Get a Grip on Contentment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get a Grip on Parenting

II Timothy 1:1-7

I’d like to share a quote with you on parenting I have come to appreciate, and I think you will too. It was written by pastor and author Chuck Swindoll.  “Each day of our lives we make deposits in the memory banks of our children.”

As Christian parents, Julie and I worked to deposit many things into our children, such as our love for them, how much we value them, our wisdom, our knowledge. We tried to give them our best. We also passed along our love of music, learning, reading, baseball, and the Minnesota Twins. Our love for our extended family. Our values, service and respect, kindness and compassion, love of neighbor, citizenship, acting rightly, doing one’s best, working hard, being honest. At the end of our lives when Julie and I are in heaven, we will pass along some of our possessions to them through our will as well.

We have also passed on our faith in Jesus Christ. In fact, it is at the top of our list. We want our children to always trust in Jesus, who is the way, the truth, and the life. We want them to follow Him, serve Him, and shine for Him. I’m glad to say they do.

It all began at the baptismal font when they were infants. We promised God we’d do our best, and it continues even today as they are grown and have their own children. We love being grandparents and want to pass the same spiritual legacy onto our grandchildren as well. After all, without Jesus Christ they would be lost now and for eternity. They’d be lacking in the fruit of the Spirit – joy, peace, patience, kindness, and self-control – which enriches one’s life and their relationships with others. Without Jesus they’d be living without knowing God’s true purpose for their lives.

As followers of Jesus, we were taught by our parents who modeled the importance of parenting. It is a sacred trust from God. He loves our kids even more than we do and wants them to follow Jesus Christ. Someone once said, The home is God’s built-in training facility to relay the truth of Jesus diligently and consistently. So how does one get a grip on this high, challenging calling called parenting?

Today, we read the Apostle Paul’s encouragement to young Timothy about his Jewish mother, Eunice, and grandmother, Lois, who took their calling quite seriously. They were a real blessing to Timothy, and they passed on some good things to him. Good deposits.

Of course, they loved Timothy and saw to his physical, emotional, and intellectual needs. Family was an important part of the Jewish culture. We read about the importance of family in the books of Psalms and Proverbs. The Old Testament has many stories about family – parents raising their kids, taking care of them, and loving them.

Eunice and Lois also saw to Timothy’s spiritual needs. They introduced him to Jesus Christ and raised him in the faith. They wanted him to know and follow Jesus and to have eternal life. They recognized the value of the Christian faith from their own experience. Lois and Eunice had become believers in Jesus in the early days of Christianity when they heard the Good News of Jesus during Paul’s first visit to their area. They lived in a place called Lystra. They were Galatians. Eunice was married to a non-Jewish man. We don’t know if he even had a faith life.

Paul, on his second visit, was so impressed with young Timothy and his faith in Jesus that he took him on his mission trip and mentored him. Timothy eventually became Paul’s right hand man in his ministry and spent many a night, I suppose, in jail with Paul. When they’d enter communities and share the Good News of Jesus, they would often be arrested. Timothy learned what it meant to deny oneself, pick up the cross and follow Jesus. Paul came to love him like a son.

Years later when Timothy was leading his own church, Paul wrote him a letter of encouragement. He had heard Timothy was having troubles, and he wanted to strengthen him in his resolve and his leadership. The letter was written from prison. These words could very well be considered Paul’s final words before his death.

In this touching letter, Paul makes a point of talking to Timothy about his mom and his grandma, and the positive influence they had on Timothy. He writes, “I am reminded of your sincere genuine faith, which dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice.”

Paul is reminding Timothy that his saving faith was passed on to him by his mother and grandmother who shared the gospel, the Good News of Jesus. We know, of course, that no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the power the Holy Spirit, but the Spirit has His tools. I would imagine they prayed for that boy as he was growing up. Lord, may Timothy grow up to trust in you and serve you all his life. Help me to lead him on the right paths and bring him along to enjoy a personal relationship with you just as I have. The Jewish believers were people of deep prayer.

Even before becoming Christians, Lois and Eunice had regular, set-aside times for prayer each day like any good Jew. They were people of prayer. They modeled what it meant to follow Jesus, and brought Timothy to worship each Sunday. Lois and Eunice modeled what it meant to walk obediently before God, walk in the footsteps of Jesus, and to love God and love neighbor as best as they could.

Children learn what’s important to their parents as they observe their actions and attitudes in living out their own life. Faith is caught as well as taught. They knew from their Jewish roots a bit of wisdom from the book of Proverbs 22:6,
“Train up a child in the way he should go, and he will not stray from it.”

Timothy was faithfully trained to follow Christ’s great commandment –
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37, 39).
“Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matt. 6:33).
“I (Jesus) am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6).

Timothy was blessed with a mother and a grandmother who loved him and wanted him to trust Jesus. Maybe you were too. Thank God for the parents in your life.

I know I was blessed in that way. My mother and father brought me to the baptismal font as a baby in 1954. They promised to raise me in the covenant of my baptism. As I grew, they taught me to pray, and they prayed for me. They brought me to worship and Sunday school each week and helped me prepare my weekly lessons. I fondly remember our Saturday night routine of taking a bath, polishing my shoes, and sitting at the kitchen table with Mom as she prepared to teach her Sunday school class and I worked on my lesson for the next day. When it was finished, we put away our materials and watched the TV show Gunsmoke. Then it was bedtime.

As I grew into my junior high years, Mom and I worked on my memory assignments of Luther’s Small Catechism. On Confirmation Day, Dad and Mom stood next to me in front of the church as I signed my baptismal certificate as an affirmation of my faith.

After confirmation, Mom and Dad never let me off the hook. The discipling was not done, and they knew it. Each week I went to worship and High School Sunday school. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. They never stopped praying. As I fought for my independence in my rebellious teen years, I gave them plenty cause to worry, but their love for me never stopped. Neither did the prayers and the questions about where I was in my walk with Christ. There was never a doubt, we were going to worship on Sunday as a family, whether I felt like it or not. They saw this as their calling, and I was blessed.

My mom is in heaven now, but Dad, if you’re listening today, thank you.

Later in Paul’s letter, he brings up Timothy’s childhood again in regard to the importance of sticking with the Bible in his life and ministry. He calls Timothy to hang onto the basics handed down to him by his mom and grandma in “the sacred writings,” as he describes them. Listen to these words:
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (II Tim. 3:14-17).

They passed on the family-of-God stories to Timothy, their love for the Psalms, the wisdom of the Proverbs, and the words of the prophets. They passed on the sacred writings of the Old Testament, which was the Bible for the early Christians and the first Scripture they had. They learned the big picture of what God had accomplished for a sinful world through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises. They were always looking toward Jesus, and now they looked back through the eyes of Jesus at the Old Testament.

These writings had lessons to be learned for following Christ. Paul seemed to be saying, Timothy, the Scripture your mom and grandma taught you changed your life, and it can still change the lives of people in your church. It’s powerful stuff! Stick with it! Keep feeding your congregation the solid food of God’s Word. Paul reminds Timothy that Scripture is inspired by God, literally meaning “God breathed.” Just as God breathed His life into Adam in the book of Genesis and gave him life, so God breathed His Spirit into Scripture. It’s alive and it’s powerful.

• It’s useful for teaching – it tells us the truths about Jesus.
• It’s good for reproof – it tells us when we’re being knuckleheads, when we’re going wrong.
• It’s good for correction – it points us in the right direction and not be a knucklehead.
• It’s good for training in righteousness – it teaches us what it means to live God’s way. It prepares and equips us for service in the kingdom of God and makes us useful to God and the people around us.

Stick with Scripture, Timothy, the Scripture your mom and grandma passed on to you.

Again, we see behind Timothy’s faith was a mom and a grandma who passed along their love for God’s Word, which they valued in their own lives. Now the seeds that were planted had taken root. The boy grew up to love Jesus and serve Him.

You might wonder what became of Timothy. As his right-hand man, Paul had a lot of complimentary things to say about Timothy’s service in the kingdom of God and about what a trustworthy servant of Jesus he was. This young man made a major impact for the cause of Christ in this world, and we know he stuck with it to the very end. Church tradition says he was martyred for his faithful service to the Lord Jesus. Just think about it, behind this faithful man of God was a mother and a grandmother who, I’m sure, Jesus welcomed into His heaven with these words, “Well done, good and faithful servants.”

Moms and Dads, you have been given a great calling in life to raise your children to trust, follow, and serve Jesus Christ. It is an enormous privilege to raise your children to be followers of Jesus Christ. It’s challenging, I know – perhaps the greatest challenge you’ll ever face in life. The good news I have for you is God knows and has provided help for your mission.

First of all, you have been given a promise by Jesus: “Lo, I am with you always to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). He promises to be with those who He commissions to make disciples. Be confident. Lean on me. You are not alone.

Furthermore, He has given you the Holy Spirit, who gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies a person with the Good News of Jesus. You plant the seeds, and the Spirit will take care of the growth. The seed is good and powerful. Keep planting the seeds of God’s Word, God’s Good News.

We also have the power of prayer. Your heavenly Father loves you and is available to strengthen and guide you as you surrender yourself to Him in prayer. Keep praying.

Finally, we have His all-sufficient grace. We receive forgiveness when we fail, strength and power when we’re weak. Billy Graham once said, “Parenting is the most important responsibility most of us will ever face, and none of it us does it perfectly.” So there is grace.

Moms, dads, grandmas, and grandpas – your mission field is right before you: your children and your grandchildren. The commission has not changed. Go. Make disciples of them so one day they will look back on their lives with Christ and say, Thank you, Lord, for parents who gave their all to bring me to You. Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer

Get a Grip on Soul Care

Matthew 11:28-30

Let me tell you a tragic story. When I was younger, I owned a beautiful little 1965 VW bug. My grandfather gave me the car my senior year of college in 1976. It had been his for many years – it only had 30,000 miles on it. I loved that car, and for many years I took good care of it and it took good care of me. About nine years later when our firstborn arrived, Julie and I decided we needed to become a one-car family. So I ended up selling it to a neighbor who purchased it for his teenage daughters to drive. They were so excited to get this cute little car!

Unfortunately, since I lived across the street from them, I began to notice the car was not being taken care of very well. Little by little I watched it disintegrate before my very eyes as these girls drove it around and mistreated it. One day, when it was parked at the high school, some boys jumped on the side boards and broke them off the side of the car. I noticed dents and scratches. The car looked terrible.

Then one day I asked them why they weren’t driving the car. One of them said, “We didn’t know we had to check the oil.” They had burned the engine up. Tragic! I hope those girls learned a valuable lesson – maintenance matters.

But maintenance is not just important for cars, it’s also for all kinds of things, including people. The lack of it can cause some major breakdowns in our lives. Our bodies, for instance, need maintenance. They get tired, rundown, and exhausted if we don’t give them proper rest, diet, and exercise.

Our minds need maintenance as well. They can get tired when they never turn off. Many of us live with a constant information overload. I came across an article that read, “If you feel overloaded, you’re not crazy – you’re normal. You may feel distracted, frustrated, or half sick because the average office worker gets 220 messages a day in emails, memos, phone calls, interruptions, and advertisements. No wonder a survey of thirteen hundred managers on four continents found one third of managers suffer from ill health as a direct consequence of stress associated with an information overload.”

We find ourselves checking messages on our cell phones all the time – first thing in the morning, last thing at night. I find it gets me more tired because sometimes I get messages late, they bug me, and I find I can’t sleep at night.

Facebook is so popular these days. I recently read a story in the newspaper about the effects of facebooking. The American Psychological Association recently released a study on social media use, and its impact on American stress levels. Nowadays 43% of Americans say they check their emails, texts, or social media accounts constantly, and their stress levels are paying the price for it. They’re higher than the average person by several percentage points. People spend an enormous amount of time in front of a computer screen and the television screen with all kinds of junk on, which will take a toll on one’s mind.

Finally, our soul needs maintenance. In the early days of Methodism, John Wesley had class meetings, kind of the original small groups. At those meetings, Wesley always had people ask this question of each other, “How is it with your soul?”

How would you answer that question? The soul is the deepest part of your whole inner being. It is a combination of your whole person. It’s what makes you, you. Dallas Willard, a respected Christian scholar on soul matters, says, “The human soul seeks to combine our will, our mind, and body into an integral whole person. It seeks to connect us with other people, with creation, and with God himself who made us to be rooted in Him the way a tree is rooted by a life-giving stream.”

Our soul has the capacity to pull together all our parts into a whole life. It’s something like a program that runs a computer – you don’t usually notice it until it gets messed up. Our souls crave refreshment and rest. It needs God. As Augustine said in the early days of Christendom, “Our souls are restless until they rest in Thee.” And when it starts to disintegrate, all of life gets crazy.

There are indicators of soul fatigue in people’s lives. For instance, things seem to bother you more than they should during those times and it’s difficult to make up your mind about even simple decisions. You may have impulses to eat or drink or spend or crave that are harder to resist than they otherwise would be. You’re likely to favor short-term gains in ways that will leave you with long-term costs. Your judgment suffers. You find yourself with less courage. You feel like you are coming apart at the seams, and you feel far from God.

I came across the testimony of a fatigued and disintegrated soul in a book I read recently. The author writes, “When I was young, I had finished college and started life. I was married, had children and got a job as a financial analyst for an investment firm in Manhattan. I monitored the world. Currencies were my specialty. I placed bets on when the yen was going up and when the euro was going down. I had monitors that kept me in touch with every time zone every hour of the day. My cell phone was set on vibrate 24 hours a day because a window can open and close at any time.

“My boss was a remarkable man, one of the inventors of the hedge fund, which can enable investors to make money on anything, whether the price goes up or down. Everybody who worked in the firm was 20 years younger than he was. We would sometimes sleep on cots in our offices to be able to pull the trigger on deals in a heartbeat.

“I got more money for Christmas bonuses than my dad ever dreamed of making in a lifetime. My family lived in an apartment not far from Central Park. My kids went to a private school. We bought a place in the suburbs to escape to on the weekends. I’d wake up at 5:00 A.M., start a coffee IV, and live on adrenalin all day long. My wife did most of the day-to-day stuff with the kids. We had a kind of inside/outside arrangement where I was Mr. Outside.

“I had only one secret: I heard voices. Only one voice, actually. It came at random. I could never make out what it was saying. Whenever it spoke, something else was going on, or someone else was making noise, or I was on my way somewhere. It bothered me because I couldn’t figure it out. When I would be still to try to catch it, I heard nothing. It was like footsteps behind a character in a movie. As soon as the character stops to see if there really are footsteps, the footsteps stopped too.

“One day, though, when I got home from work, I heard it clearly. It said, ‘I am your soul, and I am dying.’ I didn’t hear it again for many years.”

Too many damaged souls are living in our soul-damaged world these days. The problem is, the world doesn’t teach us to pay attention to what really matters. You and I need to remember that the most important thing about us is not the things we achieve. It is the person we become. So what are we to do for soul care, to get a grip on our souls?

In today’s reading from Matthew 11, we find Jesus offering help for the soul. It’s an invitation to people who were getting jerked around by life and trying to meet impossible demands. First He says to them, “Come to me.” Who is me? We’re talking about Jesus Christ, the One who lived and died and rose again, who has all authority in heaven and on earth, who loves you and gave His life for you at the cross for your forgiveness. He’s the specialist in soul care. Because He made you, He knows what makes you work and what you need. He says, Come to me. Move toward me. Trust me with your life. Follow me and I will give you rest. He is speaking to those who are weary and feeling burdened, those who are tired of carrying such a heavy load in life.

What kind of rest is He describing? Some might think He is talking about our eternal rest in heaven. It could be, I suppose. We talk about a person who has passed away by saying, “Rest in peace.” Someone might wonder if Jesus is talking about physical rest. No, because we know following Jesus involves caring a cross, which is not restful.

What Jesus is talking about is rest for your soul. Listen to His words: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble, and you will find rest for your souls, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:29).

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me . . . Back in those days, a student would symbolically accept a teacher’s yoke – submit to the teacher, become a disciple, an apprentice, a learner. Jesus is saying, Learn from me; be schooled by me; be my apprentice; listen, watch, and apply. Don’t be afraid. I’m gentle and humble. You can trust me. What comes to mind as He says these words is the image of Him riding into Jerusalem humbly on a donkey to sacrifice His life for you and me.

. . . and you will find rest for your soul. You will have refreshment and renewal of your inner person. You will be strengthened to face the things life throws at you.

My yoke is easy and my burden is light. You won’t be oppressed or crushed by my yoke because you are yoked to Me, to my indestructible, resurrected life. This statement is an invitation to come and learn from Jesus how to live our total lives, how to find rest for our souls, how to invest all our time and energies of will, mind, and body as He did. To approach life with the same general strategy as His by following His preparations and habits that enabled Him. To receive His Father’s constant and effective support while doing His Father’s will, making Jesus able to keep His calm and His peace in His crazy, demanding ministry.

Jesus had spiritual habits that the disciples observed and picked up on just like He wanted them to. For instance, notice how Jesus was constantly turning off the noise in His life. He would often be by Himself for silence and solitude. Jesus knew the power of being still, of disconnecting from the noise and simply being in the presence of His heavenly Father. He knew how to surrender Himself and do absolutely nothing but being with God. Scripture gives us this truth earlier on – “Be still and know that I am God.”

Eugene Peterson, a Christian author whom I enjoy, says, “Two commands direct us from the small-minded world of self-help to the large world of God’s help. First, ‘Come, behold the works of the Lord.’ Take a long scrutinizing look at what God is doing. This requires patient attentiveness and energetic concentration. Everybody else is noisier than God. The headlines, the neon lights, the amplifying systems of the world announce human works. But what about God’s works? They are unadvertised but also inescapable, if we simply look. They are everywhere. They are marvelous. But God has no public relations agency. He mounts no publicity campaign to get our attention. He simply invites us to be still and look.

“The second command is, ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ Be still. Quit rushing through the streets long enough to become aware that there is more to life than your little self-help enterprises. When we are noisy and hurried, we are incapable of intimacy – deep, complex, personal relationships with God and others. If God is the living center of redemption, it is essential that we be in touch with and responsive to that personal will. If God has a will for this world and we want to be in on it, we must be still long enough to find out what it is (for we certainly are not going to learn by watching the evening news). A wise man had a wise word about this subject when he said, ‘Nothing was ever accomplished in a stampede.’”

Be still and know that I am God. When is the last time you took a walk out in God’s creation and just took notice of His marvelous work? Or found a quiet place to just be silent, just be with God.

Jesus also meditated on the Word of God. The wilderness temptations, the pressures – He always had a Word to lean on for strength. We know that from the temptation story. Scripture was in His heart! He was always off praying. Before He went to the cross, He went to the garden to pray. He prayed for all kinds of things He was facing.

Corporate worship. Scripture says He went to the synagogue “as was His custom.” The disciples learned, applied, and found it to be a valuable teaching for their souls. Therefore, they passed it onto others, and it has been passed down through the ages. People have been discovering it is good stuff for the soul, which is so prone to being fatigued.

My personal question for you today is, How is your soul these days? Is it fatigued? Is it well rested? Is it totally out of commission?

The appeal today is really quite simple: Jesus wants to give you rest for your soul. Take His yoke. Learn from Him. Enter into His habits. You can trust Him, because He gave His life for you at the cross to restore your relationship with God. And He rose from the grave – God’s affirmation. He wants you to be able to answer that question, How is it with your soul? with, It is well with my soul, just like the hymn.

Years ago, a book was written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which was a classic. It was entitled, “The Cost of Discipleship.” Have you ever stopped to consider the cost of non discipleship – a shrinking, shriveling, fatigued soul with no strength and no joy?

I invite you – I encourage you – to sign up for Christ’s soul care class today. Learn from Him, and you will find rest for your soul. This is His promise. Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer

Red River of Grace

Ephesians 1:2-8

Every year, many people visit Itasca State Park in northern Minnesota to be at the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River. It’s only a little trickle stream, but as it flows toward Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico, it becomes a wide river, a powerful flowing river of current.

Likewise, the cross of Jesus Christ is the beginning point of the blood-red river of God’s grace, which flows to you and me, and to all the world for all eternity that we might be forgiven and reconciled into a relationship with the living God.

When I was a seven-year-old boy, the youngest of four sons born to Oscar and Viola Laaveg, we were boating one day on Clear Lake, Iowa. We had a 14′ maiden boat with a forty-horse, big twin Evinrude pushing it. When we, as a family of six, traveled in that boat across the water, I don’t think we had more than a two-inch clearance from the side of the boat to the water. We had many fun times in the boat.

At the end of the day, it was time to load the boat onto the trailer. The car my father owned to pull the boat and trailer was a ‘63 Belair Chevy with 3 on the tree. My brother, Joel, and I were in the car. I was behind the steering wheel messing around. I had moved the stick shift out of gear and into neutral and was pretending to drive. As I pulled the parking brake lever, the car swiftly began to roll down the incline ramp into the water. My dad yelled “Hit the breaks! Hit the breaks!” but by the time my little foot found the brake pedal, my head was underwater and the car was floating, all four tires off the ground. It was too late. My dad had to call a tow truck to pull the whole mess out of the water.

I remember watching as the tow truck hooked up to the car. My dad put his arm around my shoulders and said, “It’s okay. We can fix this.”

In every person’s life are moments where we’ve inadvertently, foolishly, or rebelliously pulled the parking brake off and rolled into a mess. We get underwater and can’t fix it. Everybody needs forgiveness. This is why God offers us mercy and grace in the name of Jesus. In the Old Testament, He established a system of sacrifice to offer mercy and grace – the sacrifice of lambs and goats. Mercy is pardon given, even though punishment is deserved. Grace is the undeserved, unmerited favor and blessing, love of God for us.

In the Old Testament system of sacrifice, God established a way for atoning sacrifice to be made for the forgiveness of sins. A sacrifice is something precious offered for a reason. Atonement is the satisfaction for a committed offense. God said, “The life of the creature is in the blood.” Sacrifice is my gift to make atonement at the altar, says the Lord. Blood makes atonement for your life.

Throughout the entire Old Testament covenant time, God’s people would worship on the Day of Atonement called Yom Kippur. Once a year the high priest would take two male goats. He would sacrifice one and carry the blood into the holy of holies. Then he would sprinkle the blood on the cover of the ark of the covenant (called the mercy seat) for atonement for the sins of all God’s people.

He would then take the second goat to the edge of the village and put his hand on its head to transfer the guilt and shame of all the people. The goat would travel off into the wilderness as a scapegoat bearing guilt and shame away. All of this foreshadowed the death and resurrection of Jesus for us. When Jesus came on the scene, John the Baptist looked at Him coming for baptism in the Jordan River and said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

Many passages in the New Testament make the connection between an atoning sacrifice by bloodshed, the forgiveness of sins, and reconciliation between God’s people and Him.

We find Jesus’ words:
•  “This is the blood of the covenant poured out for you for the forgiveness of your sins” (Matthew 26:28).

In today’s text we read,
•  “In Jesus Christ we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses according to the riches of his grace, which he has lavished upon us” (Ephesians 1:7).

We find Paul words to the Christians at Colosse:
 “It is the Father’s pleasure to reconcile all things to himself having made peace through the blood of the cross” (Colossians 1:20).

We read of the scene in heaven where it says,
 “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14).

Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross released a blood-red river of grace where God offers us cleansing and forgiveness in His name. Isn’t that awesome! In Jesus’ name we find forgiveness for all our sins.

Do you ever remember dealing with your child or grandchild who was reluctant to take a bath? Even if they were dirty or smelled a bit, they still didn’t think they needed to bathe. It reminds me of the story in the Old Testament of Naaman, the captain of the Syrian army. Naaman was a powerful and mighty warrior, a man of power and prestige in his nation. But he was also a leper. One of God’s people, his servant girl, had said that Elisha could heal him. So Naaman went with his big entourage – a parade of pomp and glory and prestige – to Elisha to be healed. He expected to be met by the same level of pomp and glory, but Elisha didn’t even go out to meet him. Instead, Elisha sent a messenger out of the house and told Naaman to go wash in the Jordan River seven time.

Naaman was indignant and refused. “Aren’t there clean rivers in Syria? Why have I been sent to this prophet and forced to bathe in the dirty waters of the Jordan?” Yet his servants impressed upon him that if Elisha had asked him for some noble sacrifice or dangerous action, he would’ve done it to be clean of leprosy. Give it a try, they said. So Naaman submitted and bathed seven times in the Jordan. Scripture tells us he was healed and his skin became clean like a little child. Naaman was so full of gratitude that he proclaimed, “There is no God in all the world like the God of Israel, Yahweh!” He expressed faith in Yahweh, and he worshiped the living God (II Kings 5).

When you and I understand the depth of our sin, the level of our imperfections, and that we are lost from God, then we understand what God has done for us in the purifying love of Jesus Christ. We are invited into a relationship of His mercy and grace. All of life changes. We realize we have been saved. We have been served sacrificially. We have been forgiven, and we are grateful.

In Old Testament times, the central saving story was the Exodus where Moses appeared before Pharaoh. God sent a series of ten plagues. The last plague was the loss of the life of the oldest child in every household unless they protected their house by smearing the blood of a perfect, unblemished lamb on the door post. When their faith was expressed in this way, they would be protected from the angel of death. The blood on the doorjamb marked the household as believers in God who belong to the Lord, those who in faith accept and believe the promise of God.

Today you and I can still, in the name of Jesus, take the blood of Jesus Christ as a protection covenant on our lives so we know we are forgiven, we belong to God, and we are alive forever in the promise of His love. All of life changes when we bathe in the blood-red river of Jesus Christ’s grace. The current of the Spirit’s grace carries us to a whole new way of life. The Spirit within us now shines with grace as it emanates from our life and shows love to the people around us.

I recently heard Dave Bohnet from Jefferson, Iowa tell the story of a time when he worked in a nursing home. He noticed a ninety-something-year-old woman sitting in a wheelchair in the corner of the room. “Young man,” she said to him.”Young man, come over here.” Well, Bohnet was in his upper fifties, not a young man, but he went over to the woman. She said, “I want to give you my business card.” Bohnet put her card in his pocket, made his excuses, and left.

Later he pulled out the old woman’s business card, thinking to himself, “What business does an old woman have?” The woman’s card said this, a prayer:

“Come, Holy Spirit. Enlighten our hearts so we can see the things of God and so we might know God in our soul. Sanctify all we say and do that we might live to the glory of God.”

Reading her prayer, tears streamed down Bohnet’s face as he realized that yet at this stage of her life, the business of the woman was to bear witness to her love for Jesus Christ who had shown her mercy.

The current of the red river of Jesus’ grace removes our bondage and moves us in to freedom. The old rhythms of life can fall away, and the manifestation of the love of God flows through our person in the power of the Holy Spirit. We move from being self-centered to being sacrificial in love.

I know a retired dentist here in Spencer – Dr. Terry Shively. He and his wife, Stevie, make multiple trips annually to the poorest rural areas of the nation of Haiti to do dental work. Natives from Haiti travel as many as four and five hours by foot so the dentist can serve their dental and oral needs.

Also in those twelve-hour days, Shively and his wife stand in one hundred-degree heat to serve those needy people. Why would they do that? Because the red river of Jesus’ grace has touched them and carries them. The love of Jesus Christ compels them to serve others in His love.

Dear friends, I want you to know the passionate love of God like the mighty rivers of the Mississippi. Regardless of the weather or the season of the year, the current of the river is always flowing. You may not want to drink from the water. You may not want to harness its energy. You may not want to boat on it, or ski on it, or fish in it, but you cannot stop the mighty river of the Mississippi from flowing.

Likewise, you cannot stop the love of God from flowing to you in the blood-red river of the grace of Jesus Christ. From the cross of Christ, His love flows to you forever that you might believe you are forgiven, reconciled to God, and His child forever after. Amen.

Rev. Lee Laaveg

Get a Grip on Faith

John 20:19-31

Mother was busy cooking supper in the kitchen and asked her five-year-old son to go into the pantry to get a can of tomato soup. The little boy was afraid of the dark and didn’t want to go in there. He pleaded his case, “Mommy, I’m scared.”

Mother responded, “Johnny, be a big brave boy. Just walk in and get it. I need it right away for this food I am preparing.”

Johnny repeated his fear, “Mommy, I’m too scared to go in there by myself.”

So his mother used a different approach. “It’s okay. Jesus will be in there with you. Now go and get mother the soup.”

Johnny went to the door and opened it slowly. When he peeked inside, it was dark and his hands trembled. But then an idea popped into his little head. “Jesus, if you’re in there, would you hand me a can of tomato soup?”

It is difficult at times to believe Jesus is “in there.” It’s not unusual for us to go through moments and seasons of frustration in our lives and even have doubts in our walk of faith. I’m sure many of you can identify with the words a man once spoke to Jesus, “I believe. Help my unbelief.”

A variety of reasons exist for this kind of struggling. It might be despair over situations that are overwhelming us. It might be a sense that the world is dark, threatening, out of control, and filled with pain and evil. It may be disappointment over the way life has turned out for you. You looked to God for answers, but He didn’t respond the way you had hoped.

Perhaps it’s physical and emotional suffering you or a loved one is going through. Maybe your peers are skeptical, cynical, and unbelieving, which can cause a person to struggle with faith. The question is, What do you do with those moments, those seasons? How can you get a grip on your faith? We have a story before us today from the Gospel of John, which I have found to be helpful.

First, notice the resurrection story is a Good News story announcing that Jesus is alive! He was dead, but now He is showing Himself to be alive to those disciples in the upper room. He has been transformed, able to go through locked doors and suddenly appear to His disciples. He took away their fears and gave them peace as He showed them His hands and side so they could know He was the same one who was crucified on the cross, but is now alive.

He came to assure them of His forgiveness for running out on Him. He also gave them an important commission – to tell the Good News to the world so all might believe and be saved. It is a good news story. Good news happens in the first half of the story.

However, Thomas wasn’t there. He had withdrawn from the fellowship of the others and didn’t experience the risen Jesus. We don’t know why he wasn’t in the Upper Room. We can surmise some reasons. From past mention of him in John’s Gospel, we know Thomas had a melancholy personality. He was a glass half-empty instead of half-full type of guy, prone to look for the worst. He didn’t hesitate to question Jesus when he didn’t understand.

Perhaps Thomas was feeling disappointed and even a bit angry as he grieved over the death of Jesus. He had such high hopes. He had followed this guy with his whole life. Now those hopes had been dashed. Where were you, God? he might’ve questioned.

Thomas could have been feeling a bit guilty. He’d run out on Jesus and deserted Him in His hour of need.

Maybe Thomas felt despair. He had seen the worst in human behavior from the people who destroyed Jesus. Such darkness and sinfulness can give a person a sense of hopelessness for the world.

Perhaps Thomas had just simply given up. I must have been wrong about Jesus. Surely you can empathize with him. When things go wrong and it’s too much to bear, we find ourselves wanting to run off sometimes, or curl up into a little ball to grieve and lick our wounds alone. We isolate ourselves and stay away from worship. We steer clear of others not wanting people to see how miserable we are. We’re afraid to fall apart in front of others, and we wonder, What’s the point of it anyway? We keep our distance and shut down relationally.

All these things could have been factors behind Thomas not being with them during Jesus’ first appearance. We can’t say for certain why, but we do know he wasn’t there the evening of that first Easter.

It’s really unfortunate, when you think about it, for Thomas would have to live with his doubts and disappointments. Yet he really didn’t need to. The other disciples took Jesus’ commission seriously and made their first attempt at witnessing to Thomas that they had seen the Lord. He is alive! However, it was met with skepticism and unbelief on Thomas’ part. He wasn’t buying it. I imagine he rolled his eyes as they talked, thinking to himself, This has to be just wishful thinking on their part. They’re caught up in their grief and want Him to be alive. They’re that delusional and unrealistic! Dead is dead.

So Thomas replies, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side where he was pierced by the spear, I will not believe.”

Fortunately, that is not the end of the story. A week later Thomas was with the others as they gathered in the house behind shut doors. Maybe the other disciples talked him into coming back to join them that day. They have even physically come and escorted him to the get-together out of their love for him. Sometimes it takes just that, in which case I say, “Way to go, guys!”

Anyway, Thomas joined them and was he glad he did, for Jesus appeared out of nowhere again saying, “Peace be with you,” just as He promised in the Upper Room the night before His crucifixion when He said, “I give you peace.” But before Thomas could say anything, Jesus looked him in the eye and repeated His earlier statement. “Here. Put your finger in my nail prints and your hand in my side. Don’t doubt, but believe.”

Thomas gasped. How could Jesus know what I said? Then it hit him. Jesus was there! When the disciples told Thomas they’d seen the Lord, He was there. He really is alive! The next moment we see Thomas dropping to his knees proclaiming, “My Lord and my God!” He was the first person in John’s Gospel to call Jesus, Lord and God. The flame of faith burned brightly within Thomas from that day forward. His faith was revived and renewed.

Church tradition tells us Thomas hit the mission field full blast with great enthusiasm, going first to what we today call Iraq, then to Iran, and eventually to India where he died a martyr’s death for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Folks, the same Jesus who met Thomas in the Upper Room and revived his faith is still available to you and me to help us get a grip on our faith. Jesus’ response to Thomas’ statement of faith is very interesting! He says, “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who have not seen and come to believe.” God blesses those who have not seen Him and yet believe.

Jesus, here, is really talking to you and to me in this statement, those of us who come onto the scene later. Although we can’t physically see Jesus, we still believe in Him. We can have encounters with the risen Christ in our own faith journeys.

A takeaway from this Thomas story for me is this: An important truth in the walk of faith is the importance of where you station yourself. In order to let the presence of Christ and His grace touch your life, station yourself in the places where He has promised to meet you. The story of Thomas points us to the value of stationing oneself in the community of faith, especially while feeling despondent.

It is true that in our moments of depression and doubt, we may need solitude. But we also need hours with fellow believers who can come alongside of us and encourage us. Remember Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20). In this story we see the danger of withdrawing from the community of faith. When we are alone and separated from other believers, we can easily err in thinking we can find healing on our own, but it’s not true. When we’re isolated, our minds can play tricks on us, and we lay ourselves open to Satan himself who sees us at our weak moment and makes it a point to deceive us and play with our doubts. We can begin to believe the sun will never shine again. We become filled with doubt and feel defeated. We despair. It happens; I’ve seen it.

I found an old illustration out of Scotland I think is quite helpful. A man stopped coming to church. He knew the pastor would soon be calling on him to inquire why.

When the minister showed up at his front door, the man invited him in, and the two sat by the fire and made small talk. The man wondered when the discussion would turn to his church attendance. As conversation dwindled off, the pastor took the tongs by the fireplace, reached into the fire, took a white-hot coal, and set it out in front of the fire. The two taciturn Scotts sat there smoking their pipes and sipping their tea. Minutes passed in silence. The coal, of course, cooled to red-hot. Slowly the color began to fade until it finally it became black. A wisp of smoke signaled the fire was out, and the man realized this was an object lesson.

“Yes, pastor,” he said. “I’ll be at church on Sunday.” The coals burned brightly while they were together, but when one was removed, it could not long sustain the heat, and it went out. So we need the fellowship of one another in the church.

You can also station yourself in the Word and sacraments. Interestingly, John throws in a little editorial statement after the Thomas story. He says, “Now Jesus did many other signs that are not written in this book. But these are written so you may come to believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing, you may have life in his name” (John 20:31-31). You see John and the disciples came to understand the power of the Word of God to feed their faith. They knew they would encounter Christ in the Word. We receive God’s grace in Christ as we open our Bibles and read and study His words.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is that you station yourself in the Word if you want to encounter the grace of God in Christ. Read the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Read them again and again and again. Get to know Him. Let Him walk with you and talk with you. I love the statement: Feed your faith and your doubts will starve to death. Feed your faith with the Word.

Jesus has also promised to be with us in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. We hear His words: “This is my body given for you; This is my blood shed for you.” Because He is present in the bread and wine, we taste Him, touch Him, smell Him, and hear His words of love and assurance. It is a reminder that we are not alone. We are forgiven.

Finally, station yourself in the company of the world’s needy, for Jesus promised to meet us there. We find His promise in Matthew 25, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. Jesus said, “I was hungry and you fed me; thirsty and you gave me drink; stranger you welcomed me; in prison and you visited me. Truly I tell you, when you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” Service is an amazing instrument for staying close to Jesus. You meet Him face-to-face.

Friend, if you are struggling with doubts and seeking to get a grip on your faith, know this: Jesus loves you. He longs for you to believe in Him. He went to the cross and rose again to have a relationship with you. He is calling you through His Word this day to make a commitment to station yourself in the right places. He will meet you there.

This is the way to get a grip on faith. Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer

Happy V-Day

Matthew 28:1-10

Happy V-Day! I’m not talking about Valentine’s Day. I’m not talking about Victory Day as we remember it with World War II. Today I am talking about Easter. Easter is our V-Day. Easter is not about bunnies or bonnets or bonbons. Easter is about victory. It is when Jesus rose victoriously over the power of death.

Christ has risen! He is risen indeed! He was dead. I mean really dead! He was crucified on a cross and suffered a horrible, excruciating death. He was stabbed with a spear to make certain He was dead and laid in a rich man’s tomb. Still, death could not hold Him, for three days later He showed up alive. Matthew lays out the evidence in our Easter reading for today.

First, there are the women who were the first witnesses to the resurrection. Women in those days counted for very little in Roman, Jewish, and Greek circles. They couldn’t testify in a court of law; they were more considered to be goods and possessions. They were discounted people of society. If the story of the resurrection were to be fabricated, women would be good witnesses. But this is how convinced Matthew was of the truth of the resurrection. He didn’t change a detail. It’s just like God to have two women be the first witnesses of His Son’s resurrection.

God is consistent. Jesus was born in an obscure province in a stable, raised in a town people made fun of. “What good can come out of Nazareth?” they’d say. He worked as a carpenter. He died on a cross – a place associated with God’s curse. And now this? Of course! Only God could have dreamed up something so remarkable.

We have the evidence of the empty tomb. Despite the guards and the huge stone covering the tomb, it was open and empty. The body was gone. No questions concerning Jesus as to the emptiness of the tomb.

Then there is His appearance. The disciples saw Jesus on the way back to town. They touched Him and heard His voice.

We also have the evidence of transformed lives. The disciples’ perspectives were totally changed. They moved from mourning and fear to joy and confidence.

We have the fulfilled predictions. Jesus predicted His death and resurrection three times, like the angel reminded the women at the tomb. “He is raised, just as He said.”

There is the commissioning. The women were told to go and tell the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee. By the end of the book of Matthew, the disciples were commissioned to go and tell the world and make disciples of all nations.

This is not something the disciples came up with on their own. This event began a worldwide movement for which they actually laid down their lives. Would you lay down your life for an untruth?

The Good News of Jesus spread. Here we are today, two thousand years later. How could it be if it were not true?

For me, the case is closed. I hope it is with you, too. Christ is risen! He defeated death. As Paul says, “Death has been swallowed up in victory. ‘Where death is your victory, where oh death is your sting?’ Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Cor. 15:15-57). The cheerleaders’ chant from my old athletic days is ours today: V-I-C-T-O-R-Y. Victory, Victory that’s our cry!

V-Day could also stand for Vindication Day, for Jesus was vindicated on Easter. His resounding message to His opponents, His disciples, and the world that didn’t understand Him was, God is strong! When the stone was rolled away and the risen Lord stepped back into the world from the tomb, God said to us, Jesus is the Savior of the world. He’s My Son. He’s the One you want to be trusting.

Now, let’s get personal. Jesus is the Savior you and I really need. Looking back at Scripture, we find we have a severe problem called sin. It carries terrible consequences. Our sinfulness, our rebellion against God, leads to a physical and spiritual death, for the wages of sin is death.

Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:1 that we are dead in our sins. It all began in a garden with the disobedience of a couple who wanted to run their own lives and be their own gods. Sin spread throughout the world to everybody. Because of sin and its consequences, we all need a Savior. Jesus entered our world and lived a life of perfect obedience to His heavenly Father. He lived the life you and I couldn’t live, which made Him the perfect sacrifice for humanity’s sinfulness. Ultimately, He went to the cross and suffered the punishment we were to receive, so everything could be made right. As He breathed His last, He cried out, “It is finished!” which means literally, Paid in full. Payment for sin was made at the cross.

How do we know it worked? The resurrection! The resurrection is God’s “Yes.” It is the vindication of His Son and what His Son has done. And so, because Christ lives, forgiveness is ours. A restored relationship with our heavenly Father is ours as we place our trust in Christ. Eternal life is ours as well. Jesus is the first fruits of the resurrection. We share in His victory. Death is no longer a wall for us but a door. It’s not a period but a comma.

In my congregation we talk about death as graduation time. We go to be with Jesus. I have had some tough funerals since last Easter. Thank God for Jesus. I have sat in nursing homes and at hospital bedsides as dying people testify to me, minister to me by saying things like I’m really not afraid. I’m going home now to be with Jesus, just as He promised. Just as He promised.

God’s Easter message not only gives us Jesus as Savior, but it also means Jesus is Lord! He lives and rules eternally. He is the Lord of Lords. All authority in this world has been given to Him. The earliest Christian creed was, Jesus is Lord.

What does it mean to say Jesus is Lord? Well, in the early Christian church, it was a way of saying Jesus is God. In I Corinthians 16:22, Paul shares a prayer that was common in the earliest Christian church just a few years after the resurrection of Jesus. The words were, Maranatha – Lord, come again. It wasn’t written in Greek by the way, but in Aramaic, which means it is a very early prayer. The earliest Church figured out Jesus had to have been God. Jewish folks only prayed to God before this, and now they are praying to Jesus.

In Philippians 2:1-11, Paul quotes an early Christian hymn, which was written before he came along telling us that Jesus is Lord God. He is in charge of the world, yet He stepped down, emptied Himself and humbled Himself at the cross. But God exalted Him at the resurrection and gave Him the name that is above every name. One day every knee will bow and every tongue confess this truth that Jesus is Lord.

This conclusion the the earliest Christians made about Jesus being Lord God didn’t just come out of the blue, by the way. They remembered things He had said about Himself, which now made sense. Things like “I am the good Shepherd”; “I am the resurrection and the life”; “Before Moses was, I am.” I am meant God in the Old Testament. When people asked where He got the right to claim authority to forgive sins, He responded, “I and the Father are one. When you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” Easter verified these claims, and so they came to the conclusion that Jesus is Lord.

If, then, Jesus is raised and God has exalted Him as Savior and Lord of the world, then it brings us to this point: What have you done with Jesus in your life? You do have a choice, you know. Some choose to ignore Him; some reject Him; some underrate Him simply as a good teacher; others keep Him on the sidelines of their lives. Some believe in a general way – like, I believe in mom, apple pie, and Chevrolet – but they have no relationship with Him. People can say all the right things and yet not be connected to Him.

What about you? Here is what He wants you to do: Trust Him as your Savior for your salvation, for your eternal life. Put your faith in His saving work. A person is saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Place your trust in Jesus and bet your life on what He has done for you. Lean on Him heavily for your salvation. Put your whole weight upon Him.

Trust Jesus with every area of your daily life, not just your salvation. Don’t leave Him on a shelf only to be taken down for emergencies. He is here with you. “Lo, I am with you always.” Talk to Him in prayer and seek His guidance in the Scriptures as you open the Bible and read the Gospels, where He teaches you about kingdom life.

Live a life of gratitude for the great rescue He has done in your life. Someone once remarked, “After I met Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord, the rest of my days have been a PS. Thank you, Lord.

Thank Him not only with words and songs, but with your actions. Become a living sacrifice of thankfulness for Jesus. A friend of mine for instance recently laid his father to rest. He was a great saint. This man had such enthusiasm for telling other people about Jesus and what He had done, all of it motivated by gratitude. Jesus saved his life in a remarkable way years earlier, and he was overflowing with gratitude for what Jesus had done for him. He couldn’t seem to help himself; he wanted everyone to know and trust Jesus. His motivation wasn’t out of obligation, but pure gratitude. “What Jesus has done for me, He can do for you” he’d say.

A friend of mine in the church retired recently from the corporate world. I probably shouldn’t even call it a retirement though, because he is working full-time for Jesus. He travels with our young people on mission trips. He attends their get-togethers on Wednesday evenings. He tirelessly works in an inner-city ministry reaching lost people during the week, and one evening a week he’s at the state prison hosting a Bible study. Early Friday mornings, he hosts another Bible study.

He could be taking it easy and spending all his time entertaining himself. However, he is so filled with gratitude for what Christ has done for him that he and his wife insist on serving Christ as long as their health allows them. Wow! That is a living sacrifice of thankfulness!

Jesus wants you to serve Him as your Lord. If Jesus is Lord, then we are His servants, and we owe Him unhesitating dedication and uncompromising obedience. It means we commit ourselves to doing life His way and doing His will with our lives.

One of the greatest Christian leaders of the last century was John Stott. He was director of All Souls Langham Place in London – a wonderful preacher, Bible teacher, author, global leader to many. An article written by Os Guinness states, “I knew him (John Stott) over many decades, but I will never forget my last visit to his bedside three weeks before he died. After an unforgettable hour and more of sharing memories over the years, I asked him how he would like me to pray for him. Lying weekly on his back and barely able to speak, he answered in a hoarse whisper, ‘Pray that I will be faithful to Jesus until my last breath.’ Would that such a prayer be the passion of our generation too.”

And if Jesus is Lord, then worship Him. Bend your knee to Him. Bow down and worship Him as God. Give Him His worth – not just on the weekends. Be a living sacrifice of worship to Him every day. Focus on Him in worship. Worship is all about Him. It’s not about you; it’s about Him. Give Him your all when you’re at worship in your church.

So happy V-Day! God has spoken. You have a Savior and a Lord. His name is Jesus Christ. What are you going to do with Him? God is calling you today, this V-Day, to trust Him, thank Him, praise Him, serve Him, and obey Him the rest of your days. Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer

 

Charles Blondin

What Jesus Says About Choices

Matthew 7:13-29

We have many choices and decisions to make in life. Columbia University recently did a study and found that the average person makes about 70 decisions every day. That’s 25,500 decisions a year. In a 70-year lifespan, it is 1,788,500 choices we’re making. We are truly fearfully and wonderfully made!

We are created in God’s image. We have a mind with which to think. We are eternal beings. We have a will, which enables us to make choices. What a wonderful thing that is! Think of all the choices we make: Where we live, who we will marry, which school we will attend, and what our career choices will be. In today’s passage, it turns out that we have an important choice to make in regard to our relationship with Jesus Christ.

Jesus is now at the end of His sermon on the mount. After He announced the kingdom of God was at hand and called people to repentance, He preached this sermon to a huge crowd and to His disciples. We call it the Sermon on the Mount. In that sermon, He describes kingdom-of-God living about Christian character, the way of being blessed by God, and the influence we can have in our world being salt and light. He is describing inner righteousness (not just external righteousness), but living from within in a right relationship with God. He talked about religious piety (how we pray, fast, and give) and our priorities (seeking first His kingdom). And He talked about our relationships and how we treat other people.

Now His sermon is drawing to a close. The main body of it has been given and the instructions have been laid out for all to hear. Notice how Jesus ends it. It turns out He wasn’t preaching for applause or just reflection, but for a decision. Every good sermon, I’ve learned along the way, goes for a verdict. It ends with a motion to act upon what has been preached. Jesus did this in the final section of His presentation. He gave us two options – only two. Not a third. No compromise. No middle of the road here. You have to choose between the two.

Jesus lays out the choices in this way. First, know this. We have two ways to go – two gates, two roads. One way is very broad. Jesus describes it as easy. It is popular and requires little of those who choose this way. It holds moral laxity and no boundaries of thought or conduct, no need for repentance or change. You can just follow the desires of your own heart. Little is required of you.

The other gate is narrow. It’s not the most popular choice. It’s difficult, uncomfortable, and inconvenient. Its boundaries have been given by divine revelation, by God’s Word. God deems what is true and good behavior.

This is not an easy path, for no one likes to be considered narrow by others, even though the truth is narrow. We know 2+2 = 4, no question about it. The truth is narrow. Jesus commands us to enter the narrow way.

Why? Because each way has its own destination. The broad way leads to destruction, the narrow way leads to life. Jesus says to choose the narrow way, which is Him. He is the way, the truth, and the life.

Jesus goes on to describe two trees – a bad tree, which bears bad, inedible fruit, and a good tree, which gives good fruit. He is actually warning us about false teachers within the Church. They may seem to have all the answers. They are very likable. They are charismatic, and their teachings are easy to swallow. They are dangerous though and deceptive as wolves. They are like wolves in sheep’s clothing. They are like bad trees, which yield bad fruit. They say things like,
Live for number one. You have to take care of you. It’s all about you.
It doesn’t matter what you believe; all roads lead to God.
You can earn your eternal life.

These people are dangerous to your spiritual health. Jesus says they can lead you to ruin. Instead, stick with good teachers who cling to God’s Word and teachings.

Good teachers pass on truths like those from the Sermon on the Mount:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who recognize their spiritual bankruptcy before God, and their need to ask for His grace.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who want a right relationship with God and to live rightly in His sight. They hunger for righteousness not only for themselves but also for the whole world. Their desire is God’s will be done.

These good teachers will tell you to
Rely on God in absolute dependency.
Know Him as your heavenly Father who loves you.
Expect to suffer for the cause of God’s kingdom and the Gospel.
Pray for your enemies instead of hating people.
Forgive as God has forgiven you.
Let your light shine before others so they see the good deeds you do and give glory to your Father in heaven.
This is what life is about in the kingdom.

Good tree or bad tree? The choice is yours, of course. But know this: one way gives life and the other leads to ruin.

Jesus also says we have two ways to respond to Him and His message. We can choose to just give Him lip service. Those who choose this way profess all the right things and even do religious things, but they continue to retain control of their own life. They post a “No Entrance” sign to Jesus in certain areas of their life. Deep down, they want to hang onto things that are spiritually unhealthy. They don’t want to change, so there’s no repentance, no surrender. They act like spiritual chameleons who like to blend in. They stand up for Jesus on Sunday, but will not stand out for Him on Monday. Jesus says that on the last day when they stand before Him and call out, “Lord, Lord!” “Lord, Lord!” He will respond that He doesn’t know them. He will refer to them as evildoers because they are just playing religious games.

Or we can give Him our life. Don’t just talk a good game. Do what He says, which is the will of the Father. He doesn’t want just lip service, but your life.

Finally, Jesus points out that you can choose to just hear Him and go on your merry way, or you can hear Him and act upon His message. He says, “Everyone who hears my words and then acts on them is like a wise man who builds his house upon a rock. It stands strong, even in the worst storm. But those who hear my words and do not act on them are like the foolish man who built his house on a foundation of sand. The storms came, and the house was easily destroyed.”

As you read all the statements Jesus makes in this section of Scripture, you really can’t miss what He wants us to choose. There really are only two options, two gates, two roads, two teachers, two responses, two foundations. Only one choice is right for you – devote yourself to following Jesus Christ. Jesus is not looking for your applause or your admiration. He wants people like you and me to make a choice to follow Him, to live under Him in His kingdom, love Him, and serve Him.

During the introduction and the closing of this sermon, Matthew tells us there were actually two groups of people listening to Jesus as He talked about living in the kingdom of God that day – the huge crowd and the disciples.

When Jesus called for a verdict, there were two responses. The crowds were astonished when Jesus finished His teaching. They were impressed and admired Him. “Such authority in the way He speaks!” they said to one another. But Jesus wasn’t looking for admiration. He wanted them to follow Him and live their lives under His authority. Yet only a few listeners dropped everything and followed Him that day, choosing to surrender their lives to His leadership and live with Him and under His authority. Those who surrendered their lives to His leadership and chose to live with Him and under His authority were right to do so. We discover at the end of the Gospel story that Jesus truly did have authority.

As we enter into this holy week, we know that Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world. We know He rose again on Easter morning, which was God’s “Yes!” to the authority of Jesus. He truly is the one to be trusted and followed!

What about you? What crowd are you in? Are you an admirer of Jesus or are you a follower? Have you made that choice yet in your life? Have you made a conscious commitment to be a follower of Jesus, to do what He says, to live with Him and under His authority, to let Him be the master of your life and to live for Him? Maybe you have never done that. Maybe you’ve never been given an opportunity. Many, even within the church, haven’t made the choice. Like drawing a line in the sand for Christ.

Samuel Shoemaker, an evangelist and wonderful pastor from the past, said “I am shocked to learn how many people in our churches have never anywhere made a decisive Christian commitment. They kind of oozed in the church membership on a conventional kind of basis, but no one has ever effectively dealt with them spiritually or helped them make a Christian decision.”

Have you made a decision to follow Christ? Let me share an image of what it means to follow Him. It’s the story about a man from the past named Charles Blondin, one of the best-known tight rope walkers in the world. He became obsessed with crossing Niagara Falls. So he strung a hemp cord 1100 feet across and 160 feet above the falls and announced he was going across from one side to the other. He was quite a showman, and a crowd of thousands gathered to watch him attempt the walk that day.

There he went – inch by inch. Tension was in the air. Life or death, no safety net below him. He crossed all the way over. People were taking pictures of him. So he did it again. He actually brought a camera with him that time and took a picture of the crowd taking pictures of him. He went another time with a chair, balanced the chair on the rope, and stood on the chair. When he went another time and took a wheelbarrow across, the crowd just went crazy. This man walks his rope with such authority!

Then he turned to the crowd and asked, “Do you believe I can do?” Of course they all believed. They cheered. Then he asked, “Who will get in the wheelbarrow with me?” And it got quiet. “Do you believe in me?” No one answered.

One man named Harry Colcord knew Blondin. He’d worked with him and had seen them do this hundreds of times. He got into that wheelbarrow, and they went step-by-step cross Niagara Falls. Can you imagine being Colcord, how it must have felt to take that ride? Well, they made it to the other side and the crowd went nuts again. But the crowd didn’t get in the wheelbarrow. They applauded him. They admired him. But only one man trusted him. The walk they went on together, neither one would ever forget.

My dear friends, have you gotten in the wheelbarrow with Jesus? Have you devoted yourself wholly to Jesus Christ as your Savior, the Lord and Master of your life? Maybe you’ve thought to yourself, I don’t know if I have a right to do something like that. I have some sins and regrets from the past. My life is not together enough to be a disciple of Jesus.

Jesus would say to you, I know you well. Your sinfulness is a big problem. Your heart is messed up and filled with all kinds of filthiness you can’t fix on your own and you can’t clean up in order to stand before God and look good. But I can take care of that! I died on the cross for you. If you will confess your sins and repent (which means asking God to forgive you and help you to change), I will wipe the slate clean. Just put your past sin and guilt in the wheelbarrow. Then put your present and future in the wheelbarrow – your time, your energy, your resources, your relationships, your mind, your emotions, your attitude, and your work. They don’t belong to you anymore but to me. If you say you can’t live this kind of kingdom life on your own, just ask me to come in and I will live my life in you.

Commit yourself to do what He says, knowing you will mess up along the way. You need His forgiveness and His power, and He will always give it to you. Simply form the intention saying Jesus, with your help I’ll try the best I can to do what you say. I give you my life, my time, my obedience.

Choose to get in the wheelbarrow today. Jesus has told us clearly that the day will come when all of humanity will be in one of two camps: those who choose to follow Him and those who reject Him. On that day, where will you be? This is your moment to choose.

Evangelist Billy Graham once said, “The destiny of your soul is in your own hands by the choice you make.” So friend, why not settle that today and choose to be a follower of Jesus Christ. In fact, if you want to be a follower, I invite you right now to close your eyes. If you are sitting, stand up so you can make a statement with your body as well as with your lips. Then repeat after me.

Jesus, I choose to follow you, to live under you in your kingdom, to do what you say, and serve you all the days of my life. Forgive my sins. Help me to change. I need you in my life. Amen.

If you prayed that prayer today with me, congratulations! You’re in for an adventure, and you can be sure that Jesus is smiling because He’s absolutely delighted by your choice. Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer

What Jesus Says About Relationships

Matthew 7:1-12

In Christian circles, we sometimes talk of the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ because it is important. There is no greater thing than placing one’s trust in Christ and following Him. It means life eternal. However, being a follower of Jesus Christ is not just an individualistic, but also a community affair. We are called into a Christian community, such as a church interrelationship, with new brothers and sisters in Christ. But we are also called to relate to the society around us as well. The follower of Jesus Christ is meant to live in a network of relationships. We are not to be isolationists.

How, then do we best conduct ourselves in this network of relationships as citizens of God’s kingdom? That is the question being answered today as we continue our study of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew 5, 6, and 7.

So far in this message, Jesus has been describing life in the kingdom of God. He describes Christian character, Christian influence, Christian righteousness, piety, and priorities. In today’s reading, He talks of the Christian’s relationships. Though these little paragraphs at the beginning of Matthew 7 appear to be unrelated to each another, there actually is a common thread running throughout this section – relationships. Jesus here instructs His disciples, His followers, on how to relate to people in our various networks.

First, listen to what He says about relating to people in the church – your sisters and brothers in Christ. “Do not judge so that you may not be judged.” Jesus knows the Christian community will never be perfect. We are both saints and sinners as we follow Jesus. We have a tendency to step on one another’s toes and sometimes misbehave. Ego, pride, and selfishness still rear their ugly heads in us, cause pain to others, and create tensions in our relationships in the church. So how do we behave in response to a fellow member who has misbehaved or who has sinned against us?

Jesus knows how easy it is for us to judge and criticize. It makes us feel like big shots, just a little more spiritually together than others. But He says in response, “Don’t judge, for by the judgment you make so will you be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you receive.”

What does He mean by that? Modern-day people today love to say, “Don’t judge me,” especially when they’re doing something they know is probably wrong. But I wonder, is this really what Jesus meant when He said that? Was it meant to be used this way? Was He saying that we ought not to exercise our mental critical faculties to distinguish between right and wrong, good and bad, moral and immoral. Did He intend for us to do away with the law courts in our society? Was He recommending turning a blind eye, ignoring the immoral or hurtful behavior?

No. He’s not saying that at all. In fact, we were created in God’s image with the ability to make value judgments. To suspend our critical faculties would be an absolute contradiction of how God made us and why he made us. We know from other places in Scripture that Jesus urges us to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong, and to act accordingly. He tells us when someone sins against us, we should go to them and try to fix things, make them right. So what does Jesus mean when He says judge not?

As we examine this text a little closer, we find He is actually talking against the spirit of harsh condemnation and criticism, being a fault finder who is negative and destructive toward other people and prone to write people off. He basically points out in this passage that this kind of behavior is sinful, because you are taking the place of God as judge. That is God’s job. Only God knows the whole story on a person – their heart, their motives. Scripture says man looks at the activity; God looks at the heart. Only He has the authority to condemn and judge. Jesus points out that if we insist on playing a harsh, condemning judge, God will use the same measures on us instead of showing us mercy.

By the way, some biblical commentators have pointed out that these words of Jesus could actually be considered a bit of a commentary on a petition from the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Jesus’ followers are to be people who exercise mercy and forgiveness instead of judgment toward brothers and sisters in our Christian community. So “judge not” is not a command to be blind to wrongdoings. Rather, it is a plea to be generous with mercy. In fact, later on Jesus tells a parable about a guy who is in debt to a king for more than $1 million. When he pleaded for mercy and a little more time to pay him back, the king showed mercy and took the debt completely away. He let the man go free.

When this servant came away from the king and ran into a fellow servant who owed him a mere $20.00, he has him judged and thrown into jail. When the king hears of it, he hauls the man back into court and judges him as wicked for not showing mercy to his fellow servant. Then the king throws him in prison until his debt is paid. That’s what Jesus is talking about here. Don’t judge so that you will not be judged by God. God has shown you generous mercy; now be merciful toward one another in the Christian community.

Why? Because if that doesn’t happen, the Church and the cause of Jesus Christ will suffer in this world. Nothing can tear up a fellowship quicker than a spreading spirit of judgmentalism and criticism. The reputation of the Christian church suffers, which means the gospel message suffers. People on the outside looking in on us, when asked about their view of Christians, say Christians are judgmental hypocrites. Why would I ever want to be involved with a movement like that?

Jesus then goes on to illustrate what he’s talking about using rather strange and comical images as a rationale for this statement about not judging. He says it is being hypocritical, because not only are you fallible yourself, but you are also fallen, a sinner. Listen to His words: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye but don’t notice the log in your own? How can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take that speck out of your eye while a log is in your own eye? You hypocrite!”

Before you try to fix someone else, take a good, long look at yourself. Look in the mirror, because it’s a lot easier to see the faults of others than your own, to have a rosy view of yourself and a jaundiced view of others, to exaggerate the faults of others and minimize your own. That’s why Jesus was constantly going after the Pharisees. Those super religious people of His day. He called them hypocrites and described one of them in a parable standing in the temple exalting himself for his goodness and disparaging someone else for their badness. Jesus castigates that Pharisee for that. He was playing the role of a moral superior with no sins and no love for others. Jesus points out that when we place ourselves in that role, it’s nothing more than hypocrisy.

“Recognize the log in your own eye before you pick at someone else’s speck.” You have to be very gentle when you’re trying to help someone get a physical piece of dust out of their eye. Can you imagine trying to do surgery on someone with a log in your eye? You’re too blind to help!

So we need to ask ourselves if we have a plank in our own eye – some sinful habits that need to be confessed and removed by God’s grace and mercy. First things first, Jesus says. Instead of condemning and hypocrisy, take the log out of your own eye. Take an honest look at yourself and ask for God’s mercy in your life. Then you can help your brother take the speck out of his eye – not with a sense of superiority, but with humility and love, not with the eyes of a judge but with the eyes with a doctor.

Oswald Sanders captures what Jesus meant, “What God has done for me, He can easily do for you. You only have some sawdust in your eye, but I had a huge log in mine.”

I am reminded of Paul communicating the same teaching of Jesus, “Brothers, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the spirit, should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1).

Then Jesus widens our circle of relationships to those who stand outside of a relationship with Jesus. They maybe don’t understand or are not interested in God matters. They might not even want to understand this “religious thing” that you’re into. When they hear the gospel, feel it being pushed on them, or hear talk about God, they act negatively toward you, irritated, sometimes even hostile. Jesus says this proverb about these relationships: “Don’t give what is holy to dogs, and don’t throw your pearls before swine or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.”

What an odd little statement! It is a proverb. Biblical scholars have been puzzling and arguing though the years about what it means. What are we to make of this? Well, let me take a shot at it.

Dogs and pigs back in those days were looked upon with a negative attitude. They were wild, unclean scavengers in the streets known to attack people. They could never appreciate something holy like a Bible or valuable like pearls. It would be insane to even attempt to throw something like that in their direction. They are only interested in what they can eat. Try dumping a load of inedibles upon them. It means nothing to them; they’ll just trample them into the ground. They might wind up even attacking you because at least you’re edible. Jesus says that anyone with sense would never think of doing that.

When Jesus describes the pearl or the holy, he’s describing the value of being a part of the kingdom of God, the gospel message of having God rule over your life as you trust in Christ. The holy could be the Word of God itself.

Well, just like wild dogs and pigs, Jesus says there are people who won’t and perhaps can’t understand and so they reject it. They even get hostile if you continue to push them hard enough with your little pearls. They just might get irritated enough to rip you to shreds physically or more likely verbally.

Jesus is not saying we shouldn’t bother with unbelievers. Don’t buy that. It goes against the Great Commission to go make disciples of all nations. Instead, He is telling us to show some discernment and sensitivity. Don’t force things down someone’s throat. It can only lead to a destructive response. Disciples of Jesus are not called to be storm troopers of the kingdom! We are to be equipped with sensitive radar systems. If you’ve shared the good news of Christ with a friend who rejects it, sometimes you need to just quietly move on.

Later, in Matthew 10, as Jesus sent the disciples out to be witnesses for the kingdom, He told them, “If they don’t receive you, shake the dust from your feet and move on.” The Apostle Paul exercised this advice in Acts 13 when the Jews rejected the gospel. So Paul and Barnabas left and went to the Gentiles.

One last word on this. To give people up is a very serious step to take. I can’t encourage you enough to turn to God in prayer and the Christian community’s counsel before you take a drastic step like this, because we know every soul matters to God.

It is no wonder Jesus then follows this up with the most important relationship of all in this talk: Your relationship with God. He says, In all of this, always turn dependently and confidently to your Father in prayer asking for His wisdom and help. Your Father wants to hear from you. He loves you more than any earthly father could. He is the giver of good things. As you go through life and your relationships, keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking with the expectancy of a son or daughter who knows their Father loves them, who is sure that God answers – sometimes in ways we might not expect – but according to His will. He always answers.

Finally, Jesus talks about a relationship for everybody in general. He says, “So in everything do to others as you would have them do to you, for this is the law and the prophets.” Some people call this the Golden Rule. It is one of the most misunderstood statements in the Bible. First of all, it is not the sum total of the Christian truth, nor is it God’s plan of salvation, as some will unknowingly claim. But it sure does sum up Jesus’ teaching about loving your neighbor as yourself, doesn’t it.

As you examine this positive imperative from Jesus, you find a lofty standard being expressed here – to do what we would want someone to do for us. That’s how you treat people. It takes sacrificial love. It requires putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes and asking, How would I want to be treated in this instance? It involves taking on a very generous attitude, going out of your way to encourage those who are depressed, forgiving those who have wronged you, helping disadvantaged people, and treating others as you would want to be treated if you were in their shoes.

There you have it! Jesus has given us a big boatload of instruction about living out our faith in the various relationships we have with people. You might ask, Why does He spend so much time on this subject? Why does God care about how we relate to everyone around us?! It is really quite simple.

Because how we Christians treat other people reflects on Him and His kingdom. Our love for Him, our love for one another in the fellowship of the Church, and our love for our neighbors out in the world bring Him glory and honor among others. That, my dear friends, is the ultimate purpose of the Christian’s life – to bring God glory.

What Jesus says about relationships begs the question, Can I really do this? It sounds impossible; I know myself too well. And the answer is, Yes, you can. Not perfectly, mind you, but you can. Remember the audience Jesus is talking to. These words are for people who have tasted God’s grace through Jesus Christ. They know they deserve judgment, but they have mercy through the cross. They no longer have to operate on their own because they have a heavenly Father who is approachable and available in prayer. They have been blessed by God’s grace and empowered by His Holy Spirit to walk in the ways Jesus describes.

So, yes. You can bring glory to God in your relationships when you belong to Christ.

This takes us back to the beginning of this message. It all starts with a personal relationship with Jesus who gave His life at the cross so you can enjoy a life-giving relationship with your heavenly Father as a member of His kingdom and glorify Him in everything you do, including your relationships to people. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

Faith and Suffering

Romans 5:1-5

The famous American evangelist, Dwight L. Moody, told a story about a Christian woman who was always bright, cheerful, and optimistic, even though she was confined to her room because of an illness. This woman lived in an attic apartment on the fifth floor of an old, rundown hotel. A friend decided to visit her one day and brought along another woman, a person of great means, who was used to nice things in life.

Since there was no elevator, the two ladies began the long climb up to the fifth floor. When they reached the second floor, the well-to-do woman commented, “What a dark and filthy place.” Her friend replied, “It’s better, higher up.” When they arrived at the third floor landing, the remark was made, “Things look even worse here.” Again the reply, “It’s better, higher up.”

When they reached the attic level where they found the bedridden saint of God, she had a beautiful smile on her face radiating a joy that filled her heart. Although the room was clean and there were flowers on the windowsill, the wealthy visitor couldn’t contain herself about the stark surroundings and blurted out, “It must be very difficult for you to be here like this.” Without a moment’s hesitation, the homebound woman replied, “It will be better, higher up.”

She was in a valley, a tough stage of life, but she was not looking at her circumstances or the temporary things of this world. Her eyes of faith were fixed on the eternal. She had found the secret of true satisfaction and contentment. Where did this homebound woman get her strength? It was from Jesus. She knew and believed the Spirit of Jesus was always with her and within her, and she clung to the promises of God’s Word. Therefore, she was filled with hope, with courage, with peace, and with joy!

Have you ever had a time in your life journey where faith and suffering existed side-by-side? You’ve heard the saying, “This world is not our home.” For every believer in God – who has given us Jesus Christ and filled us with the Spirit – this resonates as profoundly true. We are only visiting this planet; this world is not our home. As Paul writes, “Our citizenship is in heaven.”

John Dunn, a well-known poet, once wrote, “No need to send to sea for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.” The beloved Psalm 23 says: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”

Yet faith in an all-powerful, all-loving God creates an expectation for God’s blessings to come to us, and when we endure times of suffering, it can create a faith crisis. We might wrongly begin to think about God like a lucky rabbit’s foot or a genie in a bottle. The truth is God can richly bless us. Even though in this broken world, we have suffering. In more than three decades of being a pastor in Christ’s church, I’ve never known a person or a family who hasn’t experienced both euphoric great joy, as well as times of deep sorrow; moments of accomplishment and tremendous victory, and periods of great struggle and disappointment.

Suffering for any of us, as human beings in this imperfect world, can be the result of our own careless choices. The cause-and-effect relationship of what we decide to do – how it determines an income into our future and impacts the people around us – is undeniable.

Sometimes our suffering comes only because life in this world is not always fair. We might suffer though innocent. We might experience natural disaster, be it an accident, or have the sinful deeds of other people affect us adversely. We might experience physical pain, illness, accidents that have a permanent effect. Some of us have lost loved ones and stood by an open grave. Worse yet, some have lost a precious little child when the potential was still so significant.

Others have gone through stormy relationships that never resolved. We lived in the dissonance and the fighting. Emotionally we might experience great depression or loneliness. Pain and suffering manifests itself in all kinds of ways. This is why we do well to understand the promise of Jesus in John 16:33 – “In this world, you will have trouble. But be of good cheer, for I have overcome this world.”

We begin to understand then, Job’s words in the 23rd chapter of his book: God, I don’t see you. I look forward, you’re not there. I turn around behind me, I don’t see you. I look to my left, I look to my right, I don’t see where you’re at work. But God knows the way, my way that I walk, and when God has tried me, I shall come forth as gold.

Job’s suffering was not a result of his foolish errors. Rather, Job was so righteous that satan told God Job was so good only because God had blessed him so much. So God gave satan permission to put Job through adversity to test him. First Job loses all his oxen and donkeys. Then he loses all his sheep, and then all his camels. Then Job loses all his children. Yet Job worships God. God says to satan, “See Job’s integrity, see the strength of his faith?”

Satan replies, “Yes, but if you let me touch his flesh, he will no longer praise you” So God gives Satan permission to test Job further. Job loses his health. He has boils all over his body. He itches, has worms, and his skin turns black. He has a constant fever. Job’s wife asks him, “Why don’t you curse God and die?” But Job, in that infamous line, says, “Though He slay me, yet will I praise Him” (Job 13:15).

How do we respond when our faith is under fire through suffering? Remember the verse from Paul, “We even rejoice in our suffering, for we know that in suffering God produces perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope. And hope does not disappoint, for the love of God is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).

Do you persevere when the going gets tough? The word perseverance is different from endurance. Endurance is when I hunker down under a winter blizzard and endure it until it blows over, then I come back out of my hovel. Perseverance suggests that I, in faith, keep moving forward with courage, despite the adversity. When we are in the midst of suffering, we need to pray for strength and courage. We need to pray for Jesus’ Spirit to be released into the context of our circumstances, then keep moving forward in faith believing God will help us and deliver us.

In those times of suffering, as we persevere, we can always make it our goal to seek to know God better. Somehow, in the midst of suffering, as we keep moving forward in faith, we begin to understand the privilege of intimacy with God in a profound way, deeper than ever before.

Perseverance eventually shapes our character, bringing us proven character. So, in our suffering, we should ask God to teach us and shape our character into the image of Christ, in the midst of our sin.

Steve Largent, a retired wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks football team, once said, “I’ve learned that God is always more interested in my character than my comfort. Pain can be used by God to transform us. The word origin of proven character refers to soldiers who have been to battle and proven to be champions. May I be, in times of great victory and adversity, God’s champion – proven in my character.”

The suffering and brokenness of this world also convinces me that God alone is my hope. This world truly is not my home, and I am not strong enough to face Him on my own. I am going to put my hope in God, and in the midst of even difficult moments and put it in the context of an eternal perspective. My present suffering will not last forever. In my hope, I remember that Jesus has marked me with the cross of Christ as His very own child. You and I, as baptized believers, bear an invisible tattoo upon our forehead and upon our heart that we belong to God. God said in Isaiah 49, “See, I have engraved you; I’ve inscribed you on the palm of my hand.” So my hope is in the truth that in faith, my life is in God’s hands.

God pours His love into me with the Holy Spirit. Psalm 139 says, “If I make my bed in hell, behold you are there. Even there your hand will lead me, and your right hand will lay hold of me. For even the darkness is not dark to you, O Lord.”

The cross of Jesus Christ is a wonderful symbol of the love of God, and the promise of the forgiveness of sins for all believers in Jesus’ name. The cross also clearly witnesses to me that no matter how dark the journey of life, God is right there with us, even in the midst of what we cannot understand. Even in the darkness, we can reach up our hand and clasp the hand of God. He holds me fast in my suffering.

James Bjorge, a gifted Lutheran preacher and author, in his book, Living Without Fear, wrote, “A 91-year-old man wrote a letter to my father many years ago with these lines penned with his feeble hand: ‘I realize my days are almost up. I look at the trees standing along the street, almost naked, barely a leaf left. I said to myself, ‘You are like them. There are not many leaves left, and then you’ll be laid away.’ I can’t get around anymore because of fainting spells I had in the past 20 years coming back. This poor, old temple held for a long time, but finally the lack of strength has laid me up. So here I am, set on the shelf, pushed back as far as will go.

“‘But don’t think I am alone. No. My heavenly Father, who was stood by me these 91 years, stands by me now. He is wonderful! Here I am today, rejoicing in the Lord. If I had 1,000 lives yet to live, I should hold onto my Savior’s hand all the more. Nothing is better in this world! So, friend, I will see you in the morning when the sun shall never set, and we shall see Him. And we shall be like Him. So, until then, keep looking up.’”

That 91-year-old Christian believer, in the midst of the realities of the suffering of this world, still held onto Easter hope. Job said, “When God has tried me, I shall come forth as gold.” But Job also said, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and when this life is over and my body is no more, then I shall see God.”

May God fill you with strong faith, and with hope, and with joy in His promises, His love, and His presence. Amen.

Pastor Lee Laaveg

What Jesus Says About Priorities

Matthew  6:19-33

What are your priorities in life? You might answer God, family, or work. There are a variety of answers. We all have priorities – those things that are most important to us. They matter to us. They inspire our behavior and inform our decision-making in life. Some priorities are good, some are not so good. Perhaps you’ve heard someone tell another person, Your priorities are getting way out of whack! It happens.

Imagine you have a freshman college student who is enjoying everything at school. It’s his first time away from home, and he’s making new friends. He is in a band and developing a very social life. He’s out every night of the week, but missing classes and not studying.

When he comes home for Christmas, his grades are terrible. What are you probably going to ask him? What are your priorities? A good education or just having a good time? You better get your head on straight!

Listen to this news story out of Texas: It was a 99° September day in San Antonio when 10-month-old baby girl was accidentally locked inside a parked car by her aunt. Frantically the mother and aunt ran around the auto in near hysteria while a neighbor attempted to unlock the car with a clothes hanger. Soon the infant was turning purple and had foam on her mouth. It had become a life-or-death situation.

Suddenly a wrecker driver named Fred Arriola arrived on the scene. He grabbed a hammer and smashed the back window of the car to set the little girl free. Was he heralded a hero? He said, “The lady was mad at me because I broke the window! I just thought, ‘What’s more important, the baby or the window?’”

Sometimes our priorities get out of order, and a guy like Fred Arriola reminds us of what’s really important.

Well, today we find Jesus addressing the whole matter of priorities. He’s telling us that, as a follower of Christ, the central priority in life is God Himself. This reading leaves no doubt about the importance of putting God first.

Jesus again is telling us that we, as citizens of the kingdom of God, are to be different from the world around us. We have a different set of priorities. Some things matter more to us than to others.

God knows us well. He knows we have a tendency to become distracted or let different things take over in our lives, like money, possessions, achievements, and popularity.

Jesus is pointing out to us today that we have some important choices to make and to keep regarding priorities. For instance, we have two kinds of investments in life. One is lasting, and the other is temporary and corruptible. We can choose to store earthly treasures or heavenly treasurers. Earthly treasures are not like a savings account or insurance. Jesus is talking about the selfish pursuit of the accumulation of goods, hoarding and seeking security for oneself, trying to get it all. He’s talking about the attitude of the one with the most toys wins. Jesus says these are temporary things with no lasting value. You can’t take them with you.

However, heavenly treasures – investing in yourself and pursuing things that really do last – are things you can actually take with you. It is the development of Christlike character. Charity, witness, giving away resources to God’s causes, and making a difference in the name of Christ – these things, Jesus says, are things that last. No one can steal them away.

Then He makes this interesting statement. It’s a proverb of sorts: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Jesus is pointing out a fact of life: our interests follow our investments. For instance, if you invest in a certain stock, you will probably follow that stock to see how it’s doing. You’re interested.

When you invest in God and His cause, your focus will be on God. Jesus is talking common sense here. If you are interested in keeping your eye on God and developing a growing relationship with Him, then make investments in His cause and what He has blessed you with. Sometimes it takes a crisis to wake us up to this truth.

Bill Hybels tells a story. “Sudden loss often simplifies life. One man put it this way: When he suddenly found himself in a hospital bed, he wrote, ‘I came to realize I no longer really cared for what the world chases after, such as how much money I have in the bank, and how many cars are parked in the garage. As it says in the book of Ecclesiates, ‘Chasing after these things is like chasing the wind’ anyway. Suddenly the rat race became vanity to me, and I felt naked before God. If I died, I would take none of this stuff with me. Ultimately all that really mattered was my relationship with God, my relationship with family and friends. If it weren’t for the loss of my health, I would’ve wasted the rest of my life chasing achievements and acquiring transitory things.’” His crisis seemed to have served him well.

Jesus talks next about two conditions – having a healthy eye or an unhealthy eye. It compares a sighted person with a blind person. If you can see, you can navigate and walk safely in light, but if you’re blind and you’re walking in darkness, it’s not so positive an experience.

Certain writings in the Old Testament talk about fixing the eye and setting your heart on something in the same breath. You choose where to fix your eyes. If your vision becomes clouded by focusing on false gods like materialism and achievements, you lose your sense of values, your whole life is in darkness, and you can’t see where you’re going. You’re walking blind. Like the proverb says, “Without a vision, the people perish.” But if you have spiritual vision, if your spiritual perspective is correctly adjusted and fixed on serving God, then life is filled with purpose and drive. It throws light on everything we do. God loves to hear you sing, “Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart . . .”

Jesus says it all really boils down to the matter of who or what is going to run your life. You have to choose between two masters: God or mammon (wealth), the Almighty God or the almighty dollar. Jesus tells us it is impossible to serve them both.

He is not talking about the necessity of working two jobs like we do today in our own culture. Instead, He’s talking about the impossibility of being a devoted slave to two masters. The slave must decide which master he will serve. An old West African proverb says, “The man who tries to walk two roads will split his pants.”

The truth is, we all serve something. Something governs and determines our priorities. God commands exclusive rights to your devotion. Jesus is not saying money is evil in itself. Money is meant to be used, not served; God is meant to be served, not used.

How can we know if we are being mastered by our money or by our possessions? We need ask ourselves a couple questions. The first one would be, What did I do to get the money? What did I sacrifice on the altar of prosperity? The second question is, What am I doing with my money? Is the cause of God in the world better off because I’ve been entrusted with money, or is God only getting my spare change? Those two questions will help you know if you are being mastered by your possessions.

In summary, Jesus tells us we have two preoccupations in life: our body (security) or God’s kingdom. “Therefore, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on.” Don’t let those matters take over your life.

Then Jesus reasons about these sorts of worries. First of all, He says it’s illogical. Life is more than food and clothing. The God who gave you life will give you what you need.

Worrying over those things is also senseless. Look at the birds! God takes care of them, and you’re so much more valuable than birds.

This kind of worry is useless. It won’t add a single moment to your life.

It’s faithless. Look at the flowers of the field – God takes care them, O you of little faith.

It’s also godless. It shows we are little more than the pagans worrying over what we’re going to eat, what we’re going to drink, what we’re going to wear.

Finally, it denies our family ties. The God we trust, you see, is our heavenly Father. He will do no less for us than a good earthly father would do for his children.

At the heart of the universe is Divine love, the love of our heavenly Father. It really comes down to placing your trust in God. Jesus says He knows what you need. Trust in Him.

If you have to be preoccupied, concerned, and worried about anything as God’s citizens, then why not be preoccupied with the big things that really do matter, like God’s name being hallowed in this world, His kingdom coming, and His will being done. Be concerned about bringing God’s kingdom to the world where you are and doing the right things in your network of relationships. Let this be your preoccupation.

The statement He gives us then – so strive first for the kingdom of God and His righteousness – is the bottom line for priorities. It’s the summary statement. God’s cause – number one in your life – and His righteousness (living the kind of life that brings Him pleasure). This life is one of loving others and seeking their highest good, doing the right thing for God.

So there you have it. Honestly, I know it all sounds a little bit crazy to people of this world. If you to choose to live with these kind of priorities, I would caution you to be prepared to be treated as more or less eccentric or a little crazy. Christ’s words seem to reach right into our everyday priorities, into our pocketbooks. So why do it? Why choose these priorities He has laid out for us, this way of life?

First of all, it’s smart. This is Jesus talking, the One who died for you on a cross and rose again to rescue you and give you eternal life. Obviously, He has your best interests at heart.

Note also His words of assurance here. “And all these things shall be added unto you.” When you commit yourself to God, He commits Himself to you. When what really matters to you is that God’s name be hallowed, His kingdom comes, and His will be done, God will take care of your needs.

Now you know, from the lips of Jesus the Son of God, the priorities for living. So the only question left is, What now? These words are really an appeal to take action, take a step of faith. Jesus calls you to choose God’s priorities for your life, to commit your life to serving God with your everything: your treasures, your vision, your service. Strive to live a life of serving and trusting Him. When you do that, you will have chosen wisely.

I came across a wonderful illustration regarding this truth in a book by Dr. Haddon Robinson. In the game of Monopoly, players buy land and collect money. When one player has enough money and at least one monopoly of properties, he or she can buy houses and hotels and collect rent on them. Eventually a player receives enough rental money through land and building holdings to bankrupt the other players, thus ending the game.

Parker Brothers, the makers of Monopoly, take for granted one final instruction: when the game is over, put all the pieces back in the box.

People who live for the present, who spend their strength on what cannot last, are like children who play Monopoly as though it were reality. In the end, we all get put in the box, and we are gone.

What matters is what remains when the game on earth is over. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer