Ready or Not, Here I Come: Watch and Pray

Luke 21:25-36

This is a time of year when people say to one another,
“Are you ready? It’s coming.”
“Ready or not, here it comes.”
“Christmas is just around the corner.”

We talk about Christmas countdowns. We go to the stores, and we listen to Christmas carols. The Christian Church, however, traditionally calls this time of year the season of Advent, which means so much more than simply a warmup for Christmas Day. It is a time to remember that Christ has come, He is coming again, and we must be prepared for Him. The One who came quietly and humbly in the little backward town of Bethlehem will arrive again in glory and power and majesty one day. The One who humbly rode a donkey into Jerusalem and was hailed as a King on Palm Sunday will appear to us on a cloud.

The first advent was the birth of Christ. It will be followed by another advent – the reappearing of Christ. Where do we get this notion? Jesus told us so. As you examine the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, you find Jesus freely spoke in the parables about His second coming. In the Apostles’ Creed, we say we believe He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Some people feel a little uneasy when it comes to the subject of the second coming of Jesus. I am here to assure you, this need not be the case. For the Christian, it is very good news and should not frighten us. Instead, it is our confidence as followers of Christ. We have the big picture before us. History is not a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Followers of Jesus Christ know better than that. We know history is, in a very real sense, HIS STORY. All of history is headed toward a grand finale. Christ says, The world is mine. I have final word over it all.
• I am the Alpha and the Omega (Rev. 22:13).
• All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me (Matt. 28:18).
• Heaven and earth may pass away but my word endures forever (Matt. 24:35).

This is really good news!

The world, oftentimes, appears to be hopeless, dark, scary, and totally out-of-control. However, the second coming of Jesus reminds us, He has got this. We don’t need to worry. In fact, Jesus is reassuring His disciples of this when He describes the second coming.

While some are uneasy about the second coming, others go completely in another direction and obsess on trying to figure out when it will happen. They spend a lifetime conjecturing and speculating on it, to end up disappointed and looking rather foolish, as we’ve seen in past history. I am acquainted with people who are great end-times enthusiasts. A friend of mine said recently, “I am fascinated by the end times. I love to try to figure out when it’s going to happen.” It is a hobby in his Christian faith. We must remember, though, that Jesus said it will happen unexpectedly, suddenly like a thief in the night. He seems to be telling us that we are not to be simply sitting around, speculating about His return while we wait.

In our passage for today from Luke, Jesus is teaching His disciples about His second advent. He doesn’t tell us when He’s coming, He just assures us that it will happen and what it will be like. The stars will fall from the sky, the sun will refuse to shine, and the moon will turn to blood. He uses Old Testament prophetic language like in the book of Joel. There will be havoc, chaos on the earth, distress among nations, a roaring of the sea and the waves. There will be great fear and trembling – people fainting with fear and foreboding. Then the powers of the heavens will be shaken. The sky will be in havoc.

“Then they will see ‘the Son of Man’ coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” The Son of Man is used in the book of Daniel to describe a messianic figure from God who will come in power someday for His people. It was one of Jesus’ favorite titles to describe Himself. Jesus is a power figure, a deliverer. “Then they will see ‘the deliverer coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.

“When these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads.” This is a posture of hope and confidence.

“For your redemption is drawing near.” Redemption! It will be a great day! Christ’s return appearance is the Christian follower’s hope and confidence. Help has arrived! Redemption of the body will take place. Paul describes it:
Our spirits groan for the completion of His saving work: perfect, resurrected bodies (Rom. 8:23).

Jesus also talked about the redemption of the body,
“. . . I will come again and take you to myself that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:3b).

Christ’s return will bring about a final deliverance, a final redemption. The book of Revelation says there’ll be a new heaven and a new earth. It will be perfect in every way, just as God intended in the beginning, in the garden of Eden – people loving God and loving one another. “The second coming of Christ will be so revolutionary that it will change every aspect of life on this planet. Christ will reign in righteousness. Disease will be arrested. Death will be modified. War will be abolished. Nature will be changed. Man will live as it was originally intended he should live.” – Billy Graham.

This is our grand vision as we live each day as followers of Jesus, serving Him and telling others about Him. When it appears the world is falling apart and out-of-control, we have this good news that Christ will make a second appearance, and all will be well. As Billy Graham once remarked, “I’ve read the last page of the Bible. It’s all going to turn out all right.”

It’s like a story about a man who saw some young boys playing baseball out on the field. He yelled over to the right fielder, “What’s the score?” The young boy said, “Seventeen to nothing!” The man replied, “It doesn’t look very good for you, does it?” The boy just smiled and said, “We ain’t been up to bat yet.”

My friends, joy awaits us. Unimaginable joy. Heavenly joy like we have never experienced on this planet! We will be with Him, and every knee will bow and every tongue confess in heaven and on earth and under the earth that Jesus Christ is Lord. Jesus tells us in his teaching today, Now in the meantime, be ready. Always be ready for that great day. He offers directions for His disciples to follow while we wait for the day of His reappearing. They don’t involve just sitting around and waiting. We are to be engaged in active, positive, healthy kingdom activity. Obedience, holiness, witness, and service in His name.

As Jesus sits down with His disciples and tells them all these things, I can’t help but be reminded of a parent giving a bit of caution and warning to his young teens for their first night alone at home. Knowing how much trouble they can get themselves into, they need some instruction. I remember my parents giving me those kinds of instructions when they would go away. He is basically telling them, This is what you are to do with yourselves.

It is important to note that Jesus is speaking to the disciple of Jesus Christ who has placed their trust in Him. I would be remiss to not ask you at this time, Have you done that? Have you come to a place in your spiritual life where you know for certain if Jesus came tonight, or you died tonight, you would be with Him forever?

Earlier I stated that the second coming of Christ is good news for the follower of Christ. It is our hope and confidence. However, this is not the case for those who stand outside of a relationship with Christ. It will not be good news for them, for Jesus is coming to judge the living and the dead. In the Christian faith, we do not believe in universalism (everyone is saved, no matter what).

Today is a day to ask Jesus Christ into your life, if you haven’t already done it. Surrender yourself to His care. Place your trust in Him and what He has done for you. He loves you! He died for you on the cross to pay for your sins. He rose from the dead, the first fruits of the resurrection so you can have a resurrected, eternal life with Him, and a restored relationship with your heavenly Father. Ask Him into your heart today. Now is the time!

For those of you listening today who already follow Jesus, you have placed your trust in Him, and receive forgiveness and grace in His promises, Jesus instructs you to watch yourselves. It is important to remain faithful, run a good race of faith, so you will be able to say, like Paul at the end of his life, “I fought the good fight. I have run the good race.” Do not be distracted, off on rabbit trails gradually getting yourself further and further away from Him. Jesus tells us to, “Watch yourselves.”

“Be on guard so your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation . . .” Dissipation is a word for wasted living or drunkenness, carousing, totally taken up with the cares of this world, of this life, as if this is the only life there is. It so easy, isn’t it, to make idols out of good things like family or finances or prestige, to lose sight of the big picture and walk away from Christ, to be unfaithful to Christ and His kingdom. Jesus says, “Watch yourselves!” Keep your eye on the ball. Focus on me. I am coming again!

Gordon MacDonald shares the following old story: “In ancient days when the King of Siam had an enemy he wanted to torment and destroy, he would send the enemy a unique gift – a white elephant, a live, albino elephant. These animals were considered to be sacred in the culture of the day. So the recipient of the elephant had no choice but to intentionally care for the gift. This elephant would take an inordinate amount of the enemy’s time, resources, energy, emotions, and finances. Over time the enemy would destroy himself because of the extremely burdensome process of caring for the gift.”

Our spiritual enemy uses the same strategy on us.
• Let’s say you buy season tickets to watch your favorite sports team. Because you still have a lot of games to go to, you no longer have time to serve in some area of ministry or to worship.
• Or perhaps you buy a summer cottage. Now you miss weekend worship services between the beginning of May and the end of September.
• Let’s say you buy a health club membership to get in shape. You used to get up early in the morning to read your Bible and pray, but now you don’t have time because you’re working out before work.
• Perhaps you buy a spot for one of your kids in a traveling sports team. Now you are too busy to join the community impact ministry of serving the poor.

What are the white elephants in your life? Do you spend money on things, which take your time away from God? Money isn’t the problem. The activities aren’t necessarily the problem. The problem is a white elephant gift has pulled you away from Christ-honoring pursuits. Watch yourselves!

Jesus then gives further instructions: Stay awake at all times! Be spiritually alert so you might overcome these temptations that destroy one’s faith.

By the way, remember this: Satan is prowling around seeking to destroy our faith and our lives. He is seeking to devour us, and he loves to use temptations like this. We need to keep our eyes wide open. Jesus tells us the best way to stay awake is by praying.

He once told a parable to encourage His disciples to keep praying. It was a story about a widow who kept after an unfeeling, unjust judge for justice until he gave in to her nagging. Jesus pointed out that when you approach God in prayer, He’s just the opposite of the judge who had to be nagged. He wants you to talk to him.

Then Jesus remarks, “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?” It was His way of saying, Keep praying. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven, beginning with me.

Jesus counted on prayer for vigilance, strength, and focus. He wants His disciples to do the same and lean heavily on daily prayer.

This is our good news of Advent. Christ has come. He is coming again. He is coming to take over once and for all. He loves you. He who died and rose for you has the final word over you, and nothing can snatch you from His hand or separate you from His love. Trusting in Christ, you belong to Him forever and ever. This is your hope, your confidence. Your future is bright.

Today, though, I appeal to you to recommit yourself this Advent season to trusting Jesus in all this. Use your days to further His kingdom’s cause by witnessing and serving in His name. Pray constantly for His kingdom to come and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Live out the rest of your days to hear Him say to you when you see Him face-to-face at the end, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

All the Places to Go: Living With Closed Doors

Luke 22:39-44

Have you ever had a door slammed in your face or stood at a closed door that no one would answer? I imagine most of us have literally experienced something like this.

We can also, however, experience closed doors in a figurative sense. Perhaps an opportunity presented itself that looked so right and promising, but didn’t work out. We say the door closed. Or a relationship with a special person, who you thought God had chosen for you, breaks up. The door slammed in your face.

Perhaps you found a job you felt would be a perfect fit, or you felt especially qualified for a spot on an athletic team, but you don’t get the position. They wouldn’t even let me in the door! Those closed-door experiences can be quite painful, even depressing and maddening.

Sometimes heaven’s door seems to stay closed on us or we feel like it’s been slammed in our face. You are praying for something to happen but it doesn’t happen. You are doing the right thing – perhaps it is even for the kingdom of God – but it just peters out and dies. It can be painful and frustrating, especially when we’re so sure we were right. People can become very disappointed, depressed, even angry with God and cry out with the psalmist,
“How long, O Lord, will you forget me?”
Or, Why, Lord? 
Or even, Why not, Lord?

The truth is, sometimes God allows us to go through His open doors, His divine opportunities, as we’ve discussed the first few weeks of this series. But sometimes God says no, which is a difficult word for us to swallow. It can cause us to throw a good, old tantrum before God, like a child in the store being denied a bag of candy at the checkout line or a certain toy dad or mom is denying them.

If you are encountering one of those closed-door experiences in your life, I’m really sorry. I know they’re not fun. I know from personal experience and from walking alongside a lot of people as their pastor. But, when we run into these and attempt to regroup from the experience, some things need to be considered from God’s Word.

First, God sometimes closes the door because something better is ahead that we don’t know about. I think of examples in Scripture: Paul and Silas in the book of Acts. They wanted to go to Asian and Bithnia, but the door to go was shut. Instead, a door opened for them to Macedonia where they established some of their best churches, the Philippian and the Thessalonica churches.

I am reminded of our first attempt at relocation as a congregation. We had run out of space in our old building and were growing big. We had no more space on which to build. I was so certain we were to move to a certain acreage I had found. I had it all picked out, and I was sure God was with me on this one. I even convinced my board this was the way to go. What I discovered painfully was I was wearing blinders. We were not ready as a congregation. God closed the door. It was painful, and I was angry. But two years later, in God’s good time, we were a united church again and were ready when a beautiful piece of land came up for sale at a bargain-basement price right off of the freeway. We relocated there, and God blessed us with growth beyond what we had ever imagined for ourselves. Looking back on that experience, I learned God knew something better lay ahead for us.

A humorous story: Pastor Tim Keller shares with us from his early 20s. He said, “I prayed for an entire year about a girl I was dating and wanted to marry, but she wanted out of the relationship. All year I prayed, ‘Lord, don’t let her breakup with me.’ (Of course, in hindsight it was the wrong girl.) I actually did what I could to help God with the prayer. One summer near the end of the relationship, I got in a location that made it easier to see her. I was saying, Lord I’m making this as easy as possible for you. I’ve asked you for this and I’ve even taken the geographical distance away.

But as I look back now, God was saying, Son, when a child of mine makes a request, I always give them what they would have asked if they knew everything I know.

Sometimes God closes the door because you’re knocking on the wrong one. We want the wrong thing. It’s not a wise choice. Or maybe we’re selfishly or sinfully motivated, and God is protecting us from ourselves. Remember when the disciples James and John came to Jesus asking for top positions when He came into power? He said, no. He knew they were selfishly motivated.

I think of Elijah, Moses, and Jeremiah crying out to God, “Take my life. I want to die!” I’m sure that, looking back, they thanked God He didn’t answer their prayer, because it was the wrong thing to ask for.

Have you ever stopped to think what would happen if God answered every prayer with a yes? What a mess our world would be in! Humorously, ball games would always end in ties, and how frustrating would that be! O, thank God for closed doors.

Sometimes God closes the door because I need to grow in my relationship with Him, or in my character, or in my skills. The apostle Paul talked of having a thorn in the flesh given to him, He said, to keep him from being too elated, too full of himself. Three times he asked God to take it away, but God simply replied, “No, my grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness” (II Cor. 12:8-9).

Paul said learned humility and contentment as he faced hard times when he was weak. But he was strong because God was working through him.

When I was graduating from the seminary back in 1980, I was convinced I should be a solo pastor and running my own congregation. When I graduated, I waited six months for my first call, but it never came. The door was closed. I was frustrated. It was a long wait.

Finally a call came from a congregation – a big congregation – in Winona, Minnesota that wanted me to be their youth pastor – part of their staff. I said yes, and God used those six years at Central Lutheran to prep me for Shepherd of the Valley.

Sometimes things in life need some tweaking. Maybe I needed to grow in my dependence on God instead of my own devices so financial doors get cut on me, and I really have to count on God to provide. Or I need to grow in humility so my wishes for grandiosity are lovingly ignored by my heavenly Father.

Sometimes God closes doors because He has plans I don’t know about. Looking at Scripture, I think of Israel. He called them to be a blessing, a light to the nations of the world. They didn’t quite understand that. They wanted to be the boss of the nations of the world. So they were allowed again and again to be put into exile, etc. However, God had His way. He had plans they didn’t understand or know about. Along came a Savior in Jesus Christ.

Solomon says, “The heart of man plans his ways, but the Lord establishes his steps” (Prov. 16:9). We may make plans, but God’s will is definitive. It might be that the loss of a job is an open door to a ministry God has in mind for us in His redemptive plan, one that serves people and brings others to Christ. Maybe God has a part for you to play in this whole redemptive drama that you haven’t become aware of yet. Sometimes God closes the door simply because He is God and I am not.

The mystery of closed doors can be so frustrating. When I start something but it doesn’t work out and there doesn’t seem to be a good answer why. I’m left mystified, puzzled by that closed door.

I think of Job and all the terrible things that happened to him. In the end Job is crying out for a hearing before God; He wants an explanation. God basically lectures Job and asks, Why do you ask? How dare you? Did you put this whole creation together? Remember your place. Sometimes closed doors don’t make any sense to us at all, and we live with a mystery.

The question is however, when you face a closed door, what do you do? How do you persist in seasons like this? Some people throw a tantrum and turn away from God. They close the door on God! You hear them say things: I used to believe in God, but I know better now. Others pray for wisdom, insight, and faith to keep trusting. They pray to be okay without knowing what the next week or month or year holds. They decide to trust Him step by step. Still others simply respond in trust, perhaps from maturity, and say, No matter what happens, Christ is for me. He is with me. He will see me through it, and that’s good enough for me! Which one of these responses best describes you?

I would encourage you, if you are going through a closed-door experience, to rest in this thought: God understands your frustrations. He knows about closed doors from personal experience. Remember God’s Word in the book of Revelation, “Behold I stand at the door and knock.” He is outside waiting to be let in. Oftentimes the holy Scripture reminds us of people who, in their stubbornness, won’t let Him in. How we, as simple humans, can leave Him standing outside – our closed door. The whole story of the Bible is basically about that, isn’t it?

Surely Jesus knows how you feel. Hebrews 4:15, says we have a great high priest who understands our weaknesses and sympathies. He has gone through them. He faced many closed doors in His ministry as well as God’s closed door. Let me explain.

Today’s passage is a closed-door story from Jesus’ life. The cross loomed ahead. It was Thursday night. Jesus goes to the Garden of Gethsemane to spend time in prayer with His heavenly Father. He asks His Father, “Father, take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet not my will, but yours be done.” But God didn’t say yes to that prayer, and we thank God for it! That closed door is our Gospel, our Good News of rescue. Jesus took on that closed door so we could have an open door to a relationship with our Father. The One who died and rose again is resurrected. He is with you and tells you, I am with you always as you face all kinds of doors.

One last thing to consider – the big picture. In the end, the door opens to all who trust Jesus. He said, “I am the door.” And heaven awaits. The apostle John said that he caught a glimpse through an open door of heaven in Revelation 4. Paul describes his sufferings to early Christians in this way: “This slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure because we look not at what can be
seen, but at what cannot be seen. For what can be seen is temporary but what cannot be seen is eternal” (II Cor. 4:17-18).

What about our questions? Scripture says, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (I Cor. 13:12).

I believe that, on the other side of that door, we will be grateful for God’s closed doors, just as we are grateful for His open doors in the here and now. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

Jesus, Teach Us to Pray

Matthew 6:5-13

When I was boy growing up in Belmond, Iowa, one of my best friends was Billy Walrod. Our yards connected to an alleyway, and in the summer time we’d run barefoot every day, swim in the pool, play ball, and ride his go kart. We had a blast!

One morning Billy was sleeping in and I was impatient, so I picked up some pebbles and began throwing them at his bedroom window. Billy didn’t wake up, but his mother came out the door. That is when the trouble started.

A man named R. S. Thomas once said, “Prayers are like gravel flung at the sky’s window hoping to attract the loved one’s attention.”

Is that how you think about prayer? Like we are flinging some words up, hoping someone is listening?

Do you remember the Gospel song,

♬”It’s me, it’s me, O Lord,
standing in the need of prayer.
Not my mother, not my brother, but it’s me, O Lord,
standing in the need of prayer.”♪

Each of us needs prayer. We need to connect from our heart to God’s heart in a relationship and believe we are loved, our lives matter, and we have a purpose. But we don’t always know how to pray. We don’t know what words to say. We don’t know who God is in order to talk with Him. No wonder the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Lord, teach us to pray.” And Jesus did just that.

Our Father . . . Jesus gives us a beautiful acknowledgment that God is not only the source of all life, the designer of the beauty in this world, and the designer of our physical bodies, but He is also our Father. Galatians 4 tells us that we have the spirit of adoption as His children. So we can call Him “Abba” – daddy – a term of endearment, affection, and intimacy of relationship. Scripture tells us in John chapter 1, “As many as receive Him (Jesus), to them God gives the power (the authority) to become the children of God who were born not of the will of blood or of man but the will of God.” Just think of it – you and I, by faith, are children of God! Jesus says we can call God, our Father.

Notice also, Jesus uses the plural pronoun our. Whatever church family you belong to, the family of God is much bigger than your individual congregation. Denominations of every church body in America? Yes! On Easter Sunday morning at the resurrection celebration, as Christians all over the world celebrate and worship God in the name of Jesus, we are all the family of God. We all call God, our Father. Whatever your vision of God’s family, it’s simply not big enough.

My grandmother used to say in Norwegian, “God has many strange children,” and then she would turn to me and say, “You are a funny boy!” God has many children in the family and we need to be welcoming of all of them. So when we pray, we pray “Our Father.” This means that, in relation to our Father, our spiritual status might be in one of three categories:

• We are prodigals, far from God and running from Him.
• We are more like the older brother – doing things out of religious duty instead of love. We do things out of obligation, not out of gratitude.
• We are fully aware of how blessed we are, privileged to trust the God of all things as our dear Father. We live in a sense of loyalty and joy because we know we are His children through Jesus Christ.

Who art in heaven . . . God is both our heavenly and our holy Father. He is heavenly not so much by location, for God is everywhere present, but because He is above us. He is distinguished from our earthly father. When dads and grandpas put on their “Best Dad Ever” shirt on Father’s Day, no matter how good they are, they are not perfect. God is our heavenly Father. He is perfect. His love for us is unconditional, and He is not limited in His reach to come to where we are, provide for us, and care for us.

Oftentimes I visit with those who had a difficult childhood due to having an unhealthy father. Perhaps their father abandoned them totally. It is good, therefore, to remember that whatever the limits or difficulties of our earthly father, our heavenly Father is perfect. He is the opposite in an ideal sense of a beautiful love dedicated to bless all his children.

Hallowed be thy name . . . Our Father is holy. He is set apart, totally different from any other being in all of reality. Therefore, God is to be glorified in our lives. We are to exalt His name, meaning we are to lift up His name and honor Him with our lives. I think it’s a good ethical filter, at the end of each day when you lay your head on the pillow, to ask, Have I carried myself as a man, as a woman, in a way that glorified the name of our Father in heaven?

Thy kingdom come . . . We can welcome God’s kingdom and surrender to His will in this prayer.

A theologian said years ago, “God will be God, though all men be dead.” In America, we have the privilege of voting in our political leaders, but we don’t vote on whether God is King. You don’t have the authority to determine whether God has the right to rule over all things as King. God is King, whether I acknowledge it or not. St. Augustine once said, “God is reigning now. But just as a light is absent to those who refuse to open their eyes, so it is possible to refuse or reject God’s rule.” Luther said, “God’s kingdom indeed comes without our praise, but in this petition we pray that God’s kingdom would come for us and to us.”

Every heart possesses a yearning for eternity. One biblical scholar said, “When we pray ‘Thy kingdom come,’ it must also simultaneously mean, my kingdom go.” We give up self rule.

Why does God have the right to reign as King?

1. He created all things. In the fall of humanity recorded in the story of Genesis 3 (Adam and Eve), we pull God down from His rightful position to rule over all things.

I don’t just blame Adam and Eve, I myself, many times, have asserted my independence of God in rebellion. In this prayer, I acknowledge the need to invite God to reign over me.

2. He sent Jesus, His Son, to die for me and redeem me by His blood shed on the cross of Calvary.

3. Jesus, by the power of God, was resurrected from the dead! He, in His living state, forgives your sin. He redeems our life and reconciles us in relationship with Himself. He has overcome even death and promises us that, when we breathe our last in this world, we will live forever in His glorious presence.

God has right to reign over us. Indeed, thy kingdom come!

Thy will be done . . . St. Ignatius once said, “Jesus Christ is the great physician.” He went on to explain that, when we pray for God’s will to come in this world, we’re really praying, by the power of Jesus Christ, for a total reversal of all the negative effects of human rebellion and all of the brokenness because of sin in the world. When the fullness of Jesus’ power ushers in His kingdom and we surrender to His will, we become partners with God in bringing the reign of God. God gives to us a kingdom of love. We are in a kingdom of forgiveness and reconciliation. We are part of the healing all things and restoring all things in the blessed name of the Lord Jesus.

Give us this day our daily bread . . . This prayer acknowledges our dependency upon God as the provider of all things. It stirs an attitude of gratitude.

Notice, Jesus uses the word, our daily bread. Our big egos should not hoard things in selfish stinginess. We share our daily bread with others.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us . . . Every time we approach God the Father in prayer, we are prodigals asking for His forgiveness. Like Jesus in His parable of the tax collector, we are in the corner of the temple, flat on our faces saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

We swim in grace as we gladly receive God’s unmerited favor, which empowers us to freely give grace to all people we meet. Forgiveness is the essential key to us being peacemakers in this world.

Deliver us from evil . . . The devil is clever, isn’t he? He is a deceiver. In this prayer, we ask God to awaken our spiritual eyes so we might have insight to see the full, true consequences of every temptation the devil would throw at us. We pray we would keep vigilance in watching so we will persevere in the battle of our spirit united with God’s Spirit against the flesh.

But remember, as you live your journey of faith every day, we live from victory, not in order to gain victory. We are more than conquerors through Christ who loves us. The Word tells us, “Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world” (I John 4:4).

I recently heard a story about a soldier serving in the Army during the Civil War who received a telegram from home telling him they had tremendous problems and trouble. His camp was just outside Washington, D.C. So the soldier journeyed to the White House to see President Lincoln and ask for a leave from his service to tend to the problems at home. When he came to the White House, however, he was told in no uncertain terms, “No, the President is too busy to visit with you.” “No, you are not going to see the President today.” Despondent, miserable, and sad, he sat down on a bench on the White House lawn.

After a few minutes, a young boy sat down on the bench beside him. “What’s the matter, mister?” he asked.

“Well, I need to see President Lincoln, but I’m not able to today.”

The boy thought a minute and said, “Come with me, mister.” The boy led him – not to the front door – but to the back door of the White House. When they entered the house, the staff straightened and addressed the young man with formality and respect. The little boy journeyed through the White House until he came to the President’s office. He didn’t knock; he just opened the door, went right in, and said, “Hey dad, there’s a man here who needs to talk to you.”

We thank God that He has sent Jesus, His Son. In the name of Jesus, God gives us access to His very presence in prayer. We can pray with confidence, as Jesus said, knowing God will hear us.

Keep praying. God hears you. Amen.

Pastor Lee Laaveg

All the Places to Go: Opening Doors for Others

TEXT:  Luke 12:13-21

Who Left the Outside Door Open? It’s Freezing in Here! Did You Grow up in a Barn?

Who Left the Cupboard Doors Open? It Makes My Kitchen Look like a Mess!

Open doors, I know, are not always welcome occurrences. It’s true. But these past few weeks we have been talking about open doors in a positive way. We’ve been talking about God opening doors to us – how we can recognize them and choose the best ones.

As we look through Scripture, we learn that God’s open doors are typically invitations to make our lives count with God’s help, for His glory and for the sake of other people. Ultimately, God opened the Door for us so we might open doors for others. Unfortunately, though, some miss going through these doors. They miss the joy and satisfaction they can experience in their own lives, as well as bring into other people’s lives. It can happen for a variety of reasons, like the one we encounter in today’s story from Luke’s Gospel.

One day, while Jesus was teaching, a person interrupted Him and said, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me!” Apparently, a skirmish had been going on in his family, and this man was afraid he was going to miss out on his fair share of the family inheritance. Jesus doesn’t play the role of judge as the man would like Him to do. But He does give a caution: “Take care and be on guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

Be careful, Jesus says. Greed is dangerous. It shrinks our souls. It keeps us from walking through open doors that God places before us to serve others. It narrows our vision of the world to me – with a capital M – E.

You’ve heard this little poem, I’m sure,

“I had a little tea party
this afternoon at three.
‘Twas very small,
three guests in all:
I, myself, and me.

Myself ate all the sandwiches,
while I drank up the tea.
‘Twas also I
who ate the pie,
and passed the cake to me.”
Me, myself, and I.

Greed is a dangerous thing. It is one of the seven deadly sins, because it is so insidious. It is all too easy to get caught up in if you are poor, but especially if you’re a person with some wealth.

Haddon Robinson, a preacher I respect, once said, “For every verse in the Bible that tells us the benefits of wealth, there are ten that tell us the danger of wealth.” One of the dangers is greed.

These days a new term has been coined from the technological world of Facebook. It’s called FOMO, an acronym that means “the fear of missing out.” On Facebook, people share the wonderful things happening in their lives. However, in doing so, we can soon begin to sense that person is getting more than me – more vacation opportunities, more fun, more invitations for fun events, more friends. It can make a person feel depressed, like they are missing out. My life should be better than this.

We actually see a bit of FOMO in the garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. The serpent approaches Eve and says, “Did God say you shouldn’t eat from that tree?”

Eve replied, “Yes, He told us that we couldn’t eat it. We couldn’t touch it, lest we die.”

The serpent says, “That’s not true. God just doesn’t want you to be like Him. You are missing out. All you need to do is just take a bite!”

We have an insatiable hunger within us for more. When it is focused on self gain, it is a foolish, ungodly, dangerous, lonely, dead-end street.

Jesus goes on, then, to make His point with a parable. He tells about a man who was living for himself. The land of a rich man produced plentifully. He was a rich farmer and had a bumper crop. A strange thing happened as a result, though. He had a conversation with himself – not with God, not with the wise elders who would sit at the city gates and help with decision-making in the community. No, he had a Board of Directors of one – himself.

Notice all the “I’s” and “my’s” in this: “What should I do with my crop? I’ll tear down my barns and take my grain and my goods. I’ll say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years: relax, now. Be merry. Have a comfortable retirement. I have myself well taken care of. What a good life I have created!’”

The story doesn’t end there. Jesus went on to give God’s take on his life: “Fool! This very night your soul, your very life will be required of you. Now these things – whose will they be?”

Jesus summed it up by saying, “So are the ones who lay up treasures for themselves and are not rich toward God. They are nothing more than fools.”

To be rich toward God means to treasure God above everything else, to use one’s life for Him. To walk in His ways. Jesus is saying that leaving God and others out of the picture to pursue treasures for yourself is considered a wasted life in God’s eyes. It is foolish and very shortsighted when you think about it. You can’t take it with you. How many U-Hauls have you seen on the way to the cemetery? Everything goes back in the box. This is the big picture.

In the verses that follow this parable, we see Jesus turning to His disciples and basically telling them, God has a better plan for you as His people. “Don’t be anxious about your life, what you will eat, what you will drink and about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.” He talks about the birds of the air and the beauty of the fields with the flowers. “If God takes care of those things, how much more valuable you are to him!” If His eye is on the sparrow, you can be sure He watches over you.

He points out, “You can’t add an hour to your life by worrying about these things. The nations (pagans) of the world strive after all these things. Your Father knows what you need. Trust Him. Seek first His kingdom instead. Serve your heavenly Father by serving others.

“Fear not little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions. Downsize. Hold them more loosely. Sacrifice and give to those in need. Replace greed with generosity. Make wise investments in others that will open doors for them with acts of kindness. Help with your resources, your time and skills. Make money bags for yourselves that will never wear out in heaven, an unfailing treasure where thieves cannot steal and moths cannot destroy.”

Jesus sums it all up by saying, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” If God is your treasure, your heart is in a good place and you are living wisely. But if personal comforts, security, well-being, personal glory, and possessions are your treasures, you have a serious heart problem.

The bottom line here is, Jesus points out, the wise way to live as His disciple is found in taking the focus off of me, myself, and I. Instead, look for ways to serve, to open doors, to help others. It is in using all God has given me – my time, my money, my skills, my talents, my connections – to open doors for others.

Doors open when we look closely for ways to live that way – to be rich toward God as we put ourselves out there and take these words seriously. We begin to notice and care about people whom we might overlook. We begin to see them through the eyes of Jesus. Love and generosity open up all kinds of opportunities for us to be door openers in other people’s lives. This is when life gets exciting.

You don’t have to look far for divine opportunities to open doors. It can begin right at home, in fact, with our spouse as we listen, as we pay attention to one another, as we go out of our way to serve each other, affirm one another, encourage, and ask what we can do for them.

I have a friend named Jim whose wife recently went through some serious surgery. He called me and said, “I won’t be at Bible study for a few weeks. My wife is laid up, and I am playing nurse. She’s going to have to learn how to put up with my cooking for a few weeks.”

I think of my father taking care of my mother for many, many years as she suffered with lupus. He served her hand and foot, clothed her, bathed her, worked two jobs to support them.

It is in caring for your parents. I’m thinking of another friend of mine, Phil. He and his wife’s health are not the best. Their son recently told them he is adding a new addition onto his home so Phil and his wife can move in, and they can take care of the mom and dad.

I think of other door openers. Rob has a real skill at helping others figure out directions in life, how God has wired them, and what they might do with their careers. He is constantly giving himself over to consult with people – no charge – to help them figure out where to go next with their lives.

I think of Vicki and Jim who have become involved with the Haiti Teen challenge ministry. Through their finances, time, and talents, they pour themselves into helping young people develop into godly leaders in Haiti.

I think of Larry who spends more time at projects serving other people than he sometimes spends at home. Or Dave and Claudia who work at the food shelf each week. I think of Nancy who is big on sending sympathy cards and encouragement cards, you name it, every-kind-of card in the book to others within the congregation. They remind others how much God cares about them, we care about them, and we are praying for them. I think of people who give up their Wednesday nights to work with our young people. They are opening doors for these kids to find Christ. We have a team of people who are adopting a refugee family from the Congo. They are thrilled! All of us are thrilled for them.

A person might wonder, Why would I opt to live that kind of life? It could be inconvenient. It could be uncomfortable and sacrificial. It could be messy.

My response is, it is the “Jesus’ way.” Don’t you want to please Him after all He has done for you? I know I do. Think of the door God opened for us through Jesus. He opened the door of salvation for us. He laid down His life for us so the door of heaven might be open to us. He paid for our sins so we might have a relationship – which was broken by sin – restored, and we can live with our Father in Heaven. He rose from the grave so we might live under Him in His kingdom in the here-and-now, living the good life God intended for us in the first place.

Jesus called it the abundant life, the life of putting self aside for the sake of others. Acting on opportunities to be kind in Jesus’ name. Jesus said this is where you will find a fulfilling life – in giving it away. He has opened the door for us so we might open doors for others. You and I were saved for a purpose – to open doors for others to serve.

Jesus knows exactly what He is talking about. His way is the way, His truth is the truth, and His life is the life for you and me. It was affirmed at the resurrection. He lives! He rose from the grave. You can believe Him, then, when He says it is in losing your life for others that you find it.

This, my dear friends is God’s ultimate plan for your life. With all kinds of open doors out there, He calls you to step into them. Be a door opener who can offer life to others in His name.

My encouragement to you today is to be on the lookout for divine opportunities, open doors to love and be generous and kind – even in small things – whether it’s buying a cup of coffee for the person standing behind you at the coffee shop or giving the waitress who is waiting on you in the restaurant an extra big tip. (Christians should be known as big tippers.) Instead of just saying, “I’ll be praying for you,” offer to pray on the spot with someone who is struggling. Do it then and there. When you see a person struggling with a project at work or school, offer a listening ear and a helping hand. Step through that door, I dare you. This is where the excitement is. It is where the abundant life is.

This is God’s Word to you today. Let’s do something with it and act upon it.

Are you ready? On your mark, get set, go! Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

All the Places to Go: Door #1 or Door #2?

Philippians 1:9-11

How do you pray for your children or your grandchildren? I am a parent and a grandparent, and I pray for my kids. I pray they will be healthy, protected, and so on. Most important, however, I pray they make good decisions in life and walk in God’s ways. After all, a lot of bad decisions can be made in life.

Making decisions is an important and often very difficult part of life. Some of us have a tough time making decisions. We are afraid of choosing the wrong path, the wrong door. Many are hesitant to make ironclad commitments for fear of getting stuck in something. We want guarantees that all will work out fine. However, life isn’t always like that.

Open doors. We all face them.

As we talk about open doors in this sermon series, a TV game show comes to mind that I watched when I was a kid. It’s called, “Let’s Make a Deal” with Monty Hall. The idea of the show was to come in costume to compete for money and prizes by striking wacky deals. If Monty chose you, you could trade something for a bigger prize, hopefully trading up to the biggest prize of the day. “What’s behind this door (or curtain)? Will you trade us for it?”Everybody, of course, was anxious because they were afraid of taking the wrong door and getting zonked (the white elephant prize). The final contestants got three doors to choose from – Door #1, Door #2, or Door #3.

When you think about it, life is full of doors. We have so many decisions to make, so many choices. We don’t want to get zonked. “Which decision is the right one?” we ask ourselves. It can stress a person out and even paralyze them from making a choice at all, which is a choice in itself.

People have interesting methods for making choices, for choosing doors. Such as flipping a coin. Superstitions like Ouija boards, horoscopes, and fortunetellers. Some people will say they just follow their gut, which can be dangerous because of our sinful nature. I know what I want and I’m pretty much gonna follow what I want. I tell my gut to do the same.

Some of us operate like Yogi Berra: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it” without any thought at all. Interestingly though, as you look in Scripture, the Bible doesn’t really provide an outline for the various big and little decisions we have to make in life. However, it does tell us quite clearly that God wants us to become good choosers. This would make sense when you think about it. After all, we are created in God’s image, He has given us a mind with which to think and reason, and a will to exercise. He has given us Himself and promised to be with us in all of life’s decision-making.

In today’s passage, we find the apostle Paul telling a congregation of Christians that he is praying for them. Paul is their spiritual father, their pastor. He brought them to Christ. They are like his children. This letter, therefore, drips with love and affection more than any other letter Paul wrote.

Today we learn about his prayers for the Philippians. His prayers boil down to this – that they grow to make good decisions as they face the various doors and opportunities they encounter along the way. His words again: “My prayer is that your love may overflow with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best.”

What is Paul really communicating here? It is important for us, as followers of Christ, to become good choosers. We should be able to determine what is best as we live our new lives in Christ so our love for God and one another might overflow. We are to grow as
we live out Christ’s great commandment and great commission.

Paul says, “I pray you grow in love.” The love he is talking about here is called agape love. It means to live sacrificially for the sake of others, to give self away as Jesus did. Jesus once talked about agape love in the Upper Room with His disciples as He described life in the community. He said, “Love one another as I have loved you. By this all people will know you are my disciples.” This is the way to live.

Paul not only prays that they will grow much, but also well. May your life of love be peppered with knowledge and full insight.

Love is not meant to be blind (as some people will say) or a sentiment or an emotion. It is meant to be thoughtful and insightful. This is love at its best.

He says, “May your love overflow with knowledge . . .” Knowledge of what? Knowledge of God from His Word. This is where we find knowledge. It is where we learn His ways, His love for us, His mind, His will for our life, His kingdom principles and values that make for abundant living. It is where we learn knowledge of how we need God.

Full insight – what is that? Full insight basically means spiritual discernment. Another word would be wisdom. It refers to people who have mastered the art of living and tend to make decisions we can describe as wise.

Paul says, I pray these things for you in order to help you determine what is best. That is, make good decisions, choose right doors. To help you make good decisions and act in ways that will truly benefit others and glorify God. To help you not only discern what is morally good or bad, but also know the difference between what’s better and what’s best.

Paul goes on to say, When all is said and done, you will stand before the Lord on that great day, pure and blameless. This is his way of saying you will look like Jesus who is described as the pure and blameless One.

. . . having produced the harvest of righteousness. The word righteousness means right living before God. We know about righteousness. Psalm 23 says, “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his namesake.” We will live a fruitful life for Christ, causing others to glorify and praise God.

This is Paul’s prayer for them, and for us as well – that we live our life loving God, neighbor, one another as Christ’s people, making good, wise decisions.

Therefore, it is important to ask, what are some basic principles to help us grow and become wise, knowledgeable, and insightful.

First of all, ask God for it. Ask constantly, not just once. Asking is the starting point. Paul is praying on behalf of his beloved people. He knows from personal experience that we can’t gain wisdom on our own. We need God’s help. He who knows so much more than we could ever know. He asks God to help us become wise and make God-pleasing decisions.

I am reminded of James’ words: “If any of you lack wisdom, ask for it and God who is generous will give it” (1:5). When Solomon became King of Israel, he prayed for wisdom to lead the people. God blessed him for his request and gave him His wisdom.

Asking requires humility. It means acknowledging we are not wise enough on my own. I think of the Serenity Prayer, which the Alcoholics Anonymous organization uses – “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

Paul and James would say to us, This God, to whom you pray, is generous. He wants to give you the wisdom you need in life.

Become more intentional in your decision-making. Develop some skills in how to make wise decisions. Begin with little issues before you face the big issues in life. Choosing doors is a process of recognizing opportunities. As we said last week: God opens doors. What is this a chance to do?

Identify some options. What could I do in this situation – A, B, or C? Evaluate whether your decision would be good or bad, fruitful or unfruitful, pleasing or displeasing to God.

Make a choice and get to work. Learn from the experience. Do you have a free evening after supper? This is an opportunity. This time could be spent well. What can I do with it? Look at the options: I could play with the kids. I could read to them or play a game or talk with my wife. I could spend some quiet time reading, or I could pick up the remote and turn on the TV set.

Then evaluate: which option works best for me? What is good? What is bad? What is better? What is best? Choose and then learn from the experience. Look back on it and review.

As you do these tasks in the small events of life, you will find it easier to make the big decisions. You have disciplined yourself to begin thinking wisely.

By the way, it is important to constantly keep your eye on the ball. Ask the right questions – big picture questions. What is God’s priority, His purpose for my life? This is an important thing to recall. God’s primary will for your life is not in the achievements we accrue. It’s not in the busyness we can fill our lives with. It is in the person we become – pure and blameless, producing fruits of righteousness like Jesus.

We need to constantly ask, Why am I here? I hear people typically ask this question after a near-death experience. God spared me, they say. He must have a purpose for me. I wonder what it is. Why do we wait until we have a heart attack or a near-death experience to ask it? It’s good one to ask it on a daily basis. Why am I here? What am I investing my life energies into at this point in my life? Making myself comfortable? Getting my personal security? Or am I investing in larger, more noble things – God things? “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world (all the small things),” Jesus said, “and lose your soul?” (Mark 8:26). Ask the right questions.

Put together a door-selection committee for yourself. Have a counselor or team of wise counselors who know you and who you trust to tell you what you need to hear. The Philippians had the apostle Paul to speak truth into their lives. King Solomon says in Proverbs, “The way of a fool seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice” (12:15). We have blind spots as individuals and restricted vision. We need others who can speak truth into our lives.

Learn to expect that, even after all this, your decisions will sometimes lead to failures. It is okay. If you run into difficulties and failures, you will learn and grow from it. God’s love will still be there for you. He will still value you as you. You can learn from your failures as well.

Finally, THE all-important ingredient for making wise decisions in life, for determining what is best is this: connect yourself and stay connected to one person in particular. This person will prove to be the wisest friend you’ll ever had. In talking of Himself, Jesus said, “Someone greater than (wise old) Solomon is here” (Matt. 12:42). He referred to Himself as THE ultimate door, THE gate to abundant living. He said that when His words about living a good life are applied by someone, he or she will be like a wise person who built his house upon a rock. The storms of life cannot blow it down.

This person told His disciples that He is the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the God life but by Him. He wasn’t just talking about heaven, but also life now and into eternity. The apostle Paul says, “through Him come the fruits of righteousness.” In another letter to the Colossians, Paul talks about the riches available through this person – in Him are hidden all the treasures of knowledge and wisdom.

Of course by now, you’ve figured out who I am talking about. This person is Jesus Christ. This is what He did: Proverbs 9 writes of wisdom speaking to us from on high, from the Temple. Wisdom came down from on high and dwelt among us to rescue us from our sinful ways. Jesus sacrificed Himself for us. He rose again as God’s confirmation for you and me. God said, “This is my beloved Son. It is wise to listen to Him and follow Him.

He promises to be with you. He’ll teach you and lead you in kingdom ways. As the Good Shepherd, He leads us down paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.

As you choose this door of Jesus who called Himself the Door, you will learn that it is the wisest decision you have ever made in your life. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

All the Places to Go: The Open Door

Genesis 12:1-7

Sometimes God calls us into an adventure we never anticipated. I’ve heard people refer to these sorts of things as God’s “open doors.” These open doors can take us in directions and to exciting places we never dreamed of. Maybe you’ve used this statement before, If you had told me a few years ago I’d be doing this, I would have never believed it.

I think of my own life, for instance, and how I became a pastor. My senior year at college I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my life, but I began to sense a nudge toward going to seminary and maybe becoming a pastor. I really wrestled with God about it. I asked all kinds of people, “How did you know? How did you know you were called to ministry?” and I never really found a satisfactory answer.

One day I was lamenting this to a friend of mine named Eli who was headed off to the seminary. He listened to me and replied, “Stevie,” which is what he called me. “Why don’t you try it? It sounds like an open door to me. You are wrestling with God. If it’s not an open door, you’ll find out soon enough. What do you have to lose?” So I went.

Seminary was challenging, especially the first year. But I hung in there and the door stayed open for me. So when people ask how I became a pastor, my response is, “God opened the door for me. I went, and I have to say, I’m glad He did!”

God places all kinds of open doors before His people on a daily basis. He can lead us to some very interesting circumstances and adventures.

In the next few weeks, we are going to learn how to recognize “open doors” and how to go through them. Our teacher in this first lesson is Abraham and his wife Sarah. If anyone can teach us about entering open doors, Abraham can.

We see God opening a door to Abraham in our passage from Genesis 12. The book of Genesis begins by describing how God created the world, and it was good. However, in chapter 3, the world absolutely falls apart. In Genesis 12, God begins His plan to put it all back together again. He doesn’t turn away. Instead, He calls a man named Abraham and promises him three things: land, many descendants, make him a blessing to the families of the world.

Something amazing then happened in the story. Abraham went! He walked through the open door God placed before him. He had no strategic outline, no map to follow, no detailed agenda. He didn’t have a clue how God was going to make this happen. He and Sarah just went.

By the way, the entire story of the Bible hinges on the moment when Abraham went. It was not an easy door to pass through. Open doors frequently are not easy. Many of you have probably already learned that along the way. Abraham was leaving behind the familiar – the security of home, all that was comfortable – to follow this God and His plan who promised him great things. He was going into the unknown – a land called Canaan – and there was nothing great about Canaan. Living in Ur and Huran, Abraham was in the center of civilization. He had it made. The place he was headed was uncivilized, foreign, filled with enemies. He would be trading down, so to speak. Canaan was four hundred miles away from home, which was a long, arduous trip for an elderly couple. The land God described to them was already inhabited by the Canaanites, who surely were not going to simply hand it over.

Abraham had to have faced some ridicule as he considered God’s call. When he talked about God’s promise to give him many descendants, which seemed an impossibility, their friends and family must have thought they were off their rockers. He was 75 years old and Sarah was way beyond her childbearing years. What were they thinking – moving so far away to an unknown land? Still they went, trusting this God who had opened the door. They eventually learned they could trust God with everything.

Along the way, they experienced plenty of close calls. As we read Genesis 12 through 21, we find times when Abraham and Sarah were afraid. They fought famine, near death experiences, and some real hair raisers, but God took care of him through it all. It was a long, painful wait for the child. They had to learn patience. Sarah was barren when they started this venture. Ten years passed and still they had no child. Abraham took his doubts to God who said, Just keep trusting. When the child arrived, although it was a miracle, it could not have been an easy thing. What do you think about parenting at the age of 99, which is how old Abraham must have been? It would be very challenging. I am a 65-year-old grandparent, and I love my grand kids. But after five hours of being with them, I’m totally exhausted and ready for bed. How did Abraham and Sarah do it?

Someone might think Abraham was a super godly man, more than qualified to take on this challenge. No, he was not. In fact, if you look ahead to the book of Joshua chapter 24, we learn that Abraham was an idol worshiper when God called him. He was a rookie in his relationship with God and had a lot to learn! He had the faith to go when God called him, but it was a small faith, which faltered frequently along the way. Yet look what came of it!

Even though Abraham didn’t get to see his descendants grow into a great nation, they received the Promised Land – just as God promised – and his family did eventually become a blessing to the families of the world. In Matthew chapter 1, we find the family tree of Jesus, the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of ABRAHAM. The blessing to the nations was Jesus Christ who died on the cross as a sacrifice to pay for humanity’s sinfulness and then rose again in the promise that all who call upon His name shall be saved. A blessing to the world!

The New Testament book of Hebrews chapter 11, sometimes referred to as the “Spiritual Hall of Fame,” actually talks about Abraham’s faith. It inspires us as we consider our own open doors – to not only see those doors, but enter in.

What are some things we learn about God’s open doors from Abraham and Sarah’s experience?

1. Open doors are not usually scripted out for us with specific instructions. God just said, “Go where I lead you.” Abraham and Sarah had to get comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. So will we, for open doors are not always scripted.

2. Open doors are not always easy or convenient or comfortable. You will sometimes feel you are in over your head, as Abraham and Sarah did. There will be moments when you have doubts, wondering what in the world you signed up for. But we must understand that God’s open doors are always for the glory of God and the blessing of others. They are never essentially just for us.

3. They have no special requirements. Abraham was an idol worshiper, as I said. He was an ordinary guy, even elderly when God opened His door to him.

4. Sometimes we learn that these open doors benefit us as well – most often to develop godliness and make us more like Jesus – more loving, patient, kind, full of joy, faith, generosity, and self-control. If we want to experience more of the Spirit of God working these gifts in our lives, we need to train ourselves to look for open doors and respond to moments of divine opportunity.

What open doors has God placed in your life lately? Is there something you sense God might be calling you to? There are all kinds of open doors in life, when you think about it. Maybe you are in transition, changing jobs, or your company has been sold. Perhaps you are considering a career change. This could be an open door. Does God have something new in mind for me? you might ask. Or do I just buckle down where I am and work all the harder.

Maybe you are feeling like you are in a rut. You have a bit of discontent. Could it be God is placing an open door before you to get outside of yourself and take care of someone or step into something new for the cause of God?

Maybe you are retiring and you wonder what’s going to be the next chapter in your life. That’s an open door. What does God have in mind for the rest of my days? We need to ask, because there is no such thing as retirement in the kingdom of God according to Scripture.

Maybe a passion has stirred in you lately. You have observed a great need in this world or in some person’s life and you want to help, make a difference. Perhaps you can get involved personally or financially invest in it. That is an open door!

Perhaps you are in an exciting relationship and thinking about marriage. How do you know this person is the one? Is this is an open door? Will this person come alongside of you to serve God or will they distract you from that relationship?

Perhaps God has placed an opportunity before you to be a blessing in someone else’s life – to serve them, share with them the Hope that is within you, because you have Christ in your life. Maybe you’ve noticed a person who needs a helping hand. Your heart is touched and you are wondering if you should be doing something. That is an open door. The only question is, will you go in?

All these open doors – what will you do? We learned that Abraham went. Have you? Will you? Open doors from God are given to be entered. They invite us to step out in faith – faith in God. Trust Him, turn your life over to His care and leading, and just go.

Remember, as you consider going through these open doors, God is trustworthy. Look at what He went through to make you His own so you could be part of His people. He opened the door of heaven and entered through the back door of Bethlehem. He gave you the opportunity to see Him in the flesh. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1). The Word was God and became flesh. He gave Him as a sacrifice to open a door closed by sin. Jesus died upon a cross, and God raised Him from death back to life as He rolled away another door, thereby conquering death’s hold on you.

Dear friends, our God is trustworthy. You can count on Him.

The appeal for today is to be an open door person. Look for and be ready to embrace the divine opportunities God will place before you this week. Do you see an open door? Go for it trusting the promises of God. He will lead you, He will be with you, and He will help you as He helped Abraham and Sarah. Believe that He wants to use you to be a blessing in someone’s life. With Him you can do significant, exciting, adventurous things and make a difference in this world.

Be on the lookout. In fact, I’m gonna give you a homework assignment to help you start seeing open doors. I encourage you to do this exercise and then dare to take a step of faith when you see doors. Are you ready? Here it is.

Pick a day this week to experiment with openness. Shortly after you wake up, talk with God, indicate your desire to be open to whatever He brings your way that day, whatever that means. Then, as you go through the day – breakfast, work, lunch, family time, a trip to the store, hanging with friends – keep this in mind: you are being open. You are on call. You don’t need to plan to do anything religious, just be open to what God might bring in your direction.

This might mean paying attention to the people around you, noticing what needs they have. How can you show them the love of Christ?

It might mean taking some extra time with a friend or a family member who needs to talk. It might mean enjoying a sunset or a great piece of music. Or God might throw a challenge your way. Will you face it openly, trusting in His help?

O people of God, do this and let the adventures began. I dare you! Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

The Contest of Gods

1 Kings 18:19-39

Our message this week takes a trip to Mount Carmel in Israel and a contest of gods between Baal of the Caanites and Yahweh, the God of the Israelites and the prophet Elijah. It is the type of story that leaves us asking, What do we really believe? Where do we derive our security, our purpose, our motivation in life? Where is the pure object of our affection focused? I might also ask, Do you have any idols?

A doctor of theology was teaching world religion at a university and made a mission trip to India. While there, he met and befriended a local fellow who was a Buddhist. This man was very friendly and took the doctor around to see the sites and help him become acquainted.

One day he took the doctor to the Buddhist temple. When the doctor walked in, he was amazed at all the strange, peculiar statues lining the walls of the temple, each one representing a different god. Then he felt a little poke in his side, and his newfound friend gestured toward one of the statues saying, “See that one? You recognize it, don’t you? That’s your God!” The doctor of theology looked up to see a statue of Jesus on the cross – as if Jesus were just one god among all the other gods. In that man’s mind, though well intended, he believed you could be Buddhist and Christian. You can worship whatever god you want or as many as you want. We have often heard the phrase It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere.

We live in a culture of time that says all truth is relative to the individual’s perception and conviction. However, I don’t believe this. Instead, I believe the God of the world, the God of life, has, in a beautiful way, revealed His heart and love to us in His Son, Jesus Christ. He went to the cross to bring us back into a relationship with Himself, even though we were sinners, and, by His resurrection, gives us eternal life. He invites us to repent, turn our hearts back to Him, and confess our faith in Him as our God.

At Mount Carmel, Elijah prayed this prayer: “Lord, by your power show that you are God and we are your servants. Turn the hearts of your people back to you.”

In our story, the Bible describes King Ahab and Queen Jezebel as the new champions of evil in their time. They not only promoted the worship of the idols Bael and Ashera, but they hunted down and killed God’s prophets in an effort to eradicate faith in Yahweh. They especially hated the prophet Elijah and searched every inch of their kingdom for him. They even threatened neighboring kings who might hide him. They treated Elijah like the number one criminal of the world and wanted him dead.

After three years of drought with God telling Elijah to hide from Ahab, now He tells Elijah to go show himself to Ahab. In the context of threat and danger, Elijah boldly walks into the palace and issues a challenge to Ahab and the priests of Bael to have a contest on Mount Carmel. May the best god – the real God, the God of power and glory – win. So the priests of Bael go first and offer their ox as a sacrifice. From morning till noon, they prayed. Louder and louder they prayed as they danced around the altar of sacrifice. Bael, hear us, they say.

Elijah begins to mock them. Is god meditating? Is he too busy, indisposed, on vacation? Perhaps he is sleeping. Cry out louder! They danced louder; they cut themselves with knives until they bled; and they hollered louder and louder. Nothing except silence was the response. This continued all day until Elijah stepped forward and poured barrels and barrels of water over the sacrifice. Instantaneously a firebolt from heaven consumed the ox, the wood, and the twelve stones representing the twelve tribes of Israel. Even the water was licked up dry. Everyone fell on their faces in that revelation of God’s power and glory and shouted, “Yahweh is God! Yahweh surely is God!” Yahweh revealed Himself and accepted the sacrifice.

What can we take away from this story that is important for our faith today? First, it’s important for us to know God is jealous. The Scriptures say He is a jealous God – not in the sense of being petty or insecure or accusing in a negative sense. He is God who will not tolerate rivals among God’s people.

Bael and Asherah were the fertility gods of the Canaanites. The worship of those gods included sexual acts and the sacrifice of the people’s children! God said, No! I am jealous for you to be in a relationship of intimacy and love. I will have no gods before me. He was not jealous in the sense of a need to be the number one god of your priorities, or to be seen as your favorite god. God says NO gods are to be in His presence. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, he quoted the Lord saying: “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.”

I like how Kyle Idleman in his book, GODS AT WAR, writes about our modern-day idols.
• He talks about the temple of pleasure where we make gods out of food, sex, and entertainment.
• I might add sports, our bodies, the pursuit of beauty, or long life.
• We also worship in the temple of power.
• We make gods of success, money, and achievement, fame, positions of influence and power.
• We worship at the temple of love and make gods out of romance, even elevating family members above God.
• And, of course, we make gods of ourselves.

Idleman writes that the guards at war clash for the throne of each person’s heart. The moment we make something more important in our lives than God, it becomes an idol.

Is it in our source of security? Is it the object of our passion and affection? Is it the purpose of our life? What motivates us day by day to live? Do we surrender our lives to its control? If so, it becomes our god, our idol.

Perhaps, subconsciously, we are unaware of things that have crept into our lives and become more important than God himself. So the contest at Mount Carmel is still relevant.

At Mount Carmel, God showed His power and glory in a raw, explosive, awesome lightning bolt of fire. He revealed Himself in a jaw-breaking moment flash of power. God showed Himself infinitely greater than all the gods of the Canaanites.

When we were kids, we used to say, “My daddy is stronger than your daddy.” A bit of an absurd argument. Maybe we could say Yahweh is stronger than your god – Bael – which is a foolish thing to say because those other gods don’t even exist. Not only are those gods not as strong as Yahweh or as powerful as Yahweh, they don’t even exist! The idols we tend to look to for purpose, security, pleasure, or purpose can’t give us life, can’t forgive our sin, can’t overcome death, can’t reconcile us to one another, can’t pour grace over our souls, can’t promise us eternal life. God instantaneously accepted the sacrifice Elijah offered and showed Himself to be God.

By the way, that, then, became a day when Elijah called all people to a fresh commitment of faith. If God be God, then follow Him. But if Bael be your god, then follow him. If God is God – even today – then stand up for the Lord, speak up for the Lord, confess your faith, renew your commitment of love and loyalty to Jesus Christ as God.

Did you know that in the book of Revelation, the harshest critique of the seven churches in the first three chapters of Revelation is reserved for the church of Laodicea. God said to them, “You are neither hot nor cold. You are lukewarm, so I spit you out.” Could it be that we have slid into indifference in matters of faith, and other things have become more important to us and hold a higher authority over us than God? Have we become lukewarm?

Elijah was not only courageous to stand up to Ahab and Jezebel under the threat of death, he was courageous to stand alone before 450 prophets of Bael and 400 priestesses of Asherah under the supervision of Jezebel the Queen. Today is still the day for us to decide where our loyalty lies. Who is your God? What do you believe about God? What do you believe about the purpose of life?

I also find it interesting that Elijah, before he prayed for God to accept the sacrifice, repaired the altar. Someone once asked the farmer, How did your cow get lost? The farmer chuckled and said, I suppose it was one tuft of grass at a time.

Could it be you have slowly wandered away from the loyalty of your heart to the Lord God, who has revealed His love to you in Jesus, God’s Son, our Savior? Today is the day for you and I to say, Jesus, you are my God, and I will serve you.

God revealed His power and glory on another mountaintop – Mount Calvary. It wasn’t awesome, raw, explosive power, but paradoxical power when the perfect and holy Son of God named Jesus was placed on a cross outside the Gates of Jerusalem. His bruised and bloodied body was nailed to a cross, and He hung suspended between heaven and earth until He could breathe no more. “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they do.” “It is finished.” God’s power was never more powerfully poured out, and His grace never flooded all human hearts more fully in the moment than when Jesus the Son of God our Savior gave His life on the cross. But there’s more.

On resurrection morning all of creation shook as Jesus the Lord of life who was dead was brought back to life to never die again. So God, in Jesus’ name, shows His power and glory by offering us eternal life.

Jesus is the God who saves, and the revelation of His power shows His love is beyond our understanding. Today I ask you to place your faith in Him. Amen.

Pastor Lee Laaveg

How to Have a 3 a.m. Friendship

2 Timothy  4:6-22

One of my all-time favorite movies comes on each year around the Christmas season. It is called, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with Jimmy Stewart. The movie is about a fellow named George Bailey who, when things are getting so bad, wishes he had never been born. An angel comes and shows him what life would have been like in this world without him. At the end of the movie, as George’s friends are all rallying to save him from a financial crisis, Clarence, the angel, writes him a note. The note says, “Dear George, no man is a failure who has friends.” Clarence was right – to have a good friend is one of the highest delights of life.

We tend to refer to people as friends rather loosely these days. If you ask someone if they have a lot of friends, they might say, O yeah. I have a lot of friends. I have a lot of friends on Facebook. We may talk about acquaintances as friends sometimes. We may have work friends and church friends. Guys refer to their friends as buddies.

But do you have a 3 a.m. friend for when you’re alone in a dark time? Perhaps a crisis has hit, life is closing in on you, and you feel like your world is falling apart. Do you have someone you could call to be with you during those times? At our church we call those 3 a.m. friends – those with whom we have deep soul friendships.

Many people do not have that kind of person in their life, which is not surprising because there is so much loneliness in America today, especially among men. We have many barriers to developing true and lasting friendships.
• Pace of life. Distractions like television, the Internet, and video games.
• Mobility of life. People frequently move from job to job, from area to area.
• Isolation of life. We typically drive to our jobs and then drive home, close the garage door, and sit by ourselves in front of the screen each night.
• Cynicism of life. We distrust others and are reluctant to let our guards down.
• Busyness of life. We are too busy to nurture relationships. It’s hard to love someone when you are in a hurry.

The sad thing is, we are missing out on a deep soul friendship and a richer life. Everyone needs a 3 a.m. friend.

As a Christian, you might be thinking, I have the Lord God in my life. He’s my friend! I am glad you do! Yet, sometimes we need God with skin on.

I remember a story about a young girl who woke up in the middle of the night crying because of a bad dream so her mother went to comfort her. When her mother thought she was calmed down, she headed back to her own bedroom. But then the little girl cried out, “You’re leaving me? Don’t leave me!”

Mother responded, “God is with you.”

The little girl said, “Yes, but I need God with skin on right now.”

It’s true – sometimes we need God with skin on. We need a human touch in our lives.

We have always needed God with skin on, when you think about it. From Adam in the Garden of Eden to whom God said, “It’s not good for man to be alone,” to King David who surrounded himself with friends through the hard times and the good. Jesus himself valued friendship. He called the twelve disciples to travel with Him in His ministry.

The Apostle Paul experienced the same sort of need in our passage for today. Paul’s time of departure was coming soon. He was on death row in Rome without a get-out-of-jail-free card. He was far from the familiar, far from his homeland. Uncomfortable and chained to soldiers in prison, he was physically cold as well, for winter was coming and he needed his coat. He was also physically and spiritually hungry. Paul mentions he needs his books, which have been left behind in Troas (he wasn’t finished learning from the Word of God).

Mostly, Paul is feeling abandoned and alone. He had experienced the power of the Lord standing by him. He even mentions in our passage today how Jesus strengthened him as he stood trial before his enemies. But right now, Paul needs God with skin on. He needs his friends. We know Paul had many friends by the way he closed his various letters in the New Testament – he sent greetings to various individuals. He understood the value of friendship and support.

Paul needed a friend, then, in this letter to Timothy. But not just any friend; he needed his 3 a.m. friend, which would be Timothy. He is appealing Timothy in this letter: “Do your best to come to me soon.”

This was a big ask on Paul’s part, by the way. It was not very convenient for Timothy and would take some sacrifice. He would be putting himself out there for Paul, even risking his own life and freedom as he identifies with Paul as a friend in Christ.

The cost of time and energy needed to complete the trip were huge. Paul was 1,000 miles away and the trip would require a great amount of resources. Timothy would worry about his congregation, which had been giving him trouble. Would the church fall apart while he is gone?

“Do your best to come to me soon, Timothy,” Paul pleads.

Do you suppose Timothy came as Paul requested? I bet my bottom dollar he did! And here’s why: These two men shared a special bond. It was a deep friendship between an older man as the mentor and a younger man who is learning the ropes. They were soul friends. How did this relationship come about? How does this kind of friendship happen in one’s life? As you look through the entire letter of second Timothy, you find some helpful clues to consider for our own friendship building.

Deep soul friendships require being present or “with-ness” – sharing experiences. In chapter 3, Paul says, “Now you have observed my teaching, my faith, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions, my suffering, the things that happened to me in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. What persecutions I endured! Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them” (II Timothy 3:10-11).

Paul and Timothy were together in good times and in bad. They traveled together on these missionary journeys and had many conversations and opportunities to observe one another as they served Christ together. They spent time composing letters to the various churches. (We see this as we look at Paul’s other letters.) They also stayed in touch when separated. This usually leads to something very profound and special.

I had a special friend like this. The former speaker for this radio ministry, Homer Larsen, and I traveled a lot together. He was my best friend. We traveled to preaching and evangelism conferences together. We spent a lot of time traveling together, and I am so much richer to have known him and shared life with him in this way. Even to this day, I feel the loss of him not being around.

I also have other individuals whom I would call my 3 a.m. friends. There is Rob whom I call on a weekly basis and talk to or text back and forth. There’s Dave. We socialize as well as serve together. We have a certain bond. If you want a deep soul friendship, you need to commit time and presence with someone.

Deep soul friendships involve self-disclosure. Paul and Timothy were transparent with each other. They knew each other’s personal history as well. Paul knew about Timothy’s mom (Eunice) and grandma (Lois). He knew what kind of father Timothy had. Timothy knew of Paul’s sordid past. Nothing was hidden from one another.

As we read Paul’s entire letter to Timothy, we find he openly shared his heart, his soul, and his affections. Paul doesn’t hide anything. He says, “I have run the race. (I’m dying.) The end of my race has come, and I need you here with me.”

As Paul encourages Timothy throughout this personal letter, it is apparent that Timothy has shared some of his own fears and weaknesses as a fellow minister. Paul knows his strengths and weaknesses, and he addresses those concerns in this letter. Deep soul friendships require a willingness to share your vulnerabilities with each other.

Deep soul friends share expressions of affection. Paul expressed tenderness, love, and care in this letter.
I’m praying for you, Timothy.
• I’m grateful to God whenever I remember you in my prayers.
• I’m constantly praying for you night and day.
• I long to see you, because you fill me with joy.
• I recall your tears. Perhaps Paul is referring to Acts 20 where he met with the Ephesian elders. Paul wept and they embraced one another as they said their goodbyes. Was Timothy in that group?
My beloved child. Paul refers to Timothy at various times with terms of endearment such as my son, my beloved.

Timothy knew Paul loved him and cared for him deeply.

Deep soul friendships have encouragement, affirmation. Paul spent a lot of time encouraging and affirming Timothy.
I believe in you.
• Let me remind you – you are called by God.
• You have a gift for preaching.
• God has great plans for you.
• I laid my hands on you at your ordination.
• I poured myself into you, entrusting to you the precious good news of Jesus, and now I’m asking you to guard the Good News and stick with it. You can, I believe, because you have the Holy Spirit living in you.

How is that for encouragement and affirmation?

Their deep soul friendship had trust. These kinds of friendships grow with trustworthiness. Paul described Timothy as one whom he trusted fully. In other letters he would say, “(There is) no one like Timothy who has a genuine care for your congregation” (Phil. 2:20). Timothy didn’t run when the chips were down on those travels with Paul. He stayed with him. They could rely on each other. “I am entrusting the Gospel ministry to you, all I have begun.” Paul said to him (I Tim. 1:18).

Deep soul friendships are grounded firmly in the Gospel, the promises of Jesus Christ. Jesus was their strength, their consolation, their common ground, their counsel to one another as they went through the ups and downs of life. They had an eternal friendship with Jesus at the center.

I came across a statement that says Jesus is the only totally reliable friend for sinners. He is the only flawless friend, and therefore the only friend who can make other friendships eternal. As much as you might love your earthly friends and family, they cannot rescue you from every evil deed and bring you safely into the heavenly kingdom. Only one friend can do that – Jesus Christ! He loves you! See what He did for you at the cross.

Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, Paul and Timothy would say to one another. A person truly is rich (and not a failure) with a friend or two like that in their life.

Two personal questions for you today:
1. Do you have a 3 a.m. friend, someone you can turn to, you can lean on, a 3 a.m. deep soul friendship?
2. Wouldn’t you like to be a 3 a.m. friend to someone? God wants that for you. Keep your eyes open to find friendship possibilities. God has provided them.

Jesus never intended for the enjoyment of His presence to replace the enjoyment of the presence of other Christians. He didn’t die on a cross to create isolated worshiping individuals. Instead, He died to create Christ-exalting friendships.

Where can you find those kinds of friendships? Where do I find a Paul? Where do I find a Timothy, or a Paula, or a Tamara to do life? In the church! The church is a good place to start. Get plugged in to the church in worship and in service with other Christians. In our congregation we have a small group Bible study ministry, which has been helping people make friends like this for the last thirty years. I am amazed at what is done in relationships in my own life as I’ve participated in these.

Not long ago, my wife and I drove five hours to witness an adoption. When we arrived, many of our church people were also present. I didn’t know they were coming and was surprised to see them. When I asked why they came, they said, “We were in a small group with this couple. We love them, and we’ve been praying for them the past year and a half as they have gone through this procedure. We wanted to see it happen now.”

Recently, I was doing a funeral, and some people came whom I didn’t expect to see. When I asked about their connection, they replied, “We are in a small group with this family. It has been a real blessing!”As they encouraged the family and shared their joy, they rejoiced with those who rejoice and wept with those who weep.

This is what God longs for you to have. It is what everyone needs – a deep soul friendship. May you have just that in your life. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

A Couple Good Reasons to Pray: The Early Church Did . . .

Acts 12:1-24

I recently heard someone say, “When all else fails, pray.” It wasn’t the first time I’d heard this phrase; maybe you’ve heard it as well. I have learned, though – and I have to be reminded again and again – that this statement is a very unwise way to operate in life. Prayer is not given to us to be just an alternative when all human efforts fail. It should a first step, not be a final option. It is a gift, a privilege given to us by our great God and is meant to be our go-to in all matters of life. Prayer is having a relationship with the Creator of the universe and connecting with Him. We were made and redeemed for communion with Him through prayer. It is an important part of the process of walking with God, growing in our relationship with God, and serving Him in this world.

Yet we sometimes struggle with prayer. Perhaps out of disappointment from past attempts, we set it aside. Maybe there’s a lack of discipline in our lives or just plain forgetfulness. Life is busy and we get distracted, making us all the poorer for it.

Our series theme is, “A Couple Great Reasons to Pray.” We are answering the question, Why bother to pray? Last week we learned a great reason to pray is because Nehemiah prayed, and God answered his prayer in a big way! Today’s message is because the early Church prayed. Today’s lesson is an exciting story set during a time of persecution and violence against the early Church in Jerusalem.

These were unhappy times. The country was suffering a famine. The Church was under attack not only by the Jewish population, but also by the government. Knowing of their dislike for Christians and wanting to improve his ratings among the Jewish people, King Herod had James, the brother of John, arrested and beheaded. This worked so well that Herod had another leader – Peter – arrested and scheduled for trial to be beheaded.

We find Peter sitting in prison, surrounded by sixteen soldiers. Things are in a bad way. The leadership of the Church is on the line. The future of the kingdom cause seemed to be in question. So what did the early Christians do? Did they panic and scatter? No. They gathered and prayed for Peter.

The night before Peter’s trial and execution, while the Church is praying for God’s help and an intervention, Peter is sound asleep. He was sleeping, but God wasn’t. Peter’s cell suddenly shown with a bright light. An angel poked Peter in the side, woke him up and said, Get up! Let’s go. Get dressed. Then three miracles occurred.
• The chains fell off Peter’s hands and feet. All sixteen guards, who were supposed to keep an eye on him, slept as Peter walked right by them. All the while, Peter thought he was just having a dream.
• The big iron gate opened all by itself and Peter and his rescuer headed down the street.
• When Peter turned to say something to his escape partner, the partner had disappeared. Peter, then, realized this wasn’t a dream. The Lord has rescued me.

Peter ran to the house church that had been praying for him and found the door locked. I imagine he can hear them praying inside. He knocked on the door and called out. A servant lady named Rhoda heard his voice as he calls out. She was so surprised and overjoyed, she ran to tell the others, leaving Peter standing outside the door. They say to her, You are out of your mind and out of touch with reality. You’re just seeing things. Maybe Peter is already dead and you are just hearing his angel.

Peter, in the meantime, kept knocking on Mary’s door. I imagine he was looking over his shoulder and sweating bullets by now. Surely a search party was out looking for him to arrest him again. Finally, the others listened to Rhoda; they went to the door and opened it to find Peter. Everyone was shocked to see him standing there, alive and well. Peter then told them how the Lord brought him out of the prison. Then he instructed them to tell James, the brother of Jesus, who was also a big leader in the church, and other believers as well so they might be encouraged and renewed by the thought that God really was with them and for them in all of this – even during dark times. Then Peter went on his way to do ministry elsewhere.

It is an amazing story! However, it is more than just a great adventure story saved for our entertainment, friends. It is saved for our edification as God’s people in Christ, part of His Church. It serves as a wonderful reminder of the greatness and faithfulness of the God to whom we pray. God does hear and answers our prayers. He is active in this world. He does not have a hands-off approach. As the hymn says, “This is my Father’s world.” He is in charge. His will be done. “That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”

This episode is part of a bigger story. Earlier, Jesus had told His disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the power (Holy Spirit) to come from on high, and then “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). He is telling them God has plans for this Good News to be spread all over the world. When the Church comes under duress by a king who thinks he’s in charge and tries to shut it down by taking its leader, Peter, captive, God steps in. At the end of the story, Herod dies and is eaten by worms. But Peter is alive, and the Gospel continues to spread to the ends of the earth. More and more, people come to trust in Jesus Christ.

When all is said and done, God has won. He always has, always does, always will. His purposes will not be thwarted. The Gospel – the Good News of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection – will not be silenced. It just keeps going on and on. God loves His Church, and it is one of the themes in this story as He involves Himself with His people. This story is a picture of a faithful God who is in charge.

This story also encourages us to pray more boldly, anticipate God’s answers and be on the lookout for them. The praying Christians in this story are surprised when Peter shows up the house church, suggesting they weren’t expecting an answer to their prayer. Perhaps they just thought it was too impossible a situation. So when they hear that Peter is at the door, they respond, “You are out of your mind!” But they were again taught that our God is Lord of the impossible. He specializes in great escapes. Just look at the empty tomb on Easter. Jesus was dead inside the tomb. The door was opened, and He walked out.

Let’s not be too hard on them. We perhaps sometimes pray with low expectations, too. We may think, Sure, I can pray, but it probably won’t make any difference.

I am reminded of a story about a tavern that opened up on the main street of a little town in a dry county. The only church in the town organized an all-night prayer meeting in which the members asked God to burn down the tavern. Within a few minutes, lightning struck the tavern and it burned to the ground.

The owner sued the church, which denied responsibility. After hearing both sides, the judge said, “It seems that wherever the guilt may lie, the nightclub owner believes in prayer, while the church doesn’t.” Are we guilty of the same thing? Your prayers do make a difference.

John DeVries in his book, Why Pray? wrote about missions and the Church and the importance of prayer. He said, “Every praying Christian must understand that his or her prayers are not simply ‘support’ for various missions; they are the real work of mission. When done properly, they make it possible for the missionaries to perform the mop up operations. God has already done His work as He responds to prayer. He answers prayer in His own time and in His own ways. We need to simply keep praying and keep looking for those answers.”

The big thought for today then is, the same God who heard the early church prayers, rescued Peter, and saw to the spreading of the Good News of Jesus to the far reaches of the ancient world, is still able to do the unimaginable and the impossible. He is the same yesterday, today and forever.

People of God, pray confidently, pray boldly, pray constantly. Do you know someone who is far from God and needs Jesus Christ in their life? Then pray. PRAY FIRST for an opportunity to witness, or an open door to have a relationship, or for someone else to be able to witness.

Do you know of a dark situation where evil seems to be winning? PRAY FIRST for the light of the gospel to shine in that situation, for God’s power to go to work against evil.

Do you know of a church that is struggling to keep its doors open? PRAY FIRST that God might revive that church with His Holy Spirit and bring it to life. Fan the flames with the gospel.

Do you have a pastor or a chaplain or another ministry that you want to see thrive for the cause of the kingdom of God? PRAY FIRST for God to use that individual mightily to His glory and His honor.

Do you want God to use you to build His kingdom in some way? PRAY FIRST for opportunities and insights on how God might want to use you.

Recently I came across an amazing story about the power of prayer in Christianity Today magazine. It was written by a lady named Brenda McNeil. She writes,

“I once met a brother from Ghana, West Africa who was completing his PhD in the school of world missions at Fuller Seminary. During one of his trips home, he attempted to share the Gospel with several people who lived in the community. Although they listened respectfully, no one turned to Jesus Christ. He later learned that they were intimidated by a witch doctor who lived nearby. The witch doctor kept a symbol of his authority hanging outside his home – a lattice basket filled with water that never leaked. My friend decided to pray that God would empty the basket. He stayed outside the home of the witch doctor and prayed all night that God would demonstrate His power. At some point, he fell asleep. The next morning he was awakened by a commotion – the basket was empty and the town saw a mass revival as people learned about the God who caused the water to come out of the basket.”

There had been a power encounter and God had won, just like our story today.

People of God, let us commit ourselves to be people of prayer as individuals, as churches. I believe the church can have so much more power to accomplish great things for God if we just were praying more. We need always to be remembering those assuring words of another early Christian named the Apostle Paul. Listen to these words he wrote:

“If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us every thing else?” (Rom. 8:31).

Good question.

People of God, may we be known as a praying people, trusting in our great and loving God who answers prayer. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer

Pray First, Then Work Hard

A Couple Good Reasons to Pray: Nehemiah Did . . .

Nehemiah 1:1-11

Is prayer your first reaction or your last resort? Your first impulse or an afterthought? Some of us sometimes wonder if it is worth it. God knows what I need, so why should I bother Him? Someone else might say, I’ve been disappointed by prayer in the past, so why bother? Our answer to these questions is, because Nehemiah did. We read about him in his memoirs, which we find in our Old Testament. Let me give you some background . . .

It’s 444 BC (before Christ). The Persian empire is now in power and King Artaxerxes was its king. Israel had been in exile in Babylon for their disobedience to God for many, many years. But now, with the Persians coming into power, God sees to it that the first groups of exiles are allowed to return to Jerusalem where they would rebuild the Temple. However, the Babylonians had destroyed the entire city. Jerusalem had no city walls to protect it. The entire infrastructure of the city was in need of a redo.

Enter a Jewish fellow named Nehemiah. One day he asks his brother Hanani (who had just come from Jerusalem) how things were back home. Hanani says, Things are bad. The people are in great trouble and shame. They are being overrun. They have no defense against the enemy. Our nation could be on its way out. We are barely surviving.

Nehemiah is crushed by this news, and he weeps over his beloved Jerusalem. It is breaking his heart. The future of his people is at stake. God’s plan to use them as the blessing to the nations of the world (the light to the nations) could be at risk. Someone has to step up.

The first thing Nehemiah does is to go to his knees. He fasted and prayed for three months, and he waited for God to respond. Fasting is for focus as well as a sign of our penitence and our mourning over sin.

Look at Nehemiah’s prayer. He begins with reoriented prayer as he focuses on the greatness of God, referring to God as God of the heavens, great and awesome, a powerful One who is to be feared and keeps His covenant in steadfast love. He is faithful and hears my prayer. So hear my prayer.

After Nehemiah declares God’s greatness, he declares his own smallness as he moves into a time of confession. He acknowledges not only his people’s sin, but his family’s sin and his personal sin. God, I’m part of the problem here. I know you owe us nothing. So I come empty-handed confessing, seeking your forgiveness.

He also prays Scripture. Remember (a key word here), the word you spoke through Moses way back in the book of Deuteronomy, where you said, “If my people turn away from me, I will punish them. I will gather them and bring them to the place I have chosen to establish my name.” O Lord though they have sinned, they are your people whom you have redeemed. They delight in revering your name. They have rebuilt the Temple; they worship you; they still need your help, Lord. They need you to give them the peace you promised to establish them. So Lord, give success to me – Nehemiah, your servant – and give me mercy in the sight of the king. Use me to do Your will. Amen.

Chapter 1 ends with these words: “At that time, I was cupbearer to the king.” This was an very important position. The king trusted this person. The cupbearer had access to the king and influence. It brought all kinds of benefits. Nehemiah was cupbearer to King Artaxerxes of Persia.

What happens next is amazing! Nehemiah fervently fasted and prayed for three months. One day the king, seeing the troubled look on Nehemiah’s face, asked him, “Why is your face sad?” Nehemiah explained his sadness and his desire to go back to Jerusalem and help his people rebuild the city. The king thinks about it, asks a couple more questions, and consults with his wife who was with him. Then he agrees to Nehemiah’s request. He also gives him letters of passport for safe passage, lumber and materials for the project, and an armed escort. Isn’t that something? Wow! Nehemiah’s prayer is being answered.

When he arrives, Nehemiah and his escorts take a night walk around the city. He examines the walls of the city. Then he sits down with the city officials and gives them a vision and a testimony of how God answered his prayer to come home and repair the city. The leaders buy into the plan and began work to restore the walls of Jerusalem. This battered little community, under Nehemiah’s leadership, eagerly and passionately went to work to restore their holy city.

As we read on in the story, we find it wasn’t an easy task by any means. Some days it seemed impossible. One thing I’ve learned along the way (you probably have too) is carrying out God’s mission is never easy. Nehemiah faced opposition from three men named Samballat, Tobiah, and Geshem who were fearful of losing political and economic control over the area. They didn’t want to see this wall go up and attempted to stop the whole project with a variety of tactics.
• They tried intimidation telling Nehemiah and the people, We’re watching you. You better be afraid.
• They planned an attack on the wall workers, but it was foiled.
• They tried using slander and lies. They spread a rumor about Nehemiah, accusing him of declaring himself a king.
• They tried to assassinate Nehemiah to visit them, by inviting him to visit them, but he refused to come down off the wall saying, “I am doing a great work. I cannot; I will not come down.”
• They tried character assassination. Through an inner person, they encouraged Nehemiah to seek protection in the temple behind closed doors, for he was about to come under attack. They thought that if he hid himself out of fear, his reputation as a leader would be ruined.

The devil was also at work in the form of greed among the rich nobles and officials among the Jews who were taking advantage of the poor. People were forced to hock everything to pay their interest and taxes, keep food on their tables, and work on the wall besides. It was almost impossible! Children were even being taken away as payment. They were just not making it, so they rightfully complained to Nehemiah.

Nehemiah goes after those rich people on the people’s behalf and gets them to give back what they have taken as well as promise to not take advantage of the poor any longer. Even in all of this, Nehemiah was doing this job for no pay. To top it all off, he dug into his own pockets to fund the workers who were ready to quit the project. The strike was averted.

Lo and behold, the wall is done! Completed after only 52 days. Miraculous!

Scripture tells us in Nehemiah chapter 6 that the surrounding nations were fearful, for they knew God had been at work. Hear these words: “And when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem; for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God” (vs. 16). God is glorified before the nations!

A very amazing story, isn’t it! I’m surprised Hollywood hasn’t made a movie of it yet! How does it apply to each of us?

Nehemiah is the last of the history books in the Old Testament. It is another chapter of God’s redemptive history that began back in Genesis 3 when God said He would crush the head of the serpent, and in Genesis 12 when He promised to make Abraham’s descendants a blessing to the nations of the world. God’s people had been disgraced, and they wondered if God had deserted them to make it on their own. Was this beyond His help?

The good news is, God did not desert His people. Instead, He sent a cupbearer of the king to put things back together again so His great redemptive plans could move on. God is faithful to His people. We see His faithfulness in the story today.

As I said earlier, this is a chapter in a much bigger story. It is a restoration project in the midst of a much bigger restoration project – the restoration of the world! Four hundred years later, a new cupbearer will enter the scene, this restored Jerusalem. He will pray in a garden before His crucifixion, “Father, take this cup from me.” He is talking about the cup of God’s wrath for humanity’s sin. Jesus would step down from His heavenly court to save and restore His people. He, too, would weep over Jerusalem and face all kinds of opposition and enemies as He ushered His rebuilding project – His Father’s kingdom – into this world. On a cross He will build not a wall but a bridge between God and humanity restoring and rescuing His lost people. They will mock Him and invite Him to come down if He was truly the Messiah. He was tempted to give up, but He didn’t. I am doing a great work, and I cannot come down, just like Nehemiah. God raised Him from the grave affirming the new covenant in His blood.

The story continues on. God continues His restoration through the Church – you and me – bringing others into His kingdom. He is slowly, but surely, moving us toward a new Jerusalem, a new heaven and earth at the end. Creation will be totally restored, and God’s work will finally be completed. That, my friends, is one of the great reasons to pray: God’s faithfulness.

This story is not so much about Nehemiah’s leadership and power (though we do learn some important things through his experiences). It’s more about God’s faithfulness and grace, that He gives us as a valuable tool called prayer, and that He answers prayer. This is a prayer-and-hard-work story. He doesn’t just the pray at the beginning of his memoirs, but all the way through the project. He prays for help, strength, training, and for protection as he says, “Remember, O Lord.” God accomplishes great things through obedient servants who pray and answer His call to serve.

This story is written for His workers, those who are in Christ – you and me – our God is unchanging. The same grace and strength is available to you and me as God’s workers in His field, as the Church in mission. He has an unchanging plan to restore His whole creation, to bless all the nations through His Son, Jesus. We are called a called people, empowered by His Spirit to serve out His purposes in bringing people to God’s kingdom.

Our takeaway from this Nehemiah story as missionaries, as servants of God working for the Lord Jesus Christ to bring people into His kingdom is simply this: Pray first and work hard. Amazing things happen with this combination in this order. Prayer, hard work, and God’s faithfulness got the wall built. Jesus operated the same way in His day-to-day ministry. Even before the trial and the cross, Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane.

You might say, Well, that was Nehemiah’s time and Jesus’ time. But can those things actually happen today? Let me tell you a story.

In 2010, a group of eight people from two churches felt called to the Detroit Boulevard neighborhood of Sacramento, California, which was known as one of the most notorious crime-ridden neighborhoods in all of Sacramento. Each house in the neighborhood was a place of danger. Nonetheless, this group of eight decided to walk through the neighborhood and pray over each home for the presence of Christ to reign over violence, addiction, and satanic oppression. As they walked, they prayed and rebuked the demonic strongholds of addiction and violence. One of the eight, a former Sacramento police officer and gang detective, Michael John, reported that each time they prayed, they felt the weight of oppression become lighter. When a woman from one of the houses discovered they were praying for the community, she confronted them and asked for healing, and God healed her. The group soon started what they called Detroit Life Church in the neighborhood.

A couple years later, a local newspaper, the Sacramento Bee, reported Detroit Boulevard had no homicides, robberies, or sex crimes and only one assault between 2013 and 2014. This neighborhood had been transformed by a small group of people who began their ministry by praying around houses, streets, and parks for the power of Satan to be vanquished. Kingdom prayer embodied is what it means to be faithfully present to His presence in this world.

When faced with overwhelming problems and odds, Nehemiah’s favorite position was the kneeling position. Then he got up and worked hard. May that also be said of us as individuals and as the Church of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Pastor Steve Kramer