Time to Grow Up

Luke 2:39-52

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

What do you want to be when you grow up? We often ask that question of children. But if it is asked of us as adults, we might be perplexed, unless the question were directed to the spiritual part of our lives. Are you spiritually all grown up?

Have you ever met someone who never grew up? Their body aged, they found a job, got married, and had a family, but emotionally they were immature, irresponsible, undisciplined, undependable, self-centered, underdeveloped. I wonder sometimes if God’s people in Christ’s Church are Peter Pan Christians. Remember what he said, “I’ll never grow up.”

We might not consciously say it, but the reality of how we live floating in our spiritual lives without a committed intentionality of maturing has the same result. We never fully develop into the people God created us to be. In Philippians chapter 3, Paul said, “I want to know Jesus Christ and the power of His resurrection. I press on that I may lay hold of that for which I was laid hold of by Christ.”

A parable is told of an American Indian who stole an eagle’s egg and put it in the nest of a prairie chicken. The eaglet hatched with the brood of chicks and grew up with them. All his life this changeling eagle thought he was a prairie chicken. He did what prairie chickens did. He scratched in the dirt for seeds and insects to eat. He clucked and cackled. He flew in brief thrashing of wings and flurry of feathers no more than a few feet off the ground. After all, that’s how prairie chickens fly.

Years passed and the changeling eagle grew very old. One day he saw a magnificent bird far above them in the cloudless sky hanging with graceful majesty on the powerful wind currents. The bird soared with scarcely a beat of his strong, golden wings. “What a beautiful bird!” said the changeling eagle to his neighbor. “What is that?”

“Oh, that’s an eagle, the chief of birds,” the neighbor clucked. “But don’t give it a second thought. You could never be like him.” So the changeling eagle never gave it another thought, and he died acting and thinking he was a prairie chicken.

God has given us new birth by faith in Jesus Christ intending for us to grow up to become fully developed men and women of faith impacting the world for the sake of God’s kingdom.

Today we read the story of Jesus at age twelve in the Temple. He had been separated from his parents for a few days. Jesus is discussing the things of God with the scholars, theologians, and spiritual leaders of His time. I think we can learn a number of key truths about spiritual maturity from this story of Jesus.

The first truth is, when we seek God, He will open our heart and mind. After all, discipleship means learning from the Master. It includes a receptivity to learn and a seeking to understand. God doesn’t want churches filled with parrots – people who speak the correct truth, know the creeds, the doctrines of the church but never understand their impact for life or apply those profound truths to our real life ethics. Wisdom is the application of knowledge. C. S. Lewis once wrote, “I talk of love – a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek – but, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.” Better an honest cynic wrestling with the tough questions of life related to suffering or sickness or death or tragedy in the light of an all-loving God than an apathetic pew sitter who never invites God’s Spirit to lead him on a daily basis.

I think about Joni Eareckson Tada, who as a young teenage girl had a diving accident and has lived her whole life from a wheelchair. She has gone on to write multiple books and is well sought after as a Christian speaker – even a singer. The impact she has had to share how faith and suffering go together and her insights into how God is alive and at work in a world because of her unique journey of suffering!

So Jesus is in the Temple surrounded by scholars, teachers, and religious leaders. He takes seriously the faith traditions without being bound to them. He’s not a lone wolf pioneering His own course. He is seeking God among God’s people. He listens to their wisdom, their experiences, and their convictions, but then He filters them through His own knowledge and conviction as the Child of God. Our first truth toward spiritual maturity: Seek God with an open heart and mind.

The second quality of journeying toward spiritual maturity is to enter into the discipline and rhythm of the Word of God and worship. Romans 10:17 says, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ.” Jesus is in the Temple to worship and hear the Word of God. He’s not there begrudgingly or tuned out about what the experience means. He’s delighted to be in God’s presence and worship, like a flowering blossom stretches to the light. The psalmist said, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’” Vince Lombardi once had this to say: “The man who is on top of a mountain didn’t fall there.” He means that to get to the top of the mountain takes commitment and effort. We need to enter into the rhythm and discipline of the Word of God and worship to meet God where He’s promised to be.

When Moses came down from the mountaintop, his face was glowing from having been in the presence of God. The Jewish ruling council, according to Acts chapter 4, took note that Peter and John had been with Jesus. Like the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites who gathered manna every day, there is an ongoing dependence to interface and receive from God daily.

Each of you has potential, a God-given ability. It is a gift of God, but it must be developed, trained. It must be coached and disciplined to become all God intended for you to be. The second quality toward spiritual maturity: Enter into the rhythm and discipline of the Word of God and worship.

The third quality in the journey toward spiritual maturity is to surrender to authority and live in obedience. After Jesus’ three-day separation from His parents, when Mary found Jesus in the Temple, she anxiously said to Him, “Your father and I have been looking for you.”

Jesus replied, “Didn’t you know I had to be about my Father’s business,” meaning His heavenly Father. Yet the story says clearly that Jesus submitted to their position with respect. He went with them back to Nazareth and in subjection, in obedience to them. At times it must’ve been hard. Jesus knew all things, yet He obeyed His parents.

Now we can apply this truth to boys and girls living under the authority of their parents. Even if they think their parents are wrong, they’re not entitled to rebel or disobey or disregard their parents’ voice. The fourth commandment says, “Honor your father and mother that you may live long in the land of the Lord your God.” It’s also true of students at school and of employees in the workplace living with a difficult teacher or boss or coach. Unless they order us to violate our own faith in God, we live under their authority. Jesus learned obedience as if it were submitting to God Himself. It’s an inseparable part of spiritual maturity, and it was critical to Jesus’ mission.

It is also true of us in the authority of the Word of God, the Scriptures. It is not easy to always live in obedience to God’s Word. It means that we, as people, often live radically counter culturally to the society in which we live, and yet God asks us to live in surrender to His authority, in obedience to Him. The third quality toward spiritual maturity: Surrender to God’s authority; live in obedience.

The fourth quality is to sink our roots deep into the love of God. Jesus knew who His Father was, where He had come from, and where He was going. He knew His purpose, His calling, His identity. He knew the One to whom He would always belong, and He sunk His roots into that identity as He lived His mission.

I have a picture in my pastor’s office of my father Oscar Laaveg’s seminary class in 1940. It was at Luther Seminary at Gullixson Hall in St. Paul, Minnesota with his classmates and professors. It hangs in my study as a reminder of my heritage, the seed bed of my faith, and how I am firmly rooted in Jesus Christ.

I cherish that gift from my parents. I was raised in a home that loved Jesus Christ and taught me about Him. Who could forget a mother kneeling by their bedside, laying hands on their body, and asking Jesus to anoint and heal?

It also reminds me of truths like the Word Alone, Grace Alone, and Faith Alone. Haven’t you seen a singular tree standing on the open prairie, withstanding the storms and the elements through the years? Growing ever taller, it towers over the prairie below. The secret is it’s deep roots in soil. Colossians 2:6-7 says, “As you’ve received Christ Jesus the Lord, so live in Him firmly rooted and built up in Him in your faith.” Our roots sink deep into the love and grace of the Lord Jesus. The fourth quality of spiritual maturity: Sink your roots deep into God’s love.

The fifth quality is to embrace the responsibility of doing our Father’s business. Nothing could detour Jesus from the purpose in His life His Father had given Him. There is a story of an American visiting France. He came to the place where a large church was being erected. He approached three stonemasons on that job site, one after the other and asked, “What are you doing?”

The first one said, “I’m cutting stone.”

The second one said, “I’m working for a few francs a day.”

But the third one said, “I’m helping to build a great cathedral.”

Whatever your work, whatever your life journey, you are to be about your heavenly Father’s business in the name of Jesus Christ. Jesus, from the cross, said, “It is finished.” He meant He had completed His Father’s business.

When I was a pastor in North Dakota, I taught confirmation to a young boy who had cerebral palsy. His name was John. We had delightful sessions together. One week when we met for our teaching time, I asked John what was his favorite thing to do in the world. Without blinking an eye he said, “Clean the barn on Saturday mornings.”

“Really?” I said. “You mean, shovel manure out of the barn?”

“Yup! I get to work beside my father.”

It was his joy to work side-by-side with his father, whatever the task. The joy was his relationship with his father.The fifth quality of spiritual maturity: embrace the responsibility of doing our Father’s business.

  • We are to grow up as the people of God.
  • We are to seek the things of God with an open heart and an open mind.
  • We are to discipline ourselves in the rhythm of worship and the Word.
  • We are to surrender to authority and live in obedience.
  • We are to sink our roots deep into the love of God.

Most of all, we are saved by Jesus Christ to not only be forgiven, but also to be set apart, to be about our Father’s business.

Time to grow up! Amen.

Pastor Lee Laaveg

What Kind of a World Are We Living In?

Mark 1:9-15

An acquaintance of mine told me he was not going to watch the news anymore because it was too upsetting and ruined his days. We are sometimes taken aback as we observe what goes on in our world. We open our newspapers or turn on the news and see violence and hatred, racism and opioid addictions, suicides, immorality, self-centeredness, crooked politics, calamities, tragedies and injustice – the list goes on and on. It’s a little overwhelming. We might even go so far as to look inside of ourselves where we discover that we are also the problem.

I remember a story I read about G. K. Chesterton, a great Christian writer. The newspaper had written a question, “What’s wrong with this world in which we live?” Chesterton wrote a letter to the editors. He said,
Dear Sirs:
I am.
Signed,
G. K. Chesterton.

We ask with a sense of disappointment, What kind of a world are we living in? Our Scripture reading for today offers some valuable insights. In a rather subtle way, it describes the kind of world that greeted Jesus as He began His ministry.

When Jesus stepped out of the Jordan River after being baptized by John the Baptist and commissioned into service by His heavenly Father, we see Him stepping into a dark, demonic world. We observe Him in battle, right off the bat, with the prince of darkness – Satan – out in the wilderness for forty days. He was tempted by Satan who sought to undo Him, derail Him from completing His mission. Satan and his minions saw Jesus as the Divine Invader.

Later in the chapter, we see the demons cry out, “We know who you are, Jesus. You are the holy One of God.” When Jesus was accused of being Beelzebub (Satan), Jesus referred to Himself as the strong man who came to plunder Satan’s house.

Satan continues attacking Him throughout the Gospel, even using Jesus’ disciples to stop His mission to the cross. When Peter says, You don’t have to go to the cross, Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan. You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things, selfish things.”

I’m reminded of the Christian apologist C. S. Lewis’ quote on this subject. He said, “There is no neutral ground in the universe. Every inch is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan.” So first off, we see Jesus stepping into a dark, demonic world.

Next, we see Him stepping into a hostile world. It is hostile to God. How do we know this? Verse 14 reads, “Now after John was arrested . . .” meaning John the Baptist. It would be unwise for us to just zip by that statement without giving it some thought and reflection. Jesus hears that John the Baptist, this man of God chosen by God, was arrested by the hostile powers in place, namely King Herod, for questioning the King’s character and bringing to light the King’s sinfulness in his marriage. John also pointed to One greater than himself that was to come and save Israel. Herod was hostile to Him, as well.

Later, Herod would have John beheaded. He watched his stepdaughter in a seductive dance, and said to her in his drunkenness, “Ask me for anything and it’s yours.” She said, “Bring me the head of John the Baptist,” which he did. Such evil!

This little statement reminds us of worldly powers that seek to control people for personal gain and are threatened when their power, authority, and integrity are called into question, even in the name of God. They will silence that voice. They silenced John.

In this assertion about John’s arrest, by the way, is some anticipation of the fate of the Greater One to come, which he preached about, meaning Jesus. It’s almost like the faint rumblings of a threatening storm ahead; the same will happen to Jesus.

Jesus went to Galilee proclaiming the Good News of God knowing full well the kind of world He was facing. He knew what lay ahead. This world would be unkind and hostile toward Him. Ahead of Him lay rejection, cruelty, opposition, conspiracy, disappointment, unfaithfulness, loneliness, and a cross. In fact, three times Jesus would tell His disciples this horrible prediction about how it was all going to end for Him. That is the kind of world into which Jesus stepped after His baptism and His commissioning. It could be dark, hostile, rejecting, violent, self-serving, confused, mixed-up, blind, and hurting – not all that different from our own.

Yet, after John was arrested, Jesus came. He came proclaiming the Good News of God. His message was simply this: God has not abandoned His sin-sick world, but was going to rescue it. His kingdom, His rule over this world was now breaking in through Jesus. God’s about to do something big. Repent and believe. Jesus would suffer and be rejected. He would die a cruel death on a cross and then rise victoriously again. The dark, demonic, hostile world in which Jesus stepped was so. Yet, He came.

Don’t you find His actions amazing, courageous, and heroic? The apostle Paul did. Listen to his words in Romans,

“For while we were still weak, Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die – but God proved his love for us in that while we were still sinners (while we were still enemies), Christ died for us” (5:6-8).

This is the first answer to our question – What kind of a world are we living in? Yes, it can be dark and sinful, as we’ve seen, but it is a loved world. Behind our Savior’s first step into the battle is love – sacrificial, selfless love. John tells us in his Gospel, “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (3:16). While we were still enemies, Christ came and died for us. Jesus came after the arrest of John motivated by love for the world.

Ernest Gordon gives us a powerful example of sacrificial love in his book about World War II, Miracle on the River Kwai. A group of British soldiers, taken prisoner by the Japanese, were working on a railroad. At the end of the day, the tools were counted and the Japanese guard announced that one of the shovels was missing. He strode back and forth in front of the prisoners charging that the shovel had been stolen by one of them and sold to the Thais. He demanded that the guilty man step forward and admit his crime. However, no one did. So the guard yelled that he was going to kill them all. He pulled back the bolt on his gun and pushed it forward again, loading the gun, and aimed at the first man in the lineup. At that moment a young Scottish soldier stepped forward, stood stiffly at attention, and said, “I did it.” The guard kicked the soldier in the shin and spit in his face. The young Scotsman made no sound. Then the guard lifted his rifle by the barrel end and using it like a sledgehammer, came down on the soldier’s skull. The soldier slumped to the ground under the blow’s fatal impact. His fellow prisoners picked up their comrade’s body and carried it back to camp.

Later, when the shovels were recounted at the guardhouse, not one was missing. “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends,” John’s Gospel tells us. What if the young Scotsman had not stepped forward? Would there have been a bloodbath?

The punches of evil had humanity reeling and going down for the full count, but at the right moment, Jesus stepped into the ring and made it His fight. What if He had not been there? The Good News is, He was. He was there because He loved us.

At the bottom line of this passage is another truth, which can be our comfort and strength. It is this: Not only is this a loved world, this is God’s world and no one else’s. As Jesus came proclaiming “the time is fulfilled,” God is in charge of history. He acted to reconcile the world He created to Himself. He did that through His Son, Jesus Christ.

At the end of the Gospel story, who wins the battle? Jesus Christ! It is a resurrection victory, a proclamation of sorts, that this is My Father’s world. It’s like the hymn says,

“This is my Father’s world.
O, let me ne’er forget,
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.”

This is our good news, our comfort, and our strength. He holds this world in the palm of His hand, and nothing is going to snatch it away from Him. The victory has been won. Sure, there may still be evil, and violence, and all kinds of threatening actions around us, but let us remember that we live in the midst of what you might call “mop up” operations. The battle continues. Just as He said, “In this world, you will have tribulation. But fear not! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Christ is Lord. The One who went into action after John was arrested, went out of love for you and me, for this whole world. He won the victory. He accomplished His mission. And He has promised that, at the end of history, He will appear again in glory and majesty and claim it as His own forever and ever. This is the kind of world in which we live. It is God’s world. It is a loved world.

What do we do with these two truths – this is a loved world, and it is God’s world? Two things.

First, act on what our text tells us. As Jesus announces God is drawing near, He says in light of this news, “Repent and believe the Good News of God.”

To repent means a radical conversion of sorts. Turn away from all that is contrary to God and surrender your life to Him. He gets your allegiance from this day forward.

To believe implies a radical confidence in Him, an unconditional turning toward God’s gospel in complete trust ultimately trusting Jesus Christ for life, life eternal. The promise is this, my dear friends: You will be saved and forgiven. You will be given eternal life and belong to Him forever.

Next, as followers of Jesus Christ, let us go on to be of good courage and not despair over the state of affairs in our world. We know the end of the story. When all is said and done, Jesus wins. He is the winner! Those who trust in Him are His own. I may not know what the future holds, but I know the One who holds the future.

I love Paul’s words from Romans 8:38, 39. I challenge you to memorize them. Keep them in your heart, and pull them out in times of discouragement.

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword? No! In all these things, we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us! For I am convinced that neither death nor life nor angels nor rulers nor things present nor things to come nor powers nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

This is our good news for today! Believe it. Trust it. Live it. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

Good News for the Unqualified

John 1:43-51

I was talking with a friend a few months ago about an interesting job opening in a company that she really wanted to work for, and I said, ‘Why don’t you apply for it?” She said, “Because I’m not sure I am qualified for the job.” And so she didn’t apply. She knew we live in a qualification-conscious society.

In the business world bosses are looking for qualified candidates with the right credentials in education, background, and skill set. In the athletic world, coaches look for the most qualified, proven players in order to put together a winning team. This is true even in the world of the church. My home church just put together a search team to find our next pastor. They have a list of qualifications as they search for that individual.

All this emphasis on qualifications sometimes can leave people feeling less than adequate and not so good about themselves or their place in the whole scheme of things. Maybe even feel a little stuck and useless.

Scripture has an encouraging lesson for us today as we observe Jesus in the beginning stages of His mission. He is recruiting disciples to join Him in His mission. In our story today, we find Jesus choosing two men to be His disciples. His choices – Philip and Nathanael – are surprising because as we closely examine them, we find they lacked the qualifications one would think were necessary to be on the Savior’s salvation team.

Look at the first character, Philip. As we do some research on him, we don’t find much. Not to be confused with deacon Philip in the book of Acts; Matthew, Mark, and Luke just use his name in the listing of the twelve disciples. He doesn’t stand out; he’s not a rising star. He seems to be a quiet, in-the-background, ordinary, unimpressive sort.

John’s Gospel is where we find some information about Philip. He was from Bethsaida, in Galilee, which means he probably was already friends with Peter, Andrew, and Nathanael. He could’ve been a fisherman, which doesn’t exactly qualify him to reach people for Christ.

We know he was religious, because he was seeking God. He was Jewish even though his name was Greek meaning “lover of horses.” We know he knew his Old Testament Scriptures as we see him telling Nathanael about his discovery of the Messiah who would come and save the world. I found Him! he says.

After this calling in John chapter 1, we don’t hear a lot about Philip. What we do hear about him is not all that impressive. He always seems to be in over his head. For instance, in John chapter 6 – the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand – Jesus asks Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” John, in an editorial comment, said, “Jesus said this to test Philip.” He already knew what Philip was going to do; Jesus was testing his faith.

Since Philip had watched Jesus turn ordinary water into gallons of wine and heal all kinds of people, one would think Philip have said, We can feed them, but instead Philip responds, “Impossible! I’ve done the mental calculations. It would take six months wages to feed them. We can’t feed these people.” Then Andrew steps up with a little boy who had five loaves and two fishes for Jesus to use. He blesses the food and five thousand people are fed. It seems to be a lack of faith in Jesus and His ability to do the supernatural that is at work in Philip. He’s not really all that promising, wouldn’t you agree?

In John 12, some Greeks who wanted to see Jesus came to Philip, perhaps because his name was Greek. He thought to himself, I suppose, These people are non-Jews. We’ve never handled a situation like this. What should I do? I don’t want Jesus to be mad. It would set a bad precedent if I brought them. So instead of introducing them to Jesus as they had asked, he had Andrew handle it. Again, it appears that Philip was feeling over his head, indecisive, and afraid.

In John 14, the disciples are in the Upper Room on the night before Jesus went to the cross to pay for our sins. They are afraid, but Jesus tells them not to be troubled. A place has prepared for them in His Father’s house. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by Him. Then He says, “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on, you do know Him and have seen Him.”

Philip, of all things, says, “Show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” He seems to be looking for some heavenly vision of sorts even after all the signs Jesus had given them along the way.

Jesus responded, “Philip, all this time, and you still don’t know me? He who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’ Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” Philip seems to be a little slow on the draw in this episode. He didn’t catch on as to who Jesus really is, and Jesus sounds a little disappointed in his response. You almost wince as you read it. That’s Philip!

So what did Jesus see in him? True, he knew some Scripture. True, he was a seeker of God and the Messiah. True, he didn’t keep Jesus to himself, but took the news to his friend. True, he was persistent. When Nathanael questioned him, Philip was wise enough not to argue but simply said, “Come and see for yourself.” But with all we know about him now, we have to wonder what Jesus saw in this ordinary, unimpressive person.

Jesus knew unqualified people can be changed and transformed into great people of God. After three years in a learning relationship with Jesus, getting to know Him and learning what it means to be a member of the kingdom of God, Philip could impact the world positively for the kingdom. This is what Jesus believed – God has the ability to take raw, unpromising, unqualified material and transform it into people He can use in great ways.

Such is the case with Philip! According to Christian tradition, after the resurrection and Pentecost, Philip went on to have a huge impact for Jesus Christ in the kingdom of God in Asia. He died as a martyr for the cause of the gospel.

I find Philip’s story with Jesus rather encouraging, don’t you? His story is a testimony of how Jesus can use the most unlikely, unqualified candidates to impact the world. This is an encouragement to someone like me, because I’m just an ordinary person. I’m not a superstar. I’m a sinner with a history that I’m not particularly proud of. I don’t have all the answers. At times I exhibit small faith; sometimes I’m confused and overwhelmed by situations feeling less than qualified, in way over my head.

Yet, according to Philip’s story, Jesus believes in me. He has a plan for me. He sees the possibilities. He wants me to follow Him and to serve Him in His important rescue enterprise to bring others to Him. He calls me – unqualified as I am – and says, I want you. This is good news for when I’m discouraged with my flaws and shortcomings like Philip’s. I am considered a valuable and promising player on His team. He has plans for me, and He doesn’t give up on me.

A second character in today’s story is Nathanael, also known as Bartholomew in the other Gospels. We find him to be a bit of a skeptic, perhaps even having the sin of prejudice. Listen to his response to Philip’s announcement. Nathanael said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” That little po dunk town, that bunch of losers? Scripture says nothing of Nazareth and the Messiah to come. And Joseph, the carpenter’s, son? Come on! That’s ridiculous!

One has to give Nathanael credit, though. He did come with his friend Philip to see this Jesus for himself. And see him, he did! Jesus wowed him with His omniscient knowledge of him!

We learned, by the way, that Nathanael was a student of Scripture as well. Jesus had seen him reading under the fig tree. How do we know that? That phrase, “I saw you under the fig tree,” was an image of people who pray and meditate on God’s Word in those days. We even know the story he was reading, according to Jesus. He was reading about Jacob fleeing from his brother, Esau – deceitful Jacob. Jesus says to Nathanael, You are without deceit, just the opposite of Jacob. A good character.

Nathanael responded, “Wow! How did you know that? You are the Son of God, the King of Israel.” In other words, you are the Messiah, the one we’ve been waiting for!

Jesus smiled and chuckled and said, You’re impressed by that? Come on! Come with me and you will see greater things. I have plans for you. To both men Jesus said, “Truly, truly I say, you will see the heavens open and the angels descending and ascending upon the Son of man.” Another image from Jacob’s story.

According to Genesis 28, Jacob fell asleep one night and had a vision of the heavens opening. Angels were descending and ascending upon a ladder, a connection between earth and heaven. He received a promise that God had great plans to use him.

Now with Jesus’ image, instead of angels using a ladder, Jesus is telling Nathanael, I am the ladder. “You will see angels descending and ascending upon the Son of Man.” This was Jesus’ favorite way of referring to Himself. I am the connection to God. Heaven and earth will intersect in me, and you see all kinds of things that will amaze you.

Did Jesus keep His word? You bet He did! Nathanael would see Jesus perform amazing signs. Ultimately, Jesus’ promise was referring to the cross where He would die to pay for the sins of you and me to save us. This is where heaven and earth intersected – at the cross. Jesus continually talked of this as His hour of being glorified as He sacrificed Himself for human sin.

Nathanael saw the resurrected Jesus in the Upper Room and on the Sea of Tiberius in John 21. He also saw Jesus glorified and exalted by God as He ascended in authority over the whole world. He saw all that Jesus promised.

But what did Jesus see in Nathanael? He was a skeptic. His intellect could not believe the news Philip had shared. He seemed to have a built-in prejudice. That’s not a healthy thing for a team, yet Jesus seemed to believe He could make a difference in the world by bringing the gospel to others. Jesus knew what He could make of him.

As we look at the list of the Twelve whom Jesus called into ministry, one has to conclude He started His ministry with some very unpromising, raw material. Someone once wrote, “Philip looks before he leaps; Peter leaps before he looks.” Had you and I been members of the search committee inquiring into the qualifications of those who were to become the disciples of Jesus, we would’ve rejected all of them! Yet Jesus chose them. He taught them, trained them, and did great things through all but one of them.

At Pentecost, when they were filled with the fire of His Holy Spirit, these unqualified Twelve were empowered to turn the world upside down for Jesus Christ. Jesus continued His work on them through the Spirit. They still had flaws, shortcomings, sin, and lots of room for growth, but nevertheless these unqualified Twelve began a movement that changed the history of the world.

Therein lies our hope and our encouragement. The risen Christ is still issuing His call today to follow Him. I can still make something out of ordinary, flawed, unqualified people. Just as He took the same negative, skeptical spirit of Nathanael and the slow, unimpressive, small faith of Philip and changed them, He can make changes in you and me. He can make us great people for His cause through the working of the same Holy Spirit who is available to us. He will work in us, shape us, mold us, and conform us into the image of Christ so we will make a difference – unqualified as we may feel.

As we consider this truth from Scripture, a story comes to mind about a young man named Cody. Far from God, he had a messed-up home life. His mom and dad divorced and left him to basically raise himself.

Cody was invited to our youth worship by a friend who wanted him to meet Jesus. He reluctantly went and heard the gospel. Eventually Cody asked Jesus into his life, and he set out to follow Jesus and serve Him.

We watched him grow in his faith. As a senior in high school, he decided to set up a Bible study at their high school in early morning, and he built the attendance to forty young people. Lives were being changed. What qualified this young man? Not really anything, but Jesus used him. Now he is off to college doing the same sort of thing – impacting many for the cause of Christ.

Jesus works like that all the time! He always has because He is amazing! He’s gracious!

Maybe you today feel like no one believes in you. And you don’t blame them because you maybe haven’t proven yourself. But know this: Jesus believes in you. He has plans to do great things in your life, for you, and through you. He is ready, willing, and able. We know this from Scripture.

Where does one start? First, if you have not followed Him before, ask Jesus now to come into your life. Leave behind the old, and trust Him who gave His life for you to rescue you. Ask Him to forgive you and use you to His glory. He will!

The next step is to make a commitment to be His disciple. Go beyond simply being a believer to being a disciple. Live with Him, get to know Him as you read those Gospels. He wants to impact your life as you study, reflect, and apply what He says about living life under His guidance. There so much to take in from Him on living an eternal new kind of life with Him. Be a student, an apprentice of Jesus.

As you yield yourself, surrendering to His leadership, He will make you according to the pattern He has in mind. It will be good, for your own good, and for His glory. As you make yourself available for His service, ask for opportunities to serve Him, and point others to Him, He will give you that, and you will find yourself making a significant, positive impact for God in the lives of those around you.

My dear friends, in this world of qualifications, may this story encourage you. Jesus has great plans for your life. He laid his life down to make you His own. Trust Him. Believe He can use even you. Follow Him. Live with Him, and you will see and experience greater things than you ever imagined. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

Look at What We Got for Christmas!

John 1:1-18

Has anyone asked you yet what you got for Christmas this year? I’ve heard it a lot. My response to the question is, “More than I really needed.”

It’s a funny thing about getting gifts – sometimes we look at them briefly after we open them. We say thanks and then put them away, maybe even forgetting about them only to discover later on how wonderful they really are. Last year I got a flannel shirt, for instance. I didn’t really want a flannel shirt. I said, “Thanks,” pasted a smile on my face, and hung it in the closet. There it just hung for months. This past November when it got cold, I tried it on and discovered it is one of the most comfortable shirts I have ever put on my body! Now I wear it constantly.

Maybe you have received a book that you put on the shelf and forget about. Later on, you pull it off the shelf accidentally, browse the back cover or the first few pages, and discover it looks like a really good book! What a great gift! I think sometimes we just don’t realize what we got until we stop and examine it a little closer.

We just celebrated the birth of Jesus and heard, “God so loved the world that He gave His Son . . .” (John 3:16). Jesus is God’s gift to us. I believe it is good to stop and take a closer look at what we got that first Christmas when Jesus was born. John will serve us today as our guide. His comments on Jesus are really quite different, remarkable, and unique.

You can’t help but notice John’s Christmas story is very different from Matthew and Luke’s. It has no Mary and Joseph or angels or shepherds or Wise Men or manger. Instead, he uses beautiful, poetic-like, theological language in the opening of his Gospel to help us see just how special the gift of Jesus really is. It’s almost as if he has gone out of his way to make it different so the readers won’t miss the positive implications of the gift of Jesus. This is what we got for Christmas! John says.

John tells us, first of all, that in the gift of Jesus, God has given us a picture of Himself. He has revealed Himself to us. Listen again to those great words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Now in that passage, “the Word” means Jesus – the Logos. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

John goes on to say no one has ever seen God. It is God, the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made Him known to us. Jesus is the Son of God in the flesh. There is no more guessing about God. He is a walking autobiography of His heavenly Father.

Later on, Jesus will say to His disciples, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9). As we look at Him and read the Gospels, He displays the heart of God to us. Our God created us in His image. He loves us, and we are precious in His sight. He wants a personal relationship with us. He gives us a picture of God.

I’m reminded of a cute story I heard a while back. A group of first graders got together and decided to write their own version of the Nativity. It was more modern than the traditional drama. There were also familiar members of the cast – Joseph, the shepherds, the Wise Men, the star and an angel propped up in the background, but Mary was nowhere to be seen.

Suddenly from behind some bales of hay could be heard some soft moans and groans. Evidently Mary was in labor. Soon a doctor arrived dressed in a white coat with a stethoscope around his neck. Joseph, with a look of relief on his face, took the doctor straight back to Mary and then came out and started pacing back and forth. After a few moments, the doctor emerged with a big smile on his face. “Congratulations, Joseph!” he said. “It’s a God!” ☺

In Jesus we see the face of God.

In the gift of Jesus we also get light. In fact, we get the light we need as we live in our darkness. You can’t help but notice, it is a dark world out there. It’s full of evil, violence, hurt, and sorrow, and we are in the dark about how to fix it. We need God’s light. He is the only light that can make things right for us.

Later, when Jesus is an adult, He will announce, “I am the light of the world! Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness . . .” (John 8:12). Will never be captive to evil or be blind or ignorant of the way out, but have the light of life. As we turn to Him and follow Him, Christ gives us new sight. “We were blind but now we see,” as the hymn says.

His light shows us our sinfulness, first of all, and our need for a Savior. I remember when Julie, my wife, found a job as a dental assistant my senior year at seminary. Her first day at work, she came home and said, “You wouldn’t believe what people’s faces really look like under the light the dentist uses. I never want to go back again to have my teeth worked on. It shows all the flaws!”

This is what Jesus does. As we come to His light, He shows us we need help. We have flaws; we have sin. Jesus is the lighthouse who guides us safely into His heavenly harbor. We can’t get there on our own. He points us to His cross and then to Himself saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6).

This light brings us confidence and hope for the future. I love verse five of this passage. It says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” We think of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Light of the world, and we know darkness has been defeated. We now live knowing full well what the end of the story looks like. Light wins out over darkness. Good is victorious over evil.

I love what Lutheran writer Gerhard Frost says.

“If I am asked what are my grounds for hope, this is my answer:
Light is lord over darkness, truth is lord over falsehood,
life is ever lord over death.

Of all the facts I daily live with, there’s none more comforting than this:
If I have two rooms, one dark, the other light,
and I open the door between them,
the dark room becomes lighter without the light one becoming darker.
I know this is no headline, but it’s a marvelous footnote;
and God comforts me in that.”

Darkness has not overcome the light.

Finally, the beautiful light of Jesus brings us joy as we look at Him. Listen to this musical testimony:

“Beautiful Savior, King of creation,
Son of God and Son of Man.
Truly I love thee. Truly I’d serve thee.
Light of my soul, my joy, my crown.”

Later on the songwriter says,

“He makes my sorrowing spirit sing.”

He comes alongside of us and gives us His presence – His beautiful presence – and we experience joy in our lives, because God is the true source of joy. In Jesus, we see into the face of God.

In this gift of Jesus, we get grace. “Grace upon grace,” John tells us. In other words, it is inexhaustible! It’s abundant! It just keeps flowing in our direction. This grace looks like forgiveness for our sins. “There is now no more condemnation for those who are in Jesus Christ” (Rom. 8:1). We have been given Christ’s robe of righteousness, and in Christ, God sees us as one of His own – cleansed and pure in His sight. The past is forgiven and forgotten forever. We are right in His sight.

This grace gives us strength for the living of these days. Jesus tells us, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor. 12:9). The apostle Paul reminds us, “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me” (Phil 4:19), for Jesus promised, “Lo, I am with you always to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). His power from on high is breathed into us as we pray, as we call for help, as we turn to His Word daily for guidance and assurance. Christ shows up, and we get His strength.

We also get the free gift of heaven! At the cross and His resurrection, Jesus purchased a place for us in His heaven, and we will live with Him eternally. Death cannot hold us.

From His grace, we get attached to a family – the community of faith, the Church – to support us, love us, and lovingly keep an eye on us as we walk through life with Jesus.

There is your gift from God! This is what God handed over to this world at Christmas when He gave His Son Jesus. Amazing! Incredible!

Now, in the midst of this description, I don’t want you to miss this statement, which we cannot ignore. It’s an appeal of sorts to think about and then act upon. John says “Jesus came to his own but his own people did not receive him.” They rejected Him. “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, He gave the right to become children of God – who were born, not of blood nor the will of the flesh nor the will of man, but of God.”

Did you catch that? To all who receive Him and believe in His name, He gives the right to become children of God. A new birth takes place. We become a new person in Christ. To receive Him means to welcome Him. To believe means to accept that He is the Son of God, the great reconciler to God. To become a child of God means we who once were simply creations of God now become adopted children of God through what He has done for us in Christ. We are blessed with a rich, rich inheritance.

All the things we looked at earlier – getting a picture of God (knowing Him more intimately), light, grace – are ours when we are in Jesus Christ, as we receive Him and welcome Him into our lives.

A personal response is being called for. Are you to that place in your life where you are enjoying this gift God wants you to have? Have you received Him?

You might wonder, How do I do that? It’s really quite simple.

First, admit you are a sinner, and you need to be saved by God’s grace. You can’t save yourself. You need to give up control of your life to Him.

Humbly ask Jesus into your life. Ask Him to forgive you and take over every area of your life.

Then, begin to follow Him and take steps to grow in your relationship with Him, like daily obedience as you read His Word, pray, attend worship services. Serve your brothers and sisters in Christ as well as your neighbors, and depend upon Jesus at all times, even during the darkest times of suffering. Then you will truly begin to love and enjoy this gift that has been given, and you will have His joy within you as you walk with Him the rest of your days right into His eternity.

I have friends who say their biggest regret in life was not receiving the gift of Jesus Christ sooner. Don’t let this be the case for you. He’s knocking on the door. He says, I’ll come in and eat with you and have fellowship with you, and you with me (Rev. 3:20).

As I think about the passage John has given us today, I can’t help but be reminded of a great Christmas carol, the last verse of O Little Town of Bethlehem.

“How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
The dear Christ enters in.”

Perhaps Jesus is knocking on the door of your life today. He wants to come in. Praise God for the great gift of Jesus Christ, which He has given us, and all the blessings that come when we receive this gift into our lives and walk with Him all the way into eternity. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer