Living the Jesus Life: Be A Good Citizen

Philippians 1:27-30

Dear friends,

I love being a citizen of the United States. Yes, it has its flaws, but those flaws are few in comparison to the benefits and blessings I’ve received as a citizen. As you know, part of being a citizen is not only receiving blessings and privileges, it also involves responsibility and duty. It means paying taxes, participating in our community, serving our country, and being respectful and honest. Participate in the country.

I have a dual citizenship, by the way. Maybe you do too. Anyone who is a believer in Jesus Christ has another citizenship far greater than any other. It’s heavenly citizenship. And, as a citizen of God’s kingdom, I also have received many spiritual blessings and privileges that I enjoy: a restored relationship with God, forgiveness for my sins, a cleansed conscience, the promise of eternity. And I also have duties and responsibilities as a citizen of this heavenly kingdom. That’s what the apostle Paul tells us in our passage for today from Philippians.

Let me just set this up for you little bit: Paul’s been telling these folks of how he’s rejoicing because the gospel’s advancing, even where he is, and he’s in a prison in Rome. He reports in his letter that he’s been using his uncomfortable circumstances to bring Christ Jesus to the soldiers guarding him and that the whole Praetorian Guard has now heard about Jesus from Paul. And not only that, the Christians in Rome who had been kind of shy are now sharing the gospel of Christ more boldly, as they’re inspired by Paul. And Paul tells these Philippians that he’s all in when it comes to the gospel, “for to me to live is Christ, to die is gain.”

Now he turns the conversation away from himself, today, in this passage to the Philippian Christians (and to us as well) as he writes, “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel; conduct yourselves in a way that honors Jesus your King and represents Him well in this world of ours.” Paul was actually talking citizenship. The verb, “let your manner of life be”, is literally “live as citizens”. Live as citizens worthy of the gospel, he says, the gospel of Christ.  He’s telling us it’s important to conduct ourselves as good citizens of the kingdom of Christ. We’re His representatives in the world. You do that, first of all, with your character, and then also with your conduct. Paul keeps going, he says

Conduct yourself this way so that whether I come to you or am absent I may hear these things about you. That you are living life in a manner worthy of the gospel; that you’re living like our king Jesus would live, with a loving attitude, with kindness, and mercy, and grace, and truthfulness, and goodness , and integrity, and humility, and compassion towards others, and obedience to the great commandment to love God and love neighbor. Because how you act does say a lot, it tells the real story.

He says it’s also a continual standing firm in striving for the faith of the gospel. We’re to be evangelistic, called to spread the gospel of Jesus to other people. To intentionally, boldly, and gently sprinkle our conversations with others about Jesus and what He did for us at the cross and tomb. To tell others the good news of God’s kingdom plan of salvation. To invite people to turn to Christ and receive the forgiveness of sins. Paul says as you’re doing those two things, it’s so important that you do them together, as the church. It’s too hard to do this alone. He says, “I want to hear that you’re standing firm in one spirit, striving side-by-side for the faith of the gospel.” That striving side-by-side is a term from the world of athletics. He’s talking teamwork — everyone working together as a team for the advancement of the gospel in your community. We need to stay connected to one another, doing His work together, not only as a show of strength, but it’s a source of needed strength and encouragement as each of us goes with the gospel into our neighborhoods and various community settings.

Paul says,

I want to hear that you’re not afraid of anything, of your opponents who want to shut you up and shut you down. I want to hear that you haven’t clammed up about the good news for fear of what might happen to you, but that you’ve stood strong for Christ. I want to hear stories about your courage towards pressure and threats.

We need ask who these opponents of the gospel are that he’s talking about, and also do we have opponents like that today? All these opponents that, in all likelihood, that Paul was talking about, were the locals who bowed to Caesar as their lord. They had other gods they worshiped as well, and the people that were in power could make life hard on those who insist that Jesus is Lord, not Caesar. They could accuse them of sedition against the state, and persecute them. They could reject them, and ridicule them, and have them treated as outcasts. It still happens today, there are people who reject and ridicule the gospel and the people of Christ, calling our gospel nothing but a fairytale religion, trouble for all concerned. This faith of ours still has opponents in states, and countries, and of course other religions that consider Christians as infidels. And we even hear from atheists that this world would be so much better off without any religion at all, it should just be outlawed. They tell us to be quiet. There’s also Satan. In Ephesians Paul reminds Christians that, as we strive to serve Jesus in the world, we’re fighting not so much against flesh and blood, but principalities, and cosmic evil powers, temptations, trials, and suffering. Peter, in his letter, talks to the devil as a roaring lion, seeking to devour those of us who are citizens of the kingdom. Paul says,

Why do this? Why stand strong and courageous? Because this is a clear sign to them, who are opposing you, of their destruction and your salvation from God. It’s your witness. As people see you stand strong, and persevering in your faith, they’ll know that this gospel must be of God, and that maybe they’d better think twice about opposing or rejecting that which could lead to destruction for themselves.

And it sends a strong message to Satan, “Satan, you’re defeated! Your end is coming soon! Jesus is Lord, not you! The kingdom of God has won and you are doomed!” Jesus said to Peter, upon his confession of belief in Jesus as the son of the living God, “Upon this rock I will build my church. And the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.”

Paul says as you live a manner of life worthy of the gospel, it carries with it the possibility of suffering for the sake of Christ. You’re signing up to suffer. You’re saying, “I’m willing to suffer for Jesus.” Paul had experience suffering firsthand, and he knew that faithful, obedient followers of Jesus would suffer as well. Listen to what he says here: “It has been granted that you should not only believe in Christ for your salvation, but suffer for His sake, being engaged in the same conflict that I’m having.” Notice Paul here seems to be saying that suffering for Christ’s sake is a gift, a privilege. He wasn’t alone. In Acts 5, we’re told that the apostles, after they’d been arrested and been beaten by the Sanhedrin council, rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for Christ’s name.

What does suffering for Jesus look like today? Does it still happen? Well, we know there are parts of the world where you will suffer for your Christian faith: persecution in China, and the Near [Middle] East, and Africa. We read of persecution of Christians in the ‘Voice of the Martyrs’ reports that we receive on the internet. It’s tough out there in other parts of the world for Christians who are trying to represent Christ. But how about countries like the United States, is there suffering? Well, in comparison there’s not much suffering, not like that. Maybe some cynicism and skepticism of others toward you, or some will ridicule you, or view you as less than intelligent or open-minded. I’ve been called “narrow-minded” as I preach that Jesus is the way, the truth, the life. People respond to me sometimes, “Come on, you’re being arrogant, narrow-minded, and intolerant. I thought you were smarter than that.” But, real suffering for Christ? I can’t think of ever being seriously abused, or persecuted, or beaten for my faith in Jesus.

So this begs the question: Paul says that “is been granted to you, suffer for the sake of the Gospel”; how do you and I suffer for the sake of the Gospel in a country that has religious freedom? In my sphere of influence there probably is not physical suffering, like other parts of the world, for the faith. But there is suffering that I’m called to right where I live, suffering for the sake of the Gospel. There’s an old word that comes to mind; long-suffering.  It’s used in the King James version of Bible. Some people, you see, are difficult to love and serve. You know what I’m talking about. They can be mean and ungrateful, they can be just hard to tolerate. Long-suffering is a commitment to patiently keep on loving and serving that person (or persons) in the name of Jesus, no matter what. To get them into the kingdom, you suffer. There is suffering that can occur when I willingly choose to be different, holy, and set apart for God. Because I want to be obedient to Christ, I decide I won’t run people down with gossip at the office, or participate in it, or laugh at coarse jokes. I won’t swear or curse in order to be one of the crowd. I won’t reject the outcast in my school or at the nursing home who sits alone in the dining room, but instead I’ll go sit with them and befriend them at the risk of being scoffed at by others. I won’t sell out on my Christian values to fit in with the crowd. I won’t hate others because they don’t happen to believe as I do, or have the same color of skin as mine, or the same lifestyle. All of this can make people view you as acting “holier than thou” and being judgmental. And so you just might suffer some loneliness for this Christ-like conduct, and some emotional pain, as you find yourself left out, or singled out, or avoided.

Did you know we suffer when we show compassion to others?  Brennan Manning, in his book “Glimpse of Jesus”, writes, “We live the passion of Jesus through a life of compassion.” And then he explains the etymology of the word “compassion” lies in two Latin words, “com” and “patior”, meaning to suffer with, to endure with, to struggle with, and to partake of the hunger, nakedness, loneliness, pain, and broken dreams of our brothers and sisters in the human family. Commitment to Christ without compassion for His people is a lie.

Let me tell you a story about Joe:

Joe was a drunk, miraculously converted in a street outreach mission. He had a real reputation before his conversion, as a  wino for whom there was hope. But following his conversion to Christ, everything changed. He became the most caring person at the mission. He was compassionate. He spent his days doing what needed to be done. There was never anything he was asked to do that he considered beneath him. Whether it was cleaning up vomit left by a sick alcoholic, or scrubbing toilets after men had left them filthy, Joe did it with a heart of gratitude. He could be counted on to feed any man who wandered in off the streets, compassionately undress and tuck them into bed when they were too out of it take care themselves. One evening after the mission director delivered his evangelistic message to the usual crowd, one of them looked up, came down the altar, kneeled to pray, crying out for God to help them change. The repentant drunk kept shouting, “Oh God, make me like Joe, make me like Joe!” The director leaned over and said, “Son, wouldn’t it be better if you prayed, ‘make me like Jesus’?” And after thinking about it few moments, the man looked up with an inquisitive expression and asked the director, “Is He like Joe?” Do others see Jesus in you? Compassion that’s ready to suffer alongside them? Of course, being open about your faith in conversations with others and bringing up Jesus in social settings might cause you to suffer a bit of uncomfortableness: you’re ridiculed or looked askance at. Of course, there is the suffering that comes when loved ones walk away from the gospel and salvation. You’ve poured your lives into bringing your kids up in the faith. I’ve talked with many a broken-hearted Christian parent who raised their children in the faith, and now these children have rejected the faith of their parents. These parents suffer as they try to reason with the kids, as they pray for their return, and worry about their salvation. I don’t know if there’s any suffering that’s greater than that.

So, as we think of living lives that might involve suffering, suffering as a citizen of Heaven for the sake of the gospel shouldn’t probably surprise us. After all, we follow One who suffered on the cross for us first, to rescue us and make us citizens of His kingdom, that we might receive all the benefits and blessings of Heaven. And remember that He said something about following Him and living the Jesus life, one day. He said, “If anyone would be My disciple, let them take up his cross and follow Me. For he who saves his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake, and the gospel, will save it.”

My fellow citizens in Christ: may our manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our Savior is counting on us.

Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

Living the Jesus Life: What Matters Most

Philippians 1:12-26

Dear friends,

Many years ago we started seeing t-shirts with a logo on them which said something like this: “baseball is life, the rest is just details” or “fishing his life, and the rest is just details” or volleyball, or soccer, you name it. And then favorite pastimes as well started showing up on these t-shirts: “reading books is life, the rest is just details”, “science is life”… They humorously are stating to those around us what matters most in our life. What’s important to us, what we love. What would you put on your t-shirt? What matters most to you? That question, I imagine, can inspire a variety of responses. Some might say “well, my family is life” or “my job” or “my relationship with God” or “my integrity”, “my reputation in the community”, “my friendships”, “my security”, and the list would go on and on.

In today’s passage Paul writes about what matters most to him as he lives out the Jesus life. He’s reporting to the Philippians how things are going for him. Remember now, he’s in prison, and prison’s a nasty place to be. He knows that they’re worried about him. But Paul, when he writes, he doesn’t complain or ask for pity or sympathy from them at all. In fact, they hear some real encouragement. Let me just paraphrase the first part of Paul’s report:

Yes, I’m in prison and I’m chained up to a soldier every day. I know on the surface this doesn’t look good. But what matters most is the gospel of Christ Jesus is being advanced – were making some real headway. For instance, the whole Imperial Guard of Roman soldiers around the palace now know why I am here. It’s because of the gospel. That’s a whole lot of people hearing about Jesus. Others as well, who have come to visit me and find out why I go through all of this, as well as other prisoners, are hearing the gospel from me as well. The local Christians in Rome are actually becoming inspired by my boldness that they’re seeing, and are talking up the gospel themselves without fear. There’s all kinds of people hearing about Jesus.

Just as an aside, I’m reminded of a couple of my own congregation, Ron and Darlene, and their evangelistic boldness. Wherever they went whoever they talked with, all that mattered to them was getting the gospel message shared with people. Conversation always steered towards Jesus. And I have to tell you, they inspired me in my own witnessing of the gospel and my conversations. Just as Paul is talking about these Roman Christians that of been inspired by him. Well anyway, back to the report. Paul writes:

Some people are preaching the gospel for good reason, they are very sincere about it. But some are preaching the gospel from less than pure motives: out of envy and rivalry towards me. I don’t know why, I guess I threatened them or their prominence in the church, but there’s a jealousy I can’t figure out. I know some who preach very sound theology, good sermons, but they’re filled with selfish ambition and they seem to only be interested in promoting their own status in the Christian community, as if it’s a competition: who can get the biggest church. Oh well, I guess God can even use that – I believe it. What matters most is that the gospel is getting proclaimed in pretense and in truth. It’s moving forward, and in that I rejoice. The gospel’s getting out, that’s what matters most.

Paul’s T-shirt with say “the gospel is life, the rest is just details.” And he’s rejoicing because he sees God working in all these things, he’s amazed by it. This God will take circumstances which are bad and use them for good. He’s in charge. Paul could very well be thinking “I could whine and moan about this terrible situation, but I believe that I put here for a reason. It’s the advancement of the gospel. So I better take advantage of every opportunity to talk about Jesus Christ. And now others are doing it as well, and I rejoice in that”, Paul says.

Just another aside: I’m reminded of a friend of mine who was diagnosed with cancer. He’s going to require a lot of chemotherapy, experimental stuff, make him very sick – it could kill him. He said to me early on “Steve, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to use this to tell others of my hope in Christ as I go through this experience.” Wow!

At this point we need to stop and ask: what is this gospel that matter so much to Paul, or to my friends Darlene and Ron and Rob. The gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ. Through Jesus, you see, God has done something wonderful for us that calls for a response on our part. While we were still God’s enemies, sinners in His sight, God, out of love for us, sent His son Jesus into this world. You see, we were so lost in our sinfulness and in need of rescue. The wages of our sin is death – eternal separation from God. And we couldn’t fix the relationship with the holy and just God who loves us but must punish sin. God, in His love and mercy, gave us Jesus (that’s the good news) who lived the perfect life of obedience that we could not live. And He died for us on the cross as the perfect sacrifice for our sin. The wrath of God towards sin was poured out upon His son Jesus at the cross. The iniquity of us all was poured out upon Him. And God raised Him from the dead, exalted Jesus, and now He is Lord over this universe and Jesus holds your eternity in His hands. That good news calls for a response on our part; a response to turn away from the old life of sin and turn to Him in trust. And receive forgiveness for your sins and a new life with God that begins now and is everlasting. That’s the gospel that Paul is so concerned about.

In the second section of the text, though, Paul goes on to address the Philippians’ concern about what his future is. And again we’re told what matters most. He says basically this (I’ll paraphrase):

I know you’re wondering if I’m ever going to get out of this prison. Well, I know that through your prayers and the spirit of Christ (the Holy Spirit) this will turn out for my deliverance in some way: whether it be a temporal deliverance or eternal deliverance. But here is what matters most to me: my hope is that I stand up for Jesus well as I face my accusers in court. That I will not at all be ashamed or causing shame, but be full of courage, so that now as always Christ will be honored and exalted with my whole being, in my living or in my dying.

And then Paul gives his mission statement that his life is about: “for to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” As he looks at the future, there you have it: “for me to live is Christ, to die is gain.” Where he says “for to me to live is Christ” he is saying I have this unshakable faith that, regardless of the circumstances, I live for Christ. What controls his outlook? Jesus. It’s not about Paul and his comfort, his safety, and his happiness, and his economic security, and his sense of well-being. It’s all about Jesus Christ, and what He has done. Christ is the motive of Paul’s actions, that the goal of his life and ministry, the very source of all his strength. His life is about serving Jesus. He says “I know to remain in the flesh, that that means more fruitful labor for Jesus –  I can get some more good things done: serving Him in the world, and spreading the gospel to nonbelievers of what God has done for the world through Jesus Christ.”  And we know that it would not be an easy life, that it would continue to be filled with rejection and more jail cells and beatings and stressful situations. But Paul seems to be saying “but that’s fine with me, to live is Christ. To share His sufferings – it’s an honor, it’s all joy to me.”

And then he says “and to die: that’s gain.” Death does not bother Paul. Perhaps he sees death as something that can be used as his final testimony for Jesus. To really add wood to the fire of the gospel spreading. He doesn’t fear it. Paul knows, you see, where he’s going if he dies soon. He will be with Jesus, which will be wonderful beyond our wildest imaginations. That, to Paul, is gain. In fact, he says, “I’m kind of torn in thinking as to which I prefer. But it’s not my choice to make. My desire is to depart to be with Jesus,  that’s far better, I know, but to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” We see a strong faith expressed here that knows that God is in charge of his life and that he’s in the palms of God’s hands, and that his future rests in God’s hands. He says “if I am to live in the flesh and continue ministry, that’s up to God, but if I’m to die, as well that that’s up to God. But I have to believe,” he says, “God still has plans for me in this world. I’m convinced that, because of you and your prayers, the spirit of Christ, and the calling God has placed on my life, that I am to go on serving you and seeing to your spiritual progress, and give you a cause to boast in Christ all the more in His power when you see me again as a free man.”

I’m reminded of one of my senior members of my own congregation, Joanne, a delightful, outspoken lady who led many people to Jesus Christ. She was contagious and she seemed to have nine lives. I was always being called to the emergency room because she was supposedly on her way “out”. But she always ended up back home, it was amazing. So on one particular visit we were talking about that and she said to me “Steve, I’m ready to go be with Jesus. I can’t believe I’m still here. But I guess that God still has plans for me to reach somebody else for Him, so that’s okay with me. He’s in charge of my life.” The Gospel is life, the rest is just details. Turns out there was someone that Joanne led to Christ before she died.

So, I wonder how these Philippians felt when they first heard these words from Paul read aloud in their church service in Philippi. Were they moved? Were they inspired? This testimony is quite inspiring. The truth is, Paul’s words are meant to be inspiring, to spur us on as well as encourage us as we live the Jesus life right where we are. They’re meant to teach and reawaken the believer in Christ as to what matters most when you follow Jesus. It’s the gospel, and its advancement in the world. What matters most is using every situation, every opportunity, every opening in conversations to point people to Christ. What matters most is using your life to bring others to Jesus. Oh, we so easily lose sight of that one, friends, as a vision for our lives. We live as consumers in the church, but not contributors to the spreading of the gospel, and that’s not what Jesus had in mind for us. That’s not the life he calls us to. Paul’s testimony is simply reminding us of that today – of what matters most as we live the Jesus life: it’s the gospel. The gospel of Christ is life, and the rest is just details. And friend, Jesus is counting on you and me to personally take part in bringing the gospel, to get inspired like those Roman Christians were when they saw his boldness. To tell the good news of Jesus, bring it into this world of ours to our family, our friends, our coworkers, our neighbors, people we like, people we can’t stand; so that they, too, may live and experience the joy of the Jesus life.

Let me ask you: who has God placed with you? Who has God brought into your life that needs to hear the gospel, and who will tell them if you don’t? GO! Tell the story of what God has done for us in Christ. Be bold, be of good courage, God will use you to advance the gospel when you stand up for Christ. The One who loved you first is counting on you to honor Him with your whole being, and tell others the old, old story of Jesus and His love. That, my dear friends, is what matters most. One of the great Christian leaders of the last century was John Stott. Os Guinness writes:

I knew him over many decades, but I will never forget my last visit to his bedside, three weeks before he died. After an unforgettable hour and more of sharing memories over many years, I asked him how he would like me to pray for him. And lying weakly on his back and barely able to speak, he answered in a hoarse whisper, ‘pray that I will be faithful to Jesus until my last breath.’

Oh, would such a prayer be your passion, and my passion, and the passion of our generation, too.

Amen

Pastor Steve Kramer

Living the Jesus Life: His Plan for You

Philippians 1:3-11

Dear friends:

Has anyone ever made the statement to you: “I think God has plans for your life”? I remember hearing that from my pastor was a teenager. He would say to me now and then “Steve, I believe God has a plan for you. You’re going to be a pastor.” And I’d smile and chuckle and think “who knows?” Well now I’m a pastor, I guess he was right. As a pastor, I sometimes have had people say to me “I’m wondering what God’s plan is for my life. I wish I could figure it out.” By the way, how about you? Do you believe God has a plan for your life, and have you figured out what it is?

As we continue our series on “Living the Jesus Life”, today’s passage in Paul’s letter to the Philippians is helpful for us because it tells us that God does have a definite plan for your life and mine. A dream for you. He has things He wants to see happen in your life. You’ve heard the old saying “God accepts you as you are but He loves you too much to leave you that way”, well it’s true. He has plans for you.

Last week we studied Paul’s greeting to the Philippians where he reminds them of who they are in Christ, and also of the rich inheritance that is theirs to claim. Now, as Paul moves into the main body of the letter, he touchingly expresses his love for the Philippians and he also tells him that he’s praying for them. In fact, he goes so far as to tell them what he’s praying about for them. He says “I thank God for you.” He affirms their love for them and their partnership with him in spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. He basically says “from day one you have been such supportive friends and partners in my life and ministry, and I’m joyfully grateful for you.” They really had been supportive, financially as well as spiritually and emotionally. The statement from Paul had to make them feel loved and affirmed. Just think of how you feel when someone says they thank God for you and your friendship. Paul goes on, then, to write that he not only gives thanks to God for them but he prays for their spiritual progress, their spiritual growth. He knew when God plants the seed of the gospel in a person’s life, and with faith in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that God has this growth plan ahead for you. That you will bear fruit to the glory and praise of God. Jesus actually said something like that to His disciples one time. He said “I chose you and appointed you that you should bear fruit.” Here we’re told that at the top of the list of fruit that glorifies God is love. He says “I pray that your love may abound”, which means overflow, “more and more, with knowledge and all discernment. I pray that your love will grow.” The most important mark of a maturing Christian, you see, is love. Yes, doctrine is important, we need to think correctly. Service is good as well, and personal mystical prayer-like experiences may be nice. And faith is wonderful, but love is greater than all these. Paul says it this way in 1 Corinthians 13:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I’m only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge of God; if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I’m nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor, surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

Then he goes on to say, at the end of the chapter, “faith, hope, and love. The greatest of these is love.” Friend, the main evidence that we’re growing Christ is not exhilarating prayer experiences or giftedness or smarts, but it’s steadily increasing, humble love for other people.

Now the word for love that Paul is using here is the Greek word “agape”. It’s a sacrificial type of love. It’s an act of the will that gives of self to others. It’s self-giving love, and selfless. It’s Jesus-style love. It goes way beyond sentimental feelings. It actually acts on behalf of other people. Paul also tells us that this “agape love” must be grounded and informed by knowledge. It needs to be a “smart love”. He said “I’m praying that you going to grow in smart love.” Growing love needs knowledge, you see. Knowledge, he says, of the recognized truths and principles from the word of God about what love really is. Our human reasoning alone isn’t enough to discern truth from error. We are flawed people. The best protection against deception is to know God’s revealed truths, which we find in the Bible. You see, it’s in the Bible that we receive the knowledge of Jesus, and of His revealed love for you and all people. Ultimately laying down his life at a cross to be the sacrificial payment for our sins and rescue us. It’s there that we learn not only about God’s great commandment to love Him with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love our neighbor as ourselves, but we also learn answers to questions that we have like “well then who is my neighbor?”, and “what does it look like to really love people in the name of Jesus?”

Growing effective agape love not only requires growing in knowledge, but it requires growing in discernment, which means basically insight, wisdom. Not only must our love be smart love, it must be wise love. Life situations, as you know, can get complicated. Some things are clearly good and bad, but sometimes the boundary line is not so readily visible to us. And it takes discernment and insight as we discern what’s the best course of action. We need to be guided by scripture, of course, to have that. We also need to talk to our brothers and sisters of the faith community, especially the mature ones, for insight. And of course, we always should seek God’s direction in prayer, ask for His wisdom. We need ask questions as we consider love and options for loving: “is this harmful?” or “is it helpful?” In 1 Corinthians 10 we read “all things are lawful but not all things are helpful.” Is this action I’m thinking about doing going to cost someone else to trip in their faith? Will it harm my testimony? Will it be a turn-off for an unbeliever? Is it scriptural? Smart love, wise love.

Then Paul explains why it’s so important for our love to be growing and abounding with knowledge and discernment. He says “here’s why: so that you may approve what’s excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory praise of God.” “So that you may approve what is excellent,” the  first part of that statement. That simply means so that you may make the best God-pleasing, God-glorifying decisions in loving Him and loving other people. As we grow in our understanding of what it means to follow Jesus, we will increasingly be able to choose and to practice what is excellent in God’s sight. It will help us to be our, as the book says, “utmost for His highest.” Paul says “then you’ll start becoming pure and blameless”; not perfect, mind you, that’s not what Paul is talking about here. He’s talking about you’re going to start being conformed to the likeness of Jesus, looking more and more like Jesus with attitudes and His actions working in your life. He said “then you’ll be ready for the day of Christ.” You and I know Christ has come and is coming again in power, and every knee will bow before Him and call Him “Lord”. The day is going to come when you will find yourself kneeling before Him, and what do you long to hear Him say? Simply this: “well done good and faithful servant.”

And Paul says finally “and you be filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through life with Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.” Imagine this: automatically doing the right things, the God-pleasing things, the loving things; delighting in His will and walking in His ways, through the power the spirit of Jesus Christ working in you. Christ’s love will actually flow through you into the lives of others. That’s God’s vision, and he says “it will bring glory and praise to God.” And that, my friend, is what the Jesus life is all about: bringing God glory and praise.

I can’t help but think also about the personal advantages for us of having this kind of love working in our lives. Think of the improved and enriched relationships to be had at home and church and work, with God and the people around you, as you’re growing in this love. It will make you an improved, effective witness for Jesus. You’ve heard the statement “who you are speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying”, right? Well, it’s true – who you are speaks loudly to those around you. If you’re obnoxious and selfish and unloving, more than likely they’re not going to listen to you. But a person who is “walking the talk” will always get a fair hearing. There’s a story I came across in John Trent’s book that he co-authored for Promise Keepers. He tells this story:

When I led a Young Life group, I did my best to round up kids who really needed to hear the gospel when we went to summer camp. Mark was one of those kids.

Bob Mitchell, the main speaker that week, called most of the shots—including when meals would be served. So “Mitch” was always talking with the cook.

The cook loved her work, but it was exhausting. She always looked tired. Whenever she talked to Mitch, he got up and gave her his chair—and a moment’s rest—while they discussed meal plans.

Nobody noticed Mitch doing this . . . except Mark. Mark hadn’t come to hear about Jesus. But when he saw Jesus’ love lived out in that simple act of kindness by the camp speaker, he began to listen to Mitchell’s talks. Later that week, Mark asked Jesus to be his Savior.

It wasn’t because of the messages, Mark said, but because of the love he saw in Mitch. “If that’s what it means to be a Christian,” Mark said, “I want to be one.”

Finally, not only will your relationships and testimony be improved as you’re growing in love, doing the right and loving thing will lead you to greater joy in your life. You see, joy equals obedience to the directions of Jesus. He told His disciples one time, as He was instructing them about loving each other, He said “I said these things to you that my joy, joy I have, may be in you, and your joy may be full.” So no wonder Paul writes to them: I’m praying about your love life, that it will grow and you’ll begin to look more and more like Jesus. Because that’s where the joy is to be found. You might be wondering now: how can all this happen in a person’s life? How can I meet these spiritual goals that God has? Truth is: you can’t…on your own. But the good news is: God can. Back in verse six Paul says “I’m confident that He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it.” He’s saying there that God has stepped into their lives and only God can change a life, make you more loving than you could ever imagine yourself being. And we have to remember Paul is praying to God for these things to happen in their lives, because he knows only God can make it happen. You see, you and I are every bit as helpless and transforming ourselves into loving people as we are in saving ourselves from sin and death. But thanks be to God! God’s grace, which saves, also energizes and empowers. God, the Holy Spirit in you, can make this love happen. This kind of love that Paul is praying for in their lives is referred to as the “fruit of the Holy Spirit, whom God is given us in order to grow us up and conform us in the likeness of his Son, Jesus.” That great evangelical pastor and writer John Stott said years ago in one of his messages on spiritual growth: “consequently, all the glory and praise belongs not to believers but to God, for He has redeemed them by the work of His Son and has implanted within them His Spirit to produce the fruit of righteousness.” Did you hear that? “The fruit of righteousness” that Paul’s talking about here.

God is at work in us through His Holy Spirit. That’s the truth that lies behind those little saying you sometimes run across on Christian posters and on t-shirts: “be patient with me, God isn’t finished with me yet.” Or have you ever seen that one with the road sign which reads “construction zone”? Well we are a “construction zone” when we’re in Christ. God is working in us, doing an “extreme makeover” in our lives. He’s making us more loving.

Now, I don’t want to give you the impression that you are to just sit passively by and wait for that love to take over in your life; no, no, no, no! It’s vital, you see, that you put yourself in places and have practices that the Holy Spirit can use to build you up into a mature, loving person whose actions and attitudes look like Jesus more and more. There are a means of grace that God has provided to grow people like us in love. First of all, it begins with prayer. As Paul said “I pray for you”, we are to be praying for ourselves as well, and for one another, asking for His help in making us grow in love; helping us to love. To get past ourselves and start looking out for others. And, of course, there’s the word of God. As we go through the Bible and we study it and learn about God’s great love for us that He’s shown us in Jesus Christ so unconditionally, and we start believing in His love for us, and we start trusting in Him as we take His words and His directions about love and apply them and obey them, we grow. And worship: we need to get to worship. There, we get the Word fed to us, the gospel. And we come to the table of the Lord, and God builds us up. And as we live in community with others, brothers and sisters in Christ, we know from Proverbs that “iron sharpens iron”, “love sharpens love”. And then there’s service, as we step out towards others and give ourselves a way. Make the decision to do that: it’s going to grow us in our ability to love. It’s going to make us wiser and smarter in our love and compassion for people.

Living the Jesus life is about abounding and growing in smart, wise love for God and people, because love is the official trademark of the authentic Christian. And that, my loved ones, is God’s plan for your life: to grow you up, to shape you into a loving person like His son Jesus Christ. When you think about it, that really should not surprise us. After all, Paul did not dream this up on his own. Jesus himself has told us, and Paul knew this. Jesus said “a new commandment I give to you: love one another as I have loved you. By this all people will know that you’re My disciples.” So may our daily prayers for ourselves and other followers of Jesus always be: “Lord, shape me and mold me into a loving person. Empower me to love as Jesus has loved me. For Your glory and praise.”

Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

Living the Jesus Life: Blessings and Beginnings

Philippians 1:1-2

Dear friends:

I’d like to take you with me to an imaginary scene, if you don’t mind. The date is 60 A.D. A church service is about to begin… not in a church building though. This congregation is gathering to worship in a house church in a little town called Philippi. There’s excitement in the air as the Philippian Christians come in and sit down and greet one another. In fact the congregation is buzzing with anticipation. Why is this? Well, let’s listen in to a conversation and find out:

One of the people there named Octavius says to his friend Clement “I hear that we’re going to hear from Paul today. He’s written us a letter. Young Epaphroditus showed up with it yesterday. He’s finally back. I was beginning to wonder if he died.”

Octavius’ little boy sitting next to him overhears his dad saying this and asked “father who’s Paul?”

“Well Paul, he started this church years ago, son. If it weren’t for him we may not even know about Jesus and what He’s done for us. Paul is a missionary for Jesus. He starts churches. We’ve been supporting him with our money and our prayers. Everybody here loves Paul and is so grateful for him.”

Then Octavius turned back to his friend Clement and asks “do you know where Paul is? Is he still in prison, or has he been released?”

Clement says that “I hear he’s still in prison. He’s hoping to get out, of course, but who knows if and when. Poor guy spent more time behind bars, it seems, then being free from prison. Remember how he ended up in jail here, even, when he first came. And since then he’s been in and out of jail for his preaching. I admire him, though, for his sticktoitiveness. He really…”

“SHHHHH!” Octavius whispers. “I think the service is about to start. The he groans and says under his breath “are we going to sing Psalm 91 again this week? I don’t like that hymn. Let’s just skip the singing and get to pastor Paul’s letter.”

After the song and a prayer, one of the deacons named Zygos stands up with the parchment scroll in his hand and walks to the front. And as he unrolls the scroll he motions to a young man. “At long last our brother Epaphroditus is back. Welcome home, brother. Epaphroditus delivered our money to support Paul during his prison stay and has brought back a letter from him. I think you’ll enjoy hearing from our friend. I’ve read it myself already and was greatly encouraged by it.” Then he pauses and he begins to read it aloud as the congregation quietly listens. “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus…”

It turns out that it really was quite a letter. The congregation, and many congregations since, had described it as moving, inspiring, instructive, practical, and encouraging. In fact, it was so good that was circulated among the many early Christian congregations until, lo and behold, by the work of the Holy Spirit, it was included in our Bible. It still has the power to change people’s lives, even today. There is so much to offer the person who wants to spiritually grow in “living the Jesus life”. So, for the next several weeks, I thought it would be kind of fun for us to closely look at this letter together. Today, we’re only going to look at the first two lines. It’s the greeting of the letter, but this greeting… it’s loaded with some truth about the Jesus life. Instead of writing just “dear Philippian friends,” Paul goes about teaching us, right off the bat, as he writes:

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,

To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

There are two important reminders here for us; two truths that Paul’s expressing in these few words. First, he’s reminding us of our new identification when we come into a relationship with Jesus. Notice the titles that are used here, first for himself: “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus.” That’s how Paul sees himself now; he’s a servant of Christ. After his conversion, which we read about in Acts 9, Paul came to realize all that Jesus had done for him: that Jesus was Lord and that [Jesus] dying on a cross to pay the debt for his sins, he was now bought with the precious blood of Christ. Paul understood that, for some reason or another, that he, who once was a terrible enemy of the Christian faith, was now called to serve the cause of Christ in the world. That’s what happens when Jesus gets into a person’s life. His love overwhelms, and you realize you’ve been bought at great cost to Jesus. You become His servant out of gratitude for all that He’s done for you. You want to serve and obey Him, and stand up for Him, and put yourself out there for Him. You can’t help yourself.

But notice also the other title that Paul uses as he identifies the Philippians as “saints”. That’s what a person becomes when he or she trust in Jesus Christ. Now, being a saint doesn’t mean you become automatically a good and perfect person. That’s not what he’s getting at. You see, a saint is defined as “one who is set apart for God”. Now that’s what I call status in this world. You’re set apart for God if you’re in Christ. When Jesus comes into your life you are set apart for God’s purposes. You’re a saint. You have a new identity, a new purpose. So, when a person steps in a relationship with Jesus Christ, Paul’s first pointing out to us you get a new ID. New identification: servant, saint. Claim it!

But then, he goes on remind us of our new inheritance as well that we have in Christ. Not only do we get a title, but there is this inheritance called “grace and peace”. He says “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Why do you suppose he reminds them of grace? Could it be that we can’t be reminded enough of it, of how amazing it is? I mean, I’ve found in my own life that I need constant reminders of God’s grace because I “leak” grace. It so easily leaks, and we go back to our old natural way of thinking, which is a dead-end street and holds no joy for us whatsoever. So Paul is longing for them to claim and enjoy God’s grace in their lives, because God’s grace saves, it changes, it sustains lives, doesn’t it? I mean, what is saving grace? It’s God’s unmerited favor to us through Jesus Christ, it’s a free gift. We don’t deserve it, we can’t earn it. Someone once said you can use the letters of grace, the word g-r-a-c-e: “God’s riches at Christ’s expense”, that’s the definition. It’s God’s free gift of forgiveness and a restored relationship with Him forever. It’s something that to has to be given to us because all of us have sinned and we fall short of the glory of God. God is love, but He’s also just, and the guilty will not go unpunished, He tells us. If you break one commandment, you’ve broken them all. The wages of sin is death; that’s our predicament. We can’t fix it; we’re incapable – spiritually bankrupt. Well here’s what God did out of love for you and me, out of grace: He sent His son Jesus Christ to take upon Himself our sin. Jesus lived the perfect life of obedience, went to the cross for us as our substitute, and then He took the hit for us. The wrath of God towards sin was poured out on Jesus His son, and God’s perfect love and justice was satisfied that day at the cross. He purchased our forgiveness and a place for us in God’s Heaven. It’s all grace.

I’m reminded of an old story of a man who died and faced the angel Gabriel at Heaven’s gates:

The angel said “here’s how it works: you need a hundred points to make it into Heaven. You tell me all the good things you’ve done, and I will give you a certain number of points for each of them. The more good there is the work that you cite, the more points you’ll get for it. When you get 100 points, you get in.”

“Okay,” the man said, “I was married to the same woman for 50 years and never cheated on her, even in my heart.”

Gabriel replied “that’s great, that’s worth three points.”

“Three points!” said the man incredulously. “Well, I attended church all my life and supported its ministry with my money and service.”

“Terrific,” said Gabriel, “that’s certainly worth a point.”

“One point?!” said the man, with his eyes beginning to show a bit of panic. “Well how about this: I opened a shelter for the homeless in my city and fed needy people by the hundreds during the holidays.”

“Fantastic, that’s good for two points” said the angel.

“TWO POINTS?!” cried the man in desperation. “At this rate the only way I will get to Heaven is by the grace of God!”

And Gabriel said “come on in!”

It’s all grace. He offers grace to us that’s received through faith. And faith is… the best picture I can give for you is a beggar holding out empty hands to receive a gift from the king. With empty hands we received the riches of God’s forgiving grace and we get a clean conscience and a clean record and a clean heart. A new and full life in the present, and the promise of eternity.

Lewis Smedes writes, in one of his books, why grace is so amazing. He says

Why do we call grace amazing? Grace is amazing because it works against the grain of common sense. Hard-nosed common sense will tell you that you are too wrong to meet the standards of a holy God; pardoning grace tells you that it’s all right in spite of so much in you that is wrong. Realistic common sense tells you that you are too weak, too harassed, too human to change for the better; grace gives you power to send you on the way to being a better person. Plain common sense may tell you that you are caught in a rut of fate or futility; grace promises that you can trust God to have a better tomorrow for you than the day you have made for yourself.

That’s what’s so amazing about Grace. Not only is there saving grace, but there’s sustaining grace, as well, that is talked about in Scripture. That saving grace, that all-sufficient grace; knowing that God is with me in all circumstances. He’s there to strengthen me when I am weak with His love and the working of his Holy Spirit. And when I am weak, then I am strong.

God’s grace also, then, leads to peace. A peace with God, knowing where I stand with God: that I’m forgiven in His Son forever. That I’m loved and God sees me as His own. That gives peace, deep peace within. I don’t have to wonder anymore. I have a Father who loves me and is with me in every circumstance, and nothing can separate me from His love in Christ Jesus. And that gives me peace. In Christ I have everything I need. I know that when I die I’m going to Heaven because of what Christ has done for me, and that’s peace. A peace which we all long for – that whether I live or I die I’m His forever.

I work in prison ministry these days, leading worship at a nearby penitentiary. A couple weeks ago, the worshipers were asked by the speaker “what do you need in your life?” And he allowed them to raise her hands and respond. And a number of them said that they need peace in their lives. That it’s a hard life, they needed peace. Don’t we all? Well the good news is this: peace is available through the grace of God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. The Jesus life is filled, chock-full, of grace and peace.

So there you have it: that Jesus life begins with grace and peace, that’s how we become saints and servants of Christ. And I want to ask you today, personally: have you received these gifts in your life and are you enjoying them? Have they perhaps leaked out in your daily living? Well it’s not too late to step into the Jesus life, or step back into the Jesus life, to become saints in Christ set apart for God’s purposes. To have a fresh indwelling of His grace. It’s simply a matter of yielding, surrendering your heart, giving it Christ. When you give your heart to Christ you receive forgiveness and love as a free gift; grace. You just need to say “Jesus, I’m giving my life to you. I make a mess of it. I want to walk in Your grace every day. You know what makes my life work best. I want to live with You.” Some of you have already done this, and right now are just saying “thank you Lord!” Or, perhaps, “God, I want a fresh experience of your grace today.” Some of you have never done this, though, and some of you are thinking that your sin is too horrific to be forgiven. There’s no hope for you. Let me tell you this: the good news today is there is no sin that grace cannot cover. Forgiveness comes to us through our Lord Jesus Christ. Ask, and it will be given to you.

You know, Philippians has often been described as “the letter of joy.” When you read it in one sitting, you can’t help but be struck by Paul’s constant expressions of joy and rejoicing. And remember this: he’s in prison when he’s writing. Where do you suppose that joy comes from? For Paul, and for anyone, it comes from living in a relationship with Jesus Christ; receiving His grace, which saves and changes and sustains your life. The road to a life of real, sustainable joy always begins with having the grace of God the Father, our Lord Jesus in your life. Loved ones: it’s available! Grace and peace: receive it.

Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

The King’s Way

John 14:1-6

Dear friends:

Is there anyone in life that you admire so much that you pattern your life after their character, their goals, their behavior? I admire Jesus Christ. Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” I remember how Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:5, said “Blessed are the gentle in spirit, for they will inherit the earth.” Jesus was the King of Glory. In our world, when a new king is crowned, all the people in the kingdom wonder “what will this new king be like?” So we might ask “what is the way of life that Jesus our King models for us?”

Recently I went to movie with my wife, “A Beautiful Day”. There’s a scene where Fred Rogers, played by Tom Hanks, is riding a subway car. The whole group of people in the car, of all ages and races, spontaneously begin to sing because they recognize Mr. Rogers. They sing “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor. Would you be mine?” Jesus is the King of Glory, who left the power of Heaven as the Son of God, and came down to our world, to our neighborhood. Jesus moved in to live among us. And still today Jesus asks “won’t you please be my neighbor?” Perhaps you’ve had experience, like me, were someone walked past you in a public place and the fragrance of the person that walked by lingers. Maybe it’s the pleasant fragrance of a cologne or the sweet smell of a good perfume. I want to ask you: when people are around you do they smell the fragrance of Jesus Christ?

Jesus shows us the way to live, first of all, by walking with humility. In the human experience, usually, the more power one has, the more selfish and arrogant we become. But Jesus, who had the greatest glory and the most profound infinite power, left the glory and the power of Heaven to become the greatest lover and the most generous giver the world has ever known. Humility is not weakness, but confidence in God’s presence and love to the extent that we can place others before ourselves. Where we can see the touch of God on other people’s lives, where we can treat them as if they bear the touch of the holy. Jesus always used His power to bless us and to save us.

The second way of Jesus is that He was submissive to the Father in love. Jesus was obedient to the Father’s mission, even though the mission was impossible and no one else except Jesus, as the son of God, could’ve accomplished it. But Jesus, in love for His Father and in love for our broken world, and in love for us as individuals, embraced the difficult, dirty, and deadly mission for which He’d come. He endured the rejection and the hatred of His own people that He had created. He endured great disrespect and injustice. We read in Luke 9:51 “Jesus set His face resolutely toward Jerusalem.” It was a steely resolve. And when He faithfully committed to go to Jerusalem, He knew that He was going to die there. But He was submissive to the Father in total obedience. Remember, how in the garden of Gethsemane, He pleaded with the Father: “Is there any other way, Father? Yet not my will, but Yours be done.”

The third way of Jesus showing us how to live is that He offers his unconditional love for everyone He’s created. No exceptions. Have you ever had the experience where you are in the midst of a big crowd? Maybe you’re in a packed gym for a basketball game, or you’re sitting in a crowded auditorium, waiting for concert from a famous musician, or maybe you’re driving through a major metropolitan area in heavy traffic. And it occurs to you, crowded around by people, that God knows each person in the crowd and loves them all. Jesus has unconditional love for everyone He has created. And He encourages each of us, because He knows our full potential and He knows the purpose for which God created us. And so in His love, in the most positive way, He pours Himself in love to us so that we might become all that God intended. In His unconditional love, He treats us with kindness and patience; in truth, but also in gentleness. That’s why His arms are always open to us.

The fourth quality of Jesus the King is that He is willing to serve all people regardless of who they are or what they’ve done, regardless of the cost, regardless of the task. Jesus courageously and sacrificially serves us, even if it causes Him great suffering. This is an upside down, countercultural quality. It’s the inversion of power, were Jesus uses almighty power to serve us and to save us. Remember: Jesus is the King who knelt before His disciples and washed their feet. Jesus is the King who stood before a blind beggar and said “what would you like Me to do for you?” And Jesus told us that “I have set an example that you should also do like I am doing.” Jesus has the heart of a king that takes Him all the way to the cross.

If we took an inventory of what we’ve discussed together so far in the way of life Jesus shows us, I have to admit to you: I fall far short. I can’t follow the way of Jesus with perfection. In fact, though I deeply admire Jesus and give it my full effort, I cannot be perfectly obedient. So please know that we would follow the King’s ethics, the King’s character, the King’s behavior, NOT as a way that we would be saved. Our hope is never based on our ability to walk perfectly in Jesus’ way. Jesus is our King, who shows us the way, but Jesus ultimately is the King who had to make the way for us to be in the Kingdom of God. He had to die on the cross to open the way for salvation, that we might be the recipients of the love of God. Jesus not only shows us the way, He is the way, and He welcomes us in His love and invites us to believe in Him. Remember: Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” So yes, we pattern our life after the way of life Jesus showed us, but we trust Jesus as the Savior who forgives all who are willing to receive His love. His arms are always open in reconciliation. Jesus removes every barrier to our peace with God. He has opened the floodgates of grace and mercy by His death on the cross and being raised from the dead.

I remember the promise in 2 Corinthians 2: it reads “thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ. He manifests through us the sweet fragrance of Christ of the knowledge of Him in every place.” We are the fragrance of Christ. Not long ago I read the story of the young couple with an 18-month-old son named Eric. The little family had traveled to their grandparents’ to spend the weekend. And on Sunday, after they worshiped together, the young family headed for home. Along the way, they needed gas and stopped at a truck stop for a bite to eat. As they entered into the restaurant it was largely empty, and they were all by themselves. And their little boy Eric started saying “Hi dare! Hi dare!”, (meaning ‘hi there’.) Every time the boy said that there was a response from a table booth in the corner: “hi, there, little boy.” They looked at that corner table and saw an old, ragged, tattered man. His coat was several sizes too big and torn in multiple places. His trousers drug on the floor, and his shoes literally had holes in them, and his toes stuck out. He had an old hat tilted to the side, his face was unshaven, and when he smiled there were missing teeth. Yet, for some reason, little Eric was attracted to this older man, and he kept saying “hi dare! Hi dare!” and every time the old man would answer. Finally, the stranger said “little boy, do you know how to play pat-a-cake?” And Eric would start pat-a-caking. “Little boy, you know how to play peek-a-boo?” Sure enough, little Eric hid his eyes and played peek-a-boo. There was an instant rapport between little Eric and the old man, who was obviously a reject of society. Eric’s parents felt uneasy, and the husband whispered to his wife “let’s eat our food and get outta here.” So they gulped it down. Then he said “I’ll pay for the food, you get Eric out to the car.” Mommy started toward the door, hoping to get out without problems, but as they passed the older man he reached out his arms. The old man looked at mom and said “would you, would you let me hold your baby?” She really couldn’t say no because Eric virtually lunged into the arms of the old man. He cradled Eric on one arm and patted his back with the other, as Eric put his arms around the old man’s neck and laid his head against his shoulder. Closing his eyes, the old man talked to the boy with tears rolling down his cheeks. For a long moment, he held the child close and loved him. And as he did, he looked up at mom and said “take good care of your boy.” She answered “I will, sir.” He handed Eric back and said “thank you, thank you very much. You’ve given me the best gift I’ve had a long time.”

Jesus, God’s son, left the power and glory of Heaven to come down to where we are, and then to throw his arms around our neck and to embrace us in love, because that’s the King’s way. It’s the presence of Jesus’ spirit within us that is like a teabag in hot water. Jesus’ spirit colors and flavors our lives with his grace. Only Jesus’ spirit living within us can produce within our lives the King’s way, the King’s character, the King’s heart, planted deep within us. Jesus’ presence changes us. Faith enables us to put our hands in the hands of God. So we put our hands into the hands of Jesus Christ, and He leads us in the way of life that He has shown us. There’s a poem written by Minnie Louise Haskins, it reads:

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

So we commit our lives to pattern after Jesus, who we love and admire. But we also trust Jesus, who is the only way to be in relationship with God the Father.

Amen.

Pastor Lee Laaveg

Jesus Is: Mighty

Matthew 8:23-27

Dear friends:

I live in the upper Midwest of the United States and every once in a while during the summer months the sirens will go off outside warning us that there is a severe storm headed our way, and we ought to take cover. It might be a tornado or a serious thunderstorm; it can all be a bit unnerving. Some of you might live in areas where there are other kinds of natural storms, such as hurricanes, and those can be very frightening as well. These storms of nature are just a part of living on planet Earth. We know that storms happen. But there are other kinds of storms we will experience in life as well that sometimes catch us by surprise. There are relational storms, as marriages struggle or we find ourselves in the midst of a divorce. It could be a lack of friendships in your life or feeling cut off from people and all alone. That’s stormy weather. Or there are health storms: a cancer that’s eating up your body or chronic illness that won’t go away. Or financial storms: a loss of employment, unexpected losses in your investments, or healthcare costs. There’s the storm of loss, and the storm of transition. And if you’re a follower of Jesus Christ you’ve learned that following Jesus doesn’t exempt you from facing those storms in life.

How do you handle the storms? I mean let’s face it, it’s so easy for us to get scared, and panic, and doubt. Such is the case with the disciples in today’s story. This episode we read follows a conversation the Jesus had with some admirers who said they were interested in following Him. He and the disciples were just about ready to get into a boat to go over to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, and these admirers, along with the disciples, had witnessed Jesus doing miraculous healings earlier on, and they wanted in. Well Jesus warns them not to expect easy, smooth sailing if they follow him. It’s a high commitment thing. Then Matthew says “when Jesus got into the boat His disciples followed Him. And behold, there arose a great storm.” No easy sailing with Jesus. The Sea of Galilee was known for its sudden storms. It would come up out of nowhere, and they could get nasty. And this one must of been a doozy, because even the seasoned fisherman in the boat were among the panicked as the boat was being swamped by water. And as a whole, Jewish folks didn’t really like the sea – they were afraid of it, they were landlubbers. They saw the sea as a dark, evil, power of fear. So this storm had to have made the disciples’ stress level skyrocket all the more.

Now amazingly, Jesus is sound asleep in the back of the boat as they’re trying to keep it afloat. But when things look out of control, they wake Him up. “SAVE US, LORD, WE’RE PERISHING!” There appears to be some faith here on their part, right? But Jesus responds in an interesting way. In the midst of the storm, before He even addresses a storm, He uses it as a teachable moment. He speaks to them. “Why are you afraid, oh you of little faith?” In the midst of the waves filling the boat, the wind whistling around them, Jesus seems to be scolding them for being afraid. He calls them people of little faith. And notice: He gets after them not for “un-faith”. He doesn’t say “you’re all out of faith.” He gets after them for their little, wavering faith in the face of a frightening storm. They seem to have forgotten His power and authority that they had witnessed earlier in the chapter. Their faces show sheer panic as they wake Him up, not confident belief they still haven’t figured out who He really is. And they don’t know the plans that God had for Him: to go to a cross, to pay for the sins of the world, and rise again. They didn’t realize He was the Son of God. They don’t have the advantage that we have of reading the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They don’t have the big picture. Even though, I have to admit that even in knowing the big picture, I still can sometimes find myself panicking and despairing when storms hit in my life and things are overwhelming. How about you?

Anyway, back to the story. After the rebuke towards the disciples, Jesus stands up in the boat, and he rebukes the wind and the sea. And there is immediately a great calm. With only a word He stills the storm. Can you imagine the feelings of those disciples sitting in that boat, now on that calm, still sea? There had to have been awe and holy fear and wonder. It would take your breath away, wouldn’t it? Matthew says “they marveled, saying ‘what sort of Man is this, that even the wind and sea obey Him?’” As if they didn’t expect Him to be able to stop the storm.

This story is another epiphany of Christ’s power and authority. He’s much more than He appears on the surface. He’s more than a teacher, miracle healer, prophet, or earthly-type of Messiah. He’s more than that – only God can do something like this, according to the stories and songs from the Old Testament. I wonder: were the disciples beginning to catch a glimpse of light regarding His identity? Perhaps. Of course, later on it will become very clear as they witness His death and His resurrection from the dead. Then they won’t be able to be still about Him, even in facing the worst of storms, like rejection and persecution for their faith and mission.

It does make me wonder, as I read a story like this: was this story saved for us, to reassure us, that even those first disciples struggled with faith and fears? And if it takes time for them to grow in faith, then maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that it takes us time as well. And maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves (and one another) when we‘re struggling with our fears.

So, let’s talk about you. How would you describe your relationship with this Jesus? What do you think of Him, believe about Him, plan to do with Him? Are you trusting Him with everything in your life? I hope so. This story from Matthew, you see, reveals two things we need to seriously consider. First, it tells us who Jesus is. And next, it teaches us what He expects of His followers. First, He’s God in the flesh. He’s the Lord over all creation, even over storms. He is mighty, He has all power and authority. Ultimately, He defeated the greatest storm that humanity faces: death, when He rose from the dead as the first fruits of the resurrection. Just listen to this description of our mighty Jesus in the book of Colossians. Here’s what it says about Him: He is the image of the invisible God, the Firstborn of all creation, for by Him all things were created in Heaven and on Earth. Visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities, all things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. In Him, all things hold together. In this story, when they call on Jesus they addressed Him as “Lord”, being God. I don’t know if they meant that, but… Friend, have you called him “Lord” in your life? Have you entrusted your whole life to His direction and care? Because Jesus is Lord over all creation, even the storms. He is our Savior, our rescuer, our powerful leader worth following and trusting in all circumstances. He’s definitely the One you want in your boat.

A Christian sailor named Gorman Foch once wrote in a letter to his worried parents “If you hear that our ship went down don’t worry. The sea is but a puddle in my Savior’s hand, and nothing can snatch me from that hand.” After his resurrection, Jesus will announce to His disciples that “all authority in Heaven and on Earth has been given to Me” by His Heavenly Father. That He is sovereign and holds all of us in the palm of His hand. He has the final word over this world, and we see in the Gospels that He actually cares about us, He loves us. The palm of that hand that holds us is a nail-pierced palm, for our sake. He is mighty.

Next, Jesus says “why are you afraid?” which communicates to us that He wants us to trust Him in every situation of life, even in the storms. Storms will come our way, it’s part of living in a broken world. We are not exempt as followers of Christ Jesus, as we see in the story today. But know this: we are not abandoned. He is with us. He’s in the boat. Don’t panic! He’s Lord, and He will deliver us through the storms of life. Trust Him. He’s promised that nothing can snatch you from His hand. You are His forever, as you follow Him. As the sometimes beaten up, imprisoned, and tortured, and threatened  apostle Paul assures some Roman Christians with these words: “for I am sure that neither death nor life nor angels nor rulers nor things present nor things to come nor powers nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Friends, Paul is not simply waxing eloquent here. These wonderful words of assurance come from years of personal experience with Christ Jesus in his boat. When he says “I am sure”, he’s sure of it because Jesus has been in his boat. He’s “convinced”, as some interpretations of that statement put it. And He is with you. If you are His follower,  the risen Jesus is in the boat with you. Believe this, rejoice and be glad. The King of Kings and the Lord of Lords and sovereign over the universe, Who knows you and loves you and went to the cross to rescue you and rose again for you is with you. When the storms hit, He’s whispering in your ear: “be still, and know that I am God.” When everything seems to be falling apart, as the winds of adversity blow into your life, you can confidently pray “Jesus help me. I surrender this to you.” When your sin and guilt weighs you down because you’ve messed up again, and you feel far from God, you can confidently confess “for the sake of Jesus forgive me. Cleanse me. Renew me.” and forgiveness will come your way. When death, perhaps the greatest storm of all, comes knocking at our door, you can confidently pray with Jesus “into your hands I commit my spirit.” For Jesus has conquered the power of death, and has promised his followers, saying

Let not your hearts be troubled, you believe in God, believe also in Me. In my Father’s house there are many rooms, if it were not so would I have told you that I go and prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare that place for you I will come again, and take you to Myself, that where I am you may be also.

I would like close with a story I came across about someone facing a storm. Kara Tippetts, an author and mother of four with her husband Jason, went home to Jesus on March 22, 2015 after a long struggle with breast cancer. As the cancer spread, she courageously embraced her situation, trusting God. She believed that cancer was not the point, but Jesus was. Near the end of her life Kara wrote this:

My little body has grown tired of battle, and treatment is no longer helping. But what I see, what I know, what I have is Jesus. He has still given me breath, and with it I pray I would live well and fade well. By degrees doing both, living and dying, as I have moments left to live. I get to draw my people close, kiss them and tenderly speak love over their lives. I get to pray into eternity my hopes and fears for the moments of my loves. I get to laugh and cry and wonder over Heaven. I do not feel like I have the courage for this journey, but I have Jesus—and He will provide. He has given me so much to be grateful for, and that gratitude, that wondering over His love, will cover us all. And it will carry us—carry us in ways we cannot comprehend.

Friend, if you are His follower, aren’t you glad that the mighty, powerful, faithful Jesus Christ is in the boat with you? Don’t be afraid. Believe me, He cares for you and you can trust Him in all things.

Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

Jesus Is: Calling

Matthew 4:18-22

Dear friends:

A number of years ago, Chan Gailey, football coach for the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, told how he learned a little lesson in humility. He was the head coach of Alabama’s Troy State, and they were playing for a national championship. The week before the big game he was headed to the practice field when a secretary called him back for a phone call. Somewhat irritated, he told her to take a message because he was on his way practice. She responded “but it’s Sports Illustrated.” “I’ll be right there” he said. As he made his way to the building he began thinking about the upcoming article. It would be great publicity for a small school like Troy State to be in Sports Illustrated. As he got closer, he realized that a three-page article would not be sufficient to tell the whole story. Coming even closer to his office he started thinking he might be on the cover! “Should I pose, or go with an action shot?” he wondered. His head was spinning with all kinds of possibilities. When he picked up the phone and said “hello”, the person asked “is this Chan Gailey?” “Yes it is” he replied confidently. “This is Sports Illustrated, and we’re calling to let you know that your subscription is running out. Are you interested in renewing?” Coach Gailey concluded his story by saying “you are either humble or you will be humbled.”

You know, we receive all kinds of calls in life, don’t we? Junk calls, usually an automatic robotic voice: “congratulations, we have picked you to go on this trip.” Or a voice offering to update your car warranty. There’s spam and scam calls. “This is the Social Security office, and we need your Social Security number to get your account straightened out.” Fundraising calls: “this is your alma mater, we’re doing a capital campaign and we need your financial help.” Of course there are personal calls from family and friends who are checking in with us. Then there those bothersome calls from people you don’t really want to talk with because they’re irritating and interrupting your day. Surveys, for instance. Or crank calls, or prank calls, or business calls from customers, bosses, or colleagues. Some calls, though, we receive are quite memorable and important to us. I remember when my congregation called me up, said “Steve, we just voted and we want you to come and be our pastor.” Or a call from my grown-up son or daughter, “dad, we just had a baby boy!” Important calls.

Today I want to talk with you about the most important call you will ever receive in your life. Because, you see, in our passage for today we come across the calling of Andrew and Peter and James and John by Jesus. He saw these fisherman with nets in their hands by the sea of Galilee and He called out to them “follow Me.” To follow someone means to come after them. Start going, moving in their direction. Get behind Him. And they responded, amazingly. They dropped what they were doing, left behind their businesses, and followed. Everything: business, family left behind. And they traipsed after Him in faith. They had some previous exposure to Jesus according to John’s gospel. Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist. He told Andrew that Jesus was the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. Andrew was intrigued by this, and so he followed Jesus home and spent some time with Him and was convinced! He went home and told his brother Simon Peter “we found the Messiah!” And then Andrew brought Peter to meet Jesus, and then he stayed on, learning more. So later on, when Jesus comes to them and calls them by the Sea of Galilee to follow Him, they went with Him. They’d had some time, I suppose, to think about what they’d learned. They followed. They didn’t know where He would lead them, but they went in faith. And their lives were never the same after that, were they? They began following Jesus, and that involved living with Him 24/7. Getting to know Him. Learning from His wisdom as He taught them. Observing Him as He went throughout the villages, teaching and preaching and doing a miraculous miracles like the healing of people and casting out demons. They watched His compassion towards all kinds of people, and His faith in His Heavenly Father impressed them every step of the way. They were excited about Him and growing in faith as they lived with Him. After a while they experienced the thrill of even serving Him in His kingdom cause, when He authorized and sent them out on their own, two by two, to preach the good news of the kingdom of God in the villages, heal, and cast out demons. Now, it wasn’t very easy following Jesus. They would watch him face off day after day with hostile opponents from Israel’s religious establishment. And later on they would actually have to watch him die a horrific death on the cross. It was also eye-opening and life-changing that three days after that crucifixion they saw Him alive again. They also saw Him ascend to His Father in power and authority after they were given a commission by Him to go make disciples of all nations. To be His witnesses. At Pentecost they experienced the promise of the Holy Spirit being poured out upon them, just as He said, empowering them to turn their world upside down as they spread the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection. And they were changed men. Big-time changed! Their lives would never be the same after being with Christ, now filled with the Spirit. Their lives were better, more satisfying, very significant. And just think: it all began with an obedient, positive response to a call along the sea of Galilee. “Follow Me.” And from there, the adventure of a new life with Jesus Christ began for those men.

Friends, that same call has never stopped coming. That call comes to us today from risen Jesus Christ – He’s alive. He’s still calling people to follow Him. To follow Him involves stepping into a living relationship or a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. A person, you see, can still have a close walk with Jesus as those disciples did. Oh, you may not be able to see Him, but You can learn from Him and His word. Talking, listening to Him in prayer. Praising Him in worship. Serving the needs of others in His name, you’ll encounter Him. And that’s how you come to know Him in a very personal, dynamic way, and learn more and more to trust Him and believe that He really does know what is best for your life. And let me tell you what following Christ leads to: it leads to salvation. God wants all people to be saved, according to scripture. And the means of being saved is entering into a relationship with Jesus Christ, who died on a cross to pay for our sins, and rose again. He is the means to enter God’s kingdom of light, of receiving God’s forgiveness for sin, and the promise of everlasting life. He’s the Way, the Truth, the Life God wants for us, and no one comes to the Father but through Him. He told us that Himself. Following Him also leads a person to positive personal changes in one’s life. Life with Jesus is life-changing. The apostle Paul describes for us the fruit of the Spirit that God wants to put in our lives through our relationship with Jesus: love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and gentleness and generosity and self-control. Boy, that’s going to make for some rich relationships with other people besides, isn’t it? I mean, as someone once said, Jesus loves you just as you are, but He refuses to leave you that way.” He wants to make you like Himself.

We learned in this story that to follow Jesus also leads to new adventures, beyond your wildest dreams, as you receive a new eternal purpose which is challenging and satisfying. You know when He said “follow Me” he also added on “I will make you fishers of men.” As we follow Jesus and actually obey His command to be His witness to everyone, and tell everyone we know about Him with our words and our actions… As we step out in His name and fish for people right alongside of the risen Savior… As we experience the joy of being used as His instruments in this world, bringing others into a saving relationship with Christ… Let me tell you, life does not get any better than that! I can tell you that from my own personal experiences leading people to Jesus. And let me tell you whenever people have responded positively to Christ’s call to follow Him, their lives have always been changed for the better. Now I’m not saying it’s an easier life that Jesus is offering you and me. Jesus never promised that. In fact, the follower of Jesus Christ will find that he or she is not immune from the hardships of living in what we know is a sinful, broken world. And Jesus Himself tells us that following Him will involve “carrying a cross”. There will be some suffering, some sacrifice in this hostile world that rejects Him, as we bring the good news message who He is and what He has done for the world. It’s not easy, but still, it’s a much better life… No, wait a minute, let me correct myself: it’s the best life a person can have. Jesus called it “the abundant life” He came to give.

Isn’t it interesting that those first disciples that Jesus called (except for one: Judas) stayed the course in following Jesus. I mean they actually put their lives on the line for Him. They were imprisoned and beaten and martyred for Jesus. Why did they do that? Why they stick with Him? The answer to that is they had found the life they were looking for in Jesus. There were no regrets, only rejoicing in Christ.

I think of another disciple who came onto the scene later on named Paul, who was [once] a great persecutor of the faith, and he wrote these words: “for me to live is Christ.” He said there’s nothing compared to knowing and serving Jesus Christ, the rest is just garbage in comparison. He said in his life could be expressed a simply being compelled by the love of Christ working in him.

I’d like to ask you a personal question today: have you responded positively to the most important call you will ever receive? The call from Jesus to follow Him? Oh, I’m not talking about some sort of “easy believism”: say “yes” and say a prayer and go on with our life as if nothing has changed. No, I’m asking have you given your unqualified trust and obedience to the Lord of the universe, Jesus Christ? Does Jesus have the highest priority? Is your relationship with Him the supreme relationship, out of which every other relationship and activity is defined and directed? How would you answer that?

My appeal is that you not ignore or reject His call to follow, as so many do. Follow Him! I know that in life some calls I get on the phone I don’t answer because I reason with myself “I’m too busy with something more important, I don’t want to be interrupted.” Well this call is way too important for any individual to ignore. Follow Jesus with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. This is one call you do not want to miss. With the lack of good, trustworthy leadership in our world today there might be for you a certain amount of reluctance to entrust your life to anything, or to anyone, or any kind of leader. But I want you to remember this: this call comes from One who died for your sins and rose again victorious over the power of sin and death and the devil. And He sits in authority over this world, and He loves you very, very much. He died for you, He rose for you, He is the leader you can trust with your life and he has your best interests in mind. He’s been teaching me that again and again and again as I’ve walked with Him. To follow Jesus Christ and have a personal relationship with Him is life to the max.

You know, I do a lot of reading and I recently read an inspiring testimony by Dr. Rosalind Picard, a renowned professor at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). She writes that her first 20 years of life were spent thinking that religious people were ignoramuses, and that she was too smart to buy into this “God thing”. But through a series of encounters with some Christians that she admired, she came to realize her arrogance and that she was being a fool, snubbing “the greatest mind in the cosmos” as she put it. She asked Jesus to be the Lord, the leader of her life. She followed Jesus. She writes:

Have you ever tried to assemble something mechanical, and it only kind of works?  Maybe the wheels spin, but not smoothly.  Then you realize you were missing a piece.  When you finally put it together correctly, it works beautifully.  This is how it felt when I handed my life over to God: I thought it had worked fine before, but after it was ‘fixed,’ it worked exponentially better.  That’s not to say nothing bad ever happened to me – far from it.  But in all things, good and bad, I could count on God’s guidance, comfort, and protection. So the day I walk humbly alongside the most amazing companion, Jesus Christ, the most amazing companion anyone could ask for, I am filled with desire to keep learning and exploring.

Do you have that kind of relationship with Jesus? You can. As Jesus called Peter and Andrew and James and John and the apostle Paul, and millions of others since, and Rosalind Picard, Jesus is calling you. “Follow me, I’ll make you fishers of men.” Commit yourself to follow Jesus. Trust Him. Obey Him. Serve Him. And you will discover for yourself that He is the way to go, that He is the truth to believe, and He is the life that God wants for you.

Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

Jesus Is: The Light You Need

Matthew 4:12-17

Dear friends:

When I was a little boy my family visited the Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park out in Montana where I’m from. Of course, we wanted to do a tour of the limestone caverns, which are considered the largest and most spectacular in the northwestern part of the United States. Now what I remember about the tour, first of all, is that I was a little nervous and scared at the thought of going down deep into these underground caves. It was scary enough seeing the bats flying around at the entrance to the cave as we prepared to go in. Then we descended deeper and deeper and deeper into the earth. It got chillier, and damper, and darker. The guide at one point turned off the lights just to show us how dark it could get. We couldn’t see anything – you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face! The blackness was disorienting and paralyzing. We didn’t move, and I was scared. Then suddenly he turned on his flashlight. One tiny flashlight lit up that huge cavern. The tour group let out a big sigh of relief as this one small light dispelled the darkness. We went through the rest of the tour and I breathed a sigh of relief when it was all over and we stepped back out into the warm, beautiful, Montana- “big sky country” sunlight. I don’t know about you, but I prefer light over dark.

Matthew, in our passage for today, talks about light and darkness. He tells us that as Jesus made His headquarters for His ministry in the village of Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee, that this was actually a fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy. Listen to his words again:

The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.

This passage comes from Isaiah 9. In Isaiah’s time God’s chosen people were living in the darkness of their sin and God’s judgment. They had turned to idols for their security instead of the God of Israel. Darkness prevailed. In fact, all of God’s commandments were being brazenly broken by His people, again and again. And now God’s judgment was looming upon them – a world power was about to take away their land. They were looking for answers in the wrong places, and now are stumbling around in the dark trying to fix things, according to Isaiah, who spoke on God’s behalf. They were lost! The future looked bleak for them. They would be invaded, deported, and live in exile as punishment, Isaiah told them. But in Isaiah 9, there’s a great announcement from Isaiah about a hopeful future for them. There would come light! God’s saving light. Isaiah goes on to describe the promised one from God – a King – coming Who would be their Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. Their light would be given them. As Isaiah predicted, as you know, they lost the land just as he said and they were exiled. God’s punishment was carried out, and they lived in exile for many, many years. Eventually they were allowed to return home, thanks to God’s help. But after they returned to their land, there was still no Messiah King yet to rule over them. They lived under the domination of various world powers, so they looked forward to the day when the Messianic King God promised would arrive and make things right for Israel, just like was described in Isaiah 9.

Now, in today’s story Matthew announces:

The time you’ve been waiting for has arrived! Here is that light that Isaiah was talking about. It’s Jesus! He has come to overcome the darkness of the world. A new day is dawning, even in the region of the shadow of death itself.

We learn in this statement that Jesus is a light for all kinds of people, not just Jewish folks. This area, where Jesus was beginning His ministry, was Jewish and pagan. It lay aside the international trade routes, with all kinds of people with all kinds of beliefs and religions walking around. Jesus, you see, had come for all people sitting in the darkness of this world. Everybody needs the Light. It’s worth noting also that the rabbis back then used “Light” as a name for the Messiah that was promised to come, and “Light” was used to describe God Himself. For instance, Psalm 27 begins with the line “the Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear?” And God’s glory is described as a great light.

So now we have this announcement: the Light has come. Old Testament prophecies fulfilled, and Matthew finishes this text “so from that time on Jesus began to preach saying ‘repent for the kingdom of Heaven,’” Matthew’s way of saying the kingdom of God, “’is at hand.’” In other words, God’s promised Light of salvation has arrived. “Turn to me,” Jesus says, “and enter into the kingdom of God’s light.” You see, God did not create you and me to live in darkness, but in His light. Darkness is talked of negatively in this passage for very good reason.

Everyone knows that we need light physically. Without the sun we’d freeze to death in the darkness. In the darkness, crops can’t grow, plants can’t go through the process to give off oxygen for us to breathe. We also know that we need light emotionally. We human beings become depressed when we’re living in darkness, when it’s gray out, in the gray and darkness of winter. Many of us have a “sad lamp” to try to overcome the depression. And isn’t it interesting that when things are bad or feeling bad we talk of them as “dark times”. Fear comes with that darkness as well, as we think of children being afraid of the dark. Light gives confidence. And we need light from an intellectual standpoint as well. We talk about it in that way. Light shows us the truth. For example, it shows us the bend in the road when we’re driving at night so we don’t go off the road or hit something that’s in the roadway. And we talk of then being “enlightened by the truth” in books and in science and so on. When something is revealed to us, we discover something, we talk of “the light goes on in our head” and how good that feels.

So that’s why darkness serves as such a good metaphor for humanity’s spiritual predicament. And it shows how important light is for us. Darkness represents (in the Bible) evil and ignorance and helplessness and hopelessness and lostness and death itself. When we live apart from God we’re living in the dark. We’re operating under the Prince of darkness, Satan. We stumble around in the darkness of sin and death, and we cannot get ourselves out of it even if we try. We are totally in the dark, ignorant, about how to fix it. Oh, we try artificial means to bring some light into our personal lives: money and possessions and relationships and success and doing good and being good, moral people and earning God’s favor. But these attempts don’t really work. They’re only temporary, fleeting, and they fall short. And when we look into our world and we see how dark it has become some days, we might turn to the government, or to economics, or education, or technology for the light, but they fall short as well.

As human beings created by God we need real Light, we need God’s Light to survive and live spiritually. That’s how we’re wired. Without His Light, we’re in a mess. We’re in a terrible predicament. And Matthew’s gospel announces to us “Light has arrived, His name is Jesus!” One day later on this Jesus will even refer to Himself as the “Light of the world”, that whoever comes to Him will not need to stumble around in the darkness. Jesus, you see, is the Light we need. His teaching and healing brings light. His suffering and dying and rising will give light and life to all who come to Him. You get around Jesus and His light exposes the truth of our sinfulness. It’s like sitting under the dentist’s lamp when going for a checkup: all the flaws in our face show up. His light turns us and leads us to the truth, not only about ourselves, but about God and God’s heart. He tells us when you’ve looked into His face you look into the face of God. And he talks to us of our need for God; that we’re incomplete without God in our lives. His light reminds us of what is good and true. It can be trusted for what is safe and what is unsafe. What is hard for us, what is good for us, life-giving. His light brings us a steady stream of joy, even in the midst of darkest circumstances, because His presence is with us and also in us.

Think about this: when Jesus died on the cross for our sin, darkness fell over the land, didn’t it? He was descending into darkness at that time so that we could be brought into His marvelous light, God’s eternal light. Someone once said “without Christ we’re like a ship lost in the open sea in a dense fog, groping around for the eternal shore, waiting with beating hearts for someone to dispel the darkness with the light of salvation.” And this is what Christ has done for us: He’s our light. The apostle Paul in Colossians describes believers in Christ as “saints who live in Christ’s light” and he says “Christ has delivered us from the domain of darkness. He’s transferred us to the Kingdom of His beloved Son in Whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Delivered, transferred from darkness into light. Christ is that Light.

I have a personal question for you today: are you living in the darkness or in the light? Have you been delivered and transferred out of darkness into the marvelous light of God? If your answer is “no, I’m in the dark,” there’s no need for you to sit in the darkness any longer. Let me assure you of that. There’s no need to be away from God and His Light. There’s no need to go through life fearful and scared and nervous and lost and hopeless, because the good news that’s announced to us today is “the Light has come!”

And how do we get in on the gracious gift of this light? Jesus tells us in his first sermon that was read in the passage: repent. To repent is basically to admit you can’t save yourself and come to the light of Jesus Christ. Turn to Him and believe in Jesus and what he’s done for you at the cross and the tomb. Don’t just come the Light though – walk in the Light. Follow Him the rest of your days. Listen and obey Him. You do that by daily opening those Gospels to let Him speak to you, to teach you. It’s the way to go. It’s a wise way to live, Old Testament scripture tells us, “God’s word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path.” And share the Light with others. He shone the light of His love on you, now reflect His love to others with your own kind words and actions. And, of course, tell people about what He’s done for all of us; let that Light shine so that others might come to the saving light of Jesus Christ.

Oh friend, Jesus is the Light every one of us needs. God wants to light up your life and give you a brand new day. God wants to put this old gospel song in your life:

I wandered so aimless, life filled with sin
I wouldn’t let the dear Savior in
Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night
Praise the Lord! I saw the light!
Oh, I saw the light, I saw the light
No more darkness, no more night
Now I’m so happy, no sorrow in sight
Praise the Lord! I saw the light!
Praise the Lord! I saw the light!

Come to the Light of Jesus Christ! Come now!

Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

When the King Moves In

Revelation 3:15-20

Dear friends:

Who would you say you most admire in this world? And if that person you admire so much were a person of power and influence, what would you do if they came to your home today and knocked on the door asking “can I come in? Can I move in with you and stay a while? Can I share the rhythms of your life and get to know you in a relationship of love?” Imagine how that would be if the person you love and admire so much began to share daily life with you.

Let me say that love never forces entrance, nor can love be forced. Love always invites, offers, waits, and gives. The Bible says that Jesus is the King of kings who is the “persistent suitor”, coming to us again and again to knock on the door of our hearts, seeking access to our lives in order that he might bless us with His power. Save us, forgive us, and reconcile us to His Father. King Jesus has another name, it is Emmanuel, which means “God with us”. Think about Jesus as King, coming to us as God as He really is to live with us as we really are. God comes to stay, to live in our neighborhood. That’s totally different than a visiting guest who comes for a few hours on a special occasion. Sometimes we think about Jesus as a repairman: we hope he leaves soon, and we hope he doesn’t cost us too much. Pause a minute now and think: Jesus is the King of the cosmos who will save us from our sins. The One who had all power emptied Himself of all power and glory as God in order to take on the weakness of human flesh. In the incarnation God was everywhere present, now becomes human living in a particular place. The God who was eternal now comes to live within time and history. It’s an interesting thought, but we who are human beings are relatively puny compared to the size and power and scope of an infinite, almighty God.

However God’s Spirit, though everywhere, will not dwell in one place uninvited. That’s within the heart of every person that He has created. When Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River in Mark 1, He says “the time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the good news.” Well the Kingdom of God was at hand because Jesus the King had come to live with people He had created. The King moved into the neighborhood. And when a king ascends to power, there are only two responses: you either surrender on your knees to swear allegiance to the king or you rebel and run.

I once read a true story of a man was arrested for a crime, convicted, and sentenced to death. He was guilty, but people who loved the man went to the governor of the state, and the governor pardoned the man of his death sentence. But the man said “I will not accept it.” Well that took matters of the legal system, and the court ruled that the pardon was not valid unless the one intended to be pardoned accepted the pardon. The legal court system said that the man had the right to refuse mercy and refuse freedom.

When King Jesus comes to pardon us of all our failures and sins and give us new life and freedom, though it seems ridiculous, puny people can limit the almighty power of King Jesus. We can reject His love and reject His pardon.

So does your life have room for a King Jesus? In John 1:11 it says “Jesus came to His own people but His own people did not receive Him. But to all who did receive Him, to them God gives the power, the authority, to become the people of God.” If Jesus came to your house and came in to live, would your ego let Him have the throne? If Jesus came to your house and shared time with you, is there any element of your attitudes and behaviors or speech, is ready thing within your household that you’d be embarrassed for the King to see?

Well what is the impact when King Jesus moves in? Jesus reigns wherever he is received. He has unlimited power and unlimited resources to bring about positive change, and he brings that change with a heart full of love and a heart-character full of wisdom. He turns our hovel into a home. When the King moves in He turns it into a palace. He transforms our lives into something beautiful, where we become everything that God intended us for to us to be when he created us and gave us life.

I once heard a story of a famous nightclub in an American city. And that nightclub had big-time entertainers and musicians come in to play music before packed houses, night after night. But there was a problem: the piano in the nightclub was out of tune. Terribly out of tune! And the “guts” of the piano were damaged so that notes would be missed when the keyboard player played the song. And so when the famous musicians would leave after playing in that nightclub, they tell the owner of the nightclub “you gotta do something about that piano!” So you know what? Finally the owner of the nightclub did. Do you know we did? He painted the outside of the piano.

When King Jesus comes into the life of a believer, He brings change in a gut-level to remove all that prevents us from playing beautiful music in harmony with the living God. Is King Jesus on the throne of your heart? There’s a song by musician Michael Card that attempts to capture the thoughts of Jesus’ stepfather Joseph. In the lyric of Card’s song he says “Lord, please show me where I fit into this plan of yours.” Now that’s upside down from how we sometimes think. We might invite Jesus in, but we squeeze Jesus into OUR plan. That’s upside down. The truth is if he’s the King of kings, and he rules over us and wisdom and love, then we ought to echo Joseph’s words in Michael Card’s song. “Lord please show me where I fit into YOUR plan.” Jesus takes the throne and the central access of our lives turned around; the presence of Jesus at the very heart of who we are as His people.

So why is it good news when King Jesus moves in? First, because he cleanses away all guilt and shame from our lives. He washes away all the wrongdoing to purify our hearts and renew us forever. Not long ago when our family was together for the holiday one of our grandchildren unfortunately became ill, and he “lost it” all over furniture and floor. There was much to clean up. Isn’t it an amazing truth that King Jesus, who has all power, is willing to become our servant and there is no stain that King Jesus cannot remove from our lives. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” So we say with David in Psalm 51 “Create in me a clean heart, oh God”

he second powerful good news because Jesus the King moves in is that King Jesus heals our brokenness. He’s the gentle healer, using love to touch us tenderly in our wounded places, and to touch us even in those secret places in our psyche that no one knows about, but that haunt us in our thinking and our behavior. He heals of brokenness of destructive patterns of behavior. He heals of brokenness of stinking attitudes, cynicism, and bitterness, and low self-worth, and fear, and anxiety. He heals our brokenness to dispel the dark clouds of pessimism and depression. He heals our brokenness in relationships where there is conflict and estrangement.

The third reason that is great news when King Jesus moves in is that Jesus restores our hope for a different life. When I was in seminary many years ago at Luther seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, I worked downtown part-time at Metropolitan Medical Center in a geriatric psych ward for depressed people. At that time, to help those depressed people, they used electric shock therapy. The jolt of electricity forced the brain waves to find new patterns of thought. The idea was to “scramble” the brain waves and force the person out of the ruts of depression in their mind’s electric stimulus. Well Jesus’ spirit comes into us and brings the power surge of love that “reboots” our mind’s thinking. He stirs our hope for new possibilities. You see, when Jesus comes in, the future does not have to be a continuation of our past struggles or failures.

The fourth reason that is good news when King Jesus moves there to take the throne of our heart is that he fills our soul with joy. It’s not that we become happy all the time, with a plastic, fake smile, pretending to be happy. It’s true joy, based on the knowledge that we are deeply loved. That we belong to the King; that were the children of God. In an old gospel song it says “Joy is the flag flown high from the castle of my heart, for the King is in residence there.”

ave you ever taken a moment in prayer and faith to consciously invite Jesus to come into your life and reign as King? Not long ago I had a very strange dream: it was my graduation day from seminary, as I prepared to be a pastor. The other graduates were there with me at Central Lutheran Church in downtown Minneapolis, and all of them had on beautiful robes, blue robes, and they looked elegant as they formed the line to march into the worship space for the graduation ceremony. But I had no robe, I just had a sloppy, peach colored, short-sleeved shirt and Bermuda shorts. And when I entered the auditorium of the church the whole place erupted in laughter! I didn’t know that I was naked, and miserable, and clueless, and inadequate. I was exposed! Then Jesus knocks on the door of my heart and says “Can I come in? Can I cleanse you of guilt? Can I heal your broken places? Can I fill you with hope for a new future and a new beginning? Will you let my spirit give you joy that will bubble up each day as you walk with me in faith? That’s the type of God we serve.

I invite you now to pray with me that King Jesus would move in:

Dear Lord Jesus, we welcome you into our lives. We welcome You to take the throne of our heart, and by the power of Your spirit, cleanse us of all doesn’t belong. Heal our brokenness. Transform our attitudes. Change our behavior. Fill us with love. Thank you that you promise us that we are Your people forever. Thank you Jesus that all of life is transformed when you move in as King to rule forever. In Your name, Jesus, amen.

Jesus Is: The Lamb

John 1:29-34

Dear Friends:

About three years ago, I think it was, I read a wonderful book entitled “Grace” by Max Lucado, and in this book he tells a story.

It seems that there was this Chinese man named Li Fuyan, who tried every treatment imaginable to ease his headaches, but nothing helped. An x-ray finally revealed the culprit: there was a 4-inch rusty knife blade that had gotten lodged in his skull, and it been there for the past four years. You see, in an attack by a robber Li Fuyan had suffered lacerations on the right side of his jaw. He didn’t know the blade had broken off inside his head, and that’s what was behind the pain.

Lucado comments on this story: he says we can’t live with foreign objects buried in our bodies (or our souls). What would an x-ray of your interior reveal? Regrets over an earlier relationship? Remorse over a poor choice? Shame about a marriage that didn’t work, the habit you couldn’t quit, the temptation you didn’t resist, or the courage you couldn’t find? Guilt lies beneath the surface. It festers and irritates. It’s embedded in us. Guilt, shame, remorse…

On an episode of “This American Life”, a public radio show, host Ira Glass remarks:

Some regrets never go away. People tell us they forgive us, we try to forgive ourselves, and we still know like we did wrong, like we hurt somebody, it was real. And that feeling, it can immobilize you. If you’re lucky, it teaches you something you can take into other situations. But I think often it’s just like this pebble in your shoe. It teaches you nothing. It doesn’t slow you down, really. It just hurts. It just hurts in a way that does not stop hurting.”

Regrets, shame, remorse…

In a New York Times article, columnist David Brooks wrote a couple years ago he argues “religion may be in retreat but guilt seems as powerfully present as ever.” Regrets, guilt, shame…  Brooks has it right. What do you do, though, with your guilt and your regrets?

John the Baptist points us to Jesus in response to that question, and he says “Look! The Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world!” That got people’s attention. We’ve been doing a series, “Jesus Is”. This is the second message in the series and here we learn that Jesus Is: the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world. That image of the lamb had to have stirred memories from the Old Testament for those that heard John speak. For instance, we remember Abraham and Isaac on the mountain in Genesis 22, where Abraham was about to sacrifice his only son Isaac, and just as he is raising a knife up God stops him. And they look up, they see a ram caught in the thicket. It had been provided by God for the sacrifice. We have described for us the sacrificial lambs that were used in the temple of Jerusalem. Leviticus 14 tells us “and the priest shall take one of the male lambs and offer it for a guilt offering for the sins of the people.” And then there’s Isaiah 53, where the prophet Isaiah describes the “suffering servant” who will come, “and He will be led away like a Lamb to the slaughter for His people.” And of course we don’t want to forget the Passover lamb from the book of Exodus. Remember that story, where the blood of the lamb protected the Israelite firstborn children when the Angel of Death swept over the land of Egypt. And each year as the Jews celebrate Passover that lamb reminds Israel of God’s goodness, His protection, as well as their deliverance and redemption from slavery under the Pharaoh.

 

But there’s more here than simply the image of a lamb. John said he’s a lamb *of God*. OF GOD. He’s sent by God. He’s of God, is provided by God, He’s the son of God. And He was provided for what? For our sin, “the sin of the world” John says. You see humankind’s greatest problem is sin, and it needs a solution. Scripture tells us that all of us has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We’re rebels against God. You don’t have to read scripture to understand that all of us has sinned. You just have to watch the news, don’t you? Notice John says here “sin”, not the plural “sins”. He says that because he’s pointing us to the reality of the spiritual condition that exists within us, that we’re born with and cannot cure ourselves. Paul talks about it in Romans 5, telling us that sin runs deeper than sinful actions and words or thoughts. He says “therefore just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” Our sinful actions and thoughts and words and things that we leave undone are the symptoms of our sin condition that’s within us. The natural inclination to be selfish and egocentric and full of pride? That’s sin. It’s the cause. Sins are the effect. Sin is the tree. Sins are the fruit. Sin is the disease. Sins are the symptoms. Billy Graham said sin is “the cause of all trouble, the root of all sorrow.” The dread of every person lies in one small word: sin. It’s crippled the nature of men and women. It has caused humankind to be caught in the devil’s trap. And sin lies at the heart of chaotic world conditions as we know them. As we look around and say “what’s wrong with this world?” there’s a very simple explanation, it’s called sin and it’s existed through the centuries. And sin has eternal deadly consequences: “the wages of sin is death.” Death in this life, being separated from God, and death in the life to come, away from God.

Now as far as our symptomatic sins that we can see, we’ve tried all kinds of things to deal with them. You know what I mean. We try to cover them up, hide them, like Adam and Eve did in the Garden. Or try to ignore them, or narcotize them with drugs and alcohol. Or fix things ourselves to make things right with God. Or for transfer the blame to someone else or something else. Or explain them away with rationalizations: “everybody’s doing it”. But none of that works, does it? There is no peace within. Our guilt for us can crush us. King David tells us that in Psalm 32. He said, after he had adultery with Bathsheba, “when I kept silent my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long, for day and night your hand, Lord, was heavy upon me. My strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.” He was depressed!

So there’s the human predicament: sin. Which brings about our regrets and our guilt and our shame, and a causes a great chasm between God and us. The relationship with God and with others, and with ourselves even, that was intended for us has been broken by this spiritual disease called sin. And the truth is we cannot fix this predicament ourselves. But here we have John the Baptist announcing the good news: that God has provided the solution. The cure. The healing for your soul: Jesus the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” That’s why Christ came at Christmas. He came into our world to take away everyone’s sin. And to “take away” means “to take up” or “bear”. Jesus took away our sin by taking it upon himself, and he bore it himself. Our sins were laid upon him. Our sin – he took. You see, we know where the story is headed, right? That Lamb, that John is pointing to, will go to a cross and suffer my punishment so that I won’t have to – for sin. He will pay the debt for my sin which I could never repay because of my spiritual bankruptcy. He who was rich became poor so that I might become rich in God. That’s how serious sin is to God. And that’s how much you are loved by God. Someone put this way, I like this:

How you measure the size of a fire? By the number of firefighters and fire engines sent to fight against it. And how we measure the seriousness of a medical condition? By the amount of risk the doctors take in prescribing dangerous drugs or surgical procedures. How do we measure the gravity of sin and the incomparable vastness of God’s love for us? By looking at the magnitude of what God has done for us in Jesus, His son, who died like a common criminal for our sake and in our place at the cross.

Hebrews 10 tells us that Jesus was carrying out God’s will at that cross, he says, and by it we have been sanctified, made holy in God’s sight through the offering of the body of Jesus.

And it’s once – for all – did you get that?  Once, for all, this sacrifice. We cannot add a single thing to what has been done for us by Jesus Christ. We’re covered! Peter witnesses in his letter that you and I were “ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” Paul describes the implications of this sacrifice on the cross in the 5th chapter of Romans: “therefore as one trespass led to condemnation for all people so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all people.” It‘s this Lamb’s perfect, once-for-all sacrifice for sin that provides the foundation of a renewed relationship with God. He is our hope as we sit in our regrets, in our guilt, in our Shane. He is our freedom as we look over our lives and wonder “what am I to do with these things?” Trusting in the Lamb of God, Jesus, we can repent and come to Him and receive forgiveness, cleansing, and a new start. There’s an old hymn that Isaac Watts wrote that really captures the truth of this. He says

Not all the blood of beasts on Jewish altar slain
Could give the guilty conscience peace, or wash away its stain.
But Christ the Heavenly Lamb takes all our sins away
A sacrifice of nobler name and richer blood than they.

It’s the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That’s our answer for our burdens, our sin, our guilt, and regrets. And how can we know this is all true? Because that Lamb, that died on the cross, was raised from the dead and exalted by God. He sits at the right hand of the Father. All authority has been given to him. The Lamb of God has the final word over us. We read that in John’s book of Revelation, chapters 5, 6, and 7. It says “I saw the Lamb of God” and he said “He was like a triumphant, victorious” individual. It’s an exalted title. John memorializes the sacrificial work of Christ, and he tells one day we will hear the angels singing with a loud voice “worthy is the Lamb who was slain! To receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing! Worthy is the Lamb!”

Friends, this Jesus is so much more than a great teacher and a prophet. He’s more than a moral example to be emulated. In last week’s message we learned He’s the son of God, He’s God the servant King. Today we learned this life-giving truth: Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away your sin. In Him alone there is forgiveness for sin, and where there is forgiveness, friend, there is life. And you and I need that life. We need Him for forgiveness, and a right, saving relationship with God. Everyone needs Him. So I’m told in scripture what will I do with the burden of sin and guilt and shame? The dread of facing God’s judgment? I bring it to Jesus, the Lamb of God. We don’t need to be crippled or captive any longer to the disease of sin in our lives because God provided the cure through His Son Jesus Christ, Lamb of God. Place your trust in Him and what He’s done for you. Come to Him, come to the Lamb in faith. Bring your burdens, your guilt, your regrets, your brokenness, and receive forgiveness and a new life that’s free from sin, and death, and the power the devil. As you turn to Him in repentance, He will not turn you away. He will forgive you. For those who are already walking with Christ, the message is: come to Him daily. We’re not perfect by any means. Come to Him confessing those sins that still find their way into your everyday thoughts and words and actions and receive your daily baptism, the daily drowning of the old, egocentric person. Know this: Jesus the Lamb of God stands ready to forgive you. Let’s use this next hymn as our closing prayer, and we’ll sing that last line of each verse: “O Lamb of God, I come.”

Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer