someone reaches out and helps my wife, I consider them my friend. When you’re good to the bride, you bring pleasure to the bridegroom. Grasp that truth, and you will think in new and different ways about your local church.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, I am to love what Jesus loves. He loves the Church as His bride. How can I do otherwise?

When we talk about love in the Church, we’re not simply talking about a feeling but a superior sort of love, the love Jesus has that led Him to the cross. Love is a verb, not a noun. It’s an action word. Just think of what we do for those whom we love, those whom we are committed to. We talk of them and to them with words of affirmation. We say, I love you. I appreciate you. When we pray, we thank God for those we love. We give them words of value and honor. For those we love, we make time for them, and make them a priority even when we have a busy schedule.

Likewise, if you love the Church, you make her a priority, time wise, in your busy schedule.

We give thoughtful gifts to those we love. We think long and hard about how to give a special gift to the person we care about. Likewise in the church, we give thoughtful gifts if we love her – resources of our time and our talents and our treasures – and we give them passionately. Those we love – such as in our own marriage – we serve one another. We serve together. Are you serving in your church’s ministries?

And of course, we meaningfully touch those whom we love.

Are you committed to be at worship every week? That is expressing your love to Christ and to His bride.

This is the appeal I make to you today. Christ loves His bride, the Church. If you love Jesus, love your church. She’s not perfect, but she is very near and dear to Jesus.

You might be thinking, That church hurt me somewhere along the way. Let me remind you that to love also means to forgive and start over.

Okay, where do I start? you might be wondering. Pray for her to be the light of the world for Christ – great commission people as well as great commandment people. In your prayers, give thanks to God for your church and what she’s done for you in the past. Pray for the bride’s health and growth.

Ask God to show you where you can serve and contribute to the mission of His bride. Then dare to take the next step after you’ve prayed. Put that love to work for the bride. Ask your pastor, for instance, where you can help in the church because this is us, the church, the body of Christ, the bride of Christ through whom Christ works, the family of Christ, belonging to Christ. We are the bride, loved by Christ and valued by Christ, attentive to her. He delights in us.

If you love the bridegroom, then you’ll love the bride, and count yourself blessed that you belong to the church. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer