What Kind of a World Are We Living In?

Mark 1:9-15

An acquaintance of mine told me he was not going to watch the news anymore because it was too upsetting and ruined his days. We are sometimes taken aback as we observe what goes on in our world. We open our newspapers or turn on the news and see violence and hatred, racism and opioid addictions, suicides, immorality, self-centeredness, crooked politics, calamities, tragedies and injustice – the list goes on and on. It’s a little overwhelming. We might even go so far as to look inside of ourselves where we discover that we are also the problem.

I remember a story I read about G. K. Chesterton, a great Christian writer. The newspaper had written a question, “What’s wrong with this world in which we live?” Chesterton wrote a letter to the editors. He said,
Dear Sirs:
I am.
Signed,
G. K. Chesterton.

We ask with a sense of disappointment, What kind of a world are we living in? Our Scripture reading for today offers some valuable insights. In a rather subtle way, it describes the kind of world that greeted Jesus as He began His ministry.

When Jesus stepped out of the Jordan River after being baptized by John the Baptist and commissioned into service by His heavenly Father, we see Him stepping into a dark, demonic world. We observe Him in battle, right off the bat, with the prince of darkness – Satan – out in the wilderness for forty days. He was tempted by Satan who sought to undo Him, derail Him from completing His mission. Satan and his minions saw Jesus as the Divine Invader.

Later in the chapter, we see the demons cry out, “We know who you are, Jesus. You are the holy One of God.” When Jesus was accused of being Beelzebub (Satan), Jesus referred to Himself as the strong man who came to plunder Satan’s house.

Satan continues attacking Him throughout the Gospel, even using Jesus’ disciples to stop His mission to the cross. When Peter says, You don’t have to go to the cross, Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan. You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things, selfish things.”

I’m reminded of the Christian apologist C. S. Lewis’ quote on this subject. He said, “There is no neutral ground in the universe. Every inch is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan.” So first off, we see Jesus stepping into a dark, demonic world.

Next, we see Him stepping into a hostile world. It is hostile to God. How do we know this? Verse 14 reads, “Now after John was arrested . . .” meaning John the Baptist. It would be unwise for us to just zip by that statement without giving it some thought and reflection. Jesus hears that John the Baptist, this man of God chosen by God, was arrested by the hostile powers in place, namely King Herod, for questioning the King’s character and bringing to light the King’s sinfulness in his marriage. John also pointed to One greater than himself that was to come and save Israel. Herod was hostile to Him, as well.

Later, Herod would have John beheaded. He watched his stepdaughter in a seductive dance, and said to her in his drunkenness, “Ask me for anything and it’s yours.” She said, “Bring me the head of John the Baptist,” which he did. Such evil!

This little statement reminds us of worldly powers that seek to control people for personal gain and are threatened when their power, authority, and integrity are called into question, even in the name of God. They will silence that voice. They silenced John.

In this assertion about John’s arrest, by the way, is some anticipation of the fate of the Greater One to come, which he preached about, meaning Jesus. It’s almost like the faint rumblings of a threatening storm ahead; the same will happen to Jesus.

Jesus went to Galilee proclaiming the Good News of God knowing full well the kind of world He was facing. He knew what lay ahead. This world would be unkind and hostile toward Him. Ahead of Him lay rejection, cruelty, opposition, conspiracy, disappointment, unfaithfulness, loneliness, and a cross. In fact, three times Jesus would tell His disciples this horrible prediction about how it was all going to end for Him. That is the kind of world into which Jesus stepped after His baptism and His commissioning. It could be dark, hostile, rejecting, violent, self-serving, confused, mixed-up, blind, and hurting – not all that different from our own.

Yet, after John was arrested, Jesus came. He came proclaiming the Good News of God. His message was simply this: God has not abandoned His sin-sick world, but was going to rescue it. His kingdom, His rule over this world was now breaking in through Jesus. God’s about to do something big. Repent and believe. Jesus would suffer and be rejected. He would die a cruel death on a cross and then rise victoriously again. The dark, demonic, hostile world in which Jesus stepped was so. Yet, He came.

Don’t you find His actions amazing, courageous, and heroic? The apostle Paul did. Listen to his words in Romans,

“For while we were still weak, Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die – but God proved his love for us in that while we were still sinners (while we were still enemies), Christ died for us” (5:6-8).

This is the first answer to our question – What kind of a world are we living in? Yes, it can be dark and sinful, as we’ve seen, but it is a loved world. Behind our Savior’s first step into the battle is love – sacrificial, selfless love. John tells us in his Gospel, “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (3:16). While we were still enemies, Christ came and died for us. Jesus came after the arrest of John motivated by love for the world.

Ernest Gordon gives us a powerful example of sacrificial love in his book about World War II, Miracle on the River Kwai. A group of British soldiers, taken prisoner by the Japanese, were working on a railroad. At the end of the day, the tools were counted and the Japanese guard announced that one of the shovels was missing. He strode back and forth in front of the prisoners charging that the shovel had been stolen by one of them and sold to the Thais. He demanded that the guilty man step forward and admit his crime. However, no one did. So the guard yelled that he was going to kill them all. He pulled back the bolt on his gun and pushed it forward again, loading the gun, and aimed at the first man in the lineup. At that moment a young Scottish soldier stepped forward, stood stiffly at attention, and said, “I did it.” The guard kicked the soldier in the shin and spit in his face. The young Scotsman made no sound. Then the guard lifted his rifle by the barrel end and using it like a sledgehammer, came down on the soldier’s skull. The soldier slumped to the ground under the blow’s fatal impact. His fellow prisoners picked up their comrade’s body and carried it back to camp.

Later, when the shovels were recounted at the guardhouse, not one was missing. “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends,” John’s Gospel tells us. What if the young Scotsman had not stepped forward? Would there have been a bloodbath?

The punches of evil had humanity reeling and going down for the full count, but at the right moment, Jesus stepped into the ring and made it His fight. What if He had not been there? The Good News is, He was. He was there because He loved us.

At the bottom line of this passage is another truth, which can be our comfort and strength. It is this: Not only is this a loved world, this is God’s world and no one else’s. As Jesus came proclaiming “the time is fulfilled,” God is in charge of history. He acted to reconcile the world He created to Himself. He did that through His Son, Jesus Christ.

At the end of the Gospel story, who wins the battle? Jesus Christ! It is a resurrection victory, a proclamation of sorts, that this is My Father’s world. It’s like the hymn says,

“This is my Father’s world.
O, let me ne’er forget,
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.”

This is our good news, our comfort, and our strength. He holds this world in the palm of His hand, and nothing is going to snatch it away from Him. The victory has been won. Sure, there may still be evil, and violence, and all kinds of threatening actions around us, but let us remember that we live in the midst of what you might call “mop up” operations. The battle continues. Just as He said, “In this world, you will have tribulation. But fear not! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Christ is Lord. The One who went into action after John was arrested, went out of love for you and me, for this whole world. He won the victory. He accomplished His mission. And He has promised that, at the end of history, He will appear again in glory and majesty and claim it as His own forever and ever. This is the kind of world in which we live. It is God’s world. It is a loved world.

What do we do with these two truths – this is a loved world, and it is God’s world? Two things.

First, act on what our text tells us. As Jesus announces God is drawing near, He says in light of this news, “Repent and believe the Good News of God.”

To repent means a radical conversion of sorts. Turn away from all that is contrary to God and surrender your life to Him. He gets your allegiance from this day forward.

To believe implies a radical confidence in Him, an unconditional turning toward God’s gospel in complete trust ultimately trusting Jesus Christ for life, life eternal. The promise is this, my dear friends: You will be saved and forgiven. You will be given eternal life and belong to Him forever.

Next, as followers of Jesus Christ, let us go on to be of good courage and not despair over the state of affairs in our world. We know the end of the story. When all is said and done, Jesus wins. He is the winner! Those who trust in Him are His own. I may not know what the future holds, but I know the One who holds the future.

I love Paul’s words from Romans 8:38, 39. I challenge you to memorize them. Keep them in your heart, and pull them out in times of discouragement.

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword? No! In all these things, we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us! For I am convinced that neither death nor life nor angels nor rulers nor things present nor things to come nor powers nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

This is our good news for today! Believe it. Trust it. Live it. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

Good News for the Unqualified

John 1:43-51

I was talking with a friend a few months ago about an interesting job opening in a company that she really wanted to work for, and I said, ‘Why don’t you apply for it?” She said, “Because I’m not sure I am qualified for the job.” And so she didn’t apply. She knew we live in a qualification-conscious society.

In the business world bosses are looking for qualified candidates with the right credentials in education, background, and skill set. In the athletic world, coaches look for the most qualified, proven players in order to put together a winning team. This is true even in the world of the church. My home church just put together a search team to find our next pastor. They have a list of qualifications as they search for that individual.

All this emphasis on qualifications sometimes can leave people feeling less than adequate and not so good about themselves or their place in the whole scheme of things. Maybe even feel a little stuck and useless.

Scripture has an encouraging lesson for us today as we observe Jesus in the beginning stages of His mission. He is recruiting disciples to join Him in His mission. In our story today, we find Jesus choosing two men to be His disciples. His choices – Philip and Nathanael – are surprising because as we closely examine them, we find they lacked the qualifications one would think were necessary to be on the Savior’s salvation team.

Look at the first character, Philip. As we do some research on him, we don’t find much. Not to be confused with deacon Philip in the book of Acts; Matthew, Mark, and Luke just use his name in the listing of the twelve disciples. He doesn’t stand out; he’s not a rising star. He seems to be a quiet, in-the-background, ordinary, unimpressive sort.

John’s Gospel is where we find some information about Philip. He was from Bethsaida, in Galilee, which means he probably was already friends with Peter, Andrew, and Nathanael. He could’ve been a fisherman, which doesn’t exactly qualify him to reach people for Christ.

We know he was religious, because he was seeking God. He was Jewish even though his name was Greek meaning “lover of horses.” We know he knew his Old Testament Scriptures as we see him telling Nathanael about his discovery of the Messiah who would come and save the world. I found Him! he says.

After this calling in John chapter 1, we don’t hear a lot about Philip. What we do hear about him is not all that impressive. He always seems to be in over his head. For instance, in John chapter 6 – the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand – Jesus asks Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” John, in an editorial comment, said, “Jesus said this to test Philip.” He already knew what Philip was going to do; Jesus was testing his faith.

Since Philip had watched Jesus turn ordinary water into gallons of wine and heal all kinds of people, one would think Philip have said, We can feed them, but instead Philip responds, “Impossible! I’ve done the mental calculations. It would take six months wages to feed them. We can’t feed these people.” Then Andrew steps up with a little boy who had five loaves and two fishes for Jesus to use. He blesses the food and five thousand people are fed. It seems to be a lack of faith in Jesus and His ability to do the supernatural that is at work in Philip. He’s not really all that promising, wouldn’t you agree?

In John 12, some Greeks who wanted to see Jesus came to Philip, perhaps because his name was Greek. He thought to himself, I suppose, These people are non-Jews. We’ve never handled a situation like this. What should I do? I don’t want Jesus to be mad. It would set a bad precedent if I brought them. So instead of introducing them to Jesus as they had asked, he had Andrew handle it. Again, it appears that Philip was feeling over his head, indecisive, and afraid.

In John 14, the disciples are in the Upper Room on the night before Jesus went to the cross to pay for our sins. They are afraid, but Jesus tells them not to be troubled. A place has prepared for them in His Father’s house. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by Him. Then He says, “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on, you do know Him and have seen Him.”

Philip, of all things, says, “Show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” He seems to be looking for some heavenly vision of sorts even after all the signs Jesus had given them along the way.

Jesus responded, “Philip, all this time, and you still don’t know me? He who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’ Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” Philip seems to be a little slow on the draw in this episode. He didn’t catch on as to who Jesus really is, and Jesus sounds a little disappointed in his response. You almost wince as you read it. That’s Philip!

So what did Jesus see in him? True, he knew some Scripture. True, he was a seeker of God and the Messiah. True, he didn’t keep Jesus to himself, but took the news to his friend. True, he was persistent. When Nathanael questioned him, Philip was wise enough not to argue but simply said, “Come and see for yourself.” But with all we know about him now, we have to wonder what Jesus saw in this ordinary, unimpressive person.

Jesus knew unqualified people can be changed and transformed into great people of God. After three years in a learning relationship with Jesus, getting to know Him and learning what it means to be a member of the kingdom of God, Philip could impact the world positively for the kingdom. This is what Jesus believed – God has the ability to take raw, unpromising, unqualified material and transform it into people He can use in great ways.

Such is the case with Philip! According to Christian tradition, after the resurrection and Pentecost, Philip went on to have a huge impact for Jesus Christ in the kingdom of God in Asia. He died as a martyr for the cause of the gospel.

I find Philip’s story with Jesus rather encouraging, don’t you? His story is a testimony of how Jesus can use the most unlikely, unqualified candidates to impact the world. This is an encouragement to someone like me, because I’m just an ordinary person. I’m not a superstar. I’m a sinner with a history that I’m not particularly proud of. I don’t have all the answers. At times I exhibit small faith; sometimes I’m confused and overwhelmed by situations feeling less than qualified, in way over my head.

Yet, according to Philip’s story, Jesus believes in me. He has a plan for me. He sees the possibilities. He wants me to follow Him and to serve Him in His important rescue enterprise to bring others to Him. He calls me – unqualified as I am – and says, I want you. This is good news for when I’m discouraged with my flaws and shortcomings like Philip’s. I am considered a valuable and promising player on His team. He has plans for me, and He doesn’t give up on me.

A second character in today’s story is Nathanael, also known as Bartholomew in the other Gospels. We find him to be a bit of a skeptic, perhaps even having the sin of prejudice. Listen to his response to Philip’s announcement. Nathanael said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” That little po dunk town, that bunch of losers? Scripture says nothing of Nazareth and the Messiah to come. And Joseph, the carpenter’s, son? Come on! That’s ridiculous!

One has to give Nathanael credit, though. He did come with his friend Philip to see this Jesus for himself. And see him, he did! Jesus wowed him with His omniscient knowledge of him!

We learned, by the way, that Nathanael was a student of Scripture as well. Jesus had seen him reading under the fig tree. How do we know that? That phrase, “I saw you under the fig tree,” was an image of people who pray and meditate on God’s Word in those days. We even know the story he was reading, according to Jesus. He was reading about Jacob fleeing from his brother, Esau – deceitful Jacob. Jesus says to Nathanael, You are without deceit, just the opposite of Jacob. A good character.

Nathanael responded, “Wow! How did you know that? You are the Son of God, the King of Israel.” In other words, you are the Messiah, the one we’ve been waiting for!

Jesus smiled and chuckled and said, You’re impressed by that? Come on! Come with me and you will see greater things. I have plans for you. To both men Jesus said, “Truly, truly I say, you will see the heavens open and the angels descending and ascending upon the Son of man.” Another image from Jacob’s story.

According to Genesis 28, Jacob fell asleep one night and had a vision of the heavens opening. Angels were descending and ascending upon a ladder, a connection between earth and heaven. He received a promise that God had great plans to use him.

Now with Jesus’ image, instead of angels using a ladder, Jesus is telling Nathanael, I am the ladder. “You will see angels descending and ascending upon the Son of Man.” This was Jesus’ favorite way of referring to Himself. I am the connection to God. Heaven and earth will intersect in me, and you see all kinds of things that will amaze you.

Did Jesus keep His word? You bet He did! Nathanael would see Jesus perform amazing signs. Ultimately, Jesus’ promise was referring to the cross where He would die to pay for the sins of you and me to save us. This is where heaven and earth intersected – at the cross. Jesus continually talked of this as His hour of being glorified as He sacrificed Himself for human sin.

Nathanael saw the resurrected Jesus in the Upper Room and on the Sea of Tiberius in John 21. He also saw Jesus glorified and exalted by God as He ascended in authority over the whole world. He saw all that Jesus promised.

But what did Jesus see in Nathanael? He was a skeptic. His intellect could not believe the news Philip had shared. He seemed to have a built-in prejudice. That’s not a healthy thing for a team, yet Jesus seemed to believe He could make a difference in the world by bringing the gospel to others. Jesus knew what He could make of him.

As we look at the list of the Twelve whom Jesus called into ministry, one has to conclude He started His ministry with some very unpromising, raw material. Someone once wrote, “Philip looks before he leaps; Peter leaps before he looks.” Had you and I been members of the search committee inquiring into the qualifications of those who were to become the disciples of Jesus, we would’ve rejected all of them! Yet Jesus chose them. He taught them, trained them, and did great things through all but one of them.

At Pentecost, when they were filled with the fire of His Holy Spirit, these unqualified Twelve were empowered to turn the world upside down for Jesus Christ. Jesus continued His work on them through the Spirit. They still had flaws, shortcomings, sin, and lots of room for growth, but nevertheless these unqualified Twelve began a movement that changed the history of the world.

Therein lies our hope and our encouragement. The risen Christ is still issuing His call today to follow Him. I can still make something out of ordinary, flawed, unqualified people. Just as He took the same negative, skeptical spirit of Nathanael and the slow, unimpressive, small faith of Philip and changed them, He can make changes in you and me. He can make us great people for His cause through the working of the same Holy Spirit who is available to us. He will work in us, shape us, mold us, and conform us into the image of Christ so we will make a difference – unqualified as we may feel.

As we consider this truth from Scripture, a story comes to mind about a young man named Cody. Far from God, he had a messed-up home life. His mom and dad divorced and left him to basically raise himself.

Cody was invited to our youth worship by a friend who wanted him to meet Jesus. He reluctantly went and heard the gospel. Eventually Cody asked Jesus into his life, and he set out to follow Jesus and serve Him.

We watched him grow in his faith. As a senior in high school, he decided to set up a Bible study at their high school in early morning, and he built the attendance to forty young people. Lives were being changed. What qualified this young man? Not really anything, but Jesus used him. Now he is off to college doing the same sort of thing – impacting many for the cause of Christ.

Jesus works like that all the time! He always has because He is amazing! He’s gracious!

Maybe you today feel like no one believes in you. And you don’t blame them because you maybe haven’t proven yourself. But know this: Jesus believes in you. He has plans to do great things in your life, for you, and through you. He is ready, willing, and able. We know this from Scripture.

Where does one start? First, if you have not followed Him before, ask Jesus now to come into your life. Leave behind the old, and trust Him who gave His life for you to rescue you. Ask Him to forgive you and use you to His glory. He will!

The next step is to make a commitment to be His disciple. Go beyond simply being a believer to being a disciple. Live with Him, get to know Him as you read those Gospels. He wants to impact your life as you study, reflect, and apply what He says about living life under His guidance. There so much to take in from Him on living an eternal new kind of life with Him. Be a student, an apprentice of Jesus.

As you yield yourself, surrendering to His leadership, He will make you according to the pattern He has in mind. It will be good, for your own good, and for His glory. As you make yourself available for His service, ask for opportunities to serve Him, and point others to Him, He will give you that, and you will find yourself making a significant, positive impact for God in the lives of those around you.

My dear friends, in this world of qualifications, may this story encourage you. Jesus has great plans for your life. He laid his life down to make you His own. Trust Him. Believe He can use even you. Follow Him. Live with Him, and you will see and experience greater things than you ever imagined. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

Look at What We Got for Christmas!

John 1:1-18

Has anyone asked you yet what you got for Christmas this year? I’ve heard it a lot. My response to the question is, “More than I really needed.”

It’s a funny thing about getting gifts – sometimes we look at them briefly after we open them. We say thanks and then put them away, maybe even forgetting about them only to discover later on how wonderful they really are. Last year I got a flannel shirt, for instance. I didn’t really want a flannel shirt. I said, “Thanks,” pasted a smile on my face, and hung it in the closet. There it just hung for months. This past November when it got cold, I tried it on and discovered it is one of the most comfortable shirts I have ever put on my body! Now I wear it constantly.

Maybe you have received a book that you put on the shelf and forget about. Later on, you pull it off the shelf accidentally, browse the back cover or the first few pages, and discover it looks like a really good book! What a great gift! I think sometimes we just don’t realize what we got until we stop and examine it a little closer.

We just celebrated the birth of Jesus and heard, “God so loved the world that He gave His Son . . .” (John 3:16). Jesus is God’s gift to us. I believe it is good to stop and take a closer look at what we got that first Christmas when Jesus was born. John will serve us today as our guide. His comments on Jesus are really quite different, remarkable, and unique.

You can’t help but notice John’s Christmas story is very different from Matthew and Luke’s. It has no Mary and Joseph or angels or shepherds or Wise Men or manger. Instead, he uses beautiful, poetic-like, theological language in the opening of his Gospel to help us see just how special the gift of Jesus really is. It’s almost as if he has gone out of his way to make it different so the readers won’t miss the positive implications of the gift of Jesus. This is what we got for Christmas! John says.

John tells us, first of all, that in the gift of Jesus, God has given us a picture of Himself. He has revealed Himself to us. Listen again to those great words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Now in that passage, “the Word” means Jesus – the Logos. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

John goes on to say no one has ever seen God. It is God, the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made Him known to us. Jesus is the Son of God in the flesh. There is no more guessing about God. He is a walking autobiography of His heavenly Father.

Later on, Jesus will say to His disciples, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9). As we look at Him and read the Gospels, He displays the heart of God to us. Our God created us in His image. He loves us, and we are precious in His sight. He wants a personal relationship with us. He gives us a picture of God.

I’m reminded of a cute story I heard a while back. A group of first graders got together and decided to write their own version of the Nativity. It was more modern than the traditional drama. There were also familiar members of the cast – Joseph, the shepherds, the Wise Men, the star and an angel propped up in the background, but Mary was nowhere to be seen.

Suddenly from behind some bales of hay could be heard some soft moans and groans. Evidently Mary was in labor. Soon a doctor arrived dressed in a white coat with a stethoscope around his neck. Joseph, with a look of relief on his face, took the doctor straight back to Mary and then came out and started pacing back and forth. After a few moments, the doctor emerged with a big smile on his face. “Congratulations, Joseph!” he said. “It’s a God!” ☺

In Jesus we see the face of God.

In the gift of Jesus we also get light. In fact, we get the light we need as we live in our darkness. You can’t help but notice, it is a dark world out there. It’s full of evil, violence, hurt, and sorrow, and we are in the dark about how to fix it. We need God’s light. He is the only light that can make things right for us.

Later, when Jesus is an adult, He will announce, “I am the light of the world! Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness . . .” (John 8:12). Will never be captive to evil or be blind or ignorant of the way out, but have the light of life. As we turn to Him and follow Him, Christ gives us new sight. “We were blind but now we see,” as the hymn says.

His light shows us our sinfulness, first of all, and our need for a Savior. I remember when Julie, my wife, found a job as a dental assistant my senior year at seminary. Her first day at work, she came home and said, “You wouldn’t believe what people’s faces really look like under the light the dentist uses. I never want to go back again to have my teeth worked on. It shows all the flaws!”

This is what Jesus does. As we come to His light, He shows us we need help. We have flaws; we have sin. Jesus is the lighthouse who guides us safely into His heavenly harbor. We can’t get there on our own. He points us to His cross and then to Himself saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6).

This light brings us confidence and hope for the future. I love verse five of this passage. It says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” We think of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Light of the world, and we know darkness has been defeated. We now live knowing full well what the end of the story looks like. Light wins out over darkness. Good is victorious over evil.

I love what Lutheran writer Gerhard Frost says.

“If I am asked what are my grounds for hope, this is my answer:
Light is lord over darkness, truth is lord over falsehood,
life is ever lord over death.

Of all the facts I daily live with, there’s none more comforting than this:
If I have two rooms, one dark, the other light,
and I open the door between them,
the dark room becomes lighter without the light one becoming darker.
I know this is no headline, but it’s a marvelous footnote;
and God comforts me in that.”

Darkness has not overcome the light.

Finally, the beautiful light of Jesus brings us joy as we look at Him. Listen to this musical testimony:

“Beautiful Savior, King of creation,
Son of God and Son of Man.
Truly I love thee. Truly I’d serve thee.
Light of my soul, my joy, my crown.”

Later on the songwriter says,

“He makes my sorrowing spirit sing.”

He comes alongside of us and gives us His presence – His beautiful presence – and we experience joy in our lives, because God is the true source of joy. In Jesus, we see into the face of God.

In this gift of Jesus, we get grace. “Grace upon grace,” John tells us. In other words, it is inexhaustible! It’s abundant! It just keeps flowing in our direction. This grace looks like forgiveness for our sins. “There is now no more condemnation for those who are in Jesus Christ” (Rom. 8:1). We have been given Christ’s robe of righteousness, and in Christ, God sees us as one of His own – cleansed and pure in His sight. The past is forgiven and forgotten forever. We are right in His sight.

This grace gives us strength for the living of these days. Jesus tells us, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor. 12:9). The apostle Paul reminds us, “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me” (Phil 4:19), for Jesus promised, “Lo, I am with you always to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). His power from on high is breathed into us as we pray, as we call for help, as we turn to His Word daily for guidance and assurance. Christ shows up, and we get His strength.

We also get the free gift of heaven! At the cross and His resurrection, Jesus purchased a place for us in His heaven, and we will live with Him eternally. Death cannot hold us.

From His grace, we get attached to a family – the community of faith, the Church – to support us, love us, and lovingly keep an eye on us as we walk through life with Jesus.

There is your gift from God! This is what God handed over to this world at Christmas when He gave His Son Jesus. Amazing! Incredible!

Now, in the midst of this description, I don’t want you to miss this statement, which we cannot ignore. It’s an appeal of sorts to think about and then act upon. John says “Jesus came to his own but his own people did not receive him.” They rejected Him. “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, He gave the right to become children of God – who were born, not of blood nor the will of the flesh nor the will of man, but of God.”

Did you catch that? To all who receive Him and believe in His name, He gives the right to become children of God. A new birth takes place. We become a new person in Christ. To receive Him means to welcome Him. To believe means to accept that He is the Son of God, the great reconciler to God. To become a child of God means we who once were simply creations of God now become adopted children of God through what He has done for us in Christ. We are blessed with a rich, rich inheritance.

All the things we looked at earlier – getting a picture of God (knowing Him more intimately), light, grace – are ours when we are in Jesus Christ, as we receive Him and welcome Him into our lives.

A personal response is being called for. Are you to that place in your life where you are enjoying this gift God wants you to have? Have you received Him?

You might wonder, How do I do that? It’s really quite simple.

First, admit you are a sinner, and you need to be saved by God’s grace. You can’t save yourself. You need to give up control of your life to Him.

Humbly ask Jesus into your life. Ask Him to forgive you and take over every area of your life.

Then, begin to follow Him and take steps to grow in your relationship with Him, like daily obedience as you read His Word, pray, attend worship services. Serve your brothers and sisters in Christ as well as your neighbors, and depend upon Jesus at all times, even during the darkest times of suffering. Then you will truly begin to love and enjoy this gift that has been given, and you will have His joy within you as you walk with Him the rest of your days right into His eternity.

I have friends who say their biggest regret in life was not receiving the gift of Jesus Christ sooner. Don’t let this be the case for you. He’s knocking on the door. He says, I’ll come in and eat with you and have fellowship with you, and you with me (Rev. 3:20).

As I think about the passage John has given us today, I can’t help but be reminded of a great Christmas carol, the last verse of O Little Town of Bethlehem.

“How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
The dear Christ enters in.”

Perhaps Jesus is knocking on the door of your life today. He wants to come in. Praise God for the great gift of Jesus Christ, which He has given us, and all the blessings that come when we receive this gift into our lives and walk with Him all the way into eternity. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

God’s Heart for the Lost

John 4:7-19, 24-30, 39-42The Woman at the Well

Grace and peace to you in the name of Jesus who was born for us. Amen.

Merry Christmas to each one of you and God’s richest blessings in the year ahead.

In the celebration of Christmas, do you ever wonder why God the Father would’ve sent His Son Jesus to be born of a virgin? To be born of a girl in Bethlehem? Why would God send His angels to proclaim joy on earth, and peace in heaven because of this child’s birth to shepherds on a hillside? I believe it’s because God has a heart of passionate love for lost people. God loves those who don’t yet understand that He who created the world and hung the stars in place, (like the star over Bethlehem’s manger) wants to pour His grace into them and share the journey with them. This is why Paul said to Timothy, “God desires ALL to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Tim. 2:4). This is why there’s a Christmas – because God’s heart loves those who are lost. Is that you?

Many years ago I read an article in the Dallas newspaper of a woman whose son had been tragically killed in an accident. His heart was donated for transplant. Fortunately another young man was saved by receiving this healthy, strong heart. After a period of time, the woman who lost her son met the young man who had her son’s heart, and she said to him, “Would it be okay with you if I put my ear on your chest to listen to the heartbeat of my son one more time?”

In this Christmas season I want to ask you, If God were to put His ear to our chest, would He hear the heartbeat of Jesus within us? Jesus has been born to the world and hopefully born into our lives as we receive Him in faith. Does His heart resonate inside us with God’s heart for the lost of the world who need to know and understand Him?

In order to understand the motive of Christmas, I’d like to share with you again the story of the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at Jacob’s well. Many people described her as immoral. Immorality might be defined as deliberately violating accepted principles of right and wrong. A person of bad character, depraved, perverted, always deviating from the good. So I have two images of this woman at the well who Jesus reached out to.

One image is a woman who is flirtatious, coquettish in her behavior. She uses her sexual power to climb the ladder and gives herself away to profit personally. It is her ingrained method of conquest. Man after man is left discarded in her wake after she’s done with them. She uses her womanhood for personal gain.

Image number two of the woman whom Jesus met at the well has had a painful early childhood, which left her wounded. Her daddy was addicted to booze, and she had a tense, cold relationship with mommy. She was abused inappropriately throughout her childhood and now she views herself as dirt. So she has a skewed vision of relationships and has difficulty trusting anyone. Therefore, this woman sabotages every love relationship that gets too close.

Which image is the correct one for this woman at the well whom Jesus talks to? Whichever it is, for sure she is lost and lonely, an outcast who was rejected.

This story becomes a good picture of how Jesus has come to win the heart of the lost. Throughout the Bible, the Old Testament describes God pursuing His disobedient, rebellious people through the prophets, begging them, Come back to me. I love you. In Luke 15 we read a series of stories about God reaching the lost sheep whom the good Shepherd goes to find, the lost coin, the lost son in the story of the prodigal who wandered from the father.

The message of Christmas – Jesus born to us – is an image of God’s heart for lost and estranged people. He wants to win their trust and have them believe His love is for them. I find it beautiful how Jesus engages this woman at the well. He does not judge or reject her, but meets her where she is, as she is. He is open and flexible, not too busy to talk. He is not blocked by religious or racial differences. He is not concerned about His image as He would talk with a woman at noon, and He is not prejudiced against her, even though He knows everything about her.

Jesus finds a connecting point to build a bridge in the conversation using thirst to talk about the spiritual truth of living water in the Holy Spirit. He talks about Jacob’s well, and it becomes a segue to discuss worship of God in Spirit and truth. He reveals Himself ultimately as the Messiah. To take the conversation to a deeper level, a matter of the heart, He says, I’m the one who has come to the world to deliver all people in the saving love of God.

Are you lost? Jesus comes to find you where you are, as you are. As He pours His living water into your soul, the Spirit flows. In that living water, the heart of this woman was changed forever. Wherever living water flows the stagnant, polluted, foul souls of people are washed clean.

In Jesus’ love we are given a new beginning. Guilt and shame melt away. This woman becomes an unlikely witness to Jesus. Exuberantly and honestly she goes to the people of her village and says, “Come and see the one who told me everything I’ve ever done. Could this one be the Christ?”

Here’s the truth of Christmas for all who have embraced Jesus’ birth as our salvation. God wants for the presence of Jesus within us to turn our lives into a wellspring of living water for others. God wants us to listen to others with compassion, show the tenderness of love, and believe that when we engage people, the presence of Jesus within us will bless them.

I recently read the story of a man named Gib Martin in his book “A Theology of Personal Ministry.” When Gib was 27 years old, he was a schoolteacher. After each day teaching his students, he would unwind by stopping at a bar to have a beer and bemoan his life. He had a thirst of a different kind. He was a man who needed living water. Gib had come from a religious background, but now for three years had described himself as an atheist. He was going through a dark period of desperation and didn’t even feel like being with anyone.

Every day when Gib came to the bar, he saw an older man named Charlie. Charlie was a carpenter, and for many years had struggled with severe alcoholism. But then, not too many years before, Charlie had been led to Christ by Gib Martin’s great-grandmother. Charlie had heard from her that the love of Jesus could break the power of his addiction and free him to a new life, a life of grace. Through Charlie’s receiving of Jesus, he was set free.

Charlie was now so burdened for souls that after work each day he still stopped at this bar, but he drank coffee and shared his life with anyone who would listen. He told them how Jesus had redeemed his life.

Charlie could tell Gib was a miserable man. He tried to befriend him, but Gib was resistant. Charlie wasn’t even able to share about Jesus’ love with Gib because of his attitude. Eventually, though, Charlie invited Gib to go with him to hear a guest speaker coming to the community. Gib agreed to go with Charlie if they could discuss what the man talked about after the meeting.

That night Gib heard the gospel of Jesus for the first time. He was so convicted of the sin in his life and of all the rhythms of unhealthy living that he literally, by his description, vomited all night long and thought he was dying. The next day about noon, he dropped to his knees and gave his life to Christ. He invited Jesus to come into his heart. Gib later found out that Charlie and some others had spent the evening praying for him.

Isn’t that beautiful? God used Charlie, who had already been redeemed by Jesus’ birth into his life, to reach Gib, and yet another soul was cleansed in the living water of Jesus’ Spirit.

Dare we to believe that
✝ God desires to use each one of us to share His living water?
✝ Jesus would not want us to judge anyone, but love them?
✝ We are to keep our hearts open to every opportunity to share Jesus’ love?
✝ We would pray to be a blessing to each person we meet?
✝ We would learn to find the connecting point to engage people in a conversation that goes to a deeper level?
✝ We would listen to understand with compassion and
✝ Eventually we would hope to share why Jesus is a blessing to us as He lives in our heart?

Will you pray and believe the Spirit will use you? Then will our lives reflect the heart of our Father.

If God would put His ear to our chest, would He hear the heartbeat of His Son Jesus? The beautiful truth of Christmas is the Spirit of Jesus lives within us. As we sing in the hymn, “O come to us, O live with us, our Lord Immanuel.”

May the glorious truth of Christmas and the presence of Jesus within you, give you joy, and may God powerfully use your life to love people in His name. Amen.

Pastor Lee Laaveg

What to Give the One Who Has It All – You!

Matthew 2:1-12

Two young boys were spending the night at their grandparents’ house. At bedtime they knelt down beside the bed to say their prayers when the youngest one began praying at the top of his lungs. “I PRAY FOR A NEW BICYCLE. I WANT A NEW COMPUTER GAME. I PRAY FOR A NEW BASKETBALL. . . .”

The older brother leaned over and nudged him. “Why are you shouting your prayer? God is not deaf!”

To which the little brother replied, “No, but grandma is, and she hasn’t done her Christmas shopping yet.” The little boy was just trying to help his grandma out with her shopping. He knows how grandparents delight in giving their grandchildren what they want.

As you know, there is a big emphasis on giving and receiving gifts during Christmas. It can be a fun and delightful experience as gifts are exchanged between loved ones. We’ll open gifts at my home this evening and a little bit tomorrow morning as well. I’m sure many of you are doing the same thing.

The question I have is, Are we missing something? I’d like to invite you to use your imagination with me for a few seconds. Imagine a birthday party being held in your honor. All your friends show up with gifts in hands. They say, “happy birthday” to you as they come in the door, and they even sing it to you later on. But then they give their presents to one another — not to you. I wonder how that would feel. Yet this is what we do at Christmas. We give gifts to everyone but Jesus! But it’s not too late for us to consider what the birthday Boy might like to receive for His birthday.

When my children were young, we’d bake a cake and sing happy birthday to Jesus on Christmas Eve. Then we would have a devotion, but we never took it beyond that. We never got around to putting a gift of some sort under the tree for Him. Looking back, I wish we had.

Yet Jesus did receive gifts on His first birthday. Great gifts! Gifts fit for a King! Lavish, extravagant gifts. He was honored and treated like royalty. Why? Because He was and He is royalty. He deserved the special attention He received from the Wise Men, and He still does. After all, look at the gift He’s given us and what He’s done for us!

Jesus, the Son of God, entered our world leaving behind the majesty and glory of heaven and became one of us in order to rescue us. He is God’s gift to you and me. John 3:16 says it so well, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” You see, humanity was lost in our sinfulness with no way out. We were separated from God by our disobedience. The wages of sin is death, and there was not a blasted thing we can do to save ourselves. We were, as John says, perishing.

But while we were still sinners, Jesus stepped into our world. He humbled Himself being born as a human being, a helpless little baby. He grew up and in adulthood He emptied Himself out totally for us, ultimately giving His life to save us. He laid down His life to redeem us from our sin and give us eternal life. At the cross, our sin was paid for by Jesus, the Son of God. When He cried out in His last breath, “It is finished,” it was not a cry of resignation but a cry of Mission Accomplished! meaning paid in full. Jesus Christ has paid for sin in full. God raised Him up from the dead conquering death.

Jesus was exalted as well. He sits at the right hand of God the Father. Listen to this reading from John MacArthur:

The Lord Jesus Christ, whom we exalt at Christmas, is not just a baby in a manger. He is not a character in a children’s story. He’s far more.

✯ The first time He came, He was veiled in the form of a child. The next time He comes – and we believe it will be soon – He will come unveiled. It will be abundantly and immediately clear to all the world just who He really is.

✯ The first time He came, a star marked His arrival. The next time He comes, the whole heavens will roll up like a scroll. All the stars will fall out of the sky, and He Himself will light it.

✯ The first time He came, Wise Men and shepherds brought Him gifts. The next time He comes, He will bring gifts, rewards for His own.

✯ The first time He came, there was no room for Him. The next time He comes, the whole world will not be able to contain His glory.

✯ The first time He came, only a few attended His arrival – some shepherds and some Wise Men. The next time He comes, every eye shall see Him.

✯ The first time He came as a baby, soon He will come again as sovereign King and Lord.

Because of what Jesus has done for us, the door to an eternal, saving, personal relationship with God was opened up to us. Amazing grace happened that first Christmas when Jesus was born. This was the beginning of a rescue mission. I hope you know that you and I have been loved big time! I also hope you have received the gift of salvation, you have held out those empty hands of yours and received what God wants you to have – eternal life, and you taste of His precious grace and experience a new life. And when you have tasted of His grace in your life, a question will arise within your grateful heart: What can I give to Jesus who gave His all for me?

So what do we give the One who has it all? You might be wondering what we mean by has it all. Scripture tells us God has placed all things under Jesus’ feet. The image is taken from when kings of old would have a footstool made with the symbols of conquered enemies engraved on it. All things placed under His feet.

These Wise Men from the east help us out with the question What do you give? We don’t know much about them. Matthew refers to them as Magi, which could have been pagan astrologers or political officials from the courts of Parthia, Armenian, regions east of Judea. It doesn’t really matter, I guess. It’s what they did in response to the birth of Jesus Christ – they came to Him.

When Jesus was born, they observed this mysterious star shining brightly, and as they began to study it, they came to the conclusion that it was a sign the Jewish Messiah – the King – was born. They wanted to pay homage to Him, to honor Him, so they came. They took the journey following the star for many months. It took a year or maybe even longer.

Finally, they ended up in Judea and stopped in Jerusalem on their search for this newborn King. There they discovered a prophecy from the book of Micah that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem a few miles down the road from Jerusalem. So they hit the road again. The star reappeared and led them right to the spot where Jesus was. And as they entered, they knew how to act when they got there. They knew they were in the presence of royalty, a King. So they bowed before Him in worship and gave Him their best, not just some token leftovers. They gave gifts fit for a King – gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Some scholars have pointed out that gold was, of course, a very precious, valuable gift that only royalty could possess. Frankincense was an incense that was burned on the altar for the divine. Myrrh was used for embalming. It was a perfume. Maybe these were signs already of what was to come, of who Jesus was. He was a King. He was divine. He was going to be the perfect sacrifice for humanity’s sin. The Wise Men couldn’t have known that, but they gave Him their best.

What does one today give this King? The best thing you can give Him is you. He came for you, “To YOU is born this day in the city of David a Savior.” Give Him your repentance, which simply means turning around from what you’ve been doing and surrendering yourself to His kingship. It means recognizing you’re a sinner who can’t make it in this life or the next without Christ. It means to come under His leadership and follow Him instead of your own way.

Don’t just give Him your repentance, give Him your trust as well, your belief. When Jesus announced in His first sermon, “The kingdom of God is at hand,” He is pointing to Himself. He says, “Repent and believe the good news.” Believe He is the Son of God who laid down His life to rescue you. Know that if you were the only person whoever existed in His creation, He came and gave His life for you! Believe His promises that heaven is a sure thing for the believer in Jesus Christ. Trust that He will always be with you and lean upon Him. He says “I will be with you always to the end of the age.” Know in your heart of hearts that Jesus knows what makes for an abundant life.

How about giving Him your devotion? Place Him at the center of your whole life – not on the fringe. Play out your daily life for an audience of One – Jesus Christ. Study and obey His word. Continue in it and make it your aim to please Him by living life His way – not to get Him to love you, but because He loves you already and you love Him.

How about your treasures? Your time, which is so precious. Your financial resources, your energies, your skills. You can give Him these as well. Like the hymn says, this could be your prayer: “Take my life and let it be, consecrated Lord to thee.”

Finally, give Him your worship. The Wise Men gave this King from heaven His worth. That is what worship is – giving Him His worth.

How about you? Will you join me today right now in giving Him His worth?

“O come let us adore Him.
O come let us adore Him,
O come let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.

“For He alone is worthy,
for He alone is worthy,
for He alone is worthy,
Christ the Lord.”

Happy birthday, Jesus! We’re so glad you were born. We’d be lost without you! Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

What to Give the One Who Has It All

Matthew 25:31-46

A question we oftentimes ask our loved ones this time of the year is, What do you want for Christmas? We typically will also spend a lot of time and energy trying to find the perfect gift that will delight them. Yet, I sometimes wonder if every now and then when we get so focused on gift giving, we need to be reminded whose birthday it really is. Christmas is not our birthday. It is Jesus’, our Lord and Savior’s birthday.

Have you ever asked yourself the question, I wonder what Jesus, the birthday boy, would like for His birthday? What do you give the One who has it all? Well, we are going to ponder this question for the next couple of weeks. Our text for today holds a profound answer to this question.

Jesus and the disciples are now in Jerusalem. Jesus is about to go to the cross to fulfill God’s salvation plan of paying for your sins and mine. In this particular setting in today’s text, Jesus is teaching His disciples that someday He is coming again and they must be ready for it.

These words were, first of all, meant to give us assurance and hope. During the Advent season, the church remembers the One – Jesus, who arrived as a baby in a manger in Bethlehem – is coming again in power and majesty. The first time He arrived, He gave us His all. He humbled himself and became one of us. He emptied Himself on our behalf, and went all the way – even to death – on a cross to pay our debt for sin, which we could not pay ourselves. However, the story does not end there. Jesus was raised from the dead and ascended to full power and authority over this world. The Lord has put all things under His feet.

The second time Jesus arrives, He’s not going to come humbly, but in power. On that day, everyone will bow before Him and say, Jesus is Lord. This is basically what we’re hearing in today’s passage as Jesus begins this parable of sorts. He describes a King who comes in glory with His angels and sits on a glorious throne with all the nations, meaning all the peoples of the world are gathered before Him. What a vision that is! What a glorious day that is going to be!

This good news for those of us who trust Christ is what we need to focus on, even when the world looks like it is falling apart and headed toward a bad ending. We know how the story ends – the King is sitting on His glorious throne.

But notice, the parable goes on to instruct the followers of Jesus as to what He wants us to be doing while we wait for His return. Jesus tells us that when the King arrives, He will separate people one from another just as a shepherd divides the sheep and the goats at the end of the day. The sheep will be placed at His right hand – the place of blessing and honor. He will tell them,

“Come you who are blessed of my Father and inherit the kingdom prepared for you. For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty you gave me a drink. I was sick and you visited me. I was in prison and you came to me. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me.”

What a very impressive list! He goes on with the story . . .

“They will say to him, ‘Lord when did we see you this way?’ And the King will respond, ‘I tell you, as you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’”

He came disguised in those who were weak and vulnerable. Jesus is identifying Himself with the weak and the poor, the forgotten and the vulnerable in society. He calls them His brethren.

I suppose it makes sense because, after all, Jesus was born without a home to poor ordinary folks. His family were refugees fleeing from a baby-killing tyrant as they headed to Egypt. As an adult, He had no place to lay His head. He was rejected by people, abandoned by His followers, beaten terribly by soldiers, executed for crimes He didn’t commit, and buried in a borrowed tomb like a poor, poverty-stricken person. Jesus knows what it means to be needy, vulnerable. It’s no wonder He refered to these people as His brothers. He says an amazing thing to the people who reached out to them: The King applauds for what you have done.

Some reading this portion of Scripture have wondered about its message. I thought we were saved by faith in Jesus Christ. Is Jesus talking out of both sides of His mouth? It sounds like He is saying we’re saved by good works in this story. Relax. That is not what Jesus teaching here. I want you to notice a couple of these phrases Jesus includes in His story. They are not throwaways, but important for us.

As He invites the sheep, Jesus refers to them as the “blessed of My Father.” This is an important phrase because they are people who are already in a right relationship with God. They are people of the Beatitudes, those who are described as Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom. These are the ones Jesus has called the light of the world. They are kingdom people, believers in Christ. And notice, He says, Come and receive an inheritance that has been prepared for you. An inheritance, you see, is not the same as a reward. It’s not something you’ve earned. It’s a gift because you are attached to the right individual – Jesus.

He also refers to them as “the righteous” ones. They are in a right relationship with God through following Jesus Christ. Remember, Jesus is talking to His disciples in this parable. These compassion-filled activities being described in this story are evidence of one who has salvation. Martin Luther, who made himself the champion of faith alone, wrote this statement:

“Faith is a living, busy, active, powerful thing! It’s impossible for it not to do us good continually. It never asks whether good works are to be done, but has done them before there’s time to even ask the question, and it is always doing them.”

Faith shown in acts of loveThis is what I want My followers to be doing, Jesus seems to be saying here. Showing mercy and compassion to others.

So we go back to our original question: What does Jesus want this Christmas? What do you give the One who has it all? Consider this passage an answer to that. This is on our Lord’s wish list for Christmas – for every day for that matter. While we wait for Him to come again, He wants us to show compassion for the weak and the vulnerable. Not just feel compassion or pity for them, but actually doing something, acting upon that compassion.

I find this parable rather challenging. Now that I know these things, what am I supposed to do with knowledge Jesus has just given me?

I want to ask you a personal question. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, if you trust Him and love Him as your Savior and Lord, what gift are you planing on giving Him in the next year? Someone might respond, I’m going to make a commitment to keep an eye open for hurting people this year and serve them for Jesus. That’s wonderful! It’s great! I hope you do. However, good intentions sometimes are forgotten and undone. At least they do in my life. I get busy and distracted. Sometimes we miss seeing Jesus. So here is my idea for you and for me.

How about taking a concrete next step on that gift right now. Take the initiative on what you know He would like for Christmas. For instance, how about deciding to sponsor a Compassion child this year. You give a monthly gift for a child in need to feed them, clothe them, give them an education, and teach them about Jesus. As you correspond with your child through letters, your encouragement makes a big difference in their lives. Julie and I have sponsored a couple of these kids ourselves. We’ve discovered it is a joy and not much of a sacrifice at all! It really does help them.

Remember how when we were kids, we’d look at the catalogs for Christmas. I invite you to do some shopping this year in the Lord’s Christmas catalogs. What I mean by this is organizations like Samaritan’s Purse, World Vision, and Lutheran World Relief have catalogs where you can pick a gift for a needy person. You could go right to their Web sites where they will give you all kinds of ideas of how to be a servant, to show compassion to someone.

Recently I came across a catalog from a group called Voice of the Martyrs, which I really think is a good thing. They offer you the opportunity to write letters to persecuted Christians in other parts of the world and to be an encouragement to them as they suffer for the faith.

Now, if you are someone who doesn’t have a computer, I encourage you to ask your pastor for some information. I have a pile of catalogs sitting on my desk, and I know all pastors get these kinds of mailings. They can help you. Or if you want to be more local, how about becoming personally involved with the food shelf ministry, working at a clothing center, Salvation Army, or a Gospel mission in the inner-city. Serve in one of their kitchens perhaps. I encourage you to call one of these organizations and ask them how you can do some hands-on helping for them. They’ll be glad to hear from you.

How about giving your clothes away to a Christian organization that can distribute them to people who really need them? You could give some clothing to help refugees. You’d be amazed at how many people I know in my area who are without coats and so on this time of year. And it’s cold in Minnesota! A group of women in our church make quilts for Lutheran World Relief, and oh what a difference it makes.

If you drive, how about delivering a meal to the homebound? We have a program called Meals on Wheels.

And don’t forget, material needs are not the only form of poverty. There is emotional poverty as well – people who are feeling forgotten and uncared for. I remember reading something by Mother Teresa who was talking about coming to visit the affluent West. As she visited a beautifully decorated nursing home she found all the residents sitting in wheelchairs facing the door. “Why all these people looking toward the door? she asked. “Why aren’t they smiling? I’m used to seeing smiling faces on all our people, even the dying ones.”

The nurse replied, “It’s like this every day. They’re always hoping someone will come and visit them, and their loneliness is eating them up.”

Mother Teresa then asked, “Who is staring at the door waiting for someone like you to come?”

How about a loaf of fresh bread or cinnamon rolls for an elderly neighbor who is spending their first Christmas alone having a blue Christmas, with a note saying, Just thinking about you this year during this season. Or going to a nursing home and adopting a grandparent, becoming a regular visitor.

Then there’s also spiritual poverty around us. You and I are surrounded by people who are functionally strangers to God. They don’t think God cares for them. Jesus is counting on us to take steps to tell them about Him.

I love it when my wife or kids tell me what they’d like for Christmas because I, in all likelihood, am going to get it. I really appreciate what Jesus is doing for us here. He has given us a big favor with this passage! He has given us a wish list. Any of these things will bring a smile to His face.

So I invite you to take action with me on one of these gifts for Jesus, or come up with something on your own to lift up and help someone who’s needing help. Merry Christmas to you. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat

Matthew 14:22-33

A few years ago Julie, my wife, and I went to see a wonderful movie entitled “We Bought a Zoo.” It starred Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, and it’s the true story of a man named Benjamin Mee and his children who bought a 30-acre zoo. He had all kinds of animals, but was unable to open it because it was so rundown. Faced with a series of challenges, he attempted to get it open again for the community. Rat infestation, finding money to feed the animals, animals escaping – it wasn’t easy. Mee admitted at one point, “There were lots of times when I thought, ‘What have I done?’”

So why did Benjamin Mee buy and remodel the zoo? In the film he says, “Sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just twenty seconds of embarrassing bravery, and I promise you, something great will come of it.”

That is about how long it took for the apostle Peter to get out of the boat in our story for today. Jesus has just fed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fishes. They are ecstatic about the great powers Jesus has! The disciples are ecstatic as well. The crowd wants to make Him a king, and the disciples are probably nodding their heads saying, Why not?

So Jesus breaks up the party and makes the disciples immediately get into a boat, pushes them out into the sea, says He’ll meet them later. Then He dismisses the crowds and goes up into the hills to pray. While the disciples are out on the water, a fierce storm comes up. They are afraid they are going to go down. The disciples fought this storm for nine hours! Can you imagine? I can hardly take two hours on rough water when I’m out boating. About 3:00 in the morning, Jesus comes toward them, and they think it’s a ghost. He cries out to them, “It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”

Then something really amazing happened – Peter in his impulsiveness opened his mouth and said, “Lord, if it’s you, bid me to come out on the water with you.” Of all things, as if to say, I dare you, Jesus replies, “Come on out!” And before anyone could stop Peter, he got out of the boat and walked on the water toward Jesus. But when he noticed the threatening waves, he panicked and began to sink like a rock. But give him credit, he had the wherewithal to cry out, “Lord, help me!”

Suddenly a hand grabbed him by the collar and pulled him up out of the water. There was the face of Jesus saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they were back into the boat, the storm stopped and the disciples all worshiped Jesus saying, “You are the Son of God.”

Jesus’ statement – You of little faith, why did you doubt? – is a key statement in the story. I have a picture of Jesus pulling Peter out of the water on my wall. Below it are the words, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” I like it. Why? Because it describes me sometimes – little faith.

We learn something important in this story: Jesus loves it when we exercise daring faith in Him. Remember, Peter did walk on the water. Though it was brief, he stepped out in faith! Eyewitnesses saw it.

Perhaps Jesus was prepping Peter for bigger things ahead, bigger than a little walk on the water that day. One day after the resurrection, Peter would hear Jesus tell him, Feed my sheep and tend my lambs . . . You will be my witness in this world. I wonder if the other disciples were wishing they had walked on water like Peter. How did it feel? Is it possible that the story was saved to not only show us who Jesus really is – the Son of God who came to die on a cross to save us from sin and rise again – but also to encourage us and challenge us to step out in faith as followers of Jesus Christ.

If you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat in faith. I think that lesson has been applied in various times in the history of Christianity. One example that comes to mind is Martin Luther. I just finished reading his biography that was recently released by Eric Metaxis. It’s the 500th anniversary of Luther – I imagine that’s the inspiration behind this new book. I recommend this good read.

But I wonder, if there were twenty seconds where Luther thought, Somebody has to speak up here and challenge what’s going on in the church. I guess if it is gonna be someone, it’s gonna have to be me, and so he wrote down the 95 theses to get the conversation started on how the church needed to be changed. Did it take him twenty seconds to say Yes! I think I’ll go and post them publicly with a challenge for a debate. Thus a new movement began and evolved into a full-blown reformation. As you read Martin Luther’s story, you know it wasn’t easy on him or any of his followers, but it was an adventure and it made a big difference for the kingdom of God.

This year my congregation, Shepherd of the Valley, is celebrating our 40th anniversary, and we learned that same truth. If you want to walk on the water, you’ve got to get out of the boat. Our beginnings as a congregation were like that.

Two women, Delores and Merle, believed God wanted a church to be formed in the valley in which we exist, a Lutheran Church. When they went to some of the powers that be in the denomination, they were turned down and told it wasn’t a good idea. However, they were insistent and went after it anyway. Soon there was a little church meeting in the City Hall in Lakeland.

This church began to grow and soon they needed to buy some land. Though they didn’t have a lot of money, they put up a building. The church continued to grow, and they soon needed to add on. Then we needed to relocate, so we picked up all our belongings and bought thirty acres of land a couple miles away so we could expand some more. Every time we took a step of faith, God seemed to bless it.

Now, here we are, years later, with another addition a few years ago, and we’re still being blessed as we take on new challenges for the cause of the gospel of Jesus Christ. When people ask what’s next for our congregation, my response is, Only God knows that, but we have learned a couple things along the way. God loves it when we exercise big faith. We also learned that if you want walk on water, you really do have to get out of the boat.

I love what Martin Luther King, Jr. said one time about faith. Faith is about taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase. Again and again I’ve witnessed this kind of faith happening in people’s lives as they step out in faith. When followers of Jesus sense Him calling them to do something.

My friend Amy, left a six-figure salary in the business world and a very promising career to go into ministry. Now she’s making a third of that and she loves it! She is changing lives through her work with outreach for Christ’s cause. When you talk to her, you sense no regret. What you do see is a growing, vibrant faith.

Another friend of mine, Dick, walked away from the teaching profession in which he was comfortably situated and doing excellent work when he sensed God was calling him to accept the challenge I had thrown out to him about leaving teaching to come and work on our staff. He is helping us develop a small groups ministry to change lives. Dick took the challenge and created this program for us. It has changed hundreds of lives. Not a regret does he have that he got out of the boat and walked on the water, and we were blessed because of it.

My friend Jim knows a man who was a really tough nut to crack when it came to spiritual matters. He definitely needed Jesus. Jim, being concerned for him, stewed about that and wondered how he could talk to Jim about Jesus. One day I received a call – it was Jim on the phone! He said, “You won’t believe what happened to me this morning. The door opened!”

I asked, “What door?”

“The door opened for me to share the gospel with Joe, and guess what? He asked Jesus Christ into his life!”

I said, “How do you feel right now?”

He said, “I feel like I’m walking two feet off the ground right now.” He was walking on water. He has had the same experience happen again and again with other people whom God has brought across his pathway.

I think of Julio and Suzette, friends of mine who left Haiti when they were young and came to the United States. They got a good college education and were headed toward a much more comfortable and promising life than they ever had in Haiti. But they sensed God calling them back to set up a ministry to their fellow Haitians. So they got out of the boat and went back to Haiti. Today, hundreds of people are glad they did, young men and women who were getting job training, being discipled, and becoming Christian leaders in their own communities. Lives are being changed in Haiti. When you hear Julio and Suzette talk about this, they have such passion, and they talk with such exhilaration about their experiences

I think of Larry who is skilled with tools and wood. He started volunteering at disaster locations around the United States and in Latin America. He works on teams doing reconstruction work, using his vacation time, spending is own money for travel expenses, and living in uncomfortable situations. When he’s home, he goes down to the gospel mission and serves homeless people. God is taking care of Larry. People’s lives have been touched by the gospel through Larry stepping out. When he’s not on the road, he’s helping somewhere. Now he’s talking retirement so he can spend more time doing what he sensed God is calling him to do – help people in Christ’s name.

If you walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat. We see it happening in lives like these.

I love what Oswald Chambers said one time. He said, “Beware of worshiping Jesus as the Son of God and professing your faith in Him as the Savior of the world while you blaspheme Him by the complete evidence in your daily life that He is powerless to do anything in and through you.” I think every once in while, we need to stop and check our spiritual pulse. Are we stretching ourselves past the boundaries of just being nice and pious?

We have a good reason to live like water walkers. We have a God who is trustworthy. He loves us. He gave His Son to die for us on a cross. Nothing can snatch us from His hand. We are safe in His arms.

Can I ask you a personal question? Have you gotten out of the boat lately with Jesus? Have you answered the calling He’s put out there for you? When was the last time you felt yourself stepping out, being excited, and growing in your walk with Jesus Christ?

By the way, you’re never too old or too young to get out of the boat and keep your faith growing and glowing. For instance, if you’re living in a senior citizen setting, is there someone you’ve notice who perhaps sits alone in the dining room? Someone who needs some attention and Christlike love? Could it be that you’ve noticed Jesus is calling YOU to step out toward that individual?

Maybe you see a need for a Bible study group where you live. You had one when you were in your old church, but now you’re missing that. You know of other people who’ve mentioned they’d like to be in a group like that. Or maybe you know people who are searching for some spiritual answers in their lives. Could it be Jesus is calling YOU to get out of the boat – to form a group, facilitate something in your present setting?

Perhaps you’re tired of listening to people you have coffee with each day gripe and complain and gossip about everything. You know in your heart it’s wrong. Could it be that Jesus is calling you to step out and gently speak up your friends, to be the person who brings some healthy conversation back into that group life? Is there a person in your circle of friends who needs to know Jesus Christ? Is there a ministry opportunity that looks challenging, and you wonder, “Should I get involved? I’m not sure I’m the one that can do that.”

My appeal this day is to have some faith. You are safe in your Father’s arms. He can use you to do some great things for Him and others as He works through you. You need only to exercise some daring faith, and believe this truth – that if you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat with Jesus. He’s calling you. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

How to Say “I Love You”

II Corinthians 8:1-12

A number of years ago, a popular book entitled The Five Love Languages was out on the market – the five love languages being touch, affirmation, quality time, acts of service, and gifts. Millions of these books have been sold to couples who are trying to learn how to say I love you to their mate. Today I thought we’d like to look at God’s love language. His language of love.

As you study Scripture, you learn again and again that when the Bible talks of love, it’s usually more than an emotion, or a feeling, or even a few words. It’s an action, an act of the will to do something for the benefit of another. We see that kind of love shown to us through Jesus Christ. We were lost in our sin but God proved His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Jesus Christ died for us on the cross as a sacrifice to pay for our sins. He went to the cross to pay for our sinfulness and rescue us from sin and death so we could be restored into a relationship with the God who loves us.

I love the way Paul puts it in today’s passage. “He who was rich became poor so that by His poverty we might become rich.” He was living in the majesty of heaven. He had all the benefits of heaven, but He became poor, became one of us. He went all the way to the cross and emptied Himself out so we might become rich in our relationship with our heavenly Father.

Jesus talked about love quite a bit. One time He was asked what is God’s favorite commandment. His answer: “It’s simple: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). We also hear Jesus in the upper room on the night before He was crucified for our sins giving His disciples what He called His new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34).

There’s the clincher: “. . . as I have loved you.” He had just washed their feet, which was the work of a slave back then, and He was about to sacrifice His life to rescue them. “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend” (John 15:13). The language of love attached to God is always something you do. It’s an act of giving of self for the sake of another.

In our congregation, the language of love is used every November as we discuss giving (or as some of us were raised to call it – stewardship). Giving is our expression of love to Christ. It’s a matter of the heart. We know God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.

Over the years I’ve used a statement that sums up what Scripture teaches about the language of love and giving. It goes like this: We give out of love to Christ in the area of our faith. This statement has three parts.

We give to Christ. What we put in an offering plate is a gift to Christ. It’s not to pay the bills to keep the lights on, but a gift to the person of Jesus Himself.

We give because we love Him. We give it out of love in response for what He has done for us. It is our way of saying, I love you. Thank you for loving me.

Finally, we give with faith in God’s promises. As our relationship grows, our faith grows and typically our giving then grows.

This teaching is not something simply made up. It is based upon scriptural passages such as the one we have today. The apostle Paul is describing some folks in Greece called the Macedonians. Their extreme poverty and affliction actually wound up overflowing with joyful generosity toward a mission Paul was trying to fund – to take care of starving people in Jerusalem because of the famine.

In this letter, Paul is writing to the Corinthians, who were also Greeks. He says, You wouldn’t believe these people! They’ve been through so much and yet there was this joyful generosity from them. They voluntarily gave over and above what they could probably afford. In other words, they took an offering and then they took another offering. They pleaded to participate in the mission for the destitute in Jerusalem. They wanted to share what they had.

Those Corinthians, at this point, might have scratched their heads and asked, So, what’s behind this crazy generosity Paul is talking about?

Paul begins by saying, You’d be amazed at what the grace of God is doing! He then says in verse 5, “. . . they gave themselves first to the Lord and . . . (then) to us . . .” What was behind the generosity? These were people who loved Jesus Christ. They’d tasted of His grace and wanted to show love to Him.

We find a principle here when it comes to giving. The relationship always comes first. They gave themselves first to the Lord, then to us – the mission, Paul said. Their giving was in response to the love God poured out on them in Christ. Their hearts were captured by Jesus and what He did for them. If they had known the song, they would have been singing at the offering time, “O, How I love Jesus, because He first loved me.”

When Christ captures your heart, giving becomes a joy, a privilege. We love and want to show it. It’s the language of love to our God. Just think about it. If you’re married and it is your anniversary, you want to get a special gift for your loved one. Think of the joy that comes in finding just the right gift, and then watching their face as they open their gift. It’s almost more fun for you than for them as they receive it.

This is what Paul’s talking about here as he describes giving with love! Until a relationship with Christ happens, talking and thinking about giving of our resources is a very tender subject. It gets fairly uncomfortable for folks.

This is why Paul says near the end, I’m not trying to throw my weight around here with a command to give. I’m trying to teach you that giving is about expressing your love for Christ. This is your opportunity to do just that. He is testing the genuineness of their love. If you love Him, you’ll want to give to Him.

When I came to my congregation back in 1986, I was told they had not had an organized stewardship program their first ten years of existence. They didn’t talk a lot about giving, money, or pledging. They had no stewardship month emphasis. So when I suggested my first year to have a stewardship emphasis during the first three Sundays in November from which we would build our budget, I was told some people were very nervous about doing this and wondered what I was going to clobber them with.

I surprised them, I guess. I used Paul’s words from II Corinthians 8 the first Sunday of stewardship. Our theme was, “It’s a matter of the heart.” Giving is a matter of the heart. We give out of love to Christ in the area of our faith. I said, Giving, you see, is love language. It begins with a relationship with Christ. If you don’t have a relationship with Him, don’t pledge even a penny to this ministry, and don’t give a minute to serving. You’re not yet part of the missionary force, but part of the missionary field. You just keep coming. Jesus doesn’t want your money, He wants you first. The rest can flow naturally from you, because when we love, we want to give.

God blessed our study of Scripture that first year. We had a generous response on the part of the congregation. As it turns out, a lot of people love Jesus. After studying the apostle Paul’s teaching about giving as empowered by the Holy Spirit, it only made sense to them to bring their pledges as a way of saying, I love you, Jesus.

This is how we’ve talked about giving at our church ever since. We give out of love to Christ in the area of our faith. Every Sunday at offering time I tell them, “If you brought a gift for Jesus today, the plate is going to be passed around for you.”

As we talk about “in the area of our faith,” again I remind you we learn to trust God’s promises to provide for us as we are growing in this relationship. We are safe as we trust Him and give ourselves away.

Over the years, we’ve never run into financial difficulties. God blesses those who follow His Word. This’s what we’ve learned, and we have grown in our faith and in our ministry’s impact on people. Because giving to Christ actually brings His love into other people’s lives so they can find out how much they are loved by Jesus. Your giving allows your local church and organizations like Christian Crusaders to keep telling Christ’s love story again and again through words and through loving actions in the name of Christ.

At my own congregation, we support more than twenty-five Christ-centered local, national, and international ministries that we’ve carefully vetted, and they are impacting people’s lives with the gospel. We hear great stories of changed lives from these organizations on a regular basis. Your love gift to Christ makes a difference in the lives of others, which is exactly what Jesus wants to see happen.

We here at Christian Crusaders constantly receive mail from people telling us how this gospel ministry has been such a blessing in people’s lives. It’s great fun to read this mail and know listeners’ lives are being touched by the gospel of Jesus. This is what happens when followers of Jesus Christ give out of love to Christ in the area of their faith.

I am glad to tell you a whole lot of love has been expressed for Jesus over the years toward Christian Crusaders as people have given to this ministry. In fact, it’s been nothing less than inspiring and overwhelming as monthly gifts and memorials – even estate gifts – are given from people who are in love with Jesus. Those gifts have changed other people’s lives as the message is proclaimed all around the globe how our God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.

This, my friend, is the whole point of what we are called to do as followers of Jesus Christ. We are to get the message out about Christ and what He has done. This message rescues and saves as it gets into other people’s lives.

I hope this message has been illuminating for you today as it has been for me in my congregation. Learning that we give out of love to Christ has been a real blessing to us.

To be honest, I didn’t know much about giving until someone early in my ministry named Homer Larsen shared this truth with me. He picked up this statement – we give out of love to Christ in the area of our faith – from someone else. As we follow this statement based on Scripture, giving has been a joyful, personal experience ever since! My faith in God’s promises to provide for my needs has grown and grown over the years, because I’ve learned God really is faithful, and He takes care of us.

So I invite you, if you have not already understood this great truth, to put it to work in your own life. May it be your guide as you live out your faith in Jesus Christ. We give out of love to Christ in the area of our faith. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

Knowing Jesus in Love

Ephesians 3:14-21

God by definition is infinite. Therefore, Our finite human minds cannot fully grasp or understand God, His thoughts or His way. It’s impossible for us to know Him. Or is it?

C. S. Lewis once talked about an author who writes a book. He loves the characters he has created so much, he wants them to know him personally. It’s impossible, right? The author lives in a different dimension. It is impossible unless the author writes himself into the book’s narrative. He must write himself into the lives of those characters he cherishes, so they encounter him in the real story of their existence.

God desires to know us. He has created us, but He wants to share life with us. He wants us to know His love. He wants us to know Him personally through Jesus Christ, and He wants us to share life with God by faith. That is what the whole of the Christmas story is about. Remember John 1:14 – “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”

So, as you think about the God who created the world, the God who hung the stars in place, who sustains the orbit of the planets around the sun by His power, who holds the universe, He is also the God who wants to share love and life with you. That is why, when Paul writes to the Ephesians, he prays God’s power would be at work within us so Jesus Christ could dwell within our finite hearts and we would know God’s love in a way that is more than just knowledge. God can come to us, and we can experience His love. We can share a relationship of trust with Him.

In the ninth chapter of John is an interesting story about a blind man encountered by Jesus. The blind man wanted to see, so Jesus smears mud on his eyes and tells him to go wash. The man is healed and gets his sight back. Then there’s this humorous interaction as the people see the man walking around with normal vision and say almost as if the guy couldn’t hear them, This looks just like the man who used to sit in the dirt and beg. No! It couldn’t be him! All the while the man is saying, Yes! It was I. I’m the man!

The Pharisees also hear the story of this blind man now healed and say, Have nothing to do with Jesus, because He is not from God. The blind man simply says to them, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I do not know. All I can tell you is, I was blind but now I see!” (John 9:25).

Jesus later comes back to this blind man and says, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

The blind man answers, “Who is he that I might believe in him?”

Jesus says, “I who speak to you am he.”

Having experienced the miraculous restorative power of Jesus and able to see, the blind man says, “I do believe.”

Then, John’s story says, “The man worshiped Jesus.”

The reason I share this story in connection with the privilege of people knowing God through Jesus Christ is people will often encounter God or come to God at the point of our human need. We come to God when we experience pain or brokenness or some form of our limits as human beings. When we experience the power of God into our lives, there is a process of deeper and deeper revelation in knowing and understanding Jesus Christ. The more we know Him, the deeper our faith in Him becomes – from serving our need in a circumstance of deliverance to confessing Jesus as our Savior, as the Son of God, as the Lord of creation, which then leads to gratitude and worship.

As people live their lives, they have different ways of viewing Jesus – who He is or what it means to have a connection to God. For some it’s like a one-time trip. My wife Denise and I once took a trip to Niagara Falls in upstate New York. It was awesome! It was majestic. The raw power of those natural falls took our breath away. It was a wonderful experience. However, that singular trip to a momentous experience decades ago has little or no relevance to my daily life today.

Some people think about God in this way. It’s like a momentary experience, a trip long ago, yet not relevant to life.

Some people think of Jesus like a childhood acquaintance. We knew Him once. We, in fact, shared a lot of life experiences. He was a significant part of our life. But when we became an adult, we moved on. We’re no longer connected. We’re no longer in touch. We don’t have life with Him today.

Some people approach Jesus like reading the biography of a famous person. We might be tremendously impressed. We might learn a lot of detailed knowledge about this individual’s life – how they lived, what they accomplished, who they knew, what they do. But reading a biography is not like a personal relationship. We could know intellectual truth about the person. We might know conceptually about the person but have no relationship, no communication, no love shared, no trust.

Some people approach Jesus like they would a doctor. They hope they don’t have to visit one. When they have to go and ask for help, they think it costs too much. They resent the advice about how to live life, even though in the doctor’s wisdom he knows good health, and they hope they don’t have to go again.

It’s a preposterous understanding, but it is how some people think of Jesus.

Some people think of Jesus like a nice, friendly uncle who I see a couple times a year at a family gathering. It’s not bad, and while I’m there I’m not fretting. I have pleasant interaction. But when I leave that family reunion, I don’t share life with my crazy uncle on a daily basis. He has no relevance to my life goals or my daily needs.

The best way for us to think about Jesus in a relationship of love is, He is our best friend. He is not only supernaturally powerful, but also a friend who supports and encourages us in our journey of life. He knows our needs. He loves us, and we invite Jesus to share our life, live within us, to help us with our priorities of life. We ask Him to forgive us when we fail, pick us up when we fall, grant us wisdom and counsel for the journey, and be the one who helps us see our full potential as created human beings. He is all the while the companion who never leaves us or forsakes us. Jesus is the Son of God, and my Savior and Lord. He is, by faith, our best friend.

Why would we love Jesus? Why is He our best friend? First, Jesus uses His power to serve us in our brokenness. He leaves His position of infinite power and glory to come down to where I am and share my life.

By the way, Christianity of all the religions of the world, is distinctive in that way. All the other religions speak of living by an ethic to elevate the human being into a relationship with the divine, but Christianity speaks of God coming down to where we live to embrace us in our brokenness. What a beautiful expression of good news, Christian faith is.

Why would we love Jesus? I’ve been reading Psalm 103 as part of my daily devotions. This Psalm says God unconditionally loves each one of us. We read, “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is God’s loving kindness for us” (vs. 11).

God forgives all our sins. This is His promise in the name of Jesus who went to the cross for us and was raised from the dead to proclaim the forgiveness of sins to all who believe. “As far as the east is from the west, so far has God removed our sins from us” (Psalm 103:12).

John 15:13 says, “Greater love has no one than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.” You are my friends, Jesus says. The cross of Jesus tells us He sacrificially loved us so He might transform us into being the people of God. In the cross, Jesus offers us a new beginning. The beloved twenty-third Psalm says, “God restores my soul.”

I don’t know where your area of struggle, melancholy, brokenness, or guilt is, but this I know: God in the name of Jesus comes to know us in love in a way that heals us from inside out. God restores our soul. As a result, I feel great gratitude toward Jesus as my friend, as my God. I love Him for all the ways He has blessed and continues to bless me.

I trust my life to Him – not just my eternal destiny someday when I die. I trust Jesus with my life every day now. His spirit gives me joy.

So my faith today confesses and confirms that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed One of God. Jesus is our Savior who delivers us from our sin, guilt, and shame. He lifts us up to new life.

Jesus is the Son of God. He has the power and authority to save us. If He were not God then His death on the cross could not have atoned for our sins. But Jesus is the Son of God the Father, who gave Him the glory and power of His position. He emptied Himself that He might rescue us. He is our Lord, the master of our lives. I turn my life over to His control.

Finally, to say it again, I know Jesus Christ as my friend. I trust Him. I trust His promises. I invite His Holy Spirit to live within me. For all these reasons I am grateful I can know God because of Jesus Christ, and His Spirit indwells me. May you know Him, too, as your friend and your God.

James 2:23 says, “Abraham believed God, and God reckoned to him as righteousness, and he was called God’s friend.” May your faith in our great God, who has revealed Himself to us in Jesus, give you peace and joy today. May you know that God calls you His son, His daughter, and you are the friend of God. Amen.

Pastor Lee Laaveg

The Message Matters

Romans 1:13-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So we ask, What is the gospel specifically?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pastor Steve Kramer