God’s House

I Peter 2:4-7

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

If you were to build a house, what is the first thing you would need? What is the first thing a contractor or carpenter would ask for? He’d ask for a blueprint, for drawings of how the house is to be laid out and the architectural design for the house. If you were to build a house on the western coast of Southern California, you would also need the construction plans to include earthquake design requirements so it would not be shaken if some adversity came upon it.

When the Scriptures speak about the Church of Jesus Christ – like the words of an old hymn – it says Jesus is the foundation. “Built on a Rock the Church will stand even when kingdoms are falling.” So the clear truth of I Peter 2 is that Jesus is the foundation of the Church of Jesus Christ. The Church being a temple, God’s house, and we as individual believers are living stones in that temple.

But Jesus must be the cornerstone. What’s the purpose of the cornerstone? It’s the first stone set in a masonry foundation, and it determines the alignment of the entire structure. In our individual lives as people of faith, and certainly in the church, the temple of God, Jesus Christ must have first priority and first place in everything we do. Every aspect of a believer’s individual life and every aspect of the church as a collection of believers as living stones must orient itself to Jesus Christ. So we trust Jesus as the cornerstone of our lives and of our life together in the church.

Jesus’s ethos, His ethic, His behavior patterns, His character, His heart, His passion must be the Church’s template for our life together. We not only model the temple of God after Jesus’ character, but we maybe more accurately conform all aspects of the Church’s life together to the heart of Jesus Christ.

I also want you to realize that if we say Jesus is the cornerstone, there is no neutral response to Jesus. Scriptures say to not believe means Jesus becomes what the Greek word names as “the scandalon.” We use the word scandal to describe a publicly immoral and humiliating behavior or event. So when someone encounters Jesus or the offer of Jesus’ grace and love, but rejects Him, it’s a scandal. We trip over the stone. We fall over the precious truth and reject something essential for the construction of all of life and our life shared. Conversely, when we accept Jesus, all of life falls into alignment to that central precious confession.

We need to understand that God is the builder of His temple. “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who labor, labor in vain,” the Word says in Psalm 127:1. So God builds us collectively into His temple, God’s house – the place where God lives and dwells. The place where His glory is revealed.

We are living stones connected together, gathered together, in order to invite God’s presence be manifested among us. Therefore we, as living stones, are interconnected and essential to one another. The unity of God is a gift, but our interconnected essential dependence is part of His plan. This flies in the face of rugged American individualism where we thump our chests and think, I don’t need anybody else in my life. In the Church we openly say, “I need you; I depend upon you, and you need me.”

When I was in college, in the summers I worked construction for a lumberyard in Cylinder, Iowa. I was assigned on several occasions to work with a mason contractor in building house foundations from cement blocks. I remember him yelling out as I mixed mortar for the laying of those blocks, “More mud! Bring me more mud!” And in five-gallon buckets I would carry mud to where he was working.

What is the mortar that holds the living stones of the Church in God’s Temple together?

First, I’d say in our imperfect brokenness as sinners, we are united in the need for Jesus’ grace and forgiveness.

Second, we’re bound together by a common faith and a common love for Jesus. In Scripture it says, “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit” (I Cor. 12:3).

We’re also joined together by the peace of God that the Spirit pours into us. It is a supernatural peace.

We’re joined in a common hope as we consider the present but also look into the future, for the hope we hold is based on the promises Jesus Christ has made. We believe our future destiny is inseparably linked to the Lord Jesus Christ. We hold onto that hope, and we hope for eternal life.

Ultimately, we’re united in our common commitment to Christ and to one another. Have you ever watched a stonemason build a fireplace with different configurations of stones? Carefully, the builder selects each stone to fit together just right, constructing it into a chimney. It’s almost an art form. Well, God is the builder of the house and each of us are individually diverse in our gifts, talents, and personalities. Yet God knows how to connect us with one another in a cohesive interdependence that adds strength to the structure of the Temple of God. You have an essential role to what God is building in the Church of God. Your unique talents and abilities, your passion, your faith, your love is called forth by God’s Spirit to connect with others.

There are also threats to that unity and cohesion. Like a huge crane with a heavy, heavy wrecking ball swinging, smashes down to demolish an old building, we have wrecking ball threats to the Church as the Temple of God.

One that comes to mind is unresolved conflict. When different individuals in arrogant pride refuse to listen to one anothe r, their conflict stands like adversarial animosity and refuses to resolve.

The second threat to unity is withheld forgiveness. It simmers under the surface as a grudge, a feeling of malice wishing ill to another. Wrath can be explosive, and withheld forgiveness can pull apart the structural integrity of the Church as the Temple of God.

The third thing I think of is unfaithfulness to the Word of God. If we begin to depart from the wisdom and revealed will of God in the Word, if we begin to depart from the promises God has made to us, the revelation of who God is as we read it in the Word of God, we begin to chase rabbits paths to rabbit holes, which pull us apart from the central confession of the Word as truth. That truth is we are a broken, rebellious world that God created, separated from the God who made us. But God in His love sent His only begotten Son to die in the cross for us and be raised from the dead so we could be reconciled to Him into a relationship of shared life and love. If we compromise the Gospel, then the structural cohesion of the Church as a living Temple is gonna get smashed.

Another threat to the unity of God’s house is immorality among the members or the leaders. We are connected to one another. We may live in a culture and society that says Live and let live. Whatever a person does is up to him. No harm no foul. But in the body of Christ, the Temple of God, if my behavior begins to distracted or disrupt others, it’s not okay. The cohesiveness of God’s Temple begins to be compromised. That’s why, if immorality is in God’s house, then the elephant in the room must be named. It must be dealt with.

The last threat to the unity of God’s house is an ambivalence to the mission God has given us to do – reach out to all people to share His love.

The glory of any house is not so much the architectural or structural look of the house as it is the personality of those who live there. Have you ever driven by the house of a famous person? Maybe it’s a pro athlete. I remember driving by the house of John Wayne. Elvis still has his Graceland. If you wanted to go to the White House in Washington, D.C., do you think you would be granted access to see the President today? No, because access to that house is very limited even though the President lives there.

Well, the glory of God’s house, the Temple of God, is it has continual access to the very presence of God because of Jesus Christ. You are welcome there. You are invited in, and you are to bask in the love of all those who praise God there. Everyone is welcome. The glory of every church is not the building where they meet. The glory of the church is God’s presence in that place where two or three are gathered.

The infinity of God does not need a place built with brick-and-mortar, for we invite God’s presence among us each time we worship. His shekinah glory fills the temple. God desires to live among us and with us and within us. Have you ever heard the phrase as people worship, “God is in the house today.” Our desire is to encounter the living God in our worship and in our life together so He can do His mission among us and through us.

Finally, I want to say that the temple of God building us into living stones joined together in interdependence shifts in the New Testament so we become the temple of God. People come to the temple to encounter God, but now the New Testament suggests that each of us are living stones. We are the temple where God dwells. Everywhere you go, believer in Jesus Christ, you bring with you the presence of God. Everywhere you go, the shekinah glory of Jesus Christ’s love radiates from your life, and you can pray that God would use you to be a place where other people encounter God.

What a glory to think that God Himself wishes to not only use our lives to be His dwelling place – Emmanuel God with us – but He uses our lives built together in interdependence to dwell and reveal His glory to the world. The early Church said, “Behold how they love one another.”

May God be glorified among you as His people in your life as an individual believer, and may you come together with other people who love and confess Jesus as Lord. May He use you together for His glory and to build His kingdom. Amen.

Rev. Lee Laaveg

How to Live With Weeds

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

My wife and I took a couple weeks off last month and went to Denmark. Guess what we found everywhere when we got back to our home. Weeds! Weeds, weeds, weeds, and more weeds. A reality for any gardener or farmer, those pesky weeds keep showing up. I don’t know about you, but the Kramers hate weeds! We work pretty hard to keep our garden and our lawn weed free. We are always pulling, spraying, clipping, and complaining about them. Get rid of those weeds! Where do they come from? We don’t like living with weeds. My wife and I took a couple weeks off last month and went to Denmark. Guess what we found everywhere when we got back to our home. Weeds! Weeds, weeds, weeds, and more weeds. A reality for any gardener or farmer, those pesky weeds keep showing up. I don’t know about you, but the Kramers hate weeds! We work pretty hard to keep our garden and our lawn weed free. We are always pulling, spraying, clipping, and complaining about them. Get rid of those weeds! Where do they come from? We don’t like living with weeds.

Jesus told a peculiar story about weeds one day. We find it in Matthew 13. There was this farmer who sowed good seed in his field in hopes of a good wheat crop. One night, an enemy came and threw weed seeds into it. When it all started sprouting up weeks later, the slaves were in a snit. “Master, didn’t you sow good seed?” (It’s almost as if they are saying it accusingly. What did you do wrong? Where did these weeds come from?)

The master said, “My enemy has done this.”

“Well, do you want us to go out and weed?” the servant asked.

“No,” the master said. “You might tear out the weed with the wheats.” The roots would be intertwined.

By the way, the Greek word used for weeds here intimates it was a weed called darnell, which was a rye grass sort of weed, it resembles wheat in the early stages, and its seeds were known to be poisonous. But the master said, “No, let them grow together, and at harvest time I’ll have the reapers separate them. I will even out wit my enemy by using his weeds as fuel for my furnace.” End of story.

It’s kind of a peculiar story. People must have wondered what Jesus meant by it. We know His followers didn’t get its meaning, because later they asked Him about it in private. Jesus explained, the field is the world God created and loves. It is the world He wants to redeem and restore, to make fruitful and good again. The good wheat is the sons of the kingdom – followers of Jesus who have heard the message of God’s kingdom, His rule and reign over people’s lives. They know a new day had arrived, and they repent, believe, and serve Him.

The pesky weeds represent the sons of the evil one. They cause all kinds of evil in this world.

Jesus points out that even though the kingdom Jesus is preaching about has arrived, there is resistance to it. I think especially of Herod who tried to kill the infant Jesus. We have an enemy – Satan, the evil one. He wants to ruin God’s field. Jesus came into the world proclaiming the kingdom of heaven, and immediately the battle was on. Satan did everything he could to resist its expansion. We have the temptation story. C. S. Lewis wrote, “There is no neutral ground in this universe. Every square inch has been claimed by Christ and counterclaimed by Satan.”
Jesus tells us the reapers are God’s angels. They’ll do the separating. The harvest is the end of the age – judgment day, separation day. The day is surely coming when the weeds will be picked, bundled, and burned. The righteous ones, Christ’s followers, will shine like the sun in the perfect kingdom of the Father.

What is the take away? Jesus is pointing out to His followers that yes, there are weeds in the garden of God’s world. The kingdom has arrived, but there is still evil and resistance to God’s rule and God’s ways happening in this world. Sometimes it may even appear that the weeds have the upper hand and are thriving as they have their way in God’s world.

Have you ever wondered if evil is winning? Drug abuse is ruining lives around us. Our world has sex trafficking of children, human beings being treated badly, violence, the porn industry is exploding and ruining lives, immorality and poor values abound. We watch good people suffer and evil people prosper. Those of us in the Church see Jesus being persecuted, ridiculed, and looked down upon. Who hasn’t wondered, What gives here? Why in the world does God allow this? Is He really in control? We get anxious and we wonder if perhaps we should do something with these weeds.

Let’s remove them. That is our natural inclination, isn’t it. Let’s separate ourselves from the weeds and not get tainted by their sinfulness. Or, let’s write them off! That’s what the super religious people (Pharisees) were doing in Jesus’ day. Call them untouchable and leave them alone.

Maybe we’re to hate these people, some people reason. Exterminate them in the name of God. But Jesus doesn’t seem to be saying anything like that! He is saying, Wait a minute now. Hold it. Time out! Be patient now. Don’t start weeding. Learn to live with them. My people are to be people who patiently wait upon the Lord. 

Sometimes it can be difficult to tell the weeds from the wheat. Have you ever met a person you would describe as a weed? She is rotten to the core, a hopeless case. There’s not a trace of God’s image in that individual. Weeding is a tricky, finicky business. It’s difficult to tell a hell-deserving sinner from a saint.

Patience is hard. It’s like the cartoon of the man kneeling, God, give me patience, and please hurry up! Jesus is calling us to patiently trust in our Lord. Leave the weeding to God. It’s going to happen in the end. Only God can know a person’s heart. Instead of hoeing, His people are to be about the business of sowing. There are more people to be reached and brought into the kingdom. If you step outside of the story, I know a number of weeds who have been actually transformed by the power of the Gospel of Jesus. Be patient, just keep on praying “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done . . .” and it will. 

Jesus seems to be saying, Be confident during these days, when it looks like everything’s out of whack. The harvest is coming. Sure, things may look bad today but remember who owns this field – God owns it, and He has the final say over this field we call our world. The end of the age is coming. There is an end to history. History is His story. Sure, things may be a mess, but it’s His mess.

A day will come when evil comes to an end and evil ones will no longer exist. Jesus talks again and again in Scripture of a judgment in the end. Separation. A great day. The harvest. It will be day of rejoicing for God’s people. In fact, we know this for certain because God in Christ has taken care of everything for us. He has defeated the power of sin and death and the devil through the cross and the empty tomb. Those of us who trust in Him are in His hands. Nothing can snatch us from His hand and from Him, as the Apostle Paul says. We can be sure of this. It will all turn out in the end.

Years ago, a movie actress was interviewed concerning her experiences making a film. At one point in the film, some lions would rush at her while she’s tied to a stake in the Roman Coliseum. The reporter asked the actress, “Weren’t you afraid when those lions came rushing at you?” She replied, “No. You see, I’m one of those actresses who reads the entire script. I had read to the end of the script, and I knew the hero would rescue me.”

Jesus is giving us a glimpse of the end of the script in this parable. God’s kingdom wins! This story Jesus told then is to be heard as Good News by the follower of Christ. It is a word of encouragement. Yes, it’s true. It’s real. Weeds are in the garden. The world is full of mess – at least for now. However, a lot of good things are also happening. God’s kingdom is at work. The word from our Savior and Lord of the world is this: “Be patient, be confident, be full of hope, and of good courage. God is in charge.” It’s like the old song says, “I may not know the future, but I know the One who holds my future.” The One who will send His angels into the harvest, and all who trust in Christ will shine like the sun in God’s eternal presence.

In the meantime, we’re to just keep on growing up in Him, trusting in Him and serving Christ in this world, bearing fruit, and putting others in touch with the Savior through our words and our actions, letting our light shine for Him. Keep on being the good news and telling the good news of a Father who loves us so much that He gave His only begotten Son to save us from sin and hell, and raised Him from the grave with the promise that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. All the while, knowing, trusting that you and I, as followers of Christ, are in God’s strong hands, and nothing can snatch us from those hands. In fact, as a song says, He’s got the whole world in His hands. That is what Jesus is saying here.

I can’t help but notice that this teaching from Jesus also holds a word for those who might be standing outside of a saving relationship with Him. You see, presently we are living in what some people would call the day of grace. Christ’s mercy and forgiveness are still available as we await the final day of judgment. But the day will come when it is too late to say yes to following Christ. The day is coming when it will be too late.But it’s not too late today.

While it is God’s desire for all to be saved and live with Him in heaven, He’s made it very clear that it will not always be the case. There will be a separation of believers and unbelievers. However, He’s told us, “I’m telling you the truth,” Jesus said. “Whoever hears my words and believes in him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has already passed from death to life” (John 5:24).

On the basis of such a promise, I have to ask you, if you’re standing outside this relationship, if Christ is not yours, wouldn’t you like to ask Him into your life today? He is standing at the door of your heart, Scripture says, and He is knocking. What peace there is in knowing we have been acquitted by Jesus Christ, who will come to judge the living and the dead. Join me and millions of others today who follow Christ and know what our future ultimately holds. Ask Him in. Ask Him in.

I love the way Jesus describes the glorious future of those who belong to Him. “The righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of heaven, in the presence of their heavenly Father.” What a glorious sight that will be! It’s like the familiar hymn says,  “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun. We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we first begun.”

Yes, weeds are in the garden, but it’s not the end of the story. Be patient; be confident. Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer


Good News for the Thirsty

John 7:37-39

We’re told by our doctors that we need to drink at least eight, 8-ounce glasses of water a day in order to have a healthy functioning body. We need water to survive and thrive. No water = no life. Medical experts will tell you they estimate more than 60% of our body is water. Apart from brains, bones, and a few organs, we’re basically walking water balloons.

We need to be constantly filling up. Try to stop drinking for a while and see what happens. Your coherent thoughts will begin to vanish, your skin will grow clammy, and your vital organs will wrinkle and stop functioning correctly. Your eyes need water, fluid to cry. Your mouth needs moisture to swallow. Your glands need sweat to keep your body cool. Your cells need blood to carry them, and your joints need fluid to lubricate them. Your body and my body need water the same way a tire needs air. Water is important!

A few years ago, our congregation began sponsoring teams of people to run. We gave the money they earned to World Vision International to put wells into villages where there was no water to drink. Life without water is absolutely miserable. In fact, it is difficult to survive. Life needs water.

Yet life is more than physical, isn’t it? We are spiritual beings, as well, created in God’s image, needing refreshment for our hearts and souls. Jesus reminds us of this in today’s text.

It seems a lot of people walk around these days with a dehydrated heart. It’s all shriveled up and lacking real life. People are thirsty for peace within, forgiveness for the guilt they bear, a sense of truth to believe in and build a life upon, for a sense of purpose. The bottom line, though, is our thirsty hearts long to enjoy the presence of God. Our hearts desire a relationship with the One who made us.

Psalm 72 tells us, “As a deer pants for living water, so my soul longs for you, Lord. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” When you think about it, dehydrated hearts send some rather desperate messages. Externally, we may exhibit a snarling temper, waves of worry and anxiety, growls of fear and guilt, loneliness, hopelessness, or insecurity. Knowing this about us, Jesus spoke at a public gathering to the inner thirst of people like you and I.

Jesus was at a big festival called the Festival of Booths in Jerusalem. It commemorates the wilderness wanderings of the Jews when God took care of them after saving them from slavery in Egypt and providing everything they needed along the way. One of the big events in the Festival was remembering when people cried out against Moses because they needed water. They were dying of thirst and very angry. God had Moses strike a rock and from it came a gushing stream of water for all the people and their livestock to drink.

During this festival, they would commemorate God providing the water we need. It was a reminder that, even in the agricultural society of that day, God is the one who gives us the water we physically need to survive. So the priest would take a golden pitcher, fill it with water from the Pool of Siloam, proceed to Temple, and pour it out on the altar commemorating the event when God provided.

On the last day of the festival – the great day as it was described in John’s Gospel – a voice shouted out an invitation and a promise. It was the voice of Jesus. He wasn’t simply clearing His throat saying, If you’re looking for water, I know where to get it. No, this was a cry, a shout.

Jesus, by the way, was taking a chance in speaking up. Jerusalem was hostile territory for Him. Many of the authorities had been trying to figure out a way to destroy Him. But this news was so important Jesus couldn’t keep it to Himself. So, before the pitcher was poured out, Jesus shouted, “Anyone who is thirsty, come to me. Let the one who believes in me drink. As the Scripture has said, ‘Out of the heart shall flow rivers of living water.’”

John editorializes this and says, “He said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive, but was not yet there until Jesus was glorified.”

Here we have the reality being stated as Jesus speaks out. I know you are thirsty in your heart and in your soul. God wired you that way – for a relationship with Him. You need God in your life. He feels too far from you. I know this has to be happening in your life. That’s the reality. 

With this reality comes an invitation and a claim. “Come to me,” Jesus said. “Drink of me,” which means believe and trust in Me for your salvation. We can’t help but be reminded of a passage out of the Old Testament, Isaiah 55, from the prophet Isaiah. Speaking on God’s behalf, he says, Everyone who is thirsty, let them come and drink. Jesus seems to be making a divine claim that He is God. To look into His face is to see the face of God. “Come to me and drink.” This is God speaking. He’s making a God claim.

This invitation has a promise attached. “(If you come to me), out of your heart shall flow rivers of living water.” The heart refers to the inner person, the part of us that cries out for God. It is our inner life that needs God. “Out of your heart shall flow . . .” Moving water.

I love the way Jesus talks about it in the plural. “You shall have rivers of living water.” Not just a river, but rivers. This basically means abundance, not just a drip or a trickle in your life. It is a total dousing, a flood so to speak.

In another place, Jesus said “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). So we’re talking about this abundance Jesus wants to put deep within us.

John steps into the story now and editorializes. Whenever he does that, according to what I’ve learned, we really need to pay attention for he is trying to teach us something. “Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” He was talking about the Holy Spirit. When John said the Spirit was not there, he meant the Spirit was not within the disciples yet. The Holy Spirit has been in the Bible from Genesis on, but not available.

When John talks about the glorification of Jesus, his frame of reference is the cross where Jesus died and paid for our sins. It is where Jesus suffered thirst as He said, “I thirst,” so we would not have to thirst any longer ourselves. It is where He experienced separation from His heavenly Father so we would not have to experience separation from God any longer in our lives.

Water and the Spirit is a regular theme in the Old Testament. In Isaiah God promises, “I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground. I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants” (44:3). “The Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your needs in parched places and make your bones strong. You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail” (58:11).

Ezekiel the prophet spoke of the new river of life that would flow from the Temple in Jerusalem and bring life to things that were dead (chapter 47). He was talking of the Spirit.

As I was studying this text, I began thinking about these rivers of blessing from the Spirit. What are they?

The first river that comes to mind is the river of cleansing and healing. Step into the waters of forgiveness, which Christ has won for us.

In India, people go to the Ganges river to dip their bodies in it believing they will get healing outside and in their souls as well. How sad. Jesus, the source of water, says Come to me! Come to me and drink! I went to the cross and paid for your sins. A new start, a clean slate, a restored relationship with God is just sitting there, waiting for you. 

I am reminded of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism and the meaning of the third article. “. . . in this Christian church, day after day, the Spirit forgives my sins and the sins of all believers.”

It’s a river of joy as well. It’s the joy of the presence of the Lord.

A member in my congregation, Marge, who recently passed away, once took a class from me on Becoming a Contagious Christian. One assignment for the students was to write their faith story to serve as their testimony the next time the Lord opened the door to sharing their faith. This is Marge’s story: “When I heard from friends and acquaintances how exciting it was to have a born-again experience, I realized something was missing for me. I wanted that uplifting and reassuring feeling, and I didn’t have it.

“As a child, I was exposed to the Christian life in my church. I attended Sunday school, Bible school, confirmation, and so on. In my teenage years, I went to my friend’s church. I even married a Christian. Still, something was missing. Then after a couple Sunday sermons, hearing the same message, I discovered what was missing. It was the gift of grace in my life. It was there for the asking. Forgiveness leading to eternal life was just the gift. What a discovery to realize Jesus had paid my way. I simply needed to ask Him to forgive me and receive His invitation to come into my life eternally so I could have a right relationship with God.

“It hasn’t always been easy to let go and let God lead my life, but I have experienced a great comfort and an exciting new life. JOY has replaced the feeling that something is missing. Now I am uplifted and assured. Others now want what I have. So I just tell them of the joy I discovered in Jesus Christ!”

Then Marge asked the question, “Is something missing in your life? Have I got news for you!” Marge discovered the river of joy, walking in a joyful assurance – she belonged to God through Jesus Christ. God would never let her go.

Think of the river of peace. “Someday I’m gonna die, but I have the peace of knowing where I am going to go; I am going to heaven! Not because of anything I’ve done, but because of what Christ Jesus has done for me.”

I think of the river of strength. As Paul says, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). That is the Spirit at work in us.

The river of confidence. I am loved. I am sealed by the Spirit. I belong to God forever. Nothing can snatch me from His hand. Paul writes, “For all who are led by the Spirit are children of God. You didn’t receive the Spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption (Rom. 8:13).

There is the river of knowledge and truth, meaning getting to know Jesus personally through the working of the Holy Spirit – Living Water within us.

G. Campbell Morgan, a great preacher of the last century said, “Those disciples knew more about Jesus in the first thirty seconds after Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit than in three years on the road previously.”

That river overflows, then, into the lives of others who wonder where is that joy coming from. Where is that peace coming from? Where is their love coming from? Their assurance.

May I ask you a personal question today? What have you done with the invitation Jesus has given you to come to Him and drink? After Jesus made this statement, the people had a division of responses. Although He was inviting everyone to come, some were not sure what to make of Him.

Is He a prophet? 
Is He the One from God, the Messiah? 
He’s just a nut; we have to destroy Him. He’s trouble.

You see, you have to ask Him in. You have to swallow Jesus, the living water. He won’t force His way in.

Now some of you might be thinking, You know, I have asked Christ in my life. Yet, I still have a couple dry moments. Paul speaks to that in Ephesians. I think he gets it from Jesus that being filled with the Spirit is something you keep doing. Paul says, “Be filled with the Spirit,” which means keep being filled with the Spirit. You see, as sinners we continue to leak.

A black preacher was once asked what it’s like on the inside to be a Christian. Silently he thought on the subject for a bit, and then he said, “Well, it’s like I got two dogs inside of me. One’s a good dog, the other’s a bad dog. They are always fighting.” When someone asked which dog is winning the fight, the preacher said, “Whichever one I feed.” I would add, whichever one I give water to.

That is why we have the community of faith. Luther says we need the community of saints around us in the Christian church day after day. We need to not walk through life alone. We need to be at worship and hear that our sins are forgiven, we belong to Christ, and nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. We need to take a daily drink of His holy Word, have a devotional each morning as we get ready to start our day. We need to ask the Spirit to come in, because Jesus promised that when we pray, God will give us the Holy Spirit.

When people join our church, we pray this blessing upon them. I am going to personalize it for you today.

Gracious Lord, through water and the Spirit you have made me your own. You forgave me all my sins and brought me to newness of life. Continue to strengthen me with your Spirit, and daily increase in me Your gifts of grace, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge, and the fear of the Lord – the Spirit of joy in your presence. Through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord. Amen.

May you this day say once again, Come Lord Jesus, I’m thirsty. He will. Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer

God’s Big Plan for His Family

Ephesians 4:1-6

Our world is filled with things that divide us. For instance, Our world is filled with things that divide us. For instance,

• Political philosophies – are you a Republican or are you a Democrat?
• Racial dividers – skin color can cause a great deal of hurt in this world.
• Class dividers – the amount of income you make separates you from other people. There are the upper, middle class, and lower class with a widening gap between the lower and the upper.
• Gender dividers as women cry out for equal pay and equal opportunities in the business world.
• Generational dividers between young and old. I remember this statement from when I was a teen: “Don’t trust anyone over the age of thirty.” Now it would probably be, Don’t listen to anyone over the age of thirty.

We have constant misunderstandings – dividers – which can cause division, hostility, hatred, inequality, distrust, resentment, and brokenness in our world and in our relationships.

The sad thing is, this was never God’s intention. God’s original intention in Genesis 1 was for us to live in harmony, love God above all things, and love our neighbor. But then sin entered into the picture and blew it all apart. So in Genesis 1 through 11, we find the destruction of God’s perfect world with brokenness and division by the end of chapter 11 – nation against nation, man against woman, brother against brother, heavenly against the earthly. This wasn’t God’s intention.

Years ago I took a course and then taught it at my own church. It was called “Divine Drama,” and it had a wonderful analogy that describes this reality. It goes like this:

Imagine yourself standing on a hill, looking down into a valley at a beautiful mansion. Suddenly a tornado shows up and begins to rip away at the house. There go the shudders; then the chimney begins to crumble down. Then the roof is blown away. Suddenly the walls are crumbling down and the foundation is being chipped away. Before you know, the whole house is wrecked and the tornado moves on. Along comes a figure in the distance. It begins to take the pieces of that house and put it back together again.

This is what’s going on in Scripture. God built this beautiful place. It was destroyed by sin, but God’s plan is to put it all back together again. Paul tells us in the book of Ephesians, “God has made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (1:9-10). God wants to put it all back together again. His goal is for people to be reconciled to Him and to one another as they worship God and love one another. Paul uses the first three chapters of Ephesians to describe the means God uses to make this happen.

First, he talks about Jesus and the cross. You were dead in your sin, but God in his love for you gave us his Son, Jesus Christ who died on a cross to pay for our sinfulness. God raised Him from the grave and promises that all who place their trust in His Son Jesus Christ can be reconciled to God and become His own once again. The relationship can be restored. So we are saved by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:1-6.).

Paul doesn’t stop there. He goes on to talk about the working of the Holy Spirit who calls us together as one community known as the Church, the body of Christ. We know the story from Pentecost – three thousand strangers suddenly became one body through the gospel being preached. They became one, known as the body of Christ, the Church (Eph. 2:11-22). We know that based on the work of Christ, the Spirit calls forth this newly constituted people known as the Church. He makes them a people for His name. He has a high purpose for them.

When I was a kid, I had to memorize most of Luther’s Small Catechism for confirmation; perhaps you did too. Do you remember Martin Luther’s third article of the Apostles’ Creed about the work of the Holy Spirit? “I believe I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts and sanctified and kept me in true faith. In the same way, this Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it united with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.” We are called, gathered by the Holy Spirit, to be the body of Christ.

Some people these days mistrust the church. They have little regard for it, in fact. But I’m saying to you today – that attitude is disrespecting Jesus himself, because the church is a big deal to Him! He talked about the Church; He established it with His disciples, and Scripture says He loved His Church and gave His life for her.

When Jesus was about to go to the cross, He was with His disciples in the Upper Room and gave them a commandment. “This is my commandment – that you love one another as I have loved you. By this all people will know you’re my disciples” (John 13:34-35). He wanted them together as a community, and He wanted people to know that as they loved one another they would awaken to see they are Jesus’ disciples.

A few couple chapters later Jesus prays for those disciples. He says, “Father, I ask that you would keep them together. May they be one . . .” (John 17:21).

Jesus’ vision was not that they would be separated and each go their own way, but operate as one body, loving one another. Paul picks up this truth in Ephesians. The Church is a major player as the family of God in God’s restoration. Our harmony, our unity, and our life together is a must! So Paul opens Ephesians by saying, “I am so thankful to hear of your love for everyone in your Church” (1:15). He also talks about the cross of Jesus. “For Christ Jesus is our peace. In his flesh, he has made both groups into one – Jews and Gentiles. He has broken down the dividing walls between us. He has taken away the hostility between us. Through him both parties have access in one Spirit to the Father” (2:14, 18).

Jesus came into this world and died on a cross not only to reconcile us to God but to bring us together as one. He tore down the walls of hostility and prejudice so we might be one in Him. One family, loving one another, taking care of one another.

Later on in today’s passage, Paul talks about our foundation. We have this common ground. It is all built on this oneness. He uses seven ones.

One Spirit lavished upon us – the Holy Spirit. He has awakened us to Christ and given us regeneration (made us new). He is growing us in our relationship with Jesus.

One body. We are all one with each another. Every part matters. We belong together.

One Lord, Jesus Christ.

One hope – the inheritance of heaven. The day will come when I will die, and you will die. However, we know we are going to heaven. This is our hope, our confidence.

One faith – the gospel of what Jesus Christ has done for us at the cross. As we place our trust in Him, we share in His victory.

One baptism where we enter into the household of faith as we are brought into a relationship with God and adopted into the family.

One God and Father of us all who loves us and is with us. He sees all and knows all. He is with us wherever we are.

This is what makes us one. It is why we are to be one. We may come from different countries, cultures, churches. We have different temperaments, gifts, and interests. Yet we have this in common – the same God, our heavenly Father; the same Jesus Christ as our Savior Lord; and the same Holy Spirit calling us together. He is our indwelling Comforter and Counselor.

Paul spent the first three chapters of Ephesians laying out this great plan of God. He then moves us into chapter 4 and says in our reading for today, “Now, therefore, (since you know about this great plan, and God has done these great things in your life), I beg of you – I beg of you – to live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (4:1).

We have this high calling. You are the body of Christ through the Holy Spirit. Now be His body so you will shine for the world around you and attract others to Christ as they see you loving God and one another. We are in essence in public relations for the kingdom of God. God is counting on us to get along! If you get nothing else out of this sermon, listen to this again: God is counting on us in the Church to get along if we are to be effective instruments in His plan to save this world. 

We play a major role; we’re major players. Think of it, you have this great calling upon your life being connected to a Church, part of God’s plan to save His world through the unity we display as the body of Christ. When people are being loved, word gets out. The reality is, people are attracted like moths to light. As we’re loving one another, people will notice.

I hold a wonderful statement by theologian called Karl Barth close to my heart. It reminds me of what the Church is to be. “The Church is called to be a provisional display of God’s original intention.” I would add to this: The Church is called to be a provisional display of God’s future intentions. Everyone gathered around Jesus Christ, loving God and loving one another. Every knee bowed and every tongue confessing Jesus is Lord, as Paul gives us in the book of Philippians. It doesn’t matter what your background may be, the color of your skin, or what your income statement reads. We are one in Jesus Christ.

This also applies to the Christian home. We are small congregations in our homes, lighthouses in the neighborhood. I love a statement by Dr. David Mason, a marriage counselor, made. He said, “By their gracious influence, Christian homes win more converts than all the preachers put together.” Ouch!

He goes on to say, “Give us enough of them and the world would soon be a Christian world, for the world’s life rises to higher levels only as its homes do.” Paul tells us, “Make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). We are to be unifiers, not dividers.

When people want to join our church, they take a new member’s class where we lay out what the church wants to do for them. During the last part of our class, I say to them, “Now you know what we can do for you. We want you to understand that you are entering into a covenant with us, and there are expectations for the family members here. At the top of the list is unity. You are to be a person who loves, who doesn’t gossip about other people, who forgives, and is a team player.”

Unity means everything! It is at the top of the list. People don’t want to be involved with churches where there’s fighting. They get enough of that from the rest of the world. We are to be a light, an oasis.

I love a statement E. Stanley Jones made many years ago. He said, “Everybody who belongs to Christ belongs to everybody who belongs to Christ.” We belong to one another. We are to be unified!

Paul, in our passage today, lists some ingredients for us to maintain the unity of the Spirit we have been given. He tells us to exercise these things in our relationships, in our church communities, and in our homes. Use a lot of humility. Humility is nothing more than a servant-like attitude. Pride and ego have to be set aside. In the church, there really is no place for prima donnas or people who are more concerned about personal preferences than about the body of Christ and its cause. This person knows the ground is flat at the foot of the cross, and we are all sinners saved by grace. We are called by Jesus to wash each other’s feet, and we need to work together humbly.

Years ago, The Atlantic Monthly published an article about The Three Tenors – Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti who were performing in Los Angeles. When a reporter tried to press the issue of competitiveness among the three men, Domingo said, “You have to put all your concentration into opening your heart to the music. You can’t be rivals when you’re together making music.” Dear brothers and sisters, this is also true in the Church.

Paul also ties gentleness in with humility. It literally means “meekness,” which is strength under God’s control, or controlled by God. It is the opposite of self assertiveness and running over other people. It is a willingness to see even tough people for being permitted by God to come into my life for my own purification, my own spiritual discipline, to grow me in love.

Paul also mentions patience, which means long-tempered, showing self-restraint, and hoping for improvement in relationships you’re struggling with.

Paul finally ties it with up with “bearing one another in love.” Living and enduring difficult people. Some people in the church and in our homes can drive us absolutely nuts. Amen? I remember a statement someone shared with me one time. “The Church is the light of the world. But remember, light attracts bugs. Some people really bug us.” We are to have an enduring love, seeing them as Christ sees them – on their way to heaven, just like you and me. They are to be loved and served.

You might be feeling like, I can’t do this kind of thing! I mean, my pride gets so easily wounded. I have an ego the size of a football field, and I am so impatient with folks. I have a very rough edge. Loving and that kind of stuff is just too hard for me. 

Listen, the same Holy Spirit who called you into His family and unified you with others is here to help you and me keep it together. He does not want us to fail. We will never achieve perfection this side of heaven. We know that! But as you call on the Holy Spirit in prayer, as you study God’s Word and apply it in your lives, and as you obey the words of Jesus, the Spirit will shape you and mold you into the image of Jesus Christ. He will turn you into a unifier: a humble, long-suffering, forbearing servant of Christ and others, attracting other people into the kingdom.

That, my dear friends, is what God’s big plans are for his family. Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer

Get a Grip on Citizenship

Matthew 22:15-22

With America’s Independence Day celebration just around the corner, I thought it would be appropriate to look at getting a grip on citizenship and how Christians are to relate to government and country. We’re going to talk about politics and religion today. With America’s Independence Day celebration just around the corner, I thought it would be appropriate to look at getting a grip on citizenship and how Christians are to relate to government and country. We’re going to talk about politics and religion today.

These days politics and religion are hot topics. Maybe they always have been. It can be wise to avoid bringing these subjects up at social gatherings, because they can make for some very lively conversations. People have strong opinions about these things, and rooms can get heated fast. If you want to see real fireworks, ask about how politics and religion work together. Yet I think it is important to have an understanding of how a follower of Jesus lives out their life in relationship to government. What does God expect from us? What does He want?

If you are a Christian, you know that those of us who know and trust Jesus are described in the New Testament as aliens, exiles, strangers on earth, citizens of heaven, and ambassadors for Christ. We have a dual citizenship working in our lives. So how does a citizen of God’s kingdom conduct himself as a citizen of the nation? Jesus has some great answers for us in Matthew 22.

As you probably know, Jesus had very strong opposition to His earthly ministry. Religious authorities like the Pharisees and Sadducees didn’t know what to make of Him. They didn’t particularly like Him. They saw Him as trouble. Other groups, like the Herodians in the story today, were a type of quisling group who worked quietly in the background with the Roman government. They didn’t like Jesus either. He was popular with the people, which worried the authorities. So they were constantly trying to wreck His ministry by questioning Him and challenging His authority. They wanted to destroy Him.

In today’s passage, we find these groups attempting to trick Jesus and make Him look bad. They challenge Him with a question about politics and religion. First of all, notice who it is that brings the question: the Herodians and the Pharisees who didn’t even like each other. They were on opposite ends of the spectrum from one another in terms of agreeing on anything, but they didn’t like Jesus even more. So they got together to knock Jesus off.

They open their approach with some flattery, perhaps to catch Jesus off guard, before they went in for the kill with their question. They describe Him as one with integrity and moral courage, who knows and teaches the ways of God. It’s only sweet talk. But then comes the tough question to discredit Jesus in the eyes of the people or to get Him in trouble with the Roman government. “Jesus, is it lawful for us as God’s people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Should we or shouldn’t we pay taxes? Here is where a little background would help.

Paying that tax, which is one of three taxes, was a very sensitive issue of the day for the Jewish people. First of all, they hated Rome because Rome had taken over their land and was pushing them around. They were in subservience to Rome. That was bad enough, but then the Romans insisted on taxing them to keep the infrastructures going. And to make matters worse, the coinage used to pay this poll tax had an image of Caesar on it declaring his divinity and his being a great high priest. It was propaganda that was offensive and blasphemous to the Jewish people who followed the one true God and His command of not making images.

So these opponents of Jesus, when they brought this question to Him, thought they had Him cornered. If He says to pay the tax, the haters of Rome, which is 99% of the Jewish population, would now view Him as unpatriotic and unfaithful to God, and they would turn on Him. But if He says, don’t pay it, the Roman authorities would say, Destroy Him! Arrest Him for sedition and inciting people to break the law. Well, Jesus, knowing their intent, responds by calling for that very coin used for the tax, a silver Roman denarius. He knew what was on it. He also knew these people were hypocrites. They would have one – this unclean coinage. They were using it.

Then He asked, “Whose head, whose inscription is on this coin?” Whose portrait is there? Who does this coin belong to? It’s Caesar’s. Then His statement: Give to Caesar what’s Caesar’s and give to God what’s God’s. End of conversation. They’re amazed. Jesus has escaped their intentions. They left Him and went their way to plot for the next round.

But there’s more to Jesus’ statement than mere intellectual and witty debating skills. His statement lays the foundation for the Christian perspective on exercising one’s citizenship. We are going to look at principles found in these words for those of us who are citizens of God’s kingdom.

Jesus is telling us, first of all, to be a responsible, good citizen where you are. Pay the tax.

William Barclay, a Bible scholar I look up to, writes, “Every Christian has a double citizenship. He is a citizen of the country of the world in which he happens to live. To that country he owes many things. He owes the safety against lawless men, which only settled government can give. He owes all public services to the state. The Christian has a duty to the nation for the privileges the nation brings to him.”

Jesus seems to be implying here that respect and honor is due to the authority of the government as He recognizes Caesar’s authority. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”

Actually, it makes sense. It is possible to see government as a gift. It keeps things together, holds things together. We need law and order. Modern day Egypt is an example of what can happen when anarchy rules. What a mess!

Paul picks up on the theme Jesus gives us in Romans 13:1. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Government is God’s idea. In I Timothy 2:1-2 Paul says, “First, I urge that supplications, prayers, and intercessions, thanksgivings be made for all people, for Kings, and for all who are in high positions that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” Pray for those in authority, Paul says, that they may maintain order and uphold the law so we can live peacefully. Jesus seems to be saying as well that allegiance to God and government is not necessarily incompatible.

It is possible to show allegiance to a lesser authority because that authority has been instituted by a higher authority to whom we always answer first – God. So it is possible to be a good Christian and a good American simultaneously. Patriotism is a good thing as long as it doesn’t become idolatry, putting things above God. We are reminded in this passage that God and government are overlapping – yet distinct – spheres. Jesus talks about both of them as realities.

When Jesus came into this world and opened His ministry, He said, “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news.” Later, as He was standing trial, Pilate says, What have you done that these people are so angry with you? Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world.” I’m not what they expected. Jesus didn’t come to establish a new earthly government, a theocracy. He came to establish God’s kingdom, a new reality.

We know that one day the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our God. Until then, we have these distinct, overlapping spheres. Jesus is Lord, but His reign will come in its fullness at the end of the age. While we wait for that great day to happen, you and I live as responsible citizens where God has placed us – obeying the laws, serving our nation, participating and making it work. But always with this in mind: the state is not God.

Jesus is saying that too. These two kingdoms are not one in the same. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s; give to God what is God’s. The state, the government is not God. It is not divine. Human government is run by human beings and can easily be influenced by sin and greed. It is corrupt and less-than-perfect. It’s not divine.

The final implication, then, is that God and state are not equals, according to Jesus. We declare as much in the Pledge of Allegiance. We are one nation under God. We owe our ultimate allegiance, our very lives to God. So when we talk of love of God and country, and duty to God and country, we remember that as followers of Christ we keep that order – God and country. The power of the state is legitimate but it is limited. It’s not God. We are bound to His will ultimately over everything else. We see that played out in the New Testament. Peter and John were told by the authorities not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus. But they replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God.” (Acts 4).

Recently I was watching a movie about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a great Christian martyr during World War II, and his involvement with trying to get rid of the evil leader, Adolf Hitler. During his interrogation, he quoted Romans 13, about submitting to the authorities. Bonhoeffer’s conscience was bound to a higher power. He held his own. His higher power was God.

Martin Luther King said the Church must be reminded that it’s not the master or the servant of the state but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, never its tool. God, then country. Giving God His due is always more important to the Christian than giving Caesar his due. Why can I say that? Because remember, Jesus asked, “Whose portrait is on this coin?” They said, “Caesar’s,” which means it belonged to Caesar. That word portrait is literally image, the Greek word icon. “Then give back what belongs to Caesar the things that are his – the coin, the honor, the respect due.” Interestingly enough, the word image is used the same word used to describe God creating human beings. “In His own image” (Genesis 1:27). We belong to Him. God’s image is on you and me. So when Jesus says give back to God what is His, He’s talking about YOU! Your whole self, all of you. He demands it all. A life of worship and devotion. Give back the coin that bears Caesar’s image. Give it back to Caesar, Jesus says. You bear God’s image! Give yourself back to God, holding nothing from Him.

I love this statement: “If it is an offense to withhold taxes from the United States treasury, how much more offensive is it to withhold what should be rendered to the One who made you, from the King of the universe, the One whose image is stamped upon you? You might be able to hide a few things from the IRS, but you cannot hide from God. You belong to Him. Give God all of who you are. He wants you. He came after you as His own, to bring you home to Himself when you were lost in your sinfulness. He gave His perfect, obedient Son to die on a cross to pay the penalty for your sins. Give yourself over to Christ. Come home to God.”

I would also say this: if you are in Christ, you been bought with a price. His inscription is written all over you. You are a free child of God. In response to that gift, use your life to His honor, loving Him above all things, loving Him with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.
When you think about it, this statement of Jesus was His personal platform from which He operated Himself. His program of obedience as a citizen of the kingdom honoring God and government. However, His ultimate allegiance was carrying out the will of God, even being willing to go to a cross to save the likes of you and me. Wow!

God, then country. Keep that order. Be a responsible citizen of this great land in which we live. But remember where your ultimate allegiance lies – with the One who made you in His image and redeemed you through His Son Jesus Christ. May His will be done in our lives and in this country. God owns you. His image is on you. You have been bought for eternity.

Give the government (Caesar) the coins, the respect, and the service that is due. But give God yourself without boundaries.

God and country – in that order. Amen.

Rev. Steve Kramer