How to Do Life Together

Luke 17:1-10

A missionary working among children in the Middle East was driving her Jeep down a road when she ran out of gas. She had no gas can in the car, and all she could find was a potty chair. So she grabbed the pot from the chair and walked a mile down the road to the nearest gas station where she used it to carry the gasoline. As she was pouring the gas into the tank of her Jeep, a large Cadillac occupied by wealthy oil sheiks drove up to her. They were fascinated at seeing her pour the contents of the pot into the Jeep. One of them opened the window and said, “My friend and I, although we don’t share your religion, greatly admire your faith.” ☺

We talk about faith amongst ourselves and say things like, Keep the faith or Have a little faith. Today we see the disciples of Jesus asking, “Increase our faith.”

I can identify with that plea, can’t you? Increase my faith, Lord. We sometimes find ourselves wishing we had more faith or a bigger faith. For instance, when it comes to witnessing – being bold for Christ in public – the thought of sharing one’s faith with someone else can be seen by many people as a daunting task. So we pray, “Lord, increase my faith.” Then we can do it. But when it comes to taking on a big project . . .

Years ago, when my congregation was deciding to buy some land and relocate our church, it felt like a big leap of faith for us. I remember, as the pastor of that group, I felt not only exhilarated but also overwhelmed by the challenge and responsibility of it all. I prayed, “I believe you want this Lord, but it’s so big to consider. Increase my faith.”

Speaking of big projects, some of us have brought children into this world and taken on the responsibility of raising them to trust and serve Jesus Christ. Some days, in our concern for them and knowing the kind of world we’re sending them into, we might find ourselves praying, Lord, increase my faith. A host of big things might cause us to join those first disciples in this request.

A big project inspired this plea from the disciples. Jesus has just given them some instructions about how to live together as His people in the church. Overall He teaches that we are to be responsible for one another. We are to take care of each other’s spiritual welfare. The age-old question, Am I my brother’s keeper? is affirmed by Jesus. The truth is, no one follows Jesus alone. When we say yes to Christ, we are thrust into a family, not of our choosing, but the family of God. This is not always an easy task to live with because each follower of Jesus is a saint and a sinner. We can irritate and even hurt each other. Yet Jesus tells us today that we have a responsibility to each other. We are in this together. So what does that look like?

In this first section of the passage from Luke 17, we learn that followers of Jesus don’t cause other followers of Him to stumble in their faith or fall away from believing.

“Occasions for stumbling are bound to come,
but woe to anyone by whom they come!”

This is a serious warning from Jesus. He is saying, Listen, there are enough things out there to trip a person up in their faith walk. Don’t add to the list! We need to be careful to renew and not wreck the faith of others. Jesus adds,

“It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”

We can do exactly that in a variety of ways, such as teaching false doctrine or encouraging bad behavior in others either with our words or with our poor example.

Pastors certainly need to take this statement to heart. We are given charge of guiding, growing, and guarding the sheep in our own congregation’s flock. Don’t let your flock be biblically starved and biblically illiterate. Nurture them in the one true faith. Faithfully feed them the gospel again and again and again. Confront them when they need to be confronted. Be on your guard. Heads up!

Why do you suppose He says this? I’m reminded of Peter’s words: “. . . Satan is prowling around like a roaring lion seeking to devour” (I Peter 5:8). He desires to mess things up in your congregation.

Jesus adds to this lesson by saying sometimes a rebuke is necessary.

“If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, that is, correct them. And if there is repentance, you must forgive.”

Sometimes a person needs to hear, What you’re doing is hurting me. Or, your words and actions have offended me. Or, you’re headed toward disaster with your disobedience to God’s word. It is our responsibility to rattle one another’s cages at times, but we are to rattle them in love with the hope of restoring and helping the individual follower of Christ.

It has been said that a genuine rebuke is a noble communication. Its intention is to free a person for growth and effectiveness by speaking the truth in love. We may need people to speak the truth in love into our lives, and we may need to speak it to others as well.

Jesus continues,

“If there is repentance, you must forgive.”

As Jesus has forgiven us, so we are to forgive the offending party. In other words, if they show penitence, contrition, a turnaround from what they have been doing, don’t continue to hold their sin against them, but forgive.

Someone once said I can forgive, but I cannot forget. This is simply another way of saying I will not forgive. Forgiveness has to be like a canceled note torn in two and burned up so that it can never be shown against that person.

I once heard a story about a guy sitting with his friend at a bar who was lamenting about his marriage.

I just hate it when my wife and I get into a fight. She gets so historical.
You mean hysterical, don’t you? asked his friend.
No, historical. She drags out every bad thing I’ve ever done and reminds me of it.

That is not what Jesus wants from us.

He continues, Even if this person sins again you over and over again, you must forgive him. This is not a one-time occurrence. Each time he harms you and then repents of his sin, you must forgive him. That sounds difficult, doesn’t it? I like to set limits on how much I’ll take off of someone. I want to say to a person who has offended me, Enough! As far as I am concerned, we’re done. I wash my hands of you!

When you forgive someone, you are giving up your right to take advantage of the situation and hold it over their heads. You are also giving up your right to get even. As kingdom people, we are to humbly share the forgiveness God has given us in Jesus Christ.

The disciples are thinking to themselves, This sounds hard and it is going to require a lot more faith than we have. So they request,

“Increase our faith.”

Jesus responds with some reassuring words.

“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

Jesus is using figurative language to teach His followers about the power of faith in God, no matter how big or small their faith is. What matters is not the size of your faith, but the object of it, which is God who can do anything He wants! Amen! God is all-powerful.

When we are connected to serving Him and carrying out His will for us, God’s power is in us. I am reminded of some favorite Old Testament stories that remind us of this truth.

• Abraham – He learned to trust God and have faith. He learned God will take care of him and his wife, Sarah. Although they both laughed at the thought of having a child in their advanced years, God gave them a son named Isaac.
• Moses – God told Moses to lead the people out of slavery in Egypt. Moses shrugged his shoulders and said Me? I can’t even speak well. Yet look at what God did through Moses. He set His people free.
• Gideon – When God told him to drive the Midianites out of the land, Gideon must have laughed and said Me? Impossible! They are a huge power, and I am the least of the smallest tribes of Israel. However, God used Gideon to defeat the Midianites.

Likewise, our response to this tall order from Jesus may be, Take care of my brother or sister’s spiritual welfare? Rebuke them? Forgive them again and again? I don’t know if I can do that. But Jesus reassures us, Oh, yes, you can. You can do this with God’s power working in you and through you.

Jesus ends this teaching session with His disciples in a very interesting way. He talks about the attitude of being an obedient disciple. He moves from You can do these things to In what spirit will you carry out these orders I’ve given you? Using an everyday example of a servant and master relationship, Jesus asks,

“Suppose you are the master over a slave. Would you serve dinner to your servant after they’ve done a day of work out in the field? No. you’d say, ‘Serve my meal first. Then you can eat.’

“Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? Of course not. The servant wouldn’t expect that anyway. So you also, when you have done all that I have instructed you, say, ‘I am just a worthless servant doing what I ought to have done, carrying out my duty to my Master.’”

We do not boast about what we have managed to do for Jesus, like being a loving brother or sister, or a great rebuker, or a humble forgiver, because the power and the ability to carry out Christ’s orders come from God, not oneself. The motivation is not to receive extra credit from God – like a few more stars in my crown – because God’s grace freely given in Christ has taken good care of me.

We must keep in mind that Jesus, as He is teaching the disciples, is on the road to Jerusalem where He will suffer and die to pay for our sins and then be raised. Like an obedient servant, He will empty Himself for my sake in perfect obedience and love for the Father. The motivation for the servant of God is love and gratitude, as Paul writes in Romans 1:1-6: “Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ.” This is how Paul saw his ministry.

It is also how Paul saw the rest of his life after Christ Jesus took over. It was a big thank you, a response of gratitude to the One who bought him and ransomed him with His precious suffering and death – with His blood.

I can’t help but be reminded of Martin Luther’s explanation to the second article of the Apostle’s Creed when I read this portion of Luke’s passage.

I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from all eternity, and true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord. He has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person. He has purchased and freed me from all my sins, from death and the power of the devil; not with silver or gold but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.

Now listen to this part.

He has done all this so that I may belong to Him, live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He has risen from the dead and lives and rules eternally. This is most certainly true.

This reminds me of another story, probably apocryphal according to one Lincoln historian.

Abraham Lincoln went to a slave block to buy a slave girl. As she looked at the man bidding on her, she glared at him figuring he was just another white man who going to buy her and abuse her. Lincoln won the bid, and as he was walking away with his property he said, “Young lady, you are free, free to go.” She asked what that meant.
“It means you are free.”
“Does that mean I can say whatever I want to say?”
“Yes, my dear. You can say whatever you want to say.”
“Does that mean that I can be whatever I want to be?”
“Yes, you can be whatever you want to be,” Lincoln replied.
“Does this I mean I can go wherever I want to go?”
“Yes. You can go wherever you want to go.”
Then the girl, with tears streaming down her face, said, “Then I will go with you.”

Fellow redeemed disciples of Jesus Christ, for the sake of His kingdom, for the sake of the Church of Jesus Christ, take these words of Jesus to heart and do them. Look out for one another’s spiritual welfare. Have the courage to lovingly rebuke and correct when needed. Then forgive as you have been forgiven by Jesus. This is what holds the Church of Jesus Christ together. It makes us a shining light to the world and a living display of what God intended for His world in the first place – people loving each other and taking care of each other.

Remember, you can do this no matter how small you feel your faith might be. The object of your faith is what makes it possible. And the object of your faith is your heavenly Father who loves you, who gave His One and only Son to die for you upon a cross and raised Him from the dead. He is counting on you today to obey now and forever. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

What Is God Like?

Micah 7:7-9, 18-19

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

If someone asked you, What is God like? how would you answer? If you asked a stranger on the street, Tell me, sir, what do you think God is like? how would they respond? How can any of us know God?

There is a parable about some blind men who encountered an elephant and were asked to describe the animal. Each one gave a different answer.

The first one, feeling his trunk, said, “He’s like a snake.”

Feeling his white tusks, the second said, “No, no. This animal is like a sharp spear.”

The third man, feeling his huge ears, said, “It’s like a leathery huge fan.”

The fourth felt his legs and said, “He is like the trunk of a tree.”

The fifth man, feeling the elephant’s side, described him as a great wall. But the sixth man, feeling his tail, said, “The elephant is like a rope.”

Each man described the elephant based on their limited experience and exposure.

Likewise, God is invisible to human eyes. How can we know what God is like based on our limited experience and exposure? What is God like?

If we saw a glorious sunset, we’d say God is a master artist creating beauty with His power. If we saw a tornado rolling across the Midwest plains with destruction all around, we’d wonder, Although God is all-powerful, is He for us or against us?

The great renowned scientist, Albert Einstein, once said, “I dance to the tune of an invisible piper.” He stands behind the universe. He is God.

In C. S. Lewis’s book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Susan and Lucy are speaking to Mr. and Mrs. Beaver who are sharing all about Aslan the lion, a Christ figure. When they ask if Aslan is a man, Mr. Beaver replies, “Aslan, a man? Certainly not! I tell you, He is the King of the woods and the son of the great Emperor beyond the sea. Aslan is a lion. A lion. A great lion.”

“Ooooh,” said Susan. “I thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

Mr. Beaver replied, “Of course he isn’t safe, but he is good. He is the King, I tell you.”

What is God like?

The prophet Micah lived about 700 years before Christ. Like all the prophets, he spoke a word of truth and warned of possible doom and judgment to the people. He begged them that if they persisted in their patterns of immorality, unfaithfulness, spiritual arrogance, injustice and mistreatment of the poor, they would be in danger of suffering the consequences of their wrong deeds. But like all the prophets, he also spoke of God’s power to deliver, God’s love and mercy inviting them back. He is the basis of hope.

What is God like? How does He reveal Himself?

God wants us to know Him. Found in creation, He is the master designer of great, infinite intelligence. Think of the harmony of the universe, the planets in orbit around the sun, the rhythm of the seasons, the interconnectedness of the human body – between our intellect, our lungs, our circulation system, our muscles, and our skeletal system. Think of the glory of the birth of a newborn baby. He is worthy of our praise.

God also reveals Himself in miracles  We love miracles perhaps because they are an interruption of the natural order by a supernatural touch of God to restore lost health, protect us from danger, work for our good. We love miracles that come as a result of answered prayer or our deliverance.

It is also true to understand God revealing Himself when a person is going through great adversity or a dark period of their life. When God’s Spirit pours strength into the person to give them courage and peace to persevere when life is difficult, it speaks of God’s presence and power as well.

God reveals Himself in changed lives. We know many people who have experienced a radical transformation of life because of encountering God. Maybe they were living self-serving, self-indulgent lives. Their behavior patterns, attitudes, and speech punished and poisoned people around them on the journey. Then they met Jesus Christ, and they learned of the forgiveness of sins and the possibility of being raised to new beginnings. Their lives were radically changed, and they were transformed into people who love God, trust Him, and bless others around them.

The ultimate revelation of God is the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Scripture says,

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (I John 1:14).

Jesus came to our world in love seeking rebels.

What is God like? Look at Jesus, the perfect Son of God, without flaw, who was crucified on a cross. God raised Him from the dead back to life. Through these acts, we know God is holy but also just, fulfilling the Law. God is loving, merciful, and forgiving. He is a God of second chances. He invites us to be reconciled into a relationship where we receive God’s unmerited favor and grace.

The words of Micah in our text today give us some good spiritual insight into what God is like. The first truth is this: God has an enemy. Therefore, you and I do, too. Because of the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we know these words are true.

“Do not rejoice over me, O my enemy. Though I fall, I will rise.”

Jesus said it this way,

“The thief comes to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

In I John 4:4 we read,

“Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world.”

It’s appropriate to be aware of the Prince of Darkness – the enemy of God and therefore our enemy too. But always remember that in Jesus Christ he is already defeated. Even so, he tries to harass us, bring us down, and steal our faith.

The second powerful truth from Micah is God always hears our prayers. Because of the cross, we have unlimited access to God. In I Peter 3:12 it says,

“The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous. His ears are attentive to our prayers.”

I love what Psalm 116:1 says,

“I love the Lord because he hears my voice . . .”

Jesus says in Matthew 7:7,

“Ask and it shall be given to you, seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened to you.”

A powerful promise is found in II Chronicles 7:14,

“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven.”

The third beautiful truth from Micah telling about God is God always picks us up when we fall, wherever we fall, no matter where we have fallen. God, in His grace, comes to find us where we are in the dirt and lifts us to a new beginning.

The fourth truth from Micah tells us that God enlightens our path out of the dark.

There is a story of a US naval battleship captain who requested over the radio frequency that the approaching light – presumably from a foreign vessel – should change its course. The other party responded that No. The naval vessel should change its course.

The captain of the naval vessel reiterated his command. “I am the captain of a US battleship, and I demand you change course or we’ll have to take drastic action!”

The other radio voice calmly said, “I am a lighthouse. It’s your call.”

Isn’t true that, although God is a light out of our darkness, we are stubborn in our attitudes and behavior patterns? We want to maintain control of our lives. But Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.” If you are stuck or lost, Jesus says, “I am the way.”

Fifth, what is God like? According to Micah, God pardons all our iniquities whether done in weakness or willful rebellion. He passes over our rebellion and removes our sin from us. He casts our sins into the depths of the sea and tramples our sins underfoot. All our sins are overcome by Jesus who has gained the victory for us.

“As far as the east is from the west, so far has God removed our sins from us” (Psalm 103:12).

“I will remember your sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:34).

The sixth picture of what God is like, Micah says is this: God pleads my case. In I John 2:1 it says,

“If anyone sins, we have an advocate, a defender named Jesus Christ.”

He is the best defense lawyer to be found. Jesus rises to speak on our behalf and claims us in love. He tells our accuser, This child is forgiven.

The seventh most beautiful picture of what God is like, according to Micah, is this: God delights in unchanging love.

Just think of how a parent holds a newborn baby and looks with adoration and infatuation in that little child’s eyes. It’s more than being legally absolved of our sin. God invites us to know that we are the delight of His love.

How would you and I respond? God’s desire is for us to love Him in return and trust Him in life. Yet it is possible that we could openly reject God and be hostile in our defiance. We could mock all things Christian. We could also totally ignore God and live as if God does not exist.

A member of our church works in a business that provides oxygen to those who are struggling to breathe. When they are on oxygen, they feel better and stronger. They inhale and take life in.

God, in the name of Jesus, pours His grace, forgiveness, and Spirit out to you every day. Will you open your heart to the beauty of what God is like in His love for you? In the name of Jesus, God offers us life. Amen.

Pastor Lee Laaveg

When God Has the Last Laugh

Genesis 18:1-15

Christians have been referred to as “Children of Promise” in the New Testament. When someone receives Jesus Christ into their life, they receive a rich inheritance of promises from God. Here are a few of my favorites:

They who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles . . . (Isaiah 40:31).

I am the resurrection and the life.
He who believes in me, though he may die,
yet shall he live (John 11:25).

Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).

My list can go on and on. Maybe you have a few go-to verses of your own as well. God has given us some great promises to stand on and trust.

Sometimes, however, trusting in these verses is not such an easy thing to do. Our faith gets shaken. We find ourselves struggling over God’s promises and not trusting in His abilities. We can experience seasons of doubt, which bring questions demanding more than pat answers. We don’t feel close to God, and His promises sound empty. Many things can cause this doubting.
• Circumstances seem out of control.
• Trials, which never seem to end.
• Prayers, which seem to go unanswered.
• Impatience with God.
• Friends who question and even ridicule your beliefs.

If you have experienced doubt in your walk with the Lord, please know this: you are not alone. This is not unusual. Many of us go through periods of doubt and uncertainty when life throws us a curveball. I have had my own moments of crying out, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”

During these times of weakness, I am especially grateful for the family album, that is, the Bible. It is where I receive encouragement and renewal of my faith in God’s faithfulness in His abilities. The biblical narrative shows me again and again that when my faith is small and I am filled with doubts, I am in very good company.

Our biblical ancestors were human beings just like you and me! They, too, faced many ups and downs in their faith life. They had days when they wondered if they could really trust God or if their problem was too big for Him to handle. Where is God? Does He see what’s going on down here? Can we really take Him at His word?

Such is the case in our reading from Genesis today. Abraham and Sarah struggled to believe in God’s promise given 24 years earlier to give them a son. He also promised them land and their descendants would become a great nation and a blessing to the nations of the world. Abraham and Sarah received the promise with joy and faith. When God told them to go, they moved to the Promised Land in Cana. They anxiously looked forward to having a son even though they were quite old and had given up on the idea of having children.

But as the years passed, they still had no child. And they weren’t getting any younger, either. Abraham was 75 and Sarah was 65 when they first received the promise. Now they were becoming more stooped over with age, losing some teeth and energy as well. Time passed by quickly, and they began to wonder if God perhaps had changed His mind. Maybe He couldn’t make this happen. So finally they took matters into their own hands. As was the custom of those days, they used one of their servant women named Hagar to bear Abraham’s child. This action on their part proved to be disastrous and caused conflict and heartache for all concerned.

Twenty-four years after God initially gave the promise, He once more said to Abraham, “You will have a son. You will have many descendants.” Abraham fell on his face and laughed – only this time it was a cynical laugh. Lord let’s be realistic, he said. I am almost 100 years old and Sarah is 90. I’m too tired to even keep trying to have this child. But God promised it would happen.

In today’s scriptural text, God visits Abraham and Sarah and gives them the same promise. I will come to you in the upcoming season, and Sarah shall have a son. This time Sarah, who was in a nearby tent listening in on the conversation between Abraham and the three angelic heavenly visitors, laughed. Her’s was a huge belly laugh – cynical and filled with disbelief. Outrageous! she thought. Now that I’m old and worn out, can I still enjoy pleasure? Can I still have sex? My husband is even older than me. This is impossible! It’s too late now. Lord, I doubt if even you can make this pregnancy happen!

It sounds like Sarah has given up on God’s promise. She felt God had let them down. Have you ever felt that way yourself? Abraham and Sarah struggled with doubts just like we do sometimes. But God responded to her laughter with a question of His own. Why did Sarah laugh and say she is too old? Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?

How would you answer the last question, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” It only seems right to look at the ending of this story, because this episode leaves us hanging. How did it all turn out? When we get to Genesis chapter 21, we’re told the Lord did for Sarah what He had promised. She conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age. They named him Isaac, which means “he laughs,” and Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me. Everyone who hears will laugh with me.”

Sarah’s laughter is different from before. It’s the laughter of wonderment and amazement in a God who keeps His promises and can do all things. It’s the laughter of one who has witnessed that nothing is too wonderful for the Lord. Abraham and Sarah laughed. But when you think about it, God had the last laugh.

Why do you suppose this story was kept in the Bible? To entertain us? No. Even though it is rather delightful, this story has a much deeper purpose than that. It was kept for people like you and me who have our own seasons of doubt and cynicism, who wonder about the faithfulness and the abilities of our God when life doesn’t seem to be adding up like we thought it would or should. It reminds us once again that God is faithful. He is all-powerful, and we can count on His promises. This story is meant to build and renew confidence in us as children of promise – confidence in our great and faithful God. It’s meant to strengthen the weary who are ready to give up on believing.

Maybe you are wrestling with doubts at this time. You believe in Jesus Christ, but you struggle with your faith. God’s word to you is simply this: Child of Promise – and you are my child in Christ – remember, I always have the last laugh. You can count on my word.

God’s people continue to learn this truth. For instance, when Moses’ and the Israelites’ backs were against the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army coming for them and it looked like God’s promise of freedom was going down the tube, the sea suddenly opened up and they crossed on dry land. God had the last laugh.

When thousands of Midianites were lined up to slaughter Gideon’s army, it appeared this little band of soldiers was as good as dead and the promise of God to set His people free was doomed. But Gideon attacked the Midianites with torches and jars at night in obedience to God’s instructions. The Midianites were so panicked, they were killing themselves as they ran. Gideon won the battle, and God had the last laugh.

When the giant Goliath threatened the troops of Israel and all were so afraid, David – armed with five stones and a slingshot – took him on in the name and power of the Lord of hosts. Goliath fell and the Lord had the last laugh.

When Jesus died on the cross as He said He would, He was laid to rest in a rich man’s tomb, it appeared that death had won. But up from the grave, He arose just as He had promised! He conquered sin, death, and the devil, and God had the last laugh.

Everyone who trusts in Christ shares in the victory and can count on eternal life.

Because I live, you shall live also (John 14:19).

God keeps His promises! He never makes a promise that is too good to be true. Trusting in those promises is your choice.

After God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah, they had a choice: They could give up, or they could keep on trying in faith for their baby boy. I’m sure they had some inner doubts and tough days, but they kept on trying. Finally, just as God promised, His word was fulfilled. The boy was born! Afterward, they laughed with God, not at God.

The big idea in this text is basically this: Children of promise, trust Him. Take Him at His word. He always does what He says He will do.

You might wonder if He still keeps His promises today. My response is yes. Even today.

Michael Ramsden from Ravi Zacharias ministries (an apologetics global ministry) shared this true story about a minister of the gospel in Iran.

As the minister and his wife were driving, they stopped in a small Iranian village to purchase some water. Before entering, the minister noticed a man holding a machine gun and leaning against the wall outside the store. The minister’s wife looked at the man’s face and the gun, then put a Bible in her husband’s hand and said, “Give that man this Bible.”

Her husband looked at the man, his menacing beard and his machine gun and replied, “I don’t think so.” But she persisted. “I’m serious. Give it to him. Please. Give him the Bible.”

Trying to avoid the issue, the husband said, “Okay, I’ll pray about it.” He went into the shop, purchased the water, climbed back into the car, and started to drive away. His wife looked at him and said, “I guess you didn’t give him the Bible, did you?” Looking straight ahead, he replied, “No, I prayed about it and decided it wasn’t the right thing to do.”

“You should have given it to him,” she quietly said and then bowed her head and started to pray. At that point, he turned around and told his wife, “Fine! If you want me to die, I will.”

When the minister returned to the store, the man with the machine gun was still standing against the wall. The minister approached him and placed the Bible in his hand. When the man saw it was a Bible he started of all things to cry. “I don’t live here,” he explained. “I had to walk for three days in order to get to this village. An angel had appeared to me and told me to walk to this village and wait until someone had given me the book of life. Thank you for giving me this book!”

The God who commissioned the disciples to make go and make disciples of all nations and promised, “Lo, I am with you always,” must’ve had Himself a good chuckle that day.

By the way, this minister became a courageous witness for Christ. Eventually, along with many other workers in the Iranian church, he was martyred for his faith, but not until he had led many people to Jesus Christ.

I want to conclude our service today with an old hymn, which declares we are going to stand on the promises of God. I encourage you to join me in the chorus as your personal commitment to trust in the promises of God because you really can take Him at His word. This is the good news. Amen.

The Importance of Standing Up for Jesus

Luke 12:1-12

A young man decided he wanted to work at a lumberjack camp on summer break. It was hard work but good money and would help him pay for college. However, his parents did not want him to take the job. They worried about what might happen to his faith and his morals. He is such a good boy, raised in the church to trust Jesus and follow Him. Can you imagine what might become of him in a rough place like that? What will he be exposed to? It could be so hard on him. They prayed and prayed for his spiritual welfare to stand up under the pressure.

When the young man came home one weekend in midsummer, his mother expressed her concern for her son’s faith and mentioned how she had been praying for him. When she asked how he was being treated as a Christian, he replied, “Don’t worry, mom, I’m okay. They still haven’t figured out that I’m a Christian.”

One of the hymns I love to sing in worship is, “Standup, Standup for Jesus.” It is so inspiring. Another song I love to belt out is, “I Love to Tell the Story.” The volume and enthusiasm of the singing in church go up when we sing those two hymns. But when the worship service is over, I wonder – do we actually stand up for Jesus? Do we really love to tell the story?

It’s fairly easy to do these things in a worship service when we’re with other believers, but outside of the church building, it can be a bit intimidating. Things can get in the way of standing up for Jesus. Things like,
• Fear. We fear being rejected and ridiculed by others, and losing precious relationships.
• Spiritual laziness. Why should I get so deeply involved with someone?
• Bad theology. It doesn’t matter. We all worship the same God anyway. We are all saved.
• Inadequacy. I don’t know what to say to that person. I don’t want to mess it up. What if they ask questions I can’t answer?
• Shyness. Some are very intimidated about sharing their faith around others.

You can probably add a few more reasons to my list.

Many of us cringe at the thought of speaking up for Jesus. But Jesus tells us in today’s passage, I’m counting on you to go public for me, to speak up for me, and share the news of what I’ve done for this world. Testify to the difference I’ve made in your life. Show my love and compassion to those who need to be touched by My love. Speak out against injustice and values that clash with my kingdom.

Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat the task in our passage today. He says it won’t be easy. In fact, it will be difficult. At times, you will be tempted to hide, run away, or hold your tongue from speaking on my behalf. You may even deny your faith in me before other people when the pressure is on. Some people will speak against me; others will blaspheme the Holy Spirit by calling this kingdom talk evil and opposing the gospel message. Therefore, they will be hard on you. You could be rejected by loved ones and persecuted for speaking up for Him. You could be brought before rulers, synagogues, and other authorities on charges of blasphemy for sedition against the government.

So Jesus lays out some important facts for His disciples to consider. His first bit of instruction is a word of warning, a heads-up. Remember whom you’re playing for, no matter how frightened you may be of others. Who is your most important audience?

At the beginning of this story, thousands of people were crowding around to listen to Jesus. But He speaks to His disciples first, not to the crowd. This is a teachable moment. Perhaps the disciples liked popularity too much. Maybe they were acting extra-religious before the crowds. Success can bring about pridefulness and it can become tempting to play for the crowds. When you find yourself willing to do anything or say anything in order to be popular, it can become a playground for Satan. Jesus knew that. So He cautions the disciples to beware of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.

In Luke 11, Jesus fearlessly takes on the scribes and Pharisees. He pointed out that they are shallow, religious showoffs who play for the crowd and for themselves but not for God. They may look good before others on the outside, but God knows the rottenness lying inside of them, which needs to be cleansed.

Jesus also told them that they are dangerous to other people’s spiritual health. They have rules but no relationship with God and no love for people. Jesus tells His followers, I know it’s tempting to be prideful when all these people are looking up to you as they come to me. But don’t fall into the trap of loving attention. Be on guard against hypocrisy and pride. Be more concerned about how you appear before God than how you appear to others. Commit yourself to humbly serve your audience of one who knows all and sees all – God. Make it your number one priority in life to honor Him and please Him.

Then Jesus points out that after all, He is in charge. History is His story. The day is coming – the final judgment day – when everything about you – every thought you’ve ever thought, or word you’ve ever whispered behind closed doors – will be revealed and brought into the open for all to see.

Remember who has the last word over you and everyone else. Make up your mind to be God-fearing – not people-fearing – followers.

People can scare us. They can make us miserable in this world but this is where it stops. There is an eternity, and God is in charge of it. He is the final authority over everyone. Only He can cast someone into hell for eternity.

These exhortations of Jesus are a bit unnerving for many of us. Understandably so. But He offers some encouraging words of assurance for his nervous, fearful witnesses.

First of all, remember, you are valuable to God and will never be forgotten by Him.
“Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. Even the hairs on your head are counted! Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows (to your Father).”

Your heavenly Father sees you, knows you, and values you. Nothing can ever separate you from Him.

His promise to you and to me is this:

“If you stand up for me in this world no matter what,
I will stand up for you on the last day before the heavenly court of angels.”

When you think about it, Jesus has already stood up for you and me. He sacrificed Himself to save us from our sins.
• He stood before a kangaroo court and allowed Himself to be judged and executed by sinful men.
• He stood and suffered the beatings and humiliation.
• He stood and carried the cross up a hill called Golgotha where He was nailed to a cross and lifted up on it to suffocate to death.
• He stood in your place and mine before the wrath of God – all for you and me so we might have a restored relationship with God.

I will stand up for you, so you stand up for me.

By the way, the message we are speaking will be rejected by many. But Jesus reassures us that they are actually rejecting Him, the Son of Man, and the Holy Spirit. Some will turn and eventually believe in Him. They will find forgiveness and a place for them in God’s kingdom. I’m reminded of the conversion story of Saul – who became Paul – in the book of Acts. He was a very hostile opponent of the Christian faith but became a great apostle.

Those who blaspheme against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. In other words, those who reject the gospel message, which is the tool of the Holy Spirit for conversion – those who call it a lie of the devil himself will miss out on receiving God’s forgiveness.

When the pressure is on (and it will come), you will be dragged before people who don’t want to hear and won’t like what you’re saying. But remember, you not alone. You are armed with the Holy Spirit of God. He will teach you what to say. He will be with you.

In the book of Acts, we find those inarticulate disciples becoming quite bold and eloquent. For instance, when Peter and John stand before the Sanhedrin council on charges, their opponents marveled at the bold eloquence of these uneducated men. And when they were told to be silent about Jesus, they said, “We cannot stop. We must obey God first. We play for an audience of one” (Acts 4:1-22). These common, Christ-following people, powered by the Spirit of God, turned the world upside down for Jesus Christ.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, while a personal relationship with Jesus is important, it’s not meant to be kept private. Christ is counting on us to go public with the good news, to be God-fearing people who humbly play for an audience of One. Stand up and speak up for Jesus in a world of people who desperately need Jesus to rescue them.

Allow me to get personal. When was the last time you grabbed an opportunity to stand up and speak up for Jesus? If you can’t think of a time, it’s not too late. Let’s get started on some homework. God can use you in a great way.

First, I would have you think of three people in your life whom you question whether they have a relationship with Jesus Christ. Write their names down on a piece of paper and began to pray for them. Pray for an openness to receive Jesus.

The second thing I would have you do is to check out the website for Evangelism Explosion. It is EEworks.org. Get on their newsletter where you will find wonderful teaching and tips on being a personal witness right where you are.

Finally, start looking for opportunities and open doors to speak the name of Jesus and tell what He has meant for your life. Look for opportunities to stand up for the kingdom of God. When you see something that is wrong and needs to be made right, ask God to open those doors for you. By the way, I’ve learned He loves to answer this request.

I am reminded of a story that inspired me. It was written by Alec Hill in an article from “Christianity Today.”

At age 26, Ken Elzinga joined the faculty of the University of Virginia. After a tenured colleague warned him that being explicit about his faith could hinder his career, Elzinga was stunned to see a flyer with his face on it placed at a prominent campus location. A campus ministry had posted it to advertise a talk he had agreed to give. A relatively new believer, he worried. Would fellow professors think less of him? Might this harm his tenure chances? He experienced a dark night of the soul returning to campus and secretly taking the poster down.

But the next morning, Elzinga put the posters back up. After hours of soul searching, he concluded that his life was not about career ambition but about faithful discipleship. Being private about his faith was not an option for him.

In the four decades since, Elzinga has been named professor of the year multiple times and is still a speaker in high demand. He will be the first to tell you that serving only one master has been liberating for him. And why is that? Because pleasing an audience of one makes us less anxious, less sensitive to criticism, and more courageous. Because in doing so, we become more secure and compete less for our own honor.

My dear friends, Jesus is counting on us to go public for Him. Don’t make your faith a private matter. As you step out for Him, remember Jesus’ promise that you not alone in this task. You have promises to count on that reach all the way into eternity. You have a Father who is watching over you and will not allow anything to separate you from His love as you play for this audience of One.

Remember, you are armed and dangerous, filled with the Holy Spirit of God. He is with you, and He will teach you exactly what you need to say. He will give you the needed courage and strength to say it. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

What Have You Done With Jesus?

Luke 20:9-19

Recently, I was listening to an interesting yet disturbing interview on public radio. The interviewee was an author who had recently written a book about the rise of the “nones” in America. It appears that many, especially of our younger generation, are drifting away from the church and the faith. More and more people are marking “none” when asked about their religious affiliation on forms. “Basic tenets and doctrines (of the faith) are being questioned and set aside,” this author said, “in favor of establishing a more personal spirituality.”

A couple of years back I had my staff read a book that was similar to this one. It describes some of the thinking of these “nones”. It said that Jesus and His exclusive claims are sometimes rejected in favor of a more pluralistic outlet, of being more open-minded, tolerant. So when I heard this interview, I wasn’t surprised, just once again concerned, disappointed, and a little heartbroken.

I can’t help but wonder how God feels about all this. People are constructing their own spirituality, rejecting His Son, or treating Him merely as one of many great teachers, but no more. They take on more of a buffet-style of faith.

Jesus gives us a bit of insight when He tells this parable just a few days before He went to the cross. He’s in Jerusalem now. He’s been hailed as a King by many on Palm Sunday. He has upset the Temple and driven out the money changers. His journey to Jerusalem is over, and the shadow of the cross looms ahead. It’s Tuesday, and by Friday He will be nailed to a cross and suffering.

On Tuesday, we find Him teaching in the Temple. There is some hostile opposition to Jesus. The religious experts – Scribes, chief priests, Pharisees, elders, and other leaders now want to get rid of Him and kill Him. So they asked Him where He gets the authority to do the things He has been doing. There was a challenge in their tone. Who does He think He is to overturn the tables in the Temple and drive out money changers? In response, Jesus tells this parable, which is all too easy for them to understand.

The owner of a vineyard rents out his land to tenants. He’s to get a share of the fruit produce each year. But something goes wrong in this arrangement. Each year when the owner would send a servant to collect the fruit of the harvest, the tenants would treat that servant shamefully – even violently – and send him back to the master empty-handed. Year after year this happened. This gracious and patient owner finally said, “What should I do? I know, I’ll send my beloved son. Surely they will respect him.” But when the tenants saw the son coming, they plotted amongst themselves and said, “Here comes the heir. Let’s kill that son and declare ourselves owners of the vineyard.” So they drove the son out of the vineyard and killed him.

This story is a historical parable. It’s more of an allegory about the history of God’s relationship with Israel, His chosen people. He had chosen them to bear fruit to the glory of God. They were the vineyard. They had been called a blessing to be a blessing to the families of the world; to seek justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with their God. To be a light to the nations. Instead, they were rebellious and disobedient.

No first-century Jew of the time could’ve missed what Jesus was talking about in this pointed parable. God is the owner of the vineyard. The vineyard is Israel, blessed and called to be a blessing, to bear fruit for the kingdom of God. The parable smacks of the prophet Isaiah’s vineyard song in Isaiah 5 where God laments His vineyard, Israel, which was yielding sour grapes, and He’d have to destroy it. The tenants are the leaders of Israel, the kings, the religious elite.

The servants are God’s prophets who came to tell them that God was looking for fruit from His people, fruit of obedience and love. Each one of them was treated badly and sent away empty-handed with no repentance or fruit of repentance.

Of course, the son in the story is Jesus. We’re reminded of what God said about Jesus at His baptism – “This is my beloved, my Son, with whom I am pleased.” The son’s fate is described by Jesus and proves to be prophetic. Jesus knew what lay ahead in the next few days. He had told His disciples earlier He’d go to Jerusalem and be rejected, suffer and die, and be killed. Friday was coming.

At this point, Jesus stops, looks at His listeners, and asked them, So what do you think? What will the owner do after all the patience and grace He has shown these tenants? It was as if He was saying to the crowd. What would you do? Jesus answered His own question, “He will punish those tenants and give the vineyard to others.”

He reminds us at the end of the parable that God is still in charge. It is His vineyard, and He has the last word over it. Heaven forbid! the crowd gasped. That can’t happen! In all likelihood, they were thinking about how they were going to lose their land. Jesus looked at them and said, “Then what we do with this Old Testament verse from the Psalms, ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone?’ It was Jesus’ way of saying, You may reject me but I will be vindicated by My Father. I am that stone.

This became a favorite verse to quote in the New Testament church. Peter referred to it in his letter, “We’re all living stones built upon the cornerstone, Jesus Christ.” Paul would refer to it as a description of the Church: God’s temple built upon the stone, Jesus.

Jesus went on to say, “. . . and everyone who falls on that stone (me) will be broken to pieces, and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” Jesus is saying, If you reject me, you will be rejected by God. Jesus alone is God’s salvation gift to us. He is the cornerstone. He is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father but through Him.

This parable in all likelihood was the last one Jesus told before the cross. It is an appeal to repentance, to receive Jesus as Lord and Savior of your life. Jesus is saying, You want to know where my authority comes from? My authority comes from God. I am the Son of God. Repent. Surrender yourself to My care and My rule in your life, and you will live forever in the kingdom of God.

Jesus will be killed just as He said. But it is not a meaningless, accidental death. It was planned all along in the courts of heaven, even as Adam and Eve could be heard traipsing out of the garden of Eden. His death would make things right. His blood will pay for the sins of the world – for my sins and yours.

Jesus was vindicated by rising from the dead. He is risen; He is risen indeed. And all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him. The future of the universe is under His authority. He has the last word over us.

The crowds left that day wondering about this warning. The religious establishment knew full well this parable was pointed at them. They were furious and wanted to arrest Jesus right on the spot but were afraid because the crowd was so taken with Him. Soon, however, they would have their way. They chose again to reject Him, just as so many have since then. It is to their own destruction, Jesus says.

Since then, millions have come to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Savior of their lives and had their lives changed when He steps in and takes over. They have received the rich inheritance of the forgiveness of sins, a promise of heaven, a restored personal relationship with God, a blessed life of friendship with Him, and a new community to enjoy, encourage, and love. He’s the true foundation upon which new lives get built and fruit is produced, which glorifies God.

What about you? What are you doing with Him, with His claims, with His calling? Are your rejecting Him or have you received Him? Because friend, there’s no middle ground with Jesus Christ. To reject Him is destruction, to receive Him as your Lord and Savior is life, a rich new life He does not want you to miss out on.

I recently came across this wonderful story.

Barbara Krensavage insists that clams are not a regular part of her diet. Yet one snowy evening in December she found herself craving an old recipe and so brought home four dozen quahogs—a clam particularly abundant on the eastern shores of the United States between Cape Cod and New Jersey. Mr. Krensavage was shucking the shellfish for dinner when he discovered one that looked like it was dead. It had a different color to it, and he thought it was diseased. As he was about to discard it, Mrs. Krensavage took a closer look.

It wasn’t dead. In fact, inside the live clam was a rare, possibly priceless, purple pearl. Experts estimate that roughly one in two million quahog clams contains a gem-quality pearl like the one found by the Krensavages. Some have estimated the pearl to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

He almost missed out on possessing this pearl – a pearl of great price. Don’t you miss out on the Pearl of Great Price – Jesus Christ – who came to bring you into His kingdom.

Coming to Christ carries not only an appeal to repentance but also a word of reality and reassurance for the Church of Jesus Christ and those of us who follow Him. Jesus once told the disciples, “A slave is not above his master. If they rejected me, they just might reject you. In fact, you will be rejected and ridiculed and even killed possibly for announcing my gospel message in the world” (John 15:20, 21). We think of the martyrs still today on which the Church is built.

His call to us is no walk in the park, we have come to discover, but a call to battle – even hardship – as He says, “Come, pick up your cross and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Why? So we might bear fruit to the glory and honor of God as we bring others into His kingdom.

While we may experience some hardship, we always remember, God is the owner of the vineyard of this world. He has the last word. The vineyard of this world is His! This is our hope and our confidence as we serve Him in this world, announcing that the King’s Son has come. He has done a great thing – paying our debt on the cross and rising again.

We serve Him by calling people to repent and believe in Christ because someday the Son will come again in victory and power and take His own to Himself that where He is, we may be also. He will judge the living and the dead and make all things new. All will be well, just as God intended.

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to the Son. Don’t miss out. Receive Him.

I conclude this message with a story by Pastor Craig Ryan Larson.

“The first summer that my wife and I were dating, she worked as a temp at a bank. In the first two weeks that she had the job, she quickly noticed some extremely unprofessional behavior among the team of four people that she worked with and their supervisor. The supervisor, who was a generation older, was very friendly with the younger staff, taking long coffee breaks with them. College-aged staff would sit on her desk to chat and gossip.

The supervisor and her team were so friendly that the group’s behavior toward one other new member of the team was a stark contrast. This person, a woman in her 30s who had come on staff just a week before my wife, was shunned by them. If she walked up and tried to join the conversation during a coffee break, the conversation ended. The group, including the supervisor, made jokes about her behind her back and laughed at the way she dressed. They rolled their eyes and winked at each other when she was around.

Two weeks into the temp job, my wife walked into the office on Monday morning and was surprised to find a much different scenario. No gossiping, no kidding around, no long coffee breaks. All the workers had their eyes riveted on their work. The previous supervisor had been replaced. The cliquish team addressed the new supervisor with formal, businesslike respect. My wife thought she even saw fear in their eyes.

The new supervisor was not a stranger. It was the 30-something woman who had been shunned and mocked. It turned out the bank had hired her to be the new supervisor from the first day she came on the job three weeks before, but the bank had concealed her true identity so she could observe the work style of the team.

In some ways, this situation resembles the coming of Christ to earth. In his first coming, Jesus Christ revealed his true identity and glory to his true followers, but to those who did not believe, his glory was largely hidden by his humanity. One day he is coming again to the earth to establish his glorious kingdom over everything. At that time there will be no mistaking who is in charge.

We know who is in charge as we serve Him. The time is coming when there will be no mistaking by anyone as to Who is in charge. Let us trust Jesus. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

Rich Man and Lazarus

Here’s How to Be Rich

Luke 16:19-31

A subject Jesus liked to spend a great deal of time talking about was money and possessions. Approximately one out of eight verses in the Gospels deal with this subject. Of the parables He told, twelve of thirty-eight are about money. Jesus knew the dangers of money and possessions – how they can ruin our relationship with God and our neighbors when it becomes the focus of our lives. Whether we are rich, middle-class, or poor, money can blind us to that which is most important.

Today in our text, Jesus is telling a story regarding money. It’s about a rich man and a poor man. This story is divided into three parts, and the first part is about two men.

There was a rich man who lived an extravagant life. He had the best of everything: the finest clothes, the best food, a beautiful home with a gate out front to keep the riffraff out. He had it all, and he carried on a sumptuous lifestyle.

There was also a man named Lazarus who was very poor. He was a beggar and sought to live off the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. In other words, he was looking through the rich man’s garbage for his next meal.

Lazarus was suffering. He had sores all over his body, and the dogs licked the sores, which made things all the worse for him. He couldn’t defend himself. He was destitute.

The second part of the story is about the deaths and destinations of these two men.

Lazarus died and was carried away by the angels to Father Abraham’s side in heaven. The rich man died and was buried, in all likelihood, with all sorts of pomp and circumstance. It was an extravagant funeral. But he woke up in hell, Hades, a place of torment.

An interesting conversation takes place in the final part.

The rich man makes two requests of Father Abraham. First, he says, “Father Abraham, would you send Lazarus down here to cool me off with some water. It’s hot down here.” Interestingly, he saw Lazarus as less than him still, that he should be serving him. But Abraham responds, “No, you had it all before. Now things are different.”

Please note – Lazarus was not in heaven simply because he was poor. He was where he was because he had a relationship with God, and God had a heart for the poor.

Abraham went on to point out to the rich man, “Besides all this, a great chasm is between us, and no one can cross back and forth.” This is a permanent situation, so get used to the heat.
Realizing all was lost for him, the rich man then requests, “Then please send Lazarus to warn my five brothers who are living the same way I did.”

Abraham replies, “No, they have Moses and the prophets.”

“But a resurrected person would move them to repent and change their ways,” the rich man said.

“A resurrected person will not convince them to listen to God. They must listen to God’s word,” Abraham said.

It’s interesting to note that Jesus had already brought the widow’s son in Nain back to life. In John 11 He will also raise His friend Lazarus back to life. And He himself will rise from the dead. Still many would not believe, repent, and turn to Him.

This story has one main point. (Remember, a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly truth.) The main truth can be summed up with this theme, STOP, LOOK, AND LISTEN, just like we tell our children. It is not meant to be a treatise on what the afterlife looks like (though we do know from Jesus there is a judgment day, a heaven, and a hell). It is not intended to give us a view of how hot hell is, nor is it an attack on rich people (though it was told to the disciples with Pharisees, who were lovers of money, overhearing.) Jesus’ purpose was to move them to repentance and finally enter into God’s kingdom.

This parable is not teaching us that the way to heaven is by being poor. Nor is it teaching us that we can earn our way by doing right things. Scripture is clear that a person is saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. So what then is the big idea?

This story calls us to a life of compassion and generosity with the riches God has given us. Notice the focus of the story is on the rich man. He does all the talking. Lazarus doesn’t have a line in the story.

The parable tells us, Don’t be like the rich guy. Stop and look. See the poor. See the hurting. See the destitute. Don’t ignore them. Have compassion for them and help them. It’s all too easy to not pay attention and not act on the suffering of others. It’s always been like that. It still is. Like this rich man who proudly considered himself a son of Abraham.

The rich man had a poor, suffering person right outside his gate, and he did absolutely nothing! This sort of thing still happens today with the likes of us. When we see someone like Lazarus, we might be prone to think, Let someone else take care of him. Let the government take care of him. Instead of asking, What can I do?

Media overload can make us less compassionate and more callous to suffering as we get used to seeing it all around us. People with cardboard signs stand at every stoplight, it seems, and one can’t help but be suspicious and skeptical. We hear news stories about how they’re a scam, so we stop looking at them. Besides, we are preoccupied with our own lives and our own problems and have no time for anyone else.

This is part of our sinful nature, which tells us we must take care of ourselves and no one else. The rich man’s blunder, his sin in this story, was to ignore the poor and focus on himself.

This parable also teaches us that it is important to listen to God’s Word, which tells us what God expects from His people who have the poor outside their gates. The rich man chose to ignore God’s desires for his life, which were revealed by Moses and the prophets in the Old Testament. Again and again, God’s Word points us to show compassion to the poor and helpless. For instance, in the book of Leviticus when Israel enters the Promised Land, Moses tells the people, on behalf of God, to leave parts of their fields for the poor to harvest.

In the book of Deuteronomy, as the people are about to enter the land of milk and honey (plenty), Moses instructs His people,

“Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake” (14:28, 29).

Listen to God’s heart for the poor and the prophets.

“For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in your land’” (15:12).

Later on, when God’s people are under His judgment, the prophets tell them why God is so infuriated with them.

“What do you mean by crushing My people and grinding the faces of the poor?” says the Lord God of hosts (Isaiah 3:15).

“For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not turn away its punishment, because they sell the righteous for silver and the poor for a pair of sandals. They trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way” (Amos 2:6, 7).

“What does the Lord require of you? He’s told you to show justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

God cares for the poor, and He wants His people to care for them as well with the resources He has given us.

Zacchaeus, a rich man who had a life-changing encounter with Jesus, gave away half his possessions to the poor as a sign of repentance. Jesus affirmed his act (Luke 19:1-10).

Later on, the Apostle Paul wrote to some well-to-do Corinthian Christians:

“If you count yourself a Christ follower, remember that we follow One who was rich and became poor for our sakes, dying on the cross for our sins so we might be rich in Him, Jesus Christ” (II Cor. 8:9).

By giving to the poor, we show the genuineness of our faith in Him and our love for Him.

Picking up on this truth, James writes to an early congregation,

“What good it is, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works. Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food and one of you says to them: ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs – what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:14-17).

Church historians have shown us that early Christianity survived and actually thrived and grew in a hostile, pagan world largely because Christ-followers took this teaching of Jesus seriously. They showed generosity and compassion toward those who could not help themselves. They showed it not only amongst themselves but also toward those who were outside the faith. As a result, people were amazed and eventually attracted to the gospel being preached.

This story from Jesus is meant to teach us to stop and look. Notice the poor, the helpless, the destitute. Listen to God’s Word regarding them. Be compassionate and generous toward them, and share from what God has given you. Generosity and compassion are key marks of the Christian life.

God would also have us listen to Moses and the prophets who point us to the One who fulfilled their words – Jesus Christ. He fulfilled God’s plan of salvation, which began in the Old Testament. They looked forward to the day when the Messiah would arrive and fulfill all God’s plans. It happened in Jesus Christ. As we place our trust in Him, we count ourselves among those who are saved by grace through faith in the Savior Jesus Christ.

So the follower of Jesus Christ needs to regularly ask himself or herself this personal question: What am I doing with my riches?

By the way friend, you and I are rich. You may be thinking, Wait a minute! I’m not rich. If you are an American listening today, you are rich, far richer than most of the world. You are right up there in the upper percent.

Here’s a good question for us, as rich Christians, to ask, What is my attitude toward my wealth and giving? Does your attitude fall prey to the mindset that it’s mine; I earned it, and I’m going to use it for myself to enjoy. Be careful. Better your attitude is, How can I use this trust God has given me to help others in the name of Jesus?

Next, are you someone who is stopping, looking, and paying attention to the suffering going on around you? Are you listening to God’s Word and wanting to obey it? You don’t have to look far to see the suffering and the hurting. It’s all around us.

Are you listening to God’s Word to help the helpless? How much weight does God’s Word carry in your life when it comes to your riches? Needs and opportunities galore are all around us to help this hurting world such as,

Local opportunities and missions. We have a Union Gospel Mission in our community, and a Loaves and Fishes food closet to serve the poor. Give or volunteer to help.
National opportunities. Give of your resources to flood, fire, and hurricane victim organizations that are Christian. The Salvation Army is always on the front line working amid these disasters. Offer to volunteer.
International opportunities. Help support organizations such as Samaritans Purse and World Vision, which are serving the poor in Christ’s name. Adopt a child through Compassion International. Finance them for school. Write letters to them, and encourage them in their growing up.

I leave you with this quote:

“Every person possesses something of some sort, be it no more than a heart and a hand and a span of life; and to every person is given some ‘Lazarus at the door’, a test case as to whether he or she will use those possessions rightly or wrongly, with love or with self-indulgence, bringing God’s will into the matter or leaving it out” (The Message of Luke, The Saviour of the world, by Michael Wilcock).

Stop. Look. Listen. That, my dear friends, is Christ’s Word to you today. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

Precious and Important

Isaiah 43:1-7

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

What or who is so valuable in your life, you would give your own life away – sacrifice yourself – to protect them or to achieve your overriding goal? Isaiah 43 shows us a profound truth from the heart of the eternal Almighty God: each person on the face of the earth is precious and important to God. You are precious and important to God.

You are precious and important to God, first because you have been created by Him, gifted and beautiful for His purposes.

Recently our daughter Heather and her husband Greg had a new baby boy, Louie Robert Wencl. It was fascinating that in the aftermath of the arrival of this little boy, our daughter Heather felt compelled to apologize to the nurse in the delivery room. “I just want to say I’m sorry for the things I might’ve said during the intensity of the pain of labor and delivery,” she said. It seems that in the middle of her contractions she said, “I can’t do it. Just pull him out. Just pull him out.” And at another time she said, “I’m not sure how this baby is going to come out, but he’s not coming come out this way!”

We might laugh at what her pain-induced comments would bring, especially you ladies who have had the joy and privilege of giving birth to a child. But the truth is, this little child born to them resonates with the profound truth for the birth of every child – life is precious and important. It is God’s gift.

You are precious and important. The day you arrived, God sang in the heavens because you were born! You have a distinct and important purpose in the overall eternal plan of God. You are gifted for God’s purpose. You are as unique as the fingerprints on your hands. You are precious and important because God created you and gave you life.

Second, you are precious and important to God because He has redeemed you. If someone were to kidnap your child, your grandchild, or a dear friend, what would you give to get them back? What would you be willing to pay? We talk about redeeming a pop bottle or a pop can. That is, the original manufacturer of the bottle or can now wishes to redeem it back. God paid the cost to redeem you so you would be brought back to Him.

Implicit in the word “redemption” is the cost of being delivered from that which holds you back, from being reconciled. It also means a release from bondage. In the word, we understand what it means to be restored to our original intended purpose.

God has redeemed us, but at what cost? How precious, important, and valuable are you to God? He was willing to give His very own Son. Jesus, who was as all-powerful as God, willingly gave up His divine power, authority, and privilege to humble Himself. He came to where we are to sacrifice His life so we might be redeemed. Our sins and rebellion have been atoned at the cost of Jesus’ life. He bought our freedom.

Wouldn’t it be a paradox if someone paid the price for a person who is in prison to go free, yet the prisoner chose to remain imprisoned in the jail cell? God says you are precious and important by the blood of Jesus shed on Calvary’s cross. You’ve been redeemed. However, you are also free from the power of sin to live a new life and be restored to your original purpose.

The third reason you are precious and important to God is He has called you by name and declares you belong to Him. “You are mine,” He says.

Now the overarching truth of Jesus reconciling the world to Himself becomes specifically personal when God comes to us through the Holy Spirit. He whispers our name as He calls us to His love, into a relationship where, by faith, we share our journey of life with God day by day. We are not only redeemed, but we also are called by God the Father to belong to His family and live the journey of life belonging to God every day.

The fourth reason we are precious and important to God is He promises that through the turmoil of life, through the challenges of life when the water feels like it is going to drown us, or the fire of the intensity of suffering is most difficult, God says I will see you through, and I will be with you.

It’s critical to remember this fundamental principle of faith – we are precious and important to God – because the enemy of our soul – Satan – tells us the opposite. Satan tells us we are worthless and are of no significance to anyone. We are beyond love. But God reaffirms you as precious and important to Him. I have created you for my purposes and my glory. I have redeemed you at the cost of my Son Jesus Christ, and I have called you by name into a relationship of love in my family. You belong to me.

The fifth reason all people are precious and important to God in this passage is it reveals a big vision of God gathering us back to Himself in love. We can understand the application of this promise in many ways.

For the people of God who were living in exile after their defeat at the hands of Babylon, they were living in a foreign country under the control of a foreign nation, wondering if they would ever know what it is to come home again. They don’t know if they will ever have a relationship with God like they used to have the privilege of knowing.

God says definitively in a promise, “I am going to gather you back to myself from the north, from the south, from the east, from the west. All my precious people will be gathered back to myself.”

We can also understand this promise of God gathering us to Himself as the overarching continual call of God. By the work of the Holy Spirit, we believe our sins are forgiven and come back to God as our creator and Father.

Ultimately, of course, we would believe God has promised to gather us to our eternal home. Like Jesus said, “Don’t be troubled, I will come and receive you to Myself that where I am, you may be also” (John 14:3). God wants to bring us back so we would revel in His love and live life in the confidence that we are God’s people in this world.

In his book, Rebel With a Cause, Franklin Graham tells what it was like growing up as the eldest son of the world’s most famous preacher since Jesus. The expectations for Franklin were great. Rules were rigid, and by his admission, Franklin Graham was a rebel. Franklin rejected every value and virtue his parents stood for – including the Christian faith – in his youth. He ran from God and rebelled to the extent that he did almost every expression of immorality you can think of.

No scene in his book is more poignant than the day Franklin was kicked out of his conservative college in Texas for taking a coed off-campus for a week, piloting a rented plane, and journeying to Florida. Upon his return, he was expelled and had to go home to his parents. Here’s what Franklin writes in the book:

The drive home from Texas was dreary. Maybe by driving slow I was prolonging the inevitable; I would have to face my parents. I knew they had to be disappointed in me – I was! They had invested a lot of money in my education, and now I had messed up.

I drove through the gate and started up the road to our home imagining the lecture my parents would give me. So many other times when I’d come home I could hardly wait to say hello to everyone. But no joy this time. I felt so bad when I finally reached home. Then I saw mama standing on the front porch, and I wanted to run and hide in the nearest hole. It was one of the few times I can remember not wanting to look her in the eye.

When I walked up to her, my body felt limp. I barely have the nerve to lift my head or extend my arms for a hug. But I didn’t need to. Mama wrapped her arms around me and, with a smile, she said, “Welcome home, Franklin.”

Hear these words again from Isaiah 43:

“But now, thus says the Lord, who created you, who formed you, I have called you by name. Don’t be afraid. I have redeemed you. You are mine. You are precious in my sight and honored and I love you.”

The love of God is a truth far exceeding understanding. Who can fully fathom God’s love for rebels? God says you and I are always precious and important to Him. We are so precious He was willing to give Jesus Christ, His Son, to die so we might be reconciled into a relationship with Him.

So today, God in the name of Jesus again says to you, Welcome home. God finds us wherever we are, wherever we have wandered, whatever we have done, however, we might have fallen, whatever state of brokenness or struggle or rebellion we are in. In the love that persists to invite, God offers you grace, the forgiveness of all your mistakes, failures, and sins. God offers you mercy and the joy of embracing the truth that you are precious and important to Him.

How will you respond? To not respond is to respond. Wouldn’t it be better if we all said again, Lord Jesus, I gladly receive what I don’t deserve? I gladly receive your forgiveness. Thank you for dying on the cross. I gratefully accept your mercy, and I ask you to come into my life and make me new. Amen.

Pastor Lee Laaveg

The Search

Luke 15:1-10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pastor Steve Kramer

A Story for Diane

Luke 18:9-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They are like the Pharisees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I end this message was two appeals.

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

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

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

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

Pastor Steve Kramer

How to Maintain Your Spiritual Health

Luke 18:1-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus then gave a commentary on the parable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, Jesus finishes His teaching with an interesting question.

“Yet when the Son of Man comes . . .”

That was the title Jesus liked to use for Himself.

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

He’s coming again, you know.

“ . . . will he find faith on earth?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They prayed. God showed up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom line: Keep praying!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pastor Steve Kramer