This Is Us – The Bride of Christ

Ephesians 5:25-32

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saul asked, “Who are you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pastor Steve Kramer

This Is Us – We Are the Body

Ephesians 4:4-16

Are you a member of the church? This is not such a far-fetched question these days. Back in the 50s, even 60s, we were what might be termed as more of a churched culture.

However, changes are taking place and people often choose not to be affiliated with any church or religion for that matter. They are referred to as the “Nones,” meaning when filling out forms asking religious affiliation, they just check “none of the above.” But if you are a member of the church, then my next question would be, What does your church membership mean to you? This is the subject I want to spend a few moments talking with you about today – membership and what it means for the Christian. ‘

I believe church membership is one of the most important things the church needs to get right today in this 21st century if we’re going to be healthy and growing for the cause of Christ! Many churches are weak because we have members who have turned the meaning of membership upside down in their minds, and it’s time to get it right.

Some have come to think of church membership like membership in a club – such as a country club. You pay your dues each year and receive some perks and privileges. Certain amenities come along with it that you come to expect – the use of the pool, a discount on meals at the restaurant, a discount on a golf cart, or priority treatment on the golf course. Join the club and you will be served well.

Tragically, though, this understanding of membership sometimes gets carried over into the Church of Jesus Christ. It’s a view many church members hold. We hear in statements such as these:
▸ This is my church! You better play the music the way I want it!
▸ Look, pastor. Don’t forget who pays your salary.
▸ If you don’t do this program, I will withhold my check to the church.
▸ I have been a member of the church for more than 30 years, so I have a right to get what I want!

This kind of thinking is not biblical nor faithful to what God had in mind when He first envisioned His Church. It’s important to ask the question, Where did the term “member” come from when it comes to belonging to a church?

First of all, it’s not something that was just pulled out of thin air or taken from the business world. There’s a biblical background to using this term “church member.” It comes from a metaphor the Apostle Paul used to describe the Christian Church. Listen to his words again: “We are all one body. We have the same spirit; we’ve been called to the same glorious future. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and there’s only one God and Father who is over us all and in us all, living through us all.”

This is us, folks! We are one body – like the human body with its many members – all connected, all necessary. The same Holy Spirit has opened our eyes to Jesus Christ and to the telling of the Good News of what He did for us on the cross. We have one resurrection, one hope, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father watching over us all. We have the same glorious future together – eternal life.

We are the body of Christ – not an organization but a living, breathing organism. We have a calling and a mission to represent Jesus in this world and bring others to Him so they might be rescued from sin and death, and experience the abundant life God had in mind for us when He created us all in the first place. Each of us are body members. This is the origin of “church member.”

The human body has different members that do different things – like eyes, feet, arms, legs, and so on. Each is necessary and important for the body as a whole in order for it to function well. So also in the body of Christ are members who play diverse, yet needful, roles for the whole body. Each member is different and valuable for the common good. Each one has a role, a function to work together with the other parts like a body. Each member has a special gift, Paul tells us, to be used for the common good of the body. These gifts were given by the Holy Spirit when a person receives Christ into their life and follows Him as Lord and Savior.

Paul lists a few spiritual gifts in today’s portion of Scripture. He says, “However, he has given each of us a special gift according to the generosity of Christ. He is the one who gave his gifts to the church – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers.”

In this particular letter to the Ephesians, you see, Paul is only listing a few teaching gifts. But oh how important those teaching gifts are for all of us! How important it is for the Church to have good, biblical teaching and doctrines to keep us in the truth so we don’t get confused by what the world and other religions would have us believe. God has provided us with teachers who help us stick to the Good News of Jesus and what He has done for us at the cross – dying to pay for our sins and rising so we might have forgiveness and salvation. We need to be reminded that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father but through Him. In this pluralistic day of ours, many are questioning this truth, even within the Church. We need to be reminded that Scripture is God-breathed and our only authority in matters of faith and life. If we are looking for answers, we need to look to the Bible.

However, not just teaching is important. In other places like I Corinthians or Romans, Paul lists a variety of other gifts people have been given to be used for the common good of Christ’s body. The Apostle Peter lists some as well. Here are a few: Serving, mercy, encouragement, administration, wisdom, knowledge, giving, leadership, assistance, healing, tongues of the prayer language, and interpretation of tongues.

Every member is powered and gifted by the Holy Spirit to do something in the life of the local church! God never intended for the clergy to do all the ministry. It was never His intent for the pastor to use his gifts and everyone else to sit and watch, applaud or criticize. We all are called to ministry for the common good in the Church. Notice, there is no gift of sitting and watching, being spectators, demanding, waiting around for people to serve us. Spiritual gifts are meant to do something for someone else, functioning for the common good. They are mutually interdependent just like a human body. The eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” as Paul says in I Corinthians. We need each other to be effective for Christ in the world. In fact, the Bible makes it clear that if one part does not do its job, the whole body doesn’t function very well. We all lose out.

The motivation behind using what God has given you in the church, of course, is love – love for Christ and what He has done for us – and love for His Church that He loves. You know He loves His Church. It’s a big deal to Him. Paul tells us in I Corinthians 13, right in the center of talking about gifts, It’s all about love.

Paul then goes on in Ephesians to share an important truth with those of us who are willing to be functioning members of the body. Under His direction, the whole body is fitted together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow so the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.

First of all, notice it’s under His direction. He’s talking about Jesus Christ. He is the head of the body, the control center. He is the Lord of the Church. We walk to His drumbeat, and as each member of the body uses their gifts, the whole body then benefits, Paul tells us. It grows healthy and mature and full of love. As you, as a member, involve yourself in the life of the church by exercising your abilities, you become a blessing to others in your local church.

Paul doesn’t tell us this, but there’s a bonus to consider. Jesus talked about the beauty of serving one another in the church and the joy that comes along with it. There is joy in serving others and making a difference in others’ lives for the cause of Christ as you operate out of the sweet spot God has given you.

I think of Kate headed off to college this year. She has figured out she has a gift of hospitality and mercy. She is good at making people feel like they belong and someone cares that they are there. She just returned from a mission trip with a large group of teenagers. Typically a few hang back out of shyness and don’t get connected. Kate noticed one particular person whom she did not know. So she reached out, made the approach, and befriended this person who looked very alone. At the end of the trip, this person told her their relationship became the high point of her trip. She felt like she belonged.

I think of Chuck. He has strong leadership skills with team projects. He ran our last two building programs. We couldn’t have completed the project without him using his gifts. The funny thing is, when I thank him for all he’s doing, he typically says, “Well, thanks for letting me be a part of it. This is fun!”

Being a biblical member of the church means being a person who is always on the lookout to contribute and serve in order to make the body stronger. That is what church membership is about, according to Scripture.

So, where does one begin? First, pray and ask God to reveal your gift, your special abilities and where you might use them in your congregation.

Study Scripture. Use a commentary with it. Examine sections on the gifts to learn what they mean. You could take an inventory. Perhaps your church has a tool for it. If not, get on the Internet and Google “spiritual gift inventories.” You’ll get all kinds of things to look up. Try the short forms.

Ask someone who really knows you spiritually about your area of giftedness, then try it out by serving roles requiring that gift. What kind of satisfaction is there for you? What kind of results occur for the kingdom of God? That is what church members do.

Talk to your pastor. Ask God where you can use your gift, your abilities.

I came across this little article I found to be very thought-provoking. It was written by a woman named Elyse Fitzpatrick. She wrote, “My husband and I had the wonderful opportunity to vacation in Europe. In about 3 1/2 weeks, we visited 13 different nations. When we’d enter a country, we would get our passport stamped, exchange currencies, learn a few key phrases, and off we’d go to visit the locals. We’d wander through outdoor markets, peruse museums, and sample the cuisine. We’d exchange a few niceties with the local folks, sit on the steps of the cathedrals, watch the life of the town go by, take a picture or two, and even purchase something to remind us of our time there. Then we were off to another place. We had a wonderful vacation! Our hearts weren’t changed in any significant ways by these visits, but then they weren’t meant to be. We were tourists.”

It seems to me that what I just described is very close to many people’s understanding of the congregational life of the local church. On any given weekend, many tourists can be found in church. They pop in for 45 minutes or an hour, sing a chorus or two, and exchange niceties with the locals. They sample some of the local cuisine. They might purchase a book or CD to remind them of their visit. And then they race to their cars to get to their favorite restaurant or rush to their home before the game. For many people, church is simply about being a tourist. Our land is becoming filled with tourist-friendly churches.

A personal question for you, dear friend. What role are you playing in your local church? Are you a functioning member or a tourist? We need members. Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer

This Is Us – We’re Family

Ephesians 2:14-19

What do you think of when you hear the word “church”? Someone might say, Well, I think of a building, a nice-looking place. Or, It’s a place you go on Sunday. Others may say, Well, I think of the denomination – like ‘I go to the Lutheran Church.’

Some people have rather distorted images of the church. For some, the church is like a gas station. It’s where you go to fill up your spiritual gas tank when you’re running low. It’s where you can get a good sermon to keep you going for the week.

For others the church is like a movie theater, it’s a place to offer some entertainment. For an hour you can escape, get comfortable seats, leave your problems at the door, and come out feeling better than when you went in.

For others, the church is like a drugstore where you can fill a prescription to deal with the pain in your life. Many churches are therapeutic.

The church is seen by some as a big-box retailer. They see it as a place that offers the best products in a clean and safe environment for you and your family. It offers great services at a low price – an all-in-one stop.

The church is a producer of programs for children, young people.

Some see the church in a negative light. A book came out years ago that said, “People love Jesus, but they don’t like His Church.”

Some see the church as an afterthought, something man-made. But really, we know from reading the Gospels, the Church was God’s idea.

John Stott, an evangelical scholar from the last century wrote, “The Church lies at the very center of the eternal purpose of God. It’s not a divine afterthought. It’s not an accident of history. On the contrary, the Church is God’s new community.”

Today I would propose to you that the Church is not something you go to; it’s not something to be devalued. It is what you are if you are in a relationship with Jesus Christ.

This past year, a show came on television that was a very surprising blockbuster entitled, This Is Us. It’s the story about a family looking back on their past as they deal with the present and come to grips with who they are within the family. In the New Testament is a book that could very well be entitled the same thing – “This Is Us”. It’s a letter written by the Apostle Paul to some Christians who were trying to figure out what it meant to be the Church.

He tells them in the opening parts of the letter how wonderful it is to be saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. This is what has happened to them. Once they were dead, but now they are alive.

But then, in the nitty-gritty of the whole letter itself, is a talk about what it means to be Church. Paul says, I want to talk Church with you. He holds up different images for them and says, This is us – you and I – the Church. One image he uses is today’s passage where we read we are family. “So now, you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family.” When you become a follower of Jesus Christ, you inherit brothers and sisters who are connected through Christ to each other.

An interesting thought to consider is, How does one become a member of our earthly family? It is through birth or adoption, right? Well, we enter Christ’s family the same way.

In John chapter 3, we find Jesus talking with a religious man named Nicodemus about the importance of being born again – born into the family of God, becoming a new person in Christ. We’re adopted into God’s family through baptism.  This description of church families is a very intimate image when you think about it. We, as families, would probably die for each other. As a parent, I would die for my kids. Some of us would even admit that we would be willing to kill for each other.

Family is where they have to take you in. It’s a place where you belong! I imagine those people who received this letter from Paul sat up straight in their seats when this line about them being members of a family was read to them. The Jews and the Gentiles had a history of hostility and suspicion. After all, they were different cultures, different backgrounds, different bloodlines, different religious beliefs. In the early years the only thing they held in common was their sinfulness and their need for a Savior. The only thing they have in common now is their forgiveness in Jesus Christ, which makes them family. It must’ve caught them off guard.

You’ve heard the adage – Blood is thicker than water. Well, God turns this phrase on its head and says to us in this passage today, Water is thicker than blood. The waters of baptism are thicker than blood. Now you are family, Paul says. The walls are down. You are no longer Jews and non-Jews, but now family in Christ! 

I tease my congregation – “You’re no longer Vikings fans and Packer fans. Now you’re family in Christ. You’re no longer Republicans and Democrats; now you’re God’s family in Christ. No longer black, or white, or yellow, or red, or brown, but family – brothers and sisters in Christ. No longer employers and employees but family on equal footing in Christ. No longer Dane, or German, Norwegian, or Swedish, but family. This is us; we’re family, Paul says.

We have privileges and responsibilities as a part of the family. In our earthly families, we have family privileges. I had a key to my parents’ house. I knew I had a roof over my head and the security of a loving father and mother. The refrigerator was mine to open and help myself to food. When I was old enough, I had the family car to drive.

In the same way in Christ’s Church – the family – we enjoy privileges as well. We have one Father in whom we can rest securely in knowing He loves us all the same. We belong. Everybody who belongs to Christ belongs to everyone who belongs to Christ. We don’t have to go through life facing situations alone; we have a family to lean on. We weep with one another, and we rejoice with one another. We are sharers in Christ’s promises and the promise of eternal life. The day will come when I will breathe my last, but I know I will be with Him in eternity. I have a place that has been prepared for me. I have forgiveness for my sins. I do not have to live any longer carrying old regrets. I take it to the cross. I have His Holy Spirit working in me, shaping me, molding me, empowering me, being with me.

Of course, along with privileges come responsibilities. Families take care of one another. They honor and respect one another. They serve one another. They love one another. I know it sounds good on paper, but as we all know, it’s not always an easy thing to do. All kinds of personalities are in families. Some are rather odd, peculiar, and difficult to be around.

The same is true in the family of God. So we need to do an honest inventory of ourselves as brothers and sisters in the family of God. Is anyone in your life being excluded? Ignored? Written off? Treated as a little less? Is everybody getting loved by you? How about the low-income person who oftentimes is overlooked in our society in favor of the “haves,” those who can financially give more to the church?

How about the shy, introverted person standing on the fringe of the lobby area at church, wishing someone would notice them? They can be kind of hard to talk to. How about the loud, obnoxious one who is inappropriately seeking attention all the time and causing trouble? How about the kid who smells funny, is always dirty, and wears clothes that aren’t very nice? No one wants to sit next to him in school. Will anybody want to sit with him in Sunday school? How about you?

How about the person struggling with his or her sexual identity? How about the less intelligent student who can’t pay attention in class, can’t keep up, and sometimes acts out? How about the person who votes differently than you at election time? How about the special needs person who can be difficult to communicate with? The person in the wheelchair who sometimes is made to feel as if they’re invisible?

Or the person whose body is covered with tattoos and piercings and their hair is strange? Or the single person who wonders, Does anyone care about single people in the church? Everything I hear is about the family. Or how about the person whose marriage has failed, or the addict who struggles to stay sober and keeps slipping back? How about the person whose theology is a little different from yours, a different slant. You can’t come to an agreement.

The list goes on and on. These are your brothers and sisters, your family in Christ, created in God’s image, redeemed by Jesus Christ at the cross and filled with the Holy Spirit. They are your family. My family. Are they getting our love? How are you doing as a brother or sister these days?

I am sure you’ve heard the statement used in our country – “No child left behind.” The church’s theme must be, No child of God left behind! You are family, called to love one another, serve one another. It’s not something we just talk about it. It begins with you doing just that. Love with your eyes for instance. Start noticing each other. Is someone standing on the fringe? Go to them, make the approach, look at them. Observe to see if you’re seeing troubled looks in people’s faces.

Love with your mouth. Ask good questions and be prepared then to let them respond. Talk kindly to one another. Encourage and affirm.

How about loving with your ears? God gave us two ears and one mouth for a good reason. You can do a lot of love with your ears. Listen to that person. Pay attention, be interested, make them feel as if they are the most important person on the planet as they talk with you.

Love them with your hands and feet. It might be through service. It might be by writing them a card to encourage them or going just to be with them, not needing to say anything, just being present. Let your feet carry you over.

Be committed enough to show up and do for one another. This is what it means to love one another. It’s not always convenient. It’s sometimes painful and may not get noticed or receive a word of thanks or appreciation. But this is what Jesus was talking about when He calls us His family.

Perfect? No! No, no, no. No such thing as a perfect family, as you know, this side of heaven because we’re all sinners. We have a tendency to fall and fail, to look out after number one all too often.

What a vision this is of what could be for this broken world! Think of it! Look at how they love each other! I want some of that. Jesus knew that. He said, “Love one another. By this all people will know that you’re my disciples” (John 13:35). Love one another. “Let your light shine, and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).

I like an image I came across about the church as a family. It’s like a bad high school band. But God will use the imperfect us – with our imperfect love – to display His glory.

Earl Palmer, an author, and former pastor wrote this. When California’s Milpitas High School orchestra attempts Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the result is rather appalling. He wrote, “I wouldn’t be surprised if the performance made old Ludwig roll over in his grave . . .  You might ask: ‘Why bother? Why inflict on those poor kids and their parents the terrible burden of trying to render what the immortal Beethoven had in mind? Not even a great symphony orchestra can attain that perfection.’ My answer is this: the Milpitas High School orchestra will give some people in the audience their only encounter with Beethoven’s great Ninth Symphony. Far from perfection, it is nevertheless the only way they will ever hear Beethoven’s message.”

What Palmer is pointing out is that the only way a starving, thirsty, deluded, and suffering world will ever hear the music of the gospel is through the family of Christ. It may arguably be the worst “high school orchestra” ever to appear on a bandstand, but it’s God’s orchestra. It’s God’s ragtag, big band, and He’s chosen to use us as His family to attract others in.

Church! This is us. We’re family. Love one another. Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer

Mustard Seed Theology

Matthew 13:31-32

The parable of the mustard seed, which Jesus shares, teaches us precious truths that every believer can cling to with hope. Have you ever worried that your faith is wimpy and weak, not strong enough to do you any good? Have you ever worried that the questions percolating in your soul might undo you? The parable of the mustard seed, which Jesus shares, teaches us precious truths that every believer can cling to with hope. Have you ever worried that your faith is wimpy and weak, not strong enough to do you any good? Have you ever worried that the questions percolating in your soul might undo you?

Remember the man who brought his son, who was possessed by an evil spirit, to Jesus? The spirit would throw the boy to the ground causing him to foam at the mouth. He’d be struck mute and stiffen out in his body. The father pleaded with Jesus, “If you can do anything to help us, have pity on us.”

Jesus, almost with indignation said, “If I can? Haven’t I told you – ‘ALL things are possible to him who believes’?”

Then the father confessed this classic line, “I do believe. Help my unbelief.” Have you ever prayed that prayer?

Have you ever prayed,
Lord God, I do believe, but the day is so dark, and I’m struggling with doubt. 
Lord Jesus, I do believe your promises but I have questions that enter my mind. 
I do believe; help my unbelief.

Mustard seed faith knows it’s not the size of our faith that is most important, but the One in whom our faith rests. It is not the purity of our faith but the fact that our faith rests in the all powerful Lord Jesus Christ who loves us.

Jim Bjorge, an eloquent preacher, told the story years ago of a man traveling by foot in early winter in the state of Minnesota. In his travels, he came to a wide river. The man simply did not know if the ice was thick enough or therefore safe to bear his weight. His first few tentative steps on the ice, his heart was thumping in his chest. He was literally shaking in fear! Then the ice cracked under his feet, and he sprawled flat on his belly on the ice, afraid he would go through. While he was lying there cheek to the ice, he heard the sound of sleigh bells, and around the bend of the river came a team of huge horses with the driver guiding a sleigh filled with huge logs cut from the woods. Yes, the ice was thick enough to bear his weight.

Sometimes we’re afraid Jesus can’t take care of us. Sometimes our faith is shaky and wimpy, and we don’t know if we’re okay. It’s not the size of our faith that matters, but the fact that our faith trusts in the all-powerful Jesus, the Lover of our soul. So whatever measure of faith you have, invest it in Jesus.

The second truth from this parable of the mustard seed is, when faith trusts God’s power, God brings new life into our spirit. All of us, as human beings, need God’s renewal. He keeps His word. In II Corinthians 5 it says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, all things are become new.”

Radio preacher Vernon McGee once told a memorable story about a woman who lived in the deep South and had a close relationship with her childhood sweetheart, John. The woman found love with the man and ultimately married him. While their life together wasn’t perfect, they had many moments of wonderful joy in their marriage.

Suddenly, tragically, her beloved husband died of a heart attack. The woman simply couldn’t part with her late husband so she decided to have him embalmed. She placed him sitting up in a chair and sealed him in a glass case. Then she placed John immediately inside the front door of her large southern plantation home. This way she could be with her husband every day. She’d enter the door, smile and say, “Hi, John. How are you?” and then go about, pretending he still shared life with her. This went on for more than a year.

One day she decided to take a lengthy vacation to Europe. It would be a delightful change of scenery for her. While she was in Europe, she met a fine gentleman also on vacation. They had a whirlwind romance, fell in love, got married, and honeymooned all over Europe. All during that time, the woman said nothing about old John back on the plantation.

Finally, they traveled to the United States and journeyed into the woman’s plantation, which would now be their home. As they were driving up the winding road, the husband decided he was going to carry his new bride over the threshold. This would be the beginning of their home together and their new life forever. He picked her up, bumped the door open with his hip and walked right in. However, he almost dropped his bride when he saw old John sitting in his chair. “Who is this?” the new husband asked.

Well, that’s John, my husband from my former . . .

“He’s history!” said her new husband. “He is dead!” Then he buried old John, case and all.

Sometimes, in our faith journey, we continue to keep the remnants of our old nature, of our old life, and we rationalize its continued presence as if we need it somehow to comfort or sustain us. We develop what I sometimes call a “BC” mindset. A before-Christ lifestyle, a before-Christ attitude, a before-Christ behavior, rhythm in our life so that, even though faith has fallen in love with Jesus and we’ve come to believe in and take to heart all God has done for us through Christ, we’re still living BC – before Christ.

Jesus was raised from the dead so He might live in the hearts of all His people. The kingdom of God spreads when Jesus reigns in the heart of His believers. He gives us new life. Jesus gives us the power of the Holy Spirit who not only lives inside us, but also comforts, guides, and controls us in our discipleship journey. Mustard seed faith brings new life. It also teaches us that little becomes much, small becomes huge. A tiny seed like a mustard becomes a 10-foot high shrub tree that the birds of the air come and nest in.

Nancy Cornish, in The Upper Room devotional booklet, tells the story of when she was a child she heard the tap, tap of a cane on the sidewalk in a small community in which she lived. An old man in town, bent from years, his rough, knotted hand purposefully clutching his cane as he walked. This old man had a peculiar custom as he roamed the streets of this small town. When saw a child, he’d reach into his pocket and give them a picture of Jesus Christ. He’d thrust it into the child’s hand and continue on his way, not even saying a word.

The small act of this old man’s kindness made a world of difference to Nancy. She later came to a faith in Jesus Christ, and she realized in her adult faith that the small seed of kindness and witness the old man had done in giving her a picture of Jesus was the beginning of what God used to bring faith alive in her soul. That picture of Jesus, with a sheep and a river running through a pasture, with the old man’s shaky handwriting saying Psalm 23, was the foundation of her faith that came alive. Little can become much, and small can become huge.

Who would think a carpenter’s son, born to a young girl in the poor town of Nazareth, would be God’s Messiah? Who would think a band of twelve men and a few women would grow to become the beginning of the Christian Church and the message of the Gospel would spread to every country and culture and race in our world? And who would think the little seed of faith, when you and I first heard the message of Jesus, would come alive, take root in our faith, and grow to give a perspective of our whole journey of life, because Jesus is life.

Mustard seed faith also teaches us that we build the kingdom of God by faith. As we share our faith and our love for Christ with others, we need patience. We need to trust the Holy Spirit. We need to allow time for it to unfold, for those planted seeds to take root. Many of you are farmers, and you know you don’t plant your seed into the black soil of your fields one day and expect to harvest the mature crop a week later. It takes time.

I love a quote by Alfred Schweitzer, a missionary to Africa, “No ray of sunlight is ever lost, but the green it awakens takes time to sprout, and it is not always given the sower to see the harvest. All work, if worth anything, is done in faith.”

I know a father who prayed every day for his son over decades of time. His son, though a good young man, was a prodigal spiritually – defiant, rebellious against God and the Church. Many years later, after decades of prayer, the son came to his dying father’s bedside and said, “Dad, I want you to know, I prayed to ask Jesus to forgive me and come into my life. It’s not only the way you prayed for me daily, it was your authentic way of showing love to all people that convinced me Jesus is real and needs to be the center of my life.”

People of God, don’t give up. Keep praying. Persevere in doing good. The kingdom of God is built by faith.

The next truth from this mustard seed parable is the kingdoms of this world will eventually give way to the kingdom of Jesus Christ. When we look at world events today – war between nations, governments, political leaders, and powers, it sure does not look like the kingdom of Jesus Christ will be winning. But the Word of God promises us that, in the end, the kingdom of Jesus Christ will be the last. He will rule. Like it says in Revelation, the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of our Christ, and He will reign forever and ever. Jesus will rule the world – not by military might, nor by wealth, nor human intelligence. God’s power will rule the world in the name of Jesus in a kingdom founded on grace.

The final precious truth from the parable of the mustard seed is God’s presence and power become every believer’s safe place. It says in Jesus’ parable that the birds of the air all come to build their nests in the tree that began as the tiniest seed, the mustard seed. Jesus is our safe place, our hiding place. Remember how it reads in Psalm 61 – “Hear my cry, O God. Give heed to my prayer. To the ends of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock, which is higher than I, for you are my refuge. You are my tower of strength against my enemies. Let me take refuge in the shelter of your wings.”

Several years ago, National Geographic magazine provided an interesting story. After a forest fire in Yellowstone National Park, forest rangers began their trek up the mountain to assess the inferno’s damage. One of the rangers found a bird literally petrified in ashes, perched statuesquely on the ground at the base of the tree. It was an eerie sight. When the ranger knocked the bird over with a stick, three tiny chicks scurried from under the dead mother’s wings. That loving mother bird, keenly aware of impending danger had carried her offspring to the base of the tree and gathered them under her wings. Instinctively she knew the toxic smoke would rise. The mother could’ve saved herself. She could’ve flown to safety, but she had refused to abandon her babies. And when the blaze arrived and the heat singed her small body, the mother remained steadfast. She had been willing to die in sacrifice so her babies, under the cover of her wings, would live.

The birds of the air come and nest and rest in the branches of the kingdom of God. What God has done for us in Jesus Christ is our safe place, our protection. When I approach life’s challenges and problems, when I walk in a way that is dark, when I am filled with guilt and regret, I can run to the Lord my God for refuge because Jesus has gone to the cross. Jesus has died in our place. Jesus has taken our guilt and sin upon Himself, and now He spreads His loving power over us like a protection. Jesus is our safe place.

I pray you have mustard seed faith, and you know it’s not the size of your faith but the power of the Lord Jesus Christ that is our hope. Amen.

Rev. Lee Laaveg

Is Following Jesus Worth It?

Matthew 13:44-46

One of my most prized possessions is a 1965 Martin D-35 guitar. It is in mint condition and worth a lot! If I were to sell it today, I’d make thousands on it. One of my most prized possessions is a 1965 Martin D-35 guitar. It is in mint condition and worth a lot! If I were to sell it today, I’d make thousands on it.

This guitar has a fun story behind its purchase. About twenty-five years ago or so, my dad was listening to a morning radio show, kind of a swap shop. People would call in with things to sell or trade. That morning a voice came over the air announcing this individual had a Martin guitar for sale for $400. My dad was immediately interested! The guy brought the guitar over to the house. One look at it, and my dad had his checkbook out and was writing a check for $400. (It was worth 10 times that.) You see, my dad knew a bargain when he saw one.

Jesus, in our passage for today, told a couple stories to His disciples that have the same sort of feel to them. At an early stage in His ministry, Jesus was beginning to run into more and more opposition. This kingdom movement He was announcing was not quite picking up the momentum the disciples thought it might. Only twelve actually signed on and committed. There are rumblings of a conspiracy by Jesus’ opponents to kill Him and snuff out the ministry. The disciples had to have been concerned about their own welfare. They had left comforts behind to follow Jesus, and it might have had them wondering if following Jesus and serving Him was really worth it.

Jesus addressed the question with two parables. He said the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure, a valuable pearl. It was so valuable, the people who found it went after it for all they were worth in order to possess it. They knew a bargain when it was staring them in the face.

Some things in this story you can’t help but notice. Number one, the different ways these valuable objects were found. One person stumbled upon the treasure. The other person – a merchant – searched for the pearl. People come to Christ in a variety of ways, maybe He is saying. They may stumble upon Him, or they may go for a long search to find Him by examining other philosophies, and so on.

The second thing we notice is the people in these parables sold everything they had because they knew a bargain when they saw one. They couldn’t help themselves – they wanted to possess it.

These two parables basically serve as analogies about the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven means the kingdom of God. Jesus is not talking going to heaven so much, but about being under the rule of God. We know it will come in its fullness someday, and every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus is Lord. Everyone will love God, and love one another as God intended. We will live under Him in His kingdom under the Lordship of Jesus.

Jesus was talking about His rule and His reign, not just in the world to come, but in our personal lives as well. God wants to have a relationship with us, which only will come through Jesus Christ. When Jesus announces the kingdom, in all likelihood Jesus is also pointing to Himself. One theologian wrote, “Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God, and He was the kingdom of God.” It’s true! Jesus said God’s kingdom is the most valuable possession a person can ever own.

One might ask what makes this kingdom, this relationship so valuable. First of all, it is valuable because I am a sinner. I am separated from God and in need of forgiveness for my sins. I have a tendency to thumb my nose in the face of God, to think I can run my own show without Him. In Christ there is forgiveness for my sins.

The kingdom of God is also valuable because I am a mortal being. Someday I’m going to die. Jesus says, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). This kingdom is the promise of eternity living with God.

Finally, it is valuable because I am spiritually dead without God in my life. Jesus said, “I came that you may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). He gives me purpose and peace. Jesus knows what makes life work. This spiritual wealth of the kingdom demonetizes all other earthly currencies because it’s eternal, it’s free, and it’s life-giving.

The most remarkable thing about this valuable treasure is it’s free for the receiving! I cannot earn it, only receive it like a beggar with empty hands. I have nothing to offer for it. It comes to us by God’s grace. Jesus Christ gave His all in order to possess me that I might have Him. I have been bought with a price at the cross. His holy and precious blood, and His innocent suffering and death have made it possible for me to have a reconciled relationship with the heavenly Father who loves me. Only through Christ, only through entry into His kingdom is it possible.

Jesus’ appeal to a sinner like me or you is to repent and believe the good news. That’s what Jesus said when He announced the kingdom. The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe this good news. It’s the response He is looking for from us. To repent, basically is to turn from the direction we have been going and follow Him. We entrust our lives and our futures to His care and His leadership. To repent is to surrender ourselves and step into His kingdom. To believe is simply to trust, to bet the farm, to build my life upon His promises. It just might be someone who is listening to this broadcast is in a place where he or she needs to do just that – repent and believe. It’s easy to get off track.

To all in our world who have lost their spiritual bearings, this Jesus Christ still comes and offers the treasure and the pearl, which carry with them the promise of eternal life – indescribable, imperishable riches. As of old comes His challenge to this person: Follow me; I am the true and living way to God. If I offer you a cross, I also offer you a crown. If I offer you struggle, I also offer victory. Look life in the face and look death in the face and sum it all up. Make your decision – come follow Me. 

If you have received Jesus into your life like those first disciples who originally heard these two stories, hear what He is saying, Yes, it is worth it! Trust Me. Enjoy your riches. Hang onto them. Grow in them. Praise God for them. 

If you are in the kingdom, if you are in Jesus Christ, you are rich. Just listen to some of these witnesses.

The Apostle Paul, looking back on his life before He knew Christ, described all these earthly things he had going for him. All those riches were set aside when he followed Jesus. And if someone were to ask him about this tough sacrifice, he would have responded, Sacrifice? What sacrifice? I count everything as garbage in comparison to knowing Jesus Christ! 

The hymn writer, Isaac Watts, wrote in his great hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,”

Were the whole realm of nature mine. 
That were an offering far too small. 
Love so amazing, so divine, 
Demands my soul, my life, my all. 

Jim Elliott, a missionary who was martyred at the age of 32 in South America, said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”

Many years ago I was at a conference doing youth work. I was listening to a speaker, a young woman, say, “If you were to give your child anything in the world, what would it be?” Then she answered her own question, “It would be a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” She went on to explain that Christ has made all the difference in her life. So of course, she wants her children to know Jesus as well.

In 1987, the Minnesota Twins, who I cheer for, clinched the 1987 division and were getting ready to play in the World Series. Greg Gagne, the great shortstop on the team, was asked, “Is this the biggest moment of your life? It has to be!” by a news reporter. “No,” Greg replied. “The biggest moment of my life is when I asked Jesus Christ to take over my life.”

P. T. Forsyth, a great prophetic preacher of the past century, wrote these wonderful words: “I should count a life well spent in a world well lost if, after tasting all its experiences and facing all its problems, I had no more to show at its close or carry with me into another world than the acquisition of a real, sure, humble, and grateful faith in the eternal Son of God.” Beautiful words. Beautiful testimony.

In our church, we sing a song by a fellow named Dennis Jernigan, who has written some wonderful contemporary Christian songs. He says, “You are my strength, Jesus. When I am weak, you are the treasure that I keep. You are my all in all.”

Folks, if you have run into some rough patches in your life and are asking if following Jesus is really worth it, if you are facing the ridicule of people from whom you want respect and friendship, if you are having the same doubts those first disciples must have had and you are asking if it is worth it to stand up for Jesus and serve Him, Jesus’ word to you today is this: A relationship with Me is more valuable than anything this world has to offer. It’s more valuable than any object. 

I have a home that is worth, I imagine, $250,000 or so. Not bad. But being part of God’s kingdom is more valuable than my home.

I have a couple cars. They’re worth something too. God’s kingdom is more valuable than any car.

I have a great instrument to play – a D-35 Martin guitar. God’s kingdom is more valuable than any instrument you might possess.

I have a bank account and a pension to take care of me. More valuable than that.

A relationship with Christ is more valuable than any other relationship – even your spouse or your family or your friends. More valuable than any experience or adventure this world might have to offer you.

This is the message today. Jesus stands before you and says, Do you see a bargain when you’re staring at one? If you have never received Jesus Christ in your life, you are poor because you’re going to die and leave all your earthly possessions behind. Only through Christ can we become rich – truly, eternally rich.

My appeal to you today would be, ask Christ into your life today. Surrender yourself to His care, and direction. Begin to walk with Him. He alone holds the treasures God wants you to possess.

If you already are following Him, Christ is speaking to you today as well, my friend. He is saying, Keep following. Keep serving. It is worth it, because if you are in Christ, you are eternally rich. Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer
Christian Crusaders

The Lord Works in Mysterious Ways

Luke 1:26-38

People sometimes use what they think is a biblical quote, but it really is not. It goes like this: “God works in strange and mysterious ways.” Though you would be hard-pressed to find this quote in Scripture, it is truth. People have been saying it about God for centuries.

Years ago a man named William Cowper wrote a hymn:
“God moves in mysterious way, His wonders to perform. 
He plants his footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm.”

Isaiah the prophet expresses amazement at the mysteries of God, when he says,  “Truly, O God our Savior, you work in mysterious ways” (Is. 45:15).

He also says,  “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Who has been his counselor?” (Is. 40:13).

The Apostle Paul stood in awe of God’s mysteries and wrote,  “How unsearchable are his ways!” (Rom. 11:33).

Such is the case as you consider today’s story about Mary. The Lord works in mysterious ways. Just think about it. The world needed a Savior from sin, so God devised a plan, which is rather mysterious and out of the ordinary. He decided to send His Son, Jesus, as a baby, God incarnate, God in the flesh, who will eventually die on a cross to pay for the sins of the world. Mysterious.

Even more mysterious is the reason why He would do that for me knowing the kind of person I am inside and the depths of my sin. This love of God is mysterious.

If you were in charge of sending this Savior, where would you choose to have Him raised? Surely a kingly palace would have been a smart thing. A place where He would be safe and secure and receive the best. After all, He is the Savior. Or perhaps a priestly, educated family could fill Him with knowledge and show Him the way around through Israel’s religious system. How about a mature family who is practiced in raising children, known amongst the community for how well they do with kids? They can make Him safe and secure and keep Him healthy.

It makes sense to us, right? But not to God. He instead chose Mary, a teenager – probably 14 or 15 years old – with little status in the ancient world. She was probably uneducated, from a little backwater town named Nazareth of which sophisticated Jewish folks would say, Can anything good come out of Nazareth? They’re a bunch of hicks! She was engaged to a carpenter who was barely able to eke out a living. One has to wonder how good he was at his business. After all, when they gave an offering after the circumcision of Jesus, they offered two pigeons, which is what only the poverty-stricken were instructed to give. Still God chose Mary to bring the Savior, the Son of God, into this world. God works in mysterious ways!

Why, you may wonder. First of all, the response would be because He is God. His thoughts are not our thoughts. His ways are not our ways. He sometimes chooses to use the weak to lead the strong. Perhaps His grace was behind this. He wanted to show us how He can take ordinary people and use them in great ways. Or it might be about His mind. As He does His way, we learn we can trust Him, and He really knows what makes things work. We give   the glory when it goes right instead of giving ourselves the credit.

Yes, God knew Mary’s heart, her faith in Him, her willingness to submit to His plan. We can’t know for certain. All we know is this – God called Mary. The rest is history. She responded with a few questions such as, How can this be? I’m a virgin. After it was explained to her, “Power from the most High will overshadow you,” she responded, “Here I am, your servant. Let it be to me according to your word.”

Have you ever stopped to think of how brave those words are? She did not know what difficulties and complications lay ahead for her, but still she said “Let it be to me . . .”

I love a little article in a book by Frederick Buechner about biblical characters. He writes about Gabriel the Angel who made the announcement to Mary. Listen to his words:

“Mary struck the Angel Gabriel as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child, but he’d been entrusted with a message to give her, and he gave it. He told her what the child was to be named, who He was to be, and something about the mystery that was to come upon her. ‘You mustn’t be afraid, Mary,’ he said. As he said it though, he only hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath his great golden wings, he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl. ‘Let it be to me,’ Mary said. And it was.”

Jesus was born. The Savior of the world. It was not an easy call. She didn’t know, she couldn’t have planned for the things she would go through – how much rumor, innuendo, and castigation Mary would suffer in her village with this pregnancy since she was not married yet. How hard it would for her to deliver in Bethlehem as God planned. She surely didn’t know – no mother would be around to help, no room even to have this child. But Scripture says Mary pondered these things in her heart.

One time Mary and Joseph lost Jesus in Jerusalem. They had been at a festival with the family and thought He was with His friends. But once they were out of town, they realized He wasn’t with them. Can you imagine what Mary said to Joseph. “Honey, we lost the Son of God!” Searching, they found Him in the temple and after chewing Him out, Jesus said, “Didn’t you know I’d be here in my Father’s house?”

Scriptures say Mary treasured these things, and pondered them in her heart. What have I gotten into? she must have wondered. She wound up as a refugee, fleeing to Egypt to keep Him safe from Herod the king who ordered the death of all the infant boys around Bethlehem. She watched Him grow in wisdom, divine and human favor.

Then there was the heartbreak of watching Him leave home to go on the road to do this “Gospel ministry,” as He called it, about a kingdom. Or hearing people with authority talking badly about Him. He is a crackpot, a blasphemer, a troublemaker. At one point she was so worried He was cracking up, she went to fetch Him home only to be told His response to her arrival, “My real mothers and brothers are those who do God’s will.” How it must’ve broken her heart.

She watched Him die on a cross, “A sword shall pierce your own soul too,” was the line that must’ve gone through her head. It was the line from the prophet Simeon that she had heard when Jesus was a baby. She felt like a sword pierced her.

And the wonder of Easter! He’s alive! But why didn’t He come home first and show Himself to me, His mother! Afterward, the ascension and Pentecost in the Upper Room. What an amazing journey her life turned out to be as God used her in a most amazing way to work out His plan for salvation.

Mary drops out of the scriptural picture after that, and the Church was left to wonder what do with her. She’s never been forgotten over the centuries. She even made the Apostles’ Creed, and so we talk about her every week in worship. Somewhere along the way, the Roman Catholic Church saw fit to raise her to a status that Scripture doesn’t really support – to include her as someone to be worshiped. I don’t buy that option.

While I know God is the only hero in the Bible, Mary is quite heroic. She was an obedient, submissive daughter of the God who loves us, and while she does not deserve our worship, she deserves our admiration and applause and even our emulation. She deserves a “Well done, Mary!” She said yes to God’s call, and God used her in an extraordinary way. Mary, you are amazing! You are an amazing, godly woman, would have been our response to Mary.

Mary’s story also holds a valuable lesson for you and me to consider. If you are a follower of Jesus Christ listen closely: God oftentimes chooses to use the ordinary to do extraordinary things for His cause. 

This truth can also be found elsewhere in the New Testament. When Jesus began His ministry, He called to Himself twelve disciples who were very ordinary individuals. They had no theological training or great pull in their communities. He trained them, and then at the end of His ministry told them to “Go make disciples of all nations; be my witnesses” (Matt.28:19). Let your light shine before others, and you’ll change the world. And, by golly, here we are in 2017 talking about the same risen Jesus who gave that commission on the mountaintop.

I think of Saul who hated Christians and Christianity. He eventually became Paul when he was chosen by God to bring Christ to people who were not Jewish. He turned the world upside down.

All kinds of ordinary people throughout the New Testament were willing to say, Here am I – servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to Your Word. God used them to do extraordinary things for Him as well. You find even more stories like this in the Old Testament. God uses the ordinary to do the extraordinary in Scripture.

Now, according to Scripture, we believe God is unchanging. So obviously, He must still like to use ordinary people to do extraordinary things – those who will commit and submit to serving His cause when He taps them on the shoulder. It doesn’t matter what your age, your gender, your talent, your place in the culture or any other circumstance in your life for that matter. He can use you.

I’ve been reading a book called 7 Women and the Secret of Their Greatness by Eric Metaxas. It’s about Christian women who had a big impact on the world. One of them was Rosa Parks, the woman in 1955 who refused to move herself from a seat in a bus and go to the back of the bus. She was arrested, and thus began the civil rights movement.

Did you know Rosa Parks was a committed Christian who had been taught the values of Christianity – that all people are valuable and no one should be treated like her people were being treated? When she did that great act of courage, she leaned on her faith in God.

I think of another story about a woman named Agnes who wanted to dedicate her life to God at the age of 12. She eventually became a nun at the age of 18 and was shipped off to India where she was teaching middle-class Indian children. Yet her heart was what she saw outside the walls of where she was teaching – in the streets where people were dying of starvation, nobody there to help them. One day she was in the street and saw a woman dying with rats gnawing at her. So she grabbed the woman and carried her around until she could find a place to give her attention and help her die in a dignified manner. Thus began the ministry of Mother Teresa.

But not just well-known names. I think of my friend Mary. She wanted to lead her friends to Jesus Christ, but she was a 10th grader and didn’t know how to do that. So she came to me and said, “Would you train me how to witness for Jesus with my friends?” She was my first trainee in Evangelism Explosion. She’s led many people to Jesus since.

Marin Pedersen was a junior high girl in my congregation who started visiting the elderly in a nursing home. She played music for them and befriended them. She has made an impact in the name of Christ.

I think of Jesse who is now a senior in high school this year. For the past five years I’ve watched her touch the lives of children in our Sunday school. She spends more time working with kids in this church than you ever could imagine. She’s making a difference.

I think of a woman named Krista Algore who has just returned to us after four years of working in Cambodia for a Christian organization called Agape, which fights sex trafficking of young women. At the sacrifice of her own health, she has impacted hundreds of young women for Christ by giving herself away.

The truth of the matter is, when you become a follower of Jesus Christ, you have a commission. You have a mission field, your own sphere of influence, your little corner of the world. And when you say, Hear am I, the Lord’s servant. Let it be according to Thy Word, you never know what might happen next. Extraordinary things. It might be a neighbor who lives next to you and needs a friend. It might be a lonely person you bump into at a nursing home, or a cause that strikes a passion deep within you – like kids, or feeding the hungry, or some other need in your community. Perhaps a troubled kid needs some guidance or a mentor. It’s not always going to be easy or convenient. In fact, it can be downright scary at times. I’m sure Mary had her moments when she was scared and tired and confused. But there was one constant – God was with her, still caring, still carrying her. The mission was accomplished. The ordinary did the extraordinary.

I have a personal question for you today. Would you describe your faith as exciting? Does following Jesus keep you at the edge of your seat in constant prayer, asking for help? Are you alive with anticipation as to what God is going to do with you next? If not, God would love to have a crack at your life beginning today. It’s a matter of simply submitting to Him and courageously saying, Here I am, your servant, Lord. May it be to me according to your Word. That is music to your heavenly Father’s ears. Amen.

Steve Kramer

God’s Vision for Your Life

Philippians 2:5-8

Recently, I heard a speaker ask this question, “What you want people to say about you at your funeral?” Two things came to mind when I thought about that question. First, an amusing story I’d read about a funeral.

The deceased’s wife and two sons were seated in the front pew at the funeral. The songs had been sung and the preacher began to talk about the departed brother.

“He was a man’s man!”

“Amen!” said the congregation.

“He was a man who worked hard!”

A few people said, “Amen!”

“He was a man the bottle could not control.”

“Amen,” said one or two mourners.

“He was a man who loved his home, and his wife and children.”

“Amen.”

“He was a man who paid his debts and told the truth.”

(No amens, this time.)

The poor wife couldn’t stand it any longer so she said to one of her sons, “Joe, go look in the casket and see if that’s really your daddy he’s talking about.” ☺

The other question that came to mind is, Is this really the right question to be asking? I propose to you, if you’re a follower of Jesus Christ, that the most important question is not what I want people to say but what God wants people to be able to say about me. You see, God has a plan for folks like you and me when we place our trust in Christ. This God of ours is in the shaping business. We are His projects, His masterpieces when Christ steps into our lives.

Scripture tells us that those whom God foreknew, He predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son in order that He might be the firstborn within a large family (Rom. 8:29). Paul is telling us that God wants to shape us and conform us into the image of His Son, Jesus Christ. It’s kind of like a sculptor chipping away at us in order that we might be His masterpiece.

I am reminded of the story of Michelangelo pushing a big granite rock up a hill. Someone said to him, “Michelangelo, what are you doing? What’s going on here?” He replied, “I am pushing this up to my home. I want to chip away at it in order to free the angel within it.”

It’s kind of like that for us. We are God’s masterpiece, a work in progress.

This begs the question: What does Jesus look like? Paul gives us a good answer to that question in the book of Philippians. He quotes an ancient Christian hymn they used in worship as he says, Have the mind of Jesus. He goes on to say – here is what Jesus was like – “He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”

So what does Jesus look like? According to what Paul is telling us that Jesus is a humble servant.

By the way, the song ends reminding us that this humble servant was exalted by God.

Now where does Paul (or whoever wrote this song) get this idea? Perhaps from Mark chapters 9 and 10 where Jesus is speaking with His disciples on the question of greatness – how to be a great person in the kingdom of God. His disciples were arguing about who was the greatest. When Jesus came upon them, He said to them, “Whoever is great in my kingdom is one who is willing to be last of all, and servant of all.” Not long after that, two of His disciples, James and John, said,  Lord, we want to be your vice-presidents when you come into power. We want the recognition and the fame and the status. We want the title, Jesus.

Jesus, in correcting them, gives His own mission statement. He says, “I came not to be served but to serve and give my life as a ransom for many.” He came to serve!

At another time, Jesus was teaching a group of people who had come to take in His wisdom. He said to them, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28-30).

God’s shaping plan is to make us look like humble servants – like the servant King Jesus.

As we look at the word “humble,” we see humility is a big part of God’s plan for you and me. God knows pride is no friend of ours. It messes us up, and it messes up the relationships we have with those around us. Your real friend for real life is humility.

John Stott, a great Christian writer from the last century, wrote, “At every stage of our Christian development and in every sphere of our Christian discipleship, pride is the greatest enemy and humility our greatest friend.” How could Stott make this statement? Because the evidence is all around us in this world. Pride keeps me from loving God and having a close life-giving relationship with Him. It has been a human issue from the beginning of time as we read the story in Genesis of Adam and Eve hearing the promise from Satan, “If you eat from this tree, you will be like God.” Their pride gets the best of them, and they eat. Since that time, it has been a dominant impulse and instinct in every one of us. We’ve inherited it.

I insult God when I attempt to take control and live life my way instead of His way insisting I have better answers for living than God. Or believing, I don’t need God; He is a crutch for weak people. Maybe it’s okay to have some God in your life, but I don’t want Him running my life. Pride keeps God out as I turn my back on Him and try to take control. It is deadly stuff. It’s the top of the seven-deadly-sins list in Scripture – from it all other sins come.

God detests human pride. Why? Because pride is all about self-glorification, instead of God-glorification. You and I were created to enjoy glorifying God forever. Pride gets in the way, and our egos turn us in on ourselves.

Perhaps you’ve heard the acronym for ego – Edging God Out. That’s what we do: we edge God out of the picture with our pride. It separates us and keeps us from the close relationship He created us to have with Him. It’s what put Jesus on the cross – human pride! Not the pride of the Pharisees like we like to believe, but my pride, your pride put Jesus on the cross. He paid the debt for our pride in order that you and I could be restored to God. As I lay down my pride and put my trust in Jesus Christ, He promises me eternal life and restoration of that relationship.

As Jesus’ followers, He longs for us, then, to spend the rest of our lives learning to live totally dependent on God, totally trusting Him, totally praising Him, always giving Him the glory in everything we do and everything we might accomplish.
Pride not only keeps me from loving God, but it also keeps me from loving other people, because a person who is filled with self-interest, self-promotion, self-indulgence, self-sufficiency, and self-ambition for the purpose of self-glorification cannot truly love. He or she is more often able to use people instead of loving them. Pride leaves wounded people in its path as they get used for personal glorification and goal accomplishments.

Left unharnessed, pride has the power to ruin relationships in your family and in your church. It can make your athletic team ineffective and your work team totally unproductive.

It causes division. Pride keeps me from being at peace with others when I refuse to swallow my pride, say “I’m sorry” to someone I have wronged and admit I was wrong which is so hard for many of us to do. It does nothing but put up a wall between me and that individual. Sometimes we have too much pride to accept an apology, an olive branch of peace and say, “I forgive you.”

Left unharnessed, it can distort your personality. Did you know that? Have you ever been around someone who is always talking about himself or herself? They just can’t seem to get enough of it. Or they’re terrible at listening to others. They are always stealing the conversation back to themselves.

Sometimes people are even willing to lie in order to look good in front of others. We stretch the statistics a little to look better. Or we’ll do something to get attention, to make us feel important. We may even become a critic of others in order to make us feel better about ourselves. It elevates us. It can cause us to spend more money than we actually have to keep up appearances. It  causes the prideful person to fall.

You’ve heard the proverb, “Pride comes before the fall.” It can bring you down really hard. It has brought down a lot of leaders. We think of King David in the Old Testament who had an affair with Bathsheba. Why did it happen? It was all based upon pride. David had gotten too big for his britches; he should have been out with his army leading them in battle. Instead he chose to stay back.

Jesus Himself, when He saw people jockeying for the seats of honor at a banquet, said, “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matt. 23:12).

I’m reminded of a story about a college football coach from years ago. His team was having a great season. One afternoon, when He was outside mowing His lawn, His wife yelled for him. He turned off the mower, and she said, “Honey, come on in. It’s Sports Illustrated on the phone for you.” His pride immediately kicked in – It’s about time I’m getting some recognition! So he ran into the house, picked up the phone and said “Hello.”

“Sir, this is Sports Illustrated. We’d like to offer you a chance to get a three-year subscription for the price of one.” The coach took a fall that day and was humbled.

I don’t know about you, but I choose to do things according to God’s plans – to pursue humility. Humility is the friend God wants to place in your life. What does humility look like? It looks like Jesus. Humility is a healthy self-forgetfulness. Humility listens instead of always talking, stealing conversations. Humility is a willingness to stay in the background and not need attention and applause. Humility is giving God glory in everything, pointing to Him, rejoicing with others’ successes, and applauding them instead of attempting to one-up them all the time.

Spiritually speaking, humility is a realistic self-assessment that I am a sinner saved by God’s grace in Jesus Christ. I am no better than anyone else. There, but by the grace of God, go I. Humility isn’t seeking applause and the adulation of others. It plays for an audience of One – our heavenly Father, just like Jesus did. He was a servant, a humble servant.

What does it mean to be a servant? It is a willingness to pour out your life into other people. I think of Jesus washing the feet of His disciples on the night before He was crucified on the cross for our sins, and how He explained His actions. He said, “You call me ‘Lord’ and ‘Master,’ and I am. If I, your Lord and Master have washed your feet, I’ve given you an example. You should wash each other’s feet” (Matt. 13:13-15).

Be willing to be a servant. That is servant work. Even when no is gratitude expressed, or the person is undeserving, or the feet smell. Wash feet. Our attitude as servants is always asking What can I do for you?

God’s vision for you and for me, if you’re in Jesus Christ, is to be a humble servant. Have you ever seen the bumper sticker “Be patient. God isn’t finished with me yet”? When I do an honest inventory of my attitude in regards to humility and being a servant, I find I have a long way to go. I admit it.

Just recently at a graduation party, I was talking with a couple about some folks who left our church to join a big church down the road, and I found myself getting more and more irritated and angry about it. When I began to assess it a little bit, I realized it was my ego, my pride speaking. That preacher must be better than me. I felt hurt by their actions to leave our congregation.

I am a mess! But I’m a saved mess – God’s holy mess in Christ. Maybe that’s you, too. Don’t despair. First, let me point you to the cross, to Him who died on the cross to forgive you and me for our silly selfish pride. He humbled Himself and sacrificed Himself for you. As you lay down your pride and come empty-handed to receive His forgiveness, He will not turn you away. Instead, He will give you a fresh, new start each time. He never, ever gets tired of extending His forgiveness.

And remember, it is not possible to change ourselves. However, we have this power within, the power the Holy Spirit. It is a lifelong process. In Scripture it says, “All of us, with unveiled faces, have seen the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).

There you have it: The Spirit does it. The Holy Spirit uses various means to keep us moving toward that direction.

• Daily contemplating Jesus hanging on the cross, basically saying to us, This was for you! I am here because of you.
• Daily declaring dependence each morning to God and saying, I can’t make it through the day without you, Lord.
• Giving gratitude or praise for all God is doing in your life on a daily basis. Pride has a hard time growing in that kind of soil.
• Applauding people with your words as you look for the work of God in them.
• Serving others, especially in secret. Try this sometime. It is a key tool of the Spirit. Serve somebody, and don’t let them know it was you.

There you have it. What does God want people to be able to say about us when it’s all said and done? May it be said of us, There lies a humble servant of God. 

God be with you. Amen.
Steve Kramer

 

God’s House

I Peter 2:4-7

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

If you were to build a house, what is the first thing you would need? What is the first thing a contractor or carpenter would ask for? He’d ask for a blueprint, for drawings of how the house is to be laid out and the architectural design for the house. If you were to build a house on the western coast of Southern California, you would also need the construction plans to include earthquake design requirements so it would not be shaken if some adversity came upon it.

When the Scriptures speak about the Church of Jesus Christ – like the words of an old hymn – it says Jesus is the foundation. “Built on a Rock the Church will stand even when kingdoms are falling.” So the clear truth of I Peter 2 is that Jesus is the foundation of the Church of Jesus Christ. The Church being a temple, God’s house, and we as individual believers are living stones in that temple.

But Jesus must be the cornerstone. What’s the purpose of the cornerstone? It’s the first stone set in a masonry foundation, and it determines the alignment of the entire structure. In our individual lives as people of faith, and certainly in the church, the temple of God, Jesus Christ must have first priority and first place in everything we do. Every aspect of a believer’s individual life and every aspect of the church as a collection of believers as living stones must orient itself to Jesus Christ. So we trust Jesus as the cornerstone of our lives and of our life together in the church.

Jesus’s ethos, His ethic, His behavior patterns, His character, His heart, His passion must be the Church’s template for our life together. We not only model the temple of God after Jesus’ character, but we maybe more accurately conform all aspects of the Church’s life together to the heart of Jesus Christ.

I also want you to realize that if we say Jesus is the cornerstone, there is no neutral response to Jesus. Scriptures say to not believe means Jesus becomes what the Greek word names as “the scandalon.” We use the word scandal to describe a publicly immoral and humiliating behavior or event. So when someone encounters Jesus or the offer of Jesus’ grace and love, but rejects Him, it’s a scandal. We trip over the stone. We fall over the precious truth and reject something essential for the construction of all of life and our life shared. Conversely, when we accept Jesus, all of life falls into alignment to that central precious confession.

We need to understand that God is the builder of His temple. “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who labor, labor in vain,” the Word says in Psalm 127:1. So God builds us collectively into His temple, God’s house – the place where God lives and dwells. The place where His glory is revealed.

We are living stones connected together, gathered together, in order to invite God’s presence be manifested among us. Therefore we, as living stones, are interconnected and essential to one another. The unity of God is a gift, but our interconnected essential dependence is part of His plan. This flies in the face of rugged American individualism where we thump our chests and think, I don’t need anybody else in my life. In the Church we openly say, “I need you; I depend upon you, and you need me.”

When I was in college, in the summers I worked construction for a lumberyard in Cylinder, Iowa. I was assigned on several occasions to work with a mason contractor in building house foundations from cement blocks. I remember him yelling out as I mixed mortar for the laying of those blocks, “More mud! Bring me more mud!” And in five-gallon buckets I would carry mud to where he was working.

What is the mortar that holds the living stones of the Church in God’s Temple together?

First, I’d say in our imperfect brokenness as sinners, we are united in the need for Jesus’ grace and forgiveness.

Second, we’re bound together by a common faith and a common love for Jesus. In Scripture it says, “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit” (I Cor. 12:3).

We’re also joined together by the peace of God that the Spirit pours into us. It is a supernatural peace.

We’re joined in a common hope as we consider the present but also look into the future, for the hope we hold is based on the promises Jesus Christ has made. We believe our future destiny is inseparably linked to the Lord Jesus Christ. We hold onto that hope, and we hope for eternal life.

Ultimately, we’re united in our common commitment to Christ and to one another. Have you ever watched a stonemason build a fireplace with different configurations of stones? Carefully, the builder selects each stone to fit together just right, constructing it into a chimney. It’s almost an art form. Well, God is the builder of the house and each of us are individually diverse in our gifts, talents, and personalities. Yet God knows how to connect us with one another in a cohesive interdependence that adds strength to the structure of the Temple of God. You have an essential role to what God is building in the Church of God. Your unique talents and abilities, your passion, your faith, your love is called forth by God’s Spirit to connect with others.

There are also threats to that unity and cohesion. Like a huge crane with a heavy, heavy wrecking ball swinging, smashes down to demolish an old building, we have wrecking ball threats to the Church as the Temple of God.

One that comes to mind is unresolved conflict. When different individuals in arrogant pride refuse to listen to one anothe r, their conflict stands like adversarial animosity and refuses to resolve.

The second threat to unity is withheld forgiveness. It simmers under the surface as a grudge, a feeling of malice wishing ill to another. Wrath can be explosive, and withheld forgiveness can pull apart the structural integrity of the Church as the Temple of God.

The third thing I think of is unfaithfulness to the Word of God. If we begin to depart from the wisdom and revealed will of God in the Word, if we begin to depart from the promises God has made to us, the revelation of who God is as we read it in the Word of God, we begin to chase rabbits paths to rabbit holes, which pull us apart from the central confession of the Word as truth. That truth is we are a broken, rebellious world that God created, separated from the God who made us. But God in His love sent His only begotten Son to die in the cross for us and be raised from the dead so we could be reconciled to Him into a relationship of shared life and love. If we compromise the Gospel, then the structural cohesion of the Church as a living Temple is gonna get smashed.

Another threat to the unity of God’s house is immorality among the members or the leaders. We are connected to one another. We may live in a culture and society that says Live and let live. Whatever a person does is up to him. No harm no foul. But in the body of Christ, the Temple of God, if my behavior begins to distracted or disrupt others, it’s not okay. The cohesiveness of God’s Temple begins to be compromised. That’s why, if immorality is in God’s house, then the elephant in the room must be named. It must be dealt with.

The last threat to the unity of God’s house is an ambivalence to the mission God has given us to do – reach out to all people to share His love.

The glory of any house is not so much the architectural or structural look of the house as it is the personality of those who live there. Have you ever driven by the house of a famous person? Maybe it’s a pro athlete. I remember driving by the house of John Wayne. Elvis still has his Graceland. If you wanted to go to the White House in Washington, D.C., do you think you would be granted access to see the President today? No, because access to that house is very limited even though the President lives there.

Well, the glory of God’s house, the Temple of God, is it has continual access to the very presence of God because of Jesus Christ. You are welcome there. You are invited in, and you are to bask in the love of all those who praise God there. Everyone is welcome. The glory of every church is not the building where they meet. The glory of the church is God’s presence in that place where two or three are gathered.

The infinity of God does not need a place built with brick-and-mortar, for we invite God’s presence among us each time we worship. His shekinah glory fills the temple. God desires to live among us and with us and within us. Have you ever heard the phrase as people worship, “God is in the house today.” Our desire is to encounter the living God in our worship and in our life together so He can do His mission among us and through us.

Finally, I want to say that the temple of God building us into living stones joined together in interdependence shifts in the New Testament so we become the temple of God. People come to the temple to encounter God, but now the New Testament suggests that each of us are living stones. We are the temple where God dwells. Everywhere you go, believer in Jesus Christ, you bring with you the presence of God. Everywhere you go, the shekinah glory of Jesus Christ’s love radiates from your life, and you can pray that God would use you to be a place where other people encounter God.

What a glory to think that God Himself wishes to not only use our lives to be His dwelling place – Emmanuel God with us – but He uses our lives built together in interdependence to dwell and reveal His glory to the world. The early Church said, “Behold how they love one another.”

May God be glorified among you as His people in your life as an individual believer, and may you come together with other people who love and confess Jesus as Lord. May He use you together for His glory and to build His kingdom. Amen.

Rev. Lee Laaveg

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