Sunday, May 30, 2010

Power and the Prophecy (Acts 2.1-21)

May 30, 2010
Sermon by: Robert Austell
(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Last week we looked at the introduction to Acts, in which Luke summarized the Gospel story about Jesus – what Jesus did and said, his suffering and resurrection, and especially the teaching on the Kingdom of God. Then, we heard Jesus’ promise and charge to his followers, to send the Holy Spirit as power so that they might be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea/Samaria, and the whole world.

As we looked at what it means to be a witness, we saw that it includes knowing God’s story (as Luke already demonstrated) and sharing what we have seen and heard of that story through our own life and experience. So, we are sharing God’s story by way of sharing our own stories. And consistent with the heart of the Heavenly Father depicted in the “lost and found parables” we looked at the three weeks before that, our witness is not just limited to our comfort zone, but is out in the world near and far.

In Acts 1:8 Jesus promised his followers that they would receive power in order to be this kind of witnesses. Today we are looking at a special passage that unpacks and explains what that “power” is, where it fits into God’s great overarching story, and what its significance is for our lives and witness.

The Power

Let’s look first at what this power is that Jesus promised his followers. That power is evident in the first half of our text this morning, seen in the miraculous communication of the message across language and cultural barriers. You heard the long listing of nationalities present that day. Jewish people and God-fearers (non-Jewish believers in Yahweh) traveled from all over the known world to visit Jerusalem. And filled with this Holy Spirit power, the disciples were able to communicate and be understood by all of them. And the text makes sure you don’t miss the miracle. Some of these foreign Jews and God-fearers are quoted in verse 11 saying, “We hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God.”

The reactions to this miraculous display of God’s power were mixed. Look at verses 12-13. Some were amazed. Some were perplexed or confused, saying, “What does this mean?” And some mocked the disciples as being drunk, saying, “They are full of sweet wine.” And does that not describe pretty well the range of reactions to God? Some hear God’s story and believe, amazed. Some don’t understand, but ask questions seeking understanding. And some reject and mock.

In Acts 1, Jesus promised the Holy Spirit, and this passage is describing what that looks like. It’s not a sermon on “here’s what you need to do” but an account of what God is doing. So the point is not technique or how to deal with these different responses, but what God has promised to do. Witnessing isn’t an OUGHT; it is God at work in you. That’s how God works, how God “does His thing.” He empowers human beings to speak and act and tell His story by sharing what you’ve seen and what you’ve heard.

The Prophecy

When Peter begins to speak in verse 14, he answers the questions and mocking by telling a part of God’s big story. In doing so, he helps explain where this outpouring of God’s power fits into God’s larger overarching story. He begins his message (which continues on well past where we stopped) by explaining that what is happening is the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy spoken through the prophet Joel.

Joel prophesied about the last days, when God’s Kingdom would arrive and God would judge and rule the world. That era was to be marked by an outpouring of God’s Spirit in which God’s sons and daughters would prophesy, young and old would have dreams and visions, and even male and female slaves would prophesy. The world would be full of witness to the Lord and the opportunity to believe and be saved would be open to all people.

Notice, too, that Peter quotes Joel about drastic signs of the end: blood, fire, smoke, darkness. Presumably, those are events that are yet to be. Here’s how to understand what is being referenced and explained here. In Acts 1 and throughout the Gospels, Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God. Remember, that is one of the summary points of what Jesus was all about that Luke gave us in the first few verses of Acts. But Jesus wasn’t announcing an earthly kingdom set on taking on the Roman Empire. Rather, he was announcing the arrival of a spiritual Kingdom. And he said more than once that the time was ‘now.’ He also said it was ‘not yet complete.’ In other words, Jesus announced a new era, a new chapter in God’s timing (remember kairos from last week?). He announced the “beginning of the end.” And the experience of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost both confirmed Jesus’ promise and fulfilled Joel’s prophecy. The message of Acts 2 is that the beginning of the end is indeed here, as evidenced by just what Joel foretold. God was using His power and human witness to accomplish His mission.

We Shall Prophesy (Witness)

So I said that witnessing isn’t an OUGHT, but is God at work in you. Here’s what I mean, and why these Pentecost passages in Acts are so closely connected with the lost and found parables in Luke 15. In Luke 15, we heard about a God who diligently seeks the lost, like a shepherd searching for one sheep lost in 99, like a woman who has lost one of ten silver coins, and like a father who makes a fool of himself to run, greet, and forgive a son who as much as wished him dead. We also heard about a God who DELIGHTS in finding those who are lost. God experiences JOY when one lost person comes home to Him.

The Joel prophecy marks God’s interest in the lost over the course of centuries. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is God’s demonstration in real life of what Jesus portrayed in story form in Luke 15. God was indeed coming after the lost, and His chosen means to do that was by His Holy Spirit power and through human witness. So Jesus tells his followers in Acts 1 that they would receive God’s power in order to be witnesses. In Acts 2 we see that power in action and see how Peter and others are serving as witnesses.

What then comes to us is this bold claim: God is a seeking and finding God, and His chosen means of engaging in that mission is to empower human witnesses. That’s you and me. It’s not a “you better witness or God won’t love you.” It’s not a “you better witness if you want a spot in Heaven.” Rather, God can and does use your sharing what you’ve seen and heard in order to accomplish His joyful mission of finding the lost.

Everyone Who Calls on the Name

Finally, the Joel prophecy concludes with this encouraging statement in verse 21: “And it shall be that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” While that statement is true standing alone, it is made in context. The context is God empowering human witnesses to speak the name of the Lord and tell God’s story such that people will see and hear and believe. This promise is that people will indeed be saved, not because you or I convince them with our mastery of the plan of salvation, but because God is at work seeking and finding. It is this very salvation that God celebrates, like the characters in the lost and found parables.

Bottom line, what do we have to do? Looking at Acts 1-2, last week’s lesson and this, we need to know and grow in knowledge of God’s story. Study, read, and keep learning it. If you trust in Jesus Christ, God has already given you the supernatural power needed – God is already at work in you and through you. And God’s intent is that we be witnesses, which simply means that we will share what we’ve seen and heard.

My group that met last Wednesday night talked about this in some specific and helpful ways. Several people shared instances of “witnessing” – they did not give a multi-point sermon of God’s story, though they do know God’s story well. Rather, they ran into a friend and situations where they could share from their own experience, “I know what you are going through and this is what God meant to me when I went through that.” One shared about the importance of prayer; another about how significant God’s forgiveness was. That was witnessing and it was a part of God’s long story of seeking and finding people about whom He cares deeply.

You can do that! Keep praying with me and asking God what He is doing around you… and how you can be a part of that. Amen.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Witnesses (Acts 1.1-8)

May 23, 2010
Sermon by: Robert Austell

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

Today is Pentecost Sunday, the celebration of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit fifty days after Easter. We are going to look at Pentecost passages in Acts this Sunday and next. Interestingly enough, I think you’ll see a strong connection between these and the three parables we studied these past three weeks about God seeking the lost and celebrating the found.

You heard the opening to the book of Acts today. It begins with an amazingly concise summary of the Gospels – the books that describe Jesus’ life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection. Acts then picks up where the Gospel of Luke left off, with Jesus answering a few pressing questions and then giving his followers their marching orders once he’s gone.

I want to walk through some of what is squeezed into those eight verses as we consider what it means to be Jesus followers some 2000 years after Pentecost.

Amazing Stuff

In only a matter of verses, Luke summarizes what has gone before (as recorded in Luke) and what is about to happen (as recorded in Acts). All of that is presented in one of the most concise summaries of Jesus’ ministry and resurrection in scripture. Luke references four distinct components of Jesus’ story:

1) Jesus’ ministry as recorded in the Gospel of Luke – what he did and taught (v. 1)
2) Jesus suffering and resurrection (v. 3)
3) Specific teaching about the Kingdom of God (v. 3)
4) The promise of baptism with the Holy Spirit, only a few days away (vv. 4-5)

If you ever are looking for a primer on what you need to know about Jesus, that’s a great outline. Learn about his life and ministry. Study his death and resurrection. And don’t miss the teaching about the Kingdom of God, which runs throughout his many lessons and parables. And then don’t stop; ask, “What’s next?” The book of Acts answers that question with the arrival of the Holy Spirit and the empowering of Jesus’ followers for mission.

Now here’s one interesting part to me. The disciples had lived through all that. They had heard the parables, seen the suffering and death, and witnessed the resurrection. They had shared in the popular expectation of an earthly kingdom ushered in by the expected Messiah, and heard Jesus reorient them toward a spiritual Kingdom time and time again. And now after weeks of “convincing proofs” that he was risen and he was who he said he was, he gathers his followers in Jerusalem and tells them to get ready for what is coming next.

And they, apparently, still have a few pressing questions.

Pressing Questions

The insistence of the disciples in asking the next question would be laughable if I weren’t convinced that I would have been right there asking it with them. After all the teaching and correction and proof and power, they still have to ask it: “Lord, NOW are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Now you’re going to wipe out the Romans, right? You obviously have the power – their torture and soldiers couldn’t keep you down. Now you’re going to bring it, right?

There are times as a parent when I impart truly important information. It’s not just what time we are leaving or what needs to be eaten before dessert, but good, solid life-lessons. And then the next thing I hear is whether we’ll be done talking in time for the favorite TV show, or “Can I call my friend now?” Adults, have you ever been there?

But grown-ups, we’re not off the hook. We sit through Bible study, sermons, saying our prayers, and doing 20 other things that “get us right with God” and then jump right to, “Now here’s what I want, God.” There’s this disconnect between the message and our focus. Great sermon, preacher; but here’s what I want to know. Hmm – that Great Commission: “Good one, Lord; but what about answering that prayer request?”

Jesus has answered this one before and is in the middle of telling them about the fulfillment of a thousand year old prophecy, and they have pressing questions.

This is not the main point of this sermon, but I am struck – and convicted – by the disciples’ question that I still have much to learn about “Thy will be done” and putting God’s will ahead of my own.

Jesus’ answer is short and deep; and then he moves on. His answer is verse 7, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority…” What in the world is an epoch? This is one of those cases where the Message translation nails it: “It is not for you to know the times or timing of the Father’s will…” There are two Greek words for time: chronos and kairos. And each is used here. We don’t get to know the day and time the end will come. That’s chronos – clock time. And we don’t get to know the timing, that is, kairos – God’s time. That’s what an epoch is, by the way, an era or age or chapter in God’s story. We just don’t use that word much. What Jesus is saying is that it’s God’s business and we would do better to listen to what God IS saying then speculate about what God is not revealing. This is also not the main point of this sermon, but I think this has profound implications for those who become overly pre-occupied with end-times matters. Jesus is very clear in this passage that he would reorient us towards a present mission. And that main point is what I want to turn to now, along with the disciples.

Marching Orders: What and Where

Jesus spells out the impending mission or marching orders for his followers in once sentence in verse 8. I want to look at it in two parts, first looking at WHAT that mission will be, then at WHERE the mission will take place.

Jesus said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses…” In a nutshell, here’s what Jesus said we should be focused on: OUR witness to him, fueled by HIS power. The Holy Spirit that Jesus promised (as did God long before that) would be poured out on those who trusted in Him, and that Spirit would energize, compel, protect, embolden, catalyze, and bless the words and actions of human witnesses. But what is it that we have witnessed. Think about a witness in a courtroom. The questions are, “What have you seen? What have you heard? What do you know?”

And here’s where all this hangs together. The content of the Christian witness has already been described in the opening verses of Acts. Luke has summarized the Christian witness for us already in verses 1-5. That is what is referenced by “witnesses” in verse 8. We are witnesses to those four things I mentioned earlier – the amazing stuff: what Jesus did and taught, his suffering and resurrection, his specific teaching about the Kingdom of God, and the promise and reality of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life (and sign of the promised Kingdom of God). That’s the basic story we need to have under our belt, applied and experienced and explained through the filter of our own lives. Said even more simply, we need to know God’s story in Christ, as witnessed through our own story and experience.

Jesus goes on to describe the scope of this mission – the WHERE of it: “…in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (v. 8). We have talked about this phrase before. In fact, it underlies the mission of this church as we attempt to be a faithful witness to Jesus Christ within our walls, then in our near neighborhood, then in the larger community, and in the world. The Book of Acts chronicles this mission as it follows that very pattern, expanding outward from those nearby to those far away. So also we are to carry our Christian witness from this place of worship and teaching and training into our homes, schools, neighborhoods, community, and world.

One of the things we’ve realized is that it is not sufficient to say “take it to the neighborhood.” We have to be specific. So, we’ve named buildings and groups and neighbors and made specific gestures to obey this mission. We’ve also latched onto a line from the parable of the talents, in which the master says to the faithful steward, “You have been faithful in small things; I will give you responsibility for larger things.” We have named that principle, recognizing that there are dangers of mis-using it two directions: we might neglect larger mission in the community and world or we might use it as a kind of prosperity gospel thinking God “owes us” growth and blessing for our hard work. Those misapplications notwithstanding, I believe a careful cultivation of our nearby mission fields is consistent with Jesus’ teaching in Acts 1, that our witness expands outward in concentric circles.

One example is our drama ministry. It began as short skits in worship. It grew into full-length in-house productions. We then began holding open auditions in the neighborhood and seeking ways to invite more neighbors to see the plays. It appears that God may be opening doors to take the future plays outside the walls of the church. That seems like a faithful, Spirit-led pattern of growth.

For years we have studied scripture and evangelism. We have been growing in ways to share faith in our neighborhoods and workplace, among peers and colleagues. Several study, prayer, and fellowship groups have sprung up from the congregation, yet outside the church walls in recent years. That seems like a faithful, Spirit-led pattern of growth.

In a sentence, be faithful with what God has given you; be attentive to where God would lead you.

Our Mission

Our mission from Acts 1 applies to each individual Christian, from the youngest to the oldest; and it applies to the congregation as one local collection of believers in this time and location:

Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ has empowered and called on his followers to give witness to him in every area of their life, even stretching beyond those arenas to places to which God would lead us.

Luke has reminded us in short form of God’s story in Christ. And you are Christ’s witnesses in the world.

What is your story? With whom will you share God’s story and your own? Amen.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Missing the Celebration (Luke 15.11-32)

May 16, 2009
Sermon by: Robert Austell

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**
We have been looking at a series of stories Jesus told in response to a gathering where religious folks were grumbling at the presence of and Jesus’ interest in some non-religious folks. Jesus had been attracting and then associating with the kind of people that didn’t mix well with the organized religion of the day, and that really set the leaders of that organized religion against him. With all these folks in one place, Jesus began to tell three stories.

I’ve described this particular story form, the parable, as being similar to the modern-day joke. That’s not because a parable is funny or not to be taken seriously, but because it has a hook that reels the listener in and a punch line that delivers the goods.

We’ve looked at two already: the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin. In each the hook was a main character taking time and demonstrating interest in finding something of value that had been lost. This “hooked” the religious leaders, who had written off the non-religious crowd. Once they strayed, good riddance. Jesus’ stories “hooked” the so-called sinners because, contrary to the dominant religion of the day, he portrayed God as one who was vitally interested in them and their welfare.

That’s a good lesson to take to heart – God never writes anyone off, and more than that, remains vitally interested in people even when they mess up or turn away.

But there’s more here: something even more challenging and foundational and important. It’s the punch line of all three stories, and it’s played up more and more in each story. And that’s what I really don’t want you to miss.

As I did last week, I want to point out what’s different in this third re-telling of the point Jesus is trying to make. And then I want to invite you to really wrestle with the punch line, to try to “get it” as the main point.

What’s Different the Third Time Through?

I want to highlight five differences in this story that make it stand out from the previous two. Jesus has been building momentum and this story is the most involved, has the strongest hook, and delivers the (same) punch line with the greatest impact.

In the first story, 1 in 100 was lost. In the next, it was 1 in 10. Now it’s one of two. And no longer an animal or a coin, we’re talking about a human being, and that a son. Jesus is making this issue of who’s in and who’s out immediate, important, and personal.

Second, a wandering sheep is mostly mindless, probably seeking food or just distracted. A coin has no will at all. But a human being – that’s different. In this story, the one who is lost has a willfulness of his own. And let me be clear: Jesus did not portray an immature boy who just made a few poor choices. The son chose his fate, portrayed in the most startling and stark terms: in asking for his inheritance and leaving home, he is as much as wishing his father to die. For Jesus’ audience, this son was a willful, disobedient, and dishonorable man – some would have even characterized him as hateful toward his father – and would have stirred up very strong feelings for all those hearing the story. Jesus didn’t leave out any “sinner” in the room, for the son’s sins would have trumped any sin in the room in the eyes of that first century Jewish audience.

Third, also unlike a sheep or coin, a human being has the capacity to change his or her mind, to have a change of heart, to repent, even for mixed motives. Remember, while some in Jesus’ day taught that God would receive repentant sinners, the Pharisees did not. They had written off the sinners present in the audience, and they would have had a strong reaction to the idea of the son repenting and returning home.

A fourth observation flows from that strong image of the hateful son turned penitent. And this would have shaken all those in the room even more than the shocking picture of the younger son turned against his father. Even more shocking, the father did not behave like a proper father. To some in the room (Pharisees), he should have turned the son away or refused to see him altogether. For others (sinners) in the room, the hope beyond hope would have been for a dignified Father to reluctantly receive the son after proper demonstrations of humility, repentance, and respect, and perhaps proper punishment or payback. But Jesus describes a Father who sees the son at a distance and runs to meet him, embracing and kissing him. And there is no mention of payback or restitution, only a huge party to celebrate the son’s return. Shocking! Shocking! And there’s the hook.

Finally (and fifth), Jesus also provides insight into the willfulness and mindset of the older brother – the “obedient son.” This dimension was missing in the first two stories about the sheep and coin. Having exclusively told stories about the sinners in the room and why he might associate with them, Jesus suddenly has included the perspective of the indignantly righteous, “obedient son” Pharisees. And he does so AFTER describing the party in such detail, when the Pharisees’ self-righteousness would be as piqued as the elder brother’s. Talk about a hook; he’s got them twice-hooked now.

Why Do I Keep Making a Big Deal about the Punch Line?

And then there’s the punch line – joy! And with the two hooks, Jesus delivers it twice. He does so once in verses 22-24 and then again in verse 32. Why do I make such a big deal about this punch line of joy? It’s more than just that the story-form demands it (i.e. that you have to ask what the punch line of a parable is to understand it). It’s that without this punch line we just wouldn’t get Jesus’ point, which is to describe something deeper than the performance-based religion of his day, something in which both Pharisees and sinners were entangled.

Both the older and younger brother were entangled in the notion that their father’s love depended on their behavior. The younger son rehearsed the speech he would make and returned not as a son, but in hopes of becoming a hired hand. The older son was so indignant that his own good behavior was not rewarded that he refused to be a part of the father’s celebration (ironically sharing in the sin of disassociating from the father!).

What Jesus has portrayed three times for us now, and most poignantly in this story, is the love that God the Father has for each of you. Your faithful church attendance or participation has not won that love. Your willful turning away from God has not diminished it. That is the punch line – that is the thing Jesus would have you not miss. That is the thing he wants you to know when the stories are done and someone says, “Did you get it?” God loves you first and always. You haven’t earned it; you can’t use it up.

And that, my friends, is GOOD NEWS. It is hard to understand or accept, especially when the conditional loves of this world have trained us otherwise, but it is literally the Gospel truth – the Good News truth.

Indeed, there is a message for those who are far from God: “Come home!”  There is also a message for those who view religion as a means to impress God or barter for His blessing: “Don’t miss the celebration!”

For each of us, the underlying reason is that God loves you and desires to know and be known by you. You haven’t earned that and you can’t use it up. Believe the Good News!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

LOST (Luke 15.8-10)

May 9, 2010
Sermon by: Robert Austell

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

Last Sunday we began a series looking at God’s perspective on the lost – on those who are hurting, lonely, discouraged, afraid, and alienated from God. We are spending three weeks in Luke 15, looking at three stories Jesus told to talk about the lost. Last week we looked at “The Lost Sheep,” this week “The Lost Coin,” and next week “The Lost Son.” The occasion of Jesus’ stories was grumbling from the religious leaders about the company Jesus was keeping. He was associating and eating with tax collectors and sinners, not the sort of people of whom respectable and religious people normally would approve.

Last week we looked at the first story. I mentioned that the particular story-form Jesus used was a parable. While not meant to be funny like the modern joke, a parable had a hook that drew the listener in and then a punch line that was surprising and memorable. For the Pharisees as well as the “sinners” in the room, the story of the lost sheep “hooked” them with a picture of God as a Good Shepherd who would leave His flock to go looking for a lost sheep. That ran counter to the teaching of the day, which at best accepted a repentant Jew back into religious practice and more likely disregarded those who had fallen into sin or disrepute as truly lost for good. But don’t miss this: that Jesus was interested in these sinners because God was interested in these sinners was only the ‘hook’! The punch line to the parable was the JOY over seeing a lost one come home.

In the short parable of the lost coin that we will look at today, Jesus repeats the same teaching with a different set of images.

A Woman, a Coin

The basics of the story are the same as those of the lost sheep. Something important is lost and the main character looks for it, joyful when it is found. There are some distinctive differences in this second story, however.

For one, the main character is a woman. While the listeners would have readily identified with sheep and shepherds and seen the analogy between the shepherd and God, casting the main character as a woman would have been more challenging. But think of the audience. We aren’t told who the “sinners” were other than tax collectors, but Jesus was known to associate with women, including prostitutes. He had a group of regular women followers. Women, in general, were excluded from the inner workings of Temple worship, and the kinds of women Jesus interacted with were doubly “unclean” as woman and disreputable ones. Perhaps this second story was to speak directly to them as well as challenge the Pharisees in the impending age of God’s Kingdom where the Spirit would anoint men and women alike. There would no longer be distinctions of male or female when it came to salvation and access to God’s direct salvation and grace.

Notice too that the relative value of what is lost increases in each story. The lost sheep was 1 in 100; the lost coin is 1 in 10; and the lost son is 1 in 2. Jesus is slowly ratcheting up the value and importance of the lost, surely a challenge to the Pharisees and a fresh word of grace to the disreputable sinners! Along with that observation, notice the implications in the analogy of the coin. Each coin was of equal value. One might rationalize that some sheep are more prone to wander and deserving of their fate. But a silver dollar is a silver dollar is a silver dollar (actually, each of these silver coins was worth one days wage – so if you want to convert that into a modern just-over-minimum-wage equivalent, think of a silver coin worth about $100). My point is that this parable subtly suggests that any given sinner in the room was just as valuable to God as the best scribe or Pharisee. That notion would have challenged everyone in the room and probably us as well!

Finally, notice the additional detail given to the searching in this story. Though this story is only three verses, compared to the five of the story of the lost sheep, we get a much clearer picture of the search in this one. The woman lights a lamp and sweeps the house and searches carefully. What a powerful picture of God’s diligence in seeking out those who are far from Him!

So those are the hooks in this round of Jesus’ parables on the lost and the seeking God. The Gospel is for men and women, the lost are of great value, our degree of obedience doesn’t make us more or less valuable in God’s eyes (wow – chew on that! …but our obedience is important! Why?), and God is diligent in seeking out those who are far from Him.

The Punch Line is Joy!

And then, having hooked the room again with different metaphors and images, Jesus delivers the punch line again. And the punch line is JOY. When the woman finds the coin, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me!” And stepping out of the story, Jesus adds, “In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Interesting to note the two perspectives: God finding the lost is also described as a sinner who repents!)

I want to note two things. One is the direct implication for the Pharisees and religious in-crowd is that if the angels of Heaven celebrate a lost one being found, then how can we not? How can we claim to be devoted to God and not share in the things that bring Him joy?

The second thing is derived from those questions. These parables suggest a new model for our obedience. Remember me asking that obedience question? If the point of our obedience isn’t to have more value in God’s eyes, then what is it? This has been the focal point for so much error and terror in the history of the Church. Jesus is teaching that our obedience – faithfulness to God’s Word and Spirit – is not a cause that results in God’s favor, but the right response TO God’s favor. God has declared His love for us and demonstrated it in seeking us out, even when woefully lost. Having been welcomed home, our obedience is an expression of love and gratitude. Easy enough to say and map out on paper, but it is harder to live out, especially if we have known God for a long time.

We will wrestle some more with that dynamic in next week’s parable about the two sons.

Implications: Joyful Mission

For us, I’d like to focus on the punch line, on the joy, and this specific part of obedience that is seeking (or at least associating with) the lost. It seems like a no-brainer on paper that we are to open our doors to all people, those who “have their act together” as well as those who do not. (And trust me, as one to whom people entrust much of what goes on under the skin and behind the doors, even those who appear to have their act together often have equally significant struggles to those who wear their struggle on their sleeve!) But even more than having open doors, Jesus’ example and teaching mean that we are to associate with and even seek out those who may have little interest in God, perhaps may never attend or join our church. That example and teaching forms the Biblical foundation to our lighthouse/searchlight core value.

But here’s the big challenge for me as a pastor (as well as personally) – those things look great on paper, but how do we digest God’s Word and live out this mission in our individual and collective lives?

I think the key is the same as the punch line: JOY.

We can create committees and budgets and mission statements and all the old ways of doing something as a church, but in many ways, I think that sets us up for the same kind of challenges (if not mistakes) the Pharisees made. What Jesus offers us is a glimpse of the heart of God. Sharing in God’s delight and joy over seeking and finding the lost paints mission as something more akin to the best moments of worshiping or drawing near to God. And I say that realizing that some people struggle to find worship a meaningful way of drawing near to God.

So, perhaps this is a new way to understand worship and draw near to God. Think of it in these terms. If you were just starting to date someone for the first time and found out they loved – LOVED – to hike, would you go hiking with them? Or what if they loved music and concerts? Would you take them to one? And yes, there are the same dynamics there. You could do it to impress them and win their approval. And that might work out temporarily, but not in the long run. To truly connect and experience closeness, you want to like or at least learn to like the things they like. Okay, it’s not perfect; but you’re not trying to date God. We’re talking about worshiping, obeying, loving, and serving the God who created the universe. It’s important to understand what God delights in and join in those things. I am convinced that as we do, we will draw near to God, experience God in more tangible ways, cultivate hearts that delight in the things that cause God joy, and yes, accomplish the work God has set out for us to do.

I’ll end with a story of my own.

A while back, in this last year, I had a conversation with someone in this church. We have not been training you to do explicit evangelism or campaigns into the neighborhood, but we have been emphasizing our calling to love and connect with our neighbors and ask ourselves questions like, “What is God doing and how can I be a part?” Well, in all my years of being in the church (which is all of my years), I can’t remember talking to someone more excited about sharing faith. It went something like this, “I was out at so-and-so, and this person said hello to me. I took time to speak with them, and even though I wasn’t trying to bring up God, they asked me something about God or my faith or my church. And I told them what was going on here. And you won’t believe what happened! They asked me to pray for them… they asked if they would be welcome at our church… they asked me if God loved them….” What I’m trying to say is that I’ve had this conversation, not just once, but multiple times over the last year. And in every case, the person I talked to was excited to be a part of what God was clearly doing – looked like joy to me!

Sharing in God’s joy is not something reserved for pastors, holy men, the super-religious, or those with special callings. It is God’s purpose in making each and every human being. If those words don’t make sense, keep wrestling with these parables until it does. This is at the heart of real and meaningful faith and it is the antidote to wearying religion.

Ask it, mean it, live it: “What is God doing in and around me, and how can I be a part of that?”  Amen.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Punch Line is Joy (Luke 15.1-7)

May 2, 1020
Sermon by: Robert Austell

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

Today we are starting a series about things and people that are lost. Jesus used a series of stories to try to explain God’s diligent attention to and pursuit of the lost, though Jesus was working against religious expectations to the contrary. In a day when it is easy for church to be one more club or organization that we see as meeting OUR needs, we are going to look at what Jesus has to say about having a mind and heart for others, especially those who are lost.

I want to walk through these verses with you and highlight a situation and Jesus’ response to it, then consider the application for us

Sinners Coming Near and Grumbling Within (vv. 1-2)

Verse 1 sets the stage for us: “Now all the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him.” We’ve talked before about tax collectors. They were seen as traitors and thieves, for betraying their people as well as robbing from them with exorbitant taxes. They, as a class, were considered sinners by the religious leaders.

We also read that other sinners were coming to Jesus. Literally, these were “non-religious Jews” – those that were rejected by and/or did not participate in the observance of the Jewish faith. And for whatever reason, these folks were drawn to Jesus though they were not drawn to the Temple. Indeed, they would not have been welcome at the Temple, so it is a bit of a circular problem – they didn’t go where they weren’t welcome and weren’t welcome because they didn’t go.

We also read in verse 2 that Jesus “[received] sinners and [ate] with them.” So, the issue was not just with their presence, but also Jesus’ response to them and association with them. Verse two also describes the response of the scribes and Pharisees: grumbling. The scribes were the experts in the Jewish religious Law. The Pharisees were a kind of political party (which included the scribes), with great emphasis on and loyalty to the Jewish religious Law. And for any number of reasons, they were not happy with this scenario. They didn’t like tax collectors, sinners, Jesus, or any of these congregating together. For them, Jesus’ association with sinners remained one of their biggest problems with him throughout his ministry.

The Punch Line is the Joy! (vv. 4-7)

Into this tense scene between sinners and grumblers, Jesus told a story. And a parable isn’t just any kind of story – it’s kind of like a first century joke with a point. It’s not meant to be funny, but like a joke, there is a twist at the end that makes the thing work – a punch line, if you will.

There were some among the Jewish rabbis who stressed God’s forgiveness for the repentant, for those who turned to God in humility and sorrow for sin. But apparently these folks did not follow that line of teaching. The scribes and Pharisees were already grumbling at these sinners who were coming near to listen to Jesus. But Jesus didn’t just press the description of the heart of God past rejection of some kinds of sinners to welcome the repentant; he pressed WAY past that (and even past the present situation) to say that God actually sought out those who were lost and not turning to God. This was radical – unheard of!

That would have been punch line enough. “Yeah, yeah; we understand that a shepherd would go looking for the one sheep. Sheep are valuable; you don’t let one go if you can help it. Oh wait; you are comparing sinners to sheep? No, we’ve heard that teaching, but we reject it… Wait a minute more; your story isn’t right. These sinners came looking for you. Are you saying that God is even interested in the ones who aren’t here?! Unthinkable!”

That is the first jarring twist that would have hooked the attention of those listening – Pharisees and so-called sinners alike. But that turns out not to be the big punch line. The punch line is the joy!

That God would seek the lost, even the uninterested, unobservant, sinful lost, was a challenge to the Pharisees’ religious perspective. But that God would DELIGHT in finding the lost?! That turns a Law-based and inward-focused religion on its head. I can just imagine the dual reaction in the room – the sour lemon-face horror of the scribes and Pharisees, and the surprised wonder of the lost ones who grasped what it was Jesus was saying.

And this was just the first pass. Jesus went on to tell two more “jokes” – each with the same punch line, and each building on the unthinkable claim of the one that went before. Over the next two weeks, we’ll look at each of those that follow: the lost coin, and the lost son.

How Will We Rejoice?

For now, there is much for us to chew on. The first big change of perspective is one that we’ve been wrestling with for a number of years now. The Church is not meant to be a club for members, but more like a fire station for firefighters. Firefighters come to their station to train, prepare, study, and learn. They keep their equipment tuned up, shiny, and ready to use. But it would be completely missing the point and mission of being a fire station if they never went out to fight fires. So also the church gathers to train, prepare, study, and learn. We keep our equipment tuned up and equip the people of God for the work of God. And God is at work in the world. To only gather within our building would miss the point and mission of being the Church!

We’ve talked about that dynamic in terms of being a “searchlight.” Sometimes it’s easy to have the perspective of the scribes and Pharisees. We can treat church like a club, mainly for the members. All the money and energy and focus goes into those that belong. That can result in some quality programs for our own, but it lacks spiritual health and balance and is missing the love of neighbor that is absolutely central throughout all of Scripture. Then we can have the perspective that some held in Jesus day, and it sounds so reasonable. We can welcome those who are repentant and want to turn to God. These are the “seekers” – the ones who seek us out looking for God. Surely the Church exists for anyone who is looking for God and turns to us for help. This is, after all, why we talk about being a lighthouse, a safe harbor and secure haven for those looking for help. Even as reasonable as it sounds to be that kind of lighthouse church, it takes energy, openness, and a willingness to help those in need. And you are that kind of people – you always have been. But it takes continued focus not to ease back into that club mentality – not just for us, for any church.

But listen; as vital as that effort is, it is not what Jesus is talking about in THIS parable. Here he is describing God – the One we worship, follow after, and serve – as One who goes out seeking those who are lost. God is not just the shepherd who waits for the sheep to wander back to the fold and then gives it a bath. God is the one who goes out into the night and into the wilderness to look for the one that is lost, to bring it home. When we talk about being a searchlight church, that’s the image we are talking about. That’s why we talk so much about the neighborhood and why we try things like this Wednesday night experiment of leaving the church property and going out among our neighbors. We just celebrated the church’s 30th anniversary. 30 years ago, God established this church here in this neighborhood, and this greater neighborhood is the flock we are to tend. Some don’t want a shepherd or already have one elsewhere, but the picture Jesus paints for us is that we are to seek out the lost. And of all the names we could have had – we are GOOD SHEPHERD Presbyterian Church.

I realize that seeing the neighborhood as our flock is a different mindset about church than many have – maybe even some of you. But that is the consistent understanding of Church and mission in the Bible, and Jesus pressed further still! Remember, a God who actively seeks the lost is just the startling set up to the parable. The punch line is joy.

Joy. I’m not sure what to do with that. What I hear Jesus saying is not just that seeking the lost is on the table (it is); it is not just our duty (it is); but if we follow and serve the God who is our Good Shepherd, then we will share in His delight and joy when one of His lost sheep is found. That makes this an act of worship – sharing in God’s joy. I can’t wave a magic wand and create joy, but I do know that as we engage in this mission of seeking the lost, I can invite you to celebrate with our Heavenly Father when some are found. By “seeking the lost” I mean getting out there among our neighbors… where they are. Shop at Food Lion and Harris Teeter in our neighborhood. Volunteer at the elementary school. Take your walks or ride your bike throughout these neighborhoods and speak to people as you see them. Come with us to meet our Brighton Place and Swan’s Run neighbors. Have a cook-out and invite your neighbors. If you live outside this neighborhood, you can do the same where you are. The church exists where you are, not in this building. We are only church this morning because you are here. When you leave, you take it with you! And the one for whom you are the church is out THERE seeking the lost.

In two weeks we will be welcoming a group of middle school students into the church as they confirm their faith and God’s claim on their life. For some, this comes after a lifetime in the church, hearing the stories of God. Others have just started coming this year, because someone sought them out. And there is a momentum to this seeking. This is something we have been growing in for a number of years. More and more I am meeting people interested in Good Shepherd (or simply in God) and I find out that they had a conversation with ones of you, or live next door to you, or exercise with you, or their kids go to school with you.

Jesus reminds us that those who love the Father love the lost. And he reminds us of the Father’s joy – the Good Shepherd’s joy – in finding one who was lost. As we spend this month reading about the lost, we will really be focusing on our Father’s joy. It is my hope and prayer that each of us will come to know that joy as we grow in the Father’s mission to our neighbors. Amen.