The Search

Luke 15:1-10

I recently watched the rerun of a movie entitled Saving Private Ryan. It was quite a hit in the theaters years ago. I enjoyed it then, and I enjoyed it again.

The movie is about a platoon of soldiers during World War II who have been given the assignment of finding a certain Private in the war zone shortly after D-day. The reason was his other two brothers had been killed in battle, and Private Ryan was now the one remaining son. The military powers that be felt it was necessary to get the last surviving son home safely to the family farm.

The entire movie is about the search for Private Ryan – the obstacles this platoon of soldiers faced and overcame, and the philosophical discussions and arguments between them about the value of one person. Was this mission really worth risking their lives? It took great sacrifice to find him, but they finally did. This movie has a powerful theme regarding the value of life.

Jesus paints for us a saving-Private-Ryan type of picture in today’s parables. He told these stories to His critics to explain God’s purposes and the depths of His love. The religious elite of the day had been criticizing Jesus. They didn’t like that He associated with crooked tax collectors, traders, and notorious sinners of the community – people who are considered real scum of the day. (I imagine if Jesus were to appear today, we would find Him among drug dealers, thieves, pimps, and other despicable types, and we would scratch our heads.)

People in Jesus’ day expected the Messiah to come, of course, but not this! Certainly, the Messiah would never hang out with such unclean and undesirable types of people. Jesus seemed to almost be attracted to the morally corrupt. He ate dinner with them, which was a symbol of acceptance. His attitude mystified those highly religious Pharisees and scribes. They questioned the legitimacy of His ministry and complained about His actions. So Jesus responded with a couple of stories.

The first story was about a shepherd with a hundred sheep. At the end of the day, he counted the sheep and found one was missing. So he left the ninety-nine with an associate and went out to search for the one missing sheep. When he found it, he rejoiced, placed it upon his shoulders, and carried the sheep all the way home. Once he got home, he called the neighbors and had a celebration party. Jesus said This is what happens in heaven when a lost person is found, when he repents and comes home to the heavenly Father. God celebrates.

Then Jesus went on to tell another story of a woman who had ten coins and lost one. She turned the house upside down looking for that one coin. Finally, she found it. She was so thrilled that she called everyone around the neighborhood to come celebrate with her. Jesus said This is what happens whenever a lost person comes home. Heaven celebrates!

With these parables, Jesus justified His actions to those who had been criticizing Him. He was, in essence, saying, Lost people matter to God. In fact, everyone matters to God! God loves each and every one of us and wants us for a relationship. The God who sent us Jesus is the heavenly Father who longs to have His children back home again. He created us for Himself, and He loves us.

Someone once said these parables don’t set out to present the Gospel but to vindicate it. Jesus is defending His association with lost sinners by saying they matter to God.

A common thread runs throughout these two parables. First, something very valuable is missing. Then an all-out search is made to find the missing item. Finally, when it is found, there is great joy and celebration.

Likewise, our Father in heaven looks at us as very valuable individuals. To the world, you may be just a name on a computer, or a printout, or a number in a phonebook. But to God, you are valuable. You are His creation and precious in His sight. God has great plans for your life – to bring you to Himself, to change you and transform you. But He values you now, even as you are.

Because the sheep and coin were of great value, they needed to be found when they were lost. How do we become lost from God?

A person is lost when they have no relationship with God. They don’t know or trust in Jesus Christ. The Bible says they are eternally lost if they die without Jesus in their life. They will go to hell and be eternally lost. Scripture is clear on this.

An individual who has had a relationship with God, but then decides to go it on their own without God is lost. When a person tries to run their own life, they get lost. I can tell you from personal experience. There was a time in my life when I was really lost from God. Fortunately, God in His mercy sent someone to lead me back to Him.

Some of us are led astray by distractions as sheep do. They don’t just suddenly decide to leave the shepherd but nibble themselves lost. They move from one green area to the next until finally they look up and realize they don’t know where they are. They are out of sight of the shepherd.

I was reminded of this image again in the park the other day when I was with my grandchildren. Little Johnny, distracted by music, ran off to get close to the musicians in the band. We had to go fetch him back. This is often what happens to many of us. We get so wrapped up in the busyness of life as we pursue things that we think really matter. Then we look up and suddenly realize God seems a million miles away. We’ve nibbled ourselves lost, you could say.

Jesus made a point to the Pharisees that there is a loss more tragic than any other. It is the lostness of not knowing you’re lost. The evidence is when you become callous and quit caring about the spiritual health of people around you. You become arrogant and self-righteous. You count on yourself to have a right relationship with God.

These religious officials were lost and didn’t even know it. The Bible tells us “We all like sheep have scattered and gone astray” (Isaiah 53:6). We are lost sheep and lost coins who are valued, need to be found and brought back to our heavenly Father on a regular basis. The good news is God wants you. You matter to Him, no matter what you’ve done with your life. When you are found by Him and come back to Him, He rejoices and throws a party with the angels. Can’t you just see it – your name on a banner in heaven?

Is God looking for you these days, because He wants you? You are valuable and precious in His sight. He gave His Son Jesus Christ to die on a cross so you might have a relationship with Him. You matter.

Something else here needs to be taken seriously as well. After His resurrection, Jesus said to His disciples, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” Just as lost people matter to Jesus, so they matter to us as His Church, no matter how messy their lives may be. It is much easier to write people off and let them go. However, Jesus invites us into the mess, for each individual really does matter to God. As God’s representative, you are being sent to find lost sheep to bring home to the Father.

Did you notice in the parable, by the way, that when the shepherd finds the sheep, he places it upon his shoulders rejoicing? Jesus took the burden upon His shoulders. He took the long walk home carrying the sheep when He bore our burdens on His body to the cross to save us so we might have forgiveness and be brought home. Scripture tells us that He counted it as joy. “. . . for the joy set before him endured the cross . . .” for us (Hebrews. 12:2).

Jesus calls us to experience the same sort of joy in our lives as we strike out to find the lost and bring them back to the Father. He calls us to carry the burden of bringing lost people home. The good news of the Gospel is not to be kept to ourselves or from those who are messed up and on their own. You and I are to take this calling seriously.

I believe the disciples listening to Jesus that day recognized His teaching to ignore the boundaries set up by the religious elite and instead go after those who were lost in God’s sight.

I would like to believe, as you probably do too, that everyone is going to go to heaven, but it’s just not true. The Bible states clearly that no matter how much we want it to be true, it isn’t. If we, as the Church of Jesus Christ, ignore the fact that people can be lost eternally, we are being unfaithful to the One who gave His life for us. For they matter to Him, He loves them, and He wants us to love them back into the kingdom.

I leave you with this thought. If someone in your life today does not know Jesus Christ or has gotten themselves lost with the distractions and temptations of life, I urge you to be a blessing in his or her life. Let them know the Father is looking for them, and a party in heaven is waiting for them because it is. Joy is awaiting you as you carry out that mission. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

A Story for Diane

Luke 18:9-14

Many years ago, I was on a plane headed to Montana. My mother was deathly ill in the Billings hospital, and I was headed home to be with her, my dad, and my sister. I had brought a book along to keep my mind off the situation at hand and make the time go by fast. I planned to quietly keep to myself on the flight, but I guess God had some other plans for me.

Seated next to me was a talkative woman in her mid-50s. She introduced herself to me as Diane, and before long we were having a conversation. She told me about her background. She had lived a fairly difficult life with some broken relationships and disappointments along the way. When she learned I was a pastor, she told me that, although she was very spiritual, she was not in a church and felt no particular need to be part of one. “I figure I’m doing good enough.”

Of course, that statement opened the door for me to turn the conversation a bit. So I said to her, “That’s interesting. Can I ask you a question – if this plane went down tonight, do you think you would go to heaven?”

“Sure,” she replied with confidence. When I asked her on what basis she was so sure about her answer, she responded, “Because I’ve lived a good life.”

If you were sitting in my seat at that time, what would you have said to Diane? Nothing? Maybe nod your head in agreement, or change the subject? Well, Jesus told a parable for Diane and for us as well.

Remember, Jesus’ parables are earthly stories containing a heavenly truth. Luke 18 contains a wonderful, life-saving truth. Let’s examine what is called, The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.

In this story, two people had come church to pray following the atonement sacrifices made in the temple. The first one had lived a very good life. He worked hard to keep every letter of God’s laws and statutes. He was a Pharisee, part of an elite group known for their deep religiosity.

The second man had lived a very bad life. He was a local tax collector (also known as publicans) who were known to be swindlers and cheats. People regarded him as a traitor against his own people, for he worked for the hated Roman government, which had taken over the country. This man came to pray in the temple knowing he didn’t have a leg to stand on before a holy God.

Two prayers were being offered in this parable, and they were very different from each other. The first man stood in the front of the congregation and prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” He’s saying, Lord, look how good I am! I’m so much better than anyone else. I’m sure you and I are good with one another. It was almost an attitude of, God, you’re lucky to have me on your team. He was self-righteous, presumptuous, and arrogant in his prayer, very full of himself.

His attitude reminds of a statement written by a pastor and author John MacArthur. “Some people get so caught up in their own holiness that they look at the Trinity for a possible vacancy.”

Meanwhile, the publican (tax collector) stood far off in the back. He knew he was not worthy to come close to the altar or the other worshipers. He wouldn’t even look up to heaven, but beat on his chest, which was a sign of contrition and anguish in the Middle East culture. “God, be merciful to me a sinner,” he cried. His prayer was reminiscent of Psalm 51, written by David. He knew his uncleanliness, his sinfulness before this holy God to whom he prayed. So he came in deep contrition and faith in the mercy of God. So we have it: two men with two prayers.

Jesus ended the story by saying there were two answers to these men’s prayers. One man – the tax collector – went home justified. He made right with God, forgiven and accepted. But the Pharisee did not. Jesus concluded, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

The truth Jesus is making to those who trust in themselves is this: not one of us is righteous on our own to approach our holy God at the throne of grace. It is dangerous to trust in yourself for a right relationship with God. Come humbly before your God, begging for mercy and grace.

This parable is basically about a statement Jesus made in the Sermon on the Mount when He said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God” (Matthew 5:). Being poor in spirit means recognizing you are deeply in debt before God and cannot even begin to redeem yourself. Only God’s free generosity at infinite cost to Him can save you.

The tax collector is a picture of the poor in spirit. He sees himself for who he is – a debtor before God, unable to buy himself out of trouble, having to rest on the mercy of God. He receives God’s mercy and is justified by Jesus. He is made right with God.

Martin Luther once said, “It’s the beggars before God who are the blessed. The ones who humbly approach the throne of grace confessing that they are justified before God, who count on his mercy and grace.”

So when it comes to being right with God and receiving forgiveness and eternal life in His kingdom, this parable invites us to throw away our spiritual resumes, which we think are so impressive, because He is not impressed. All our good works are nothing more than filthy rags in His sight.

Some people have a hard time swallowing that. Perhaps it’s human pride. Perhaps it’s a lack of faith. Perhaps it’s just the way you grew up. Our culture teaches that you get what you deserve. Tim Keller, in his book, “Generous Justice” talks about people who resist Christ’s teachings concerning our spiritual poverty before God.

“On the contrary, you believe that God owes you some things—he ought to answer your prayers and to bless you for the many good things you’ve done. Even though the Bible doesn’t use the term, by inference we can say that you are “middle-class in spirit.” You feel that you’ve earned a certain standing with God through your hard work.”

They are like the Pharisees.

But Jesus shows us in this parable that it is the one who comes empty-handed, realizing the righteousness, the holiness, the purity, the mercy, grace, justice of God, the one who recognized his total unworthiness, uncleanliness, helplessness before Him, and trusts in His grace, He is the who will come away justified and made righteous. When the tax collector prayed, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner,” he showed an awareness that his very soul was in danger for eternity. He was like the prophet Isaiah who had a heavenly vision of God and cried out in the temple,

“Woe is me. I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I . . . have beheld God in his temple” (Isaiah 6:5).

The tax collector walked away justified by God, but not the poor, deluded Pharisee. He was unaware of the danger he was in before his holy God as he trusted in himself and not God.

The truth is, like the tax collector and the Pharisee, we cannot stand before our holy God on our own merit. All of us have sinned and fallen short of God’s standards. Not one of us is righteous before Him now, no matter how good or religious we’ve been. God is holy and just and detests our sin, which keeps us separated from Him for eternity. It is beyond our human capabilities to be right with God.

However, God is merciful and forgiving to those who come to Him as sinners in need of mercy. First John 1:8-9 says,

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

God justifies and forgives the sinner at His own expense. How so? At the cross. The Son of God, Jesus, the righteous One, who never sinned, the obedient Son, paid for the sins and debts of the unrighteous so we might be made righteous and clean in God’s sight. As we think of the horrific crucifixion of our Savior, who suffered the punishment and wrath of God toward sin, we see the serious nature of our sin and the amazing grace of God. He is the one who justifies us as we trust and receive Jesus Christ into our lives.

Perhaps you are asking yourself today, If God is so merciful and gracious, then why bother to be good before Him? Why not just live like the dickens and ask for mercy at the end? Fair question I suppose, and it’s been asked before.

If you turn to the sixth chapter of Roman, you will find the same question being asked. Theologian Donald Bloesch offers us a helpful answer.

“The Christian alternative to Pharisaism is not Publicanism but costly discipleship. The laxity of the Publican is just as repugnant to God as the self-righteousness of the Pharisee. In the parable it is not the Publican as such but the repentant Publican who is praised.”

Back to my conversation with Diane who is trusting in herself for entrance into God’s heaven. I asked, “So Diane, what do you think is ‘good enough’?”

She replied, “I don’t know. I guess I’m not sure.”

I responded, “So then, you’re not really sure that God will receive you into His heaven, right?”

“Well, I’ve tried to be the best person I can be. I figure that’s good enough for God.”

“You know, Jesus once said, ‘Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.’ Would you say you’re perfect?”

“Of course not.”

“Neither am I. But here is some good news for imperfect people like us: Heaven is a gift!”

“You must have to do something for it,” she answered.

I explained, “You would think so, but heaven cannot possibly be earned. We will never be good enough on our own and have a right relationship with God.” Then I told her about what Jesus did for her on the cross and His resurrection. As we place our trust in Him and what He has done for us, as we lay down our trophies, we are forgiven. The gift of heaven is ours.

“You know, I’m going home to be with my mom. I am not sure at this point if she is dead or alive. But I’ll tell you one thing I do know, if she is dead, she is in heaven – not because she deserves it – not one of us does – but because she trusts in Jesus. That is my comfort and my consolation right now as I fly home. Diane, trust in Jesus and not yourself.”

She looked a little skeptical as she considered my words and responded, “I don’t know, but you have given me something to think about.” The conversation ended shortly thereafter. When the plane landed in Billings, we went on our own ways. I prayed for Diane as she walked away. She was in danger but unaware of it, for she trusted in herself instead of God’s grace.

The world is full of Dianes. Some are even churchgoers, I’ve learned from personal experience as a pastor. They trust in themselves to make things right with God thinking and hoping they are good enough. They set their own standards for what’s good enough, or they compare their goodness with others’ goodness and figure it is enough. But they are in eternal danger.

I end this message was two appeals.

1. If you are counting on yourself, drop the spiritual resume you’ve been depending on to impress God – it’s worthless. Instead, humbly come before the throne of grace and confess your need for God’s mercy. Place your trust in Jesus Christ, the righteous one, who suffered and died so you might have righteousness and a right relationship with God for eternity. The gift of righteousness is received through trusting in Christ alone.

2. If you have received God’s grace, His gift of righteousness, then I leave you with this little story.

A former Princeton president, who had received Christ into his life, once remarked that he was now living the rest of his life as a “P.S. Thank you, God.”

I can’t think of a better way to live the rest of your life. May your life days be a “P.S. Thank you, God, for saving me.” Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

How to Maintain Your Spiritual Health

Luke 18:1-8

I recently read a wonderful novel entitled, “Ordinary Grace.” In a scene in the story, Nathan, who is a pastor, says to his friend and congregant, Emil who has just made a failed attempt at suicide, that he would be praying for him. Emil responds, “That’s about as useful as throwing a penny down a wishing well.”

I fear there are many Emils in the world with the same attitude about prayer. People struggle with prayer – starting with it and staying with it. I’ve seen it in my years of shepherding people in my church and sometimes even in my own life. There are a variety of reasons for these obstacles and struggles.

Unanswered prayer, for instance, causes one to give up on it and on God. A pastor friend of mine, who I have always admired, admitted to me in a conversation, “Prayer really is a mystery and a struggle for me to understand. I have more questions than answers about it, so I struggle with keeping at it myself.”

Personal pride enters into the picture. I can take care of things myself. Many Christians think they can run the race of faith on their own power. Someone said, “When we don’t pray, it is primarily because we don’t sense our need for God.” What is it about us that we think we don’t need God? Oftentimes it is pride.

Prayer is seen as a last resort in many people’s lives. When all else fails, pray. So, of course, we don’t develop the habit of praying regularly.

Some of us don’t pray because we’re not really sure how to pray. Therefore, we never do it.

All this carries a danger with it. It can hurt one’s spiritual health and cause us to lose our focus on God. We miss out on getting to know Him better. A personal relationship with God brings peace and power as we learn of His faithfulness in all circumstances. Not praying is actually deadly to our faith. Jesus knew this so He told His disciples a parable about the importance of praying.

We find this parable attached to a conversation Jesus was having with His disciples about the rough times ahead for them and for all disciples in the future as we wait for Christ’s second coming. Luke tells us that Jesus told this parable to encourage them to pray always and not lose heart. It’s been entitled, The Parable of the Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge.

“In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.”

He was shameless, had no respect for anyone, was crooked, and gave his attention only to those who could offer him something under the table. Otherwise, he ignored people who came to him for help.

In the city was a widow who was been taken advantage of by someone – an adversary perhaps, a landlord – who knows? She needed justice. She needed help. Widows in those days were vulnerable and high on the to-be-protected-in-society list in the Old Testament. She had the courage to approach the judge in his court, which was male-dominated, and plead for justice but he ignored her, for she had nothing to offer him.

For a while, he refused but she kept after him. Finally he changed his mind. “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”

Jesus then gave a commentary on the parable.

“Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?”

Jesus is asking a rhetorical question of us, and He is using a teaching method that’s called, “How much more?”  If this corrupt, uncaring, atheistic judge can be convinced to do something for the widow, then imagine how much more your God, who is the complete opposite – who is good and just and loves you – will respond to His chosen ones when they come to Him in prayer.

Notice how Jesus describes the kind of praying we do: “crying day and night,” fervently, passionately, showing absolute dependence on God. He is not some dour, ungracious deity who needs to be badgered into compliance to do things our way. He is the complete opposite of the unjust judge in the parable.

We must keep in mind, by the way, that Jesus had already taught the disciples how to pray the Lord’s Prayer back in Luke 11. This prayer begins, “Our Father who art in heaven.” He’s taught that God is a loving, powerful Father. He is to be approached with confidence as little children come to a loving father.

This parable is meant to encourage His followers to always pray and not lose heart, in all circumstances, trusting that our heavenly Father loves us and will answer. Maybe He will not always answer in the way we expect and maybe not in our time line, but He does always answer. Unlike the judge in the parable, your Father cares about you.

Jesus’ whole life shows us the importance of prayer. He constantly leaned upon His heavenly Father. It is a testimony. He believed in the power and necessity of prayer in His own life because He knew the kind of being the Great Hearer of Prayer is: loving and kind, all-powerful, wise, and very faithful. Jesus wants you to live the same kind of life He lived – one of prayer – constantly, heavily, leaning on God in prayer.

And remember, as Jesus talks about God’s chosen ones who call upon Him day and night, He Himself is also described as God’s “Chosen One.” Jesus is talking about Himself here as well. He will soon prove the truth of this statement, “He will quickly grant them justice.” He will go to the cross to pay for our sins. But He will be vindicated. God’s will shall be done. He will be justified quickly on Easter when God raises Him from the dead.

Finally, Jesus finishes His teaching with an interesting question.

“Yet when the Son of Man comes . . .”

That was the title Jesus liked to use for Himself.

“When the Son of Man comes again . . .”

He’s coming again, you know.

“ . . . will he find faith on earth?”

When Jesus returns in power at His second coming, will He find anyone with faith left on earth?

Prayer is important to our faith life. It has been said that prayer is our lifeline to the unseen world, which lies over and above the curtain of our senses. The sense of God will quickly fade from the heart of a person who gives up praying. Martin Luther prayed, “Dear Lord, although I am sure of my position, I am unable to sustain it without you. Help me, or I am lost.”

In this parable, Jesus points out to us the importance of prayer for kingdom workers who trust in Christ. It is vital that we keep on praying for the sake of our faith in all circumstances. Jesus is implying that we cannot make this faith journey without prayer, without God. Prayer is the hospital for the soul. It is the tool that enables a person to know God better – more personally and intimately. It’s the gift, given by God, to carry us through the roughest of times and keep us strong in the Lord.

In his book, “Prayer,” Tim Keller testifies to this.

“In the second half of my adult life, I discovered prayer. I had to.

“In the fall of 1999, I taught a Bible study course on the Psalms. It became clear to me that I was barely scratching the surface of what the Bible commanded and promised regarding prayer. Then came the dark weeks in New York after 9/11, when our whole city sank into a kind of corporate clinical depression, even as it rallied. For my family the shadow was intensified as my wife, Kathy, struggled with the effects of Crohn’s disease. Finally, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

“At one point during all this, my wife urged me to do something with her we had never been able to muster the self-discipline to do regularly. She asked me to pray with her every night. Every night. She used an illustration that crystallized her feelings very well. As we remember it, she said something like this:

“‘Imagine you were diagnosed with such a lethal condition that the doctor told you that you would die within hours unless you took a particular medicine—a pill every night before going to sleep. Imagine that you were told that you could never miss it or you would die. Would you forget? Would you not get around to it some nights? No—it would be so crucial that you wouldn’t forget, you would never miss. Well, if we don’t pray together to God, we’re not going to make it because of all we are facing. I’m certainly not. We have to pray, we can’t let it just slip our minds.’”

They prayed. God showed up.

This parable is meant to encourage Jesus’ followers to always pray and trust Him. Prayer is the only way to have the necessary power to carry out the mission Christ has given us as the Church. Look at the beginning of the book of Acts, if you don’t believe me. The Church was not born in a clever sermon, but at a prayer meeting. The people were praying when the Holy Spirit came.

These days the church has many organizers, but few agonizers.
Many who pay, but few who pray.
Many resters, but few wrestlers.
Many who are enterprising, but few who are interceding.

Pastor Jim Cymbala, in his book, “Breakthrough Prayer,” writes on the importance of the blessing the church needs, which will come with fervent, passionate prayer.

“When it comes to de-emphasizing prayer and the prayer meeting in churches across the land, where are the spiritual results that prove we have found a better way? I understand all the warnings about emotionalism and the importance of sound biblical exposition. But show me any place where the blessing of God is resting on churches in such fullness that large numbers of people are coming under conviction of sin and turning to the Lord in repentance and faith. Isn’t that what we all want to see? Isn’t that the blessing of God we so sorely need?”

Prayer is the source of that blessing. When Dr. Billy Graham was asked what lay behind the success of his evangelistic outreach around the world, he responded, “Prayer, prayer, prayer.”

Finally, consider this fact: It is so important for us to thrive in our praying that God gave us Jesus to be our mediator in prayer. He gave us His Holy Spirit to intercede for us as we pray. Why? Because our prayers are a big deal to God. We need prayer!

Bottom line: Keep praying!

When life is good, keep on praying.
When life is bad, keep on praying.
When you are glad, keep on praying.
When you are sad, keep on praying.
When you are on a mountaintop of joy, keep on praying.
When you are in the valley – O BOY! – keep on praying.
When you are in the light, keep on praying.
And when you’re in the night, keep on praying.

Which brings us to you. How is your faith, your spiritual health these days? Is it cooling off? Is it humdrum? Is it boring? Or is it on fire, exciting, filled with vitality?! If it is lacking power and cooling off, maybe you need to look at what place prayer is playing in your life.

Is it a steering wheel, or a spare tire in your life?
Is it a fire extinguisher only used when there is an emergency or when all else fails, or is it a constant hose of water refreshing you?
Do you pray just when you feel like it, or do you have a standing daily appointment with your heavenly Father?

Dear friends, the message from the risen Jesus Christ is clear today: Pray, Pray, and Pray some more. Be constantly in prayer. If you’re wondering how to get started, don’t just go out, buy a book, and study it. Instead pray – now! Set a time today. Put it on your daily calendar. Keep your appointment with your Father just as you keep your appointment with a doctor. And then pray.

What do you say? Prayer is a conversation. No special language is necessary. Simply talk with your heavenly Father. When you are finished talking, take time to be quiet, for He might have something to say to you.

My dear friends, your Father who loves you, who gave His Son to die for you on a cross and raised Him from the grave to rescue you from sin and death and give you life, is available. He is waiting to hear from you. Jesus has made that clear today. So PRAY as if your life depended on it. Because it does. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

God’s New Promise

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Grace mercy and peace are always for you from God and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Life is full of promise. In our human relationships on a daily basis, we make promises to one another. Especially in our love relationships, we speak promises that deepen the bond of our hearts. The deepened trust that fills us with joy and peace but also fills us with love, which defines the relationship of life we share.

The Bible also speaks of promises. It uses the language of covenant. A covenant is a mutual agreement between two or more parties, which binds them together and defines their relationship. A mutual promise is a covenant.

The Bible actually speaks of six covenants:
✡ The Abrahamic covenant.
✡ The Mosaic covenant made between God and His people at the base of Mount Sinai after He had delivered them from slavery in Egypt.
✡ The Priestly covenant and the whole vision of sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins.
✡ The Deuteronomic covenant.
✡ The Davidic covenant: God promised King David that a Son of his would sit on the throne and rule in peace and glory forever. This is what gave rise to messianic hope.

And finally, as Jeremiah’s passage in this prophecy speaks of . . .
✡ The New covenant that God would make where all would know Him, His law would be written on their hearts, and He would forgive their sins. We believe this covenant is fulfilled in Jesus our Savior.

In Old Testament times, nations entered into Suzerain covenants. These treaties provided a relationship between a strong king and country, and a weaker king and country. The weaker would agree to pay the stronger the terms of a covenant in order to gain their protection or to appease them so that the stronger would not obliterate them. It was a covenant between unequals, a covenant of mutual accountability. If the weaker country and king did not pay up or keep the terms of the covenant, the stronger king and country would punish the weaker or even destroy them.

The Mosaic covenant made at Sinai is a covenant of mutual accountability. The language is conditional. If you obey the terms of this covenant, then God will bless you. If you do not obey the terms of this covenant, then punishment and curses will follow. This is the language of the Mosaic covenant. It is conditional upon the faithfulness of God’s people.

There are three covenants in the Bible where God guarantees the promise:
● The Abrahamic covenant
● The Davidic covenant
● The New covenant, which was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

The New covenant is not just new in time, but also in quality. It is superior to all other covenants and, therefore, makes them obsolete. God has offered it, God has promised it, and God’s power makes it happen. The terms of the covenant cannot fail or change. They are fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God, our Savior. That is the Good News – that in the name of Jesus, every promise God has made to us in the Scriptures finds fulfillment. It is sealed and guaranteed in the blood of Jesus Christ.

In response to God’s new promise, we say to God, I believe your promise is for me. I gladly receive your Spirit in a relationship of trust. I am glad to be in a covenant with you, the living God.

Life is full of broken promises in our human experience. Ever heard someone say, “Cross my heart and hope to die”? People have a hard time keeping their word.
☞ “I’ll pay you back as soon as I can.”
☞ “I promise (even though I didn’t meet the deadline) to get it done for you by tomorrow.”

Maybe the most significant broken promises are those made between a man and woman on their wedding day where they say “I promise to love you forever” or, “I will always be faithful to you”, but as the months and years pass, something is broken and the covenant falls apart.

Why do people break their promise?
✗ Maybe they never intended to keep their word.
✗ Maybe they outright rebel against the terms of the covenant.
✗ Maybe they develop amnesia and forget.
✗ Maybe they betray the person they have entered into a covenant with.

Someone once said, “In our promises, we often write checks that our soul can’t cash.”

What’s the result of broken promises?
☹ Fractured relationships. There’s an immediate emotional turmoil. We’re upset by people who have violated their word. The relationship or partnership loses credibility.
☹ Trust is diminished. It creates a relational dissidence, distance, estrangement, and alienation that might never heal well of.

The Bible says that God’s people, Israel, broke their covenant with God. They were unfaithful, promiscuous and worshiped other gods. They oppressed the poor for their advantage. They disobeyed God’s law. And they lived as if God didn’t even exist, indifferent to Him.

Before we start poking a finger in someone else’s face and say, Yup! Give it to him. They were wrong. They were bad! we should look at ourselves. What about us? Paul succinctly says, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. . . . What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me . . . (Romans 7:19, 24). All too often we’re like the apostle Peter who to Jesus said, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will. I will die for you” (Matt. 36:33, 35). Then that very night he denied knowing Jesus three times.

Broken promises in human relationships.
Broken promises even between us and God.

So when Jeremiah is speaking this prophecy of a New covenant, it is in response to forty years of God’s people’s disregard for God’s pleas to come back into covenant fellowship with the living God. Eventually, because of their disobedience, God’s people are defeated by Babylon. All their loved ones are killed, and those who survived are hauled off into exile, enslaved to foreign people and wonder if they have a future.

Broken promises are significant, but sometimes life is broken beyond repair. Is that you? Has your life been broken beyond repair? One pastor said that we spiritually are broken and powerless. He said you could bring a pig into the house, put it in the bathtub, scrub it up, polish its nails, put a ribbon around its tail, brush its teeth, and douse it with Chanel No. 5, but what will happen the first time you open the door, and the pig sees a manure-filled mud hole? He is going to go straight to the mud hole and wallow in it. Why? It’s his nature, and he likes it.

I, as a man who is a broken sinner, have a shadow side that by the devil’s temptation always gets drawn away from the God I love and pulled to the mud hole.

This spring, I went north to our family cabin near Bemidji, Minnesota. As I turned on the water for the summer season, I discovered that the water pump in the pump house, which provides water for the cabin, had a cracked steel casing. Last fall when I drained the pipes, I forgot to remove the plug that would’ve drained the water so that when freezing temperatures came, it wouldn’t damage the pump. Now the pump was broken beyond repair. It no longer pumped water.

Jeremiah said in an earlier chapter (17:9), “The heart is deceitful above all else and desperately sick. Who can understand this?” In some measure, all of us can relate to that Scripture.

Is your life in exile? Are you enslaved, living in bondage to something that holds you captive and robs you of freedom, joy, life, and love? Have you lost hope? Do you feel powerless to bring about change in the essential matters of your life?

If so, I have really good news for you! God says, “I’m going to make you a New promise, and I will raise you up to new life.” Let’s talk about what this New covenant looks like.

This New covenant, first of all, is guaranteed by God’s power and action. Our response is to just believe the promise for us and gladly receive the Spirit’s blessing to live within us. We believe and receive.

Second, God’s New promise has been sealed in the blood of His Son, Jesus Christ. When Jesus was on the cross, His blood sealed the promise. The blood sacrifices of the Old Testament – sheep and goats – were sacrificed to atone for sins and bridge the gap to reconcile relationship between people of God. The blood of Jesus Christ ran down the wooden beam of the cross at Calvary to establish this New covenant. It led to the universal proclamation in the name of Jesus that all who repent and believe in the name of Jesus are forgiven their sins, and we’re invited to live in an atmosphere of God’s favor, of God’s grace.

This New promise of God is also motivated to change our inner heart.

Our son, Luke and his wife Liv, have two beautiful Norwegian elkhound huskies named Gus and Elske. They are beautiful animals, and when they go outside with Luke or Liv, one – the female, Elske – is never on leash. But Gus always has to be on leash. Elske will stay very close to her master and immediately obey her master’s voice. Gus – though a very beautiful and good dog – will put his nose to the ground and be in the next county before he lifts his head if he is not on leash. He will not listen to his master call. Therefore, he has to stay on leash.

When God changes us in the New promise made in Jesus Christ, He touches the heart at an inner motivational level, and we wish to obey the Master. We no longer live under the law of a leash holding us so that we don’t do stupid things. Our heart is now given over in loyalty to God in the covenant of Jesus Christ.

This New covenant says that we will know God in a relationship of love. The relationship is no longer transactional where the sacrifice blood of the goat atones for my sins. We enter into a whole new relationship that is guaranteed by God and filled with His love poured out to us.

This New covenant is also eternal. God says in the name of Jesus, “I have loved you with an everlasting love. I have drawn you (to myself) with loving kindness.” (Jeremiah 31:3). Nothing will change it. “Nothing will separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ” (Romans 8:38).

So, again in Jeremiah 31, God says, “Pick up your tambourines and dance for joy” (vs. 4b). I have turned your mourning into dancing. I’m resurrecting you to new beginnings. Here is the beauty in this new promise of God: It’s never too late to start over with Jesus.
 Do you have difficulties you can’t fix? Jesus makes you a new promise in His love.
 Do you have impossible things in your life you can’t undo?
 Are you carrying guilt or shame?
 Do you have habits you can’t break?
 Are there temptations too powerful for you to control?

The answer is not to try harder. The answer, and the basis of our hope, is the wonderful promise of God. In the name of Jesus, you are forgiven. You belong to God. You are people of the New covenant. God has made you a New promise.

So Lord God, today again, I believe your promise is for me, and I gladly receive your Spirit that I might live in this covenant of love with you forever. Amen.

Pastor Lee Laaveg

Be Careful With Money and Possessions

Luke 12:13-21

There was a man who had worked hard all his life and saved all his money. He was a real cheapskate and loved money more than just about anything. Just before he died, he said to his wife: “When I die, I want to take my money with me to the afterlife. So I want you to place it all in the casket with me.” His wife promised do as he wished.

At the funeral, while he was stretched out in the casket, his wife was sitting there in black next to their best friend. When they finished the ceremony, just before the morticians were ready to close the casket, the wife said, “Wait a minute!” She took a shoe box she had brought with her and placed it in the casket. Then the funeral director locked the casket and rolled it away.

Her friend whispered, “I hope you weren’t crazy enough to put all that money in there with that stingy old man.”

She said, “Yes, I promised. I’m a good Christian; I can’t lie. I promised to put his money in the casket with him.”

“You mean to tell me you put every cent of his money in the casket with him?”

“I sure did,” said the wife. “I got it all together, put it into my account, and I wrote him a check.”

We are talking about money today. Some of us have a lot of it; some of us don’t. Most of us wish we had more. Many of us are kind of private about it while others don’t mind flaunting it. Many of us are uncomfortable talking about it or having someone approach us about it, especially in church. But Jesus talked about money a lot. Almost half of His parables were about how to handle one’s money and possessions. In the Gospels, one out of ten verses deals directly with the subject of money and possessions. Why do you suppose that is?

Jesus knew what a dangerous hold money can have on our lives. It can become an idol, a substitute god. We can be prone to pursue, worship, and serve it at the expense of our health, our relationships with family and friends, and, most importantly, God.

Money is probably God’s chief competition for our hearts. It holds the most potential to become a God substitute for us, because it offers us what we want so dearly in life – security, satisfaction, and significance. These are the very things God wants us to depend on Him for. So Jesus talked about it a lot.

A money issue was brought to Jesus in today’s passage. Two brothers were having a squabble over the family inheritance. (You know the old saying, Wherever there’s a will, there’s a family.) One of them said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” While Jesus refused to get in the middle of this squabble, He used the man’s request as a teachable moment.

First He offered some wisdom, a warning – “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

Then Jesus told a parable to illustrate His statement. “The land of a rich man, produced a bumper crop, making him even wealthier. He thought to himself, What am I going to do, for I have no place to store my crops. I know! I will build new and bigger barns to store it. Then I will sit back and tell my soul to eat, drink, relax, and be merry.

That night God spoke to him and called him a fool because his time in this world was now up, and who would get all his stuff? You have lived your life foolishly.

The Old Testament defines a fool as one who ignores God and makes unwise, destructive choices. So by using that title, God is pointing out to the rich man, This sums up exactly who you are and what you have done with your life. You have lived it foolishly.

Notice the words the rich man uses repeatedly in his statements to himself.

First of all, “I.” What should I do? I have no place to store my crops. I will do this: I will pull down. I will store. I will say . . .

Then there’s the word “my.” My crops, my barns, my grain, my goods, my soul.

Consider what was missing in this self talk – God. This is godless talk, godless thinking. He gave no thanks to God for the gift of the great crops. He failed to recognize his blessings as a gift from God. Actually, they are a loan. Everything belongs to God. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1).

What did the rich man miss in his questioning? God. He never asked, I wonder what God would have me do with all He has given me? He showed no accountability to God in his life, had no thought of sharing his blessings with others in need, as God commanded. He planned to keep it all for himself.

Something else is missing as well: humility. He sees himself in complete control of his life and his future. He thinks he has life by the tail. This man possesses a certain arrogance. He sees himself self-made, secure, a success in life.

But according to God, this man is delusional, for God alone has the final word over his life. This man doesn’t realize his life is a gift, which can be given and taken away. It is God’s to give and to take away. We may make our future plans and think we know what is going to happen, but who really knows? Only God. The rich farmer didn’t understand this.

The farmer also seems to be missing the big picture, like some people are prone to do. He acts as if this life is all there is to live for. He has no eternal perspective in his mind. Some day he will die, and then what?

The day is coming when all our 401(k)s, bank accounts, silos, buildings, and stock portfolios will be completely irrelevant. Titles will no longer impress. It won’t matter what clothes hung in our closet or cars sat in our garage.

I’m reminded of a bit of biblical wisdom.

For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field. Its flowers fall, and its beauty perishes” (James 1:11).

It is the same way with the rich. In the midst of a busy life, they will wither away. Instead of living for God, this man is living for his wealth and for himself. God calls this a foolish life and then asks a good question, “Your life is over. Now who is going to get all these things?”

You’ve probably heard the adage,

You can’t take it with you.

Or this one:

I haven’t seen any U-Hauls driving into the cemetery lately.

The parable of Jesus affirms this.

Jesus concludes to His audience, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves and are not rich toward God.” Now what does He mean by this, “Don’t store up treasures for yourself”?

What does it mean to be rich toward God? It means to have a relationship with God – loving, trusting, obeying, and serving Him with your whole heart, soul, strength, and mind.

All of what Jesus has told us today is an appeal to value God instead of treasures like money and possessions. We are to value God above all else and not end up living a godless life chasing after false gods like the rich fool. Do not let money and possessions become the purpose of your life, as it is prone to be sometimes. In and of itself, money is not evil. The love of it is, though, and what money represents in this world makes it dangerous for us. Pursuing money and possessions lead us away from God and can push God out of the picture in one’s life.

Jesus knows us all too well. He remembers the garden of Eden. As sinful beings, we can easily fall prey to wanting more, more, more for ourselves. Soon we’re off track and foolishly lost. This is why, for every verse in the Bible that tells of the benefits of wealth, there are ten that tell us of the danger of wealth.

Jesus is not condemning riches or rich people in this parable. However, He is illustrating how a wrong attitude toward riches can wreck your eternal relationship with God. Real life is not measured by how much we own. Rather it is about knowing that we come from God, we live to God, and we will return to God someday. So we should love God enroute, living and trusting in obedience. Real life is about having a rich relationship with God. So don’t play the fool, like the guy in the story.

I don’t know about you, but I find this passage of Scripture very challenging. There are three personal questions in particular that I need to be asking myself. I invite you to think about them as well.

What is your attitude toward money and possessions? As a follow-up question, do you live as if everything you have comes from and belongs to God? Do you know your place? Do you see yourself as the owner or the manager of what you have? What are you doing with all God has given you to manage?

Your attitude about money and possessions shows up in how tightly or loosely you hold onto it. Does it annoy you to be asked to give? Do you find yourself wondering about the least amount you could acceptably give or do you enjoy using your finances to help others? What percentage of your income are you giving away these days? Is God’s cause in the world better off because you’ve been entrusted with His money?

What place do money and possessions have in your life? Some people think about this topic all the time. They worry about it or figure out ways to get more money for themselves so they can feel secure and satisfied. They wind up sacrificing important things in life in order to have more. Does this describe you?

Some people struggle with finances, which can be a stressor and a focus in their life. If you are presently in a tough financial situation, do you continue to bring your burden to the Lord and ask for His help? Do you give thanks to God in all circumstances – in plenty and in want?

Finally, do you measure your self-worth by your net worth? I hope not. Some people are constantly comparing what they have or what they’re making with what others have or what they’re making. They covet; they get jealous; they resent those who have more; and they are miserable. They seem to believe that having more makes a person more important, more valuable. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Jesus encourages us today to consider all these kinds of questions so we might be wise, on guard, and enjoy real life with our God.

I love a testimony I came across in an eye-opening book, “Gods at War,” written by Kyle Idleman. It goes like this:

The god of money was almost irresistible. He spun tales of sports cars, luxury homes, and all the good things he was going to buy for us. Yes, we had heard the old refrain that money can’t buy happiness. We knew that. We had seen what it had done to people over and over.

But we were going to be different. We were going to know how to use that money without letting it use us. We didn’t want to buy happiness; we just wanted to rent a little pleasure. But somewhere it all went wrong. Somehow the god of money became a slave driver.

He kept us running, following him, trying to keep him from getting away. We followed the green brick road until we longed to rest. We put our hope in what we might find at the end of the rainbow. We thought money would provide us with security, significance, and some measure of satisfaction. But strangely even when we had money we still felt broke.

Then we met Jesus and discovered that he is our provider. He provides everything we need. He provides us with security because he never leaves us or forsakes us. He provides us with significance because our identity and value are found in his love. He provides us with satisfaction because our souls were made for him. We discovered that God would meet all our needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus. What a wonderful testimony!

Friends, Jesus knows what makes life work. He loves you. He went to the cross so you could have the abundant life God intended for you. Jesus became poor so you might become rich with God. He rose as an affirmation that His word is life-giving truth for you and for me.

I appeal to you this day to trust Him on this subject of money and possessions. Jesus knows what He is talking about. Real life does not consist in money and possessions. Real life is about having a rich relationship with God. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

Forgiven Much, Loving Much

Luke 7:36-50

If you want people to really listen to what you have to say, tell them a story. People love stories. Jesus knew this well, and so He told parables to puzzle people, to get them to think, to convict, encourage, and awaken them to kingdom truths. Each of His stories had a purpose and an intent.

It can be said that Jesus’ parables are an earthly story with a heavenly truth. Today’s parable, which has one of those heavenly truths, was told as a result of something that occurred at the dinner table at a home in the city of Nain. Earlier that day, Jesus had raised a young man back to life. He had also done quite a bit of teaching.

Simon, a Pharisee, was considered holy and very religious – a leader in his community. He invited Jesus to have dinner with him and his friends in his home. He had obviously heard talk around town about Jesus being called the prophet of God after raising a dead boy back to life. Simon may have gone out to hear Jesus teach that day and wanted to know more about Him.

Most likely, Simon probably wanted to test Jesus by asking Him some difficult questions. He was a bit skeptical of Jesus, and, in all likelihood, was probably threatened by Him as were the other Pharisees. Jesus did not teach like they did. Therefore His popularity and His teachings could erode the Pharisees’ influence and leadership.

In those days, people ate in a reclining position at the dinner table. Jesus would have positioned Himself on His side in front of a low-sitting table with His feet sticking out behind.

Typically, with a celebrity like this, the front door was left open so observers could listen to the conversation. One of these observers caused quite a stir. It was a woman from the community who had a soiled reputation. As she came up behind Jesus, she knelt down and, with tears rolling down her face, she washed His feet with her tears. Next she let down her hair, which was considered very inappropriate public behavior in those days, and dried his feet with her hair. She had brought an alabaster jar of expensive ointment and put the ointment on Jesus’ feet and kissed them without saying a word.

To the shock of others, Jesus let her do this. In fact, He even looked pleased about it. Simon, though, was horrified and critical toward Jesus. He thought to himself, Now I know, He can’t be a prophet. Otherwise, He would know her sinfulness and refuse to let someone like her even touch Him. She is a sinner with a capital “S”! He definitely is not a prophet from God.

Ironically, Jesus read Simon’s mind, which must’ve startled him. ‘Simon, I have something to say you.’

Simon replies, “Teacher, speak.” (Calling Jesus, ‘teacher’ might have been a bit of a put down, for it implies that Jesus is only a teacher in Simon’s mind, an equal at best.)

Jesus tells him a short parable. A certain moneylender had two debtors. One man owed him a little – a couple months’ wages; another one owed him a lot – 10 times that amount. When they could not pay, the lender canceled the debt of both of these men.

Jesus paused and then asked Simon, “Which one of them would love the moneylender more?” Simon said, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.”

Jesus replied, “You have judged correctly. Do you see this woman? You didn’t even do me the small common courtesy of washing my feet when I came in; she washed my feet with her tears. You gave me no kiss to welcome me as you would any other guests, but she hasn’t stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil as any hospitable host would do, yet she anointed my feet with her ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loves much, just like the greater debtor in the parable.”

Then Jesus added, “But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”

Perhaps this was a jab at Simon. She recognized Jesus for who He was – the Son of God who has authority to forgive sins. She obviously had an earlier encounter with Him, heard His call to repentance, the promise of forgiveness of sins, and a fresh start. She maybe even had a private conversation with Him before He came to the dinner. Jesus was well aware of her background, yet He received her and told her she was forgiven. So, like the debt-ridden man in the parable who owed so much, we see her responding with a lot of love toward Jesus, an extravagant, worshipful love.

Why? Because she had been forgiven much. She now belongs to the “forgiven-much crowd”, and she is showing it. She believes she’s forgiven. She has faith in Jesus, so Jesus said to her in front of everyone, affirming her faith, “Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace. Your faith has saved you.”

Jesus’ grace led to inner peace in her life, and peace with God, which is something Simon does not have or understand. He kept Jesus and His message at arm’s length. He has his legalistic religious background telling him that as long as he keeps doing good things, he is okay in God’s sight. He’s a good, righteous man.

We see Simon’s true colors showing. He believes Jesus has it all wrong. Simon has shown little love and no faith toward Jesus. He serves as kind of a foil, as we say in literary talk, meaning one whose critical thinking allows us to see and hear God’s message of forgiveness, which Jesus has for each of us and His authority to give it. Jesus is the Son of God. This woman’s sinful debt has been canceled by Jesus, and she responds in faith-filled love, which is pleasing to the Son of God, Jesus our Savior, our Lord.

Luke doesn’t tell us how the meal ends. It must have been a little awkward. I can imagine red-faced Simon breaking the silence by saying something like, “Please pass the bread.”

Dear friends, this parable holds an important teaching for us. Jesus points out that we are all debtors in need of God’s forgiveness. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God with our thoughts, our words, our actions, and our inactions. Like in the parable, we are the debtors, helplessly, hopelessly unable to make things right with God, unable to pay our debt. God has every reason to throw the book at us – like the moneylender – and send us off to jail (to hell). Instead He is merciful. He shows mercy toward us and offers mercy and grace.

I’m afraid we sometimes forget God’s greatness and holiness. We kind of shrink Him in our minds, and we may sometimes forget about the depths of our sinfulness. We downplay it and leave out our wretchedness in His sight. We forget our debt before Him. We’re even prone to think God owes us something. But God owes us nothing! We are beggars in His sight, in need of His mercy. We need to pay attention to the words in John Newton’s old, familiar hymn,

♬ Amazing Grace,
how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me . . . ♪

I’m not okay, and neither are you. We’re not mistakers who need more self-help; we’re sinners in need of a Savior. I’m a self-centered wretch, spiritually bankrupt, unable to make things right with God. My good deeds are nothing more than filthy rags before this holy God. I break His commandments regularly, and I deserve punishment. I need help.

The good news for beggars like me is that, though we are sinful, God forgives our sins. He cancels our debt, but not without great cost to Himself. The cost is the suffering and death of His Son, Jesus Christ. God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. On a cross, He paid the debt for our sins – for my sins and yours.

When Jesus took His last breath on the cross, He cried out, “It is finished!” which means literally, “Paid in full!” Someone has said the Gospel is like a banker walking up to us when we cannot pay our mortgage. Rather than foreclosing, he writes a check to pay off our debt. God is a spiritual banker who has paid our debt through Jesus Christ. We are forgiven in Christ. Like the hymn says, “Jesus paid it all!”

The Pharisees at the table question the authority of Jesus to forgive sins, because only God can do that. They said amongst themselves, Who does Jesus think he is? They will soon learn the answer as Christ’s authority to forgive sins is affirmed on Easter morning when God raises Him from the dead, thus endorsing His authority and His Word.

I want to stop for just a minute and ask, Have you placed your trust in Jesus Christ and what He has done for you? Have you joined the “forgiven-much” crowd? Because, friend, if you have been keeping Jesus at arm’s length, living with your own made-up theology about being good enough for God, I appeal to you today to give that kind of thinking up. It’s a dead end! Lay down those trophies you’ve been depending on and clinging to. Come to Jesus Christ who stands ready to forgive you and give you a new start and a place in His heaven. He knows your sin. No sin is too great for Him to forgive.

Christ’s grace is available to the debtor. A new life, which never ends, is what He is offering you. Come to Him and trust Him with your life.

If you have placed your trust in Jesus and what He did for you, you are part of the “forgiven-much” crowd – just like the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears.

The story is teaching us how to say, “I love you” to Jesus for the rest of your life in response to His grace and mercy. It’s really quite simple.

How do you say “I love you” to Jesus?

First, you say it as you serve Jesus. The woman served Him as she washed His feet. It was servants’ work. Jesus Himself would wash the feet of His disciples and say, “I’ve given you an example. If I your Lord and master have washed your feet, I want you to wash one another’s feet.” Serving others pleases Him.

We say “I love you” to Jesus as we serve others in His name. We remember His words, “As you did it to the least of these, my brethren, you did it to me.”

We say it with our giving. The woman in our story gave her ointment. She gave sacrificially. The perfume was expensive. Does your giving reflect your love for Jesus? Is it sacrificial or simply a non-thinking type of gift, a tip.

In my church at stewardship time, I have always taught my folks, we give out of love to Christ in the area of our faith. The giving of my time, my finances, my skills for the cause of the kingdom of God in response to Christ’s love for me – like the woman in our story. Maybe you’ve seen the bumper sticker, which says,

Tithe if you love Jesus.
Anyone can honk.

There’s some truth to this.

Finally, we tell Jesus we love Him with bold witnessing. The woman’s actions were public, bold, courageous, a testimony for Jesus Christ. She was in hostile territory, and yet, without a word, she boldly testified as to how wonderful it is to have Jesus forgive her and take over her life. This, my friends, is how one says, “I love you” to Jesus.

My fellow debtors and beggars in Christ who have been forgiven, this is our encouragement today from God’s word. We’ve been forgiven much. Hallelujah! Let us love Him much in grateful response today and every day. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

Positive Stories for Christian Pessimists

Luke 13:18-21

This looks like a lost cause! Have you ever made or thought this statement? Maybe it was in the middle of a home project like remodeling or landscaping that wasn’t going well. Perhaps you decided to fix something around the house and now you’re in a fix. O, this looks like a lost cause, we think.

Maybe a project or a situation at work isn’t going well. It’s giving you fits and not coming together. I have that experience now and then in my line of work. Most pastors will tell you they can experience a sermon block – like a writer’s block. It sets in and the sermon just cannot get going or will not come together like you want. You feel like quitting and finding something else to preach. This sermon is a lost cause! Trust me; it happens to most preachers.

Perhaps you are struggling with a difficult relationship. No matter what you try, it is painful and does not work. So you sigh and think to yourself, This looks like a lost cause.

I’m sure you could add a few more ideas to my list, because we’ve all been there. When this happens, it brings on a sinking feeling of discouragement and makes you want to just give up and say, This is a lost cause. I quit! Jesus addresses this kind of thinking in today’s parable. Perhaps His twelve disciples look discouraged about this mission they’re on with Him, feeling it is a lost cause.

They have been on the road with Jesus for some time now and had bought into His message that the kingdom of God – God’s rule and reign over the world – was present and He was the bringer of the kingdom. They had left behind their professions to follow Jesus and were expecting some great things – maybe a political take over or a major movement of some sort, but it’s not happening. As they observe Jesus teaching and healing, the little faith they had in Him gets shaky. The disappointing results were not meeting their expectations, and it was looking more like Jesus’ ministry was a smalltime operation.

There were no fireworks except those from the rejection and hostility of the religious establishment as they criticized Him and His message. They didn’t like Him and even accused Him even of being of the devil when he did a miracle. He was misunderstood and rejected by outsiders like the Samaritans. Politicians were suspicious of Him and didn’t like Him. Threats against Jesus were made. Crowds showed up to listen to Him, but no one dropped everything and followed Him like they had done.

Some small steps were being made in the villages they visited – like healing miracles and casting out evil spirits, which brought a lot of speculation, amazement, and quite a following. But they seemed so insignificant in comparison to what they had in mind when it comes to kingdom building. They must’ve been wondering, What is going on here? What have I got myself into? We’re not doing so hot. This kingdom stuff isn’t happening like I thought it would. It’s not taking off. Very few of our hearers are repenting and few are following us. If God’s kingdom has come, why does it feel like we’re moving two steps forward and three steps back?

And where’s God in all of this? God, don’t you see what’s going on? Have I been on the wrong horse? Maybe I ought to just pack up my stuff, quit following, and go home. These thoughts had to have been running through the minds of the disciples.

If you are a follower of Jesus, maybe you’ve even fallen prey to this kind of thinking yourself. You look around at the condition of the world today, and it looks like things are getting any better. Or you observe the church of Christ – its workings and its failings. The news can sometimes be so dark and frightening that it can cause us, as Christ’s followers, to shrug our shoulders and despairingly say, Christianity appears to be a lost cause. Evil seems to be winning over good. Morality, mercy, and righteousness seem to be ignored or lost these days.

We see bad things happening to innocent people in general. The world looks dark, scary, and out-of-control some days. God’s people are experiencing bombings, cultural hostility, rejection, ridicule, criticism – even persecution – in parts of the world. The Church seems to be ineffective in bringing people into God’s kingdom. Those outside the kingdom seemed disinterested – even hostile – toward it. We hear few conversations about it in our little corner of the world. Some days, it feels like we are losing ground. All of this can cause us deep uncertainty. It can cause a faith crisis and cause us to wonder (along with the first disciples of Jesus) if it is a lost cause. It sure seems like it!

We may be tempted to quit serving Jesus in this world all together or even to change the Gospel message to attract people and keep the ones that we have all.

In response to this kind of wondering and discouragement, Jesus offers a reassuring word in these parables, which we read earlier. It is a pep talk, a positive picture for pessimistic Jesus followers. It’s about the kingdom of God.

We need to remind ourselves that when Jesus talks of the kingdom of God, he’s not talking about a geographic place. He is not talking about going to heaven so much. The kingdom of God is God’s rule and reign in this world, where His will is being done. People’s lives are being changed by the Good News of Jesus, and they’re loving God with their heart, soul, strength, and mind, and their neighbor as themselves. His will is getting done.

Jesus compares the kingdom of God movement to a tiny mustard seed, and a tiny bit of yeast. He makes the comparison to reassure and encourage Jesus followers to trust. He tells us, Look at the mustard seed when you’re thinking about the kingdom of God, because it’s the tiniest of seeds. It looks so insignificant! Yet when it’s planted, it eventually becomes a tree with branches that offers refuge to the birds of the air. This is what I want you to keep in mind! When you are feeling discouraged because things look bad and it seems like we’re stuck and losing, just think of the mustard seed and the tree that eventually happens. God’s kingdom will prevail! This is not a losing cause.

Jesus continues, Keep the big picture in mind as well. The kingdom of God is like a little bit of yeast in a big batch of flour. It soon penetrates the whole batch. So, too, will God’s reign and rule penetrate this whole world. Don’t give up! Don’t quit following and serving. The kingdom project looks small, unpromising, and powerless now, but it is just getting started. God’s rule will come. You are on the winning side!

Recently my favorite baseball team was getting trounced by another team. I turned on the TV to watch and looked at the scoreboard and said, “This looks like a lost cause.” Then I turned the TV off. Sometimes, like those first disciples, we look at the scoreboard of this world with all its problems and darkness, and it looks like evil is winning 12 to 0. All is lost, and like we want to just turn things off.

But Jesus tells us to not let the scoreboard fool us. The game is not over and God will win. Don’t quit. Keep serving Him and witnessing for Him in this world. God is at work. It may not appear so some days, but the kingdom of God is happening and will come in its fullness someday. Then every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, and all who have placed their trust in Him will live forever with Him. Don’t lose your hope and your confidence. This is the point of these parables today.

Even as we speak, friend, God is working in this world through His Holy Spirit, and amazing things are happening. Lives are being changed. This is the message for today, children of God, followers of Jesus. You saints of God who might be getting discouraged, don’t give into despair and pessimism. Take courage. Be confident! God has this! It is not a lost cause that you are a part of. Remember, in the end God wins.

By the way, we have already witnessed the truth Jesus shared with the disciples. It is not pollyannaish thinking about someday. Lest we forget, millions upon millions of people, since the day Jesus told these parables, have entered the kingdom of God by trusting in the Good News of Jesus Christ. Lives are impacted and transformed by a relationship with Jesus. The impact of the Christian faith upon the world is unmeasurable, e.g., educational institutions, hospitals, Christian aid organizations serving in Christ’s name, the fight against apartheid in South Africa, racism in America. The impact goes on and on all around the globe. Thousands of people are entering the kingdom of God right now as the Gospel is proclaimed in parts of the world.

Lest we forget, remember the cross of Jesus Christ. His crucifixion was followed by an empty tomb and a resurrection. Jesus is alive! He has already won the battle. Sin, death, and the devil himself were conquered by the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s Son. God has had the last word!

Don’t forget what happened since Pentecost. The Holy Spirit is on the loose with His convicting and converting power all over this planet. He is working in people’s lives even before we have the opportunity to share the Gospel. God’s will, His plan for the sin-sick planet that He loves is still getting done. In the end, it will be done once and for all for eternity. And you are part of it.

I’d like to finish this message off with a word of encouragement today, you saints, you followers of Jesus. Yes, the world is full of problems. Many people need to be brought into the kingdom of God. It looks almost impossible and overwhelming to get the job done. It looks just like madness some days.

Instead of being overwhelmed by all the problems and the needs of others for Christ, why not step up and be a part of the solution in confident faith and hope. Continue to give yourself over to God’s purposes for your life. Let your light keep shining as you serve Jesus so people around you will give God glory and praise.

Or, let me put it another way: Instead of complaining about the darkness, light a candle and get in the game. Don’t quit. Servants of Christ, keep serving Jesus in your corner of the world, and remember: God is in control. History is ‘His story.’ God wins. Remember the end of our Lord’s prayer, “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen!”

Pastor Steve Kramer

A Warrior’s Joy

Zephaniah 3:14-17

Were you aware that God’s heart holds no greater joy than to surround you with His love and power, to whisper His love to you and sing for joy because you are His? God desires you to trust His heart and reciprocate His love as He holds you close.

What motivates a soldier to go into battle? What motivates a warrior to fight? In John 15:13-14a, Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends . . . ,” Jesus said.

In America this week, we celebrate our independence and the freedom we enjoy as citizens of this country. We would do well to remember, freedom is never free. We owe a great debt to the men and women who, through the years, have served in the armed services or sacrificed their lives all over the world so we might live free.

I think about the major wars in recent history all the way back to World War I where men froze in the trenches through the winter. Or World War II, where thousands of men sacrificed their life on the beaches of Normandy as they crashed to the coastline of France to gain a toehold on the continent of Europe, drive back the enemy and ultimately win the battle for the world. I think of the battle in Korea, the war of Vietnam, the Gulf wars, and the battles in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I think of how terrorism percolates up all over the world in a senseless destruction of innocent lives. Wherever it happens, men and women rise to fight for freedom and justice. They fight to protect the innocent and maintain the safety of citizens. We need to remember, freedom is never free. It comes at a cost, and it is worth fighting for. It involves self-denial and sacrifice. In the heat of battle, it might even include the spilling of blood. Men and women have died so we might live free in this land. I am grateful as we celebrate our freedom.

People of faith, however, also remember the Bible is full of images where the verses describe God as a warrior who does battle for us. God rescues us. He defeats our enemies. Jesus saves our lives, our souls. He forgives our sin and reconciles us to God the Father. Ultimately, God is the warrior who fights to win our hearts.

The Old Testament shares numerous stories of battles where God’s power gave the people victory. In the Old Testament book of Exodus, the major saving event happened when God sent Moses to face Pharaoh. God’s people were being held as slaves in Egypt, but Moses did not fight Pharaoh with an army. God used elements of nature to bring ten plagues upon the nation of Egypt and convince Pharaoh of His power.

Pharaoh finally said “Go. Go from my land. I give you my freedom.” But then he had the audacity to chase the Israelites into the desert. Pharaoh and his army mounted on horses and chariots and pursued them, armed to the teeth to destroy them. God used the Red Sea to defeat Pharaoh, drown the enemy, and give God’s people great victory.

Remember the battle of Jericho? Joshua and the Israelite army encountered a fortified, thick-walled city with God’s power going before them. God instructed Joshua to march around the city once a day for seven days. Then, on the seventh day they were to march around the city seven times, blow the trumpets, and shout praise to God. The walls of Jericho tumbled down, and God’s power gave them victory.

Do you remember when Goliath, the giant with the Philistine army, day after day brought challenge to God Himself and the Israelite army? The Israelite army shook in their sandals. But then the boy David wanted to fight Goliath. As David went out to face the Philistine giant, he said, “You come to me with sword, shield, and spear. I come to you in the name of the Lord our God. The Lord will give you to me in victory this day, for the battle is the Lord’s.”

David, the boy with a slingshot dropped the Philistine giant. The battle was the Lord’s. God was the warrior whose power gave the Israelites a great victory over Goliath and the Philistines that day.

Over and over again, God is the warrior who fights for us. The truth David spoke is true for us also. The battle is the Lord’s!

I don’t know what circumstances you face in life that are too powerful for you. I don’t know what enemies loom impossible for you to deal with in your own strength, but we would do well to, in faith and prayer, invite the Lord to release the Spirit’s power to do battle for us. God is the warrior who fights for us. God’s strength might change the circumstances of your life context totally, or He might change the hearts of those who are opposed to you and causing you difficulty.

God might heal your body physically. He might restore conflicted relationships, or His Spirit might be poured into your character and give you strength to persevere through the dark storm until you emerge on the other side and say, “God, thank you for seeing me through.”

In all these cases, God is the warrior, the champion who fights for us motivated by His love.

Zephaniah was God’s prophet in Jerusalem. He was the great grandson of King Hezekiah, a very godly King. He was the grandson of Manasseh, who was an idol worshiper. His father, Amnon, was in fact the worst, most evil king. Amnon promoted the worship of idols, child sacrifice, immorality, and worship practices with the priests and priestesses. Bloodshed, violence, and immorality were pervasive in the nation of Israel. The people lived in disregard of and ignorance for God’s Word.

Under the boy king Josiah (a colleague of Zephaniah the prophet), God’s book was rediscovered in the Temple, which led the boy king Josiah to institute major spiritual reform. Zephaniah the prophet, was a man of God, who begged God’s people to come back to Him so God would give them victory over their enemies, go before them to remove the evil from them, and open a new future. God in His love continued to fight to bring them back to His arms. He would fight the victory battle to remove their destructive habits and rhythms, which had been so harmful to them.

So Zephaniah paints a word picture of the Lord as a victorious warrior who has already won the battle and now comes back to sweep us up – His child – into His arms, hold us close, and sing for joy because we belong to him. We are safe, and we are loved. God cherishes us.

My granddaughter, Pema, just turned one year old. When I see her, which isn’t often enough, she is uncertain whether she is comfortable with me as her papa. She looks at her mom and dad as if they need to rescue her. Her trembling lip tells me she’s afraid, because she doesn’t know me yet. So I go into my “crazy papa” act. I sing, or I play, or I dance. I do whatever it takes so she may know she is okay with me, we can have fun together, and I love her.

Take that image and know it is God who holds you. He wants to break down your defenses and win your heart. He wants you to feel comfortable in the power of His love as you are held in His arms. He wants you to believe His promises and trust that His heart is good to you so you will reciprocate His love. He wants you to trust Him as you sing for joy because you belong to Him.

God is the warrior who has won the victorious battle over Satan and the enemy forces eternally. He is also the warrior who wants to hold us in His arms and win our hearts to Him.

I’d like to tell you the story about a Vietnam veteran named Dave Roever. Dave was raised in the state of Texas. When he was 21 years old, he married his high school sweetheart, Brenda, who just turned 18. Dave was drafted to fight in Vietnam, but because he was already enrolled as a seminary student, he had a letter of exemption. However, night after night, as he watched news reports of soldiers who were killed in action fighting for America in the far-off land of Vietnam, he felt the tug of his heart and enlisted in the Navy. He kissed his wife Brenda goodbye promising, “I’ll be back without scars.” Boy, was that a wrong statement!

Dave was trained to be a gunner on a river boat in a heavy combat area of Vietnam. Then came July 26, 1969, a very significant, momentous, day for Dave. He was holding a white phosphorus hand grenade about 6 inches from his right ear when a sniper’s bullet detonated the grenade.

“I looked down and saw my face on my boots. My chest was ripped open, and I saw my own heart beating, pumping blood out of an open artery. My skin was literally melting off my body. The rescuers flipped me face down on a stretcher but the phosphorus from my body caught the stretcher on fire.

“They finally got me to a helicopter to be airlifted out of that combat area. The medic sitting next to me was literally filling out the paperwork on how, when, and where I was killed in action. I finally yelled, ‘Medic!’ and they knew I was still alive.

“Eventually I was taken to a hospital in Japan. One day in my healing and recovery, I asked for a mirror. That day,” Roever says, “I lost hope. It was a worse day for me than the day I was wounded in Vietnam, worse than having my face, fingers, skin, and hair blown off. My life had been saved, but now I feared the rejection of my wife.” Roever knew Brenda could not love him anymore. After all, how could she love a freak, a scarred monster?”

Eventually, he was shipped back to a hospital in America, and the day arrived when his wife Brenda came to see him at the hospital. Roever was frightened of her rejection of how he now looked.

As the doctor and Brenda entered the unit where 13 men in a severe burn unit were being cared for, she walked up to his bed and said, “That’s not my husband.” The doctor said “Yes, ma’am. That is your husband, Mr. Roever.” She looked at his wrist band and said, “I guess it is him!”

Dave awakened, and Brenda smiled and said, “Welcome home, Davie. I love you. I’ll always love you. Then she bent down and kissed what was left of his face. When she straightened from that welcome-home kiss, scar tissue stuck to her lips. Dave shares, “I knew that if she could still love me, I could heal and still have a life.”

Now, with the help of Jesus Christ, Roever has healed, and he travels the world sharing his story of Jesus’ redemption. The United States armed services employs Roever as a resiliency coach, paying him to tell wounded soldiers his story and his hope is in Jesus Christ.

Remember, freedom is not free. Jesus is the warrior who comes to us wherever we are wounded and fallen. He has given His life, and His heart is committed to love us unconditionally. Jesus bends to kiss us in our broken places, in our wounds – whatever the cause. Jesus, you see, emptied Himself of all power and authority. He became our servant. He submitted to the will of the Father. He submitted to the warped justice of Pilate. He surrendered to the Roman soldiers to be crucified. Why?

Jesus, our warrior, was motivated out of love for you. He knew the shed blood spilled out and flowing down the cross was the only power that could rescue us so God would see us forgiven, with sins atoned. The door is opened wide to be reconciled to the Father.

God has fought the battle, and you now belong to Him. He has won our hearts forever. Amen.

Pastor Lee Laaveg

It's Suppertime

It’s Suppertime

Luke 14:7-24

When I was young kid, a familiar sound was often heard in my neighborhood about 5:00 p.m. It was the sound of my mother’s voice calling out, “Steve! It’s suppertime.” I would usually be playing with the neighborhood kids and within hearing distance. I cold heard her, but was busy playing, so I would ignore the call and not respond. A few minutes later she’d called again. “Steve, it’s time to come home! Supper’s ready,” but I would continue to play.

If I waited too long, I might hear a final call. This one was tinged with frustration and quite a bit of irritation. “STEVEN EARL KRAMER! You get home right now or you won’t get supper!” That’s when I knew mom meant business, and I’d better hustle on home. Looking back on it, I’m sure mom would not have followed through on her threat. She had a lot of grace in her.

I’m telling you this story because, as we continue our sermon series – Stories With Intent – we find Jesus telling a parable with a bit of the same sentiment and feeling. It also holds an irritated warning.

Jesus is sitting at a dinner table with Pharisees and scribes. It’s the Sabbath, and He is their guest. He observed things going on around Him at this party and eventually shared His observations with them. They probably weren’t very happy because it was a very tough critique.

To the other guests surrounding Him He said, I can’t help but notice you guys fall over each another trying to grab the place of honor at the table. Don’t do that! Humbleness is the name of the game.

To the host He said, A very select group is attending your dinner. You seem to have invited only the rich and pious in your circle of equal status. Instead of inviting those who can pay you back, invite the poor, the lame, and the blind – those who cannot reciprocate. It pleases God, and you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.

Ha! Tension must have filled the air when Jesus gave these criticisms. Perhaps a long, pregnant silence filled the room. AWKWARD! Who does He think He is, speaking to us like He is God or something! What does He know about the resurrection of the just anyway?

At that point, someone at the table spoke up and made a statement, a religious platitude. “Blessed is everyone who will eat the bread in the kingdom of God.” He was referring to the great day of God’s salvation, which had long been anticipated by the Jewish people. The day when Messiah comes, all would be well.

They commonly thought about the coming day of salvation as a great banquet as it was referred to in Isaiah 25. It would be a new day of peace and prosperity. God would be in charge. Experts among the Jews believed and taught that this kingdom would only be enjoyed by the Jewish faithful, meaning them. No sinners, outcasts, or unclean types would be allowed at the table – especially not Gentiles (the non-Jews of the world).

“Blessed are those who eat the bread of the kingdom.” Why do you suppose this person made the statement anyway? Was it because Jesus said something about the future resurrection of the just and just needed to respond with something religious? Perhaps. As if he was saying, Resurrection day, Jesus? We’re in! When the role is called up yonder, I’ll be there. Yes, sir! Or was someone trying to ease the tension in the room as if to say, At least we can all agree that when the kingdom comes, it will be great, and we will be blessed. Perhaps, but if it was the reason, it didn’t work.

In response to the man’s statement, Jesus told a parable, which had to have upset them all the more. It was the story of a man who once gave a great banquet and invited many people. His initial invitation was accepted by many at first, but when the man’s servant made the announcement that all was ready, it was met with excuses from the invited (weak excuses at that). The man’s generosity was treated with great rudeness and rejection. One said, I bought a field and have to go check it out. Please hold me excused. This excuse was weak, for no one would buy a field without examining every square inch of it before putting a penny down for it. It would be like someone saying today, I just bought a house, and I have to go see what it looks like. It is unlikely to happen, a made-up excuse. The host was made to feel that the field was more important than him.

Another man said, “I just bought five yokes of oxen I have to go examine them. Please hold me excused.” Again, the excuse limps. He would have checked those oxen out before buying them to see if they can work together in pairs and so on. It was the way things were done. A modern-day equivalent would be a man calling his wife and saying, I can’t make it home for dinner. I just bought five used cars and now I have to go down to the used car lot to see if they’ll start. What’s being communicated was those oxen were more important than the host and the commitment made to him.

Finally one said, “I just married. I need to be with my wife.” Notice he doesn’t even ask to be excused. He was really rude!

By the way, in that culture, women didn’t have much status, so his excuse would have been extra insulting to the host. She’s more important than the commitment you made to me, would be his feeling.

Well, Jesus went on with the story. The host became angry and changed the entire guest list. He wants a full house, so he sends his servant out – first to those who would be the least expected to be invited, the poor, the lame, the blind, people who couldn’t reciprocate his generosity. To those who didn’t deserve to be there – outcasts, unclean sinners upon whom the religious people looked down. And when the host sees the hall is still not full, he sends a servant out to invite travelers and strangers to join them in celebrating.

Some biblical scholars point out that this invitation was really talking about the Gentiles, the non-Jews. It’s almost like a prophecy pointing to the book of Acts. Gentiles and non-Jews were witnessed to about the resurrected Jesus who came to faith in Him.

Jesus turns to those at the table who were listening to the story and lowers the boom. He says, “For I tell you, NONE of those who are invited will taste my banquet.”

BANG!

Now remember Jesus has been announcing the kingdom of God throughout His ministry telling people that all is ready, and He is met with rejection and excuses. He eats with sinners and welcomes outcasts. He doesn’t keep the Sabbath like us. He doesn’t fulfill our theological and political expectations of the Messiah who would usher in God’s new day. He is a carpenter’s son!

Jesus is saying to those Pharisees and scribes through this parable, The kingdom of God has actually been staring you in the face. As you reject me, you are rejecting God’s kingdom. You will lose your place at the table if you don’t come to me. Know this: The party will go on with you or without you. The decision is yours. You are invited. Why don’t you come?

This message applies to us still today. The Good News God wants everyone to hear is this: The kingdom banquet with Jesus is ready for you. Everyone is invited, and everything has been prepared for you through the suffering, death, and resurrection of God’s Son, Jesus. The supper is ready; come and eat. As the psalmist says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good. Blessed is the one who takes refuge in him” (34:8). The invitation stands. It is up to you to accept it. This party will not be canceled, if you don’t come. But you will miss out on its blessings and joys (the forgiveness for your sins, eternal life, abundant living in the power and presence of God, and an intimate relationship with your heavenly Father). If we wish to enjoy these things, we must respond. Coming into the party involves placing your trust in Jesus Christ and what He has done for you. It means to follow Him as the Lord, the leader of your life.

While the announcement is made that God’s dinner is ready and available, it is still met with excuses even today. Just like in the parable, God’s generous invitation to receive Christ is rejected. Excuses are made.
• I’m busy with important things, like my work and career, or building my own little kingdom, success and recognition.
• I’m busy with pursuing, collecting, caring for earthly possessions.
• I have family activities, and other obligations to attend to.
• No thanks. Not now, anyway.

These things I’ve just described – work, career, possessions, and so on – are gifts from God. There is nothing wrong with them. However, they have a tendency become idols making us deaf to the invitation of Jesus Christ. They can cause us to miss God’s great banquet. What a tragedy it is when these blessings are allowed to shut out the claims of God who has made us for Himself! Remember, the party goes on – with or without those who have been invited.

I few years ago, a couple came into my office for some premarital counseling. It quickly became clear that they didn’t have much of a spiritual foundation and were missing out on the blessing we have been talking about. When I asked them, “If you were to die tonight, do you think you would go to heaven?” they didn’t know. I also asked, “If God asked why He should let you into His heaven, what would you say?” their response was, “Well, we’ve tried to live as good as we can. We haven’t hurt anybody too much.” So I shared with them the Good News of the free gift of salvation, which has been prepared for them through faith trusting in Christ. I then asked if they’d like to receive the gift from God right now. My invitation was met with silence. Finally, this soon-to-be husband said, “I don’t think so. Not now. We’re not ready for that kind of thing at this stage.” How sad.

Fortunately, though, some hear Christ’s invitation to His banquet, accept it, and gladly come. They come humbly, empty-handed knowing they don’t deserve this gift, for all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Salvation is only by grace. They come gratefully to receive forgiveness, a new start, and an intimate relationship with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A joy-filled future awaits them, which will last forever. They have a new purpose for living in this world. Their lives are blessed by the bread of life – Jesus Christ.

How about you? Have you accepted His invitation to come to the celebration banquet? I heard someone say years ago, As the invitation goes out, we are all writing our replies. It’s true!
Either the response is,

Please accept my apologies, but I’m busy right now,

which is another way of saying I have more important things to do than walk with God,

Or it is,

I know my heart’s deepest need. I am weary.
I need forgiveness from God.

You have offered it to me in Jesus Christ,
who died on the cross

and rose again to give me eternal life.
With all my heart, I accept it.

This is what God longs to hear from each and every individual.

The greatest invitation you will ever receive in your life has been given. God says, Everything is ready. It’s suppertime! Come home. I want you to come now, trusting in Christ Jesus, my Son, who laid down His life for you at the cross so you might attend and enjoy my banquet. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

The World’s Greatest Father

Luke 15:11-32

It’s Father’s Day! Today is the day many of us honor and remember fathers with cards, T-shirts, coffee mugs, and with sentiments like, “Thanks dad!”, “I love you, dad!”, “You’re the world’s greatest dad!” are being given to fathers all around the world.

Many of us, myself included, have had great dads. I have been blessed with a wonderful father who has shown me unconditional love through the years. He faithfully provided for me as I grew up, and he continues to be an encourager, a friend, and a great source of wisdom to this very day.

As great as my father is, however, he would be the first to say he is far from perfect. We fathers have our imperfections and shortcomings in love and in life. Some are easily seen; others are buried deep inside of us. We are all sinful creatures.

As I talk about fathers, I am mindful that my story is very different from others’ whose every thought of an earthly father is of pain. To those of you for whom this is true, I want you to know this: Grace and the love of God for you is found in our Abba Father.

In today’s text, we find Jesus drawing a story picture of the world’s greatest Father. It is probably one of the more popular parables of Jesus. Some call it “The Prodigal Son,” others call it “The Lost Sons.” I propose we call this parable “The Story of the Prodigal Father.” The word “prodigal” means extravagant, lavish, spendthrift, generous, which describes the father exactly in this parable.

By the way, this story is told in response to the grumblings of the religious people who are horrified as they observe Jesus welcoming tax collectors and other elements of society they considered lowlifes. He even sat at the table and ate with them! Everyone knew what crooks these tax collectors were. The Pharisees and scribes couldn’t believe that Jesus, a man of God, would give them the time of day, much less have table fellowship with them.

Table fellowship was a very important matter in that day, for it implied acceptance. The Jewish leaders called Jesus’ actions and character into question because He did this. Jesus, aware of their grumbling and criticism, told them three parables. One was about a lost sheep, another about a lost coin, and then finally the parable we have today about a father who had two sons.

Both of these sons broke their father’s heart. The younger son broke it when he rebelled. He wanted his independence and decided he didn’t want to live under dad’s roof any longer. So he demanded his share of the inheritance, which is the same as saying to his dad, I want you dead! He was selfish, insulting, and hurtful toward his father.

Surprisingly, the father gave in to him, thereby putting the entire farming operation in jeopardy. He had to liquidate his assets, because his wealth was in the property. One third of the property and goods needed to be liquidated, which would create hardship for both the father and the eldest son.

The younger son went off and squandered his inheritance in a faraway country. But when a famine hit, he wound up destitute and took a job feeding pigs for a local farmer (which is about as low as a Jewish kid could get). He then began thinking about home and how good he had it there. So he came to his senses and put together an “I’m sorry” speech: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Let me work for you as a hired hand.”

He started the long walk toward home, not sure what kind of reception he would receive. After what he’d done, his father had every right to drive him away and consider him dead to the family. But as he neared the house, he saw a figure running toward him. It was his father who had seen the son coming off in the distance! It seemed his father had looked off into the horizon and saw his son’s familiar walk. As he got closer, he knew it was his son. He had compassion and ran to the boy.

Running was considered an undignified thing for a grown man to do in those days. Children and young people run, not an older man with a reputation to protect. He would have had to lift his robe and expose his bare legs to everyone. How undignified! The children of the community would have giggled at the sight. However, he needed to get to his son before anyone else might see the boy and throw rocks at him for his insult to the community.

The father embraced and kissed his son before the boy could even fall down before him and humbly beg. As the first part of the rehearsed speech left the boy’s lips, his father broke in and said to the servants who had followed him down the road “Quick! Get the best robe, the signet ring, and sandals. Butcher the fatted calf, and let’s invite the entire village to celebrate with me! For this son of mine who was lost, now is found.” Amazing!

People only ate meat on really special occasions back then. The father was pulling out all the stops. Note the extravagance here. The father doesn’t forgive the way we tend to forgive. We prefer the father be gracious, but not overly so. Yeah, we’re glad you’re home, son. Now, let’s do away with the left earring and have a bit more responsibility out of you. We’re going to have a meal and talk about your application to law school.

But the father doesn’t do that, does he? He just celebrates! The father’s forgiveness of his son, his spending and recklessness. . . . It’s amazing! It’s crazy! The lost son was found and welcomed with open arms. He was thrown a party, though he did not deserve it.

The story isn’t over yet. Remember, the man had two sons. When the oldest son came in from the field, heard all the music and celebrating, and saw all these people coming and going out of the house, he asked one of the servants in the front yard, “What is going on in there?” The servant told him about his younger brother coming home and about the father killing the fatted calf. The older son became furious and refused to come into the house, thus embarrassing his father in front of the community.

When the father came out to him and pleaded him to join the celebration, the oldest son told him off. “Look, all these years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has devoured your property with prostitutes came, you killed the fattened calf for him!”

It isn’t fair. You haven’t treated me well. That son of yours has done harm, squandered everything away. Now having him home will cost us. And what’s left of the property will probably be divided again.

And as he spilled all this hurtful language out at his dad, we learn that although he stayed home, he was just as lost as the younger brother. He felt he deserved to have a say in all of this. We discover he wasn’t working out of love for the father, but for a reward, a payback for himself.

Even after all this, the father pleads: “Son, you’re always with me and all I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was lost and he is found, was dead is now alive.” This father shows such patience, grace, and love toward the rude, disrespectful, elder son, even though he is receiving no respect and honor from him. Extravagant, unexplainable, love, and grace is being shown.

Jesus ends the parable with the elder son standing outside of the house and the father pleading for him to come in. He doesn’t tie this story up neatly with a happy ending. We don’t know if the elder son went in.

We need to remember who Jesus is addressing: the self-righteous religious folks, the elder-brother types who were horrified that He’d give the dirty, crooked tax collectors the time of day. It’s as if He was saying to them, The kingdom of God has come! These folks have figured it out. They’ve come home! Rejoice! Come in. Join us, and celebrate God’s grace.

There we have it – from the lips of Jesus Himself. We have a prodigal Heavenly Father whose extravagant love welcomes sinners who come home to Him, even though they do not deserve it. In fact, He actually celebrates our return, even after all we’ve done to Him with our sinfulness and rebellion – how we thumbed our nose in His face. It’s amazing, crazy when you think about it: the love He shows!

This is the reason, my friends, why He deserves the title “The World’s Greatest Father”. Our Heavenly Father gives His all in all to sinful fathers and mothers and sons and daughters. An extravagant gift of forgiveness and grace is being offered to every sinful person who turns to Him, trusting in His Son Jesus Christ.

Remember, even though God gives grace freely, it is costly to Him. The Father’s Son, Jesus, who truly loved the Father from the beginning, came after us to bring us home. He lived the life of the perfect Son who obeyed His Father’s will all the way to the end. God gave Him to us to save us from our sin. Jesus ultimately paid for our debt at the cross to cover our sinfulness. On the cross, He experienced the rejection we deserve, and we hear Him cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me?”

Tim Keller writes,

If after service on Sunday morning one of the members of my church comes to me and says, “I never want to see or talk to you again,” I will feel pretty bad. But if today my wife or my lifelong best friend came up to me and said ‘I never want to see you or talk to you again,’ that’s a lot worse. The longer the love, the deeper the love, the greater the torment of its loss.

But this forsakenness, this loss, experienced by Christ on the cross, the relational loss, was between the Father and the Son, who had loved each other from all eternity. . .

Jesus was experiencing our judgment day. ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ It wasn’t a rhetorical question. The answer is: For you, for me, for us. Jesus was forsaken by God so we would never have to be. The judgment that should have fallen on us fell instead on Jesus.

What prodigal love the Father has shown us!

Jesus rose from the grave and lives to give us His inheritance! Eternal life with God, is freely offered to us as a gift.

The central focus and wonder of this parable, my friends, is not so much on the faithlessness and sinfulness of humanity. There’s no surprise there. It is on the faithfulness and love of God the Father. He is the main character in all three acts of the drama. The most remarkable aspect of the story is his unexpected, undeserved, extravagant love. This describes the father in this parable: extravagant. Jesus tells us, “That is your God, your Heavenly Father.”

This parable reminds me of a favorite saying I came across years ago. The Gospel is this:

You are more sinful than you dared believe,
and more loved than you dared hope.

This is what the Prodigal Son story or the Prodigal God story is all about. It is the Gospel truth. Believe it, trust it, build your life on it. It is told in hopes of getting a response from people like you and me.

Some are like the first son – far away, lost in our rebellion and independence, thinking I can live without you, God. I don’t need you. Come home is the message. Jesus is showing you what awaits you: a loving Father who will receive you.

Others are far away because they’ve gotten carelessly lost as they listen to other voices. They’ve thoughtlessly strayed. This story is to wake them up. Come home to the Father who loves you!

Some of us are far away from God in our self-righteousness. We are religious, keep the rules, but we’re still sitting in the darkness, keeping our Father at arm’s length. Trying to control our own eternal destiny, thinking I’ve done a lot of good, God owes me! Friend, that is as much of a dead end as the first son. The encouragement from Jesus is simply this: Give up that kind of thinking. Put down your religious trophies. Come home empty-handed. Your Father freely welcomes you. Receive His welcoming grace.

The bottom line of this parable is no matter who you are or what you’ve done, the world’s greatest Father loves you. He loves you so much He gave His Son to die for you. Come home, enjoy the party, enjoy the Father’s presence in your life. Trust Him.

If you find yourself identifying with one of these two sons, far away from the Father, the parable says “You can come home!” Your Father is waiting to receive you into His loving arms. So come home. Come to Him now, and you will be glad you did. Amen!

Pastor Steve Kramer
Christian Crusaders