Monday, December 31, 2007

--ADVENT/CHRISTMAS 2007 Index--

During Advent/Christmas of 2007, we looked at some of the struggles people face during the holidays, and sought direction from the Scripture for dealing with these struggles.

[click on individual sermon for link to streaming audio]


12-30-07 War of the Worlds (Matthew 8) - Quay Youngblood, preaching mp3

12-24-07 What Shall I Bring? (Psalm 40) mp3

12-23-07 Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:2-7) mp3

12-16-07 Family Stuff (Genesis 32, 33) mp3

12-09-07 Keeping Focused (Matthew 2:1-12) mp3

12-02-07 Good News (Luke 2:8-20) mp3

11-25-07 Live for the King (1 Timothy 6:11-19) mp3

11-11-07 Stewardship as Worship (Genesis 2:15-17; Joshua 22; 24) mp3

War of the Worlds (Matthew 8) - Quay Youngblood

December 30, 2007
Sermon by: Quay Youngblood
mp3 download

Several months ago, Cathy asked me if I believed in demonic possession. Quite frankly, I hadn’t really thought much about it. During the last semester sitting in a class on the Gospels, we spent some time discussing today’s text. Both occurrences left me considering the question more seriously and feel led to this text and this message today.

Demons and devils….things fantasies are made of. We’re inhabitants of a modern world, one that has explained away Biblical stories of people possessed as mental illness, hallucinogenic herbs and epilepsy.

Let me say right now, I am not about to recommend that we start doing exorcisms.

In the early 70’s, one of the big blockbuster movies was “The Exorcist”. The movie stirred a lot of talk about faith and whether the movie was based on a true story as the author claimed. Many of my friends who saw the movie saw correctly that the only way to avoid a confrontation with the devil was through the Jesus. That’s good. But I believe the movie actually did more damage than good because Satan and demons were reduced to sensational images of heads spinning around 360 degrees and spitting pea soup. Those who hadn’t already dismissed demon possession as a fantasy or a product of uneducated first century minds now had even more arguments to support their belief or should I say unbelief.

Before we go down this road any further, let’s look a little further at this morning’s text.

This is still very early in Jesus’ public ministry. The story is also found in Matthew 8 and Luke 8. The man runs out of the tombs to meet Jesus. He is uncontrollable. He cannot be bound or chained and is forced to live his life among the dead. He cries out day and night and cuts himself. At his point it’s easy to see why this may be nothing more than mental illness.

As Jesus approaches, the man runs toward Jesus and falls on his knees and cries out in a loud voice “What do you want with me Jesus, son of the most high God! Swear to God that you won’t torture me!” This is the first place that I believe shows that we are not dealing with simple mental illness. How does someone who is suffering from mental illness recognize Jesus for who he is? This demon recognizes who Jesus is before any of the disciples or other followers of Jesus does.

This is the third particular incident reported in Mark of Jesus having a confrontation with an evil spirit. It also says in many other places that he cast out many demons. In the first chapter of Mark the demon says “I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” Later in the chapter Jesus “wouldn’t let the demons speak because they knew who he was.” This is long before Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Christ and long before any other humans recognized Jesus for who He is. This wasn’t mental illness people. That’s an easy answer to explain something we just don’t understand.

There is a very interesting dialogue that follows between Jesus and the demon. The demon’s name is legion “for we are many.” A legion represents at least 6,000 men in the Roman army. Yet the demon speaks of himself in the singular. I think this is another part of the story that shows we can’t understand what goes on at this level.

And he or they beg Jesus not to send them out of the country but to send them into a herd of pigs that was feeding nearby. Here is another remarkable thing in this story that is easily overlooked. “Jesus gave them permission.” In the earlier stories in Mark, people marveled because “He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey Him.” In all three places this story is found, it is surrounded by the story of Jesus calming the sea and healing of a sick woman and raising of a dead woman. Jesus. At the end of the story of the calming of the sea, the disciples marveled “Who is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?” And in the very next story, even death itself obeys him. Jesus authority extends is over everything thing created either seen or unseen.

So the demons go into the pigs and they immediately go and throw themselves into the sea and are drowned.

They *came to Jesus and *observed the man who had been demon-possessed sitting down, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the "legion"; and they became frightened.

Why? You would think now that they would have been relieved. Was it because they were afraid of the owner of the swine? His herd was wiped out. I really don’t know why someone was raising a herd of swine in Israel anyway. Jesus also makes a very subtle statement here: the soul of one man is worth more than any man’s possessions. Nevertheless, some wealthy animal owner was now wiped out and the people of the region may have been very frightened of him.

I think what really frightened them though is the same thing that keeps us from talking about demons and devils. Its something that we can’t see and we don’t want anything to do with what we can’t see or explain or understand. It scares us. Just like the things that went bump in the night when we were small.

You would think that the people would have been ecstatic that Jesus had done this thing, that they would be grateful for Jesus healing this man. But they weren’t.

“And they began to implore Him to leave their region.”

What we are seeing here is a battle, a war if you will, on a plane we can’t see or adequately understand. It’s a battle in the realms above and below the earth. It’s invisible, therefore our 21st century minds don’t want to believe or even think that it goes on.

It’s spoken of throughout the Bible: starting in Genesis in the Garden of Eden. The entire book of Job deals exclusively with the battle between God and Satan. The war is talked about all through the New Testament In our second scripture lesson, Paul warns us of what we are up against:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.

Peter also recognized the issue in I Peter 5:8

Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.

In our Sunday school class Duncan Witte has done a marvelous job of setting the political and worldly conditions that brought about “the right time” for Jesus birth. What we don’t know is what was going on the heavenly realms that made it the right time.

I don’t think things have changed, only our mindset. Living in a scientific age makes us think we can explain everything in some sort of logical way, we can fix it mind set. So how are we doing?

“Hannah Montana Essay Winner a Fake’
“23 Killed in Suicide Bomb Attack in Iraq”
“Chaos, Violence Erupt in Pakistan”
“Police Work 5th Slaying in 6 Days”
“Cops Outline Gruesome Slaying”

And that’s just from one day’s paper. I don’t think mental illness covers it. And I don’t think we see entirely what’s going on. Ok, I am going to say it: any so called religion that tells people to strap explosives to themselves and kill innocent people does not come from God!

Ok, so the world has a problem with demons and devils but what does all of this mean for you and me? Are we possessed by demons? Probably not, but what is true is that everyday we face demons in our lives. They come in the form of greed, selfishness, hate, anger, little white lies. They show themselves when we casually take the Lord’s name in vain. In Galatians, it is described as the fruits of the flesh.

It’s also the spirit that tells us not to speak up when we have a chance to talk to someone about Jesus. Paul told Timothy that that is the spirit of timidity. “For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline.” If God didn’t give us the spirit of timidity, then the spirit had to come from somewhere else. It’s the same spirit that tells us we aren’t good enough for God. It’s the same spirit that drags up memories of past sins even though Jesus has forgiven us and erased those sins. It’s the same spirit that traps us into thinking once we have committed a sin there is no need trying to resist the temptation to do it again.

Warfare at this level confuses me. One minute I hear Jesus saying you are forgiven and calling me his beloved child and the next minute I hear the demons saying I am not worthy and can never be so why try. Instead of clinging to the promises of God I, like those town people would prefer that Jesus fight this war somewhere else. But in calmer moments I thank God He has taken up the battle on my behalf.

What a way to put a downer on the Christmas spirit! What a message to hear to start the new year! We have demons that have been around thousands of years, too crafty for us and full of all trickery and deceit, trying to destroy us. Where does that leave us?

I’ll tell you where it leaves us….right where we need to be. Jump back up to verse 6:

”Seeing Jesus from a distance, he ran up and bowed down before Him;

It leaves us falling at the feet of Jesus just like the possessed man in the story. There is no one but Jesus that can wage war on this plane. There is no one but Jesus who wages war with our best interest at heart. And there was no one but Jesus that thinks there is no price to great that should be paid for our very souls!!!!

The stakes are much higher than anything we know. The battle rages on in a place we can’t see. It is like trying to box a great fighter with a blind fold on. We have to have someone fight the battle who can really see what’s going on and has skills superior to the foe!

The good news is this: the outcome of this war is already known. It’s a fixed fight. Let me use a World War II analogy if I may. When the allies landed at Normandy on D-Day, Adolph Hitler knew that he had met foe he wasn’t going to be able to conquer. When Jesus emerged from 40 days in the wilderness, the devil knew that he had met one who wouldn’t submit.

At the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler knew it was only a matter of time before he would be defeated and the war would be over. At the cross, Satan knew that it’s only a matter of time before he would be defeated and this war was over.

Between the Battle of the Bulge and the end of the war, Hitler stepped up his efforts to exterminate the Jews, his enemies and those he felt were inferior. He called up armies of 12, 13 and 14 year olds and armies of elderly people to train for battle. In other words, he used every desperate measure he could to stave off the inevitable.

In these days we live in we are between the Battle of the Bulge, the Cross, and the final battle to end the war. Our foe is desperate and trying every trick he knows. He is constantly stepping up his efforts to try and avoid what he already knows is the inevitable. And just like many tried to do with Hitler, the worst thing we can do is ignore the enemy.

Paul tells us “Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil.” You heard a list of that armor read earlier and I would invite you to go back and re-read it. In the book of James we read “Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.”

Here’s a New Year’s resolution for you. Trust God to fight the battle for us. Don’t try to overcome the evil one on our own. Admit we have no hope of winning the war if we don’t follow the leader. Depend totally on Jesus and don’t ask him to leave when you need him most.

If you want to see how it ends read the nineteenth chapter of Revelation.

Maybe you still don’t believe in devils and demons but I do; not the kind that spits pea soup and turns its head in a circle, but the kind that encourages me to do things that are displeasing to God, better known as sin. I thank God that He has taken up the battle on my behalf. My prayer for the New Year is that I trust Him more and me less.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

What Shall I Bring? (Psalm 40)

December 24, 2007 (Christmas Eve)
Sermon by: Robert Austell
play/download

This Psalm may seem a strange choice for a Christmas sermon, but it fits well as a companion to the Christmas story passages you’ve heard tonight. See, it begins from the perspective of all those born before Christ – expectant waiting.

I waited patiently for the Lord… (v. 1).

And it ends with the recognition that God is “my help and my deliverer” (v. 17).

Whether it was nearly 3000 years ago when this Psalm was written, 2000 years ago when God’s people were longing for a Messiah-Deliverer, or today, when we continue to need God’s help and salvation in so many ways, this Psalm taps into Christmas hope.

By Christmas hope, I mean the hope that God can and has reached into the darkness and conflict of this world to offer light and peace.

We talked about that yesterday in church (and the sermons are online if you want a replay). The gist of that message was that God invites us to “come and see” Jesus and to “go and tell” that news to others. We talked about what faith is – a combination of believing and acting on that belief, like the decision to sit in these chairs, step on an elevator, or fly in a plane.

You’ll find this same message in the heart of this Psalm, in verses 6-10. There we read “my ears you have opened” and “Behold, I come” (v. 6). That’s the “come and see” part. And a few verses later we read, “I have proclaimed glad tidings,” “I will not restrain my lips,” and “I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation.” Those phrases are the “go and tell” part of Christian faith.

Both “come and see” and “go and tell” are essential if we are to know and experience God acting in and through us.

Tonight I’d like to highlight one more part of that equation. It answers the question of “What happens between come-and-see and go-and-tell?” Or, what else is there besides trusting Jesus and sharing Jesus? It begins to answer the question of “What shall I bring?”

In Psalm 40, it falls in the very middle of these middle verses. It is verse 8, which reads:

I delight to do your will, O my God; your Law is within my heart.

David, who wrote this Psalm, recognizes that tithes and offerings are not sufficient. Coming to church, writing a check, or even reading the Bible are not what God desires most of us. Repayment for the gift of Jesus is incomprehensible, though sometimes we operate in that mode. What God desires is our heart-felt obedience – our love.

Doing God’s will and having God’s Law (the scripture) within our hearts is serving and loving God with all that are and all we have. I have pointed to wedding vows as a starting place to begin to understand this relationship with God. The Christian life begins with belief and trust as we “come and see.” It involves sharing and caring as we “go and tell.” But throughout, God invites us to a personal relationship of love with Him.

In the well-known poem and Christmas song, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” lyricist Christina Rossetti captures this reality:

What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him — Give my heart.


This is also the theme of “The Little Drummer Boy,” which you will hear in just a moment. In it, a boy who considers himself poor, with no gift to offer Jesus, offers his one talent, his drumming, to Jesus.

This is not a spectator-sport church. I do not believe any church is supposed to be that. Christianity is a hands-on activity. If you want to explore how you might serve God in this place, please talk to me. The last thing church should be is watching other people be spiritual for you. Come, join in. If we’re not already doing something that will use your gifts or interests, we’ll start it. In just the last year, we’ve had people begin serving God by playing the drums, water-coloring, taking photographs, teaching yoga in a Christian context, doing landscaping, offering financial counseling, organizing a Girl Scout Daisy Troup, and many, many more. I’m serious about this! In fact, I dare you to show me that you have nothing to bring God.

I recognize that there are some here tonight who only know God at a distance. I recognize that there are some here who come to church often, but who may not understand what exactly God wants of you. I recognize that there are many who think, “I don’t have anything to offer God.”

Listen, this is God’s invitation to you, made through Jesus, God’s light and peace born into our world:

Come and see this Jesus; check him out; listen to Him; believe in Him.

His invitation is, “Come, follow me.” God delights to enter into a loving relationship with you, using your gifts, talents, and even your weaknesses to magnify the light of His name.

If you know Him and are following Him, go and tell! Live out loud! Lift up Christ to the world around you.

Ponder these things as you listen to the words of “The Little Drummer Boy.” Ask yourself the question, “What shall I bring?” Amen.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:2-7)

December 23, 2007
Sermon by: Robert Austell
play/download

What do you want for Christmas?

Are you a long-list-to-cover-your-bases kind of Christmas lister or an all-your-eggs-in-one-basket kind of person? My brother was the first kind, listing as many as twenty or thirty things. He never got it all, but he was sure to get several things on his list. I figured if all I ever mentioned was one big thing, and I gave no alternative smaller options, then my parents were bound to have to get the big thing.

We usually think of asking for the thing we want the most. What about what we need the most?


Illustrating Reality

The thing about needs and wants is that we usually can identify our wants pretty easily, but we can often be blind to our needs. Our emotions and appetites can drive our wants, and those things hover around the surface of our thoughts. But our needs run deeper. Yes, we can identify basic needs like food, water, air, and sleep. When we are in trouble, we can identify that we need help. But we often are blind to the solution, the particular form of help that we need.

Sometimes, it is helpful to see our need played out or described differently, through story or analogy.

God’s people, Israel, have a great need. They have turned away from God and do not realize the tragic significance of that decision. Isaiah has been warning of judgment, but his words fall on deaf ears. This passage holds out hope for what could be, if only they would see their great need.

The first illustration of their reality is in terms of darkness and light. They are “the people who walk in darkness” (v. 2). What do they most need? It is to see God’s “great light.” Unfortunately, at this point in their history, Israel did not seem to recognize that they were stumbling around in the darkness.

The second illustration of their reality was far more literal and immediate. They were at war, with the great Assyrian Empire pressing in on them. They would have understood the needs described in verses 4-5 well, because they had literal oppressors and battles to fight. I wonder, though, if they saw the spiritual realities behind these struggles. Isaiah certainly made the connection many times. Israel had effectively declared themselves enemies with God and what they really needed was peace with God.

A third illustration in this passage is for us. It is the story of the Israelite people and the way they illustrate our own relationship with God. While their immediate struggle was with a foreign military power, their deeper struggle was with God, Himself. If we can recognize our own story in theirs, we will see that this whole passage is God’s Word to us this morning.

We are the people who walk in a dark world. In fact, ever since the original sin, the ‘lights’ have gone off. It is only the light of God’s Word and face that shines any light into our world. That’s the story of the Bible – that the human race lives in darkness. We are not intrinsically good; we are not morally innocent; we are born into darkness, separated from God.

Even more than that, each of us replicates our first parents’ original sin as we disobey and rebel against God. Who among us has not lied, cheated, stolen, or even killed in some direct or indirect way? Even more significantly, we frequently break the first several of the Ten Commandments when we serve ourselves over serving God. While it may sound over-dramatic, it is not a stretch to say that because of sin humanity is at war with God.

We may not realize our own greatest need, but it is laid out before us in this Bible passage in the life of Israel. We live in darkness and are at war with God.


The Power and the Promise

The great hope held out in this passage is not that we will somehow stumble into the light or negotiate our way into some kind of peace, but that God will save or rescue us. God will give us what we need.

For one thing, God is powerful. The ‘child’ identified in verse 6 is the same Immanuel from an earlier chapter. Immanuel means “God with us.” Thus, it is God being described with these names. God is “Wonderful Counselor” – He is on our side, working on our behalf. God is “Mighty God” – strong and powerful, able to accomplish His will perfectly. God is “Eternal Father” – forever and infinite, yet personal and loving as a father. And God is “Prince of Peace” – the personal and present ruling One who brings peace at last to a people fundamentally at war with Him.

If anyone can and will accomplish a peace that will last, it will be this great, strong, and eternal God who is on our side, who calls us family, and who has promised to come save us.

This promise is ancient – made by God even in the moments after Adam and Eve disobeyed for the first time. God continued to promise salvation, to Abraham and later to King David. It is this ancient promise that is held out as hope in this passage in Isaiah, that a child will be born to “sit on the throne of David” and restore peace.

That God can and will bring this peace is affirmed in verse 8, “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.” Zeal is what I would call a “first commandment word.” The first commandment says, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). That is God’s zeal speaking. There is only God; there is no other power, no other force, no other ruler, no other deity; there is God alone, worthy of all worship, glory, and honor.

Who could do all that is promised here? God alone!

The Lord of Hosts” is an ancient name for God. It signifies not only the power of God in and of Himself; it also signifies that all the company of Heaven and earth stand behind God in support. All the angels, all of creation, all that is… serve the Lord. Nothing can stand against the will of God. That is the basis for the encouraging words of Romans 8:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (vv. 38-39)

… neither debt, nor doubt, nor cancer, nor age, nor weakness, nor frailty, nor any other thing you can name…

What can hinder or thwart the promised peace of God? Nothing!


Peace for Us

All those who believed and trusted God before the birth of Christ lived in expectant hope that God would one day do what He had promised.

The Good News of Christmas is that 2000 years ago God did just that – He was born into the world to keep His ancient promise and accomplish what only He could do.

All those who believe and trust God since the birth of Christ look back on a promise fulfilled. Yet, there are still those who have not heard and have not believed. And we still have moments – perhaps even long months – where we do not recognize that God has given us what we need most.

God’s peace means two things for us as we hear about it today.

One is that if you are “walking in darkness” there is hope. Whether darkness for you is unbelief, depression, doubt, or any other kind of darkness, there is hope. I know… I know how trite it sounds for me to say, “Just trust in Jesus.” But that is the source of our hope.

How do you trust Jesus? It is a matter of choosing to believe and trust that God has done in Jesus what He has promised to do. And then it is a matter of acting on that trust in the way we live. It’s like the chairs you sit on (but much better). We believe that they will support us. Trust, or faith, is acting on that belief… actually sitting on them. The details of how to do that with God are spelled out in the teachings of Jesus – and in the rest of the Bible. The encouragement and support are around you, in the Church – the family of God. And the power to make it so is in the Almighty God and Father, who loves you and offers you His peace.

The second implication of God’s peace is for those who have believed and trusted in Jesus Christ. If the Bible is true, then we are surrounded by people who live in darkness and who are at war with God. And we have the news about Jesus. This is why we have used the analogy of a lighthouse and searchlight to describe our church and our mission. It is imperative that we show Jesus to those around us.

God’s peace means two things for us. It invites us to come and see, to know the peace of God personally through belief and trust in Jesus Christ. And it challenges us to go out and share that peace with others.

Come and see; go and tell. That is our call and response.

May you trust in the Prince of Peace and know the peace of God this day and this Christmas season. Amen.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Family Stuff (Genesis 32, 33)

December 16, 2007
Sermon by: Robert Austell
play/download

Family – what comes to mind when I say that word? Is it a warm fire, reading books, going camping, hugs, and good feelings? Do you think of those things and say, “I wish?”

For many, many, family does not connote warmth or good feelings at all. Instead, you think of hurt feelings, broken relationships, mistrust, and fear. Christmas may be a time where family is absent by choice, and you feel the weight of that. Or, Christmas may be a time of meeting at someone’s house in spite of the broken relationships.

This is such a huge topic and there is no way to address all the variations and dilemmas raised. But I can point you to this story in Genesis as one example of how God would work through and in a broken family relationship and restore some peace and grace.


What Does God Want You to Do?

Let me start with the question, “What does God want you to do?” This is the pivotal question in this passage in Genesis and it is the one for us as well. And I don’t think there is one answer to that. There is a more cohesive answer to HOW God wants us to do it, and that’s what we’ll focus on. But WHAT…?

In Genesis 32:9, we read what God said to Jacob, “Return to your country and to your relatives, and I will prosper you.” That’s what God wanted Jacob to do – to go home. That may be the case for you, it may not. Some of you may need to “return home”; some, in the case of abuse, might need to flee! But even returning, you may be called on to confront, to reconcile, to speak truth, to speak peace. Without sitting down with each one of you, it’s hard to say exactly. But my guess is that you have some idea of what God would have you do. The real problem is in how to do it!

That was certainly the case with Jacob. He didn’t have any trouble understanding God’s instructions. It’s just that he didn’t know how his brother, Esau, would receive him.


Our Plans

Jacob was scared. Basically, he had tricked Esau into selling him the family blessing for a bowl of stew and then fled. Jacob was the one in the wrong and he knew that Esau had every reason in the world to be angry at him – even to desire revenge. Don’t let the fact that you may think the other person is wrong disconnect you from this story. We still must start with the question, “What does God want me to do?”

As far as the HOW, Jacob began with a mistake. He began without God in mind and began making his own plans and contingencies for meeting Esau. Verses 7-8 in chapter 32 describe this:

…Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed; and he divided the people who were with him, and the flocks and the herds and the camels, into two companies; for he said, “If Esau comes to the one company and attacks it, then the company which is left will escape.”


He goes on, after the first passage we heard, to try to bribe Esau with multiple gifts of livestock.

How like me this is! I understand what God wants me to do, but then I’ll do everything humanly possible to avoid failure, whether that is putting others on the chopping block ahead of me or trying to bribe others good pleasure. I can just imagine the Christmas scenario. I buy my brother an extra big present – really extravagant – hoping he will overlook the thing that came between us last year. Is that really any way to achieve true reconciliation and forgiveness? Is there really a gift sufficient for that?


God’s Plans

In the middle of making his own plans, Jacob seems to remember God (though he’ll turn around and continue on with the bribery after this). In Genesis 32:11, he cries out to God in prayer, “Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, that he will come and attack me and the mothers with the children.” Well, ignoring that Jacob seems to even be trying to play on God’s sympathy with the mothers and the children thing (remember, Jacob put them out front), Jacob is doing the right thing here by calling out to God for help. He cries out, “Deliver me!”… “Save me!”… “Help me!”

That’s the right starting place… praying hard for God’s help and trusting in God’s promises. It doesn’t offend God to pray His promises out loud – that is a time-honored tradition in biblical prayers. Listen to Jacob in verse 12:

For you said, “I will surely prosper you and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which is too great to be numbered.”

Jacob is clinging to the great covenant promise made to his grandfather, Abraham. How will God keep the promise about descendants if Esau wipes out Jacob and his family?

God desires the best for our families as well. God has created the family and spoken His Word so that we might live together in peace and as a shining light to the world. It’s hard to do that if we’ve stopped speaking to someone.

I think the key to HOW to be with family when there is no peace is to pray for God’s will to be done. Ask God for help, not once, but every time. Ask God to glorify Himself through you and your extended family. Are there family members who do not know God? I can’t think of any prayer God would rather hear than for you to pray for their salvation.


Seeing the Face of God

Family conflict is not easily healed. These are, after all, the people closest to you and therefore capable of the most hurt and disappointment. Once that has happened, it is extraordinarily hard to overcome. Certainly bribery, avoidance, or dodging the issues rarely helps, especially in the long run. If God is God at all, He is the one with hope for our broken relationships.

Listen to the end of the story of Jacob’s encounter with Esau. This is not to say that God will magically fix every family conflict in this room today, but it does describe the nature of the healing God brought to Jacob and Esau’s relationship. You heard and can re-read all the details. Esau has not suffered as one might have thought after the taking of the birthright. Being apart from him, Jacob could only imagine how his life had been. Sometimes, we labor under false expectations.

But here’s the key part – it’s in Genesis 33:10.

…I see your face as one sees the face of God…

Through his obedience in coming to face Esau, even if given reluctantly, Jacob listened and obeyed what God wanted him to do.

Through his prayers, even in the midst of trying a few of his own techniques, Jacob sought God’s help and strength.

And coming into the situation, Jacob was able to see God in the middle of it… in his brother’s face.

That’s the key point. God may or may not “solve” the dilemma. The other person may or may not be receptive to God working. But if we obey God and seek God, He will be faithful to show up in a way that is at least visible to you. And that’s a huge thing!

Think about your upcoming holiday. Who will you see? Who may God want you to see? What do you think God wants you to do? Do you need to just show up when you could stay away? Do you need to speak a word of truth? Of peace? Of forgiveness?

Your story may vary from the details of this story, but I believe the heart of this story shows the heart of God, which does not change. If we listen, obey, and follow, God will show up, lead us, and bless us.

May God give us ears to hear as we listen for His direction. Amen.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Keeping Focused (Matthew 2:1-12)

December 9, 2007
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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Do you remember first learning to hit a baseball? Or a tennis ball?

I do; I was a young boy. In both instances, my coaches instructed me, “Keep your eye on the ball.” It took more than one embarrassing whiff swinging and missing for me to take that lesson to heart. But it’s true; you have a much better chance of hitting a ball if you are looking at it!

I remember a second thing, though. It was the realization I made when I first started wearing contacts in sixth grade. I couldn’t see out the side of my glasses. Everything in my peripheral vision was fuzzy. And even head-on, if I moved my head, everything in my field of vision shifted with my glasses. I didn’t know that was not normal until I put on contacts and that all went away. Keeping my eye on the ball wasn’t enough; I also needed to see clearly!

These are the lessons of the Wise Men for us as we move through another Christmas season, and indeed, through life itself. How do we keep the right priorities, de-stress, and get the right perspective on God, self, and the swirl of life all around us?

The Wise Men show us. We must look in the right place – that is, keep our eye on the ball. And we must look through the “right lens” in order to see clearly.


Looking in the Right Place

What is Christmas about anyway? Is it shopping? Is it finding a Nintendo Wii for your child or grandchild? Is it fighting traffic? Is it family togetherness? Is it stress? Is it sorrow? Is it “Joy to the World?”

I think again of standing up to bat. There’s close and there’s not close. There’s striking out and there is hitting it out of the park. Some of those things are related to Christmas. Some are close; others are not. Some, like shopping, can be somewhat related, but can also be as far off the mark as holding the bat backwards and facing the wrong direction.

I think we all have been around long enough to know that Christmas is not about those things. It’s almost cliché to say so. We know it is about baby Jesus, right? And yet, like the kid stepping up to bat, I know why I’m there and what I’m supposed to do, but I still take my eye off the ball!

Look at the text. The Jewish people had been looking for the Messiah for hundreds of years. They knew the prophecies; they were full of expectation. When Herod called the chief priests and scribes together, they knew exactly what God had promised, right down to the town of Bethlehem! But did they know Jesus had been born? No, it was out-of-towners who had their eye on the ball. They saw God’s sign in the heavens. They came for one purpose only; to find and pay homage to this new King.

The Jewish people had been waiting too long. They got distracted. Think about it; how well would you do if you had to wait an hour between pitches? Would you see it coming? I’d probably be sitting on the bat.

It’s not like Jesus is coming into the world THIS Christmas. We’re just celebrating that he did, right? As long as I get lined up and into place by Christmas morning… or maybe Christmas Eve if I can find a nice church service somewhere. As the Jewish people had, we’ve lost the attentiveness of standing at the ready, waiting for God to act.

But that is exactly the news of Christmas. Not just that an important birth occurred, but that God is with us… Immanuel. With Jesus’ birth, God stepped into the world in a new way and things have never been the same. Even with Jesus returned to Heaven, the Holy Spirit he left among us changes everything.

We must stand ready for God to act, because God does act and is continuing to work among us. We must keep our eye on the ball, lest we be snoozing or looking around or turned around backwards when God acts. How come we never see God at work? Maybe we’re not looking at the right time!

Keep your eye on the ball. Look in the right place. That’s lesson #1 from the Wise Men.


Looking Through the Right Lens

The second lesson is one of seeing clearly. When I got contacts, I realized how compromised my vision had been in sports for years.

Herod knew intuitively that these Magi were on the right track. They were seeing something clearly, because it led them many miles to bring them into Jerusalem. Yet even they were able to fine-tune their vision. After all, following a star seems like a tricky thing… how exactly does it lead you somewhere? They probably came to Jerusalem because it was the capital city. Where else would a king be born?

But they took the prophecy of the Scribes and Pharisees and followed it to Bethlehem. The Word of God clarified their vision and helped them see more clearly. Why didn’t the Jews use that Word? They didn’t even have their eye on the ball. But the Magi were looking hard. And that Word was the right lens with which to see.

I can think of all kinds of ‘lenses’ we look through.

There is the lens of culture – with all the holiday hoopla.

There is the lens of personal grief that can cloud everything.

There is the lens of secularism, that makes Christmas a grand vacation rather than a holy event.

There is the lens of expectation – from presents to family gatherings to church attendance and work parties.

But what does the lens of God’s Word tell us? It tells us that on this unique day in history God stepped into the world. It tells us that God acted out of love, for our sake. It tells us that this baby was also the Rescuer of the World, and our only hope of having life and hope.

That Word of God is the focusing lens that, if our eye is on the ball, causes us to zero right in on what Christmas is about. It is about God coming to visit you (and me), to make peace, and to show His love.


On Keeping Focused

The last part of the story is also significant. It doesn’t end with the Magi finding Jesus. It ends with them seeing clearly enough to go home another way and avoid Herod.

Keeping our eye on the ball and seeing clearly has an additional beneficial effect. It helps us block out distraction. If I am focused on the ball and see it clearly, I won’t stop and look at the kids shouting on the other team. I won’t look up at the bird flying overhead. I won’t stare at my untied shoe. It’s all about the ball, the pitch and the swing.

Likewise, if we keep our eyes and hearts focused in the right place and if we see Jesus clearly through the lens of scripture, then it will help put all the other stuff in perspective. I will still shop, but it won’t monopolize my month. I will still grieve, but it won’t overshadow God’s act and God’s presence here now. I will still meet obligations of family and work, but remember my sending by God as a missionary into my spheres of influence. I don’t have to regress to my family “little brother” role, but am God’s child sent back among my family for a weekend or a dinner.

Keep your eye on the ball; focus and see clearly.

I never was a great baseball player, but I figured out those two things, and they made a great deal of difference! Amen.


Monday, December 3, 2007

Good News (Luke 2:8-20)

December 2, 2007
Sermon by: Robert Austell


The audio version of this mini-sermon was even shorter (about 8 min.) and somewhat different. Our choir was doing their Christmas Cantata with a jazz trio, and I ended up playing off an illustration in the front of the Donald Miller book, "Blue Like Jazz" - about how sometimes to understand something you have to see someone who loves it. All that to say - listen to the audio!

Here's a snipit of the Rick Bean jazz trio!


Good News

In this morning’s reading, we heard about angels bringing a message of “Good News” to some shepherds living 2000 years ago. Using the message they presented, I’d like to talk to you this morning about THE story of salvation in Jesus Christ, as described in the Bible. Following that I’d like to invite you to consider your own faith story and what you will do with the Good News God has spoken this morning.

Good News of Great Joy

Angels from Heaven appeared to declare the “Good News” of the birth of Jesus. This is the basic Christian story, the story of God’s love, and cause for celebration or joy. I’d like to look with you at what the angels announced and what the Bible passes on to us as “Good News.”

Let me say all of it together first, and then unpack it for you. The Good News for the whole world is this: God caused a Savior (a Deliverer or Rescuer) to be born into the world to bring peace with God and to make things right with God.

“I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people… today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

That’s the Christmas story in a nutshell. It has everything to do with the birth of Jesus Christ, and it is a gift from God to the whole world. Jesus is not only a Savior or a Deliverer; he is also the Christ – the chosen one of God.

Why is that important? It’s crucial because human beings have an insurmountable problem when it comes to God and life and health and hope. We are separated from God and we can’t make things right. It was necessary for God to act to answer our dilemma, and He did so by sending us a Deliverer, a Rescuer, a Savior. He caused Jesus to be born into the world in order that we might have someone to save us and make things right.

The angels go on to describe what will happen when Jesus makes things right with God. There will be peace between God and us. And God’s pleasure or favor will rest upon Jesus and those he saves. That’s what the sentence means: On earth peace among men with whom He is pleased. Because God is perfectly pleased with His Son, Jesus, and because things are ultimately right between Heavenly Father and Son, those who trust in Jesus and follow him share in this peace and ‘rightness’. We become part of God’s family.

Testimony

Listen to the Shepherd’s testimony – their story. Confronted with this news… the Good News of God’s rescue and salvation available for all people, the shepherds chose to act in faith. They said to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” In other words, having heard the basic Christian story, they said, “Let’s check it out!”

The very next verse describes their attitude – they “came in a hurry and found… the baby.” Having decided to act in faith and respond to the message, they went straight away and without delay. You may have heard evangelists and preachers say, “Now is the time.” That’s what the shepherds demonstrated. No procrastination, no delay, no wandering around to seek alternate plans – they heard the message and went directly to see what it was about.

Finally, having found the baby and having believed that the message was true, they “made known the statement which had been told them…” and they “went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen…”

They did not just hear the message; they checked it out and made a faith-based decision to trust God’s promise. And then they made known what God had done in their lives – they shared their story.

What About You?

That’s as complex as I want to make it this morning. The basic Christmas and Christian message is this: God loves you and has given Jesus Christ as the way to be right with God. God invites each person to come and see, to come and believe, to come and follow. The Bible says “the Word is near you.” This morning, the Word or message of God’s love for you has been described. It is near you! The Bible goes on to promise that “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” That’s it – profess or declare your faith and then act on a heartfelt commitment and desire to follow and obey Jesus Christ.

We’ve heard how this worked in the shepherds’ lives. And we’ve heard the basic message of how God has invited each person to believe and be saved.

What about you? Have you believed? Do you believe? Will you believe? Have you committed yourself and your life to Jesus Christ? If not, having heard the message and the promise, will you? What will your story be? I’d like to hear it, if you’d tell me. Please pray with me…