Thursday, December 31, 2009

What Now? (Luke 2:36-38)

Sermon by: Dan Isadore
December 27, 2009

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

What We Watch (Luke 2.1-20) - Christmas Eve message

Sermon by: Robert Austell
December 24, 2009 – Christmas Eve

(download)**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**
Shepherds were rough and rugged men who weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. They weren’t prissy or fancy or cleaned up for Sunday morning church; they were more like farmers who deal with livestock… except on the move. While some of them may have been religious and made periodic trips to the Temple, most were probably focused on the work at hand. They were solid working men, trying to take care of flock and family as they watched their sheep by night.

What do you watch? We’ve had a farmer or two among us. Several work construction and know what it is to get your hands dirty. Many of you with young kids spend your time watching your flock – not the same as sheep, but more than a few comparisons. J Others of you watch the stock market or other economic indicators. Others watch students or patients. Many watch friends and the culture to stay current and not get too out of step. Almost all of us watch hours of TV or Internet or movies or other entertainment.

And for most or all of us, actually seeing or hearing from God in the middle of our daily life seems unlikely, farfetched, and unrealistic.

Seeing and Hearing from God

In the shepherd’s story, their routine was interrupted by a message from God. While I am no shining angel, there is a real sense in which what happened to them is not unlike what could happen here any given Sunday. For many, I know Sunday morning or Christmas Eve night church can seem distant or irrelevant to the things you watch and do during the day. But my message any given Sunday is some variation on what the angel said: I bring you Good News of a Savior, born from God for your sake. The messenger is different, but the message is the same.

And then, the shepherds saw an amazing sight – the angels of Heaven praising God. Again, the heavenly host do not appear visibly on a Sunday morning or Christmas Eve night, but the children of God do gather to sing and declare the same praises to God.

I am not trying to take anything away from the amazing story in Luke 2. Rather, I’m trying to make a connection between that amazing story and what happens here on a regular basis. It’s on the wall as you come in, around the large picture display – we are ordinary people who gather to hear the Good News and worship an extraordinary God. Like the shepherds, every single person here is an ordinary person, with no special direct line to God. We simply believe that God is trying to get our attention and speak this message – this Christmas message – of a Savior born into our world. That is the Good News, not just in Bible times, but here and now.

Seeing This Thing

The shepherds decided to check it out – to “see this thing” that had happened. That’s the bottom-line challenge I’d give you tonight. Are you here to just go through the motions – hear some pretty music and get in the Christmas spirit – or are you willing to look closely at what is being proclaimed and worshiped? Whether you came for tradition, someone dragged you, out of curiosity, or deep faith – are you willing to see this thing of which the angels speak?

What is it? It is the angel’s news; it is the Good News. It is there in verses 10-11:
I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
Listen; check it out. Are you willing to see and hear this Good News? I bring you Good News – the best news, which is for anyone and everyone and is cause for real joy. Jesus Christ, first century Jew from Nazareth, is more than a historical figure; he is Savior and Lord, rescuer and God. When we gather here to worship – any given Sunday or tonight – it is not to simply go through some religious routines, but to celebrate God’s salvation and to worship and adore the God who pursues us in love to rescue us.

God’s extraordinary love and salvation is not for spiritual giants; it is for ordinary people – shepherds, construction workers, accountants, teachers, teenagers, moms, dads, grandparents, intellectuals, disabled, sick, well, discouraged, hopeful, hopeless… you… and me. Have you seen this thing that we call the Good News?

Change and What it Does to You

I’m tempted to end there, but there is one last piece to this story and it’s worth hearing, both for the challenge of it and in terms of full disclosure. The shepherds who went to see this thing came away changed. They went away full of the Good News story and themselves worshiping. This thing is contagious; it should be life-changing. If you claim to believe and are not full of the story and full of worship, then you need to see this thing again.

Most of those who encountered Jesus, including these shepherds, went back to what they were doing before. These shepherds went back to watching their sheep. But they were changed. They had seen God and were full of the Good News and were full of worship.

So I’m not going to lie and say that Jesus isn’t a big deal. I’m not going to encourage you to come check him out and say it won’t change your perspective or your choices or your life. Just the opposite! I urge you to come see this thing that God has done in Jesus because it is a big deal: it’s the biggest deal of all time. It should be life-changing. It should make you re-think everything. It should leave you full of amazement and worship.

Most likely, God won’t ask you to become a pastor, monk, or distant missionary. Most likely, God will send you back to your flocks – to the things and people you watch – and send you full of Good News and worship. If you have never experienced those things or seen firsthand this thing God has done, I offer this to you as the best Christmas gift you will ever receive.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Magnificat (Luke 1.46-55)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
December 20, 2009


(download)**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**
Today, the fourth Sunday in Advent, we are moving on from the Annunciation passage to another well-known passage in the first chapter of Luke. It is called the “Magnificat” from the Latin first word meaning “it praises.” This song or prayer of Mary’s took place in response to seeing her pregnant relative, Elizabeth. Having trusted the angel, whose message we considered the past three weeks, Mary believes God’s Word to her and Elizabeth declares her blessed for doing so.

We are moving forward from the questions of “Is God trying to get your attention? Is God trying to tell you something? And what is it that God would birth in your life for His glory?” Last week we looked at how Mary didn’t demand proof in the way of specifics or a miraculous sign, but trusted in God’s Word to her. That faith is manifest in today’s text as worship and as joy.

Worship and Joy

Mary’s song begins with worship and joy: “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.” Exalt is a worship word meaning praise or lift up as worthy. I talked last week about how demanding proof of God might address our curiosity, but often can choke out love and trust. Here the converse is demonstrated. Mary’s faith and obedience didn’t result in insecurity and doubt, but in soul-worship or heart-felt praise of God. This isn’t just going through the motions as a religious exercise, but a spontaneous and authentic expression of love for God. And it’s not just worship – lifting God up as worthy; it is also joy-filled, as Mary rejoices in her spirit over God’s salvation.

I highlight all this as the conclusion to what we’ve been talking about the past few weeks. The point of those questions about whether God is trying to get your attention, speak to you, or do something in your life is not to get you to do something for me or the church, but to grow in knowledge and love of God… to tune in to God in your life. Not only is that one good definition of worship, it also results in deep joy and real satisfaction, the kind we find ourselves pursuing without knowing it and the kind Mary demonstrates in her song.

It is worth noting that Mary does not focus for long on what God has done for her, but is drawn to the way God is faithful in all generations. As we have noted before, this is the difference between thinking about or praying to a Santa Claus Jesus and tuning in to a saving God who is at work in the world. God isn’t about me; I need to be about God!

Highs and Lows: the Language of Exaltation and Humility

Most of Mary’s song is spent describing what God has done. What jumps out at me are the “highs and lows” – that is, the language of exaltation and humility. I counted as many as twelve words or phrases that speak to position or perspective. God “has regard for the humble”; God has “scattered the proud”; and so on.

What emerges is this picture: God is high and exalted and worthy of our respect and worship. That’s who God is! Mary sets an example for us of how God is to be honored and adored. And not only does Mary lift God up in worship, she declares God mighty deeds. She sings of what God has done and will do. God’s justice and salvation will accomplish two things: exaltation of the humble and humbling of the exalted.

God will raise up those who are humble and turn to him in need. Mary begins by describing how God “had regard” for her own situation – the “humble state of His bondslave” (v. 48). She is marveling that God would choose someone so young and lowly as herself to give birth to the Messiah. But she moves past this “great thing” God has done for her to praise God for His faithfulness over the generations. God’s mighty deeds include mercy and compassion for “those who fear Him (v. 50)… those who were humble (v. 52)… the hungry (v. 53)… Israel His servant (v. 54).”

And yet God has justice for those who put themselves in His place to take advantage of others – the proud, the unjust rulers, the selfish rich. God will scatter those proud, bring down those rulers, and send away those rich empty-handed. This is a declaration of God’s judgment and justice, to be accomplished provisionally on earth and finally in Heaven.

Another way of tying all this together is to say that Mary’s song describes God as high and exalted, and we as His creatures. Both in God raising up the lowly and in God humbling the so-called mighty, God will be shown to be both merciful King and faithful God.

The Faithfulness of God

This song – the Magnificat – is not primarily about celebrating what God is doing for Mary. Rather, it starts out of amazement at this miracle and moves to Mary marveling at God’s faithfulness in human history, coming to an amazing and miraculous point in her own generation and life.

Mary punctuates and concludes her song with reminders of God’s faithfulness. In verse 50 she quotes Psalm 104 about God’s faithfulness from generation to generation… a phrase that will also figure prominently in the Pentecost outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Then, in verses 54-55, she remembers God’s covenant promise to Abraham, and acknowledges God’s faithfulness in fulfilling those promises through the birth of the Messiah.

Realize that Mary wasn’t living in a vacuum, but was of a generation of Jewish people who had grown up believing in and waiting for God to act. Particularly under the degree of persecution and struggle experienced within the Roman occupation of their country, the longing for the Messiah was keen indeed. Mary seemed to naturally and faithfully make the move from “What is God doing in me?” to “What is God doing around me?” And that’s the final move and question I want to make with you as we try to understand and apply these stories to our own lives.

What is God Doing around Me?

We started with these questions: Is God trying to get your attention, and what is He trying to say?

From there we moved to this one: What does God desire to bring about or birth in your life for His glory?

I asked these questions because these are the questions going on in the story of the angel, Mary, and the announced birth of Jesus. There is one more change of perspective and question, demonstrated by Mary in this song. It is the move from asking the question with a me-focus and asking it with a God-and-neighbor focus.

Mary recognized that God was trying to get her attention, was speaking to her, and did desire to do something in her life. But, accepting all that and putting herself in God’s hands, she realized that what God was doing was bigger than her life. Her focus shifted to what God was doing around her and how she could be a part and serve Him.

That’s the final move and question I want to make with you. If you have wrestled with God trying to get your attention and speak to you, and if you are willing to consider what it is that God would do in your life, I urge you to ask one more question: What is God doing around you and how can you serve Him there?

This is one way to understand the significance of Christmas: it is God’s premiere demonstration of “doing in the world.” With the birth of Jesus, God was not only fulfilling generations of promise, but definitively demonstrating that He is God with us and for us, a sovereign Creator with a deep love and interest in those He created.

The question, “What is God doing around you” is rooted in the Christmas demonstration that God is indeed at work in and for the world. How can you be a part of what God is doing around you and serve Him in and through your own life? That is a worthy Christmas question! Amen.



Postscript: in the actual [delivered] sermon, I also made an extended application point about experiencing God’s peace and joy in service… noting that it is when we turn from God, deafen ourselves to His voice, or strain against His will that we experience discontent at the deepest level. Though obedience to God’s will may seem daunting, frightening, or even impossible, there is no better or more blessed place to be than in the center of God’s will. In fact, the delivered sermon varied quite a bit from this manuscript. I invite you to listen to the audio on this post.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Nothing Will Be Impossible With God (Luke 1.34-38)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
December 13, 2009

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Today we are going to focus on verses 34-38, from Mary’s, “How can this be?” to the angel’s assertion, “Nothing will be impossible with God…” to Mary’s obedient and faithful response. This story is at the very heart of the Christmas story. It is not only the promise of the birth of Jesus, but the claim that God is a God of the miraculous, the seemingly impossible. And that’s not all, God offers Mary proof of the impossible – her relative, Elizabeth, who was old and unable to bear children is pregnant as a sign of God’s miraculous power.

This is a story to lose faith over. I know that sounds strange and provocative. I’m not saying you SHOULD lose faith from this story, I’m saying that this is the kind of Biblical story that is something that many people trip over. The Bible is full of the miraculous, of course, but this one is perhaps the most “in your face” of all of them. Somehow people can get around dealing with healings and walking on water and even resurrection, but pinning the Godhood of Jesus and the salvation of the human race on a divinely sanctioned virgin birth… that’s a biggie. We’ll look at that question with Mary, who asks, “How can this be?”

The second way people can lose faith over this story is by clinging inappropriately to the answer to that question. The angel answers, “Nothing will be impossible with God.” And we read that and get our hopes up and God seems to disappoint, and our hopes are dashed. We’ll also look at that frustrating and disillusioning thought as we look at Mary’s final response to the angel.

Finally, we’ll also look back at the questions from the past two weeks and see how they bear on the miraculous claims held up in this passage.

How Can This Be? (v. 34)

Mary asks, “How can this be?” How will she conceive a child when she’s never known a man? How could that baby possibly be the chosen one, the Messiah? How can the Messiah – the mighty warrior King – come as a baby? Her baby? And how in the world can it be that God chose HER to be the Savior’s mother? How can this be?

The angel gives three answers.

1. The specifics: the angel tells her what is going to happen… how it’s going to work. The Holy Spirit will “overshadow” Mary – in other words, the conception will be divine, miraculous, of God. For that reason, the child will be holy and called the Son of God. It’s not scientifically specific, but it’s specific enough to give Mary an idea of what will happen. In other words, it’s not proof, but it’s direction.

2. Proof by sign: the angel offers another miracle (also involving conception and birth) as a sign that God is at work. Elizabeth was past child-bearing age and had never been able to conceive. The angel offers Elizabeth’s miraculous conception as a sign to Mary of the assertion he makes next.

3. Declaration of truth: “nothing will be impossible with God.” Basically the angel says it can be because God stands behind it, and God can do anything.

Now here’s how that thinking can go…

Simply dealing with the declaration of truth is so hard. It requires such faith! God says it is so; the Bible says it is so; the Bible is from God. So much there to take on faith. Better to have some kind of sign.

Yes, a big sign, that’s what I need… something unmistakable. But that’s so subjective. Maybe an older woman who never could have a baby COULD have a baby. Is that really a miracle? That’s what I meant about all the other miracles in the Bible. Jesus did them as a sign of who he was and where he came from, but it can be easy to write many of them off. Maybe a sign won’t do it. Better to have more specific proof.

Yes, proof, that’s what I need. I need God to spell out what He wants and how it’s going to happen. Who should I marry? Where should I work? What should I do next? Some kind of angelic, personal text messaging – like a magic 8 ball. Funny that I might trust a magic 8 ball more than God’s Word… hmmm. We do so like specifics. And better yet, scientific proof – regarding creation, dinosaurs, miracles, even God’s existence. That’d do it. Except science is only good for what is natural, not what is supernatural. You can’t dissect a miracle. You can’t reduce God to a program or an experiment or a set of rules – that’s too small for a real God.

I’m not trying to trap you with all this. You know what? I get it. I understand just how hard it is to believe in, much less trust in God. My brain is not wired for the humanities; it is wired for math, programming, and science. But I see how unsatisfying the proof I would demand would be and is. It’s like telling your spouse you will only love them if they document where they are every hour of the day, whom they speak to, and what their intentions are. That doesn’t result in love, though it might satisfy curiosity. Love comes from trust extended – a kind of faith given and received. Likewise, requiring God to document His miraculous and infinite plans to our satisfaction may increasingly satisfy our curiosity, but is self-defeating in terms of faith, trust, and love. While Mary likely did not think in those terms, she heard the angel’s answer and trusted in God’s Word. She did not latch on to the specific explanation or the miraculous sign, but responded in faith to the declaration of truth that God could accomplish His Word in her life.

Nothing Will Be Impossible with God (v. 37)

Let’s consider that Word for a moment: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” I’d lift out two features of that sentence. One is that ‘nothing’ can also be translated ‘no word.’ In other words, no word or promise God makes will prove impossible for God to fulfill or keep. Whether ‘word’ or ‘thing’ the point is that God has the power to fulfill what He says He will do. Secondly, the tense is important: “nothing WILL BE impossible.” The angel isn’t just speaking of what God has done in the past or with Elizabeth, but what God WILL do with Mary. This is promise language, with God’s reputation on the line. And God will keep His Word.

I mention all this because I think this one-liner is another place people lose faith with God. We want a Santa Claus Jesus rather than a Son of God Jesus. We hear “nothing will be impossible with God” and break out our wish list. And the more we pin our hopes on God giving us what we want, the more our hope and faith is dashed when it doesn’t happen.

But listen, that’s not the promise here. Neither the angel nor God is saying, “I’ll give you whatever you ask because I can do anything.” Rather, the angel is saying that God can and will keep His Word to Mary. It is fair to extend that claim to us, “God can and will keep His Word to you”; but it is not fair or a good interpretation to turn that into a magic genie God who grants our wishes. The great truth of this verse is grounded in God’s Word and will.

May It Be Done to Me According to Your Word (v. 38)

That brings me to verse 38. Mary’s response is amazing for its depth of faith and wisdom. She doesn’t latch on to the specifics of what will happen or demand more details or proof. She doesn’t say (as others like Thomas), “When I see the miraculous sign, then I’ll believe.” She latches on to the angel’s final statement, the assertion of truth grounded in God’s Word and promise: “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” Not only is she responding, “Thy will be done,” but she is pledging herself as an obedient follower and servant to that Word and will.

That brings me full circle to the questions this text has raised the past two weeks. Those are what is referenced in today’s few verses. I believe that in order to make use of today’s text, each of us first has to answer those three questions, raised in the full text of verses 26-38. “Nothing is impossible with God” is not meant to send us to God like some kind of great cosmic Santa, but to examine God’s Word and our own lives to see what God is doing with us. So let me walk through these questions once more with all this in view.

Is God trying to get your attention? I believe the answer to this is always yes. Perhaps the more important underlying question is whether you are paying attention or want to be on God’s radar. We’ve talked in past weeks about some of the reasons we try to ignore God, but also the reasons to listen.

Is God trying to tell you something? I believe the answer to this is also always yes. The Bible stands as God’s lasting message to humanity… it’s always there and always has something to say. On top of that, I believe God also helps make specific application into our lives as we read, study, and listen to that Word. Again, the underlying question is whether you want to listen.

For some, the first two questions are the struggling point, and there is no shame in that. But do struggle; don’t write God off or turn your back on Him. Give God your attention and try to listen to what He’d say. It’s only in struggling that far that you can get to the question of purpose.

What does God desire to bring about or birth in your life for His glory? We talked about that last week with some specific examples. If you need to think through that again, grab a copy of the sermon when you leave or look or listen online at our website (on bulletin). What today’s text deals with is what to do once you have an answer to that question. What if God desires to birth a new ministry? Or relationship? Or act of faithfulness?

And what if your response is like Mary’s: “How can that be?” How can I possibly do this when I’m so messed up? How can I possibly change this in my life when I feel so dependent on it? How can it be? That’s impossible, God!

Listen to this Good News: nothing that God desires will be impossible for God to accomplish. That is the bottom line of today’s text. God may offer specifics for what He would do in your life, or He may not. God may offer you some kind of sign that He is at work, or He may not. But God always offers His Word in scripture and this promise that He can accomplish what he desires. In the case of God’s will for your life and mine, He invites our participation: to listen, respond, follow, and trust.

What I’m saying is that the promise that “nothing will be impossible with God” is not for our Santa Claus wish list, but for obediently pursuing God’s desire and purpose for our lives.

So I repeat the questions from these weeks:

Is God trying to get your attention?

Is God trying to say something to you?


What does God desire to bring about or birth in you for His glory?

Will you listen and respond in faith, submitting yourself to that desire that God might indeed bring about His glory in your life?

Sound impossible? It’s not!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

You Have Found Favor with God (Luke 1.30-33)

December 6, 2009
Sermon by: Robert Austell

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We are continuing today in the passage called the Annunciation. It is the story of God sending a messenger angel to tell Mary that she would give birth to the Messiah and Savior.

Last week we looked at the angel’s first words and Mary’s response of confusion and consideration. The two questions that came out those verses were these:

1. Is God trying to get your attention?

2. What is God trying to say to you?

We saw last week that part of God’s message to every person is, “I love you and I am with you.” That’s a lot to take in – to really take in – especially if God is getting your attention when you weren’t looking for it.

Today we are going to press further and see what the angel said next to Mary.

Do Not Fear

I noted last week that Mary “kept pondering” the angel’s greeting, but the angel kept talking. While Mary was rolling around in her head the question of “what does God want with me?” the angel went on to tell her. But first, the angel said what angels often say, “Do not fear.”

Why be afraid? I already noted that this was probably not one of those Hollywood angel moments with a dramatic entrance, fireworks, and sound effects. If Mary was going to be afraid, it was probably not over encountering a heavenly being, but over God wanting something with HER, and perhaps over a man coming to her home with a message from God.

Now that’s something I think we can relate to! What if the answers to last week’s questions are ‘yes’? What if God IS trying to get your attention? What if God IS trying to tell you something? And what if you weren’t looking for it? I can see how that might be a cause for fear or anxiety or discomfort. Many of us don’t especially want to be on God’s radar, especially if church is not a regular part of life, but even if it is… there’s kind of an unspoken strategy of not being TOO bad or TOO religious and hoping God never asks anything of you. It’s kind of the spiritual equivalent of looking at the floor when the teacher asks a question.

But look at the angel’s response. LISTEN to the angel’s response: “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God.” Don’t be afraid, God isn’t interested in you because He wants to smite you or turn you into a religious freak, but because He loves you. We talked last week about God’s favor and how it is a way of describing the fact that God created human beings, imprinted us with His image, and pursues us out of love, in spite of how we fall short. “Don’t be afraid,” the angel says, “because God is interested in you out of love for you.”

A Divine Birth-Plan

Now this is where God’s message to Mary becomes one-of-a-kind. God is going to do something amazing in Mary’s life and something amazing and unique in all of human history. God is going to make good on the angel’s words, “The Lord is with you.” God is going to make good on His promise, “I am with you.” Jesus is going to be born into the world as God-in-the-flesh, as the Word incarnate, to live and make His home with us as one of us and yet fully God.

The angel connected this news with the great prophecies of old, which Mary would have understood deeply. This was the great hope of her people, for generations past and for her contemporaries. The Messiah was to be born in her lifetime, and she would be His mother.

Interestingly, at this point Mary did not seem to be afraid any more. She had some technical and spiritual questions, which we’ll look at next week. She eventually came to not only to accept this news, but to embrace it in obedience (v. 38) and even in great joy (ch. 2). In two weeks, we’ll look at her great “Magnificat” – a song or prayer of celebration over this news.

What is God Birthing in You?

The point at which I’d like to make application is over the idea that God has a purpose for each of you. Another way of saying that is that God is “birthing” something in your life. It may be the earliest signs of faith. It may be a thirst for more knowledge of God or the Bible. It may be steps of obedience in following God’s teaching or Jesus’ example. It may be exploring how to use gifts and passions in service, in keeping with the idea that every Christian is a minister and every Christian is a missionary. God may be birthing a new faith-filled outlook on work, school, family, or community.

I think so many of us get stuck at the point of fear – over what God may say or want with us – that we miss the joy of hearing what it may be.

Don’t think I don’t understand the struggle and tension here. I think there are indeed great parallels to the illustration of a teacher and students. When you are in the 5th grade and the teacher asks the question, I understand the strong, strong compulsion to avert eyes and avoid being called upon. But I also understand the healthy perspective that the teacher is not setting out to embarrass me, but desires to teach and engage me. I also have learned that engaging the learning process is a good thing.

So also it is with God. I fully grant that it is intimidating and even cause for fear to think that you are on God’s radar… that God may be trying to get your attention and even tell you something. I’m hoping that it is helpful and fear-reducing to proclaim to you from this scripture that God is doing so out of love and purpose, and that part of God’s message is “don’t be afraid.”

The follow-up question to what we talked about last week is this: What might God desire to birth in your life, for His glory?

It doesn’t have to be big, but may be a small step of faithfulness or obedience on your part. It may be a change of behavior or a reaching out to another or an act of grace and kindness. It may be a renewed commitment to husband or wife, or to participate in a community of faith.

Is God trying to get your attention?

Is God trying to say something to you?

What might God desire to birth in your life, for His glory?