Sunday, April 26, 2009

Riches, Talents, and Homework (James 5.1-6, Matthew 25.14-30)

April 26, 2009
Sermon by: Robert Austell
download (click, then choose "save to disk" for playback on computer or iPod, or play sermon live in this window below - works in Firefox; IE users will have to use this last.fm link to hear streaming audio)

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**
Today we are going to finish the series on James, looking at the first part of James 5 that you heard as the call to worship. The main themes are riches and wealth and the faithful use of them. This continues James relentless charge to link faith and life together as two inseparable sides of the same coin.

Today is also my last Sunday before the sabbatical starts, so today’s sermon is going to be a little different. I want to end with something very different and what might be seen as a kind of scripture-driven homework assignment until I see you again.

Let’s look first at James 5.

Investment of Wealth (James 5)

I imagine using this as the call to worship made you squirm a little – it did me! James really lays into the rich, “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you.” And he goes on from there. But he doesn’t come down on the rich as rich, but on their wasteful use of time, treasure, and human resources.

Really, this chapter follows closely on what has come before it. When James accuses the rich of leading a life of “wanton pleasure” (v. 5), he calls back directly to chapter 4, which we discussed last week. There, the pursuit of worldly pleasure was the source of trouble – of conflicts and chaos. And that pursuit tied back to themes of chapter 3 regarding the “source” of life and hope – either the pure water of God or the contaminated water of the stuff of this world. James’ sermons, which are already pretty practical, are moving entirely out of the theoretical and landing hard on the head of those who have pursued riches and taken advantage of others to do so.

So here, in this opening half of chapter five, James fully plays out the foolishness of the pursuit of worldly wealth and pleasure. While those things may satisfy for a time, they do not last. And worse than that, they will betray you in the life to come. That’s really the bottom line here. Earthly wealth doesn’t just rot, become moth-eaten, and rust. But if that is your security and salvation, it will betray you – James says, “It will consume your flesh like fire.”

Wealth itself is not the issue, but where it came from and what you are using it for. And that leads us to the parable of the talents.

Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25)

We have looked at this parable before in the past two years – once from Matthew and once from Luke. We are not going to look at it in-depth today, but are simply using it as an illustration of the main idea in James 5. That idea is the question of wealth – where it comes from and how we use it.

In the parable, a man goes away on a journey and entrusts his servants with different amounts of money. While he is gone, two do business with the money and multiply it; one does nothing, hiding the money in a hole, and returns what he was given. When the master returns, those who multiplied the money are praised for their faithfulness with a few things and are given more responsibility. The one who buried the money and gave it back was judged harshly by the master.

Now in this parable, Jesus is describing the suddenness of the coming of the Kingdom of God. In everyday language, this means that getting right with God and living right by God are not something to put off until adulthood, or once you start a family, or in your old age; rather, the time is now!

Jesus is also illustrating what faithfulness and obedience look like lived out in one’s life. And that’s the whole point of James! When James and Jesus both raise the issue of wealth – where it comes from and how we use it – they are raising James’ question of the source and the pure versus the contaminated streams influencing our lives.

We have looked at language in this parable and in the other version that cause us to extend the point of application beyond literal money, to include time and talents (meaning gifts and abilities). The point is the acknowledging that it all comes from God and we should use life, health, resources, time, and talents to serve God. And that hearkens back to the deep meaning of worship that we studied all January and February. It’s all connected!

Some Homework

So that brings me to the part that’s really different today. As a way of illustrating the same point James teaches and Jesus illustrates with the parable, I’d like to try an experiment. This is something I wanted to do at my last church, but a pastor friend did it and the paper wrote it up, and it seemed like I’d just be following a fad.

Then I thought a year or two ago of doing it here, but a church down the street did it, and once again, I didn’t want the novelty to outweigh the meaning.

But now, the time seemed right. Let me ask the ushers to help me and I’ll explain… please leave the envelope sealed until the end of the service.

Now let me tell you what is in the envelope. I’d like you to leave them closed until after the service and congregational meeting. Maybe you can stick them in your Bible at Matthew 25 (or in your purse or pocket if you don’t have a Bible with you).

As you know by now, I am going away tomorrow on Sabbatical and will be gone for 12 weeks. Unlike the man in the parable, you do know when I am returning. It will be on July 27th (Monday), and I’ll be here in church again the first Sunday in August. So, no surprises there.

The prominent reason given for a Sabbatical is the rest, renewal, and revitalization of the pastor. And the Session and I (and hopefully you!) are praying for those things. I hope to come back a fully-charged, skinnier, pastor, with lots of creative output to show for my time away.

What most pastors in my place would dread is that the church would fall apart in my absence. But I have more confidence in you than that. I know how many of you are fully plugged in and that you not only are capable of carrying on ministry and mission in my absence, that’s what you already do well. That’s one of the growing edges for us, remember – that this not be a pastor-driven church, but one where every member has a ministry and mission. You already do that well enough that I can rest easy!

So, my minimal hope would be to return and find the church like I left it. And that’s what reminded me of this parable even as the text from James did. I think the Lord desires so much more from us individually – and thus collectively – than to simply take what He gives us, bury it safely in the ground, and return it just the same.

I believe these next 12 weeks are not just an opportunity for me, but an opportunity for you – to grow and stretch and be renewed and revitalized by the Holy Spirit.

So, call it an experiment, or homework, or an illustration of our Biblical text. Here’s what I’d like to ask you to do.

The envelope has money in it. And there is a sheet of paper with the parable of the talents on one half and a description of what to do on the other half. Let me read it to you; then I want to interact with you for a few minutes.

What if the parable of the talents happened to you? Let’s try it on a small scale. In the envelope you have been given an amount of money. On August 2, pastor robert will come back from Sabbatical and ask what you did with it. You don’t owe this money back to the church. You don’t owe this money back to God. It’s a gift, given to you… given to teach a lesson about God’s gifts to you. What will you do with it, knowing that it does represent a gift from God to you? Will you help someone? Will you give it away? Will you get together with others and do something you can’t do alone? Will you try to multiply it? Or use it to buy/create/produce/multiply something else? (Money is just a medium of exchange after all.) Be creative… or be analytical… as you use this money, engage your God-given talents and see what god would lead you to do.

And then… tell the story. Write it; ask Kathy to video it; share it briefly in church on August 2; even if you lose it or bury it, dare to tell us about it so we can learn something. And let’s see what happens…

That’s the assignment. Some of you will get a little; some of you will get a lot; a few may instead get something different. Really, the amount is beside the point. I’ve known people to do amazing things with only a few dollars or a few minutes or a small talent yielded fully to God. What I’m after is how you would use what’s in the envelope, knowing it is an out and out gift from God. How can you use it for God’s glory in some way?

I think that if you take the assignment seriously, you will be seriously challenged and changed by it. And then what will impact all of us will be for you to share what happened in some way. You can write an e-mail, note, or do any of the things I mentioned. You’ll have a copy of what I read to help remind you.

So, that’s it. Not only is this an opportunity to not just tread water while I am away, and not only do I think this will make the parable of the talents come alive for you, I also think it will illustrate the power of God working through and using each one of you in the way I so strongly believe He desires to work. Amen.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Friendship, Good and Bad (James 4, John 17.13-21)

April 19, 2009
Sermon by: Robert Austell
download (click, then choose "save to disk" for playback on computer or iPod, or play sermon live in this window below - works in Firefox; IE users will have to use this last.fm link to hear streaming audio)

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**
Today we are continuing in our study of James. Today we will look at a whole chapter, James 4. This chapter has a number of memorable verses and teachings. But particularly since we have been emphasizing at our Wednesday night “How to Read and Study the Bible” study the importance of reading individual verses in their larger context, I want to draw your attention to the broader theme flowing out of the previous chapter and running through this entire chapter.

So let’s review briefly since we were away from James for Easter Sunday. In the first half of chapter three, we talked about God as the source of wisdom, faith, and a faithful life. The master metaphor James lifted up was one of a stream of fresh water, which was God’s Spirit and Truth. Two key questions came from that metaphor and the first part of James 3.

First, Is God the pure source flowing in your life? In other words, do you believe in God through His Son, Jesus Christ, and trust Him with your life? And second, are you seeking ways to maximize the “pure water” in your life and minimize the pollution and contamination of sinful and worldly influences.

In the second half of James 3, we looked at that topic of influences and talked about how to discern, seek, and become godly influences, whether that be friends, teachers, coaches, or other significant relationships. One of the key features James noted for a godly influence is that the person or people would bring peace into your life. This, of course, is not telling you what you want to hear, but speaking words and providing encouragement and accountability for just what we talked about the previous week – increasing the pure water of God’s influence and reducing the pollution of ungodly influence.

I review all that because James 4 builds significantly on all those themes. Let’s look together at the text, for the link is right there in the first verse, and it is a question:

What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you?

In that one question, with the use of “source” and “quarrels and conflicts,” James recalls all of chapter three. Is the source the pure water of God’s influence or the polluting influence of worldly influence? And based on the evident lack of peace and James’ previous assertion that godly influences produce a peace that leads to righteousness, the question signals an exploration of the kind of ungodly influences that James has been warning against.

And that is exactly where James goes. The broader theme that I want to focus on with you, however, is the question of our relationship to those ungodly influences, sometimes referred to as “the world.” Said most simply, do we withdraw, sell out, or something else?

Friend of the World, in a bad sense

Let’s look first at what I would call the “sell out” solution. It doesn’t take much to figure out this isn’t the right answer. James makes a direct link between the quarrels and conflicts and the influence of worldly influence. Linking to the metaphor of the water source, he sequentially names influences and their consequence, whether figurative or literal. Listen, from verses 2-3…

Your pleasures… that wage war in your members
You lust and do not have… so you commit murder
You are envious and cannot obtain… so you fight and quarrel

Interestingly enough, and this may be pressing the metaphor, James uses salt water as the contaminated contrast to God’s fresh water in chapter three. And these examples reflect what would happen if you drank salt water. If you are thirsty, it looks like what you need, but it only leaves you thirstier and more wanting than before!

Finally, James says even more bluntly, “You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (v. 4)

I don’t think it could be stated any more plainly or directly than that. A friend of the world is an enemy of God. But hear clearly what is being said, for I do not want you to mistake a godly love for those all around us in this world with this phrase “friend of the world.” By “friend of the world,” James means someone who is drinking deeply or entirely from the contaminated or salt water of this world, of sin, of ungodly influence. He is continuing the imagery from chapter three. The questions are still, “Is God the source of faith, hope, and purpose in your life? Are you seeking God and godly influence in your life, or drinking from contaminated streams?”

Said another way, have you “sold out” to the ungodly influences of this world, or is your first allegiance and identity as one who believes in and follows Jesus Christ?

Friend of God

What is the alternative, then, to being a friend of the world in the wrong sense? Let’s look first at what James says, and then we’ll consider some of the answers Christians have tried over the ages.

In verses 5-6, James appeals to scriptural authority and teaching, saying first that God has purposefully placed His Spirit in the hearts of believers. More than that, God’s purpose in doing so is to demonstrate His grace and cause us to grow in humility.

In response to God’s action and purpose, James goes on to list a number of faithful human responses to God’s grace, contrasting the sequence of unfaithful responses at the beginning of the chapter. In contrast to that worldly source of quarrels and conflicts, now we have God’s Spirit, abiding in us as God’s purposed grace, as the source that results in the following:

Submission to God
Resisting the devil
Drawing near to God
Cleansing our hands
Purifying our hearts
Humbling ourselves in God’s presence

You might read verses 9-10 and think James is directly contradicting Scripture that elsewhere speaks of mourning being turned into rejoicing. Here he directs our laughter to be turned into mourning and our joy to gloom! (v. 9) Again, as we’ve studied on Wednesday nights, the context is crucial. He is directly contrasting the ungodly influences of verses 1-3, and the false laughter and joy of pursuing worldly things.

In other words, James is issuing a call to repentance for any whose source is the polluted or salt water of ungodly influences. As is most always the case, repentance involves humility, sorrow, and a kind of godly brokenness that recognizes how one has turned away from God in some way. That’s why all this is couched in the exhortations to “submit to God” and “draw near to God” (vv. 7-8).

So, a true friend of God is one who looks to God as the source of grace, hope, and purpose, through faith and trust in Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, at work in our lives.

Selling Out or Withdrawing


It’s not too hard to see that selling out or yielding to the ungodly influences of this world are not God’s desire for His followers. The hard question is “What is the alternative?”

One conclusion that many often draw is that Christians must withdraw from the ungodly influences of this world. It’s a kind of variation on the “you cannot serve two Masters teaching.”

The illustrations of this are many, and all around us. And before I start describing them, hear me now say that none of these are necessarily problematic or wrong taken alone – it is the cumulative and, in some cases, comprehensive application of the withdrawal strategy that I want you to ponder.

Just this past week at one of our girls’ soccer practices, Heather was talking to another parent about our enjoyment of the soccer league in which we participate. It is affiliated with Christ Covenant Presbyterian Church and the practices and games are notably marked by good sportsmanship, prayer, encouragement, and team devotions. Understanding it’s just a structure, we would nonetheless call it a “Christians soccer league.” Many of our families have participated in just such a league – either SOAR or CHAMP, or another; many others have also played in more competitive neighborhood and community leagues. Fine; that’s a family choice, no problem.

But that conversation at the soccer match then turned to other sisters and other activities. Our daughter, Abby, takes gymnastics at a local gym in Matthews. Well, the other woman didn’t know what she thought of that. Her daughters did Christian gymnastics at one place, Christian dance at another, and, of course, the Christian soccer we were watching.

Even that was an isolated conversation, but it was all too familiar, because I recognize a familiar pattern. We do those things and even as adults can go to Christian gyms and listen only to the Christian radio station. We spend all our time at church and soon, before you know it, we have nothing but Christian friends.

Why? Any one or two of those things are fine. Even all, if handled correctly, might be fine. After all, each might be a way to maximize the pure stream of godly influence in our life, and decrease the flow of polluting influence. But is God’s desire for us to withdraw from the world entirely?

James gives his own illustrations in verses 11-17. Let me focus on the one starting in verse 13, about engaging in business. These are verses that have been taken out of context in more than one way, missing the point in context altogether. He writes:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.”

Now the most common application of these verses that I run into are people who will never talk about the future without tacking on the words, “If the Lord wills.” It’s not that those words are in any way wrong to say, they just aren’t magic words that we’re supposed to wave over any future endeavor in order to satisfy this teaching of Scripture. The application is far richer than that.

I’ve also run into the interpretation that says these verses teach against engaging in business at all. Again, the impetus there is to withdraw into a Christian enclave so that we wouldn’t associate with worldly or ungodly influences at all. I’ll ask the question again: is it God’s desire for us to withdraw from the world entirely?

No, it is not. I’ll just say it flat out so you don’t miss it. It is not God’s desire for us to withdraw from the world!

The point in James’ example is to engage in business (if you are in business), but to do so in a godly way, rather than simply to look like every other businessman or woman in the world. Be distinct, be set apart; be set apart by God’s Word and Truth and Spirit.

As I’ll say often – we can take the best and truest of God’s teaching and distort it into something unrecognizable! Withdrawal is not the godly alternative to selling out to the world.

Let me give one more broad illustration. I have been reading lately about what is being called “The Big Sort.” It’s a kind of sociological observation (see www.thebigsort.com). The gist of it is related to the red state, blue state phenomenon, but is far more startling and comprehensive. The author looks at voting, religious preference, ethnicity, education, economics, and other factors at the county level across the nation, and the trend in almost every case is from a blended “melting pot” in these categories to an increasing withdrawal of like with like. There is much more that could be said there, but the point I want to make today is that evangelical Christians are participating whole-heartedly in the big sort, and baptizing the withdrawal into our all-Christian enclaves with Scriptural warrant where I don’t see any. In fact, this kind of withdrawal looks exactly like the American culture around us – our withdrawal is, in fact, a part of the world, not distinctly Christian behavior.

Let me say this again: it is not God’s desire for us to withdraw from the world!

Sent Into the World With Truth

Why can I say that so definitively? Listen again to our call to worship from the beginning of today’s service. It comes from Jesus’ prayer in John 17…

I do not ask you to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. (John 17:15-18)

And Jesus was praying, not just for his disciples, but for you and me – for all who would come to believe through the disciples’ teachings. Jesus’ prayer is entirely consistent with what James writes. Jesus declares that we are not of the world; but he prays for the Father to send us into the world, set apart (sanctified) by the Word and Spirit of truth.

So we are indeed to seek to maximize the pure water of God as source in our life. We are to minimize and resist and clean out the effects of ungodly pollution on our life. But we are not to withdraw! We are to resist the evil one and Jesus’ prayer is for the Father to guard and keep us from the evil one. We are to turn from sin and cleanse our hands and hearts on a regular basis. But we are supposed to get our hands dirty.

We are supposed to have friends who are not Christian – lots of them! We are supposed to leave our Christian enclaves and mix and mingle “out there.” We are supposed to be salt and light in the world, not a warehouse full of unused saltshakers and boxed light bulbs!

What about hot issues and thorny topics? While the exact strategy and words and tone will vary from situation to situation, I can tell you that we are supposed to be active, engaged, and plugged into the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. That is the commitment of our leadership and something of which I am convinced. We may be convinced of the Bible’s clarity on issues of morality and sexuality, but if we either give in to the world’s view or cut ourselves off from those struggling with those issues, we have missed God’s mission altogether.

This church is not a gathering place; it is a sending station. It is our charge to teach and preach the Truth so that you will be trained and set apart with that truth. It is our prayer that God guard and keep and defend you as you go, but the charge is the same one you have been hearing for several years now – go!

We know how to be a lighthouse – what to do when people seek out the church and seek out the Lord. But our great challenge and our great mission is to fully embrace our calling as a searchlight church – a sent church. God has given you all you need; Jesus has even prayed for that specific mission. Look again at James 4:15 – “As the Lord wills, we will live…” That is our prayer; that is our mission!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Eyes Open or Shut? (Matthew 27.62 - 28.15)

April 12, 2009 – Easter Sunday
Sermon by: Robert Austell

download (click, then choose "save to disk" for playback on computer or iPod, or play sermon live in this window below)

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

An earthquake, a glowing non-human entity, security guards unconscious as if dead, and a missing body… CSI, X-Files, or the very heart of the Biblical story?

You know, Easter Sunday in the church is an interesting phenomenon. It’s probably the most highly attended Sunday of the year – which thrills me! – and it’s the Sunday we let all the crazy out. I mean lots of people come around Christmastime, too, but that’s sweet baby Jesus, shepherds, and the manger. Even if you throw the Virgin birth into the mix… it’s not quite as fantastic sounding as what you get on Easter.

But here we are and I make no apologies for what we’re going to talk about. In fact, I will go much, much further and say not just that this is one of the fantastic and miraculous stories of the Bible; it is THE fantastic and miraculous story of the Bible. And each of us must confront that story in some way, even if that means dismissing it.

My goal this morning is to be clear about why it’s so important… what’s riding on this fantastic story. You may have come here with eyes shut to God for any number of reasons. My goal is to invite you to take a good hard look with eyes wide open. Yes, we’re letting all the crazy out; but I believe it is a “foolishness” (as the Bible calls it) worth believing and even worth staking one’s life upon.

Easter Morning (Matthew 28:1-10)

You heard the story just a few minutes ago. That Jesus was and is risen from the dead is the central claim of Christianity. Why is that so important?

Paul, who wrote much of the New Testament, said this about the Resurrection:

… if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:17-19)

In plain English, if Jesus died and wasn’t raised, then death beat him. That means at the least that death beats us. That’s all there is – this life, then you’re done. And that’s if you don’t buy the stuff about him being God. If he was God, then that means death beat God – and if God is God by any definition, He’s got to be bigger than death. So you’re really left with a short lifetime of seeking meaning in atheism or considering the claims of Scripture.

I understand the mental leap to believe in something like Resurrection and the miracles of the Bible. But really, they all pale beside the God question, right? If there is a God bigger than something you or I or some ancient fishermen cooked up, then that God is capable of all of this. That’s also what Paul means by “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless.” If God can’t beat death or didn’t after all the build up to it in the Bible; really, of what worth is faith?

What do I mean by “all the build up?” I mean the basic story of the Bible… that God created us in His image; we, like our first parents before us, disobey and fall short of what is right before God; and that is a problem so big no human can fix it. But God, from the moment of that first sin, promised to provide an answer – a “salvation.” And through Scripture, Law, prophets, and a people, God kept that promise through Jesus Christ. Resurrection isn’t just a fancy last miracle from a first century magician. It presumes the whole Biblical story of sin, consequence, atonement, and hope in life with God. That’s why it’s such a big deal and so central to Biblical faith.

Resurrection is also the basis for hope in something more than this life. That’s not just hope in something after this life, but hope for meaning and purpose in this life. I might say that another way, “Are we here for us or for God?” If God has an eternal purpose and plan for us, then there are implications for us here and now – how we live, what our goals are, the choices we make. If there is no Resurrection and no God, then that radically and fundamentally changes what we are doing here – and in an ominous direction.

Guarding Against the Miraculous (Matthew 27:62-66)

Now I want to focus briefly on two reasons we struggle against belief – against faith. The passages just before and just after the Easter story jumped out at me this year in a way they haven’t before.

You heard the story just a few minutes ago. I mentioned that there was a lot of build up to the story, and that build up was common knowledge in Jesus’ day and time. People were looking for God’s Savior, the Messiah. The common belief that the Messiah would be a political king became the pretext for arresting and executing Jesus. And that wasn’t enough. Those who wanted to defeat Jesus and keep him from having influence made sure that the grave was guarded and protected. Recalling Jesus’ promise to rise on the third day, the chief priests and Pharisees petitioned Pilate, the Prefect or administrator of the area, to station guards at the tomb. Pilate responded, “You have a guard; go, make it as secure as you know how.” And not only did they secure the grave with a guard, they set a seal on the stone at the grave entrance.

What kind of fear and partial belief must one have to go to such extreme measures to guard against a truth one doesn’t want to hear? Why did they not want to see Jesus risen? Was it fear of loss of power? Was it fear that their lives and beliefs would be turned on their heads?

Sometimes those same questions go through my mind when I meet someone who has just as diligently guarded against belief in God or something like the Resurrection. “Why,” I ask myself, “would someone be so set on disbelief in a God who loves them enough to battle death on their behalf?” And some of the same considerations come to mind. Maybe it is fear of loss of control; maybe it is fear of beliefs and behaviors turned upside down. Or maybe that guarding against belief comes from a distorted view of God at the hands of mistreatment, abuse, or a lie.

The thing is, our disbelief doesn’t have a lot of power. We are no more capable of shutting God down than the Roman guards were of keeping Jesus in the tomb. I mean if Death itself could not contain him, what are our guards going to do? Really, we have only about as much control and power over a real God as a toddler has the power to make you disappear by shutting his or her eyes. Remember that? If children are young enough, they think that if they can’t see you, you cease to exist. Negatively, that’s why a child can get so upset when mommy goes out of the room. Positively, that’s why peek-a-boo is so engaging and fun… they are simply amazed at someone winking in and out of existence!

I recognize that people have good and not-so-good reasons for not wanting to believe in God. But that doesn’t make God go away, nor does it limit the power of the Resurrection. Instead, the most it can do is lead to a kind of shutting our eyes to God, and convincing ourselves that He has disappeared.

Lying to Ourselves (Matthew 28:11-15)

In the passage right after the Resurrection, we return to the chief priests and Pharisees. Realizing that Jesus’ body is indeed gone, they now commit to weaving together a big lie. Bribing soldiers and spreading lies, they spread the story that the disciples stole the body. Matthew notes that the story continues to this day – and indeed, he is right.

And the rationalizing doesn’t have to stop there. You heard the story just a few minutes ago. There was an earthquake, a glowing non-human entity, security guards unconscious as if dead, and a missing body. You can well imagine what we can do with those details to shut our eyes to God. The earthquake made the rock split or move, perhaps even knocking out the guards. The glowing non-human entity was a hallucination of the hysterical women who found the tomb empty. The missing body – well, we already covered that.

Never mind that the authorities couldn’t produce the body. Never mind that the soldiers guarding the tomb had to be bribed to keep silent or perpetuate the lie. Never mind that it would be unthinkable for a few fishermen to overwhelm the soldiers – plus, the fisherman had scattered and were hiding for their lives. And never mind that a living Jesus appeared not just to a few women, but also to the disciples at a different time and place, and to hundreds over the next few weeks, producing multiple corroborating witnesses.

If you aren’t going to believe it, you aren’t going to believe it. It’s not a puzzle to figure out all the earthly explanations, it is a miracle of God. It’s supposed to defy belief… and inspire belief.

Are you looking with eyes wide open or are they scrunched tight, guarding against what it might mean - not just for the world, but for you - if it’s true?

What Could it Mean?

The chief priests and Pharisees were committed to not seeing God at work in Jesus. They guarded diligently against any possibility of God showing up, and then when He did, they started lying to themselves and others to keep their eyes closed.

The women went looking for Jesus. It’s startling to notice how many times in the Easter story that there is language of open eyes, seeing, or looking. Starting in verse 1, the two Mary’s came to LOOK at the grave. The APPEARANCE of the tomb, stone, and angel are described in detail. In verse 5, the angel notes that the women are LOOKING for Jesus’ body. The angel goes on to say, “COME, SEE the place where he was lying.” In verse 7, the angel tells the women to carry a message to the disciples – they will SEE Jesus in Galilee. And they saw Jesus along the way and worshiped him. And then he told them in verse 10 that the disciples would SEE him in Galilee.

Later, Jesus would appear to disciples and other followers. Some would see him immediately and believe. Others, like Thomas, had doubts, but came to believe through earnestly seeking truth. Still others, like those on the road to Emmaus, didn’t see at first, but came to believe as they heard the Scriptures and God opened their eyes.

What is the big deal about Easter and Resurrection? The fundamental meaning of Easter Resurrection is that it testifies to a real and powerful God – one bigger and stronger than death, which would otherwise be the most powerful force we know in a godless universe. And it not only testifies to the existence of God, but to a purposeful and loving God, who has beat death, not just because He can, but for our sake, that we might know Him, love Him, and live with Him.

So yes, I understand that it is, well, miraculous… and thus hard to believe. That’s why it’s called faith. And that’s why real Christians look and sound just a little bit crazy – because they believe in Someone bigger than time and gravity, human imagination, and even death itself. Are there ways in which you have shut your eyes to God or tried to guard against acknowledging Him as God? The invitation of God through Easter Resurrection is to open your eyes, heart, mind, and spirit to what God has done and what God is doing. Will you?

If you will, commit to it between you and God – I’ll pray for that in a moment and your ‘Amen’ will mean “let it be so with me.” If you will commit to opening your eyes to God, I also urge you to tell someone today, whether that is me at the door, someone you came with, or someone you know will “get it.” I started by saying we were letting the crazy out; but in reality, this may be the sanest, wisest thing you’ll ever do. Amen.

Let us pray…




Monday, April 6, 2009

Discerning Godly Influences (James 3.13-18)

April 5, 2009
Sermon by: Robert Austell

download (click, then choose "save to disk" for playback on computer or iPod, or play sermon live in this window below)

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**
[text not available]