How to Pray

Does Jesus Care?

11 Chronicles 7:14-16

The deepest longing of the human heart is to connect with the source of life, with God Himself. Prayer is the language of faith. It is also is the privilege of intimacy with the Lord of the cosmos. If I were to ask you today, How is your prayer life? Most people – whether believers or not – will respond with a sense of guilt. I don’t pray enough, or I don’t pray with passion or I don’t pray correctly as if our technique or our vocabulary are the most important aspects of prayer.

My daddy was a preacher, but my mommy taught me to pray when I was a boy. When I was discouraged or faced some unique circumstance, she would often ask me if I had prayed about it. I would at first resent her question, and then think to myself, “Yes. She’s right. I can pray about it.” She would often say, “Don’t cross your fingers; fold your hands!”

I remember very well one time when I was a young boy and had a high fever with measles. My mom entered my bedroom, knelt by my bed, and laid one hand on my forehead and the other on my heart. She then talked to Jesus about healing my illness as if He were right there beside her on the bed. My daddy was the preacher, but my mom taught me to pray.

It is important to know that II Chronicles 7:14 is set in the celebration and dedication of the glorious Temple of Solomon. In all of II Chronicles 6, Solomon, knowing the fickleness of the human heart and the waywardness of God’s people, gives a group of scenarios and says, If this happens, will you hear us and forgive?
• “If we sin against our neighbor, will you hear us and forgive?”
• “If we disobey you and are defeated by our enemy, will you forgive us, will you hear us and forgive?”
• “If we chase after other gods, will you hear us and forgive?”
All these possibilities are stated with the fear that the grace and patience of God might be exhausted. Therefore, God would no longer answer our prayers or be merciful.

In response to this, God gives a wonderful, powerful invitation to always be people of prayer. “If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray, and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways then I will hear them. I will forgive their sin. I will heal their land.”

First, we learn that we come into the presence of God humbling ourselves, confessing the truth about ourselves before Him. When I pray, I’m often petty and selfish. In fact, I believe I can actually use prayer as a technique to control God, to get Him to fix my life. I become a boss giving orders, and I use prayer as a way to make sure all of life is just as I want it to be. I forget that God is Creator and I am creature. So the first thing we do when we bow before the Lord is to confess our smallness, our dependence, our unworthiness. We humble ourselves before God not demanding things, nor commanding God.

We also turn from our wicked ways. You may think to yourself, I’m not a wicked person. Perhaps I am not grossly immoral, but I want to confess to you that my brain is warped. I am turned in upon myself. The opposite of surrender and submission is self-direction and defiance. The moment I begin on a path of disobedience, I have ceased to seek the heart of Jesus Christ. Then, when I disobey and rationalize my behavior, I’m intrinsically involved in self deception.

Instead I need to turn from my wicked ways and my self-ruled life. I must totally own the responsibility of my wrongdoing. I resolve to stop the wrong behavior that violates God and the people around me. I humble myself, turn from my wickedness, and turn full on to the God who gave me life.

Next, I need to seek God’s face. Scripture is full of verses like Psalm 105:4 – “Seek the Lord and his strength. Seek God’s face continually.” Biblical scholars comment that often in prayer we seek God’s hands, but not His face. We come to God in prayer asking Him to do something for us, or to give us something rather than just seeking His presence and His heart for their own sake. Seek the Lord, and seek His face.

Jesus said we should come like a child. When I spend time with my grandchildren, I notice they are prone to blurt out whatever is on their mind – unfiltered and honest. We can pray like that.

Sometimes young children can be self absorbed, their vision of reality a bit myopic. Pray like that. Let God sort it out.

Children also come uninhibitedly asking boldly for anything. They are not ashamed of confessing their neediness or dependence. They ask repeatedly for what they hope to receive. But children also come trusting the love of the parent and the ability and power of the parent to grant the request. We can seek the face of God in prayer, like a child coming boldly, confessing our messiness and neediness, trusting the love of our Father and the power of our God.

Often I think we have a God problem. Our image of God is a harsh, cold, judgmental, cranky old man who is quick to condemn us and give up on us. It is the opposite of the picture Jesus painted of God as the waiting Father who watches the road daily hoping for the return of his child to His arms of embrace. When we think of God as judgmental, critical, and condemning, we run from Him. But if we think of God as a loving Father with His arms open, we run to Him.

Remember in the garden after Adam and Eve had blown it, God went searching for His children. When we pray, God does not play hide and seek with us. It’s almost as if prayer awakens us to the reality that God is enveloping us with His presence and power and love. Confess in humility and turn from your wickedness. Seek the face of God.

We also celebrate the access God has given us to His very presence. If you went to visit the President of the United States today, do you think you could see him? Or if you went to the governor of the state in which you live, do you think you can get in to see the governor? God, however, says we can stand before Him, confident in the name of Jesus to ask for mercy and help in our time of need. “We don’t have a high priest unable to sympathize with our weaknesses but one who has been tested in all things as we, and yet he was perfect” (Hebrews 4:15). So confidently, come.

When Jesus hung on the cross and made the bloody cry, “It is finished,” the veil of the Temple was torn from top to bottom. Now, forever in the name of Jesus, we have eternal access, continual, unlimited access to the presence and power of God for us anytime of day or night. How awesome is the privilege of prayer!

Next, in prayer we invite Jesus’ Spirit into the details of our life. President Abraham Lincoln once said in the middle of the Civil War, “I’ve been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.”

Ole Hallesby, in his classic book, Prayer, describes prayer as the expression of our helplessness. He says that Revelation 3:20 is the key verse to understanding the whole privilege of prayer. Behold Jesus says, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in.” Jesus never forces Himself upon us, nor forces His way into our lives, yet He gives us the loving promise and awaits our invitation. Prayer invites the presence of Jesus into the details of our lives.

John said it this way: “As many as receive Jesus, who believe in his name, to them God gives the power to be the children of God” John 1:12.

Lastly, prayer is laying hold of the power and promise of God. Preacher and author Francis Chan once said, “Isn’t it a comfort to worship a God we cannot exaggerate?” God has said He will hear us when we pray.

He also forgives our sin. Nothing stands between us and God blocking the flow of His grace to us. His unlimited favor of God to you is now freed. He forgives your sin. His forgiveness is not transactional – moment by moment – and blocked unless we pray. As we live in the spirit of prayer and faith, grace flows from God’s heart to your life.

God promises to heal our land and heal our lives. He is in the business not only of erasing our naughty deeds, but also restoring us and transforming us. He does not want to leave us stuck in the same destructive patterns of our sin and shame, but desires to maximize our created best potential as His beloved children.

A few weeks ago I visited with a man named Bill who is almost ninety. Bill shared that his father died when he was just a young boy. They had a farm auction and were going to sell a pair of beautiful big, strong, spirited horses. The auctioneer was leery of trying to handle the horses because of their strength and their spirit, but the little boy, Bill, went into the barn and grabbed hold of both their halters and led them out into the arena for sale. The horses knew Bill. They knew his voice. In their great power, they could have dragged him all over the countryside. Instead, the horses subdued their power to do the boy’s bidding.

It occurred to me that prayer is like that. When we pray, we’re like little Bill. We call upon the unlimited Father of heaven whose power is so great we couldn’t think about it or contain it. God has promised to focus His power to hear our prayer and do our bidding.

Prayer is the holy privilege of a loving, trusting relationship with the One whose power is infinite, and when we pray, we touch the very heart of God. So in the name of Jesus, I invite you to pray. Amen.

Pastor Lee Laaveg

How to Be Great

Mark 9:30-37

When it comes to basketball, who is greater – Michael Jordan or Lebron James?

As human beings, we seem to be fascinated by the subject of greatness. Many strive for it in their lives. Many of us enjoy discussing greatness in our conversations with others, for instance. We talk of greatness in the world of sports. I recently heard two announcers in a baseball game discussing who is the greatest baseball player of all time and how this particular rookie they were watching was destined for greatness.

Historians talk of great statesmen, great Presidents. Most recently with the death of Senator John McCain, we heard him described as a great American hero. In the field of business, who are the greatest entrepreneurs, greatest companies to work for? You can find them on the Internet. Jim Collins wrote a bestseller book for companies: Good to Great. In entertainment, we argue over who are the greatest actors or movies or bands of all time. We love to talk about what is greatest.

Greatness has been defined as something or someone who is heads above the rest, superior in their area or field. We find Jesus giving His take on the subject of greatness in our story for today. Jesus and the disciples are walking down the road to Capernaum.

It is important to keep in mind, Jesus had already begun telling the disciples that He would be suffering and dying in Jerusalem and rising from the grave. Of course, they didn’t get it the first time around. Shortly after, Jesus was transfigured on the mountain before Peter, James, and John, and they heard the voice of God speaking to them about Jesus saying “This is my Son; listen to him.”

Now they are on the road again and headed to Capernaum in Galilee. Jesus is once again telling them about what will happen to Him later in Jerusalem. “The Son of Man,” which was His favorite title for himself, “will be betrayed, killed, and will rise again.” They didn’t understand, Scripture tells us, and they were afraid to ask Him to explain.

Why do you suppose they were afraid? Maybe because they’d seen Peter get chewed out the last time he questioned the words of Jesus. Or perhaps because some things you just really don’t want to know. They sound painful. Ignorance can be bliss, we think to ourselves.

Sometimes when we talk to someone, we will say, “I am afraid to ask this but . . . “ meaning, I don’t really want to pursue this subject. The disciples wanted Jesus to be the Messiah King they wanted Him to be: royalty, powerful, headed toward taking over Israel as King. Perhaps they were afraid they might be wrong about Him.

We soon learn in the next part of the story that they did not really listen to Jesus or take Him seriously had God told them on the mountaintop. After His prediction about suffering and death and resurrection, Jesus was walking out in front of them on the road, and they were lagging behind. He hears them discussing something, and the conversation was getting more and more heated. When they got to the destination, Jesus asked, “By the way, what were you talking about back on the road?” They were silent.

Can’t you picture them – red-faced, embarrassed, looking down at the ground like kids caught red-handed at doing something wrong? They knew Jesus didn’t like this kind of talk. You see, they had been arguing amongst themselves about who was the greatest disciple. Who was the one destined for great leadership? Who will be the top dog under Jesus when He comes into power with His new administration? Their idea of greatness was attached to the idea of power, position, stardom, and status.

Jesus already knew what they had been talking about, and when He didn’t get a response, He sat down, signaling to them that this is a teaching moment. When they were all settled in, He looked at them and said, “Whoever wants to be first, must be last of all and servant of all.” The disciples must have thought this was the craziest thing they had ever heard! It was a totally upside-down way of thinking.

Before we get too hard on them, we might, if we’re honest, deep inside feel the same way as they did. Last is first? I like being first in line, whether it’s a fast food counter or a church dinner. I like getting first dibs, being first in opportunities, first in terms of status and recognition. I like being the first one out of the parking ramp after a ball game and beating the crowd out. But Jesus says the last is first when you follow Him. It involves taking on an unselfish attitude, putting yourself aside.

This is something we all battle with. It is congenital, a disease we’ve all had since the time of Adam and Eve. Selfishness and pride still work within. We are wired for it. We like to be first, the center of all things.

The great composer conductor Leonard Bernstein was once asked in an interview what is the most difficult instrument to play? He responded with his quick wit, “Second fiddle. I can get plenty first violinists, but to find one who plays second violin with as much enthusiasm or second French horn or second flute, now that’s a problem. And yet, if no one plays second, we have no harmony.”

Many of us tend to love the limelight. I’m a bit that way myself. I love to get a step up on everybody else. Look at how people line up on Thanksgiving night ahead of black Friday to get first shot at the bargains. If someone butts ahead of us, we get stoked. We get mad about it. Fights even break out. I was here first!

The disciples had to be wondering about this “servant” business Jesus was talking about. Maybe you are, too. A servant sounds so unglamorous. Servants back then were those who waited on others, waited tables. It doesn’t sound like a fulfilling thing to do with one’s life. Servanthood is a tough concept to come to terms with in a look-out-for-number-one, take-care-of-yourself world mindset. We automatically wonder who will look out for me. It’s different to be a giver instead of a getter, to be a forgetter instead of a scorekeeper, to be compassionate instead of competitive, to give your all for the sake of someone else.

What makes it so difficult to serve others anyway? Schedules need to be kept. We have limited personal energy, and (probably the biggest reason of all) others. People can be difficult to like and to love. They are ungrateful at times. I have to remind myself that on the night Jesus was arrested, which wound up with Him being crucified, Jesus actually washed the feet of Judas, who He knew would betray Him. As our King, Jesus walked the talk that He gives His subjects about serving. He doesn’t call us to anything He hasn’t already done.

Later, Jesus will give them His mission statement: “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many.” It is exactly what He did. He emptied Himself for you and me, poured Himself out so we might have a new, reconciled, forgiven life with God. He gave everything at the cross for our welfare. He is our servant King.

I came across a story that touched my heart and speaks well to this subject.

A couple of years ago at the Special Olympics, nine finalists in the hundred-yard dash prepared for the start of the race. When the gun went off, the contestants with various disabilities headed down the track toward the finish line. Part way down, one of the competitors fell. He tried to get up, but fell again. He tried again but without success. Finally, he just lay on the track and began to sob. One by one, the other eight contestants heard him crying and stopped. They all headed back toward their fallen competitor. When they got there, they helped him up and all nine contestants held hands, walked down the track, and crossed the finish line together.

The crowd couldn’t believe it. They rose to their feet and gave a 15-minute standing ovation. These young people may have been disabled physically, but they were very advanced spiritually. They knew they were called to serve others and not themselves.

This is what Jesus is talking about when He says, “Be a servant of all.” It is what leads to greatness.

Finally, Jesus gets very specific about who is to be served, making us perhaps even a little more uncomfortable. While we would prefer to choose who gets our service, Jesus addresses the question with a flesh-and-bone object lesson. Scripture says Jesus takes a child in His arms, hugging him as if He is presenting the child to them. Then He says, “Whoever welcomes one such child, welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me, but the One who sent me.” Interesting.

This is a concrete application of servanthood. The rubber hits the road in how we take care of one another, how we show hospitality, and how welcoming we are. He says, Welcome children. Take care of them. This is a mark of belonging to Me. This is greatness – Jesus style.

This direction from Jesus must have seemed radical since children in ancient culture had no status, which meant they were considered to be of little importance.

What is Jesus really saying here? He is not just talking about children. He is saying membership in Christ’s community means giving status, serving others who are helpless, taking care of them. It’s all too easy to serve those who can serve you back or do something for you in return. I’m reminded of a verse in the book of James warning the early Church against favoring the rich and powerful over others who are poor and in need.

This presents us with an attitude check here. How hospitable are we to people who are unlike us, can do nothing in return, and may not even show gratitude? Jesus said, Putting other people first, being a servant of all – even to those who can’t return the favor – is greatness in my book.

Why should I take this life lesson on greatness seriously? Why should I listen to Jesus? Listen again to the statement I just covered with you.

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me, but the One who sent me.”

Truly, this is the Son of God who is talking.

I’m reminded of Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:35 when He describes His return as King at the end, “I was hungry; you fed me. I was thirsty; you gave me drink. I was a stranger; and you welcomed me.”

This verse also reminds me of the last words of the musical, Les Miserables. “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

I also take this life lesson from Jesus seriously because the One who stated it was resurrected by His heavenly Father on Easter affirming that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He knows what He is talking about when it comes to God and living life. God was again saying, “This is my Son. Now listen to Him.”

I listen to this lesson on greatness because I know the One who taught it loves me. He died on the cross for me, and He wants what’s best for me. He was in the beginning with His Father and the maker of life, and He knows what makes life work best. Something is to be gained in living the life of a humble servant according to Jesus – abundant life, a great life as God intended for you.

I love this statement Mother Teresa wrote one time:

“We all long for heaven where God is, but we have it in our power to be in heaven with him right now – to be happy with him at this very moment. Being happy with him now means:

loving as he loves,
helping as he helps,
giving as he gives,
serving as he serves,
rescuing as he rescues,
being with him for all the twenty-four hours,
touching him in His distressing disguise.”

May you have the great life Jesus envisioned for you, trusting Him for salvation and humbly serving others as He served us. May you one day when you see Him face-to-face, hear Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

Following Jesus Means Denial

Mark 8:27-35

It is music to our ears when we hear someone say to us, I’m all-in! We love to hear it in response to an invitation to an event we’re hosting. Someone says, I’ll participate. I’m all-in! If you are a leader at work, we love to hear that response from our employees about a project our team has been given. If you coach in athletics, it’s what you love to hear and see from your players. I’m all-in, coach! A hundred percent! Pastors love to hear it from their parishioners when they approach them to take on a mission project or teach a class. I’m all-in, pastor. Or a person hearing it from their spouse regarding their marriage, Darling, I’m all-in living life with you. No matter what, I’m with you.

It appears Jesus wants to hear and see this all-in attitude as well from those who believe in Him. We see it in a statement He made to His twelve disciples in our passage today. After describing what is about to happen to Him in Jerusalem, Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” This is a very high commitment statement.

Jesus says, “You need to deny yourself.” What does it look like to deny yourself? Oftentimes we think of Lent. I’ll deny myself some chocolate for six weeks for the sake of Jesus. But that is not what He is talking about at all.

Jesus is talking about giving up pride and ego. Renouncing your right to go your own way. Giving up your need to be in control. Instead, put Christ behind the steering wheel. Surrender your self-determination and replace it with Christ’s determination. Put your self-centered mindset aside, which seems to rule so easily, and realize that life is not about me. (I have to tell myself that a lot. “It’s not about you, Steve.”)

Jesus says to “take up your cross.” The cross was a cruel instrument of execution representing suffering and death back in those days. It is how Jesus died for our sins. It was a horrific way to die. So what does Jesus mean?

I recall a statement by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Christian who was martyred during World War II. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, he wrote, “When Christ calls a person to follow, He bids him come and die.”

Someone once said cross bearing is a willing predisposition to the inevitability of suffering with Christ and for Christ as I follow Him. It is basically a willingness to take a hit with Jesus, no matter what. It is a willingness to step up, speak up, and stand up for Him and His kingdom’s cause, even if it might be uncomfortable, even if it might literally mean death.

Here are the facts, folks. A cross will come our way as a direct result of our choice to serve Christ in that way.
• The cross of loneliness might come your way as people shun you for being too religious.
• The cross of ridicule as someone says to you, You believe in that stuff? I thought you were smarter than that.
• The cross of rejection or heartbreak over others.
• The cross of inconvenience, uncomfortable situations, sacrificing time and personal resources to carry out the mission of serving the cause of Jesus Christ in your little sphere of influence.
• The cross of loving the unlovable who may not love you back.

I’m reminded of Nancy, a friend of mine who takes care of an elderly woman. The elderly woman is a tough cookie. She is hard on Nancy. Nancy doesn’t get a penny for this, but she takes care of all her daily needs. She is all there all the time, on call for her. Nancy senses a call to do this ministry, even though it is inconvenient and irritating as can be sometimes. But she has determined that Christ wants her to do this. She takes up her cross daily and gives herself away to this person.

Perhaps your cross is telling someone about the difference Christ makes in your life and then experiencing a certain distance from others who now see you as a religious nut with an agenda.

Taking up your cross is not just a once-and-for-all thing. It is a daily thing. It’s fighting the good fight and running the good race daily as you serve Jesus. It’s praying each day, I’m yours, Jesus. Use me today as you see fit.

Taking up your cross means checking in with yourself constantly and asking, Who am I and what am I really living for today? It is daily dying to your selfish ambitions and desires, and living for Jesus Christ as He becomes your new identity.

C..S. Lewis, a great Christian writer of the last century, wrote in his classic book, Mere Christianity, “Christ says, ‘Give me all. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and there; I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth or crown it or stop it but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked – the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you My self: My own will shall become yours.’”

Lastly, Jesus says, “Follow me.” I think He emphasized me, not the other way around. We get it mixed up these days. Jesus didn’t come to be our butler, our genie, or our follower. We are to follow His lead, His ways.

Maybe the modern church is to blame for this mixup in people’s minds. After all, the cross and this denial stuff don’t market well with consumer-minded people whose number one question is What’s in it for me? But it is what Jesus said: “Follow me (the cross bearer, the servant, the denier of self.)”

Jesus also says, “Anyone who saves his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” This is a promise! “Whoever loses his life for my sake, will save it, (will have life abundant, a saved life, an eternal life, an abundant, exciting life.)” You’ve seen the bumper sticker – He who dies with the most toys wins. Wrong! I saw another bumper sticker that said He who dies with the most toys . . . is dead! Life is found being all-in for Jesus Christ!

I have found some things that hold people back from jumping all-in with Jesus.

• The fear of giving up control of your life. Where will He lead me? This could be uncomfortable and inconvenient.
• What could happen to me? We want to be in control of our lives. It might be boring but at least we know it’s safe.
• The “me, myself, and I” factor. I want to live for me. Life is about me. Denial? Cross? No way! Haven’t you heard the song, “Girls just want to have fun”? I think You are asking too much, Jesus. It will wreck my life and my dreams.

As I read this passage, I thought of the story of the rich young ruler found in Mark 10:17-31. The rich ruler came to Jesus and asked, “What must I do to inherit life?” Jesus replied, “You know the commandments.” The ruler said, “I’ve kept them all.” Then Jesus looked at him lovingly and said, “You lack but one thing. Go, sell all that you have and give it to the poor. Come and follow me.” What happened next? The man walked away feeling sad because he had many possessions.

Me, myself, and I.

For many it’s a faith issue. Can I trust Jesus’ promise that losing life will lead to new life, a saved life?

Let me remind you, if you’re wondering who is making the ask to be all-in, Jesus said of Himself, “The Son of Man will suffer many things and be rejected and killed, and on the third day be raised.” In fact, He must suffer many things. The Son of Man – Jesus’ favorite title for Himself – is the Messiah, the One from God. He must suffer and die. It is necessary. Your sins and mine must be covered. The separation between God and humankind must be bridged. Sin must be paid for once and for all.

Jesus suffered a great deal at the cross. He experienced wholehearted, meanspirited rejection, just as He predicted. He died a miserable death to pay for your sins. Jesus was “all-in” for you, and He still is as He makes you this promise.

He also says in this statement that He will be raised. He rose from the grave. His resurrection means everything He said is true. God put a stamp of approval upon Him. He is the giver of life and the keeper of life. He knows what makes life work. He is the way, the truth, the life – now and forever. No one is like Him.

This risen Jesus Christ is still looking for all-in followers. How about you? Would you say you are “all-in” with Jesus? I don’t mean simply going through the motions of a Christian – saying you believe in Jesus, you trust Him, and you count on Him. I don’t mean just going to church, singing the songs and saying the creed. I am talking about your personal witness. Does it say that you are truly a follower, not just a fan of Jesus Christ?

After this passage, Jesus went on to say, “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory on judgment day in the glory of His Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38). Are you telling others about Jesus and what He has done for you, or are you keeping your lips zipped for fear of turning people off and losing relationships? Do you live in fear of rocking the boat? Why?

Does your behavior say you are all-in? Do you live in obedience to doing life His way, even when it makes you stick out like a sore thumb, makes you uncomfortable, or makes you feel like you’re missing out on things? Or are you more like a chameleon – just blending into the surroundings, going with the flow.

Do you consider yourself on call 24/7 to serve Jesus? Are you a shining light for Him wherever you are, whenever you are out there for Him? Are you set apart for Him, ready to go, willing to be inconvenienced, to be made uncomfortable at any time for any one?

Is your giving sacrificial? Does it say, Jesus, I’m all-in?

I love the bumper sticker, “If you’re a Christian don’t honk – tithe. Any fool can honk.”

These are things Jesus is talking about when He says, “Let him come after me. Let him take up his cross, deny himself, and follow me.”

Jesus goes on to say where real life is to be found. It is a promise. In the end, it’s really not a sacrifice, but life. It is a wise move and a life-giving choice.

As we wonder about the truth of this, I can’t help but think of a married couple in my congregation, friends of mine who recently stepped into the world of retirement. They took an early retirement – not because they can afford it, but because they felt called.

There is no sitting around with these two. They spend half their year teaching and discipling orphaned children in a children’s home in Honduras. It is not easy by any means. Honduras is terribly hot and uncomfortable. They use their own money to minister to these children. They are all-in for Jesus and for keeping these kids connected to Him.

Joy radiates from this couple’s faces when they describe the kids and how they are growing in their faith. If you were to ask them if it is really worth it, they would smile and say, Are you kidding? This is the LIFE!

I am reminded of a story Chuck Colson told about his hometown of Naples, Florida, which he called “one of the garden spots of the world.”

(Naples) is an absolute nirvana for all golfers, and they all come there. They’re all CEOs of major corporations, and they retire to Naples, and this is “it” – twenty-seven golf courses and miles of sparkling beach and the best country clubs. I watch these guys; they’re powerful people. They have this New York look on their face; they’re determined. But now, all of a sudden, they start measuring their lives by how many golf games they can get in.

I often say to them, “Do you really want to live your life counting up the number of times you chase that little white ball around those greens?” And they kind of chuckle, but it’s a nervous chuckle, because in six months they’ve realized how banal their lives are, and they’ve got beautiful homes—castles—and when they get bored with that, they build a bigger castle, and they’re miserable. The object of life is not what we think it is, which is to achieve money, power, pleasure. That’s not the holy grail. The object of life is the maturing of the soul, and you reflect that maturing of the soul when you care more for other people than yourself.

I recently read a comment by Malcolm Muggeridge on his life. “I can say that I never knew what joy was like until I gave up pursuing happiness. Or cared to live until I chose to die. For these two discoveries I am beholden to Jesus.”

Jim Elliott, who was martyred as a missionary in South America, once wrote, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” If you get back more than you gave up, have you sacrificed anything at all?

Jesus uses an important word in this passage to those who are listening to Him today. It is the word if. “If anyone would come after me . . .” it implies a choice to be made on the part of people like you and me. Consider this a personal invitation to you today, an opportunity.

What does Jesus want? He wants you! He wants to hear you say with your words and your life, Jesus, I’m all-in. And may you be all-in! Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

Twisted: Will God Really Give Me a Cadillac if I Ask?

Luke 11:9-10

I grew up loving Sunday school. One of my favorite parts was a sing-along we would have each week. I liked to sing. A song they taught us early on goes like this: ♪”Seek and you shall find; knock and the door shall be opened; ask and it shall be given, and the love comes a tumblin’ down.”♬

I just love that tune. I love the words. They are part of a Bible verse that many of us have memorized. It’s a favorite of mine. This verse, though, has often been misused by the name-it-and claim-it prosperity preachers of our day. God will give you whatever you ask. Just name it and claim it. He wants you to prosper. Do you want that Cadillac? Just claim it in the name of God. That seems to be the message they’ll will give and use Luke 11:9-10 as the basis for their teaching.

If you ask theologians what the most misused verse in the Bible is, many of them will likely reply, Luke 11:9 – “Ask and it will be given . . .”

Although this verse has little to do with guaranteeing our personal fulfillment, its original intention holds a great word of encouragement from God to believers like you and me. As with any Bible verse, it can be lifted out of its specific context and made to fit a particular theological slant. However, that is a dangerous thing to do.

Someone might ask, Does it really matter? After all, it’s still God’s word. Remember Isaiah 55, “. . . so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth: It shall not return to me empty but shall accomplish that for which I purpose and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (vs. 11). God promises His Word will not return empty.

It is true that God’s Word will succeed in the matter for which He sent it. However, if you use God’s words in a way other than how God intended, it does you no good. Your efforts will return void, and you will be disappointed. Instead of lifting God’s Word out of its original setting to use as some sort of proof text, examine the context around the verse and follow the flow. You will be much less likely to miss the powerful message God is personally speaking to you in His Word.

So, we need to ask what is the context of and story behind Luke 11:9-10, Ask and seek and knock. Will God give me a Cadillac if I ask? Let’s see what is really being promised here.

First, this verse is found in the middle of Luke’s Gospel story about the life of Jesus. Luke emphasized the importance of prayer in Jesus’ life and in the life of the early Church as we read his other story in the book of Acts. The disciples noticed that Jesus prayed a lot. One day they made a request of Him – “Teach us to pray like John the Baptist taught his disciples, Lord” (Luke 11:1). So Jesus proceeded to teach them what we call the Lord’s Prayer, although it is better called the disciples’ prayer. (Jesus gave it to them, and He would never pray for the forgiveness of sins since He was perfect.)

It was a humble prayer asking God to help us live according to His kingdom; hallow His name in our lives; be forgiven and protected and receive daily bread; be provided with earthly needs in order to live this kind of life with Him. Jesus told them to pray about these things.

He also attached a parable in this teaching to alert the disciples about God’s availability and attentiveness to prayer. He tells a parable called “The Friend at Midnight” (vs. 5-8). “Suppose . . . ,” which literally means, Can you imagine. “. . . going to a friend for bread at midnight and being told to go away?” The disciples would have been shaking their heads when Jesus asked that because, in the Middle Eastern culture, that would never happen. Hospitality was a very important value.

Jesus continues, “But by this person’s persistence he will get up and do it.” That word “persistence” has to do with a sense of shame. He is saying, I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is simply a friend, at least because of his persistence (his sense of shame), the guy in the house will get up. He is obligated as a friend to give his neighbor whatever he needs. This out–of-town friend is a guest of the entire community.

The next day they would send the guest on his way saying, You have honored our village by coming. The sleeping neighbor is responsible for showing hospitality to this guest so he will leave the community feeling good about the people. If the neighbor doesn’t honor the guest, he will be shamed by the village. They will look down their noses at him.

Jesus is saying this: God is even more available and approachable than that neighbor. He will respond anytime, anywhere, just like the neighbor will respond to the request. He will rise to the occasion. This is a parable, then, about God’s availability, His attentiveness to our prayers.

Jesus gives a promise in verses 9 and 10, “So I say, ask and it will be given you, seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you.” This verse is actually written in the present imperative saying, Do this: Keep on asking. Keep on seeking. Keep knocking. It is an encouragement to be a person of prayer. Do not give up on prayer, but make it a way of life. Ask, seek, and knock are not really three different actions, just three ways of talking about prayer. We know prayer is more than simply asking. It is also praise, giving thanks, and confession. Still, asking is central to prayer. It is an expression of our dependence on God.

By the way, Jesus attaches even more reassuring words to this whole teaching on prayer as He compares God to an earthly parent. “If you, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?” The Holy Spirit is God Himself – the best gift of all – a relationship with Him. Amazing things will happen in us and to us with the power the Holy Spirit working in our lives. The Spirit strengthens us, counsels us, changes us, and empowers us to serve. He even helps us pray.

The list of what the Holy Spirit can do in an individual’s life goes on and on. God has nothing but your best interests in mind. Within this context, then, we now look at this verse.

Luke 11:9-10 is not implying that prayer is a blank check – Just name it and claim it; God will give it. Remember, Jesus taught us what to pray for in the words of the disciples prayer – His name be hollowed, His kingdom come into our lives and in this world, His will be done in our lives, daily bread, forgive trespasses, protect us from the evil one. This is the kind of prayer God loves to hear from us. He is not a genie waiting to do our bidding.

I’m reminded of the story of a little boy going off to bed. He says to his family one evening, “I’m going to pray before I go to sleep. Anyone want anything?” Wrong idea being worked there.

Tim Keller once shared this story in a talk.

I prayed for an entire year about a girl I was dating and wanted to marry, but she wanted out of the relationship. All year I prayed, “Lord, don’t let her break up with me.” Of course, in hindsight, it was the wrong girl. I actually did what I could to help God with the prayer, because one summer, near the end of the relationship, I got in a location that made it easier to see her. I was saying, “Lord, I am making this as easy as possible for you. I have asked you for this, and I have even taken the geographical distance away.” But as I look back, God was saying, “Son, when a child of mine makes a request, I always give that person what he or she would have asked for if they knew everything I know.”

Luke 11 is an encouragement to trust God, to be a person of prayer, to lean on God’s faithfulness. Jesus tells us how to pray – keep it simple. He gives a picture of an attentive, answering, loving God who gets up in the middle of the night and rises to the occasion. He talks about a father who knows how to give so much more. Then He says, So keep on being an asking, seeking, knocking child of God, believing in His faithfulness.

One of my favorite stories about prayer is about an elderly missionary who was discussing prayer at a woman’s conference. To the small circle of women gathered around her, she explained that when she first went into the mission field more than fifty years ago she was extremely lonely. She saw other missionaries were married and had families, and she felt bad about feeling alone. In her loneliness, she begged God to pick out a husband for her. She told the women how she prayed and prayed and was sure God would answer her prayer.

One of the women in the group explained, “But you’ve never been married. You’re still single!”

The elderly missionary replied, “You’re right, but somewhere out there is a 74-year-old man who has been resisting God’s will for more than 50 years!” ☺

Jesus is giving us relationship language in this teaching on prayer. Keep turning to God in everything, trusting in your heavenly Father – His wisdom, His goodness. Pray confidently, boldly, knowing your Father loves you and will give you His good gifts and Himself – the best gift of all – through His Holy Spirit. You can approach Him like a child who has a loving parent, knowing that He hears you. We don’t give our children everything they ask for, but they know that when they can come and ask, we won’t ignore them. You can talk to God about anything, bring anything on your heart to Him. Prayer is not a time to hide what’s going on inside of us but to share openly and honestly, warts and all, with our heavenly Father whom we know loves and understands us.

We can trust Him. That’s what this ask and seek and knock is all about. It is an encouragement. Keep on being a person of prayer.

So what keeps us from praying? For some it’s a feeling of inadequacy. They’re not sure how to pray. Others have a self-reliant and prideful attitude – I don’t need help. I can handle life on my own. For other people, their theology gets in the way. God is too busy with the big things of the world to really have time to listen to me.

Then there’s the mystery of prayer. Perhaps you’ve had a faith crisis. Why didn’t God save me from my abusive parent when I asked for help? Or why didn’t God heal me or that loved one I prayed so hard for? Did I not have enough faith, or was I in the wrong? When I hear questions like these, my response is no. God was there. He loves you. He loved you then as He loves you now. I don’t have a clue why you weren’t rescued right away or why that person died. Sometimes we just have to live with the mystery.

While I don’t know the answer to these questions, what I do know is Jesus, the Son of God, paints a lovely picture of our heavenly Father who wants to have an ongoing relationship with us. He desires us to keep dependently asking, seeking, knocking, and believing you have His attention. He loves you and knows what’s good for you. So keep on praying and communing with God even when you’re mystified. Trust Him.

Perhaps – just perhaps – it’s better for us to move beyond the mechanics of prayer, which we sometimes get so wrapped up in. How do I get good at this? How do I master prayer so I know it will get answered? That’s not a good question. Maybe it’s better to focus on who I am talking to – my Father. My Father. You see, you have a Father in heaven who loves you. And if you wonder if He really does love you, just pause and look at the cross. How much love does He have to show to get you to believe it?

God your Father has nothing but your best interests at heart. He has gone out of His way to make you His own. He is wise, and He knows the big picture. Trust in that; keep on praying.

I want to finish this message today with a prayer written by Gerhard Frost, a Lutheran pastor. Would you pray with me?

Thank you, Lord, for always answering my prayer but not indulging my every petty give-me. Thank you for winnowing and refining, vetoing and delaying, refusing and revising. Thank you for being God and never less, for freeing me, for wide horizons, for protecting me from my limited vision and my wayward will. Thank you for foiling my every effort to unseat you and make myself king. Thank you for keeping it safe for me to pray. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

Twisted: God’s Plan For Us

Jeremiah 29:10-14

In all likelihood, you are probably familiar with these words from Scripture: “For surely I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord, “plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” You’ve probably seen them on graduation cards, encouragement cards, posters and plaques in Christian bookstores, or other Christian merchandise such as coffee mugs. They are beautiful, nice, comforting, strengthening words, but we need to ask, What are they really all about? What is their meaning for us?

The way this verse is sometimes used seems to imply God has plans to give individuals a prosperous career, good health, or even money in the bank. I’ve seen it used in the spirit of patriotism for our nation – God has plans for America. I’ve heard people use it while pursuing their personal dream – God is backing me up on my dream.

The truth is, this is not a good use of this verse. At the same time, it holds some good news for us. If we look at it carefully and try to understand the author’s original intention, then we can apply it meaningfully.

When we are studying Bible passages, it is wise to look at them in context so we can learn their true meaning and not twist them into something we want them to say. We need to ask:
• Where is this verse found?
• Where is the book, which contains the verse, in context of the salvation story?
• What kind of literature is this? Is it a narrative? Is it from a poem? Is it some wisdom literature? Is it a letter?
• Where do we find this verse within the context of the narrative? Is it at the beginning? Is it in the middle? Is it at the end of the story?

It is also important, before we even tackle a book of the Bible, to look at the introduction in order to get a feel for the lay of the land. All of this matters when attempting to correctly understand the text.

Today’s verse is found in a letter from Jeremiah the prophet to the surviving elders of the exiles, priests, and those who had been dragged off from Jerusalem to Babylon as punishment for their unfaithfulness to God. The situation was this: the covenant relationship the people of Israel had with God had been broken by them. They were disobedient and did not follow the commands and statutes God gave them to operate by as a community. God finally reached His boiling point, and so now the Israelites found themselves deported. They were refugees living in a strange, new land.

Back in those days, when world countries like Babylon conquered a nation, they would disperse a good share of the population so they would be less likely to cause trouble later on. This dispersion was tough on these people. They didn’t know the language or the customs. They must have felt far from God in His Temple, and they were homesick. We get a feel for their sorrow in Psalm 13:7: “By the rivers of Babylon we wept.”

As they experienced this painful new reality, some false preachers tried to put a positive spin on their exile. God told us in our dreams that this exile won’t last very long. Don’t sweat it. Jeremiah is writing a response to these false prophesies. His response is spoken on behalf of God, and it says basically says this: Those preachers are wrong. You better get settled in. Build houses. Plant your gardens. Eat from those gardens. Start families. Seek the welfare of the city you’re in and pray for its welfare, for therein you will find your welfare (Jer. 29:5).

Their exile was not an imprisonment. The people were not behind bars or barbed wire, but were free to make a life in this foreign land. According to God’s plans, it would be a seventy-year stay.

Jeremiah tells the people that God has a promise for them. After seventy years, God will bring you back just as He promised (Jer. 25:12). Our verse in chapter 29 is part of that promise. God says, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare, not your harm, to give you a future and a hope.” He finishes off this promise by saying, “Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me. If you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me,” says the Lord, “and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you and bring you back.”

So, did God keep His promise? Yes, He did! He always keeps His promises. The exiles were set free seventy years later when Babylon as a world power fell to the Persians. Ezra 1:1 tells us God stirred the spirit of Cyrus, the King of Persia to issue an edict to let His people return home and rebuild the homeland, just as God had said to them through Jeremiah.

So, does this verse hold any meaning for us as followers of Jesus Christ in 2018? Does it apply to my life or should I throw away my Jeremiah 29 coffee mug? Don’t throw it away yet because it does have a meaning for us. Though Jeremiah 29:11 is not written to you and me personally but to some disobedient Jews in captivity, it has a meaning for us within the context of the whole salvation story, the big story of God. It gives us some truths to keep in mind and live by.

We learn about the holiness, the bigness, and the faithfulness of God in the story. God takes sin very seriously. He punishes sin. He disciplined the people. As we look at the cross, we see how seriously God takes sin. We are reminded in this passage that God is in control. He says, “I know the plans I have for you. I am in charge.”

We also see the faithfulness of God. In spite of their sin, He still considers them His people and has a plan for them. He promises to restore them as a nation.

God has a plan that will also impact us, though the people of Israel perhaps did not know it at the time. His plan began in a garden as a disobedient Adam and Eve and a treacherous serpent stand before God. God says to the serpent, “. . . and his heel will crush your head” (Gen. 3:15). Victory will be mine. Evil will be overtaken.

God’s plan continued when God tapped Abraham on the shoulder said I have plans to give you land and many descendants, to make you a blessing to the nations and all the peoples of the world (Gen. 13:14-16). God has a plan, we learn in this story.

This is a judgment/grace story. The Israelites have been sinful and unfaithful, yet God is keeping them as His people. He still has plans for them. There is a big story that still needs to happen, even though the people must have wondered if God was done with them. I wouldn’t blame Him; we have been anything but obedient. Still He wasn’t done with them, in spite of their sin.

We are thankful God wasn’t done with them. Otherwise there would be no blessing to the nations, the peoples of the world. There would be no Savior, no Messiah, no Christ who said to a Samaritan woman at a well, “Salvation is from the Jews!”

Jeremiah 29:11 is more of an announcement, a reminder for people like you and me who have put their trust in Jesus Christ. The plan was fully carried out! God would rescue His people and bring them back home to the promised land. He would reestablish them in the promised land. He would eventually send His Son into this world to carry out His plans for our welfare, which literally means shalom, peace. For your well-being, He will go to a cross and suffer God’s wrath for humanity’s sin. He will be raised on the third day to rescue you and me from sin, death, and the power of the devil. He will free us from captivity.

He did all this to make us rich in Christ, to make known the riches of His glory to those of us who believe in Jesus. If you trust in Jesus Christ, God has already seen to your welfare. You are the recipient of unsearchable riches, fortune, and an imperishable inheritance prepared for you in heaven, forgiveness, a restored relationship with your heavenly Father, freedom, a heavenly promise, a place prepared for you.

We are told not to set our hopes on health, finances, careers, and possessions. God doesn’t make promises about these things. Name-it-and-claim-it preachers, health-and-wealth, prosperity gospel preachers would have you believe otherwise. But what they are telling you just isn’t found in Scripture. In fact, they are doing the very thing Jeremiah was condemning in this letter – they are putting words in God’s mouth. They are telling lies. If you buy into that kind of garbage, you will be sadly disappointed and your faith will be shaken again and again. However, if you know what you have in Christ and the riches that are yours, then His grace will be sufficient, even in times of poverty and trials.

In Christ you have a hope and a future. God wants to conform you to the image of His Son. His plan for your life is to make you more loving and kind, patient and self-controlled, generous – the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Ultimately He wants to welcome you into His heaven, to a place which has been prepared for you. He wants to give you a relationship with Himself so you can experience His presence each moment of your life. Through the Promised One of Israel, Jesus Christ, we know a new day is coming. God has a plan of a new heaven and a new earth. Soon and very soon we are going to see the King. All will be well, and there will be no more pain, no more suffering, no more sorrow, and no more tears.

God has a plan so forget about that health and wealth stuff. “Set your mind on things above” (Col. 3:2), the Scriptures say. God is looking out for your welfare. He wants you to prosper in the sense that you have been given access to His riches in the grace of Jesus Christ.

Enjoy that promise and remember this:

When our sin has overcome us and everything is hopeless on the human scene,
When things are looking like it’s seventeen to zero and the game is a laugher,
God still has a plan for the future.

When it seems like evils wins over good,
When everything lovely and gracious and pure in our world seems to fall victim to corruption and evil,
God still has a plan for your future.

When we stand beside the grave of a loved one and all the pain floods over us,
When we realize we can’t say what we wanted to say, and we can never more do what we wanted to do for your loved one,
God still has a plan.

When the meek and the peacemakers and the pure in heart of God’s kingdom get trampled into the dirt,
When the weak are constantly sacrificed on the altars of power, and the proud and the mighty strut around the earth like they own the place and have the last word,
God still has His plan.

When it seems like nothing is ahead of us but a crucifixion,
When the Gethsemane of prayer is darkened by the shadow of a looming Golgotha,
God still has a plan.

It is a plan of love and grace, to save us and our world. Despite the fact that we deserve nothing but God’s condemnation of death, He has a plan. Oh, what grace we have been given, my friends!

The bottom line is this verse is a call to faith for each and every believer in Jesus Christ. Trust in the plan. Trust in the promises this faithful God has given you in Christ. Walk with Him all your days. Follow Jesus. Serve Him, obey Him, and trust Him in everything. Call upon Him in times of trouble and in times of joy. Seek Him with all your heart and be assured of this: absolutely nothing – and I mean NOTHING – can separate you from His love through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer