Re: Easter

Luke 24:1-12

All around the world, today churches are filled to overflowing with people celebrating Easter. Perhaps folks outside the Christian faith are wondering what to make of Easter. What is the big deal regarding this Christian holiday? Maybe you are even asking this question as you listen today. So I thought I’d take a few minutes and respond to this question regarding Easter.

Perhaps you’ve already noticed, I am using a lot of “re” words in this introduction, with good reason. You see, many “re” words jump out at us as we read this story.

For instance, we first see a re-appearance. The women, having left the tomb on Friday, reappear on Sunday with spices to anoint the body of Jesus. It was a sign of love and respect for their dead friend – similar to us taking flowers to the cemetery.

Our next word is re-opened. The huge stone covering the tomb was now rolled away and the tomb was reopened. The women went in and discovered the tomb was empty and the body of the Lord Jesus was gone. I once heard someone say the stone wasn’t rolled away to let Jesus out, but to let Jesus’ followers in to witness the emptiness of the tomb. Their friend was not there.

Next there is re-proof. Angels appear and, in their fear, the women bow their faces to the ground before them. The words spoken by the angels are a reproof. “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?”

I have to believe the angels were probably smiling as he said these words to the women. He perhaps had a look on his face saying, I can’t wait to tell you the big surprise I have for you. The joke is on you, silly ones: He is living!

Next is the word re-vealing. He reveals to them the amazing news of what God has done. “Jesus is not here; he is risen,” which literally is translated, “He has been raised.” The One who was dead, the dying man they had watched breath His last on the cross as they stood off watching in the distance – Jesus, their master and friend whom they watched as He was laid in a rich man’s tomb – was now alive!

Following the news they are given a re-minder. Before they could respond to this amazing news, the angel reminded them of something Jesus had said. “Remember how Jesus told you while He was still in Galilee that He must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified, and on the third day rise.”

There are those words again: He must. It was a divine necessity. Jesus said it not once but three times. God’s divine plan for rescuing a sinful world had to be fulfilled, and now it has been accomplished with the resurrection.

We are told the women re-membered the words of Jesus spoken earlier. You might wonder if we are seeing a bit of faith on their part in this story as they remember. Perhaps, they did have some faith, but it is difficult to see.

Then the women re-turn from the tomb, and they re-call the experience to the disciples and all the rest.

The last word: re-jection. The eleven disciples (remember, Judas is dead) rejected the women’s news. Their words seemed like an idol tale, and they did not believe them.

By the way, I think all of this doubt on the part of the disciples gives the resurrection even more credence. No person would make up a story to get people to buy into it by using women as witnesses to the resurrection. They had no status in this patriarchal society. They could not even be witnesses in a court.

Even if the women’s story was made up, wouldn’t you think the disciples would’ve responded affirmatively to make it more convincing? Risen? Of course He is! Jesus said this would happen. But their response was rejection. They thought the women were crazy in their grief, and they would not believe. Even Peter, who ran to the tomb and saw the folded grave clothes, only walked away from it marveling at what happened. No faith there.

So our Easter narrative has
• Re-appearing
• Re-opening
• Re-proof
• Re-vealing
• Re-minding
• Re-membering
• Re-turning
• Re-calling
• Re-jection.

Did you notice what “re” word is missing in this Good News story? Re-joicing. I guess it is what has been left for us to do, for we know the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey used to say on the radio. We know that shortly after the empty tomb experience, there were many appearances of Jesus, the risen Lord, to those disciples, He showed Himself to them again and again. Even doubting Thomas became convinced.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! We can rejoice because the Good News regarding Easter is for us. We are reminded that death is defeated. Jesus has won the battle over the power of death.

I remember a cute story written by Phil Callaway about a drive he was making with his five-year-old son. It goes like this:

One sleepy Sunday afternoon when my son was five years old, we drove past the cemetery together. Noticing a large pile of dirt beside a newly excavated grave, he pointed and said, “Look, dad! One got out!” We laughed, but now every time I pass a graveyard, I’m reminded of the One who got out. Because One got out, friend, all who died trusting in Jesus Christ get out, and they live with Him forever. Jesus is the first fruits of the resurrection.

Some of us have lost loved ones, friends, since last Easter. I have. As I pray for those families as their pastor and friend, I ask God to fill them with resurrection confidence. Peace in the midst of their grieving. I pray they will claim it for themselves as well as lean on the risen Jesus on a daily basis.

Sometimes when I do a funeral for someone I don’t really know at the funeral home, people will ask me as a pastor, Isn’t it hard to do a funeral for someone you don’t know? My response is no. Funerals are for the living, and these living, grieving people who sit there are filled with anxiety and fears about their own death. They are hungering and thirsting for what I have to tell them about Easter and the biblical promises, which are theirs to claim.

My dear friends, because He lives, the promise for you to count on as you trust in Jesus is this: You shall live also.

A close friend of mine is going through chemotherapy right now for multiple myeloma. As soon as I heard about it, I called him, and I heard the most amazing words come from his mouth. He said, “Brother Steve, I’m not afraid. I know where I’m going if this doesn’t work for me. I know He is with me, and I belong to Him.”

This is why we can rejoice. For Easter also means my sin really is forgiven and forgotten forever. The resurrection of Jesus is God’s stamp of approval upon Jesus, the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world. He has taken my place, the unrighteous one – Steve Kramer. He has become the unrighteousness, taken the punishment upon Himself and given me His own righteousness as I stand before my heavenly Father.

Elyse Fitzpatrick writes, “Just in case you’re unaware, identity theft occurs when someone steals your name and other personal information for fraudulent use. Most of us are dismayed by this new cyber-age crime, and we wouldn’t assume that the theft of another person’s identity is acceptable behavior.

The surprising reality, however, is that Christians are, by definition, people who have someone else’s identity. They are called Christians because they’ve taken the identity of someone else: the Christ. Not only have you been given an identity you weren’t born with or that you didn’t earn the right to use, but you’re invited to empty the checking account and use all the benefits this identity brings! This is so much better than identity theft—it’s an identity gift!”

When God looks at me trusting in His Son Jesus Christ, He sees me as His perfect, righteous son. It is a gift! It’s the Easter gift we rejoice in.

And get this – Easter also means you do not have to live a single moment of your life alone – ever. He lives! He’s not a figure in a history book or a stained-glass window. He is present. He is alive to walk with you in a relationship, and He promises to never leave you orphaned or alone. He lives! He lives! Christ Jesus lives today. He walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way. That is what the hymn says.

It begins by saying,
“♪I serve a risen Savior; He’s in the world today.
I know that He is living whatever men may say.
I see His hand of mercy. I hear His voice of cheer.
And just the time I need Him, He’s always near.
He lives! He lives . . .”♬

Ah, what great news this is! I have Jesus to be my friend.

As I close this time with you, I need to bring one more word to your attention regarding Easter. The word is re-ceive. The gift of Christ’s rescue of you and me is freely offered to each and every person to be received. We hold out our empty hands and receive it, so to speak. It is placing your faith in the risen Jesus Christ. This good news of Easter calls for a response. A response of faith. He did all this so you might receive Him and have eternal life.

Knowing about Jesus and knowing what He has done is really incomplete. He wants you to receive Him, be in a saving relationship with Him. It involves, you see, turning from the direction your life has been taking and turning to the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Surrender yourself to the One who awaits you with open arms, who will not turn you away.

I have to ask you today, as you look back over your life, have you done that? Have you received Him to be your Savior and Lord, the leader of your life?

I want to close today with a story by Tim Keller about the power and the promise of Christ’s resurrection.

A minister was in Italy where he saw the grave of a man who had died centuries before who was an unbeliever and completely against Christianity, but a little afraid of it too. So the man had a huge stone slab put over his grave so he would not have to be raised from the dead in case there is a resurrection from the dead. He had insignias put on it saying, “I do not want to be raised from the dead. I do not believe in it.”

Evidently when he was buried, though, an acorn must’ve fallen into the grave. So a hundred years later, the acorn had grown up through the grave and split the rock slab. It was now a tall, towering oak tree. The minister looked at it and asked, “If an acorn, which has power of biological life, can split a slab of that magnitude, what can the acorn of God’s resurrection power do in a person’s life?”

Then Keller comments, “The minute you decide to receive Jesus as Savior and Lord, the power of the Holy Spirit comes in your life. It’s the power, the resurrection, the same thing which raised Jesus from the dead.”

Think of the immovable slabs in your life – your bitterness, insecurity, fears, self doubts. Those things can be split, rolled off. The more you know Him, the more you grow into the power of the resurrection.

He is risen! He is risen indeed! My dear friends, receive Him and rejoice. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

 

Encounters: Our Promise

Luke 23:32-43

A number of years ago, a member of my congregation asked if I would visit a friend who was in the hospital. He explained to me that his friend, Bob, was dying and had no faith to speak of, but he was open to talking about faith. So I went to see him.

After introducing ourselves to one another and going through some small talk, I asked Bob about his spiritual history. Had he been raised in a Christian church? He said he had been baptized as an infant. However, his family was not churchgoers, so he knew basically nothing about the Christian faith. I asked him if he was interested in hearing about it now, and he said he was.

So I asked, “Suppose you were to die today, Bob. Do you think you would go to heaven?” He said he doubted it. I followed up with another question.

“Bob, if you were to stand before God and He would ask you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven,’ what would you tell Him?”

Bob said, “Well, I guess I’d tell Him I tried to do the best I could.”

I then responded, “Bob, hearing your answers to those questions, I have some really good news to share with you today!” We had a wonderful conversation about the Gospel message. I shared the Good News of what Jesus had done for him at the cross. I talked about faith and what it means to trust Jesus and turn his life over to the care of Christ. Then I asked if he’d like to do that right then, and he said he would. So we prayed together. He confessed his need for the Savior and asked Jesus to come into his life.

When we were finished, I extended my hand to him and said, “Welcome to the family!”

He smiled said “Pretty big family!”

I talked a bit more about following up with him and left him some materials to look over regarding the Gospel and following Jesus. I left that day not realizing his time on earth was shorter than we thought. Not long after that encounter, I was told Bob had died. We gave him a glorious, hope-filled sendoff at his funeral!

I tell you this story because our reading of Jesus’ encounter with the dying thief on the cross reminded me of it. Jesus had been led out of Jerusalem to a hill called The Skull where he was nailed to a cross and placed between two criminals – violent robbers – who were also hanging on their crosses. I can’t help but be reminded, as I think about this scene, of the prophecy from hundreds of years before in Isaiah chapter 53 where it says He was numbered with the transgressors. He was bearing the sins of many, though He was innocent.

We don’t have details of the crucifixion. Luke didn’t feel a need to go into details because his audience knew full well what crucifixion looked like. But we do know it was a cruel and torturous way to die. As Jesus hung there in excruciating pain, He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It takes us back to Luke chapter 6 where Jesus is teaching about the importance of loving your enemies. He now is living those words as He prays for His enemies. They don’t know the horrible evil they are doing in killing the righteous, holy One of God. (The apostle Peter would later tell them in the book of Acts chapter 3.) They were unknowingly carrying out God’s plan of salvation when they put Jesus to death. Jesus had come to die for the sins of the world.

An ugly scene was being played out below Jesus as He hung on the cross. Soldiers were casting lots, gambling, dividing up His clothes, fulfilling another prophecy from Psalm 22. Everyone was mocking and taunting Jesus – the rulers, the soldiers, some of the people in the crowd who were watching – sarcastically saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” and laughing at the same time.

A sarcastic inscription was posted above Christ written by Pontius Pilate: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS. Little did Pilate know he had written a truth.

Even one of the criminals being crucified railed against Jesus, throwing insults in His direction. “Save yourself and us if you are the Christ.” Like the rest of those taunting Jesus to save Himself, this man didn’t understand. If the Messiah, the Christ, is to seek and save the lost, He can’t save Himself. He won’t save Himself. He is on the cross for a reason. It is God’s plan to save a sinful humanity from sin, death, and the devil. He is taking away the sins of the world. The nails weren’t holding Him there; love was.

Let’s take a look at the criminal on the other side of Jesus, though. Remember two thieves were hanging there – one on the left and one on the right according to Matthew and Mark. He, too, had been reviling Jesus like all the rest. But something happened over those hours of hanging next to Jesus – something totally unexpected, surprising – in the midst of all of this ugliness on Golgotha. This dying criminal was awakened to who Jesus is and his need for Him.

We don’t know what brought this about. Was it the prayer he heard Jesus say – “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing”? Was it the refusal of Jesus to fight back with sharp words against His tormentors and curse them? Was it the love he saw in the eyes of Jesus as He looked out over the crowd?

We can’t know for certain, but we do know something happened. He turned to Jesus and defended Him against the taunts of his fellow criminal. He rebuked him, put him in his place, and made a statement filled with repentance and faith.

First he said, “Do you not fear God?” I don’t know about you but those words strike me as a statement of faith. As he was looking into the face of Jesus, he saw the divine in Him. God in the flesh. He saw a God to be feared, honored, humbly addressed, and worshiped – not ridiculed and scorned, as was the case.

He goes on to say, We belong up here. We are both under the same condemnation. I am a guilty man and justly deserve this punishment for what I have done! This definitely sounds like a repentant person to me. There is contrition in these words, humility in these words. No excuses, just an admission of guilt. No pointing the finger at someone else – I had a poor upbringing. It’s my parents’ fault, or what I’ve done doesn’t merit this torturous ending. It is just a simple, I am guilty, and I deserve this.

He’s not done with his talk. “But this man,” as he nods toward Jesus, “has done nothing wrong!” He is innocent.

Interestingly, these same words were spoken by King Herod and Pontius Pilate. All three of these men are correct in their assessment of Jesus. He is innocent. He is the Righteous One. The truth is, He is the perfect God man. The spotless, unblemished Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. The perfect sacrifice for our forgiveness.

Then the dying criminal looks in the direction of Jesus and makes a surprising request, which must’ve sounded like a beautiful symphony in the ears of Jesus. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” It is a confession of faith, a humble plea of a beggar to his King.

“Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me,” like the old hymn says. I know I do not deserve it, the criminal is saying, but Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Lo and behold, the dying man receives a remarkable promise from Jesus. “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise (the place of the righteous, the garden of the King, heaven).” Today you will be with Me, Jesus said. With Me, your King!

As a pastor, I hear all kinds of questions about death and dying. What I hear frequently is, Where will I be? What happens when I take my last breath? My response has always been, “You will be with Jesus.” This is what Scriptures say. And what joy that will be!

This promise is not only for the dying criminal, but also for my dying friend, Bob, and for you and for me. It is not because of anything we have done, but because of what Jesus has done for us – paying for our sins on the cross. The Easter resurrection will affirm the truth of Christ’s promise to the thief.

Jesus died shortly after that conversation. The criminal witnessed Him confidently pray, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” I wonder if the criminal said the same prayer for his own passing. It is a beautiful prayer of faith. It says, I know I am in My Father’s hands and nothing can snatch me from those strong, loving arms. I am His forever.

You could call this encounter of Jesus with the criminals a microcosm of the world’s response to Jesus. We see two guilty people witnessing a dying Jesus, who was nailed to a cross with a sign above His head announcing, “This is the King of the Jews.” We see two very different responses to Him, just like today.
One rejects Him,
one receives Him in repentance and faith.
One attacks Him with his words,
the other stands up for Him.
One sees a common criminal,
the other sees a crown and asks for a royal favor.
One sees an ordinary, guilty man,
another sees the perfect, innocent Son of God.
One sees a fraud,
the other sees the future he asked for.
One says “no” to Jesus,
the other says “Yes, Lord.”

Both criminals died shortly after Jesus died.
We all will die one day.

One dies without hope,
the other dies with confident hope knowing he will be with Jesus in paradise.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”

One is eternally lost,
the other is eternally found and heaven bound.

This truth remains the same today. Every last one of us needs Jesus – just like the criminals. I like this statement by Bishop J. C. Ryle. He said, “One thief on the cross was saved, that none should despair, and only one, that none should presume.”

Dear friends, we are all going to die someday – some of us sooner than expected. Are you to the place in your spiritual life where you know for certain you will be with Jesus in eternity? Because you can have the assurance, the certainty, that you will spend the rest of your days confidently knowing you belong to Him forever. “Neither life nor depth nor anything else in all creation can separate you from Him” (Romans 8:39).

By the way, Jesus’ prayer, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing,” reminds us that eternal life with Him can begin right now! You don’t have to wait until you die. As you place your life in His tender care, you find forgiveness for your sins and a new, fresh start with Him. A purpose-filled life is yours to enjoy today and forever as you entrust your life to Jesus Christ.

That, my dear friends, is the best news you will ever hear! Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

Encounters: Jesus Loves Short People

Luke 19:1-10

Have you ever been written off as a hopeless cause by people around you or even by yourself? Have you ever written someone else off as a lost cause? If so, I’m glad you’re listening in because our story for today has something for you and me to take to heart. In our passage, we find Jesus closing in on Jerusalem where He will carry out the rescue mission for which He was sent. He’s passing through Jericho, which is only about twenty miles from Jerusalem.

Now there was a man who lived in Jericho named Zacchaeus. He was Jewish, a chief tax collector for the Roman Empire, and very rich. We also learned Zacchaeus was short. He was physically short in stature. So short, in fact, he couldn’t see over the crowds welcoming Jesus as He came into town. So he climbed a sycamore tree to get a look at Jesus.

Zacchaeus was short in a variety of other ways as well. He was short in morals. His name meant innocent and pure, but he was anything but. He shorted people out of their money. He worked for the government but tax collectors were known to charge people more than was required in order to make a profit for themselves and line their own pockets. They were cheats.

Zacchaeus didn’t care about the poor or anyone else. He didn’t share his wealth with others. He was tightfisted with his money keeping everything for himself. He was successful, but he lived for making money and having the best things money can buy. Money had become kind of a god in his life. It was his security. He was willing to do anything to get it – even cheat his own people for personal gain, which brings us to the next thing Zacchaeus was short on.

He was short on respectability in his community. Nobody respected him – or even liked him, for that matter.

He probably was very short on friends. After all, he was working for the enemy to make his money. The Roman government at that time was the world power and his nation’s oppressors. He was forcing the people to pay taxes to support the evil Empire. So Zacchaeus was seen not only as a cheat, but also a traitor to his own people.

Finally, Zacchaeus came up short in his relationship with God. He was living a life of disobedience to the commands of God. He stole, and he cheated. He was living for money and depending on it for security instead of God. He was ignoring his neighbors’ needs, the poor, and even his own people. He fell far short of living a righteous life before God.

Zacchaeus had heard Jesus was visiting his community. He had heard some things about His miracles, His teachings that had people excited. There was also talk of Jesus being the Messiah sent from God. So Zacchaeus went to see for himself who this Jesus was and what He was all about.

I wonder if it was just curiosity or perhaps a thirst within, a spiritual thirst. Even with all his possessions and wealth, was something missing for him? Was God already working in him? Only God knows the answer to that question.

When Zacchaeus came to see Jesus, he was in for a big surprise, because, while he came to see Jesus, it turns out Jesus was already on the search for him! A life-changing encounter was about to take place in his life. Because he was so short, Zacchaeus couldn’t see Jesus coming down the street. So he ran ahead and climbed a tree to get a look at Him.

Finally he can see Jesus approaching. But when Jesus was near, lo and behold, He stopped! He looked at Zacchaeus up in the tree and made a short statement that would change this small man’s life.

“Zacchaeus!” How did He know his name? People had to be wondering. Zacchaeus had to be wondering as well!

“Hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”

The phrase “I must” speaks of divine necessity. It is used again and again, and it threads its way throughout Luke’s Gospel. It is spoken by Jesus. I must do this, and I must do that. He is under divine orders.

Zacchaeus must have been stunned, maybe even a little embarrassed to be brought into the center of things. And Jesus! He must have wondered, Come and dine? At my house? Today? Right now? I can’t believe it! This man of God wants to come into this old sinner’s house.

We’re told Zacchaeus scrambled down the tree and received Jesus joyfully. Joyfully! Could it be, Jesus’ self invitation to Zacchaeus’ house was heard as an absolution, acceptance, and his joyful receiving Jesus marks the moment of Zacchaeus’ awakening, his conversion? The evidence of faith is joy, right?

Predictably, the people of Jericho grumbled about this action of Jesus as they watched the two of them walk toward Zacchaeus’ house. They said, “He’s gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner!” Going into someone’s home and having table fellowship with him or her was to basically extend the hand of acceptance. This crook, this traitor did not deserve it, as far as they were concerned.

Now, we don’t know what happened in the house, but when they emerge, what a surprise! A new Zacchaeus was making a public speech to Jesus, showing extravagant, lavish repentance and faith. “Lord! Look!” he said.

The word Lord means Zacchaeus recognized Jesus as the ruler of his life. He shows the turnaround that has taken place in his life as he says, “Look, Lord! One half of everything I own I give to the poor.” Wow! Suddenly an openhanded generosity has taken over his life, which was not there before. Give one-half of everything to the poor. In those days, 20% was considered way out of this world. Zacchaeus is talking half of everything.

Zacchaeus also promises the restoration of money gained through his cheating. To those he cheated, he will give back double what the law even required of him to give. This would reduce his living circumstances substantially, but he does not care. He has found something far more valuable for his life – a relationship with Jesus, living with Christ in the kingdom of God.

Last week’s text was about a rich man as well, the rich young ruler. He encountered Jesus, and after the conversation walked away for he was so rich. Jesus said to those witnessing the conversation, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God. It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard Jesus say this then asked, “Who can be saved?” Jesus answered, “What is impossible for man is possible for God.” Today we see this impossible thing happened – a rich man was saved and changed. He let loose of the wealth – which was the center of his life and what he depended upon for a security – and instead entered God’s kingdom. God at work!

Jesus takes the opportunity to have the last word in this episode, by the way. He makes an announcement, an affirmation, and speaks an authoritative word as well. “Today salvation has come to this house!” Jesus is actually talking about Himself, for where He is, salvation is to be found for those who accept them as master and reorder their lives accordingly to follow Him. Zacchaeus is saved.

Jesus also affirms that Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham, meaning he belongs to God’s people through faith in Jesus. He is family now! God’s family! He believes in Christ and the word of authority.

Jesus then sums up His mission: For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. And that is what has just happened. Jesus sought out Zacchaeus and saved him. This statement is filled with authority as Jesus calls Himself the Son of Man, because the Son of Man was an Old Testament Messiah figure found in the book of Daniel. So Jesus is really saying here, I have the authority from God to find and restore lost people, like Zacchaeus.

These words also point us ahead to Jerusalem where Jesus is headed, and to what awaits Him there. He, who set His face to go to Jerusalem back in Luke chapter 9, is almost there now. His fate lies twenty miles away. Prophets have spoken of the fate awaiting Jesus, the Son of Man – rejection, suffering, and death. However, His mission is not just to die but to rescue lost people from sin and its consequences.

The biblical scholar, N. T. Wright says in his commentary, “The statement in this story, ‘He has gone to spend time with a sinner,’ will now soon change to, Jesus has gone to die with two thieves on a cross. The same reason will underline both of these statements, for the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

I find two takeaways for us in this story.

First, Jesus loves short people. I have to say, I’m glad He does! Let me explain . . .

I’m glad about this because I’m short – not physically, though I am shrinking a bit with age. I am short in righteousness before my righteous God. We all fall short in the righteousness department. The apostle Paul says it in this way: “All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23). In God’s eyes, we are all Zacchaeuses. All are in need of a Savior. All are in need of God’s forgiveness. All are lost. The Good News is Jesus came to seek and to save us on behalf of His Father who wants reconciliation with all who have fallen short of His righteousness.

We read in II Corinthians 5:21, written by Paul, “At the cross for our sake God made him, Jesus, to be sin who knew no sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Jesus looks at sinners like me who are stuck up a tree because of our sinfulness, and He calls us to come down to Him – sin and all – that we might have forgiveness and experience God’s grace in our lives.

Dear friends, if you are far from God, if you are feeling like a lost cause and there’s no hope for you, God has not written you off. Maybe people have written you off as a lost cause, and maybe you’ve written yourself off, but God has not. It’s not too late to come to Christ, to come to the One who calls us down to Himself.

Note: He says with a bit of urgency, “I must come and stay in your house today.” Someday it will be too late; It will be your judgment day.

This story reminds me a bit of Jesus’ promise in Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice, I will come into him and eat with him and he with me.” Rescue and salvation awaits, standing at the door. A new start, a new joy-filled life awaits anyone who opens the door of their life to the Savior, Jesus Christ, and it lasts for an eternity.

So friend, whatever your story is, Jesus is calling you – today – to Himself. He is seeking you in order to save you.

Second. This take-away is for those of us who call Him Savior and Lord and are in Christ’s Church. The Master is teaching His disciples, His Church, that there are no write-offs in His book. No one beyond His redemption. With God, the impossible becomes possible. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. Can we, who call ourselves Christ’s Church, do anything less? We are not to piously separate ourselves from the world and give up contact with the lost types and the prodigals, people whose morals, values, and lifestyles make us cringe and feel uncomfortable, who maybe even oppose Christ. Instead, remember that we are sinners ourselves, saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ. We are to humbly make the approach and seek to enter into a loving relationship with them.

I ask you, who have you given up on in your life? Who have you written off as a hopeless, lost cause? There have been times in my own life, God forgive me, when I’ve self-righteously stood in the company of the grumblers in this story who had written Zacchaeus off. It’s so easy to do.

A few years back a Christian songwriter named Bruce Carroll wrote a profound song in which each verse describes a person whose life is totally messed up. In the chorus he asks this question,

Who will be Jesus to them?
Who will show the love that restores them again?
For they do not need a judge, they need a friend
Who will be Jesus to them?

Will you? For it is the mission Jesus has given you. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

 

If I Were a Rich Man

Luke 18:18-27

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

Most people dream of having more money. Have you ever dreamt of being wealthy? We could sing with the character Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, “If I were rich man . . .” Would you like to be wealthy? If so, how much money would be enough. Would it make you happy? Improve your relationships? Be the basis of your security?

Harvard Medical School psychologist Steven Berglas has written a book called, The Success Syndrome. He has found that individuals who, in his words, “suffer from success,” have arrogance and a sense of aloneness.

Insider trader, Dennis Levine, was asked by his wife why he needed the money from insider trading, and he really had no answer. Levine says that when his income was $100,000 a year, he hungered for $200,000. When he was making a million a year, he hungered for three million. Berglas says that, oddly enough, people who find that $200,000 annually does not make them happy, never asked themselves why they thought $300,000 would make them happy.

When asked to prescribe a cure for the success syndrome, Berglas said, “What’s missing in these people is a deep commitment or religious activity that goes far beyond just writing a check to a favorite charity.”

Someone wisely said, “Money is a great servant, but a terrible master.”

All my life, I’ve dreamed of what it would be like to encounter Jesus in the flesh, face-to-face. To have the chance to unlock His mind, or hear the passion of His heart, or learn more personally about the kingdom of God. The person in our story from Luke’s Gospel is called the rich young ruler. He was a man living the dream, and he had a personal encounter with Jesus. What do we know about him?

We know he was rich, young, and a ruler. He was rich like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet of his time. The Bible says he was exceedingly rich.

We know money does buy power, freedom, influence. It draws the admiration of others. But Jesus said, “It’s harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle” (Mark 10:25). In old Jerusalem is a place called Needles Gate. It is a low entrance in the wall where camels can only pass through if they are stripped of their saddle and all of their packs. Then the camel can go through the Needles Gate on its knees.

It’s hard for a rich man to enter the place where God reigns without totally submitting to God’s authority and power, without being totally dependent upon God. As Christians we would say, without surrendering to Jesus as Lord. We need to strip off all that blocks us from trusting, following, and serving the Lord Jesus. To be a true disciple of Jesus Christ means we offer all our gifts, talents, and assets to serve Christ’s kingdom.

This man was rich, but he was also young. All of life’s dreams are ahead of him. Adventure and opportunity abound on the horizon. He is healthy. The youth have a sense of invincibility and a vitality of life that throbs with possibility.

This man was a ruler. He was blessed with a position of power, authority, and influence. He commanded others. This rich young ruler had it all!

Moreover, he was morally upright. He told Jesus he had obeyed and followed the commands of God since he was a boy. This rich young ruler does not know Jesus is God, but he does know Jesus is a good teacher.

He is a seeking soul on his knees before Jesus who has the answer to his problem. His life is so good, but he realizes it can’t last forever. All of us will die. So, on his knees, he pleads to know how his good life could last forever. “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

His understanding of eternal life was flawed. Eternal life, as the Bible describes it, is more than length of life. It is the quality of life. Eternal life also is not a flat commodity to be bartered for or to be earned. Nor is it an extension of our present existence, lasting forever.

Remember Jesus in John 17:3 said, “This is eternal life: that the world know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” Eternal life is living by faith in a shared relationship of life and love with God Himself, walking by faith with God each day.

Eternal life is the mystery of the living, all-powerful Lord Jesus inhabiting our souls and transforming our lives by the presence of His indwelling Spirit. Remember Jesus said, “The one who believes in me has already passed from death to eternal life” (John 5:24).

The rich young ruler also was mistaken in his concept of the way to receive eternal life. His question said, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer to that question is nothing. No human being can do anything or achieve anything to merit eternal life. He was hoping Jesus would give him a task. He was used to making things happen. His self-sufficiency was at the highest level.

When Jesus looks at this rich young ruler, he sees the motivations of the young man’s heart. It says in another Gospel account that when Jesus looked at him, He loved him.

But Jesus also was very straightforward in speaking the truth: “You lack something.” When Jesus looks at us, He also looks at us with love. However, He also sees our deficiencies, our imperfections, our flawed loyalties. Jesus sees in the rich young ruler that his wealth, his youthful health, and his position of power were idols for him. Even his moral obedience was a source of spiritual security in his understanding of his identity. All these things are gods (with a small “G”) for the rich young ruler.

The rich young ruler is very successfully self-reliant, but his self-reliance and wealth prevented him from seeing his need for what Jesus alone could provide. It blocked him from seeing his total dependence on Jesus Christ alone.

So Jesus gives this rich young ruler a bold request: “Give away all you have to the poor. Give it away to those who have no capacity to reciprocate, and come follow Me.” Jesus is not giving him a new path to salvation nor suggesting a person has to live in absolute poverty in order to be His disciple. He is instead lifting up the first Commandment – You shall have no other gods – as the very area where the rich young ruler falls.

Scripture says the rich young ruler was sad, and he went away deeply grieved. Mark’s Gospel says his face fell.

This promising young man, with great potential for good, was not chased by Jesus. Jesus did not lower the bar. Jesus did not say, Wait, wait. Let’s negotiate. Jesus has now pierced the rich young ruler’s naivete.

Just last week, I was visiting with a woman in a nursing home who knew by the doctor’s prescription that she only had a few days to live in this world. She said to me, “You’re gonna tell me how great heaven is, and that I’ll see Jesus soon. The truth is, I don’t want to go. I don’t want to leave my things.” I looked around her small room in the nursing home with stacks of boxes of stuff, of trinkets. She was surrounded by her personal junk, and she didn’t want let go of it, even for the glory of heaven.

Perhaps Jesus’ words strike a raw nerve for us, too. Will Jesus ask something of us, which will cost us too much? Jesus’ call to discipleship always calls for everything from us. “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure in the field,” Jesus says. “When the man found it, he sold all he had to buy that field” (Matt. 13:44). Jesus also said, “The one who saves his life will lose it, but he who loses his life for my sake and the Gospel’s will find it” (Mark 8:35).

Faith is a total dependence on Jesus Christ alone. But discipleship – inseparable from faith – is offering myself totally to Christ’s service. I’m willing to follow Him wherever He leads. My life is in His hands.

If I were a rich man, the potential is I would be tempted for my wealth to become more significant for me than Jesus. The rich young ruler couldn’t let go of his wealth and all the benefits that went with it, so he went away. There is no neutral response when Jesus calls us to follow Him.

The disciples then asked Jesus, “Well, then, who could be saved?” Jesus says this poignant word, “With people it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Thank the Lord, God specializes in the impossible. And the impossible was accomplished for us by the cross of Jesus Christ, the free gift of salvation, forgiveness of our sins, and the open door to eternal life. It says in the Scripture,

“Jesus has broken down every barrier dividing us” (Ephesians. 2:14).
“(Jesus) gives us access to the grace of God in which we live” (Romans 5:2).

On the cross, Jesus let go of His personal power and His rights to give His very life as punishment for all our misguided priorities, sins, and failures. The cross is the grace of God opening the kingdom of God for us. It is never based on merit or personal achievement.

Dr. Dick Hardell once told the story of observing a father with two young children in a congested airport terminal. The father was carrying his youngest child in his arms while his four-year-old girl walked confidently beside him. All went well as they moved as one through the crowds. But then they arrived at the escalator. The father stepped on without missing a stride, but the four-year-old girl stopped, frozen in fright at the foot of the strange steps, which moved up by themselves in an endless stream. She stood paralyzed watching her father disappeared up the escalator. Then she cried out loud enough for the father to recognize that her voice was at a distance. Too long a distance for safety.

He shifted the youngest child to another arm and slowly turned his body to look for his daughter to see her trapped at the bottom of the steps. With great passion, he turned and began to walk down the up escalator speaking words that would bring comfort, encouraging her, and slowly closing the distance between them. He turned, reached out his hand, and said to his daughter, “We will make this big step together.” She grabbed her daddy’s hand, smiled as tears splashed off her cheeks, and bravely stepped onto those endless steps, which had brought her fear.

Dear friend, whatever creates fear within you or hinders you from hearing Jesus call you to follow Him and receive the treasures of heaven, let go of it and trust Jesus. Follow Him today. Amen.

Pastor Lee Laaveg

Encounters: Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There!

Luke 10:38-42

Have you ever wondered how Jesus and His disciples spent their evenings? Where did they eat and sleep? I think they did a lot camping. After all, Jesus said to a potential follower, “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20). It sounds to me like most nights were spent out under an open sky around a campfire. Sometimes, though, somebody would welcome Jesus and His disciples to stay in their home. Such was the case in today’s story as we see them in the home of Martha.

Luke begins our episode telling us Jesus and His disciples were “on their way.” This is Luke’s way of reminding us of the story’s context. Jesus had set His face to go to Jerusalem where He would suffer and die, and rise again to fulfill God’s salvation plan. This is where they were – on the way to Jerusalem – when a woman named Martha opened her home to them.

Now, think about this: thirteen tired and hungry men entering her home for the evening. I’d say Martha was not only hospitable, but generous as well. Unfortunately, an uncomfortable incident took place in her home, as we see in the story. As it turned out, Jesus used it as a teaching moment. It was an unforgettable lesson, which the disciples remembered and Luke passed on.

In my experience, people struggle a bit with this story. I’ve participated in Bible study groups where the argument has been whether Jesus was fair in His response to Martha. Groups have had the tendency to wrestle with the question, Am I a Martha type or a Mary type? What do I need to change? We tend to give Martha very low marks in this story.

I have to confess, though, I kind of like Martha. She speaks her mind! Where would we be without Marthas who serve? As a pastor, I appreciate the Martha types I have been blessed with in my congregation over the years. They really get things done!

Maybe we are being unfair to Martha. After all, hasn’t Jesus just held up service to our neighbors as a kingdom value in the story of the Good Samaritan just right before this little episode?

What do you think? Is this story really dissing Martha? Is it telling us not to be like her – serving Jesus – and instead be like Mary who sat there? I personally I think it’s a shame to play these women against each other. After all, they were both friends of Jesus. They both had excellent qualities in the eyes of Jesus, and I’m sure Mary had as much of a servant spirit as her sister.

So what is the point of this story? Let’s look at it again and see what really happened. After Martha welcomed Jesus into her home, she went all out to put together a lavish meal with all the fixings and get the place looking just right for Him. In Scripture it says, “Though she was distracted by all her preparations . . .” The word “distracted” means her attention was drawn elsewhere; it was not on her guest of honor. She was caught up in busyness to serve Jesus.

I’m reminded of a story Pastor Chuck Swindol wrote in a book entitled, Stress Fractures. “I vividly remember sometime back being caught in the undertow – too many commitments in too few days. It wasn’t long before I was snapping at my wife and our kids, choking down my food at meal times, and feeling irritated at those unexpected interruptions throughout the day. Before long, things around our home started reflecting the pattern of my hurry-up style. It was becoming unbearable for everyone.

“I distinctly recall after supper one evening the words of our younger daughter, Colleen. She wanted to tell me about something important that had happened to her at school. She hurriedly began, ‘Daddy, I want to tell you something, and I’ll tell you really fast!’

“Suddenly realizing her frustration, I answered, ‘Honey, you can tell me. You don’t have to tell me really fast. Say it slowly.’ I’ll never forget her answer. ‘Well then, listen more slowly.’”

I think Martha was a bit like Chuck. She was distracted and irritated in her busyness and not listening while her sister Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to what He is saying. Think about it – Jesus let her sit in and listen and learn like a male, as one of His disciples, which was unheard of for women in those days. It was quite a gift to Mary.

Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, Martha is feeling deserted and is growing more and more irritated with Mary in the midst of her dinner preparations. Can’t you just imagine Martha getting a little noisier out in the kitchen as she bangs things around a little harder, a little louder, sighing and moaning to herself, clearing her throat a little louder than usual to perhaps catch Mary’s attention. But Mary doesn’t budge. She continues to sit there at the feet of Jesus, taking in what He is saying, which angers Martha all the more! Who does she think she is? She doesn’t belong out there with the men, but in here with me working, serving.

Finally, Martha can’t stand it anymore. She storms into the room and has a meltdown in front of everyone. She takes her frustrations out – not on Mary – but on Jesus! “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself! Tell her to help me!” I’d say it had to have put a bit of a damper on things. One could feel the air being sucked right out of the room, I imagine. She kind of spoiled the dinner party, didn’t she. She spoiled it for Mary by embarrassing her, and she spoiled it for the disciples who are now feeling very uncomfortable, like they’d like to run out the door.

You could say she spoiled her relationship with Jesus a bit. She’s upset with Him and blames Him for her unhappiness and irritation. Everyone is just sitting there, staring at her open-mouthed, and then Jesus breaks the silence. He gently responds to her, “Martha, Martha . . .”

I have a daughter named Martha, and my poor Martha has had to hear this line quoted at least a thousand times, I’m sure.

Jesus goes on to describe for Martha what He is observing and the solution as well. He says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset by many things, but few things are needed, or indeed only one.” It doesn’t sound like Jesus is unappreciative of Martha’s service. However, He is concerned about the spirit which has developed in her because of the many tasks she has put on herself.

Martha, you are so worked up over all these things. Few things are needed – indeed only one. You are working too hard at your hospitality. It’s overwhelmed you and upset you. Even one dish would be enough. I’m not here to make your life more difficult and anxious. More importantly, I’m here to see you and talk with you. Keep it simple, Martha. Sometimes it is better to keep it simple.

Earlier in this 10th chapter of Luke, Jesus instructs His disciples, who He sends out two by two, to expect little and not be a burden on the households which welcome them. Have few expectations of them. Just eat what they put in front of you, Jesus said. Now He is living those words out in front of His disciples. Sometimes good service can get spoiled by a bad attitude which has developed.

You might be wondering how you can know when you are becoming dangerously overboard with hospitality and serving? Try this one on for size: when what you are doing drives you to distraction – makes you anxious, irritable, upset, judgmental, and difficult to get along with – it could be a good clue that you may be need to simplify things a bit. Serving a lavish meal is a fine thing, but we can tarnish the whole affair when we end up with a bad spirit because of it. It doesn’t do anybody any good.

This story isn’t instructing us to just sit around doing nothing and serve Jesus – the serving is appreciated. Sometimes, however, we need to keep it simple so we can do something even more important, which we see in the next statement of Jesus.

He goes on to say, “Mary has chosen that which is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” She has chosen the better part. What is this better part? It is to grab the opportunity to spend time with Jesus and allow Him to minister to you, to let Him do something in you before you do something for Him. Your soul needs His service, care, and time as He speaks into your life. It is time well spent. Don’t just do, do, do something. Sit there.

Shouldn’t I be serving Jesus? Absolutely! But remember, the One who said, “Pick up your cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24), also said, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28-30).

It’s so easy to get caught up in our busyness of serving Jesus and others and not sit with Jesus and let Him serve us. We get worn down by it. It leads to explosions and meltdowns like we see in today’s story. It leads to burn out, broken relationships with others including Jesus, and moral breakdowns. We make bad decisions when we’re so tired. It has the potential to create a troubled and lost soul, out of touch with God and doing life without Him.

How is your soul, your inner person, these days? Are you giving it the attention it needs? While Martha was preparing her banquet, another banquet was already being served by Jesus in her home, which He wanted her to have. She was missing out on His rest for her soul. Are you missing out? Life can get so busy. A banquet awaits you when you spend time with Him, take in His words of grace, love, and wisdom. A feast is prepared for you to enjoy as you worship Him on Sunday with the community of faith, and every day of the week. As you make time to pause, open His word to let Him speak into your life, talk with Him in prayer, praise Him in song.

We learned today, there is nothing wrong with serving. Keep it up; it’s a good thing! We are called to serve in Christ’s name. But we also are reminded in this passage that Jesus came to serve us. He put words to this later on in Luke: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve” (Matt. 10:45).

We need precious time with Him. Our souls require us to quiet ourselves in His presence. We need His words of life to comfort, encourage, and guide us. We need to not just always be doing, doing, doing, but to just sit there and enjoy His company with us. Allow Him to put a song in our mouths.

♬”. . . and He walks with me and He talks with me,
and He tells me I am His own.
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
none other has ever been known.”♪

I want to close this message with a very touching story I read recently. It was written by a fellow pastor named Dan Meyer.

“This past week I stood at a grave side with a small circle of people as we laid to rest one of the great saints of our church. We told stories of how much better our lives were for the chance to know this man. Every one of us knew something of him. None of us knew all. But it was his marriage partner who knew the most. As we walked from the grave, she gave me an envelope containing a personal gift enclosed by a simple note. ‘Please enjoy dinner with your lovely wife,’ the note read. ‘Every minute together is precious.’

My first thought, I confess, was pretty self focused. What splendid timing! Amy and I are coming up on our 22nd wedding anniversary, and I’m going to take her out for a meal with this gift.

Then, as I sat in my car reading the note over again, the deeper significance of those words on the card started to settle in. The woman who had penned them had been with her own spouse on their 22nd anniversary. She been with him on their 32nd anniversary too, and on their 42nd, their 52nd, their 62nd, and their 72nd year of married life. For most of her more than 90 years on this planet she had built her life around the love of this man. She’d raised and buried children with him. She had faced storms and sun shines alike with him. She had soaked in and loved more of his heart, mind, soul, and strength than anyone else on earth. But for her, it was still not quite enough. ‘Please enjoy the opportunity,’ she had urged me with trembling pen, ‘and remember, every minute together is precious.’”

This, my dear friend, is our lesson, which Jesus wants to write upon our hearts today. Remember, every minute together with me is precious.

So don’t just do something, sit there. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

Encounters: A Lesson on Love

Luke 10:25-37

When a new parent was asked by a friend what it was like having their first baby living in the house now, he replied, “Well, there’s never a dull moment.” How true that is! If you were to ask one of the disciples what life with Jesus was like, they probably would’ve said something like that. There’s never a dull moment. Just think of all they regularly experienced after they began to follow Him: amazing miracles; battles with demons; Jesus’ confrontations with the opposition; dinner parties with shady people; challenging assignments in some foreign, unfriendly territories; and fascinating conversations with all kinds of interesting people along the way. Such was the case as we read of Christ’s final expedition to Jerusalem in Luke’s Gospel.

Jesus had many memorable encounters in conversations with various kinds of people who came to Him. His disciples had the privilege of listening and observing them. Obviously, they were impacted by these encounters because they later remembered them and shared them with other people. Eventually, Luke wrote them down for our benefit.

These encounters served them well as part of their training to be Christ’s disciples. Jesus had called them with the promise of making them fishers of people, and they had a lot to learn. They needed to learn about the ways of the kingdom of God and how to attract people to repent and receive the kingdom so they might experience the new, abundant life Jesus came to give them.

Last week we observed Jesus’ encounter with three admirers who said they wanted to follow Him. From that encounter, the disciples learned about the high commitment involved with following Jesus. Today we see Him having an encounter with a lawyer. This is not an attorney as we know them today. He was more of a biblical scholar, an expert on the Torah, the Law of Moses. This man came to Jesus with a question: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Now we might wonder if he is sincere in asking that question. Does he really want to know? Luke would say, Not really. He was simply putting Jesus to the test. He’s thinking to himself, ‘Let’s see how bright this Galilean rabbi really is!’ I bet I could teach him a thing or two. Let the games begin!’

In all likelihood, this lawyer was affiliated with the Pharisees, who were working to discredit Jesus with whom they had some run-ins already. Maybe the man’s intentions were to make a public spectacle of Jesus by getting Him to say something heretical that would hurt His reputation.

Besides, it is a bit of a stupid question when you think about it. The nature of an inheritance is that you do nothing for it. You don’t earn an inheritance; someone gives it to you. Jesus patiently and kindly responds to this individual with His own question. “What’s written in the law? What do you read there?” (Notice, Jesus says He didn’t come to abolish the laws of God, but to actually fulfill them.)

The expert responds with the statement that every pious Jew recited daily. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind.” Then he added a statement from the Old Testament: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). The man’s response is sometimes referred to in Christian circles as the Great Commandment, and Jesus affirms him for it. “Good answer! Do this and you will live.” End of debate, now. Right? Nope. Not at all.

The law expert doesn’t want to end this debate, because he is kind of losing. He wants to justify himself, look good in front of the crowd. So he asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” And Jesus tells a story – a story, which has become very familiar over time, even to those who profess not to believe in Jesus. It has been entitled, The Good Samaritan story.

A traveler going down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was robbed and beaten and stripped of his clothes. The robbers left him half dead by the side of the road. Now by chance, a priest, and then a little later on, a Levite (an assistant priest) came walking down the road, saw the beaten man lying there half dead, but each of them crossed over to the other side of the road and passed him by.

These were very religious people of God. They knew the same answers that the expert quoted, but they did nothing. Quite disappointing. Jesus doesn’t tell us why they did nothing. Perhaps it was fear of being mugged themselves or a lack of time in their tight schedules. Maybe they were concerned about remaining ceremonially clean, not taking the chance of touching a dead man, which would make them unclean.

Jesus continued . . .

But, a Samaritan came near and saw him . . .

The listeners were at the edge of their seats. Augh! One of those half-breed, lowlife Samaritans. I bet he’ll crush in his skull. Finish him off. This isn’t good! Jews and Samaritans had a long history of hatred toward each other. No time for one another.

Jesus went on with the story.

. . . and when he saw the man, he was moved with pity. He went to the beaten man, did everything he could to help him. He bandaged his wounds after applying oil and wine on them for healing. He put the man on his donkey and walked into an inn. He took care of him there. He paid for the man’s stay from his own pocket, covering two months of lodging for him, and told the innkeeper to put any overrun costs on his tab.

Such extravagant love on a part of that Samaritan – over-the-top mercy and compassion.

Then Jesus turned to the law expert and asked him, “Which of these three was the neighbor to the beaten-up man?”

Biblical scholars, by the way, point out that there’s a bit of a surprise stinger in this parable. Jesus portrayed the hated Samaritan as the hero of the story. He carried out God’s great commandment better than the other two Jewish religious professionals. The thought was so horrifying, distasteful to the law expert that he couldn’t even bring himself to say the word Samaritan. Instead, with a scowl on his face, he spit out the words, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus gets in the last word: “Go and do likewise.” Instead of asking, Who is my neighbor? – Go and Be a neighbor. The right question is not, Who is my neighbor? but, How can I be a neighbor? Be a neighbor even to people like Samaritans, for they are your neighbors, too.

An important truth is being taught here. A neighbor is someone whose need you see and God has put you in a position to meet, no matter who they are. Jesus takes away the boundaries, the limits that the expert of the law (one of God’s own people) and people like us tend to put up for ourselves. We love people who like us and are like us. Jesus tells us to be a neighbor to those who are not like you and those who do not like you as well. According to this parable, your neighbor could be

• Someone who you don’t know, an absolute stranger. The Samaritan did not know the guy in the ditch. He only saw the need and responded with help.
• Someone who is unfriendly toward you – even an enemy. Like the relationship between Jews and Samaritans.
• Someone who rubs you the wrong way, who has done you wrong in the past.
• An unlovely person. The half-dead man lying in a pool of blood by the side of the road was very unattractive to look at.
Someone whose lifestyle you find unlovely, whose life situation makes you sick and uncomfortable.
• Someone who even worships another god than you do. You see them as unlovely.
• Someone who can’t reciprocate your love. Did you notice that there’s no paying back in this parable? No IOU being written out. In fact, not even a thank-you is found in the story. Just unconditional love and mercy on the part of Samaritan. Likewise, the person you help may not say thanks or make you feel good about your kindnesses. Jesus is saying, So what? Be a neighbor.

This is a difficult teaching, if you ask me. But Jesus is very clear. As God’s own people who have received His mercy and love through Christ, we are to love God and go out of our way to be a loving neighbor to others. We are to love them extravagantly and unconditionally.

Perhaps you’re wondering what this kind of love look like, and where a person gets started? First, you make yourself available. This is how you get started.

Bob Gough, a Christian author of the popular book, Love Does, tells of the importance of being available. He said, “We answer people’s questions about love every time we make ourselves more available. I’m trying to learn to be radically available. Every time my phone rings, it’s a reminder to me: Be like Jesus. Be available. There is something beautiful about stopping and really seeing people. Seeing their hurt, seeing their joy, seeing the whatever.”

After you make yourself available, be an intentional observer of people. Look at people around you, notice them, pay attention to them. Be interested. Be a student of them. Observe and listen. Ask questions and work at remembering what they say to you. Come to understand them so you can help.

Finally, get involved and lend a hand to those stuck in the ditch of life, like in the parable. Use the resources God has given you to help the hurting neighbor – resources like your time, your possessions, your skills, and your connections to help. Whether it’s a societal hurt or an injustice that needs healing. It has caught your attention on the news and is breaking your heart. You become passionate about it. Or perhaps it is an individual’s need in your sphere of influence, at a retirement home, in your neighborhood, at work, on the pickle ball course, or on the golf course. In the name of Jesus, do something. This is what He is telling us. Get involved. Love your neighbor.

Let me share a story I read recently that inspires me.

A man who had no interest in spiritual matters related casually to the Christian who lived next door to him. They talked over the back fence about power lawnmowers and stuff like that.

Then the non-Christian’s wife was stricken with cancer and died three months later. Afterward he wrote in a letter, “I was in total despair. I went through the funeral preparations and the service like I was in a trance. After the service, I went to the path along the river and walked all night, but I didn’t walk alone. My neighbor, afraid for me I guess, stayed with me all night. He didn’t speak. He didn’t even walk beside me. He just followed me. When the sun finally came up over the river, he came over and said to me, ‘Let’s go get some breakfast.’

“I go to church now – my neighbor’s church. A religion that can produce the kind of caring and love my neighbor showed me is something I want to learn more about. I want to love and be loved like that for the rest of my life.”

Jesus’ words to love our enemies sound like a tall order. We know ourselves pretty well – our built-in prejudices, our selfishness, our inattentiveness. So we naturally say it is impossible. How can I possibly do this?

The answer is, you can’t. Not on your own. However, I have an encouraging word for you today: With Jesus Christ in your life, you can grow in loving your neighbor. If you are a follower of Jesus, you are filled supernaturally. You are powered by the Holy Spirit. God is at work in you, developing what the apostle Paul refers to in the book of Galatians as the fruit of the Spirit, which basically is the ability to love people like Jesus. It means to have a heart of kindness that breaks for others in their brokenness and moves toward them to help. You are not on your own.

One final thought for today. Disciples of Jesus never walk in the footsteps of Jesus as much as when they operate like the Samaritan in this parable – being a loving neighbor. Remember, we were in the ditch, helplessly dying in our sinfulness, in need of rescue. We needed someone to bring us home to our heavenly Father. Jesus saw us in our need. He rescued us and healed our wounds with His own wounds at the cross as He suffered and died for sinners like you and me. He loves us extravagantly, without limits. Scriptures say while we were still His enemies, Jesus died for our salvation. When I trust Jesus as my Savior and Lord and enter into His kingdom, I am showered with His mercy, grace, and forgiveness. His agenda then becomes my agenda – to extravagantly love the wounded and needy of this world whom He daily brings to my attention. I do this out of love for Him who gave His all for me.

Go, be a neighbor. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

Encounters: Follow Him

Luke 9:51, 57-62

It’s a new chapter! I recently retired after serving 38 years in pastoral ministry! People have made this statement to me: “This is the beginning of a new chapter, a new phase of life for you.” They also ask questions such as, “What are you going to do now, Steve?” “Do you have plans?” “What do you think God has in store for you?” A fellow pastor recently reminded me there’s no such thing as retirement in the kingdom of God. He is absolutely right! I still consider myself on call for the Lord.

I don’t know the answers to these questions yet. But what I do know is this: I am excited about this new chapter and what God has in store for my wife, Julie, and me.

In today’s passage, we see Jesus entering a new chapter of His life. He knows what God has planned out for Him. The cross lay ahead where He will suffer and die for the forgiveness of our sins. For the first 8½ chapters of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has been busy revealing himself as the Son of God, the Messiah of God, sent from above with power and authority to carry out God’s plans to rescue a sinful world for Himself. Jesus has done this revealing through His preaching and His miracles. God affirmed it to Peter, James, and John at Christ’s Transfiguration on the mountaintop.

In today’s reading, we see Jesus setting His face to go to Jerusalem. This is a biblical way of saying He resolved, He was focused. He was determined to go to Jerusalem and accomplish that for which He had come.

Luke’s Gospel narrative says it marked the beginning of a new chapter, a new phase in our Lord’s life. The days had drawn near for Him to be taken up by sinful and rejecting men, nailed to a cross in Jerusalem, and suffer and die as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. He would pay the debt for my sin and your sin, which could not be repaid by us.

But He would also be taken up from death, raised, and then exalted by God as the Lord over all things. This is Good News to build our lives upon. This is Good News. Trusting in what He has done for us, we share in His victory over sin, death, and the devil. We thank God He set His face to go to Jerusalem and we’ve been rescued.

This is the context from which we will be working for the next few weeks of Lent in this series I’m entitling “Encounters.” Jesus is resolutely on His way to Jerusalem to be taken up. He is doing it to rescue us from our sin and the consequences of sin. On His Way, Jesus and His disciples will have encounters with various types of people to whom He will speak important truths about important things in life. These conversations hold valuable insights for you and me to discover and then apply to our own lives.

Today we see the first encounter – three people who say they desire to follow Him. For some reason they were moved by Jesus. They admired Him. Maybe they had observed His miracles. Perhaps they had seen Him change the lives of those around them for the better. They had listened to His Good News about the kingdom of God being at hand. They were inspired, moved to say, I want to follow you, Jesus.

This scene is repeated often, even in today’s world. A person is moved emotionally, intellectually, or spiritually in some way and says, I want and need to be with Jesus. Maybe she is at a worship service where Jesus is portrayed as the Savior she needs, so she says to herself, I need someone like that in my life. I need a Savior. I want Jesus.

Perhaps someone has observed how Christianity has enriched a friend’s life. In an hour of need, they tell their friend, I think I need what you have. Maybe you are attending a large event. The speaker moves you to come forward for the altar call. Perhaps a light has gone on for you after reading or studying about Jesus on your own.

Any number of circumstances can move people toward Jesus. It appears these three men in our text don’t quite understand Jesus; they just are moved by Him. What they don’t understand is what it means to be His disciple. So He lays it out for them.

The key word in these encounters is the word “follow.” It is used three times here. They like Jesus and promise to follow Him. They’ve observed the positive possibilities for their own lives as they get involved with Him.

“I will follow you wherever you may go,” the first man says. He sees Jesus is an up-and-comer, perhaps. He wants to get in on the bottom floor and rise with Jesus into power and glory. But he has some misguided expectations and doesn’t know what is really involved in following Jesus.

The second one said, “Let me first go bury my father.” The father probably wasn’t dead. The man was procrastinating. Someday I’ll do this, but I have other obligations to take care of first. Family first!

The third one said, “I will follow you, but first let me go and say goodbye to my family.” He wants to have both worlds – one hand on the plow yet looking back. He is saying his “. . . but first, Jesus,” which is the issue.

Jesus continues to run into this thought pattern even today. I’ll go to church when I can and throw a few dollars in the plate. But I hope you understand, I have important things to tend to in my life. We can tend to be superficial in our thinking about membership in God’s kingdom. Church is oftentimes sold to us as easy and non-demanding. Say yes to Jesus and this is what He will do for you. There’s little talk of service, commitment, and crosses as Jesus talked about. People join churches like consumers asking, What can you do for me? instead of asking, What can I do for this church as it reaches people for Jesus?

Jesus’ responds to these thoughts with clear, hard words – uncompromising words. To the first He says, “Follow me!” You might be headed for homelessness, uncertainty, comfortlessness, but look at me! I don’t have anywhere to lay my head. Jesus doesn’t promise a Cadillac, but a cross.

To this second Jesus said, “Bury your father? Let the dead bury their own dead! Come with me, now, and let’s go proclaim the kingdom of God.” “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33). Do it now. Following me means I am the center priority in your life, more important than anything else – even family.

To the third man who wanted to go back and say goodbye, Jesus responds, A farmer knows better than to look backward when trying to plow a field. It will be crooked. Anyone who looks back is not fit for kingdom work for being my disciple.

We learn from these three encounters that Jesus prefers followers not fans (those who are just enthusiastic admirers). He is looking for fully-devoted followers, wholeheartedly committed to serving Him, obeying Him, doing life His way, and following His lead.

Here is what we learn about following Him and this whole idea of discipleship.

1. Following Jesus is not always safe, certain, comfortable, convenient, or even popular these days, I know.

Pastor and Christian writer Kevin Miller commented on this attitude in a Christianity Today magazine as he talks about Christaholics versus disciples. He says,

Many Christians are only Christaholics and not disciples at all.

Disciples are cross bearers. They seek Christ.
Christaholics seek happiness.

Disciples dare to discipline themselves. The demands they place on themselves leave them enjoying happiness of their growth.
Christaholics are escapists looking for a shortcut to Nirvana. Like drug addicts, they are trying to bomb out of their depressing world. There is no automatic joy.

Christ is not a happiness capsule. He is the way to the Father. But the way to the Father is not a carnival ride in which we sit and do nothing while we are whisked through various spiritual sensations.

2. Following Christ means leaving the former life behind. I’m reminded of something Christian martyr and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer described in his book, The Cost of Discipleship. He wrote of what he called the great divide. “The first step,” he writes. “which follows Christ’s call, cuts the disciple off from his previous existence. The call to follow at once produces a new situation. To stay in the old situation makes discipleship impossible. You can’t stay where you are.” It’s like the song we learned in Bible camp, “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back. No turning back.”

We need ask ourselves, What is competing for our allegiance to Christ? We may have both hands on the plow, but what is it we keep looking back at?

3. Following Jesus is not a part-time, but a full-time commitment. He isn’t just one more priority among many along the way. He is THE priority, central. He calls the shots. He is your commander, not your colleague.

4. Following Jesus is a lifetime commitment. His call to these three people had no expiration date on it. It is not a short-term but a long-term devotion; not a sprint but a marathon. One person wrote, Christ has not issued His call for a season, but for a lifetime. Service to the kingdom begins the moment we receive Christ and continues until the Father calls us home.

What does this look like? It is different for each person. Some are called to serve where they grow up. Others are called to journey thousands of miles away. Some live in hardship and lose their life for the faith, like Peter who died for the faith. Others live a long life, like John who apparently died of old age. What is the same, though, is the call to discipleship has priority over everything else.

We can baulk at these hard words of Jesus. Wait a minute! Salvation is free, I thought. Am I not right? 

Yes, Scripture tells us repeatedly that salvation is free in Christ. A person is saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Yet today we learned that while it is free, discipleship carries a cost. It might cost you everything. Christ is calling us to follow Him and be obedient, devoted disciples.

It’s interesting to note what is missing in these encounters. Luke doesn’t tell us what these three individuals did in response to Jesus’ words. Did they stay with Jesus? Did they become His followers. Were they part of the seventy that He will send out in Luke chapter 10?

This is not important for us to know. What is important is your response to these words of Jesus. How have you responded to Christ’s call to follow Him as His disciple? Have you entrusted your life to His leadership? Are you walking in His footsteps, committed to doing life His way, living according to His word.

We make so many commitments in the different areas of our lives, and while these commitments seem important, they pale in comparison to an all-important commitment to follow Jesus as His disciple and do life ways His way. Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness in your life.

Author and pastor Tim Keller writes,

“I’ve heard people say, ‘I’m checking out Christianity, but I also understand Christians can’t do this, and the Bible says you’re supposed to do that. You’re supposed to love the poor, or you’re supposed to give up sex outside of marriage. I just can’t accept that.’ People want to come to Christ with a list of conditions. But the real question is this: Is there a God who is the source of all beauty and glory in life? And if knowing Christ will fill your life with His goodness and power and joy so you would live with Him in endless ages with His life increasing in you every day, if that is true you wouldn’t say things like, You mean I have to give up like things like sex or something else?

Let’s say you have a friend who’s dying of some terrible disease, so you take him to the doctor, and the doctor says, ‘I have a remedy for you. If you just follow my advice, you will be healed and you will live a long and fruitful life.’ But there’s only one problem: while you’re taking my remedy, you can’t eat chocolate.’ Now, what if your friend turned you and said, ‘Forget it! No chocolate? What’s the use of living? I’ll follow the doctor’s remedy, but I will also keep eating chocolate.’”

If Christ is really God, then all the conditions are gone. To know Jesus Christ as Lord, anywhere your will touches my life, anywhere your word speaks, I will say, “Lord, I will obey.” There are no conditions anymore. If He is really God, He can’t just be a supplement. We have to come to Him and say, Okay, Lord. I’m willing to let you start a complete reordering of my life.

Someone might ask if it is worth it. My response is this: The cost is great, but it is never a burden. I’ve never heard a committed follower of Christ say, Christ has become a burden to me. Listen to the testimony of this modern-day disciple named William. He writes, “I find discipleship means first truly living. It doesn’t mean a joy ride to heaven. It doesn’t mean there are no trials, no burdens, but it does mean peace in your soul, joy in your heart, and a sense – a supreme sense – of the smile of the Lord upon you. It is living.”

Long ago, the apostle Paul said the same thing. “For me to live is Christ and to die means gain” (Phil. 1:21).

If you think the price seems high, I encourage you to consider the price Jesus paid to make you His own. O how He loves you and me! Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

Jesus Revealed: He’s the One You Need to Listen To!

Luke 9:28-36

I really thought I knew him. You might find yourself saying or thinking something like this after a disappointing experience with someone. They’ve let you down, disappointed you, betrayed your trust, maybe even broken your heart. I’ve heard a number of wives and husbands – brokenhearted by an unfaithful spouse – make that statement to me in my office.

Or you might think this after a surprising, wonderful discovery about someone you thought you knew everything about. WOW! I didn’t know that about him. That’s great! I once heard a longtime church member say this after he had an awakening to the wonder of Christ and His grace for the first time. He had an encounter.

These words could very well have been rolling around the mind of Peter in our text. Eight days earlier, Jesus had asked His followers who they thought He was, and Peter, speaking on behalf of the group, responded, “You are the Messiah of God.” These disciples had been witnessing Jesus’ power and authority again and again as He taught and healed, cast out demons and controlled nature. So Peter was definitely sure this was the right answer – Jesus is the Messiah. However, they didn’t expect the response they received from Jesus that day: Do not tell anyone. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:22).

These words shook Peter. None of it made sense. Messiahs don’t suffer and die; they win battles. They takeover kingdoms, overthrow Israel’s enemies, and live in power forever. It’s the way we’ve been taught. Everyone knows that! What’s this business, ‘I must go through this?’

Perhaps Peter wondered what he had gotten himself into. If Jesus is going to die, what about me? I mean, He is talking about picking up a cross. Will I die with Him? Is He worth dying for? I really thought I knew Him. Peter and the others had to have been more than a little shaken. They thought they knew Jesus, but now weren’t so certain.

If you listen closely to people’s words these days, you can still hear these kinds of thoughts. We have expectations of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ and expectations of what Jesus should be doing for us. Life should turn out okay if I trust and obey Him. He will protect me from harm and suffering. Then something bad happens and we’re totally disappointed. We, think, Gee, I really thought I knew Him. I’m not so sure now. My faith is kind of shaky.

Back to our story. Luke begins by saying, “Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.”

Have you ever noticed that great, eye-opening things always seem to happen on mountaintops in the Bible? This mountaintop experience is no different. Peter, John, and James had a real eye-opener up there. You might even say they saw the light! These three sleepy men were watching Jesus, who was praying off in the distance, when suddenly Jesus was transfigured. He became dazzling white. He showed His heavenly glory. It was beyond amazing! His face had changed. It was so filled with brightness, brilliant light, one couldn’t even look into it. His clothes became as bright as lightning.

Then they saw two men – Moses and Elijah – talking to Jesus. These guys were great figures of the Old Testament – both prophets and great men in their own eras. They were hall-of-famers of the faith.

The disciples also heard some outstanding things. First, they heard Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus about His departure, which means literally, His exodus. It is a reminder of God’s deliverance of His people from slavery in Egypt, which was led by Moses. This exodus would be accomplished by Jesus in Jerusalem. A deliverance is coming! This thrilling news must have made Peter’s heart pound with excitement!

Just as Moses and Elijah were about to leave, Peter, wanting to extend his experience, said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Luke tells us Peter made this statement “not knowing what he said.” In other words, Peter was talking stupid.

Why did he say this, do you suppose? Why was it wrong? Was it perhaps because he was putting Moses and Elijah on the same level as Jesus (three equal shelters)? No one – not even the lawgiver or the great prophet – measures up to Jesus. He is unique in His own right. Above all.

Perhaps, Jesus was telling Peter, We can’t stay on the mountaintop forever, Peter. I have a mission. The world is waiting to be saved. God’s work needs to be done.

The truth is, we can’t really know what Peter meant with these words. But we do know this: God, the Father, stepped into the scene and spoke His words to clear things up. A cloud suddenly overshadowed them. (In the Old Testament book of Exodus, God approached people with His presence in this way.) From the cloud they heard the voice of God speak: THIS IS MY SON. It was an endorsement from God Himself. Jesus is the Son of God. He has stepped down from His throne in heaven to be with sinful humanity. He is God in the flesh and God’s gift to you and me. To know Him is to know God. He is the One you can trust with your life and your eternity. “This is my Son,” God says. “My chosen.”

The title “Chosen”comes from the book of Isaiah. It is a prophecy from God of One who would come, a Messiah to save His people. He would actually suffer for them. In Isaiah 42:1, for instance, God says of the coming Messiah,

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations.”

In Isaiah 53:5, God describes what will happen to His Chosen.

“But he was wounded for our transgressions,
and he was crushed for our iniquities.
Upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.”

God is endorsing, affirming Jesus for those who were doubting Him. This is My Son. He has come to suffer and die, to fulfill my rescue plan for saving a sin-sick world.

Then He makes clear what He wants from them – “Listen to Him!” It’s like God is saying, I know He said some things that don’t meet your expectations. They are difficult to consider, and you feel confused. His words don’t make sense by worldly standards and logic. But listen to Him anyway!

“Listen to Him!” This is God’s word to you and me today. This is My Son: Jesus! Listen to Him! We can do that as we open our Bibles to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and let Jesus speak His word into our lives.

Peter said one time, “Jesus, you have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). He does! There is such life in the words of Jesus as He comforts us with promises like, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden. I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). What a promise that is! We can come to Him and trust Him with our weariness, our failures, and our sinfulness. We can allow Him to minister to us and instruct us, which leads to a restful soul – all the way to our eternal rest in heaven. Comforting words.

However, sometimes His words seem upside down and very challenging for us, just as they were for those first disciples. For instance, look at His words given to the disciples eight days earlier: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23, 24). This is a difficult statement to understand. We live in a world that teaches just the opposite – we should be looking out for #1. Me, myself, and I is what is important. Grab on and hold on to all you can get. The one with the most toys wins!

These words of Jesus sound inconvenient and uncomfortable.

But wait a minute! Stop and look at what Jesus promises:

“Those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24)

A saved life; a new, renewed, eternal, life is promised here. Jesus is saying,

Having me, serving me, laying down your life for me, is worth more than anything you can gain in this world. If you are looking for a full life, for eternal life, it is found only in following Me. Serving Me, giving yourself away for Me and My kingdom cause is where you gain a real life.

God affirms Him. “This is My Son. Listen to Him.”

The apostle Paul listened and took Him seriously. In the book of Philippians, he said basically this: I had everything, or so I thought. But then I met Jesus Christ, and all that stuff is garbage in comparison to knowing and serving Jesus (Phil. 3:1-10).

I’m reminded of a book written a few years ago called, 100 THINGS TO DO BEFORE YOU DIE, which inspired the movie, “The Bucket List.” Coauthored by Dave Freeman, his own list included things like attending the Academy Awards; running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain; and other good things. The story drips with irony. According to his family, Freeman had actually gotten to do only about 50 of the things on his list before he died at age 47.

We are reminded that we may never accomplish all the things we hope to do. Life can be short. Freeman took a knock on the head and died at a relatively young age, reminding us that none of us knows how long we have to live.

Tragically, among the hundred of things Freeman and his coauthor suggested others do before they die, his list did not include preparing for the day of judgment by entering into a relationship with Jesus Christ – the most important thing a person can do, because Jesus is life.

In Luke chapter six, Jesus said some things in His Sermon on the Plain that can cause one to roll their eyes and say, Really Jesus? Really? Is this realistic? It doesn’t sound like a promising or smart way to live. It certainly isn’t what life in this world has taught me! For instance,

We think we know how to handle those who make our lives miserable, who hurt us with words and actions. We avoid them, despise them, keep a distance, maybe even look for ways to get even, seek revenge, hope for their demise. We rejoice when life falls apart on them.

But Jesus says this,

“. . . Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. Do good and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Luke 6:27, 28, 35).

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. It sounds crazy, risky doesn’t it? Love your enemies? Do good to those who hate you, who want to harm you? I don’t want to listen to that kind of talk! It is hard talk. Should I take it seriously?

God says, “Listen to my Son.”

A guy named Ghassan Thomas took Jesus seriously concerning his enemies. He leads one of the few public churches that emerged in Baghdad after Saddam Hussein was toppled. His church erected a sign on the building that said, JESUS IS THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD. The church was raided by bandits who left behind a thread on a piece of cardboard. It read, “Jesus is not the light of the world. Allah is! You have been warned!” The note was signed, “The Islamic Shiite Party.”

In response, Pastor Ghassan loaded up a van with children’s gifts and medical supplies, which were in critically short supply following the invasion, and drove to the headquarters of the Islamic Shiite party. After presenting the gifts and supplies to the Sheik, Ghassan told the leader, “Christians have love for you because our God is a God of love.” He then asked permission to read from the Bible. Ghassan turned to Jesus’ words in John chapter 8, “I am the light of the world . . .” Then he showed the cardboard note to the Sheik.

The Muslim leaders were astounded by Pastor Thomas’ actions and actually apologized. “This will not happen again!” the Sheik said. “You are my brother. If anyone comes to kill you, it will be my neck first.” The Sheik later attended Pastor Thomas’ ordination service at his church.

Wow! “This is My Son! Listen to Him.”

My friends, for the past six weeks we have been examining Jesus. He has so many more teachings to speak into our lives. “He has the words of eternal life,” as Peter said. Listen to Him.

This is our last message in our “Jesus Revealed” sermon series. We’ve seen His revelations again and again as we studied Luke and John’s stories. This is what the season of Epiphany is all about – Jesus being revealed to us. Today’s story is the grand finale of Epiphany.

Yet, the story doesn’t end here. This Jesus, who shone brightly on the mountain before His disciples as He was endorsed by God, went to another mountain – Mount Calvary – on the outskirts of Jerusalem a short time later where He carried out God’s plan of deliverance. He suffered the wrath of God for your sins and mine. No reassuring words from God were spoken while He hung on the cross. In fact, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God! Why have You forsaken Me?” He commended His spirit to the Father’s hand and breathed His last. He was buried in a rich man’s tomb only to be raised back to life on the third day. Fifty days later, He was exalted on another mountaintop and ascended to the right hand of God, the Father, with all authority over heaven and earth. He will come again in power and glory to judge the living and the dead, to take His own to Himself. What a great day that will be! This transfiguration story is a foretaste of Jesus in His full glory.

The question remaining is this: Now that He has been revealed to you, what are you going to do with Jesus, who is coming to rescue you? God has revealed exactly what He wants you to do – LISTEN TO HIM. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

 

Jesus, Friend of Sinners

Luke 5:27-31

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

Friendship is a true gift. Who is in your circle of friends? Would you consider Jesus to be one of your friends?

The Bible begins with the assertion, it is not good for man to be alone. We were created for companionship, for love, for relationships. Someone has written, “A friend is one to whom you can pour out all the contents of one’s heart, chaff and grain together, knowing that gentle hands will take and sift it, keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away.”

Here are some other thoughts about friendship:
• A friend is one who multiplies joy and divides grief.
• A friend is one who understands my silence.
• A friend is a volume of sympathy bound in flesh.
• A friend is one who walks in when everybody else walks out.
Helen Keller said, “I would rather walk with a friend in the dark than alone in the light.”

Here is another quote:
“I love you not only for what you are but for what I am when I am with you.”

Perhaps my favorite . . .
“A friend knows the song in my heart and sings it to me when my memory fails.”

Profound thoughts about friendship. Friendship is truly a gift of God.

The Old Testament Hebrews understood friendship. They had three words for friend.

The first is Rayah. It means an associate. Somebody you keep company with, an acquaintance. It would be somebody you know fairly well. The relationship is perhaps superficial. Maybe you work alongside them or are back fence neighbors.

The second word for friend in Hebrew is Alooth. It means to be gentle with, to be familiar with. This takes friendship a step further. These friends would be close, people you talk with about really significant, personal issues. You might take a vacation with these friends, go fishing, go to a game, go out to dinner, or perhaps study the Scriptures together. They are close friends. You might not see them for a year or two, but when you do see them again, you pick up the conversation right where it left off.

The third Hebrew word for friend is Ahave. It means an intimate, close companion. Proverbs 18:24 uses the word “Ahave” when it says, “There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” It is an intimate friend.

Remember the Bible story in I Samuel 18 describing the relationship between David and King Saul’s son, Jonathan? It reads, “The soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved David as his own soul.” Jonathan and David had a love that surpassed the love of a man for a woman. They enjoyed a deep, profound love – not a sexual love, but an intimate, devoted love.

It also says in Proverbs 27:6, “Faithful are the wounds of an ‘Ahave’ (a friend).” An intimate friend not only loves you, but would also speak the truth to you, even if it hurts.

Another element in intimate friendship is found in John 15 where Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends.” The truest-of-the-true friend is one with whom there is an intimacy holding love closer than a brother. It’s a relationship with such honesty and devotion that the friend speaks the truth to the other, even if it wounds the person. Yet, for the truth spoken, it’s for the good of the other. Intimate friendship holds such love, one would even die for the other. Do you have friends like this? If you do, you are blessed, very blessed.

So against this backdrop of friendship’s value, let’s consider the story of Jesus calling Levi to be one of His disciples. Jesus came up to Levi, the tax collector, at his tax booth on the street and said simply, “Follow me.” Immediately Levi got up, left everything and followed Jesus.

Now tax collectors were among the most hated people of Jesus’s culture. They made their living by using their position of power to overcharge their fellow countrymen for self gain. It was extortion, pure and simple. Some say tax rates at that time were up to 50% of a person’s annual income.

Tax collectors were also hated because they were traitors. They had sold out to the Romans, who were cruelly oppressive to the Jews. In effect, tax collectors abandoned their faith in God for financial gain. So when Jesus called Levi – this hated, immoral tax collector – to come follow Him as one of His disciples, it must have been a shock!

It’s very striking to me that when Jesus called Levi, he immediately left everything behind. He didn’t pick a rendezvous spot for later after he could pack up his money and belongings. In a moment he left it all, right where it was. If we press the idea a bit, still today when Jesus calls a person to come follow, the individual leaves behind their past, leaves their position of power, leaves their old purpose, leaves the hold gripping their possessions, leaves their prestige. When we hear Jesus call us to trust Him and follow, we are to leave it all, too.

Do you know what else the follower of Jesus leaves? He leaves his guilt, his unhealthy rhythms, his immoral behaviors, his rebellious spirit, his egotistical attitudes. Why? Because when Jesus calls us to follow, we discover a new Lord who is our friend.

Why do we leave it all? Because Jesus loves sinners, and He calls us to a whole new way of life, a life lived in His love, His friendship, and His grace. We, too, hear the voice of Jesus call us to walk with Him in faith and friendship.

I once heard a pastor presenting at an alcoholism recovery conference. This pastor was himself a recovering alcoholic. He said: “The greatest compliment anyone can pay me is to call me a sinner!” He was discussing how powerful God’s grace is to the healing and hope of a recovering person.

Do you know why it’s a compliment to call him a sinner? Because Jesus Christ loves sinners. Jesus Christ came to save sinners. Jesus is the friend of sinners. Truly Jesus Christ came to love and save immoral, broken, flawed people. It’s not the healthy who need a doctor. Jesus is the friend of the sin-sick soul. Broken, immoral people have no pretext of being spiritually sufficient by themselves in life. They know they need God’s mercy and grace to rescue them. Sinners know they need a Savior.

May I be blunt? Dear listener, you are an imperfect sinner, not because I know you but because the Bible makes it clear that every one of us falls short of God’s glory and holiness. We are all sinners. We miss the mark. We sinners are attracted to the beauty of Jesus because He befriends, loves, and forgives sinners. However, there is more to this story.

Jesus was not deterred from befriending sinners nor pushed off His mission of love by the hypercritical judgment of the religious leaders of His time. In fact, the Pharisees sadly missed the revelation of His identity. They missed understanding His mission because they were spiritually arrogant and couldn’t admit their imperfections or confess their sins. Ironically, in their religious fervor, they missed the true essence of the heart of God. They missed Jesus’ free gift of salvation to sinners. Their arrogance blinded them.

However, the religious leaders did have a point of truth. To say Jesus is the friend of sinners and He came to seek sinners shows clearly a universal dilemma. How does God harmonize justice and mercy together? How can the law of God in the Bible be fulfilled, and, simultaneously, guilty people be forgiven?

We find the answer in the cross of Jesus. It is because Jesus is a friend of sinners who came to seek and love rebels that He had to die on the cross. In John 15:13 & 14, Jesus tells us, “Greater love has no one than this, than he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends . . .” In Isaiah 53:6 it reads, “. . . the Lord God has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” When Jesus, the Son of God, sacrificially died on the cross, He took the punishment of the judgment I deserved. In Jesus’ death on the cross, God harmonizes justice and grace.

Who could be a better friend to us than Jesus? Is Jesus your friend?

Levi, the tax collector, now is a devoted follower of Jesus, and because he is Jesus’ ambassador, he wants others to meet his new friend. So he throws a party for his friends and all the tax collectors. He invites Jesus to meet them. It is a banquet of undesirables. Imagine Jesus Christ as the life of that party, mixing with everyone, bringing laughter and joy. Levi’s relationship with these people opened the access for a whole new circle of people to meet Jesus and experience life with God. Jesus became their friend because His arms are open to all.

Who today would be in that party? Who do religious people in today’s culture love to loathe? The amazing truth of Jesus is, He invites everyone to be His friend because He loves us all – no exceptions.

Just a short time after this story, in Luke chapter 7, Jesus finds Himself at another party. This time it was not with immoral people on the fringes, but rather with the upper crust of society – the rich, the powerful, and the religious at the home of Simon the Pharisee. Here we read another moment of Jesus’ tender love shown as a friend of sinners. In this formal banquet, as all the guests reclined at the table enjoying the food, into the party comes in an uninvited guest. It’s a woman of the street, a prostitute. She sets a jar of expensive perfume at Jesus’ feet. Then she weeps, and her tears wet His feet. She wipes them off intimately with her hair, kisses His feet in adoration and gratitude, and pours perfume over them.

This woman has found love and acceptance at the feet of Jesus. She is a sinner who has fallen in love with her Savior. The pain of her guilt and her difficult way of life now find healing in the acceptance of Jesus, friend of sinners.

So also Jesus calls me His friend. I, too, am an imperfect sinner needing what only Jesus can give. As my friend and your friend, Jesus calls us by name and gives us His forgiving love. Amen.

Pastor Lee Laaveg

Jesus Revealed: The Authority

Luke 5:17-26

How do you respond to authority?

As human beings, we respond to authority in a variety of ways. Sometimes we respect it; we recognize it; we obey it; we trust it. We turn to authorities with our questions needing solutions. As parents, it’s our job to teach our children respect for authority.

Sometimes, however, we question authority. We balk at it; we chafe at it; we challenge it. We may even rebel against it. Something deep within us doesn’t like being told what to do. We like to maintain control over our lives, be in charge of our own lives, be our own bosses. When you think about it, authority is a major issue of life.

Another question: Have you ever considered Jesus your authority? It is what He came to be in your life, as the Gospels tell us. When Jesus taught, He spoke with authority. People marveled at His authority for He didn’t teach as the other rabbis taught. He taught without footnotes, without quoting others. He challenged the system. You’ve heard it said this way, but I say to you . . . The people were mesmerized and sometimes challenged – even angered – by how He spoke with such authority. His message got Him into trouble.

Today we see Jesus exercising authority with a man who was paralyzed and was brought to Him. Jesus was in a house in Capernaum teaching. The place was packed with all the teachers and Pharisees in surrounding villages. It was a literal “who’s who” of religious authorities of the day. They had heard about this new rabbi who was drawing a great following amongst the people of their own villages. Even teachers from as far away as Jerusalem came to hear Him speak. Jesus was getting a lot of attention, raising eyebrows, stirring things up a bit for everyone.

While He was teaching that day, “The power of the Lord was with him to heal.” It’s almost as if Luke is setting us up to expect something big to happen.

Then some men came carrying their friend who was paralyzed. The crowd was so big, they couldn’t get him close to Jesus, so they somehow got up on the roof, tore away some tiles, and lowered him down in the middle of the crowd in front of Jesus.

Can you imagine the scene as the tiles are falling to the ground and people are wondering what in the world is happening? I can imagine Jesus smiling – although He may also be wondering what the interruption is about – for He sees the faith of these men lowering their friend and of the man lying there. Jesus took everyone by surprise as He unexpectedly said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” Their faith was welcomed by Jesus. As little and as uninformed as it may have been, Jesus welcomed it. He wasn’t just talking about intellectual assent to some proposition, but a faith that moved toward Him believing He could do something, moving toward Him in repentance with a change of mind.

Jesus’ statement really raised some eyebrows. The scribes and Pharisees questioned it. They were quite upset as they thought to themselves, He doesn’t have authority to forgive sins! Who does he think he is? He is speaking blasphemy, which means profaning God Himself because only God can forgive sins.

When it comes to who He is, Jesus has, in effect, raised the stakes by closing down the options. He is either God or a blasphemer. Either He is the author and bringer of truth, or He is living and proclaiming a total lie deserving of death. Their take on Jesus was, This guy is blaspheming against God!

Jesus perceived their questioning minds. He asked, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or ‘Stand up and walk’? But that you may know the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”

Isn’t it interesting! Jesus knew their thoughts, which must have totally blown their minds. And it must have been more than a little unsettling because it is a godlike quality as well. God knows our minds. Jesus was basically saying to them, Let me verify all I said to this man so you may know who I really am and where I get my authority to forgive sins.

Then Jesus turned to the paralyzed man and said, “Stand up! Pick up your bed and go on home!” Immediately the man got up, picked up his mat and went home glorifying God in faith. With a word, Jesus made the man walk. The power of God’s Word is at work here. God said it, and it happened.

Amazement seized all the people in the room, and they glorified God. This is a God thing. Amazing! The people were filled with awe, which means literally “fear,” saying, “We have seen strange, extraordinary things today.” It was a shock-and-awe experience.

In the end, this story has turned into another divine epiphany, a manifestation, a revelation of the power, presence, and authority of God at work in Jesus’ words and actions. The awesome and fearsome glory of God has once again been glimpsed just as the Apostle Peter glimpsed it when Jesus provided a miraculous catch of fish in Peter’s boat.

Along the way as a pastor, I’ve been asked if I really believe in miracles or does science disprove them. My response has always been, Absolutely yes! I believe in miracles. First, because I’ve seen some amazing healings. But also because some great minds also believe in them.

I think of Christian physicist and MIT professor Ian Hutchinson. When he talks on university campuses, Hutchinson sometimes begins his talks by jokingly saying, “Can scientists believe in miracles? We can answer that question pretty easily—I’m a scientist, and I believe in miracles. So the answer is yes.”

He goes on to say that most of us don’t understand the Bible’s view of miracles. “We tend to view God as mostly hands-off, standing on the sidelines, letting nature look after itself, but then on rare occasions reaching in to tweak things by the odd miracle here and there.”

Hutchinson argues, however, that “. . . according to the Bible, (God) continuously holds the universe in the palm of his hand. . . . It exists because of his continuous creative power and will.” He sustains it. “If he were to stop exerting that upholding power and stop paying attention to every part of the universe, it would instantly cease to exist.”

Thus, Hutchinson defines a miracle this way: A miracle is “an extraordinary act of God” by which God “upholds a part of the universe in a manner different from the normal.” He says, “We know more today than people did long ago, but what we know today makes the universe seem, if anything, even more open.”

“I believe in miracles. So can you.”

Another question I run into from skeptics is this: Jesus, never really claimed to be God, did He? Isn’t this just an idea cooked up by man?

According to this story, nothing can be further from the truth. Jesus is not only speaking with God’s authority, but He is also revealing His authority as He heals the paralyzed man with just one word from His lips. He will claim His authority again and again in the Gospel of Luke as He teaches about the kingdom of God, as He casts out demons, as He controls the storms, as He continues to heal and forgive others. He will turn His face toward Jerusalem – now enemy territory, the opposition’s home base. He turns with the authority of God, as if He is in charge. He turns without fear, in charge of carrying out God’s plan for rescuing sinners like you and me from God’s wrath.

See how He rides into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday on a donkey declaring His kingship and authority without a word, a silent sermon on authority.

See Him on Passion Week exercising calm, Godlike authority as His opposition schemes to make Him look bad and tries to make Him look terrible before others. See Him silently go to the cross obediently, stand calmly before Pontius Pilate with kingly authority knowing pain and suffering awaited Him at the cross, but determined to carry out God’s plan of salvation. Kingly authority!

See Him announce after His resurrection from the dead, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Now go make disciples of all peoples.”

And He has told us that someday He will appear again to claim this world as His own for eternity, to judge the living and the dead with authority. He holds eternity in His hand. As Jesus is revealed to us in Luke again and again, He is not just one authority among many, but the authority over all creation. This all-encompassing authority of His comes from God the Father.

So, if Jesus is the authority over all creation, the question becomes, What kind of response does He look for from you and me? I have two words for you to consider today.

The first word is faith. Faith is held up as a value in this story. Jesus welcomes it. Faith means trusting in His authority, in His promise of salvation, trusting that your sins are forgiven because of what He has done for you at the cross. Because of the resurrection, God’s affirmation, you have a living hope and an inheritance awaiting you in heaven.

Some people really struggle with that. Can I really trust that I’m forgiven? It sounds too good to be true! That’s not the way the world works. I’ve been taught you get what you deserve. You have to work for what you get. There must be something I have to do to make things right with God, to have forgiveness.

Christian writer and pastor Stephen Brown tells this story to encourage faith.

“Once in seminary, I got an A on a directed study course, an exegesis on the Sermon on the Mount. I should have gotten a C. Let me tell you why.

“Somebody told me that, since I hadn’t seen this professor in the directed study, he was going to flunk me out of the class, and I got scared. I put a bunch of books on the subject on our dining room table and wrote an 80-page paper in five hours. It was thick. I handed in the paper. The professor was so busy and so impressed with 80 pages, he didn’t read it. He just gave me the A. When he gave me the A, did I go back to him and say, You ought to read my paper; I really wasn’t that good. It was a lot, but it wasn’t good. No, I didn’t. I accepted the A. Why? Because the one in authority had given me the A.

“It’s the same way with Jesus Christ. If I, as a pastor, tell you you’re forgiven, it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. But if He tells you you’re forgiven, you’re forgiven. He’s the King at the right hand of the Father with His enemies at His foot stool.”

The second word is obedience. Submit to His leadership, His lordship in your life. This means to make His word your authority in all matters – not just faith – but in all of life. Be ready to do what He says. Forgive those who have hurt you just as He forgave you. It is what He instructs us.

Do it! Jesus tells us to be a doer of the Word. Love your neighbor as yourself, no matter who your neighbor may be, whether he’s a Samaritan, an enemy of your nation, or a person of another faith. Love your neighbor as yourself.

Love God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind. Keep Him at the very center of your life. Seek first, centrally, His kingdom program. Do everything you possibly can to bring others into His kingdom as you point them to Jesus Christ. Make disciples.

You see, my dear friends, Jesus is not just some authority among many. He is THE authority over heaven and earth.

This is our lesson today. Stories like this in Luke were written and saved in order that you and I might be moved to trust Him with our very being and obey Him in all matters of life, knowing in our heart of hearts that Jesus holds your eternity in His hands. This is our Good News for today. Jesus is Lord. He is our authority. Trust Him and obey Him. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer