How to Live With Weeds

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

My wife and I took a couple weeks off last month and went to Denmark. Guess what we found everywhere when we got back to our home. Weeds! Weeds, weeds, weeds, and more weeds. A reality for any gardener or farmer, those pesky weeds keep showing up. I don’t know about you, but the Kramers hate weeds! We work pretty hard to keep our garden and our lawn weed free. We are always pulling, spraying, clipping, and complaining about them. Get rid of those weeds! Where do they come from? We don’t like living with weeds. My wife and I took a couple weeks off last month and went to Denmark. Guess what we found everywhere when we got back to our home. Weeds! Weeds, weeds, weeds, and more weeds. A reality for any gardener or farmer, those pesky weeds keep showing up. I don’t know about you, but the Kramers hate weeds! We work pretty hard to keep our garden and our lawn weed free. We are always pulling, spraying, clipping, and complaining about them. Get rid of those weeds! Where do they come from? We don’t like living with weeds.

Jesus told a peculiar story about weeds one day. We find it in Matthew 13. There was this farmer who sowed good seed in his field in hopes of a good wheat crop. One night, an enemy came and threw weed seeds into it. When it all started sprouting up weeks later, the slaves were in a snit. “Master, didn’t you sow good seed?” (It’s almost as if they are saying it accusingly. What did you do wrong? Where did these weeds come from?)

The master said, “My enemy has done this.”

“Well, do you want us to go out and weed?” the servant asked.

“No,” the master said. “You might tear out the weed with the wheats.” The roots would be intertwined.

By the way, the Greek word used for weeds here intimates it was a weed called darnell, which was a rye grass sort of weed, it resembles wheat in the early stages, and its seeds were known to be poisonous. But the master said, “No, let them grow together, and at harvest time I’ll have the reapers separate them. I will even out wit my enemy by using his weeds as fuel for my furnace.” End of story.

It’s kind of a peculiar story. People must have wondered what Jesus meant by it. We know His followers didn’t get its meaning, because later they asked Him about it in private. Jesus explained, the field is the world God created and loves. It is the world He wants to redeem and restore, to make fruitful and good again. The good wheat is the sons of the kingdom – followers of Jesus who have heard the message of God’s kingdom, His rule and reign over people’s lives. They know a new day had arrived, and they repent, believe, and serve Him.

The pesky weeds represent the sons of the evil one. They cause all kinds of evil in this world.

Jesus points out that even though the kingdom Jesus is preaching about has arrived, there is resistance to it. I think especially of Herod who tried to kill the infant Jesus. We have an enemy – Satan, the evil one. He wants to ruin God’s field. Jesus came into the world proclaiming the kingdom of heaven, and immediately the battle was on. Satan did everything he could to resist its expansion. We have the temptation story. C. S. Lewis wrote, “There is no neutral ground in this universe. Every square inch has been claimed by Christ and counterclaimed by Satan.”
Jesus tells us the reapers are God’s angels. They’ll do the separating. The harvest is the end of the age – judgment day, separation day. The day is surely coming when the weeds will be picked, bundled, and burned. The righteous ones, Christ’s followers, will shine like the sun in the perfect kingdom of the Father.

What is the take away? Jesus is pointing out to His followers that yes, there are weeds in the garden of God’s world. The kingdom has arrived, but there is still evil and resistance to God’s rule and God’s ways happening in this world. Sometimes it may even appear that the weeds have the upper hand and are thriving as they have their way in God’s world.

Have you ever wondered if evil is winning? Drug abuse is ruining lives around us. Our world has sex trafficking of children, human beings being treated badly, violence, the porn industry is exploding and ruining lives, immorality and poor values abound. We watch good people suffer and evil people prosper. Those of us in the Church see Jesus being persecuted, ridiculed, and looked down upon. Who hasn’t wondered, What gives here? Why in the world does God allow this? Is He really in control? We get anxious and we wonder if perhaps we should do something with these weeds.

Let’s remove them. That is our natural inclination, isn’t it. Let’s separate ourselves from the weeds and not get tainted by their sinfulness. Or, let’s write them off! That’s what the super religious people (Pharisees) were doing in Jesus’ day. Call them untouchable and leave them alone.

Maybe we’re to hate these people, some people reason. Exterminate them in the name of God. But Jesus doesn’t seem to be saying anything like that! He is saying, Wait a minute now. Hold it. Time out! Be patient now. Don’t start weeding. Learn to live with them. My people are to be people who patiently wait upon the Lord. 

Sometimes it can be difficult to tell the weeds from the wheat. Have you ever met a person you would describe as a weed? She is rotten to the core, a hopeless case. There’s not a trace of God’s image in that individual. Weeding is a tricky, finicky business. It’s difficult to tell a hell-deserving sinner from a saint.

Patience is hard. It’s like the cartoon of the man kneeling, God, give me patience, and please hurry up! Jesus is calling us to patiently trust in our Lord. Leave the weeding to God. It’s going to happen in the end. Only God can know a person’s heart. Instead of hoeing, His people are to be about the business of sowing. There are more people to be reached and brought into the kingdom. If you step outside of the story, I know a number of weeds who have been actually transformed by the power of the Gospel of Jesus. Be patient, just keep on praying “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done . . .” and it will. 

Jesus seems to be saying, Be confident during these days, when it looks like everything’s out of whack. The harvest is coming. Sure, things may look bad today but remember who owns this field – God owns it, and He has the final say over this field we call our world. The end of the age is coming. There is an end to history. History is His story. Sure, things may be a mess, but it’s His mess.

A day will come when evil comes to an end and evil ones will no longer exist. Jesus talks again and again in Scripture of a judgment in the end. Separation. A great day. The harvest. It will be day of rejoicing for God’s people. In fact, we know this for certain because God in Christ has taken care of everything for us. He has defeated the power of sin and death and the devil through the cross and the empty tomb. Those of us who trust in Him are in His hands. Nothing can snatch us from His hand and from Him, as the Apostle Paul says. We can be sure of this. It will all turn out in the end.

Years ago, a movie actress was interviewed concerning her experiences making a film. At one point in the film, some lions would rush at her while she’s tied to a stake in the Roman Coliseum. The reporter asked the actress, “Weren’t you afraid when those lions came rushing at you?” She replied, “No. You see, I’m one of those actresses who reads the entire script. I had read to the end of the script, and I knew the hero would rescue me.”

Jesus is giving us a glimpse of the end of the script in this parable. God’s kingdom wins! This story Jesus told then is to be heard as Good News by the follower of Christ. It is a word of encouragement. Yes, it’s true. It’s real. Weeds are in the garden. The world is full of mess – at least for now. However, a lot of good things are also happening. God’s kingdom is at work. The word from our Savior and Lord of the world is this: “Be patient, be confident, be full of hope, and of good courage. God is in charge.” It’s like the old song says, “I may not know the future, but I know the One who holds my future.” The One who will send His angels into the harvest, and all who trust in Christ will shine like the sun in God’s eternal presence.

In the meantime, we’re to just keep on growing up in Him, trusting in Him and serving Christ in this world, bearing fruit, and putting others in touch with the Savior through our words and our actions, letting our light shine for Him. Keep on being the good news and telling the good news of a Father who loves us so much that He gave His only begotten Son to save us from sin and hell, and raised Him from the grave with the promise that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. All the while, knowing, trusting that you and I, as followers of Christ, are in God’s strong hands, and nothing can snatch us from those hands. In fact, as a song says, He’s got the whole world in His hands. That is what Jesus is saying here.

I can’t help but notice that this teaching from Jesus also holds a word for those who might be standing outside of a saving relationship with Him. You see, presently we are living in what some people would call the day of grace. Christ’s mercy and forgiveness are still available as we await the final day of judgment. But the day will come when it is too late to say yes to following Christ. The day is coming when it will be too late.But it’s not too late today.

While it is God’s desire for all to be saved and live with Him in heaven, He’s made it very clear that it will not always be the case. There will be a separation of believers and unbelievers. However, He’s told us, “I’m telling you the truth,” Jesus said. “Whoever hears my words and believes in him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has already passed from death to life” (John 5:24).

On the basis of such a promise, I have to ask you, if you’re standing outside this relationship, if Christ is not yours, wouldn’t you like to ask Him into your life today? He is standing at the door of your heart, Scripture says, and He is knocking. What peace there is in knowing we have been acquitted by Jesus Christ, who will come to judge the living and the dead. Join me and millions of others today who follow Christ and know what our future ultimately holds. Ask Him in. Ask Him in.

I love the way Jesus describes the glorious future of those who belong to Him. “The righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of heaven, in the presence of their heavenly Father.” What a glorious sight that will be! It’s like the familiar hymn says,  “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun. We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we first begun.”

Yes, weeds are in the garden, but it’s not the end of the story. Be patient; be confident. Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer

 

Good News for the Thirsty

John 7:37-39

We’re told by our doctors that we need to drink at least eight, 8-ounce glasses of water a day in order to have a healthy functioning body. We need water to survive and thrive. No water = no life. Medical experts will tell you they estimate more than 60% of our body is water. Apart from brains, bones, and a few organs, we’re basically walking water balloons.

We need to be constantly filling up. Try to stop drinking for a while and see what happens. Your coherent thoughts will begin to vanish, your skin will grow clammy, and your vital organs will wrinkle and stop functioning correctly. Your eyes need water, fluid to cry. Your mouth needs moisture to swallow. Your glands need sweat to keep your body cool. Your cells need blood to carry them, and your joints need fluid to lubricate them. Your body and my body need water the same way a tire needs air. Water is important!

A few years ago, our congregation began sponsoring teams of people to run. We gave the money they earned to World Vision International to put wells into villages where there was no water to drink. Life without water is absolutely miserable. In fact, it is difficult to survive. Life needs water.

Yet life is more than physical, isn’t it? We are spiritual beings, as well, created in God’s image, needing refreshment for our hearts and souls. Jesus reminds us of this in today’s text.

It seems a lot of people walk around these days with a dehydrated heart. It’s all shriveled up and lacking real life. People are thirsty for peace within, forgiveness for the guilt they bear, a sense of truth to believe in and build a life upon, for a sense of purpose. The bottom line, though, is our thirsty hearts long to enjoy the presence of God. Our hearts desire a relationship with the One who made us.

Psalm 72 tells us, “As a deer pants for living water, so my soul longs for you, Lord. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” When you think about it, dehydrated hearts send some rather desperate messages. Externally, we may exhibit a snarling temper, waves of worry and anxiety, growls of fear and guilt, loneliness, hopelessness, or insecurity. Knowing this about us, Jesus spoke at a public gathering to the inner thirst of people like you and I.

Jesus was at a big festival called the Festival of Booths in Jerusalem. It commemorates the wilderness wanderings of the Jews when God took care of them after saving them from slavery in Egypt and providing everything they needed along the way. One of the big events in the Festival was remembering when people cried out against Moses because they needed water. They were dying of thirst and very angry. God had Moses strike a rock and from it came a gushing stream of water for all the people and their livestock to drink.

During this festival, they would commemorate God providing the water we need. It was a reminder that, even in the agricultural society of that day, God is the one who gives us the water we physically need to survive. So the priest would take a golden pitcher, fill it with water from the Pool of Siloam, proceed to Temple, and pour it out on the altar commemorating the event when God provided.

On the last day of the festival – the great day as it was described in John’s Gospel – a voice shouted out an invitation and a promise. It was the voice of Jesus. He wasn’t simply clearing His throat saying, If you’re looking for water, I know where to get it. No, this was a cry, a shout.

Jesus, by the way, was taking a chance in speaking up. Jerusalem was hostile territory for Him. Many of the authorities had been trying to figure out a way to destroy Him. But this news was so important Jesus couldn’t keep it to Himself. So, before the pitcher was poured out, Jesus shouted, “Anyone who is thirsty, come to me. Let the one who believes in me drink. As the Scripture has said, ‘Out of the heart shall flow rivers of living water.’”

John editorializes this and says, “He said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive, but was not yet there until Jesus was glorified.”

Here we have the reality being stated as Jesus speaks out. I know you are thirsty in your heart and in your soul. God wired you that way – for a relationship with Him. You need God in your life. He feels too far from you. I know this has to be happening in your life. That’s the reality. 

With this reality comes an invitation and a claim. “Come to me,” Jesus said. “Drink of me,” which means believe and trust in Me for your salvation. We can’t help but be reminded of a passage out of the Old Testament, Isaiah 55, from the prophet Isaiah. Speaking on God’s behalf, he says, Everyone who is thirsty, let them come and drink. Jesus seems to be making a divine claim that He is God. To look into His face is to see the face of God. “Come to me and drink.” This is God speaking. He’s making a God claim.

This invitation has a promise attached. “(If you come to me), out of your heart shall flow rivers of living water.” The heart refers to the inner person, the part of us that cries out for God. It is our inner life that needs God. “Out of your heart shall flow . . .” Moving water.

I love the way Jesus talks about it in the plural. “You shall have rivers of living water.” Not just a river, but rivers. This basically means abundance, not just a drip or a trickle in your life. It is a total dousing, a flood so to speak.

In another place, Jesus said “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). So we’re talking about this abundance Jesus wants to put deep within us.

John steps into the story now and editorializes. Whenever he does that, according to what I’ve learned, we really need to pay attention for he is trying to teach us something. “Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” He was talking about the Holy Spirit. When John said the Spirit was not there, he meant the Spirit was not within the disciples yet. The Holy Spirit has been in the Bible from Genesis on, but not available.

When John talks about the glorification of Jesus, his frame of reference is the cross where Jesus died and paid for our sins. It is where Jesus suffered thirst as He said, “I thirst,” so we would not have to thirst any longer ourselves. It is where He experienced separation from His heavenly Father so we would not have to experience separation from God any longer in our lives.

Water and the Spirit is a regular theme in the Old Testament. In Isaiah God promises, “I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground. I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants” (44:3). “The Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your needs in parched places and make your bones strong. You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail” (58:11).

Ezekiel the prophet spoke of the new river of life that would flow from the Temple in Jerusalem and bring life to things that were dead (chapter 47). He was talking of the Spirit.

As I was studying this text, I began thinking about these rivers of blessing from the Spirit. What are they?

The first river that comes to mind is the river of cleansing and healing. Step into the waters of forgiveness, which Christ has won for us.

In India, people go to the Ganges river to dip their bodies in it believing they will get healing outside and in their souls as well. How sad. Jesus, the source of water, says Come to me! Come to me and drink! I went to the cross and paid for your sins. A new start, a clean slate, a restored relationship with God is just sitting there, waiting for you. 

I am reminded of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism and the meaning of the third article. “. . . in this Christian church, day after day, the Spirit forgives my sins and the sins of all believers.”

It’s a river of joy as well. It’s the joy of the presence of the Lord.

A member in my congregation, Marge, who recently passed away, once took a class from me on Becoming a Contagious Christian. One assignment for the students was to write their faith story to serve as their testimony the next time the Lord opened the door to sharing their faith. This is Marge’s story: “When I heard from friends and acquaintances how exciting it was to have a born-again experience, I realized something was missing for me. I wanted that uplifting and reassuring feeling, and I didn’t have it.

“As a child, I was exposed to the Christian life in my church. I attended Sunday school, Bible school, confirmation, and so on. In my teenage years, I went to my friend’s church. I even married a Christian. Still, something was missing. Then after a couple Sunday sermons, hearing the same message, I discovered what was missing. It was the gift of grace in my life. It was there for the asking. Forgiveness leading to eternal life was just the gift. What a discovery to realize Jesus had paid my way. I simply needed to ask Him to forgive me and receive His invitation to come into my life eternally so I could have a right relationship with God.

“It hasn’t always been easy to let go and let God lead my life, but I have experienced a great comfort and an exciting new life. JOY has replaced the feeling that something is missing. Now I am uplifted and assured. Others now want what I have. So I just tell them of the joy I discovered in Jesus Christ!”

Then Marge asked the question, “Is something missing in your life? Have I got news for you!” Marge discovered the river of joy, walking in a joyful assurance – she belonged to God through Jesus Christ. God would never let her go.

Think of the river of peace. “Someday I’m gonna die, but I have the peace of knowing where I am going to go; I am going to heaven! Not because of anything I’ve done, but because of what Christ Jesus has done for me.”

I think of the river of strength. As Paul says, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). That is the Spirit at work in us.

The river of confidence. I am loved. I am sealed by the Spirit. I belong to God forever. Nothing can snatch me from His hand. Paul writes, “For all who are led by the Spirit are children of God. You didn’t receive the Spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption (Rom. 8:13).

There is the river of knowledge and truth, meaning getting to know Jesus personally through the working of the Holy Spirit – Living Water within us.

G. Campbell Morgan, a great preacher of the last century said, “Those disciples knew more about Jesus in the first thirty seconds after Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit than in three years on the road previously.”

That river overflows, then, into the lives of others who wonder where is that joy coming from. Where is that peace coming from? Where is their love coming from? Their assurance.

May I ask you a personal question today? What have you done with the invitation Jesus has given you to come to Him and drink? After Jesus made this statement, the people had a division of responses. Although He was inviting everyone to come, some were not sure what to make of Him.

Is He a prophet? 
Is He the One from God, the Messiah? 
He’s just a nut; we have to destroy Him. He’s trouble.

You see, you have to ask Him in. You have to swallow Jesus, the living water. He won’t force His way in.

Now some of you might be thinking, You know, I have asked Christ in my life. Yet, I still have a couple dry moments. Paul speaks to that in Ephesians. I think he gets it from Jesus that being filled with the Spirit is something you keep doing. Paul says, “Be filled with the Spirit,” which means keep being filled with the Spirit. You see, as sinners we continue to leak.

A black preacher was once asked what it’s like on the inside to be a Christian. Silently he thought on the subject for a bit, and then he said, “Well, it’s like I got two dogs inside of me. One’s a good dog, the other’s a bad dog. They are always fighting.” When someone asked which dog is winning the fight, the preacher said, “Whichever one I feed.” I would add, whichever one I give water to.

That is why we have the community of faith. Luther says we need the community of saints around us in the Christian church day after day. We need to not walk through life alone. We need to be at worship and hear that our sins are forgiven, we belong to Christ, and nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. We need to take a daily drink of His holy Word, have a devotional each morning as we get ready to start our day. We need to ask the Spirit to come in, because Jesus promised that when we pray, God will give us the Holy Spirit.

When people join our church, we pray this blessing upon them. I am going to personalize it for you today.

Gracious Lord, through water and the Spirit you have made me your own. You forgave me all my sins and brought me to newness of life. Continue to strengthen me with your Spirit, and daily increase in me Your gifts of grace, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge, and the fear of the Lord – the Spirit of joy in your presence. Through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord. Amen.

May you this day say once again, Come Lord Jesus, I’m thirsty. He will. Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer

God’s Big Plan for His Family

Ephesians 4:1-6

Our world is filled with things that divide us. For instance, Our world is filled with things that divide us. For instance,

• Political philosophies – are you a Republican or are you a Democrat?
• Racial dividers – skin color can cause a great deal of hurt in this world.
• Class dividers – the amount of income you make separates you from other people. There are the upper, middle class, and lower class with a widening gap between the lower and the upper.
• Gender dividers as women cry out for equal pay and equal opportunities in the business world.
• Generational dividers between young and old. I remember this statement from when I was a teen: “Don’t trust anyone over the age of thirty.” Now it would probably be, Don’t listen to anyone over the age of thirty.

We have constant misunderstandings – dividers – which can cause division, hostility, hatred, inequality, distrust, resentment, and brokenness in our world and in our relationships.

The sad thing is, this was never God’s intention. God’s original intention in Genesis 1 was for us to live in harmony, love God above all things, and love our neighbor. But then sin entered into the picture and blew it all apart. So in Genesis 1 through 11, we find the destruction of God’s perfect world with brokenness and division by the end of chapter 11 – nation against nation, man against woman, brother against brother, heavenly against the earthly. This wasn’t God’s intention.

Years ago I took a course and then taught it at my own church. It was called “Divine Drama,” and it had a wonderful analogy that describes this reality. It goes like this:

Imagine yourself standing on a hill, looking down into a valley at a beautiful mansion. Suddenly a tornado shows up and begins to rip away at the house. There go the shudders; then the chimney begins to crumble down. Then the roof is blown away. Suddenly the walls are crumbling down and the foundation is being chipped away. Before you know, the whole house is wrecked and the tornado moves on. Along comes a figure in the distance. It begins to take the pieces of that house and put it back together again.

This is what’s going on in Scripture. God built this beautiful place. It was destroyed by sin, but God’s plan is to put it all back together again. Paul tells us in the book of Ephesians, “God has made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (1:9-10). God wants to put it all back together again. His goal is for people to be reconciled to Him and to one another as they worship God and love one another. Paul uses the first three chapters of Ephesians to describe the means God uses to make this happen.

First, he talks about Jesus and the cross. You were dead in your sin, but God in his love for you gave us his Son, Jesus Christ who died on a cross to pay for our sinfulness. God raised Him from the grave and promises that all who place their trust in His Son Jesus Christ can be reconciled to God and become His own once again. The relationship can be restored. So we are saved by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:1-6.).

Paul doesn’t stop there. He goes on to talk about the working of the Holy Spirit who calls us together as one community known as the Church, the body of Christ. We know the story from Pentecost – three thousand strangers suddenly became one body through the gospel being preached. They became one, known as the body of Christ, the Church (Eph. 2:11-22). We know that based on the work of Christ, the Spirit calls forth this newly constituted people known as the Church. He makes them a people for His name. He has a high purpose for them.

When I was a kid, I had to memorize most of Luther’s Small Catechism for confirmation; perhaps you did too. Do you remember Martin Luther’s third article of the Apostles’ Creed about the work of the Holy Spirit? “I believe I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts and sanctified and kept me in true faith. In the same way, this Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it united with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.” We are called, gathered by the Holy Spirit, to be the body of Christ.

Some people these days mistrust the church. They have little regard for it, in fact. But I’m saying to you today – that attitude is disrespecting Jesus himself, because the church is a big deal to Him! He talked about the Church; He established it with His disciples, and Scripture says He loved His Church and gave His life for her.

When Jesus was about to go to the cross, He was with His disciples in the Upper Room and gave them a commandment. “This is my commandment – that you love one another as I have loved you. By this all people will know you’re my disciples” (John 13:34-35). He wanted them together as a community, and He wanted people to know that as they loved one another they would awaken to see they are Jesus’ disciples.

A few couple chapters later Jesus prays for those disciples. He says, “Father, I ask that you would keep them together. May they be one . . .” (John 17:21).

Jesus’ vision was not that they would be separated and each go their own way, but operate as one body, loving one another. Paul picks up this truth in Ephesians. The Church is a major player as the family of God in God’s restoration. Our harmony, our unity, and our life together is a must! So Paul opens Ephesians by saying, “I am so thankful to hear of your love for everyone in your Church” (1:15). He also talks about the cross of Jesus. “For Christ Jesus is our peace. In his flesh, he has made both groups into one – Jews and Gentiles. He has broken down the dividing walls between us. He has taken away the hostility between us. Through him both parties have access in one Spirit to the Father” (2:14, 18).

Jesus came into this world and died on a cross not only to reconcile us to God but to bring us together as one. He tore down the walls of hostility and prejudice so we might be one in Him. One family, loving one another, taking care of one another.

Later on in today’s passage, Paul talks about our foundation. We have this common ground. It is all built on this oneness. He uses seven ones.

One Spirit lavished upon us – the Holy Spirit. He has awakened us to Christ and given us regeneration (made us new). He is growing us in our relationship with Jesus.

One body. We are all one with each another. Every part matters. We belong together.

One Lord, Jesus Christ.

One hope – the inheritance of heaven. The day will come when I will die, and you will die. However, we know we are going to heaven. This is our hope, our confidence.

One faith – the gospel of what Jesus Christ has done for us at the cross. As we place our trust in Him, we share in His victory.

One baptism where we enter into the household of faith as we are brought into a relationship with God and adopted into the family.

One God and Father of us all who loves us and is with us. He sees all and knows all. He is with us wherever we are.

This is what makes us one. It is why we are to be one. We may come from different countries, cultures, churches. We have different temperaments, gifts, and interests. Yet we have this in common – the same God, our heavenly Father; the same Jesus Christ as our Savior Lord; and the same Holy Spirit calling us together. He is our indwelling Comforter and Counselor.

Paul spent the first three chapters of Ephesians laying out this great plan of God. He then moves us into chapter 4 and says in our reading for today, “Now, therefore, (since you know about this great plan, and God has done these great things in your life), I beg of you – I beg of you – to live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (4:1).

We have this high calling. You are the body of Christ through the Holy Spirit. Now be His body so you will shine for the world around you and attract others to Christ as they see you loving God and one another. We are in essence in public relations for the kingdom of God. God is counting on us to get along! If you get nothing else out of this sermon, listen to this again: God is counting on us in the Church to get along if we are to be effective instruments in His plan to save this world. 

We play a major role; we’re major players. Think of it, you have this great calling upon your life being connected to a Church, part of God’s plan to save His world through the unity we display as the body of Christ. When people are being loved, word gets out. The reality is, people are attracted like moths to light. As we’re loving one another, people will notice.

I hold a wonderful statement by theologian called Karl Barth close to my heart. It reminds me of what the Church is to be. “The Church is called to be a provisional display of God’s original intention.” I would add to this: The Church is called to be a provisional display of God’s future intentions. Everyone gathered around Jesus Christ, loving God and loving one another. Every knee bowed and every tongue confessing Jesus is Lord, as Paul gives us in the book of Philippians. It doesn’t matter what your background may be, the color of your skin, or what your income statement reads. We are one in Jesus Christ.

This also applies to the Christian home. We are small congregations in our homes, lighthouses in the neighborhood. I love a statement by Dr. David Mason, a marriage counselor, made. He said, “By their gracious influence, Christian homes win more converts than all the preachers put together.” Ouch!

He goes on to say, “Give us enough of them and the world would soon be a Christian world, for the world’s life rises to higher levels only as its homes do.” Paul tells us, “Make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). We are to be unifiers, not dividers.

When people want to join our church, they take a new member’s class where we lay out what the church wants to do for them. During the last part of our class, I say to them, “Now you know what we can do for you. We want you to understand that you are entering into a covenant with us, and there are expectations for the family members here. At the top of the list is unity. You are to be a person who loves, who doesn’t gossip about other people, who forgives, and is a team player.”

Unity means everything! It is at the top of the list. People don’t want to be involved with churches where there’s fighting. They get enough of that from the rest of the world. We are to be a light, an oasis.

I love a statement E. Stanley Jones made many years ago. He said, “Everybody who belongs to Christ belongs to everybody who belongs to Christ.” We belong to one another. We are to be unified!

Paul, in our passage today, lists some ingredients for us to maintain the unity of the Spirit we have been given. He tells us to exercise these things in our relationships, in our church communities, and in our homes. Use a lot of humility. Humility is nothing more than a servant-like attitude. Pride and ego have to be set aside. In the church, there really is no place for prima donnas or people who are more concerned about personal preferences than about the body of Christ and its cause. This person knows the ground is flat at the foot of the cross, and we are all sinners saved by grace. We are called by Jesus to wash each other’s feet, and we need to work together humbly.

Years ago, The Atlantic Monthly published an article about The Three Tenors – Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti who were performing in Los Angeles. When a reporter tried to press the issue of competitiveness among the three men, Domingo said, “You have to put all your concentration into opening your heart to the music. You can’t be rivals when you’re together making music.” Dear brothers and sisters, this is also true in the Church.

Paul also ties gentleness in with humility. It literally means “meekness,” which is strength under God’s control, or controlled by God. It is the opposite of self assertiveness and running over other people. It is a willingness to see even tough people for being permitted by God to come into my life for my own purification, my own spiritual discipline, to grow me in love.

Paul also mentions patience, which means long-tempered, showing self-restraint, and hoping for improvement in relationships you’re struggling with.

Paul finally ties it with up with “bearing one another in love.” Living and enduring difficult people. Some people in the church and in our homes can drive us absolutely nuts. Amen? I remember a statement someone shared with me one time. “The Church is the light of the world. But remember, light attracts bugs. Some people really bug us.” We are to have an enduring love, seeing them as Christ sees them – on their way to heaven, just like you and me. They are to be loved and served.

You might be feeling like, I can’t do this kind of thing! I mean, my pride gets so easily wounded. I have an ego the size of a football field, and I am so impatient with folks. I have a very rough edge. Loving and that kind of stuff is just too hard for me. 

Listen, the same Holy Spirit who called you into His family and unified you with others is here to help you and me keep it together. He does not want us to fail. We will never achieve perfection this side of heaven. We know that! But as you call on the Holy Spirit in prayer, as you study God’s Word and apply it in your lives, and as you obey the words of Jesus, the Spirit will shape you and mold you into the image of Jesus Christ. He will turn you into a unifier: a humble, long-suffering, forbearing servant of Christ and others, attracting other people into the kingdom.

That, my dear friends, is what God’s big plans are for his family. Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer

Get a Grip on Citizenship

Matthew 22:15-22

With America’s Independence Day celebration just around the corner, I thought it would be appropriate to look at getting a grip on citizenship and how Christians are to relate to government and country. We’re going to talk about politics and religion today. With America’s Independence Day celebration just around the corner, I thought it would be appropriate to look at getting a grip on citizenship and how Christians are to relate to government and country. We’re going to talk about politics and religion today.

These days politics and religion are hot topics. Maybe they always have been. It can be wise to avoid bringing these subjects up at social gatherings, because they can make for some very lively conversations. People have strong opinions about these things, and rooms can get heated fast. If you want to see real fireworks, ask about how politics and religion work together. Yet I think it is important to have an understanding of how a follower of Jesus lives out their life in relationship to government. What does God expect from us? What does He want?

If you are a Christian, you know that those of us who know and trust Jesus are described in the New Testament as aliens, exiles, strangers on earth, citizens of heaven, and ambassadors for Christ. We have a dual citizenship working in our lives. So how does a citizen of God’s kingdom conduct himself as a citizen of the nation? Jesus has some great answers for us in Matthew 22.

As you probably know, Jesus had very strong opposition to His earthly ministry. Religious authorities like the Pharisees and Sadducees didn’t know what to make of Him. They didn’t particularly like Him. They saw Him as trouble. Other groups, like the Herodians in the story today, were a type of quisling group who worked quietly in the background with the Roman government. They didn’t like Jesus either. He was popular with the people, which worried the authorities. So they were constantly trying to wreck His ministry by questioning Him and challenging His authority. They wanted to destroy Him.

In today’s passage, we find these groups attempting to trick Jesus and make Him look bad. They challenge Him with a question about politics and religion. First of all, notice who it is that brings the question: the Herodians and the Pharisees who didn’t even like each other. They were on opposite ends of the spectrum from one another in terms of agreeing on anything, but they didn’t like Jesus even more. So they got together to knock Jesus off.

They open their approach with some flattery, perhaps to catch Jesus off guard, before they went in for the kill with their question. They describe Him as one with integrity and moral courage, who knows and teaches the ways of God. It’s only sweet talk. But then comes the tough question to discredit Jesus in the eyes of the people or to get Him in trouble with the Roman government. “Jesus, is it lawful for us as God’s people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Should we or shouldn’t we pay taxes? Here is where a little background would help.

Paying that tax, which is one of three taxes, was a very sensitive issue of the day for the Jewish people. First of all, they hated Rome because Rome had taken over their land and was pushing them around. They were in subservience to Rome. That was bad enough, but then the Romans insisted on taxing them to keep the infrastructures going. And to make matters worse, the coinage used to pay this poll tax had an image of Caesar on it declaring his divinity and his being a great high priest. It was propaganda that was offensive and blasphemous to the Jewish people who followed the one true God and His command of not making images.

So these opponents of Jesus, when they brought this question to Him, thought they had Him cornered. If He says to pay the tax, the haters of Rome, which is 99% of the Jewish population, would now view Him as unpatriotic and unfaithful to God, and they would turn on Him. But if He says, don’t pay it, the Roman authorities would say, Destroy Him! Arrest Him for sedition and inciting people to break the law. Well, Jesus, knowing their intent, responds by calling for that very coin used for the tax, a silver Roman denarius. He knew what was on it. He also knew these people were hypocrites. They would have one – this unclean coinage. They were using it.

Then He asked, “Whose head, whose inscription is on this coin?” Whose portrait is there? Who does this coin belong to? It’s Caesar’s. Then His statement: Give to Caesar what’s Caesar’s and give to God what’s God’s. End of conversation. They’re amazed. Jesus has escaped their intentions. They left Him and went their way to plot for the next round.

But there’s more to Jesus’ statement than mere intellectual and witty debating skills. His statement lays the foundation for the Christian perspective on exercising one’s citizenship. We are going to look at principles found in these words for those of us who are citizens of God’s kingdom.

Jesus is telling us, first of all, to be a responsible, good citizen where you are. Pay the tax.

William Barclay, a Bible scholar I look up to, writes, “Every Christian has a double citizenship. He is a citizen of the country of the world in which he happens to live. To that country he owes many things. He owes the safety against lawless men, which only settled government can give. He owes all public services to the state. The Christian has a duty to the nation for the privileges the nation brings to him.”

Jesus seems to be implying here that respect and honor is due to the authority of the government as He recognizes Caesar’s authority. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”

Actually, it makes sense. It is possible to see government as a gift. It keeps things together, holds things together. We need law and order. Modern day Egypt is an example of what can happen when anarchy rules. What a mess!

Paul picks up on the theme Jesus gives us in Romans 13:1. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Government is God’s idea. In I Timothy 2:1-2 Paul says, “First, I urge that supplications, prayers, and intercessions, thanksgivings be made for all people, for Kings, and for all who are in high positions that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” Pray for those in authority, Paul says, that they may maintain order and uphold the law so we can live peacefully. Jesus seems to be saying as well that allegiance to God and government is not necessarily incompatible.

It is possible to show allegiance to a lesser authority because that authority has been instituted by a higher authority to whom we always answer first – God. So it is possible to be a good Christian and a good American simultaneously. Patriotism is a good thing as long as it doesn’t become idolatry, putting things above God. We are reminded in this passage that God and government are overlapping – yet distinct – spheres. Jesus talks about both of them as realities.

When Jesus came into this world and opened His ministry, He said, “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news.” Later, as He was standing trial, Pilate says, What have you done that these people are so angry with you? Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world.” I’m not what they expected. Jesus didn’t come to establish a new earthly government, a theocracy. He came to establish God’s kingdom, a new reality.

We know that one day the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our God. Until then, we have these distinct, overlapping spheres. Jesus is Lord, but His reign will come in its fullness at the end of the age. While we wait for that great day to happen, you and I live as responsible citizens where God has placed us – obeying the laws, serving our nation, participating and making it work. But always with this in mind: the state is not God.

Jesus is saying that too. These two kingdoms are not one in the same. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s; give to God what is God’s. The state, the government is not God. It is not divine. Human government is run by human beings and can easily be influenced by sin and greed. It is corrupt and less-than-perfect. It’s not divine.

The final implication, then, is that God and state are not equals, according to Jesus. We declare as much in the Pledge of Allegiance. We are one nation under God. We owe our ultimate allegiance, our very lives to God. So when we talk of love of God and country, and duty to God and country, we remember that as followers of Christ we keep that order – God and country. The power of the state is legitimate but it is limited. It’s not God. We are bound to His will ultimately over everything else. We see that played out in the New Testament. Peter and John were told by the authorities not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus. But they replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God.” (Acts 4).

Recently I was watching a movie about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a great Christian martyr during World War II, and his involvement with trying to get rid of the evil leader, Adolf Hitler. During his interrogation, he quoted Romans 13, about submitting to the authorities. Bonhoeffer’s conscience was bound to a higher power. He held his own. His higher power was God.

Martin Luther King said the Church must be reminded that it’s not the master or the servant of the state but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, never its tool. God, then country. Giving God His due is always more important to the Christian than giving Caesar his due. Why can I say that? Because remember, Jesus asked, “Whose portrait is on this coin?” They said, “Caesar’s,” which means it belonged to Caesar. That word portrait is literally image, the Greek word icon. “Then give back what belongs to Caesar the things that are his – the coin, the honor, the respect due.” Interestingly enough, the word image is used the same word used to describe God creating human beings. “In His own image” (Genesis 1:27). We belong to Him. God’s image is on you and me. So when Jesus says give back to God what is His, He’s talking about YOU! Your whole self, all of you. He demands it all. A life of worship and devotion. Give back the coin that bears Caesar’s image. Give it back to Caesar, Jesus says. You bear God’s image! Give yourself back to God, holding nothing from Him.

I love this statement: “If it is an offense to withhold taxes from the United States treasury, how much more offensive is it to withhold what should be rendered to the One who made you, from the King of the universe, the One whose image is stamped upon you? You might be able to hide a few things from the IRS, but you cannot hide from God. You belong to Him. Give God all of who you are. He wants you. He came after you as His own, to bring you home to Himself when you were lost in your sinfulness. He gave His perfect, obedient Son to die on a cross to pay the penalty for your sins. Give yourself over to Christ. Come home to God.”

I would also say this: if you are in Christ, you been bought with a price. His inscription is written all over you. You are a free child of God. In response to that gift, use your life to His honor, loving Him above all things, loving Him with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.
When you think about it, this statement of Jesus was His personal platform from which He operated Himself. His program of obedience as a citizen of the kingdom honoring God and government. However, His ultimate allegiance was carrying out the will of God, even being willing to go to a cross to save the likes of you and me. Wow!

God, then country. Keep that order. Be a responsible citizen of this great land in which we live. But remember where your ultimate allegiance lies – with the One who made you in His image and redeemed you through His Son Jesus Christ. May His will be done in our lives and in this country. God owns you. His image is on you. You have been bought for eternity.

Give the government (Caesar) the coins, the respect, and the service that is due. But give God yourself without boundaries.

God and country – in that order. Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer

The Bridegroom

Ephesians 5:21-30

Do you love church? Or do you love the Church? I remind you, the Church is not a building of brick and mortar, or wood, plaster, sheet rock, and shingles. The Church is the people, the people of God. One of the scriptural images of the Church – believers in Jesus Christ – is that the Church is the bride and Jesus Christ is the bridegroom.

Scripture makes clear as we read from Ephesians that Jesus Christ loves the Church. The Church is full of imperfect people, yet Jesus is crazy about His people in love, committed to our well-being, sacrificial in serving us. His love for us is unconditional and eternal. So I’d like to explore some powerful truths about Jesus the Bridegroom and those who believe in Jesus as the bride of Christ.

First, Jesus is the Bridegroom who pursues the Church to rescue her. As in Ephesians 5, “. . . as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her. . . .” Anytime a wife would be in danger, the husband, because of his love, would put his life on the line to rescue her.

I recently read a story in the newspaper of a man in Gwembe, Zambia Africa. In the year 2011, his wife was snatched by a big crocodile while she was washing clothes in the river. The man dove into the river and swam to where the big crock had his wife in his jaws. He grabbed the crocodile around the belly and dragged it back to the shallows. Then he jammed his hand and arm into the mouth of crocodile and began to beat the crock on the head with a stick until finally it released it’s grip on his wife and tried to snatch the husband in it’s jaws. The crocodile missed the husband and swam away. Both husband and wife were bloody but safe. The husband had rescued his wife.

Jesus is the Bridegroom who rescues His people, the bride of Christ. He does it in love at great sacrifice. Every Popeye has his Olive Oyl. Every Tarzan is willing to rescue his Jane. I love reading Louis L’Amour westerns where the hero cowboy defeats the evil people, and in the end gets the girl.

This is the Bible’s eternal plot line. Jesus comes for His people to rescue us in love and defeat the evil one. Jesus is the Bridegroom who pursues us to rescue us in love, but He also comes as the Bridegroom to propose to His beloved. It’s an invitation of love that requests a response. This is the nature of love – to confess it and risk rejection.

Do you remember the movie “Runaway Bride” where Julia Roberts plays the character Maggie Carpenter? The movie is called “Runaway Bride” because Maggie has been engaged multiple times but always leaves her betrothed husband standing at the altar.

The essence of the lifetime love that God offers us in Jesus Christ is not one only based on momentary passion or feeling. God offers us a covenant of love that evokes a commitment of love and trust from us. The Bridegroom and the bride are invited to say I do, and our yes to Jesus Christ invites us to say yes in faith in response to Jesus Christ.

Have you ever, in a simple prayer of faith, said Yes, Jesus. I believe in You. God’s Spirit continually whispers His invitation that we would share His love and His life day by day in a covenant of love.

Jesus is also the Bridegroom who protects His bride to keep her safe in His arms of love. In Psalm 62 we read, “Find rest, O my soul, in God alone.” When the arms of Jesus’ promises surround us, our faith trusts His strength. Jesus is our safe place. His strength holds us up. We hide in His love.

But that type of protective love also is a jealous love. In Exodus, it says, “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God” (20:5). God is not insecure or paranoid. He tolerates no rivals. Intimacy by definition means being exclusive to one. God is a jealous God who wants us to love Him above all others.

Do you remember when God asked Hosea to take a prostitute to be his wife as a living image of the Lord’s love for His people, Israel? Hosea’s love for Gomer, whom he bought off the streets to be his wife, took her into his home and loved her, was an image of the Lord’s love for His people. Undeserved, yet God was willing to make the commitment to pay the price that His people would be His wife.

Gomer gave birth to two children for Hosea. The promise of the Lord is, I will betroth you to me forever. Sadly, though, Gomer eventually returned to her life on the street, selling herself for personal gain and indulging herself in unfaithfulness to her husband. But God asked Hosea to buy her back again – to pay for her to be his wife again.

This is an image of God’s love for you and me. Jesus fights for us to stay in His love. He forgives us with His grace over and over again so we might, as the recipients of His love and desire, delight to live in His presence as our Bridegroom. Remember how in the Song of Songs it says, “I am my beloved’s and he is mine” (6:3), and “His banner over us is love” (2:4b). It also says in Romans that Jesus is the Bridegroom who prays for His bride (8:36). “Nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:39).

Christ Jesus is He who died on the cross, who was raised from the dead, and now is at the right hand of the Father interceding for us. Jesus knows your every need before you even name it to Him in prayer. What a powerful truth – the Lord of the world, the Lord of life, who died on the cross to buy you to be His bride, is raised from the dead to give you life forever in His name, and now is in the presence of God praying for your every need. That’s how much He loves you!

In His love for you, Jesus the Bridegroom wants to perfect our love for Him as He calls us into a deeper level of intimacy. Like the Scriptures speak of husband and wife becoming one, Jesus wants our bodies, our minds and emotions, our spirits to all be one having the mind of Christ and truly affectionately loving Jesus with gratitude, trusting Him and giving ourselves to serve His mission in the world. We are inseparably one with Jesus Christ.

Maybe the most profound of all is that Jesus is the Bridegroom who dresses us in the glory of His love and the garments of His salvation to cover our flaws, our failures, and our naked shame. It says in Isaiah, “I am overwhelmed with joy in the Lord my God. He has dressed me with the clothing of salvation and draped me in the robe of his righteousness” (61:10).

I remember once, when my wife Denise and I were young parents, we went with our family on a vacation and stayed overnight in a motel. The kids were hoping to go swimming in the pool, but I had forgotten my swimsuit. The motel, however, had a vending machine with a paper weave swimsuit. What could go wrong there? It was probably 20 or 30 minutes after we were swimming, and my daughter Andrea said, “Daddy, is the back of your swimsuit supposed to hang down like that?”

In every person’s life, there are moments where we stand exposed. Where in our foolishness, our failures, or our sinful ego we have done wrong. We’re flawed, broken, dirty. We’re naked, ashamed, and guilty. To the glory of Jesus, the Bridegroom never stops loving us despite our imperfections. He dresses us in the clothing of His salvation that He drapes around us, the glory of His love and the robe of His perfect righteousness. The whole basis of you and me belonging to Jesus the Bridegroom is the power of His promise to be faithful. We gladly dress in His righteousness. Then Jesus the Bridegroom presents us proudly as His bride.

Have you seen my beloved, my delight? Wonder of wonders how Jesus continually loves us. Scripture says someday Jesus, the Bridegroom, will return for His bride on earth, the Church. That will be our wedding day. In Revelation it says, “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him . . .” (1:7). And “The name of the one on the white horse is faithful one” (19:11). Jesus the Bridegroom is coming someday for His bride.

One of the last words in the scriptural witness is the Aramaic word Maranatha. Simply translated, Come Lord Jesus. As we revel in the love Jesus has for us, as we trust Jesus as our Savior, the Son of God our Lord, we would say Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

Jesus makes us ready for that day. He has placed on us the glory of His righteousness. Remember that Disney song – “Someday my Prince will come. Someday I’ll find his love.” Someday Jesus is coming for us.

One of the greatest Christian leaders of the last century was John Stott. He was the director of All Souls Langham Place in London. Stott was a wonderful preacher, Bible teacher, author, global leader to many. Os Guiness wrote an article about his relationship with John Stott. “I knew Stott over many decades,” wrote Os, but I will never forget my last visit to his bedside three weeks before he died. We spent an unforgettable hour and more sharing memories over the years, and then I asked Stott how he would like me to pray for him. Lying weakly on his back in bed and barely able to speak, he answered me in a hoarse whisper, “Pray that I will be faithful to Jesus until my last breath.”

Isn’t that our prayer? That we, who are the bride of Christ and the recipients of His love, would be faithful to Jesus the Bridegroom until our last breath? You see, we are the bride of Christ Jesus the Bridegroom, and someday He is coming back for us. We live with an eye to the sky, expecting the Bridegroom will come on our wedding day.

Jesus loves us with passion, affection, and commitment and we bask in the love of Jesus as the Prince of love. In His love, the Spirit fills us so we can love others in His name – Jesus the Bridegroom – perfect in His faithfulness. We are His bride. Amen.

Rev. Lee Laaveg

Get a Grip on Aging

Psalm 71

Back in the 80s and 90s, I used to do quite a bit of running and managed to complete a couple of the Twin Cities Marathons. At the starting line of a marathon, everyone is chattering, happy, and chirpy. Many people show up in costume, and many others are bundled up because it’s usually cold in the early morning.

The end, however, has an interesting change. People’s faces are much more stern. Not much talking is going on; the runners are gutting it out. Some people are barely putting one foot in front of the other. The only real talking you hear is from the sidelines as friends and loved ones scream, “Come on! You can make it! You can make it!” The last part of the marathon is typically the hardest.

Such is the case with the seasons of life. A fella I know, who works with senior citizens, said one time, “God seems to save the hardest part until last.” Have you ever heard the phrase, “Growing old ain’t for sissies”? Maybe you know exactly what that means.

Having many years, though, is considered a blessing according to Scripture. Still we know the last stretch can oftentimes be quite hard. The body isn’t working like it used to. Parts are wearing out. The memory isn’t as sharp. A grieving is going on – loss of spouse, loss of friends. Physical abilities are starting to fall by the wayside. More and more we experience a loss of independence, and you find yourself going to more funerals for peers. Some people go through the experience of feeling quite alone and isolated, forgotten. They feel they’ve lost the respect of others around them. It’s a sad time for them.

It’s a real shame when this happens, because the elderly are meant to be prized. The Bible tells us to honor them, for they have so much to teach those of us who are coming up the ranks to join them someday. Such is the case in this prayer, Psalm 71. It was written by an elderly person of God who was facing hard times in his last stretch of life. He has something very important, I believe, to teach us.

This person is not feeling very prized by others either. He’s under fire and going through tough times. People try to “get after” him and give him a hard time. Something bad is happening in his life as he talks of the hands of the wicked and the unjust and the cruel person. He describes conspiring accusers out to get him, to wreck his life, and he’s feeling forsaken by God. He’s even worried about whether God is looking over him. His strength is gone. He’s tired; he’s sick perhaps.

Some Bible scholars have speculated that this Psalm could have very well been written by King David when he was running from his son Absalom, who was trying to overthrow his kingdom. He is desperate and in need of refuge, rescue, help, strength, and vindication. As you read it, you see all those words. He’s under attack, and he’s feeling old, because he is old. Things are so bad, he seems to have a touch of anxiety about his standing with God at this stage in his life. “Do not cast me off in the time of my old age, God,” he says. “Forsake me not when my strength is spent.” Perhaps people had been saying the Lord has deserted him. God has grown tired of him and won’t take care of him. Now we can get him.

This person is absolutely overwhelmed by life. Have you ever felt that way? Like you need refuge? You need strength, because yours is spent. You are feeling under attack. How do you get through it? How do you get a grip on aging? Well, let me tell you, this guy is very wise in Psalm 71. He knows exactly where to turn.

Verse 1 – “In you, O Lord, I take refuge.” He knows how big and faithful God is, and what He can do. Listen to his God descriptors in this song, this prayer he’s written. “(You are) my rock, my Refuge, my Fortress.” Righteous, faithful, holy One, mighty, Savior, powerful, Creator, personal, in control. Wow! That is quite a resume, wouldn’t you say.

How does he know all this? The answers can be found in verses 5 and 6. “For you, O Lord, are my hope, my confidence, my trust from my youth. Upon you I have leaned from before my birth. You are he who took me from my mother’s womb. My praise is continually of you.

Do you see what he’s doing there? He’s doing a life review of his experiences with God. He’s looking back and counting his blessings. God, you were there even before I was born. You were there for me to lean on, to learn from. You know me. You made me. When I came into this world, Lord, you were present. And as I’ve gone through life even from youth till now, You have been alongside of me. And I remember the many times when I was able to lean on You through the years as I faced various life circumstances, and I couldn’t overcome them on my own.

If David was indeed the writer, perhaps he was thinking about facing Goliath early in his life. Lord, You were there. You were there in all those times!

Have you ever looked back on God’s faithfulness in your own life saying, “I remember when . . . ”? I remember when I was sick and in the hospital. It was not looking so good for me. But God kept showing up and He carried me through that experience. Now here I am. This is what the psalmist seems to be saying. “Lord, you helped me out of so many tough times before. I’ve been depending on you ever since I was born. I know I can trust you. You are my hope. And you never change. How about helping me again?

The Psalm ends with trust and affirmation. It starts out sounding desperate, but the end is the strength. He says, “I believe you will help me. I will be singing your praises and telling others about it.” That’s why this song can be classified as a psalm of trust.

We can learn a couple of lessons from this veteran of the faith. The first one is this: there are seasons in life when life can be challenging and tough, BUT you do not have to face it alone. Lean on God. That is what this guy was doing. Start leaning on God now, even before those times hit, and watch Him work in your life. You’ll learn this truth: “If you’ve made a habit of communing with God when the sun is shining, you’ll find it much easier to sing when it rains.” Lean on Him now. If you have been leaning on Him, keep leaning. Keep turning to Him. He’s available. His love for you is unchanging.

Another lesson we pick up from this person is this: When life gets tough, look back at your lifetime of experiences with God and His faithfulness working in your life. Count your blessings; name them one by one. Many of you have some great memories and great stories of the faithfulness of God at work in your life. It might have been His presence in a hospital experience or how He has provided daily for you when it looked like you didn’t know where the next dollar was going to come from. All kinds of experiences where God showed up. He never changes. Remind yourself of that.

Finally, the last section of this prayer holds a third lesson from the senior saint, which I want to look at with you. It is addressed, I believe, to senior saints. Listen to these words: “O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wonderful deeds. So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me until I proclaim your might to all the generations to come.

He is saying, Lord, help me so I can keep on doing ministry for you. There is work left to be done. I’m not ready to hang it up until I proclaim Your might to another generation. Keep me going. I want to proclaim your might in my testimony. I want to be able to tell the world what a faithful and loving God you are in my life and what you’ve done for the world. I want to tell the Good News – how we were lost in our sinfulness, but You in Your mercy sent Your Son, Jesus Christ, to die upon a cross so no one might be lost but all might be restored into a relationship with you. I have people – generations coming up as well as generations around me – who need to hear about your grace. They need to hear about your power, which changed my life and can change theirs. I want to keep talking about you, Lord.

This guy is not ready to hang it up. There is no retirement in his service to the Lord. This is a truth for us as well. There is no retirement in the kingdom of God. God always has something for us to do. No matter how old we may be getting, ministry is for life.

I had a friend named Joanne Jackson who has graduated now to be with the Lord in His heaven. She was a person who just kept going and going and going even though she was quite elderly and not healthy. Every time I went to see her in the hospital, it seemed almost certain it was her last stretch. She would be dying, but always seemed to beat the odds and snap out of it. At times she would say to me, “Steve, I don’t know why God doesn’t just take me home. I’m ready to go. I want to see my husband who is waiting for me in heaven.” Then she would smile and say, “I guess God still has more work for me to complete.” This is the psalmist’s attitude.

Let me get personal and specific with you who are veterans of the faith. How would you finish the psalmist’s statement? “So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I . . .” Now fill in a ministry or a mission. It doesn’t matter how old you are. You are needed. You are on call. No retiring here.

Finish this verse: “Even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me until . . .”
. . . my friends all know that Jesus is the Savior of the world that everyone needs?
. . . I have learned how to share my testimony or to effectively share your story and then share it with those You have placed in my life.
. . . I have prayed daily for the mission of my Church and for the missionaries for the next year.
. . . every refugee and poor person has a blanket to cover up with in the cold of night – a blanket I could make.
. . . a great awakening happens in our country and a great harvest of souls, to the glory of your holy name.
. . . I have brought my children who have strayed from the faith back into a relationship with you.
. . . my unchurched grandchildren have come to personally know and believe in Jesus Christ.

The list can go on and on. How would you finish that verse? Look around. What is God challenging you with, even in this season in your life? There is no retirement.

Thank God for senior saints! I love my senior saints! I respect them and esteem them in my own congregation. I hope that is happening for you, too. I especially thank God for the senior saint who penned Psalm 71, because he has given us quite a lesson on how to get a grip on aging. Life can be tough in the last stretch, but you don’t have to face it alone. You can lean on the God who loves you, who gave His Son to die for you on a cross so you could have a personal relationship with Him. He has promised to never ever leave you orphaned or on your own. He is present for you.

When life is looking particularly tough and rough, remember to look back. When you’re wondering if God has turned His back on you, look back and review His faithfulness in your life. Remember this truth: God is never changing. His love for you is never changing. The God who has taken care of you in the past is there to walk with you in the present.

NO RETIREMENT! God has something for you to do. Retirement isn’t meant to be spent sitting around or chasing a golf ball around a golf course, which is fun I know. While there is nothing wrong with those activities, don’t build your life on them in retirement. Keep serving the cause of Jesus Christ. There are people in this world who still have not met Him. God is counting on you, who have been so blessed by Him along the way with His presence in your life, to point them in the direction of Jesus Christ.

By the way, this is where real joy is found in the last stretch of your race. It is in serving Christ. Serve Him, trust Him, and lean on Him.

God bless you in your final stretch. Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer

Get a Grip on Love

John 15:12-15

Many years ago, Dionne Warwick sung a hit song on the radio. It went like this: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of . . . “

How true those words are. Love is important. Love is needed in our marriages. A loveless marriage is not going to last long. If it does, it’ll be a long, miserable experience for both parties.

Love is needed in our churches. As we love one another, we represent Christ better to those who stand outside the Christian faith. Maybe you’ve heard this statement: A cold church – like butter – will not spread.

Love is needed in our homes, amongst our family members, and in our friendships so we might grow closer and enjoy one another.

Love is needed in our world. This world can seem so gloomy and loveless some days. As we watch the news, we see people being terrible to one another in a host of creative ways.

Jesus made a big deal about love. Love one another; love your neighbor; love God. So today I thought we’d answer this question, How do we get a grip on love? Jesus is our expert coach for today because He is the ultimate when it comes to the matter of love. He modeled it and stressed the importance of love in our relationships during His ministry on earth. In fact, He even covered this topic on the very last night He was with His followers before He was taken to the cross. Listen to His words again: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).

Jesus said something similar earlier in the Upper Room. “A new commandment I give you: Love one another as I have loved you. By this all people will know you are my disciples [if you love one another]” (John 13:34-35). What did Jesus mean when He said love?

The word love is used so freely in our world and sometimes in a most confused way. It may be related to a feeling, like you fall in love. A romantic sort of thing. But Jesus isn’t talking about this when He speaks about love to His disciples.

The Greek language has four words for love in the New Testament.
• Phileo – friendship type of love.
• Storge – family type of love.
• Eros – romantic attraction kind of love.
• Agape – sacrificial love that gives for the sake of the other.

Agape is the word Jesus uses in His statements. In fact, He pretty much defines agape in the next statement He made after the commandment. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Love is not a noun; it’s not a feeling. It’s something you do. It’s active. Love is an act of the will, not something you conjure up like a feeling, but a decision. I’m going to love that person.

Jesus even gives us a clue as to what love looks like when He says this little statement at the end, “As I have loved you, love one another.” We ask, How has He loved those disciples? and How has He loved us? We find our clues about His intent as we watch Jesus’ actions in the Gospels.

We first learn that Agape love is a love that gives. Love gives! He sacrificed His life for them and for us at the cross. He gave Himself away. He emptied Himself so we could be rescued from sin and death. Love gives.

Anne LaMott wrote of an eight-year-old boy who had a younger sister dying of leukemia. He was told that without a blood transfusion, she would die. So his parents asked if they could test his blood to see if he was compatible with hers. He agreed, was tested, and it was a match. Then he was asked if he would give his sister a pint of his own blood – which could be her only chance of living. He said he would have to think about it overnight.

The next day the little boy told his parents he was willing to donate his blood. So they took him to the hospital where he was put on a Gurney beside his six-year-old sister. They were both hooked up to IVs. A nurse took a pint of blood from the boy and gave it to his sister. The boy just lay there in silence as the blood that would save his sister dripped from the IV. When the doctor came over to see how he was doing, the boy opened his eyes and asked, “How soon until I start to die?”

Wow! Love gives sacrificially. Love is never so fully love as when it is giving.

Love serves. Jesus, before He gave them this statement, went around the circle of His disciples in the Upper Room with a towel and a bowl of water. He washed their feet – much to their horror because that was something a servant would do. He was the Master. When Jesus was finished, He said to them, “Do you see what I’ve done? I’ve given you an example. If you call Me your Lord and Master, I am. I also want you, then, to wash one another’s feet.”

I’m seeing this kind of serving love taking place right before my eyes these days. In a home in my congregation, Dan is dying of ALS. He is losing abilities daily now. His wife, Sara, is his caregiver. Some people might run from being placed in her role. It is overwhelming some days. But she is living her marriage vows – for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, for richer for poorer. She never dreamed of doing anything other than what she’s doing for her husband. She serving, and that is love. When couples are married at our church, I include the promise – I will serve you until death parts us – in their vows.

Love prays for others. Jesus prayed for His disciples in John 17 before He went out into the world to face the horror of the cross. What did He pray? He prayed, “Father, protect them. Keep them in the truth. Keep them unified.” Imagine, all He was about to face, and yet He was praying for them and their welfare. As He hung on the cross after they deserted Him and as others were taking out their hatred toward Him, He said, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” He prayed for them!

By the way, I’ve noticed it is difficult to stay mad at someone if I’m praying for them. That kind of prayer does a number on me. It changes my heart and moves me toward loving again.

Love speaks. Jesus loved them with His words. He spoke to them all that the Father had given Him, a glimpse of the Father’s heart. He spoke important truths into their lives, like God loves you; He is your Father; He hates sin but He loves you; He has a plan to make your life work to His glory and His honor. He is offering you an abundant life, eternal life. Listen to these words of Jesus again: “I no longer call you servants because the servant doesn’t know what the Master is doing. But I’ve called you friends because I’ve made known to you everything I have heard from my Father.”

He spoke to them of love. He spoke words of encouragement and affirmation. He looked at Peter and said to him one day, “You are no longer Simon. You are Peter, which means rock, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the Gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). He gave Peter a positive vision of who he would be someday.

Jesus also used words of discipline to put them in their place and set them in the right direction. For instance, when they argued with Him about going to the cross, He said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking like God. You are thinking like the world thinks.”

Finally, love looks. Jesus listened not only with His ears but also with His eyes. After it had become apparent to the disciples that Jesus was going to be taken from them, He looked into their weary, anxious, and upset faces and said, “Let not your hearts be troubled . . .” He saw trouble in those hearts. Love notices things like that. It pays attention. Only then was He able to give them words of assurance in the great, comforting promise of a heavenly home He was preparing for them in the future.

So love gives and love prays; love serves and love speaks. Love looks.

Now that we understand what love is about, it’s apparent that it’s a very tall order. As I look at myself and begin to understand what a sinner I can be and how selfish I can be, I wonder how I can pull off this kind of love life in my marriage, my friendships, my family, or my church or community. The answer is, dear friends, we can’t do it very well. But I have good news for you – we really don’t have to. We really don’t have to.

Some of you who are listening today are thinking, I’d like to have a life like that. It might begin with you saying yes to Jesus Christ for the first time or coming back to Him after having walked away. It means asking Him into your life, admitting you need Him to forgive you, and asking Him to help you start over. In doing so, you will receive His love, His forgiveness, and His promises. One of those promises is this: I will reside in you, guide and teach you in the way of love. I will empower you to put My counsel to work as you relate to others in your life.

Many of you who are spending time with me today know the value of a relationship with Christ already. Followers of Jesus are not on their own as they grow in love toward others.

We just celebrated Pentecost, which is when the Holy Spirit was given to help us get better at loving other people. The Apostle Paul, in fact, wrote about the fruit of the Spirit in a person’s life. At the top of the list of great qualities for successful relationships is love! It is just what He wants for us. He is willing to put it into our lives for the working of His Holy Spirit.

Jesus said on that same evening that He gave a new commandment to love one another as He has loved us. If we abide in Him, we will bear much fruit. To abide means to remain connected to Him. What does it mean to remain connected to Jesus Christ? It means connecting ourselves to Him in a daily devotional life of Bible study, reading, and prayer. He gives His Spirit to us in those means, and the Spirit has the opportunity to shape us and fill us to overflowing with love for other people. He conforms us to the image of His Son Jesus Christ, the great lover of all. Lover of my soul.

To take His words and trust them enough to actually put them to work in our lives and obey them will bring about growth in our ability to love like Jesus. For instance, when He says, “Forgive as I have forgiven you,” try sacrificing your right to get even or hold a grudge. Forgive! Even if you don’t feel like it, make the decision to forgive. Step by step you will discover the freedom of forgiving, and you will grow in your love.

When you hear Him say, Real life is found in giving yourself away for others. This is what life and love are all about! It’s where joy is. As we begin to take our eyes off of self and ask what we can be doing for Christ – even when we’re not feeling like it – we find that the Holy Spirit enters in, we become more and more mature along the way, and grow in doing His Word. Loving.

Jesus says Serve instead of being served. It is a way to have a great relationship and glorify me. How about taking steps to do that in your relationships, no matter how awkward or frustrating it might be? You find the Spirit will use your serving to grow you in your ability to love. Start small. For instance, start by listening carefully to someone. Pay attention to them without trying to give advice or spacing out or trying to share your own experience. Just listen. It’s one of the great acts of love.

Stay focused on the person. It can be hard, but you can do it powered by the Spirit. It’s a valuable service, and you will grow in your ability to love.

Have you ever wondered why Jesus wants us to grow in our ability to love? It’s because though this world of ours does need love, ultimately it needs HIM. Your loving ways toward people can lead them to come to know or desire to know the One who loves them more than anyone in this world could possibly love them – the One who gave His life for them at the cross and rose again so they might be rescued from sin and death. Jesus Christ! Jesus tells us, “By this all people will know you are my disciples. (They’ll want me in their lives.)”

That is why it is important to Jesus that you and I have a grip on love. We are walking advertisements for the kingdom of God, and our service has the power to affect the people we encounter for eternity. No wonder the Apostle Paul would write later on, “Now faith, hope, and love abide – these three – but the greatest of these is love” (I Cor. 13:13).

Love one another as Christ has loved us. That is the word for today. Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer

Get a Grip on Witnessing

Acts 2:1-42 (Selected verses)

Have you ever felt intimidated? Intimidation is defined as scared, unnerved, or even terrified by something or someone. We can be intimidated by all kinds of things, such as circumstances and various situations in life like a huge project at work with a deadline to be met.

Maybe you need a major surgery. You know the risks and the long recovery with it. It can be rather daunting, intimidating.

Perhaps you need to make a change in your living situation. A move from a familiar setting to something new can be intimidating as well.

People can be intimidating. Some people, just by their size, can intimidate us, especially if they have a mean streak in them.

Some people with strong personalities can be intimidating. Bosses, managers, or coaches who are screamers can be very intimidating, which is not very helpful.

I have found many followers of Jesus Christ in my years of ministry in the church who tend to feel intimidated at the thought of talking about Jesus outside the church building.

A few years ago a blockbuster movie called “The Silence of the Lambs” hit the market. This title fits well for us within the Church who Jesus described as His sheep and His lambs. There is a lot of silence of the lambs when it comes to sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with others outside the church. We’re intimidated.

Years ago I caught a vision for training my congregation in evangelism. I started teaching Evangelism Explosion, which trains them in the classroom as they practice the story of Jesus with each other. Then we went out to knock on doors. A couple of my young trainees ran to the restroom to throw up each time before they went out. I know that feeling. I felt the way when I started my training in evangelism as well. But, wow! Did we learn how to share the Gospel!

I found, however, that even after people are trained, they never use it. They just maintain silence. We have to wonder what causes the silence. For some in the church, it’s simply not knowing how. No one has ever taught them. That is the church’s fault, if it is your reasoning.

For some, it is a poor theology they’ve picked up along the way. They reason, All roads lead to the same place. We’re going to heaven, so why bother? But it’s not true.

Some people believe their life is their witness. I don’t have to say anything. People can just observe my lifestyle and be able to figure it out. While it helps to have a consistent life for Christ, words need to be shared as well.

More often than not, I’ve discovered the reason we don’t talk about our faith is intimidation (fear of rejection) and ridicule (fear of blowing it and causing further damage to someone’s spiritual walk), fear of causing friction in the home or amongst the larger family, fear of losing a friendship, or fear of being offensive. For some it is a legitimate fear because when people do this sort of thing, they could lose their lives or their jobs or even their families as they are disowned for their faith.

But the truth is, Jesus called us to be His witnesses out in the world. So how does a follower of Jesus Christ get a grip on the calling from Jesus to be a witness? I believe we have some good news in our text for today. If you put your trust in it, it can help you overcome your intimidation.

It’s an unusual story. It’s inspiring and amazing as well. The followers of Jesus had been told by Him that they were to be His witnesses from Jerusalem to Judea to the ends of the earth. He gave them an amazing vision of their future. They, of course, must have been more than a little intimidated at the thought of carrying this out after Jesus ascended. After all, they had witnessed their Master being treated very cruelly and nailed to a cross only a few weeks earlier for His message. But during that talk, Jesus promised them that they would be baptized by the Holy Spirit.

In Acts chapter 2, we find Christ’s promise fulfilled on a special Jewish festival called Pentecost when Jerusalem was filled with people from around the ancient world to celebrate the festival. The waiting for the disciples was over that day. The new day had arrived. Suddenly there was a mighty wind and tongues of fire lit upon them. They began to praise God in various languages and were empowered from on high with the Holy Spirit to speak to strangers in their own language about the mighty deeds of God in Jesus Christ. By the time Peter was finished telling the story of Christ’s death and resurrection, people were awakened to the gospel and moved to turn to Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord! You might say they had become armed and dangerous!

In the days that followed as the disciples continued to tell the story to those they ran into, they were seen as dangerous in the minds of those who opposed them – the religious and political authorities who had earlier tried to do away with Jesus. Now, in their boldness, they were very effective. They were empowered. The authorities wondered, Who are these guys? They’re Jesus’ followers, and they’re dangerous. Intimidation didn’t win out over the disciples that Pentecost. They opened their mouths, were filled with the Spirit, and God’s will happened, just as Jesus said.

If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you have been given the same powerful, wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit. You are armed and dangerous for Jesus Christ. He resides in you, and He is powerful! He has the power to awaken and call people to faith through the Good News of Jesus that you speak.

The Apostle Paul says in First Corinthians. “No one can say Jesus is Lord but by the Spirit.” Paul knew that! The working of the Spirit brings faith. Martin Luther knew that way back when he said, “I believe that I cannot, by my own understanding or effort, believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel. . . .” That is the purpose for which the Holy Spirit was given to us – for service to Christ, for the glorification of Christ, for witnessing to those who need the gospel, the Good News of Jesus’ forgiveness, and eternal life.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells His disciples that when the Spirit comes, He will convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. That is exactly what happened! They were convicted of their sinfulness. As Peter pointed out, “You killed the Messiah.” They were convinced of righteousness – the righteous One of God who died on the cross. They were filled with a sense of judgment from God and asked in their conviction, What should we do? Impact happened in the telling of the story Peter gave them. The Holy Spirit went to work, and lives were changed.

This is not simply an amazing story from the past for us to say, “Oh, how wonderful that must’ve been.” It is an encouragement story for those of us who are intimidated by our surroundings as we consider the call of Jesus to witness. Pentecost happened, yes, but Pentecost is still happening. The Spirit is every bit as present and powerful today in our world as people step up and speak out for Jesus Christ.

At a preaching conference Christian Crusaders recently hosted, the speaker, Leith Anderson, said to us, “We sometimes wonder why we don’t have Pentecost going on in the world today. It’s because we need to look at the whole world and not just our own neighborhood.” He’s thrilled us by telling us, “If you do the studies, you find 3,000 people coming to Christ per hour, 365 days a year. The Holy Spirit is at work as people carry out the calling around the world. I can imagine standing in line with Peter and Andrew in heaven and asking them, ‘What was it like that first Pentecost? It must have been fantastic!’ And them saying to me, ‘It was great, but what about you? What was it like during your time? Pentecost every hour! What part did you play it in? It must’ve been exciting!’ What part did you play in it?”

Brothers and sisters in Christ, now is the time for boldness! Pentecost is happening! The kingdom of God is calling us to action. Our world needs Jesus Christ more than ever. My encouragement today is for you to see yourself as armed and dangerous, and you continue to get armed and be dangerous.

First, keep being filled with the Holy Spirit. In Ephesians 5:18, Paul writes to the church, “Be filled with the Holy Spirit” He is speaking in the present tense, in terms of continuing to be filled. He knows, like D. L. Moody, that we have the Holy Spirit, but we continually leak. We need to be filled up again and again on a daily basis with the Spirit who makes us effective for Christ. As He works in us, He shapes us and mold us into more loving people for Christ as we go with Him. He empowers us to speak up for Jesus Christ and uses us in a powerful manner.

How can we be filled and continue to be filled? If you are in a sailboat, the only way to get that boat to move is to lift its sail to the wind. A mighty Wind blew on Pentecost, and He is still blowing. Lift your sail to the wind of the Spirit by living in God’s Word. Become saturated in God’s Word. Read it, study it, memorize it on a daily basis. Ponder it, reflect upon it.

Lift your sail to the wind of the Spirit through prayer – Come, Holy Spirit. Kindle in me the fire of your love. Use me. Wherever you lead me, I will go. I will obey. He will answer a prayer like that.

Lift your sail to the wind of the Spirit through worship and fellowship. Be a worshiper on a daily basis as well as on Sundays or whenever you worship. Fellowship with other Christians. The disciples were together on Pentecost. When the Holy Spirit came upon them, they were praying, and they were worshiping. They were lifted up by the power of the Spirit and used mightily.

Get yourself prepared. Be always prepared to the story of Jesus.

Who Jesus is . . .
~ The Son of God who descended from heaven to rescue us.

What He did . . .
~ Died on a cross to pay for our sins and rose from the grave to give us eternal life.

What He offers . . .
~ Forgiveness and eternal life for all who come to Him.

What He is asking from you . . .
~ Your faith, your belief, your trust.

Learn to tell your story about the difference Jesus has made in your life. Sit down and write it out. Memorize it so you are ready. The Apostle Peter said, “Always be ready. Be prepared to make a defense for the hope that is within you” (I Peter 3:15).

Offer yourself to the Lord each day in prayer. Lord, use me for Jesus today. I want to be armed and dangerous for you.

I came across a story awhile back written by Erwin McManus. He said, “One summer, my son went to a youth camp. His name is Aaron. He was a little guy, and I was kind of glad he was going to a church camp because I figured he wouldn’t hear ghost stories. Unfortunately, however, since they don’t tell ghost stories at a Christian camp because we don’t believe in ghosts as Christians, they told demon and satan stories instead.

“When Aaron got home, he was terrified. ‘Daddy, don’t turn off the light!’ he said before going to bed. ‘Stay here with me, Daddy. I’m afraid. I worried about those demon stories.

“I wanted to say, Don’t be afraid.

“He continued, ‘Daddy. Daddy. Would you pray for me that I’ll be safe?’ I could feel it. I could feel the warm blanket of Christianity beginning to wrap around him, a life of safety, safety, safety. I said, ‘Aaron. I will not pray for you to be safe. I will pray that God will make you dangerous, so dangerous in fact that the demons will flee when you enter the room.’

“And he goes, ‘All right Dad, but pray I would be really, really dangerous.’”

That is my prayer today for you and me – that we would trust this story from holy Scripture and become really, really dangerous for Jesus Christ.

Watch out world. Here we come! Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer

The Supreme Sacrifice

Romans 5:6-11

Sacrifice. What is so important in life to you that you would die to protect it or obtain it? Who is so precious to you that you would sacrifice everything to rescue them from danger?

Love involves sacrifice. There are many examples of sacrifice. We think of an athlete who disciplines their body in the rhythms of life to maximize their ability in the designated sport. We think of a parent who sacrifices greatly to protect or improve the quality of life for their child. Or missionaries who leave their homeland, family, and comfort share the life-changing message of Jesus’ love with another culture. On this particular weekend we think of soldiers who put their lives on the line to gain or protect our freedom. They might have even paid the ultimate sacrifice so we can enjoy our freedom.

Today I want to talk with you about God’s supreme sacrifice in offering Jesus to us, and Jesus’ supreme sacrifice in going to the cross so we might be forgiven, reconciled to God, and live with Him by faith in a relationship of love.

We know the verse, John 3:16 and 17, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life, for the Father did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

In 1967, a man named Dennis Hensley wrote a fictional short story, which has been read and retold countless times. It is called, “The Railway Switchman and His Child.”

“There was once a swing bridge that spanned a large river. During most of the day, the bridge sat with its length running up and down the river parallel with the banks allowing ships to pass freely on both sides of the bridge. But at certain times each day, a train would come along and the bridge would be turned sideways across the river allowing the train to cross it. A switchman sat in a shack on one side of the river where he operated the control to turn the bridge and lock it into place as the train crossed.

“One evening as the switchman was waiting for the last train of the day to come, he looked off into the distance through dimming twilight and caught sight of the train lights approaching. He stepped onto the control bridge and waited until the train was within a prescribed distance, then he turned the bridge into position. However, to his horror, he found the locking control did not work. If the bridge was not securely in position, it would cause the train to jump the track and crash into the river. This last train of the day would be a passenger train with many people aboard.

He left the bridge and hurried across to the other side of the river where there was another lever switch he could hold to operate the lock manually. He would have to hold the lever back firmly as the train crossed.

“He could hear the rumble of the train approaching now. He took hold of the lever and leaned backward to apply his weight locking the bridge. He kept applying the pressure to keep the mechanism locked. Many lives depended on this man’s strength.

“Then, coming across the bridge from the direction of the control shack, he heard a sound that made his blood run cold. ‘Daddy? Where are you?’ His four-year-old son was crossing the bridge looking for him. His first impulse was to cry out to the child, ‘Run! Run boy!’ But the train was too close. He knew his tiny legs would never make it across the bridge in time. The man almost left the lever to snatch up his son and carry him to safety, but he realized he will not get back to the lever in time if he saved his son. Either many people on the train would die, or his own son must die.

“He took but a moment to make his decision. The train sped safely and swiftly on its way, and no one on board the train was even aware of the tiny, broken body thrown mercilessly into the river by the onrushing train. Nor were they aware of the pitiful figure of the sobbing father still clinging to the locking lever long after the train had passed the bridge. They didn’t see the man walking home slowly to tell his wife that their son had died.”

If you feel the emotions surging through the father’s heart in this tragic story, then you begin to understand the feelings of our heavenly Father when He sacrificed Jesus, His Son, to bridge the gap between us and God. John 3:16, “For God so loved the world . . .” No wonder the day Jesus was crucified creation turned dark and the earth shook, for the Lord of creation, the Lord of life, the Son of God, was being sacrificed. Why? There’s only one answer. The love of the Father God for all people in the world. The sacrificial love of God for you.

But it wasn’t just the Father who made a great sacrifice. Jesus himself also made a supreme sacrifice, and Jesus’ sacrifice was more than the moments on the cross of Calvary. In Philippians 2 it said that when Jesus came to earth, He emptied Himself of all His power and glory. Like the gospel song, “He left the splendor of heaven knowing His destiny was the lonely hill of Golgotha, there to lay down His life for me. If that isn’t love, then heaven is a myth. If that isn’t love . . .”

Jesus became a man and experienced the limits of our humanness. He knew what it was like to feel nauseated or vomit. He knew what it was like to spit and cough. Yes, He required human elimination. He experienced fatigue, pain, hunger, the perpetration of injustice. He knew every human emotion. It wasn’t just the agony of Passion week on the cross when Jesus was beaten, whipped, and pierced with spikes through His wrists and His feet to attach Him to a wooden cross and hang suspended between heaven and earth.

It also is true, as it says in Romans five, that Jesus died for the helpless. Jesus died for the ungodly. Jesus died for sinners like me. Sinners not only by my immorality or failures, but also by our defiant rebellion. He bridged the gap. Isaiah 53 sheds more light on it. It says Jesus carried every form of curse, rebellion, and brokenness in His body. It says “He took our infirmities and sicknesses onto Himself. He bore our sorrows and carried our grief. He lifted our guilt and took our shame.” The full fury of evil’s worst was vented on Jesus, the Son of God, so you and I, in faith today, can say we are more than conquerors because of Jesus Christ’s sacrificial love.

It was a battle between God and Satan. God sacrificially loved us in a way to give us victory. Jesus knew no sin but became sin that through Him we might become the righteousness of God. The perfect Son of God, the perfect Son of Man bore the guilt of all of humanity – not only so we’re not condemned, but also that we might be reconciled into the family of God.

How can we respond to such a great sacrifice? Paul says we do it by offering our lives as a living sacrifice back to God. In Romans 12, Paul writes, “I appeal to you by the mercies of God, present your bodies as a living and holy sacrifice, which is your spiritual expression of worship.”

He wrote also in II Corinthians 5, “. . . so we might no longer live for ourselves but for Jesus who died and rose for us.”

Recently I read the bio story of a man named Dr. Mark Jacobson and his wife Linda. Mark was a brilliant man. He graduated the valedictorian at Harvard University and went on to the University of Minnesota medical school where he again was top student in his class and gave the valedictorian address at the graduation. An incredibly brilliant man, he felt the Spirit of God calling him to another culture, to Arusha Tanzania, a place of the world with great health care needs and great human suffering. Each year the hospital in Arusha, Tanzania takes care of 35,000 patients. Each patient pays one dollar so the total income of the hospital in Arusha is $35,000 paid by the patients and their families for their medical care. The patients feel good and self-respecting about paying those medical bills.

Dr. Jacobson could have used his intelligence and education for a lucrative medical practice in the United States. However, he heard the Spirit call him to follow Jesus and offer his life as a living sacrifice to make a difference in the lives of the men and women, boys and girls of Tanzania. A living sacrifice.

We can learn a lesson from a story in history. “During his reign, King Frederick William III of Prussia found himself in trouble. Wars had been costly, and in trying to build the nation, he was seriously short of finances. He couldn’t disappoint his people, and to capitulate to the enemy was unthinkable. After careful reflection, he decided to ask the women of Prussia to bring their jewelry of gold and silver to be melted down for their country. For each ornament received, he determined to exchange a decoration of iron as a symbol of his gratitude. On each decoration would be inscribed, ‘I Gave Gold for Iron, 18l3.’

“The response was overwhelming. Even more important, these women prized their gifts from the king more highly than their former jewelry. The reason, of course, is clear. The decorations were proof they had sacrificed for their king. Indeed, it became unfashionable to wear jewelry. Thus, was established the Order of the Iron Cross. Members wore no ornaments except a cross of iron for all to see.” (Taken from “I Gave Gold for Iron” by Dr. Paul Chappell).

So also for us who belong to King Jesus. We exchange the trinkets of our former life for the way of the cross. Some people call it the cruciform life, the way of living sacrifice for Jesus Christ.

Preacher and teacher Fred Craddock says, “To give my life for Christ appears glorious. To pour myself up for others, to pay the ultimate sacrifice of martyrdom. I’ll do it! I’m ready, Lord, ready to go out in a blaze of glory. We think giving our all to the Lord is like taking a $1,000 bill, laying it on the table, and saying, Here’s my life, Lord. I’m giving you my all. But the reality for most of us is, the Lord sends us to the bank and asks us to cash in a thousand-dollar bill for a pile of quarters. And we go through life giving out $.25 here and $.50 there. We listen to the neighbor kid’s troubles instead of telling him to get lost. We serve on a volunteer committee for the sake of an organization. We give a cup of cold water to a shaky old man in a nursing home. Helpless little mundane acts of service expressing love, the same love King Jesus has poured into our hearts.

Usually giving our lives to Jesus Christ isn’t glorious. It is done in little acts of love $.25 at a time. It would be easy to go out in a flash of glory; it’s much harder to live the Christian life little by little, a day at a time over the long haul.

“God so loved the world he gave Jesus to us that we who believe in him might not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God’s love for us is so great that He sacrificed Jesus, and Jesus laid down His life in love.

What should we do in response? Confess our sin and ask Jesus’ forgiveness. Confess your faith in Jesus as your Savior and Lord and God. Thank Jesus for His supreme sacrifice on the cross and His resurrection from the dead. Invite Jesus’ Spirit to live within you. Thank Him for indwelling your life, and rise each day to offer your life as a living sacrifice to build the kingdom of God. Amen.

Rev. Lee Laaveg

Get a Grip on Contentment

Back in the 1980s, I really liked a song by the band U2. The title was “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” The song sounds a bit like a personal lament, like a Psalm out of the Bible in a way. Something is missing in this person’s life, and he can’t find it. Perhaps it is satisfaction, perhaps contentment. After all, contentment is something we all long for in our lives, don’t we? Yet it seems to elude so many people. I heard someone say one time, “Contentment makes poor men rich; discontentment makes rich men poor.” Someone else said, “Discontent, like ink poured into a bottle of water, turns all to blackness.” It can have a really nasty effect on us and turn things dark.

What’s behind the discontentment we sometimes experience? One word that comes to mind is envy. It’s an age-old human problem. Proverbs says, “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot” (Prov. 14:30). Again and again throughout Old and New Testament we see the problems attached to envy. For instance, Cain was envious of his brother, Abel. Sarah was envious of Hagar, who could have a child though Sarah could not. King Saul was envious and jealous of David’s popularity and chased him out in the wilderness to kill him.

In the New Testament, we find the Pharisees envious of Jesus. Pontius Pilate even remarked on it as Jesus stood trial before him. Envy has the power to bring out the worst in us. Essayist Joseph Epstein once said, “Of the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all.”

When the Grand Hall in Florence, Italy was being decorated a long time ago, outstanding artists were asked to submit drawings. Leonardo da Vinci, the artist of his time, seemed to be the man for the job. However, a young man by the name of Michelangelo submitted some sketches, and they were magnificent! The committee was so enthusiastic, they gave the job to him. When the news of this choice reached Leonardo da Vinci, the old artist went into a decline from which he never fully recovered. Evidently, envy of his young competitor took its toll on da Vinci.

On and on it goes, even amongst us in this day and age. We are envious of the person who got the promotion at the office instead of us, the guy on the team who gets more playing time than we do, the woman at the office who receives more attention from the boss than the others. Envy can kick in and cause us to do, think, and feel some ugly things. This battle goes on inside of us because of our sinful nature. It all begins when we compare ourselves with other people. Our ego, selfishness, and pride kick in.

External triggers can get us going. Outside sources may point out what we’re lacking in our lives and make us feel like we’re missing out. Turn on the television set and you see commercials telling you that you need their product. You will be happy if you only purchase this, use this, take this, eat this, drink this, drive this, or wear this. On Facebook people post highlights of them having the best of times. Sometimes we read them and think, Look at the pictures! Boy, I wish I could go on a vacation like that! If only I had a bit more money. My life isn’t half as fun and exciting. I wish I had those kinds of friends. I’m really missing out.

There’s financial envy too – I wish I had their income, as we watch the neighbor build a big and beautiful house.

Or relational envy – I wish I had friends or family like hers.

Or circumstantial envy – I wish I had a spouse, as I sit and watch couples having a good time.

Envy can get us into such trouble. Every time someone feels green with envy, they are ripe for trouble. It can ruin your attitude, steal your joy, and move you to do some unwise things like purchase things you can’t really afford in order to keep up with others, or talk other people down who have what you don’t have, or wish ill will toward those who have what you want.

It can wreck our relationship with God. We become upset with Him and blame Him for our unhappiness. Lord, you shorted me! you think to yourself.

So how do we get on the road to contentment and leave discontentment behind?

The Apostle Paul, in the early days of Christianity, wrote some words in a letter about contentment. It’s a personal testimony, really. It’s meant to teach the people about where to find true contentment. Found in a book called Philippians in the New Testament, it’s kind of a thank-you letter and includes some teaching for their edification.

Paul really loved the Philippians. They had been very supportive of him. Near the end of the letter, after saying thanks for the gift they’d sent him, Paul says, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances, I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need” (Phil. 4:10-13).

The first thing that jumps out at me in this passage is the personal pronoun he uses. I know, and I have learned. Paul is speaking from personal experience. He’s not simply laying some philosophical statements on them that he dreamed up on a mountaintop. This statement comes from one who has experienced the ups and downs of life, just like you and me. In fact, his downs were probably worse than any I’ll ever have.

The Apostle Paul basically lived the life of hand-to-mouth each day, traveling and doing work for the cause of Jesus Christ in the world. But his life wasn’t always like that. He lived a fairly comfortable existence until he met Jesus on a road outside Damascus. His life was never quite the same afterward. He found grace in Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of God, the assurance of everlasting life, and a relationship with God. Paul also received a calling, a new purpose in life – to serve Jesus in this world.

Paul had been on the go for the cause of Christ ever since. It was not always easy, and he did not always have good times. In one of his letters, Paul writes a bit about some of the hard times. He says, “Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches” (II Cor. 11:24-28).

Paul had a very rough time! He wasn’t just sitting around studying his Bible! He wrote his letter to the Philippians from jail. It is an amazing letter, reflecting such joy and contentment. One has to wonder where his joy is coming from.

Earlier in this particular letter, Paul reflects on the things he gave up: “I consider them to be nothing in light of what I have now.” He follows up with, “I’ve learned to be content.” He continues, “Along the way I have learned the secret to facing life’s ups and downs.”

What stories were in his mind, I wonder, as he wrote this statement? Was he thinking about lying in a Philippian jail the first time he visited the area after being arrested for causing trouble? Was he thinking about other times when he was shipwrecked and so on? I have learned through personal experience, he is saying, (the classroom of life). Then he says: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

Athletes often use the statement, “I can do all things in Christ.” I can run faster, pitch better, hit harder. But this really isn’t the intent of the context of Paul’s statement. It’s about facing circumstances, going through hard times, failures, and disappointments as well as navigating the good times in a healthy manner and finding the strength through Christ to overcome trials as well as temptations. He says, All I looked to for security and contentment is absolutely overrated compared to having Jesus Christ in my life. By trusting and obeying Him, I have found inexhaustible resources for living life with contentment, through ups and downs.

Paul says, first of all, I found that in all circumstances with Christ in my life – good times or bad – weakness or strong – Christ is faithful. He is always there with me strengthening me, carrying me with His Spirit’s power. I face nothing alone. He has never deserted me or left me like an orphan to face matters in life. I know Christ has prepared a place for me. He’s given me a glimpse of what awaits me when I breathe my last in this old world. I’ve placed my trust in Him, and the best is yet to come. He’s prepared a place in His Father’s house for me in heaven.

And so Paul can say confidently to those Philippians, “To live is Christ, to die is absolutely gain.” As one places his or her faith in Jesus Christ, they are heaven bound. They know the big picture now. Paul would say, As I’ve lived with Him and followed Him as His student, living in His Holy Word and talking to the other disciples who walk with Him, Jesus has taught me what makes for contentment and how to avoid pitfalls that can pull me into being discontented. What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and wreck his soul? What is really important in life, anyway?

Giving yourself away, Jesus teaches, is where real life, contentment, and fulfillment is found. He points me to a loving Father. When I’m worried, He says, “Don’t worry about what you eat or drink or wear. Look at the birds of the fields; God takes care of them! You’re more valuable than they” (Matt. 6:25-27). He loves you. He knows what you need.

He teaches me gratitude for what I have, pointing out that God is busy in His creation. He is providing for me, and I need to count my blessings. When I let Him down with my thoughts, my words, and my actions, He points me to the cross and tells me, You are forgiven. I love you.

This is what Paul would say to us. The secret of contentment is living and following Jesus Christ, who gave His life on the cross for you and me, then rose from the grave. He is present and available to live with us all the way into eternity. This is where contentment begins and ends – Christ!

In his autobiography, Just as I Am, Dr. Billy Graham tells a story that speaks to this truth of where to find contentment. “Several years ago, Ruth and I had a vivid illustration of this (contentment) on an island in the Caribbean. I have a friend who is one of the wealthiest men in the world. He asked us to come to his lavish home for lunch. He was 75 years old, and throughout the entire meal he seemed to be close to tears. ‘I’m the most miserable man in the world,’ he said. ‘Out there is my yacht. I can go anywhere I
want to. I have my private plane, my helicopters, I have everything I want to make life happy. Yet I am miserable . . .’

Billy Graham says, “We talked to him and prayed with him trying to point him to Christ, who alone gives lasting meaning to life. Then we went down the hill to a small cottage where we were staying. That afternoon, the pastor of the local church came to call on us. He was an Englishman, and he, too, was a widower like the first man. He spent most of his time taking care of his two invalid sisters. He was full of enthusiasm and love for Jesus and others. ‘I don’t have two pounds to my name,’ he said with a smile, but I am the happiest man on this island!”

Billy Graham relates how he asked his wife Ruth after they left, “Who do you think is the richer man?” She didn’t have to reply because they both already knew the answer.

I have a friend named Frank, a fellow pastor, who started a recovery ministry years ago for alcoholics and addicts. Our congregation began financially supporting this ministry, which is a few miles away from us. It’s been a rough, challenging, and effective ministry. Frank will share stories with me over coffee that cause me to shake my head. He and his wife have been living for years hand-to-mouth, month-by-month. Somehow or another God provides and keeps them going. They have displayed such great faith.

Frank’s wife, Lois, recently passed away at a rather young age and Frank insisted on preaching at her funeral because she wanted him to. In the midst of his message, he told us this: “Through Lois I’ve learned to have faith in Christ’s promises. He’s been taking care of Lois and me for a lot of years. He surprised us not only spiritually but even materially along the way as we have entrusted everything to Him, and He’s kept us going in this ministry.” Then he stopped and said to us, “And you can trust Him, too!”

Frank found contentment – not an easy life, but a contented life following Jesus. He learned the truth of Paul’s statement, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

And so can you, my dear friends. Trust Christ. Amen.
Rev. Steve Kramer