Jesus Is: The Lamb

John 1:29-34

Dear Friends:

About three years ago, I think it was, I read a wonderful book entitled “Grace” by Max Lucado, and in this book he tells a story.

It seems that there was this Chinese man named Li Fuyan, who tried every treatment imaginable to ease his headaches, but nothing helped. An x-ray finally revealed the culprit: there was a 4-inch rusty knife blade that had gotten lodged in his skull, and it been there for the past four years. You see, in an attack by a robber Li Fuyan had suffered lacerations on the right side of his jaw. He didn’t know the blade had broken off inside his head, and that’s what was behind the pain.

Lucado comments on this story: he says we can’t live with foreign objects buried in our bodies (or our souls). What would an x-ray of your interior reveal? Regrets over an earlier relationship? Remorse over a poor choice? Shame about a marriage that didn’t work, the habit you couldn’t quit, the temptation you didn’t resist, or the courage you couldn’t find? Guilt lies beneath the surface. It festers and irritates. It’s embedded in us. Guilt, shame, remorse…

On an episode of “This American Life”, a public radio show, host Ira Glass remarks:

Some regrets never go away. People tell us they forgive us, we try to forgive ourselves, and we still know like we did wrong, like we hurt somebody, it was real. And that feeling, it can immobilize you. If you’re lucky, it teaches you something you can take into other situations. But I think often it’s just like this pebble in your shoe. It teaches you nothing. It doesn’t slow you down, really. It just hurts. It just hurts in a way that does not stop hurting.”

Regrets, shame, remorse…

In a New York Times article, columnist David Brooks wrote a couple years ago he argues “religion may be in retreat but guilt seems as powerfully present as ever.” Regrets, guilt, shame…  Brooks has it right. What do you do, though, with your guilt and your regrets?

John the Baptist points us to Jesus in response to that question, and he says “Look! The Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world!” That got people’s attention. We’ve been doing a series, “Jesus Is”. This is the second message in the series and here we learn that Jesus Is: the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world. That image of the lamb had to have stirred memories from the Old Testament for those that heard John speak. For instance, we remember Abraham and Isaac on the mountain in Genesis 22, where Abraham was about to sacrifice his only son Isaac, and just as he is raising a knife up God stops him. And they look up, they see a ram caught in the thicket. It had been provided by God for the sacrifice. We have described for us the sacrificial lambs that were used in the temple of Jerusalem. Leviticus 14 tells us “and the priest shall take one of the male lambs and offer it for a guilt offering for the sins of the people.” And then there’s Isaiah 53, where the prophet Isaiah describes the “suffering servant” who will come, “and He will be led away like a Lamb to the slaughter for His people.” And of course we don’t want to forget the Passover lamb from the book of Exodus. Remember that story, where the blood of the lamb protected the Israelite firstborn children when the Angel of Death swept over the land of Egypt. And each year as the Jews celebrate Passover that lamb reminds Israel of God’s goodness, His protection, as well as their deliverance and redemption from slavery under the Pharaoh.

 

But there’s more here than simply the image of a lamb. John said he’s a lamb *of God*. OF GOD. He’s sent by God. He’s of God, is provided by God, He’s the son of God. And He was provided for what? For our sin, “the sin of the world” John says. You see humankind’s greatest problem is sin, and it needs a solution. Scripture tells us that all of us has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We’re rebels against God. You don’t have to read scripture to understand that all of us has sinned. You just have to watch the news, don’t you? Notice John says here “sin”, not the plural “sins”. He says that because he’s pointing us to the reality of the spiritual condition that exists within us, that we’re born with and cannot cure ourselves. Paul talks about it in Romans 5, telling us that sin runs deeper than sinful actions and words or thoughts. He says “therefore just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” Our sinful actions and thoughts and words and things that we leave undone are the symptoms of our sin condition that’s within us. The natural inclination to be selfish and egocentric and full of pride? That’s sin. It’s the cause. Sins are the effect. Sin is the tree. Sins are the fruit. Sin is the disease. Sins are the symptoms. Billy Graham said sin is “the cause of all trouble, the root of all sorrow.” The dread of every person lies in one small word: sin. It’s crippled the nature of men and women. It has caused humankind to be caught in the devil’s trap. And sin lies at the heart of chaotic world conditions as we know them. As we look around and say “what’s wrong with this world?” there’s a very simple explanation, it’s called sin and it’s existed through the centuries. And sin has eternal deadly consequences: “the wages of sin is death.” Death in this life, being separated from God, and death in the life to come, away from God.

Now as far as our symptomatic sins that we can see, we’ve tried all kinds of things to deal with them. You know what I mean. We try to cover them up, hide them, like Adam and Eve did in the Garden. Or try to ignore them, or narcotize them with drugs and alcohol. Or fix things ourselves to make things right with God. Or for transfer the blame to someone else or something else. Or explain them away with rationalizations: “everybody’s doing it”. But none of that works, does it? There is no peace within. Our guilt for us can crush us. King David tells us that in Psalm 32. He said, after he had adultery with Bathsheba, “when I kept silent my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long, for day and night your hand, Lord, was heavy upon me. My strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.” He was depressed!

So there’s the human predicament: sin. Which brings about our regrets and our guilt and our shame, and a causes a great chasm between God and us. The relationship with God and with others, and with ourselves even, that was intended for us has been broken by this spiritual disease called sin. And the truth is we cannot fix this predicament ourselves. But here we have John the Baptist announcing the good news: that God has provided the solution. The cure. The healing for your soul: Jesus the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” That’s why Christ came at Christmas. He came into our world to take away everyone’s sin. And to “take away” means “to take up” or “bear”. Jesus took away our sin by taking it upon himself, and he bore it himself. Our sins were laid upon him. Our sin – he took. You see, we know where the story is headed, right? That Lamb, that John is pointing to, will go to a cross and suffer my punishment so that I won’t have to – for sin. He will pay the debt for my sin which I could never repay because of my spiritual bankruptcy. He who was rich became poor so that I might become rich in God. That’s how serious sin is to God. And that’s how much you are loved by God. Someone put this way, I like this:

How you measure the size of a fire? By the number of firefighters and fire engines sent to fight against it. And how we measure the seriousness of a medical condition? By the amount of risk the doctors take in prescribing dangerous drugs or surgical procedures. How do we measure the gravity of sin and the incomparable vastness of God’s love for us? By looking at the magnitude of what God has done for us in Jesus, His son, who died like a common criminal for our sake and in our place at the cross.

Hebrews 10 tells us that Jesus was carrying out God’s will at that cross, he says, and by it we have been sanctified, made holy in God’s sight through the offering of the body of Jesus.

And it’s once – for all – did you get that?  Once, for all, this sacrifice. We cannot add a single thing to what has been done for us by Jesus Christ. We’re covered! Peter witnesses in his letter that you and I were “ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” Paul describes the implications of this sacrifice on the cross in the 5th chapter of Romans: “therefore as one trespass led to condemnation for all people so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all people.” It‘s this Lamb’s perfect, once-for-all sacrifice for sin that provides the foundation of a renewed relationship with God. He is our hope as we sit in our regrets, in our guilt, in our Shane. He is our freedom as we look over our lives and wonder “what am I to do with these things?” Trusting in the Lamb of God, Jesus, we can repent and come to Him and receive forgiveness, cleansing, and a new start. There’s an old hymn that Isaac Watts wrote that really captures the truth of this. He says

Not all the blood of beasts on Jewish altar slain
Could give the guilty conscience peace, or wash away its stain.
But Christ the Heavenly Lamb takes all our sins away
A sacrifice of nobler name and richer blood than they.

It’s the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That’s our answer for our burdens, our sin, our guilt, and regrets. And how can we know this is all true? Because that Lamb, that died on the cross, was raised from the dead and exalted by God. He sits at the right hand of the Father. All authority has been given to him. The Lamb of God has the final word over us. We read that in John’s book of Revelation, chapters 5, 6, and 7. It says “I saw the Lamb of God” and he said “He was like a triumphant, victorious” individual. It’s an exalted title. John memorializes the sacrificial work of Christ, and he tells one day we will hear the angels singing with a loud voice “worthy is the Lamb who was slain! To receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing! Worthy is the Lamb!”

Friends, this Jesus is so much more than a great teacher and a prophet. He’s more than a moral example to be emulated. In last week’s message we learned He’s the son of God, He’s God the servant King. Today we learned this life-giving truth: Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away your sin. In Him alone there is forgiveness for sin, and where there is forgiveness, friend, there is life. And you and I need that life. We need Him for forgiveness, and a right, saving relationship with God. Everyone needs Him. So I’m told in scripture what will I do with the burden of sin and guilt and shame? The dread of facing God’s judgment? I bring it to Jesus, the Lamb of God. We don’t need to be crippled or captive any longer to the disease of sin in our lives because God provided the cure through His Son Jesus Christ, Lamb of God. Place your trust in Him and what He’s done for you. Come to Him, come to the Lamb in faith. Bring your burdens, your guilt, your regrets, your brokenness, and receive forgiveness and a new life that’s free from sin, and death, and the power the devil. As you turn to Him in repentance, He will not turn you away. He will forgive you. For those who are already walking with Christ, the message is: come to Him daily. We’re not perfect by any means. Come to Him confessing those sins that still find their way into your everyday thoughts and words and actions and receive your daily baptism, the daily drowning of the old, egocentric person. Know this: Jesus the Lamb of God stands ready to forgive you. Let’s use this next hymn as our closing prayer, and we’ll sing that last line of each verse: “O Lamb of God, I come.”

Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

Jesus Is: God’s Son, the Servant King

Matthew 3:13-17

Dear friends,

I’d like to have you complete this statement for me: “Life is…” Some of you may think ‘life is a bowl of cherries’. We think of Forrest Gump who said “life is a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.” Someone else has said “life is a journey.” There are T-shirts out today that remind us “life is good”. There are a whole host of possibilities with which you can fill in that blank.

Now, how would you finish the statement: “Jesus is…” Again, there are a variety of answers to put in that blank. Some are true, some half true. Some are absolutely false. Some are versions of Jesus that simply reflect our own desires and our own leanings. I do want to you to know this though: that how you fill in that blank is really important. In fact, knowing Jesus and everything you can about Him is the most important thing you’ll ever have in life. The apostle Paul, who at one time was an opponent to the Christian faith but after meeting Christ had a different outlook, wrote “But whatever again I had I count as loss for Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” It’s an important blank to fill in. “Jesus is…” And for the next few weeks we’re going to let Scripture fill in that blank for us with a variety of truths about Jesus regarding His character, His purpose, and His vision for our lives on planet Earth.

So today we began at the baptism of Jesus. God tells us quite plainly “Jesus is…My Son.” He’s the Son of God, this Jesus. Like the hymn says in ‘Beautiful Savior’ “Son of God and Son of Man.” He’s God in the flesh. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” That’s the Christmas story: God has come to be with us. Max Lucado, one of my favorite Christian authors, tells a wonderful story which encapsulates this truth:

“Charlie was 10”, Lucado writes. “School was out for Christmas and the family had chosen to spend the holiday in the country. The boy pressed his nose against the bay window of the vacation home and marveled at the British winter. He was happy to trade the blackened streets of London for the cotton-white freshness of snow-covered hills. His mom invited him to go for a drive with her, and he quickly accepted. A halcyon moment was in the making. She snaked the car down the twisty road, the tires crunched the snow, and the boy puffed his breath on the window. He was thrilled to be out. Mother, however, was anxious. Heavy snow began to fall, visibility lessened. As she took the curve the car started to slide. It didn’t stop until it was in a ditch. She tried to drive out, the tires just spun. They were stuck. They needed help. A mile down the road sat a house. Off they went and knocked on the door. ‘Of course’ the woman told them, ‘Come in, warm yourselves, the phone is yours.’ She offered them tea and cookies, and urged them to stay until help arrived.” Lucado writes “An ordinary event, you think? Don’t suggest that to the woman who opened the door. She has never forgotten that day. She’s retold the story a thousand times, and who could blame her? It’s not often that royalty appears on your porch! For the two travelers stranded by the English winter were no less than Queen Elizabeth II and the heir to the throne, 10-year-old Charles.”

The word on the streets of Heaven and the lips of Christians is that something far grander has happened to our world. Royalty has walked on our streets. Heaven’s prince has knocked on our door. His visit, however, was no accident, and He did much more than simply stay for tea. He came to save us, didn’t He? Jesus is God in the flesh come to be with us, to save us.

Now since He is God in the flesh, that means he is sinless and perfect, right? Many people wonder, then, if He was sinless why was He down at the Jordan River getting baptized by John the Baptist, (whose baptism was a baptism of repentance for sins). Well the best answer that I’ve found to that question is that, first of all, His baptism day was like an inauguration day. It was the first day of His “salvation campaign”. It marked the beginning. We also, though, have Jesus saying it was “to fulfill all righteousness”. That’s what He said to John. It was the right thing to do, in other words, the obedient thing. It was His Father’s will, part of the plan. He would identify Himself with sinful humanity. We also see that when he emerged from the waters of the Jordan River, the heavens are suddenly ripped open and the Holy Spirit, like a dove, descended and rested upon Jesus. As if another affirmation. We’re reminded of Isaiah 42: “I will put My Spirit upon Him,” God says, “this One who is to come.” Here we are also reminded of a prayer in Isaiah 64 that was answered that day. A prayer that pleads with God: “Oh, that You would render the heavens and come down!” God seems to be saying “I have come down: this is My Son.”

But there’s more here than meets the eye. God’s words about Jesus happen to be special words. They’re loaded with meaning. They not only give us His identity but they also give us His job description, His purpose. When God says “This is My Son” His words are from Psalm 2 in the Old Testament. They are words that were used at the anointing and coronation of the Kings of Israel. And there’s a promise that goes back to King David in 2 Samuel 7, as God made His covenant with David. He said, “the King that is to come, this special King, I shall be His Father, He shall be My Son.” After the exile of Israel you know there were no kings, and so this Psalm began to be read with a future hope. Someday the Son would come, our King, that God promised. He is the long-awaited King God promised, this Jesus. What is a king’s job description? We’re not really sure about that in our democratic society. We don’t have kings. But a king is to provide and protect and care for his subjects, as well as a rule over them. He establishes his kingdom in the world. So these words are meant to be encouraging words for us, then. Jesus is our King who has come to care for us, to rule over us.

But there’s more! God also says He’s the “beloved with whom I am well pleased.” That’s from Isaiah 42, which is referred to as the “Servant Song”. It’s one of several servant songs in Isaiah. The servant song in Isaiah describes one, a messianic character, who will carry out God’s plan. He would be a servant, loving people, the people of God, to the end. Of course we see Jesus washing the feet of His disciples in John 13, taking the role of a servant. And He would love them to the end. In fact, in another servant song found in Isaiah 53 it says “He will suffer and die to rescue them (and us) from our sin”. All of us, like sheep, have gone astray. We have turned everyone to his own way, Isaiah says, and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. And that He has, as Jesus goes to the cross later on to pay for the sins of us all.

By the way, in Matthew this is actually a public announcement from God Himself about Jesus. It’s not just to Jesus. In fact we hear John, in John’s gospel, John the Baptist say “I saw this, I witnessed this, I heard this.” It calls for response from us. We’re supposed to do something. What do we do with this Jesus, the Son of God, the Servant King? Well the first and most important thing is that we would believe in the Son. Jesus told us that He wants us to trust in Him, to follow Him. “You believe in God,” Jesus says, “believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go and prepare a place for you? When I go and prepare that place for you I will come again and take you to Myself, that where I am, you may be also.” We’re to believe in the Son. To bet our lives on Him and what He’s done for us. God testifies that Jesus is King.

So what does it mean for me to have Jesus as my King? Well, let’s go back to Psalm 2 for that answer, where the psalmist writes, at the end of the coronation, “kings of the earth be wise, be warned. Serve Him. Kiss the Son.” Which means give Him homage, bend the knee to Him. “And blessed are those who take refuge in the Son” he says. In other words, you submit yourself, every area of your life, to the King. You say to him “Jesus You’re in charge of my life from now on. You call the shots, and I will obey.”

A King is also meant to be a model to relate to, and to copy, in our lives. Which gets us to the next point: if Jesus is a servant, a Servant King, what are the implications of this if I am his subject? And it’s simply this: than I am to be a servant to others in His name. We go back to John 13 were Jesus has washed the feet of his disciples, and Jesus said to them when that was finished “you understand what I’ve done for you? You call Me Lord and Teacher, you’re right, I am. I have set for you an example. If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, I want you to wash one another’s feet.” Again as I said earlier, washing feet was the job of a servant. Jesus says “I want you to be servants to one another. Serve others in my name.” A few weeks ago I visited the Stillwater Prison to participate in a chapel service. I was asked to come and lead the singing that night, bring my guitar along, it was quite an experience. The two men that invited me, the friends of mine, they were the ones that brought the teaching for the inmates that evening. I discovered that they had been at this ministry for almost twenty years. Every other Thursday night they showed up to that prison to share the gospel, and worship with prison inmates, and befriended some of them. Some of them believers, some of them seekers. I was touched by their wholehearted commitment to serve, to walk in the footsteps of the One who said that the “Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Last Thursday two women from our church came by our home and picked up my wife Julie and they went down to a homeless shelter downtown St. Paul. They spent three hours preparing and serving lunch to homeless people. All these women there are retired from the workforce but not from the servant force of Jesus. So every week they drive downtown and give themselves to serve in Christ’s name. You see the servant of Christ the King never retires from serving others. So where can I get started? You don’t have to look far to find a person that needs your attention, your help, your service. Start seeing and hearing needy, hurting people. It’s a simple as that. Then go and serve them in Christ’s name. Mother Teresa, a real servant, said one time:

“I know you think you should make a trip to Calcutta and join me, but I strongly advise you to save your airfare and spend it on the poor in your own country. It’s easy to love people far away; it’s not always easy to love those who are living right next to us. There are thousands of people dying for a piece of bread but there are thousands more dying for a bit of love, and a bit of acknowledgment. The truth is that the worst disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, it’s being unwanted. It’s being left out. It’s being forgotten. The greatest scourge is to be so suffocated with things that we forget the next person.”

Let’s complete the statement now, according to what God’s word has taught us today: Jesus Is… the Son of God, the Servant King. Therefore, believe in Him, submit every area of your life to this King. Be a servant in His name.

Amen

Pastor Steve Kramer

Have a Happy New Year With Jesus

John 1:1, 14, 16-18

Dear Friends:

We ushered in a new year just a few days ago, so let me pause here and wish you a happy new year!

You know, each new year I can't help but stop and wonder about what the next year will bring to me and to this world. Maybe you do that as well. For some, in looking ahead, that can be troubling. There can be some anxious and pessimistic concerns. For some people, they can't help but notice there are so many things wrong in this world. For instance in our own United States we’re experiencing rough waters in our government and politics. People are worried about health care costs. Of course the warnings are coming more often now about climate change issues, and that's unsettling as we think about the future for our children. There seems to be a deep polarization in society today over so many issues. And there’s gun violence being on the rise and mass shootings in our schools and nothing but negative news on TV. And we can't help but notice an erosion of morals and values as well as a questioning of absolutes and truth all around us. And civility seems to be lost. Of course there is this thing called change; the world is changing faster and faster it seems. We typically don't like change - it means making uncomfortable adjustments, and that can be hard on us. I don’t know about you but I'm finding it harder and harder to keep up with technology. And then there are the daily insecurities of life as we wonder ahead. ‘Will my health hold up?’ ‘I’m not getting any younger!’ Or finances: “will have enough for the future?” So when someone wishes us a happy new year some of you may be thinking “Happy new year?! Fat chance! I don’t know how that’s ever going to happen for me!”

Well, I believe that you will find the John's statements in his gospel, which we read earlier, more than helpful to hold onto as you step into 2020. They contain some very good news for you and me.

First of all the statements make a wonderful announcement: God has come in the flesh! “The Word was with God, and the Word was God, and the Word became flesh.” The birth of Jesus. He dwelt among us, meaning literally He pitched his tent, He took up residence with us. He was God's gift of love to the world. God has come, but listen: He's never left. And He never will! In fact, Christ will be making another appearance again in the future to restore God's world once and for all, according to His plans. Everything is under control. Relax! You are in good hands, strong hands that will never let you go. This is not an abandoned planet. I may not know what my future holds, but I know the One who holds my future. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and is dwelled among us full of grace and truth.” Trusting in Him my future is sealed, no matter what the circumstances that come my way. And if you wonder if anyone knows how you feel as you face life, He does. As one of us He experienced all the hurts that life can throw at an individual: pain, and disappointment, and hunger, and thirst, and rejection, and hostility, and frustration, and discouragement, and human limitations. So when you turn to Him in prayer and approach His throne of grace, know this for sure: you do not have an unsympathetic high priest (as the book of Hebrews refers to Jesus) listening to you. He could very well be nodding His head in agreement, as if to say “I know how you feel. I've been there Myself. I know life's hurts.”

John goes on to testify “we have seen His glory, as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Christ has made God known to us. We've seen his glory, John says, which means God's manifestation, His person. “God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” No one has ever seen God, but the Son has made Him known to us. In other words, when you look at Jesus Christ you're looking into the face of God. You are seeing the heart of God. And what do we see in that heart as we look at the actions and words of Jesus in the Gospels? We see grace and truth, John says. We see gracious compassion for the hurting, the forgotten, the ignored. We see loving kindness for all kinds of people. We see power to change things and change people's lives. We see forgiveness for the condemned. And above all we see amazing love. Love that washes the feet of His disciples like a servant. Love that goes to a cross, laying down His life for His own. And He is truth. And He knows what makes our lives work. After all, He created it in the first place. So consider this: you and I enter 2020 with the God who is not only with us never leaves us, but He loves us more deeply than we can ever fathom. He has compassion for us and will never ever desert us. And He is truth. We can count on Him. He has integrity. He is faithful. As we follow Him in His word, He promises to show us how life works best.

So, are you feeling any better about the future yet? Okay then, try this next truth on for size!

The exclamation point of this beautiful writing from John is the testimony that in Christ God's grace is ours to experience day after day after day. Listen to these words: “and from Christ's fullness we have received grace upon grace” John says. Grace upon grace! That's a lot of grace! Just piled up grace. That grace in Jesus Christ never will run out, in other words. It would be like us trying to drain the ocean with a teaspoon. That's impossible! We can't do it. What is his grace that John talks about here? Well grace means, literally, ‘the unmerited favor of God toward you and me’. First there is God's saving grace. Someone once explained grace by using it is an acronym. Grace means this:

God's
Riches
At
Christ's
Expense.

It’s God's riches given to us at Christ's expense. We were lost in our sin and could not make things right in our relationship with God. We rebelled against Him. We became separated from Him. God is holy and just. Our sinfulness had to be paid for, covered in some way. So God in Christ came into this world to take our place and pay for our sinfulness through His innocent suffering and death at the cross. This Baby was whose birth we just celebrated at Christmas became a man and paid for our sins at a cross years later. And we are saved from sin, death, and the power the devil by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. You see, as we place our trust in Christ and what He has done for us, we receive the gift of these eternal salvation with God. We belong to Him forever. This Jesus who paid for our sins and rose again has broken the chains of sin and death for us and He has gone ahead and prepared a place in Heaven for his followers. Saving grace!

There is also God's all-sufficient grace to experience in Christ. That's grace that’s given to strengthen us along the way, with the power and presence of God Himself. When we’re feeling weak and overwhelmed, He fills us up. And no matter what 2020 may throw at you, know this: God is there for you with His all-sufficient grace.

So we have grace upon grace upon grace upon grace upon grace as ours when we belong to Jesus Christ. That's the good news today in this passage. And that leads to a deep-seeded happiness; a joy and a peace that no circumstance can take away from you. I want to share with you a wonderful little story I came across many years ago from Norman Vincent Peal. He writes:

I had a friend, a newspaper man, who used to be as irreligious a man as you could find. He was a lovable old pagan, in fact he claimed to be atheist. I never took much stock in that because he was so decent, kindly. Then all of a sudden he found Jesus Christ, and you should see him now! One of his former associates said to him “you must find life very dull now.” “Dull?!” replied my friend. Then he paid Jesus one of the greatest compliments I've ever heard in my life. “Why, I've been laughing ever since I met Him.”

“That's it!” Peale goes on to say. When a person has truly discovered Jesus he says ‘Merry Christmas’ because it means that he has been set free! He has an uplifted feeling. He feels a sense of conquest. He is happy!

So if you are someone who is anxious about the upcoming year, my New Year's appeal to you is this: take seriously what John has shared with us today. Turn your eyes upon Jesus and experience a year full of His grace upon grace and His truth. Walk through this new year with Jesus at the center of your life. If you haven't done this, you simply ask Him in to take over your life, to be a Leader, your Savior, your teacher in every area of living. And then walk with Him daily and experience the grace He wants to place in your life. There really is no special trick to having a close walk with Jesus. This comes about by taking on some ordinary habits that you work with each day. Like this: take 15 minutes a day and open your Bible, and let Jesus speak into your life. Use the year to slowly read through the Gospels of Matthew and Mark and Luke and John. Just a few verses each day. Then do some reflecting about what you learned about Jesus and God and living life with Him in His kingdom. Next, and I can't emphasize this enough, participate in the community of faith. Make weekly worship a priority if you can get out. Connect with other Christians in acts of serving inside and outside the church community. You’ll be walking close to Jesus in that. Finally, pray. Never miss a day to spend time with your Heavenly Father. You’ll be glad you did.

So my friend, here's wishing you a happy new year with Jesus, your Lord and your Savior.

Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

The King’s Return

Matthew  24:27-42

Dear friends:

I pray that the wonder of Christmas fills you with joy in your life of faith as we celebrate the truth that Jesus has come to the world. Jesus has been born to be our Savior!

But I want to remind you today that the same Jesus whose birth we celebrate was born to be our Savior, has promised to return for us someday. Someday the King Jesus Christ will return to establish His kingdom forever. Billy Graham once was quoted as saying “I read the last page of the Bible; it’s going to turn out all right.” Jesus taught us to pray the Lord’s Prayer “Thy kingdom come,” so as often as we pray that prayer we’re praying for Jesus to come again, to establish His kingdom. Did you know that there are 380 verses in the Scriptures about Jesus’ second coming? King Jesus is returning to Earth someday to establish His kingdom forever. And the Christian believers living in the world at that moment in time will be raptured, will be called up with Christ in the air! That’s what we read in 1 Thessalonians chapter 4. That Jesus, when that trumpet blast happens, will bring with him all the believers who have fallen asleep in the faith through the centuries of time. What a day that will be!

Can you imagine how bewildered the disciples were immediately after Easter? They had just watched their Lord die on a cross, bleeding until He breathed His last. The one they believed to be God (and the Messiah) now died and was laid in the tomb, buried behind a sealed stole. Then they rejoiced that He was raised from the dead, that He conquered death, that He was alive forever; only, on a certain day, to have Jesus float up into the sky out of their midst. And an Angel appears and says “why are you staring at the sky? Jesus, Whom you watched ascend, will come back again!” “When will that be?” No one knows the time or the day – not the Angels, not the Son of God, but only the Father.

When I was a boy I feared the rapture. I worried that I wasn’t good enough, that my faith wasn’t strong enough or sincere enough. I worried that I wasn’t obedient enough and that I would be “left behind” when Christ returns. My faith had not yet fully understood the Gospel promise. I didn’t live with the assurance of salvation – with the joy and peace of knowing that I was forgiven and saved because of what Jesus did. You see, the second coming of Jesus Christ should not be something we fear, it should be an event of great thrill! It will be a day of excitement! The first time, Jesus was born in humility and vulnerability; a little infant, powerless, lying in the manger. He was born to die on a cross to be our redeemer. But the second coming of Jesus Christ… He will come with power and great glory and every eye will see him! He’ll come in victory and triumph. So my hope is that each of us affirms our faith and lives with the assurance of our salvation and peace with God.

So there are some truths I want to unpack with you about the second coming of Jesus. When the King returns the Father has given Him authority to be judge of the world. Not everyone will go to Heaven, not because God wills it, but because they reject His love offered in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ will come as judge not with vengeance as if His patience was exhausted or He was punitive in His judgment or retaliatory. But He knows those who are His. Jesus knows those who believe in Him and those who don’t. So it says in Matthew 24 “one will be taken and one will be left behind”. In Philippians 2 it says “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess Jesus Christ is Lord.” Some will meet Jesus on that day as their longed-for Savior. But some will meet Jesus that day as their judge. Jesus said some will beat on the door and say “let us in!”, and Jesus will say “sorry, I never knew you.” So Jesus comes as judge because not everyone is a believer in Him and not everyone believes His promises to be true, so not all will go to Heaven.

Second, when the King returns it says in the scripture it’ll be like the days of Noah. Noah was a preacher of righteousness. But imagine what it was like when he began to build that big honkin’ boat (the ark) in the middle of a grassy meadow, and people would come up and ask him “why are you building a boat in the middle of this meadow?” And he, the preacher of righteousness, would say “because God is going to judge the world with a flood. But it is still a day for you to come back to God, to ask for His mercy and affirm faith.” In the days of Noah it will be a time of anarchy and violence. There will be no respect for life. Life will be cheap. We know that throughout history there are wars, but in our time period there’s terrorism – the senseless slaughter of lives of innocent people designed to induce fear in all the culture. There are more abortions committed today than ever before and it’s a tragedy in our cultured world. Life is cheap; violence is perpetrated throughout the world through human trafficking. Life is cheap; great violence, if you listen only to the news and were not a believer in Jesus as the Lord of history you’d be a pessimist. But as in the days of Noah it’ll also be a time of great apostasy. Many people falling away from the faith. Many people denying the Jesus is God. Many people abandoning the church and forsaking their faith. Worse than that, becoming mockers of our faith. It says in the time of Noah in Genesis 6:5 “the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was so great on Earth that the intent or imaginations of human hearts were for evil continually.” It wasn’t just the people were weak and falling into sin, but that they were creative in their evil; that their imaginations led to crafty immorality and wickedness. The days of Noah were also times of apathy to spiritual life. The Holy Spirit calls and calls but people turn a deaf ear to the invitations of God to come and receive His love. Scoffers reject the love of Jesus Christ totally and live as their own masters. Time passes, even centuries, and the doubt grows. “Where is this Jesus you say is coming?” Many are seduced into unfaithfulness and unbelief. I remind you what it says in 2 Peter 3:8-9: “For God, a thousand years is as a day and a day as a thousand years.” You see, God is not slow. Rather God is patient, not wishing anyone to perish but hoping and longing that all would repent. It’s like Jesus’ parable of the waiting father in Luke 15: “with open arms he searches the horizon longing for his prodigals to come home.”

Third, when the King returns, when Jesus comes again, scripture says it will be suddenly, like lightning flashes across the sky. It’ll be so fast you will not be able to get yourself ready in the moment. One of the favorite lies of the devil is “you have plenty of time.” I say today is a day to come back to God. We need to live ready, trusting in the promises that Jesus offers us. So I ask you, if Jesus returned today are you ready? Are you living ready with faith in Him? I love the simple prayer that Pastor Nicky Gumbel in the Alpha Series teaches us. It has three parts to it: first “Jesus I thank you for dying on the cross for my sins.” Second, “I am sorry for my sins and rebellion and I ask you to forgive me.” Third, “come into my heart and life by your Holy Spirit and be my leader and my Lord.” The truth is that when Jesus came that first Christmas He came and accomplished our redemption. He did go to the cross! He did rise from the dead! He has completed the work of our salvation. Jesus has already made us ready. Like the words of the old hymn “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less”:

When Christ shall come with trumpets sound
Oh may I then in Him be found
Clothed in His righteousness alone
Redeemed to stand before His throne

When the King returns, when Jesus comes again, for Christians it is a thrilling day of great victory! He returns in power and glory, and His reign of love and peace will be forever! He will give life to all His people. Christ’s light and power will dispel all darkness. No more sin, no more sickness nor sorrow, no more death nor grief, no more hatred nor killing. Jesus will transform everything and make it beautiful. He will heal all that is broken; not only the world but the individual hearts and souls of people. It will be like a wedding day – a day of joy when we who are the bride of Christ will be united forever with Jesus the Lord, our King, our Bridegroom. What day that will be!

When I was a freshman in college at Wheaton College outside of Chicago, Illinois, my girlfriend Denise (who is now my wife) rode the train to downtown Chicago train station and this Iowa boy from the rural areas drove to downtown metro Chicago to meet her at the Chicago train station. I remember what joy was in my heart as I saw her get off the train and embraced her in love! I might’ve even given her a kiss. It reminds me of a story told by preacher Adrian Rogers who told of an old preacher who went down to the train station and saw a parable of life. As the train pulled into the station and the people began to get off the train from the travels, there were loved ones they are to greet them with hugs and kisses, and it was a time of rejoicing. But in the same moment, the preacher saw another man handcuffed to a law enforcement officer. The man was soon to be departing for prison. This prisoner was also hugging his wife and children, but he was weeping in sadness because they would soon be separated permanently. Wonder of wonders – the same train which brought such joy and happiness to one group brought great sorrow and separation to another. That’s what it will be like when the King returns. When Jesus comes again, it’ll be just like that. For we who believe it will be a moment of great joy! But for those who have renounced Christ or lived as if God does not exist it’ll be a day of great sorrow, when the truth of His coming will be revealed. I ask you: are you at peace with God? Jesus has come and accomplished our salvation. Jesus was born to be our Savior and someday He’s going to come again to pour His mercy and grace out to all believers. Today is a wonderful day to ask Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins and with assurance still more sure to affirm that your faith believes in Jesus Christ as your Savior and your God. So together we pray amen! Come, Lord Jesus!

 

Pastor Lee Laaveg

He Will Rescue You

Matthew  1:18-25

It’s only three days until Christmas. During these past few weeks, people all around the world have been preparing for this day by shopping and cooking, baking, decorating, attending Christmas programs and concerts. All this activity has been happening around a 2,000-year-old story. It is the story of the birth of Jesus.

For some, this story is meant for children to re-enact in a pageant and nothing more. It is cute and charming. Others view it as a made-up folktale, a legend of sorts, or a myth not to be taken seriously. Others will listen with a sympathetic ear hearing it as a sad story of social injustice about a poor couple forced to leave home by an oppressive government. There was no place for poor Mary to give birth except in cattle stall.

But for the believer in Jesus Christ, the Christmas story is so much more! The Christmas story is a rescue story. It is Good News of the power of God for salvation. In Matthew’s version of the Christmas story, after a lengthy genealogy revealing Jesus’ family tree, it begins this way:

“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way . . .”

The story in Matthew is not as glitzy as Luke’s version of the birth. There are no shepherds, no choir of singing angels, or a stable scene with animals. Yet it is every bit as profound and loaded with good news for you and me.

We find Joseph center stage in this episode. He’s troubled because he just learned Mary is pregnant, and he knows he is not the biological father. Joseph is a good person. Matthew describes him as just, righteous. So Joseph was going to quietly divorce Mary to save her the embarrassment and condemnation from the rest of the village of Nazareth. But just before he follows through on this, he has a dream in which he receives a message from God. An angel speaks to him.

Some people wonder if God speaks in dreams. My response is, according to Matthew and elsewhere in Scripture, He does. Remember Joseph and his coat of many colors in Genesis, God speaking to Abraham in a dream, and several other places as well.

“Do you believe in angels?” people ask. Absolutely! Angel stories, or angelophonies as they are called, are present throughout Scripture. More importantly, Jesus talked about angels as being real. The message Joseph heard from the angel is so central to our story. Hear these words again:

“Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to move ahead with this marriage. This is the work of the Holy Spirit.”

“Joseph, son of David” tells us Jesus is from the line of King David. He was ultimately the One promised by God as a King to reign forever in David’s lineage.

“This child is conceived by the Holy Spirit.”

What? Joseph must’ve initially thought. This is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard! This baby in Mary’s womb is God’s child? She’s still a virgin? Impossible!

This kind of reaction, by the way, is still given to this day by those who are skeptics of the Christian faith. This is outrageous thinking they say. Scientifically impossible!

I believe God can do anything He wants to do, don’t you? The God who created everything, who threw the sun and stars and the moon into space, who created this beautiful, awesome complex world can make a virgin birth happen as well.

A pastor, Peter Larson, one time wrote,

 “The life of Jesus is bracketed by two impossibilities – a virgin’s womb and an empty tomb. Jesus entered our world through a door marked ‘No Entrance’ and left through a door marked ‘No Exit.’”

The name this angel talks about – Jesus – is really the Good News here. It means, “God saves,” for He will save His people from their sins. Jesus is the Savior. He’s not here to save people from the power of Rome or another exile as in the past. He’s here to save people from something bigger, much deadlier – their sins. Jesus is the only one who can do this.

Many people find it difficult to accept that there is only one way to rescue us from sin and judgment. Listen to a Christian apologist, Greg Koukl, use the following analogy to show how Jesus is the one and only solution we need.

“Most ailments need particular antidotes. Increasing the air pressure in your tires will not fix a troubled carburetor. Aspirin will not dissolve a tumor. Cutting up credit cards will not wipe out debt that is already owed. If your water pipes are leaking, you call a plumber, not an oncologist. But a plumber will not cure cancer. Any adequate solution must solve the problem that needs to be solved, and singular problems need singular solutions. Some antidotes are one-of-a-kind cures for one-of-a-kind ailments. Sometimes only one medicine will do the job, as much as we may like it to be otherwise.

“Humankind faces a singular problem – people are broken, and the world is broken because our friendship with God has been broken, ruined by human rebellion and sin. Humans – you and I – are guilty, enslaved, lost, and dead. All of us, everyone. Everywhere. The guilt must be punished, the debt must be paid, the slave must be purchased. Promising better conduct in the future will not mend the crimes as of the past. No, a rescuer must ransom the slaves, a kindred brother must pay the family debt, a substitute must shoulder the guilt.”

There is no other way to escape. Jesus is our one and only solution, our Savior.

Matthew inserts at this point,

“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet Isaiah. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son. They shall call his name Immanuel, which means, God with us.”

The Lord’s identity is confirmed as well. Who is this Jesus? He is “God with us.” God in the flesh. God has not abandoned His world, even though we may deserve it. Instead, He steps into the world to be with us. He experiences everything we experience – the limitations, the pain, the suffering, and so on.

This story teaches us two wonderful truths, which are meant to shock us and throw us at the same time. This is really good news for you and me.

First of all, Jesus is Immanuel. He is God with us. God has entered our world to be with us. He understands us. We have a great high priest who sympathizes with us, who can say I know exactly what you mean. I’ve been there.

But Jesus is also God for us. He came to save us from our sins. We have all sinned against God. We have fallen short of the glory of God. We are rebellious and self-centered, which keeps us separated from God, for the consequences of sin is death. On our own, we are helplessly, hopelessly lost. We cannot solve this by ourselves. But God in Christ has come to rescue, to save us, to break the chains of sin and death, and set us free to live in a saving eternal relationship with our Creator.

Jesus will later go to the cross as a sacrifice for our sins. He who knew no sin became sin and endured our punishment. He bore God’s wrath for sin and bridged the gap between God and humankind once and for all.

This, my friends, is why Christmas is such Good News meriting great celebration. God has come to rescue you and me. Forgiveness and eternal life have arrived through Jesus Christ. We are not on our own. We have a Savior. He is Immanuel. God has come to be with us, to save us.

I like these words from Pastor Tim Keller, which summarizes my thoughts well.

“If Jesus didn’t come, the story of Christmas is one more moral paradigm to crush you. If Jesus didn’t come, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere around these Christmas stories that say we need to be sacrificing, we need to be humble, we need to be loving. All it will do is crush you into the ground considering that.

“But if Jesus Christ is God come in the flesh, you are going to know much more about God. If Jesus is who He says He is, we have a 500-page autobiography from God in a sense, and our understanding will be vastly more personal and specific than any philosophy or religion could give us.

Because of Christmas, look at what God has done to get you to know Him personally. If the Son would come all this way to become a real person to you, don’t you think the Holy Spirit will do anything in His power to make Jesus a real person to you in your heart? Christmas is an invitation by God, which says, Look at what I’ve done to come near to you. Now draw near to me. I don’t want to be a concept. I want to be a friend. What good news that is!

The climax of the story is Joseph’s response. He trusts. He obeys. He will dedicate himself to raising and protecting this child, as we see a few verses later when he has to quickly take the family to Egypt.

Hear these words again:

“When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel commanded. He took Mary as his wife. He did not have sexual relations with her, and when the son was born, he called his name Jesus.”

The rest is history.

We are reminded that the Christmas story calls for a response from us. We respond. Joseph responded. We’re not to simply listen, nonchalantly nod to this story, and then put it back on the shelf until next year as if it didn’t happen. We are to do something with it, do something about it. One might have any number of responses to this Jesus who came humbly and helplessly the first time around but will come again someday in power and majesty once and for all to rule as Lord over the world.
• Some will reject the story. They will reject the offer God is making as preposterous.
• Others might respond with repentance and faith. They will turn around and come home to Jesus Christ and trust their life to His care and leadership, saying ‘yes’ to Him. They will trust in what He did for them at the cross and the empty tomb.
• Believers in Christ will respond with praise and thanksgiving, a grateful heart, much like the Apostle Paul who wrote, “Thanks be to God for His inexpressible gift.” On Christmas we say, thank you.
• Other believers in Christ will experience a renewed trust in Him and a renewed commitment to being a great-commandment and great-commission person – loving God, loving neighbors, telling everyone they can about Jesus.

What will it be for you?

You’ve just heard the greatest story about the greatest person who ever lived, who did the greatest thing anyone could ever do for you. The greatest thing you can ever do with this story is to believe and follow Jesus.

May the words of this Christmas carol be our prayer today:

♬”O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray.
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels, The great glad tidings tell.
O come to us, abide with us our Lord Immanuel.”♪

Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

A Blessed Promise to Hang Onto

 Matthew 11:2-6

Second thoughts are something we all experience from time to time in life. For instance, I remember a woman saying to me in my office, I’m having second thoughts about marrying this individual. Someone else said to me along the way, You know, I’m headed toward retirement but I’m having second thoughts. I’m not sure what I will do with my time. Someone else might say, I’m having second thoughts about this relocation I’ve made in life or a purchase I’ve made.

Have you ever had second thoughts about Jesus? I wouldn’t be surprised if you are nodding your head to this question. Second thoughts can even happen in our faith life. Someone might have second thoughts about Jesus because He isn’t meeting their expectations. They say, My life isn’t going all that well. It is filled with problems. I have pain in my life. I thought Jesus would prevent that. Or perhaps you’re having second thoughts because someone you admire has rejected Jesus and their rationale is challenging your own belief in Him.

Second thoughts can happen as the result of unexplained suffering and evil, which can cause intellectual doubts. It’s not unusual. The important thing though is what you do with second thoughts when they come.

We have a story before us today I think is helpful. A preacher named John the Baptist is having second thoughts about Jesus. John is in prison for preaching a repentance message and pointed people to the coming kingdom of God. He also publicly denounced King Herod’s marriage as illegitimate, which angered Herod, so he had John arrested.

In our story, John is sitting in prison waiting and wondering if he will ever get out, and if not, was he wrong in his thinking about Jesus? Why isn’t He helping me? John wondered. Jesus had been baptized by John, and John told his disciples that Jesus is the One they had been waiting for. There goes the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. John was quite excited about Jesus arriving on the scene.

But now we find him in today’s passage feeling confused and puzzled, struggling a bit. Disappointed. What he has heard about Jesus’ ministry so far hasn’t been very exciting, and he is having second thoughts about Him. Jesus isn’t acting according to John’s expectations. John had predicted the wrath of God – the ax is being laid to the tree, fire and brimstone and judgment. But John is not hearing any wrath of God in Jesus’ message. There is no judgment or ax or fire and brimstone. Other than a few miracles here and there, not much success or momentum has occurred as John had expected. He must have wondered, If Jesus is the One, why am I still sitting here in prison? I’m one of the good guys!

Have you ever asked that question when life isn’t going well? Why doesn’t Jesus get me out of this?

Frederick Buechner, a wonderful Christian writer wrote about John the Baptist’s thoughts in his book, Peculiar Treasures, a Biblical Who’s Who. His words might help us understand John’s questioning. Listen to this:

John apparently had second thoughts about Jesus later on, however, and it’s no great wonder.

  • Where John preached grim justice and pictured God as a steely-eyed thrasher of grain, Jesus preached forgiving love and pictured God as the host to the marvelous party or a father who can’t bring himself to throw his children out even when they spit in his eye.
  • Where John said people had better save their skins before it was too late, Jesus said it was God who saved their skins, and even if you blow your bankroll on liquor and sex like the prodigal son, it still wasn’t too late.
  • Where John ate locusts and wild honey in the wilderness with the church crowd, Jesus ate what He felt like in Jerusalem with as sleazy a bunch as you could expect to find.
  • Where John crossed to the other side of the street if he saw sinners heading his way, Jesus seems to have preferred the company of the stewardship committee and the world Council of Churches rolled into one.
  • Where John baptized, Jesus healed.

John is troubled. He is struggling. Am I wrong about Jesus? He needs confirmation of some sort. So he decides to get to the bottom of it by sending a couple of his followers to ask Jesus this question: Are you the one who is to come – Messiah of Israel – or should we look for another?

When you think about it, this is a loaded question. John is being very blunt. He is communicating his second thoughts and personal doubts about Jesus to Jesus.

Jesus doesn’t miss a beat when He hears this question. He is not angry or resentful. He doesn’t write John off saying, I’ve had it with him. How dare he question me! Instead, He responds,

“Go back and tell John what you hear and see. The blind see; the lame walk; those who have leprosy are cleansed; the deaf hear; the dead are raised back to life, and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor.”

Jesus’ response is actually meant to be words of reassurance and encouragement for John. First Jesus says, Listen to the report from your men, John. The day you and the Old Testament prophets have been pointing to is actually happening. There are the signs! The kingdom has begun to arrive! Kingdom miracles are taking place. Good News is being preached. Kingdom news is delivered to the poor in spirit. Lives are getting blessed and changed for the better.

Jesus is pointing to the fulfillment of verses in Isaiah 35 and Isaiah 61, which Isaiah used to describe what will happen when the new day of the kingdom and the Messiah comes. The blind will see, the lame will walk, the dead are raised, Good News will be preached to the poor. This is meant to be reassuring evidence for John. There is your evidence, John.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He follows this word of reassurance with a word of promise, maybe tinged with a gentle bit of chiding of John the Baptist for his doubts. Jesus says, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” It’s a promise of blessedness. God’s blessings are a promise of joy actually.

First, we look at the word, blessed. This language is found in the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew chapter 5. Jesus says,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

These statements are referred to in church circles as the Beatitudes.

Blessed can also be interpreted as happy. Happy are the poor in spirit. But Jesus is talking about more than a temporal or circumstantial feeling attached to happiness. Being blessed is the state of well-being, which belongs to those who respond in faith to Christ. It’s a joyous state of favor in God’s eyes.

Joy! Jesus says Blessed is he who takes no offense. The word “offense” is the Greek word scandalon, from which we get the word scandalized. It is also used as a stumbling block. Jesus says Blessed is the one who takes no offense on account of me. In other words, blessed is the one who doesn’t reject me or turn away from me, isn’t scandalized by me, who doesn’t trip over me. Instead, they do just the opposite. They trust me even though they may not always understand everything about me, or I don’t quite fit into their own personal expectations. Blessed is the one who sticks with me.

Faith. The person who doesn’t fall away from me will have blessings from God. Joy. Jesus is saying, Trust me, John. Hang in there with me. Perhaps your expectations of me need to be reconfigured or reconsidered. There’s no need to look for another. The truth is, there is no other. I am the one. So stick with me and you will have blessedness from God. I promise.

Jesus is basically asking us to stretch our understanding to fit a different model of the Messiah from what we may have believed – a magical problem-solver and giver of good things. We need to change our expectations and simply believe Him as He is.

We don’t know what John the Baptist did with his message from Jesus. We are not told. But I have to believe Jesus’ words gave John reassurance and the strength and comfort he needed as he lingered miserably in a dungeon until his dying day when he was beheaded. Trust me, John, Jesus says, and you will be blessed.

But enough about John the Baptist and what he did with this promise from Jesus. Let’s talk about you. How is your relationship with the Lord Jesus these days? Are you trusting Him with your life for your very salvation? I hope so. Or are you having second thoughts and getting to a place where you’ve followed Him for a while in your life but you are struggling right now? Your expectations have been disappointed. You feel a little beaten up, a little shaky. It can happen to anyone.

Satan, by the way, loves to play with your mind to destroy your faith. So if you are having second thoughts today, this story is especially for you. I can’t help but appreciate the story because it reminds me in my own moments of second thoughts, that even John the Baptist, who was described by Jesus as the greatest man born of woman, a Hall of Famer of the faith and loved and served God faithfully to the end, had his moments – just like me.

Second thoughts and doubts come. It’s not unusual. Here’s the big idea we learned.

Don’t walk away from Jesus. Instead, walk toward Him as John did. Ask your questions, check the evidence in His word, listen to the testimonies of other believers around you. Let them build you back up again. Go to worship and get the big picture of God’s plan again and again and again. Jesus wants us to believe in Him, no matter what circumstances we are experiencing. He wants us to know today that He is the One sent from God that first Christmas to be your Savior and Lord and friend, and there is no other one by whom you will find blessedness and the joy of salvation with God.

This story speaks to our troubled souls and says, Keep following, keep serving, keep trusting, for in Him is the blessedness and inner happiness your soul is thirsting for. In Christ alone is a right eternal relationship with God possible.

Blessed is the one, joy-filled is the one, who trusts in Him. And know this – in the end, you will not be disappointed.

One last word for you to consider today about the blessedness Jesus promised. A right relationship with God didn’t come about easily or cheaply. Jesus had to suffer the curse of my sin so I might be blessed. In fact, as the Apostle Paul says in Galatians 3, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” We were, by our sinfulness, cursed people. But Christ became a curse on the cross. He suffered our punishment so we might be blessed, restored to a right relationship with our loving and holy God through faith in Christ. God raised Him from the grave three days later as His endorsement that Jesus is the One. You don’t need to look for another. Christ became a curse so you and I might become blessed. What love!

He is the one who is calling out to you today to trust Him in all circumstances. Bring Him your doubts and your second thoughts. Don’t run away from Him but run toward him.

What blessedness, what joy awaits those who trust in Jesus Christ whose birth we will be celebrating just a couple weeks from now. He is the One our hearts are thirsting for. And dear friends, there is no other. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

He Will Change Your Life!

Matthew 3:1-12

I was speaking with a friend a while back about someone who was making a mess of things. My friend said That guy will never change. He is a hopeless case!

This is a day of little faith and few convictions. Out of frustration and disappointment, people are inclined to say, You just can’t change human nature. Perhaps you’ve found yourself saying or thinking the same thing about certain people. You know the line: A leopard can’t change its spots. A person will always be that way, no matter what!

We might even think it about ourselves. I can never change. That’s the way I am; It‘s the way I will always be. Then we sigh, shrug our shoulders, and say, I guess you just can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

I have found this kind of thinking can cause discouragement and even despair in us.
I’m a drunk; I’ll always be a drunk.

Or,
I’m a terrible spouse. I’ll always be a terrible spouse; there’s no hope for this marriage.

Or,
I’m a bad, self-centered person. I just give up. You can’t change human nature.

If you believe this, a popular preacher from a long time ago by the name of John would beg to differ with you. In our story from Matthew’s Gospel, John the Baptist came on the scene in the wilderness of Judea out by the Jordan River. Crowds of people from Jerusalem, Judea, and the region about the Jordan River flocked out into the wilderness to hear this guy – even be baptized by him in the Jordan River confessing their sins. Why was John so popular? What was the attraction?

Was it his looks? He was a rather strange looking person, we’re told. He wore camel hair and a leather belt and reminded people of the Old Testament prophet Elijah.

Perhaps his interesting diet struck people as odd. He only ate locusts and wild honey – kind of a Euell Gibbons of his day.

It could be his style, his tone, his plain talk, his urgency. He was very direct and challenging to people. He didn’t mince words.

While some of those attributes played into the picture for the people, it seemed there was more. It was his message. He sounded like a prophet speaking for God. “Repent,” he said, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This meant the same as the kingdom of God, but Matthew was writing for a Jewish audience who revered the name of God, and he didn’t want to offend them.

“The kingdom of heaven is at hand!” God is up to something big. Get ready! Repent now! Now is the time to change your direction, and turn to God. Surrender yourself to His leadership.

John’s talk was a bit sobering. He spoke of the wrath to come and an ax being laid to the tree. His words seemed to ally shake people up. John’s message sounded fresh and is different from what people had heard for a long time. His words rang with the authority of God.

He reminded them of an Old Testament prophetic voice of God, which had been silenced for years – and the people were ready for it. It was like an alarm going off, and people were awakened by his message.

What was particularly thrilling about John’s message was the description of the person who was coming. The center of John’s message is this:

“He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. I baptize you with water. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Someone is coming who is mightier and greater than I, John says. It sounds like the Messiah from God whom the people of God had been hoping for.

He will change your life, John says. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

John is describing the work of the Holy Spirit in one’s life when they received Christ. You see, you can’t change human nature. You can’t change yourself. But God can and will through His Son, Jesus Christ. When you trust in Him, He breathes His Spirit in you, and you become a new creation with new power, a new identity, a new purpose, and a new outlook – just like He did with the disciples.

Just think of what an unpromising lot of people those disciples were when they walked with Jesus. They bickered. They were self-centered. They were jealous of one another. They were fearful, faithless, and had so many outrageous flaws. Peter spoke before he thought. James and John were obnoxious men called “sons of thunder” seeking power.

Yet after the Spirit drenched them on Pentecost, cowardice gave way to courage. Unbelief became a flaming faith and conviction nothing could shake. Jealousy was swallowed up in brotherly love. Self-interest was killed and became a ministry to others. Suddenly on Pentecost, fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus, these men became new people on fire – loving, courageous, and faith-filled – who led 3,000 people to Jesus Christ that first Pentecost. They were changed men from that day forward. Therein lies our hope.

How does this change happen in us? John tells us the answer in today’s text. Jesus also told us using the same word – Repent! The kingdom of God is at hand. The people recognized their sins and confessed them. I am guilty before you, O God. I need your cleansing, your forgiveness – a new start with you. This is the first step of repentance. They turned from their old way of thinking – I can fix myself. I just have to get my act together before I can have a relationship with God. No.

John gives us something new. Salvation is a gift from God. We need to simply turn to Jesus Christ. Turn from the old way of thinking to the new way of thinking. As you come under Christ’s rule, you find He has wonderful plans for your life. He wants to give you love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control as characteristics in your life. He wants to give you salvation now and forever.

How does this take place? John says as we repent and come to Christ, it happens through the working of the Holy Spirit. The fire of the Holy Spirit burns away the chaff within us.

Peter Marshall, a great preacher of the past, said,

“We have not seen Jesus as the disciples did. We’ve never heard the sound of His voice, seen the sunlight dance on His hair, or traced His footprints in the sands of Palestine. But we have the same opportunity to be changed because the same Holy Spirit is available to us today. He leads us into all truth, convicts us of sin, and is our helper and guide. He can change us.”

By the way, repentance is not a onetime act; it is a daily turning. Martin Luther called it, “A daily drowning of the old self, which has been leading us astray most of our lives.”

Here is our good news: don’t despair! If you want to be different, you can! You, too, can be changed for the better. Anyone can be changed through a relationship with Jesus Christ whose birthday we are about to celebrate this Christmas.

The change I have been describing is happening in all kinds of life today. I want to share with you a true yet wild and amazing story I came across recently in a book entitled, Handcuffs and Broken Chains. It’s an autobiography about a man named Cody Huff who lived in Las Vegas.

Cody was an addict and a dealer. He spent eight years in prison and was homeless. He had been abused as a child and was a very broken, hopeless cause.

But that all began to change when Cody happened to visit a church shelter in 2002 where he had been told he could get a shower and a meal. As he was waiting for his number to be called to go in to get these things, a little elderly woman walked up to him and asked him his name. He told her, and she said, “Cody, it looks like you could use a hug.” He declined the offer saying, “You don’t want to hug me. I really stink!” it had been quite some time you see since he had gotten clean.

“You don’t smell,” she said as she put her arms around him and whispered in his ear, “Jesus loves you.” It was the first time in a year that someone touched him, and that message – Jesus loves you – began to melt the ice around his heart.

While he was having his meal, someone gave him a gift – a Bible. He took it with him and began to explore it. Before long, he couldn’t put it down. He was getting changed. He didn’t want to do the same old thing anymore. He was getting freed from his old life. Cody soon surrendered his life to Jesus Christ and things were never the same after that. He got himself sobered up and off drugs with Christ’s help.

Today he is not only clean and free from the drugs that had held him captive to age 51, but Cody is also an ordained pastor running a ministry for the homeless. This ministry has changed a lot of lives – not only in Las Vegas but around the country.

This Jesus Christ, whom John is pointing to, is amazing. He can and will change one’s life. He changed Cody’s life. This Holy Spirit, whom Jesus brought into this world, can change your life as well as you surrender yourself to His care and His direction.

Christ has been changing the lives of millions and millions of people of all kinds for more than two thousand years.

The Good News is this: You are not stuck with yourself. Jesus Christ can change anyone. He came to this earth and died in your place on a cross to pay for your sins. Then He rose from the grave to give you a new life, a life much better than anything this world has to offer you. Repent! Turn to Jesus Christ.

May the words of this old Gospel hymn be yours today and every day. The words go like this:

♬Have Thine Own Way, Lord;
Have thine own way.
Thou art the potter;
I am the clay.
Mold me and make me after thy will,
while I am waiting, yielded and still.♪

Friends, if you have not yet come to Christ, do so today. Trust Him with your life. Bring Him your brokenness and your weaknesses. Trust yourself to His care. In God’s love, He will make you according to the pattern for which you were designed. And by the power of the Holy Spirit, He will make you according to the pattern for which you were designed in God’s love. And it will be good – for your good and the glory of God. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

A Promising Future

Matthew 24:36-44

It has been said that where there is no hope for the future, there is no power for the present. Hope is a critical element in life. I once read humans can live forty days without food, eight days without water, four minutes without oxygen, but only a few seconds without hope.

Pastor Timothy Keller uses this illustration in his book, Making Sense of God.

“Imagine you have two women of the same age, the same social-economic status, the same educational level, and even the same temperament. You hire both of them and say to each, ‘You are part of an assembly line, and I want you to put part A into slot B and then hand what you have assembled to someone else. I want you to do this over and over for eight hours a day.’

“You put them in identical rooms with identical lighting, temperature, and ventilation. You give them the very same number of breaks in the day. It’s very boring work. The conditions are the same in every way except for one difference: you tell the first woman you will pay her $30,000 at the end of the year, and you tell the second woman you will pay her $30 million.

“After a couple of weeks, the first woman says, ‘Isn’t this tedious? Isn’t it driving you insane? Aren’t you thinking about quitting?’ But the second woman says, ‘No. This is perfectly acceptable. In fact, I whistle while I work.’

“What’s going on? You have two human beings who are experiencing identical circumstances in radically different ways. What makes the difference? It’s their expectation of the future.”

This illustration is not intended to say all we need is a good income. It does, however, show that what we believe about our future completely controls how we experience our present. We are irreducibly hope-based creatures.

What is your outlook on the future these days? Is it hopeful? Is it based on a solid foundation?

Today’s Bible text is about having a hopeful future. We’re told in the story that Jesus is coming again. We don’t consider this fact very often. However, in the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds, we say, “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.”

Have you ever given much thought to what this statement means for you? Is it negative in your mind? In the past, Bible teaching about the second coming of Christ was considered doomsday preaching. But this doesn’t need to be the case.

I propose we view it as a ray of hope shining an ever-brightening beam into a darkening, chaotic world. The fact that Jesus is coming again is promising news – hopeful news – for the follower of Jesus Christ because the world can be turbulent and dangerous. It can make us feel afraid, depressed, and discouraged.

Some days it seems like things are just getting worse in this fallen world of ours. Days seem a little darker. We see it on the news – wars that never end, cruelty between human beings, human suffering, corruption in government, environmental challenges, earthquakes, flooding, fires, drought, climate change. We learn certain foods and drinks, always considered healthy, can actually be killing us. The opioid addiction is way out of hand in our country. Looking around, we see immorality and godlessness all around us. Local church attendance is shrinking and secularism seems to be growing in our society.

By the way, Jesus said this would be the case. He knew. Just read the first part of Matthew 24. Living amid the darkness of a fallen world can be more than a little unsettling; it can be downright overwhelming and even cause us to throw our hands up in an air of resignation and despair. We live each day without much power, unplugged, with no hope for the future and no power for the present.

But Jesus has promised to come again. This is meant to be a word of reassurance and encouragement. His return will be in power and glory. This is grounds for Christian optimism and strength. He has the final word. The world is not headed for ultimate chaos and disaster, but the return of the King and His coronation for eternity. His kingdom shall know no end. We can live with the knowledge that history is not a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. History is actually going somewhere. History is HIS – God’s – STORY.

Evangelist Billy Graham once wrote, “History is going somewhere, and we know full well that He who does all things well will bring beauty from the ashes of world chaos. A new world is being born. A new social order will emerge when Christ reappears. A fabulous future is on the way.” A fabulous future is on the way.

God has a plan, a grand finale of sorts, an end to this world as we know it. We will see Jesus again, and every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord. There will be a new heaven and a new earth. No more sorrow, no more death, no more suffering, no more evil. This is the promise awaiting us in the future. Peace and salvation lie ahead for the follower of Jesus Christ.

Naturally, this news makes people wonder, as those disciples did, When? When? What are the signs we should be looking for? Jesus tells us not to waste our time asking these questions. Even He doesn’t know, only the Father knows.

I want you to think about this statement: the Father knows. Our loving, caring Father is in control. He knows. Even the worst of times is in the best of hands. The Almighty Creator of the universe whom we call Father is in charge. The faithful One who has never turned His back on the world, who keeps His word to those whom He has created in His image, whom He values, has taken care of everything. It’s under control.

While Jesus can’t tell us when, He can tell us how to look to the future.

Be Ready.
• Live expectantly, as if each day is your last, and confidently knowing you are His and He is coming again to take you to Himself.
• Have faith in Jesus Christ and trust Him Christ as your Savior and Lord. Ask Him to take over your life.
• Recognize your sinfulness and your helplessness when it comes to your life and your future. Realize the truth that there is no hope for forgiveness except in the way God has provided – by placing your trust in Jesus Christ His Son, the Lord of heaven and earth.
• Live with Him in His Word daily. Discover and rediscover His promises and expectations of you as His follower.

Live Ready
Obediently serve Him while we wait. Carry out the Great Commission to tell other people about what God has done for us through His Son Jesus Christ. Help them grow as we disciple them in the faith. Use the great knowledge of what lies ahead and point people toward it as a witness.

Malcom Muggeridge, a noted British journalist, was a guest at a breakfast in Washington, D.C. several years ago. When he had finished his testimony, he made a number of comments about world affairs, all of which were very pessimistic. One of the Christians present said to the speaker, “Dr. Muggeridge you have been very pessimistic. Don’t you have any reason for optimism?” Muggeridge replied, “My friend, I could not be more optimistic than I am, because my hope is in Jesus Christ alone!”

Muggeridge allowed the remark to settle for a few seconds and then he added, “Just think if the Apostolic Church had pinned its hope on the Roman empire.” He pointed them to Christ.

I am Ready as I live out the great commandments to love God and love my neighbor as myself in service. Isn’t it interesting that, in his letters, the Apostle Paul referred to himself as a servant?

I read an article a while back out of Faith & Leadership magazine. It said,

“It is possible to be so heavenly minded that we’re of no earthly good.” But professor Todd Whitmore from Notre Dame has also observed how being heavenly-minded can lead to incredible deeds of earthly goodness.

After the war in Uganda had dragged on for more than twenty years, Whitmore moved into the refugee camps in northern Uganda to hear the stories of the displaced Acholi people. As he observed the Christians who were working among the Acholi, he saw what he called “what real Christianity looks like.” Whitmore discovered that the most practical and helpful workers among the Acholi were also the most heavenly minded. He called them “reasonable apocalypse,” which means these Christian workers thought a lot about God’s intervention at the end of history. These heavenly-minded Christians believed no human effort could be relied upon to help the Acholi. It had to come from God. As one of the Christian workers in the camp said, “God is tired of this war and suffering. He will intervene.” Because they believed God would intervene, they also believed it was worthwhile to work for good.

In the United States, people who talk about God’s future intervention are often accused of being escapists, impractical, so heavenly minded they are of no earthly good. But in the refugee camps in northern Uganda, they were the most rational people. Whitmore discovered they were the ones who kept saying things like, We want to make a difference here and now. We want to help with the orphans. We want to help, in the name of Jesus Christ who is coming again.

I am Ready as I love my brothers and sisters in Christ unconditionally as He has loved me – carrying out the New Commandment, which Jesus gave His disciples in the Upper Room before His arrest. I am a person who values fellowship, a Christian family and serves others.

Being Ready means vocalizing certainty and hope in a darkening world that scares people. This world needs our certainty. They need to see our faith, our hope in the future. It is living out St. Paul’s words found in Romans 8:35-39,

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No! In all these things we are more than conquerors through Christ who loved us. For I am sure neither death nor life nor angels nor rulers nor things present nor things to come nor powers nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Being Ready is to be a person of hope and certainty and living it out before the world that is watching.

Maybe you’re thinking this all sounds fine and good, but how can I be sure it isn’t just wishful pie-in-the-sky thinking? Because this hope, friend, is based on the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus once said,

“In the world, you will have tribulation.
But take heart. I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

He certainly has! Jesus overcame the world at the cross and the resurrection. The resurrection makes the future certain for the follower of Jesus Christ. He took the full weight of evil, pain, and death at the cross. It could not hold Him down. God has raised Him from the dead. The crucified and risen Christ has the final triumph! This is the pledge. Jesus is the first fruits of the resurrection. Because He lives, I shall live also. We have good news about the future.

Oprah Winfrey writes a column in her magazine, entitled, “What I Know for Sure.” It is about life lessons she has built her life upon. She got the idea for this column from film critic Gene Siskel who surprised her one time during an interview by asking, “Oprah, what do you know for sure?”

If someone were to ask you what you know for sure, I hope this statement would be on your list:
I know for sure that Jesus is coming again to take me to Himself. I am His forever. Of this, I am sure.

Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

Every Saint Has a Story

Hebrews 12:1-2

An old Jewish rabbi once said, “God made man because He loves stories.” Your life crosses with God’s love, and it has a story to tell. Your life’s story, which places faith in Jesus Christ, becomes a God story. Hebrews 12 talks about the Christian journey as a race run with our eyes fixed on Jesus, and the need to persevere in life. But it also speaks of Jesus as the author of our faith. You are God’s saint. With the Holy Spirit living within, you, by faith, have a story to tell.

This is a God story from years ago.

It was 1945. World War II had drawn to a close and a young German soldier sat broken inside a prisoner of war camp in Scotland. He had been a reluctant soldier in Hitler’s army, and here inside a prison, he had months to contemplate what had been and what was to come. The cities of his homeland were now reduced to rubble, the people impoverished. His sleep was haunted by nightmares of the terrors of warfare.

Then, in his prison barracks, someone put up pictures of the reality of the concentration camps in Dachau, Belzec, and Auschwitz, and the truth filtered into his awareness. He saw faces of Nazi victims. Was this what he had fought for? Has my generation, as the last, been driven to our deaths so the concentration murderers could go on killing and Hitler could live a few months longer?

Because of his depression, his awareness of wartime destruction, and his continued captivity, this soldier lived in a dark cloud of shame and disgrace. That was the hardest thing – dark despair, which had a stranglehold on him and choked him.

A visiting chaplain gave this young German soldier a Bible, and with little else to do, he began reading it. In the lament Psalms, he heard resonant voices, the agony of people who felt God had abandoned them. In the story of Christ crucified, he encountered a God who knew what it was to experience suffering, abandonment, and shame. Feeling utterly forsaken himself, the German soldier found a friend in the One who from the cross had cried,

“My God my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27:46).

Then in 1947, he was permitted to attend a Christian conference that brought together young people from across the world. The Dutch participants asked to meet with German POWs who had fought in the Netherlands. This young soldier was one of them. He went to the meeting full of fear, guilt, and shame. His feelings intensified as the Dutch Christians spoke of the pain Hitler and his allies had inflicted, of the dread the Gestapo had bred into their hearts, and of the family and friends they’d lost in the disruption and damage to their communities.

Yet the Dutch Christians didn’t speak out of a spirit of vindictiveness but came to offer forgiveness. It was completely unexpected. They embodied the love the German soldier had read about in the story of Christ, and it turned his life upside down. He discovered that, despite all that had passed, God looks on us with shining eyes of His eternal joy, and there is hope for the future.

The young German soldier was Jürgen Moltmann who would go on to become one of the greatest Christian theologians of the 20th century. Years later, with the message of the loving crucified God still indelibly printed on his heart, he penned these beautiful words: “The ultimate reason for our hope is not to be found at all in what we want, wish for, or wait for. The ultimate reason is we are wanted and wished for and waited for.”

What is it that awaits us? Does anything await us at all, or are we alone? Someone is waiting for you, who is hoping for you, who believes in you. As the father waited for the prodigal son to return, so our heavenly Father waits for us. As a mother takes her children into her arms and comforts them, so we are accepted and received. God is our last hope because we are God’s first love.

You have a story to tell. Every saint has a story to tell. The story is retold eighty-seven times in the Old Testament.

“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
And I will remember my covenant promise.”

Everyone is retelling the stories of the redeemed – the ten plagues, the Exodus, the Red Sea crossing, the pillar of fire and cloud, the supernatural food of manna and the entrance into the Promised Land.

The New Testament is filled with stories of Jesus’ miracles and His power to free a demoniac from evil spirits, heal a woman with twelve years’ hemorrhage, raise Jairus’ daughter from the dead, heal a man whose four friends dug a hole in the roof to lower him to Jesus, and give blind people their sight. People are amazed at what Jesus has done in their lives. They tell others about Him. There is no one like Jesus.

Oscar was my father. He was a farm boy raised in the fields of Park River, North Dakota and went to college at North Dakota State to play football for the Bison. As a sophomore, he was a starter when the team played Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, the number one team in the nation.

But then my father had a conversion and decided to leave a life wandering in his own choices to fix his eyes on Jesus and run the race of faith. God’s Spirit led him to Augsburg College, then to Luther seminary and a life of serving as a pastor. All my life as a boy growing up, I listened to him preach the gospel of Jesus. I also heard his heart pray at our dinner table during family devotions. His faith story ignited my faith story. This is how it works.

You also have a faith story, a “before-Christ” and an “after-coming-to-faith-in-Christ” life. I find we are either a prodigal son who runs away from God the Father as if there is no god to find where demons dwell, or we’re like the older brother who stays at home and does all the right things but never realizes the love the father has for him.

How long has it been since you first believed? When did your faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord come alive? Hebrews 12:2 says,

“Jesus is the author . . . of our (stories of) faith.”

Many of us were baptized as infants and grew up trusting Christ. For others, faith came alive later in life and baptism was a public profession of the faith God had given. I remember Ruth Graham, the wife of evangelist Billy Graham, saying, “When did I trust Jesus? You might as well ask when I first loved my parents. I do not remember ever not loving Jesus.”

So even if our faith story is one from our earliest memories of trusting Christ, yet people who are in our life experiences give depth and color to our faith journey. It is essential for us to be willing to share our God story with others.

Why might we be reluctant to share our love for Jesus with others? Revelation chapter 2 has a bold word of the orthodox church that did many good things. But a telling verse is found in Revelation 2:4:

“This I have against you, you have left your first love.”

You have lost your first love.

If you have fallen far from God’s presence, who is to blame? A person once wrote,

“God is like a pigeon in the park. I leisurely throw crumbs of leftover devotion when I feel like it. I’ve not only lost my first love, but I’ve also lost my joy. God uses my joylessness to snap me out of treating Him like a hobby to whom I give time if I feel like it. I create premeditated alibis to rationalize why I’m too busy to trust God, pray to Him, walk with Him, or worship Him in a way that would cultivate intimacy.”

Have you lost your first love? Do you remember this verse from the children’s song, “Jesus Loves Me”?

♬ I love Jesus, does He know?
Have I ever told Him so?
Jesus loves to hear me say
that I love Him every day. ♪

If you have lost your first love, I have three words to help rekindle the faith and hope within your heart and your passion for Jesus.

First, REMEMBER whose you are – a child of God! Jesus has made you in His own likeness. I implore you to seek God’s face like a farmer would chase the harvest, like a hunter would pursue a deer, like a lover longing to connect. Remember what Jesus has done for you.

“There is nothing I desire besides you” (Psalm 73:25b).

The second word is REPENT. Change your mind. Reorient the whole of your life to allow space for God’s Spirit in the center of your being. Reorder your priorities so Jesus becomes the central heartbeat of life. When we drift out of touch with the Lord, we leave paradise for the wilderness. Beg for God’s mercy for your ambivalence. As it says in Hebrews 12:2,

“Throw off sin. Get rid of every encumbrance. Fix your eyes on Jesus.”

The third word is RETURN. He is waiting for you in love. Come home to the fresh fire of His love. Dive into the fountain of grace. Drink deeply of His love, which has never stopped flowing.

“In the name of Jesus, we boldly come to the throne of grace
and receive mercy and help in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

This, too, becomes part of your faith story. Fall in love with Jesus all over again.

Why is it important to share our God stories?

I have visited prisons in Iowa several times. I have found that even if I tell the story of Christ as eloquently as I know, the impact is much greater when it comes from a former prisoner who returns to share his faith story. When those men hear the story of a former prisoner who now has a good job, is married, has a family, is living clean of drugs and booze, is worshiping the Lord week by week, and is experiencing the power of transformation, it creates renewed hope in those prisoners. If God can change that man and resurrect him to a new beginning, maybe He can hear my prayer. Maybe God’s Spirit can raise me up and transform my life to give me a new beginning.

I have seen . . .
• Jesus’ love set people free from their addictions and give them new habits and new hope.
• Jesus’ grace and love give hope to people who have recently gone through a painful divorce, then realize that, in the forgiveness of Christ, life is not over, and God can open up a new future.
• The love of Jesus heal the deep grief of someone who has laid to rest a precious loved one.
• The love of Jesus give courage and strength to people who are seeking to persevere in trouble and come through on the other side.
• The grace and forgiveness of Jesus call a rogue, immoral man out of his life of sin. He who sat belly up to the bar night after night, whose marriage and family were falling apart and was in danger of losing his job, said to me, “I have always believed but now I have repented of my sins. I have asked Jesus to be in the center of life. His grace has changed me. I have surrendered.”

Telling our story produces three powerful impacts.
1. It deepens our connection with Christ and affirms the faith we confess.
2. It reveals the character of God – how the power of God works in people’s lives.
3. The Spirit uses it to ignite faith in the hearts of those who hear it.

Can I get a witness? What is your God story? Dare you believe that if you share it with others, God can help them fall in love with Christ too? We have a story to tell because Christ is the hope of the world. Amen.

Pastor Lee Laaveg

What Do YOU See?

Luke 18:35-43

Back in the 1990s, a new craze called stereogram art became popular. A stereogram is a picture hidden within a picture. Initially, you just see a pattern of some sort. But hidden within the pattern lies a three-dimensional image, which could only be seen by refocusing one’s vision.

Outside my hometown in Livingston, Montana is a beautiful mountain range. If you stare at it awhile, you can see the figure of a giant man lying down. The natives call it “The Sleeping Giant”. When I point it out to people, they often cannot see it. So I try my best to help them see the sleeping giant that they can appreciate it.

Our story for today is about seeing. An adage goes: “Seeing is believing.” However, the story in Luke 18 could very well be entitled, “Believing is Seeing.” The Gospel writer, Luke, has written the story to help us see Jesus.

Jesus is approaching the city of Jericho. He is only 18 miles from Jerusalem, and His journey is almost completed. A crowd is gathered around Him talking, making requests, asking Him questions, trying to get His attention. It is rather loud and raucous. They are traveling to celebrate the Passover, a commemoration of when God set His people free from slavery in Egypt.

Jesus’ popularity is growing. He’s become a celebrity of sorts. The stories of His teachings and healings are floating around the towns and villages of Galilee. People are wondering who He is, so they go out to see for themselves.

Along the roadside outside of Jericho, people are lined up to welcome Passover pilgrims and wish them well. Many are trying to get a glance at Jesus. At strategic places along the way, beggars ask for alms from folks who pass by. It is a typical sight.

Our focus for today is on one particular beggar on the side of the road who is about to have his life changed. He would have an eye-opening experience, for he is a blind man. Because of his blindness, he is unable to work. Having been rejected by family and society in general, he has to beg to survive. He is overlooked and ignored, looked down upon by people, considered riffraff – about as low as you could go on the social scale. But it is all about to change in our story.

The blind man notices the loudness increasing around him. A loud group is approaching ahead, making all kinds of noise. People are talking loudly. He hears people around him saying, There He is! I, I think I can see Him!

What’s all the commotion? he asks no one in particular.

Jesus of Nazareth is passing by. In the popular perception, He was simply “Jesus,” an amazing man from Nazareth. The jury was still out on His faux identity.

When the blind man hears this, he starts yelling something we haven’t heard yet in Luke’s Gospel. “Jesus, Son of David! Have mercy on me.” He is expressing an insight others haven’t had. Though he is physically blind, he sees a lot more than most people when it comes to Jesus.

Notice he doesn’t cry out, “Jesus of Nazareth! Have mercy on me,” but “Jesus, Son of David!” These are words of faith! His heart sees the light before his eyes could, and he recognizes Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, the promised One of God, the Savior. So he cries for an audience with Him, Have mercy on me! Help me! Show compassion on me!

People in front of the beggar, as they heard him cry for an audience with this Savior King, turn around and rebuke him. Shhh. Be quiet. Jesus doesn’t have time for people like you. Just shut up. You’ve got a lot of nerve. Don’t bother Jesus. But the blind man desperately continues to shout even louder: SON OF DAVID. HAVE MERCY ON ME.

Then an amazing thing happens – Jesus stops. Amid all these people talking, the cacophony of noise, and the steady flow of the crowd, Jesus stops. He’s heard the blind beggar, and He recognizes faith. Someone in this crowd has faith and needs Him in some way. So Jesus commands a couple of His disciples to find this individual and bring him forward so He might meet him. Suddenly this invisible beggar has become very visible. Everybody’s watching. He is the center of attention. When they bring him, Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Don’t you find this to be an amazingly delightful question? The high King of heaven, the creator God of the universe, wants to be the servant of this lowly outcast. This is mercy! Grace! He is giving the man further opportunity to publicly display his faith toward Jesus. And the man doesn’t disappoint Jesus. He says “Lord, let me recover my sight.” You can fix this.

Notice the second title he uses now. Declaring his faith in Jesus all the more, he calls Jesus “Lord” as he expresses his sense of Jesus’ deity, dominion, power, and authority.

Jesus responds in the affirmative to the request. One last time, He confirms His deity before the crowd to show the fulfillment of the anointing He received at His baptism. The fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” (61:1).

“The blind can see” (35:5).

Jesus says, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” With a simple word, the man immediately recovered his sight, and his life was changed. He can see! Imagine what it would be like to see colors, light, brightness, people’s faces, and, most importantly, the face of Jesus who was probably smiling at him as He stared into his eyes. Imagine the freedom that suddenly becomes his, the rescue, the new possibilities that lie before him.

Jesus’s words, “Your faith has saved you,” are salvation words. He will use them to a tax collector named Zacchaeus: “Today salvation has come to this house” as Zacchaeus repents and expresses faith in Him. This is the word of truth for us – Salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ.

What does the man do in response? He doesn’t run into town and tell his family. He doesn’t run around looking for friends to tell. He doesn’t go dancing down the road away from the crowd. Instead, he follows Jesus and glorifies God in his newfound relationship with the Lord. This is the mark of true conversion. He leaves behind the begging business and goes with Jesus into the giving business. He becomes a disciple and follows Jesus, showing a willingness to obey and surrender to His leadership. The people who witnessed this scene gave praise to God for the miracle.

As a preacher and student of God’s Word, I’ve learned it is quite important to always ask what the takeaway of the story is for you and me. Several truths jump out at us.

Jesus has a heart for the helpless and the poor. They are precious in His sight. Jesus has the power to do amazing things.

Jesus is the Son of David. The big idea of this story is about faith. Jesus affirms the blind man’s faith recognition. He is not only Jesus of Nazareth, an ordinary man and a good teacher, but also the ONE Israel has been waiting for since Old Testament days. This is the Son of David who was promised to King David way back. He is the Messiah, the King whom Israel has been looking for.

The title the blind man used in his loud cries to Jesus is first mentioned at the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel but not in the same way. The angel announced to Mary that she would have a baby. God would give this baby the throne of His ancestor David, and He shall rule over His people forever. Of His kingdom, there shall be no end. Just as God promised King David in II Samuel 7, this baby is the Messiah, the King, David’s son whom Israel has been waiting for and will serve.

The beggar, even in his blindness, sees this, while others who could see physically couldn’t see Jesus for who He really is – the Son of David. The eyes of his heart saw the Savior who could change his life, and so he calls to Him for help. Jesus recognizes the man’s faith and affirms it.

I wonder if Jesus smiled when He heard the man’s words. Did He thank His heavenly Father as He waited for the man to be brought to Him? Was the beggar’s gift of faith also a gift for Jesus from His heavenly Father to inspire Him and keep Him going as He headed toward Jerusalem to complete His mission and be crucified for the sins of the world? We don’t know, but we do know a miracle occurred affirming that God’s kingdom has come. It is a sign of the kingdom. Jesus is the Son of David. He is the King of His kingdom and the fulfillment of God’s Old Testament promises to His people. He is, in fact, THE Savior King to be trusted and followed. This is the big idea.

When you, in your mind’s eye, see Jesus, what do you see? One may see a teacher. Another may see a great philosopher. Still, another may see a scam artist. The Muslim might see a prophet. Many others, like the blind man – myself included – see the Savior of the world who rescues us and gives us a new life with Him.

As we follow Jesus, we come to realize we are all beggars in the sight of God. We have nothing to offer except the empty hands of faith to receive His riches and His salvation.

This story is appealing to us to see Jesus for who He really is – the Savior – and follow Him the rest of our lives. We can live with absolute certainty that we have access to a relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ.

Some folks ask how we can know for sure all this is true. A commentary I was reading about this story said this is Jesus’ last miracle in Luke’s gospel. But the commentator is not quite right, for one more miracle has yet to be seen – an empty tomb! Jesus, who died on a cross, is not in the tomb. He is not there! The miracle of His resurrection from the dead is the grand finale!

The message proclaimed on Easter morning is this: This is the Son of David who created David. He is worthy of your trust and your praise.

Dear friends, the risen Jesus is still passing by. Do you see Him? He is ready with His gracious mercies for your life. He loves you. He died on the cross to pay for your sins and make you His own, to move you from darkness into His marvelous light. Call upon His name in faith for His mercy. And remember, He will not pass you by.

As we conclude our worship today, I invite you to let the words of this hymn, written by a blind hymn writer – Fannie Crosby – be your prayer.

♬Pass me not O gentle Savior,
hear my humble cry . . . ♪

Pastor Steve Kramer