Sunday, December 25, 2011

Promised Child (Genesis 21.1-8, Luke 2.6-7,21-33)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
December 25, 2011
Some Music Used
Preludes : "Angels We Have Heard on High" (Chris Rice)
  Hymn of Praise: "Angels We Have Heard on High" (GLORIA)
Hymn of Praise: "Infant Holy, Infant Lowly" (W KLOBIE LEZY)
The Word in Music: "Song of Simeon" (Michael Card)

Offering of Music: "Away in a Manger" (arr. Joseph Martin)
Song of Praise: "Gloria" (from Angels We Have Heard) (GLORIA)
Hymn of Sending: "Good Christians, All Rejoice" (IN DULCI JUBILO)
Postlude: "Fantasia on 'In Dulci Jubilo'" (Bach)

Promised Child
Text: Genesis 21:1-8; Luke 2:6-7,21-33)


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

This Christmas season we have been following the story of Abraham as he met, trusted, and followed God Most High. God promised Abraham land, children, and blessing – all in order that Abraham and his descendants might be a blessing to the nations of the world. We have seen (I hope!) a number of parallels between Abraham’s wait for the birth of Isaac, the child of promise, and the wait of the people of Israel for the birth of the Messiah, also a child of promise.

And I hope that along the way you have identified with Abraham or with God’s people of old. They, like us, heard the promises of God, were invited to trust, often strayed and wandered, and yet experienced God’s faithfulness. As we have waited for this day – Christmas Day – we have experienced again the wait for God’s timing to unfold. You may have entered into the exercise of once again waiting on the Christ child, or you may be waiting for God’s timing in some specific areas of your own life.

Today, we finally get there. Isaac is born; Jesus is born; and I hope you will see how God is working in and through you in new ways. I want to trace the final bit of the story of the two births with you, highlighting some of the themes running through them. We’ll also meet one other character – Simeon – who lived first-hand that waiting period. We’ll see how he gives glory to God and how he interprets what he is seeing.

Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac (Genesis 21:1-8)

We’ve been reviewing the covenant promises pretty consistently over the past four weeks. In a nutshell, Abraham’s story is the story of God pursuing sinful humanity through one man and one people in order to reach and bless all the nations of the world. It is a foretaste of what is to come more completely and perfectly in Jesus. What I want to do today is highlight several phrases in the text and comment on them briefly. Then we’ll turn to Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and Simeon.

“as He had promised” (v. 1) - TRUST

Look at Genesis 21. In verses 1-2 we read that Sarah conceived and bore a son. I want to highlight two phrases in those verses. The first is “as [God] had promised.” Sarah’s conception and delivery were not accidental, nor planned by human beings. Rather, it was what God had promised some 25 years earlier when He made the covenant with Abram. Bottom-line, God is faithful; and with only a few detours and back-up plans on Abraham’s part, Abraham trusted in God’s Word and promise.

“at the appointed time” (v. 2) - PATIENCE

A second key phrase relates to the first. Sarah became pregnant and delivered “at the appointed time.” And it was both long-awaited and exceedingly miraculous. Surely Abraham and Sarah wanted the baby much sooner. But God’s timing is perfect and lines up with His will, and this baby came precisely when God wanted him to be born. So often we acknowledge the first point – that God is faithful; but we struggle mightily with this second one, that God acts according to His own timing. We would much rather God act on our time-table; but God does not. To wait on God’s timing is to exercise patience.

“circumcised as God had commanded” (v. 4) - OBEDIENCE

Only a year earlier, God had instituted circumcision as a sign of the covenant. Abraham had his whole house-hold, including Ishmael, circumcised in obedience to God’s command. That was done in faith before seeing Sarah pregnant and Isaac born. Now, with the miracle before him, it was a much easier thing to mark his newborn son with the sign of the faithful God’s covenant promise. Nonetheless, in following God’s command, Abraham demonstrated obedience.

“God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me” (v. 6) - BLESSING

What I’d like you to see is how God brings about blessing. God’s intent is to bless the world, most notably through salvation, but also through common grace, witness, truth, and His presence. In this one sentence in verse 6, you get a good feel for that blessing dynamic. God has done a miracle for Sarah: “God has made laughter/Isaac for [her]” – God has blessed her. But that’s not the end of the sentence. She continues, “Everyone who hears (about it) will laugh/Isaac with me.” Others will be captivated by her story, by God’s story, and be blessed by her blessing.

Even more broadly, let me walk back through the previous key phrases with you, because it is a kind of map for how God is pleased to accomplish blessing of the world. God works through the TRUST, PATIENCE, and OBEDIENCE of His people to bless them, and in doing so, extends His word, witness, presence, and grace to the surrounding world.

So let me read those pairings for you again:

God is faithful; and so we trust.
God works in His own time; and so we must be patient.
God speaks His will and Word to us; and so we must be obedient.

And God demonstrates His faithfulness, in His own time, as He has said, through our trust, patience, and obedience and we experience that as God’s BLESSING, which we then extend to those around us.

Mary, Joseph, and Jesus (Luke 2:6-7)

Mary and Joseph’s story, along with all of Israel, is very similar.

TRUST: God had promised a Messiah. The foundation of that promise can be found in the covenant promise to Abraham, but it became more and more explicit through the prophets, particularly ones like Isaiah. God’s people had to trust God to be faithful.

PATIENCE: God’s plan unfolded slowly. Understood to be a restoration of the Davidic monarchy, generation after generation of Israelites were disappointed to not see the restoration of the Kingdom. And yet God’s timing was precise and important. In God’s timing, Jesus was born at just the right time, in just the right way.

OBEDIENCE: Not only did Mary and Joseph hear God’s Word through the angel-messengers and hear and obey, eight days after the baby was born, they took him to be circumcised in keeping with the same command given Abraham in ancient times. They were obedient to God’s Word in many ways, but it is striking to read of both Isaac and Jesus being circumcised on the eighth day as a sign of God’s covenant faithfulness, demonstrated so specifically through those particular baby boys.

BLESSING: Jesus was the greatest miracle and blessing of all. He literally came to be the salvation-blessing for the world. And his birth was entirely God’s promise, God’s timing, and God’s doing; and yet, here we also see how God has chosen to work through the trust, patience, and obedience of human beings in order to bestow His blessing. How accurately Mary could have mirrored Sarah’s words about her baby and said, “God has made Jesus/salvation for me; everyone who hears will know God’s Jesus/salvation with me!”

An Old Man in the Temple (Luke 2:21-33)

Finally, our text ends with the scene in the temple, where Mary and Joseph have taken their eight-day old baby to be circumcised. Again, I’d like to highlight several key phrases, showing Simeon’s own trust, patience, and obedience. He then pronounces blessing on the baby who will bless the world.

TRUST – “this man was righteous and devout” (v. 25)

Simeon was called “righteous and devout” because he trusted in God to keep His promises. And he was not looking for the popular Messiah who would lead the revolution against Rome. Simeon was looking for the “consolation of Israel” – the paraclete-comforter (interestingly later a name for the Holy Spirit) described in Isaiah 61:2 as the one who will “comfort those who mourn.”

PATIENCE – “looking for the consolation of Israel” (v. 25)

Simeon had been looking and waiting all his life. And the Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not see death until he had seen the “Lord’s Christ” – that is, the Messiah. (“Christ” is Greek for the Hebrew word, messiah/anointed one.) Simeon had been very patient, trusting that God would do what He said He would do.

OBEDIENCE – “my eyes have seen” (v. 30)

Obedience can be described as listening to what God says. In this case it can also be described as looking for what God is doing. Simeon was paying attention; and he saw God’s salvation. And he got to take part in the obedience-event of circumcising the baby.

BLESSING – “a light of revelation to the Gentiles” (v. 32)

Finally, Simeon puts in words what God has been planning from the beginning. Not only did God seek out Abraham and make a covenant with him, God was faithful, in His own timing, to bless Abraham and the world in which he lived. Likewise, God sought out the people Israel, the descendants of Abraham, and God blessed them in order to bless the world. The glory or “shine” of God’s hand on His people, Israel, was also a “light of revelation” to the nations of the world. In this moment and pronouncement by Simeon, we see God’s plan come to perfect fruition. All that was seemingly lost in the Garden with the Fall of humanity has been reclaimed by God, with the establishment of a way back to Him. God has worked to restore us, and this baby will become the means by which God does that.

God at Work in You

What is God up to now? You know I ask that all the time: “What is God doing in and around you and how can you be a part?” The constant testimony of scripture is that God IS at work in the world. And, God is pleased to work through ordinary people like you and me to accomplish what He is doing. God doesn’t require perfect people; in fact, He seems most pleased to use weak, unlikely, and even rebellious people. But his blessings flow when we trust, have patience, and demonstrate obedience. That’s when we know God’s blessing most in our own lives, and it is when we can best extend that blessing to those around us.

So hear the declaration: God is faithful, God’s timing is perfect, God has spoken, and God is at work.

I invite you to trust, cultivate patience, demonstrate obedience, and experience blessing… SO THAT we may be about the blessing-work that God has called us to.

I’d like to finish by singing “The Song of Simeon,” in which the old man’s words are set to music beautifully by Michael Card.


“The Song of Simeon”
Michael Card

An old man in the temple, waiting in the court
Waiting for the answer to a promise
And all at once he sees them in the morning sunshine
A couple that comes in carrying a baby

Now that I’ve held him in my arms, my life can come to an end
Let your servant now depart in peace
‘Cause I’ve seen your salvation, He’s the light of the Gentiles
And the glory of his people, Israel

Mary and the baby come, and in her hand, five shekels
The price to redeem her baby boy
The baby softly cooing, nestled in her arms
Simeon takes the boy and starts to sing

And now’s the time to take Him in your arms –
your life will never come to an end
He’s the only way that you’ll find peace - He’ll give you salvation
‘Cause He’s the light of the Gentiles and the glory of his people, Israel

Born For This (John 18.37, 1.14, 3.16)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
December 24, 2011
Some Music Used
Preludes : "A Christmas Fantasy" - Melissa Lancaster, Handbell solo (Victor Gumma)
"From Heaven Above to Earth I Come" (Ernst Pepping)
"Away in a Manger" - festival Handbells (Cathy Moklebust)
  Hymn of Praise: "O Come, All Ye Faithful" (ADESTE FIDELES)
Congregational Carol: "Lo, How a Rose" (ES IST EIN' ROS')
Carol: "My Soul Rejoices" - Katie Meeks and worship team (Jaclyn Francois)

Carol: "Still, Still, Still" - John Kaneklides and Choir (arr. Ledger)
Carol: "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" - choir, handbells, and Susan Slade, flute (Helvey)
Congregational Carol: "We Three Kings" (KINGS OF ORIENT)
Offering of Music: "Born That We May Have Life" (Tomlin, Maher, Cash)
Candlelighting Anthem: "All is Well" - Miller Ray, soloist (Smith, arr. R. Huff)
Congregational Carol: "Silent Night" (STILLE NACHT)
Congregational Carol: "Joy to the World!" (ANTIOCH)
Postlude: "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" (Willcocks)

Born for This
Text: John 18:37, with 1:14 and 3:16


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

You have heard the Christmas story this evening, through Word and music. I’d like to offer a brief meditation on WHY Jesus was born, using his own explanation, given as a grown man. The setting for that explanation is a little strange, given our focus on the birth of a baby to Mary and Joseph, but I hope you’ll see the connections. 

Born to Die (John 18:37)

I want to use three verses, all found in the Gospel of John. The first is John 18:37, and the setting is Jesus standing on trial for his life before Pontius Pilate. It is the night of his arrest and he will be crucified in the morning. Jesus’ accusers have brought him to Pilate, saying that he was claiming to be “King of the Jews” – surely, an offense to the representative of Rome in the area. Why do I choose this verse? Listen… 

Therefore Pilate said to [Jesus], “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.”

Did you hear that? On the eve of his death, Jesus very explicitly said, “This is why I was born… this is why I came into the world.” It was for THIS moment as well as all that led up to it. Jesus was born to die, born for the testimony his death would provide and crucified for the truth he proclaimed throughout his earthly ministry.

Back in the beginning of John’s Gospel, this same word – TRUTH – is used to describe Jesus. It would characterize his time on earth, from birth to death to life. 

Born to Testify (John 1:14)

Look at John 1:14. This is back among the birth narratives, though John’s explanation is more on the theological than the narrative end of things. Listen… 

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.

That word – TRUTH – shows up many times (26x) in John’s Gospel. Later, Jesus says he is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). But right here at the beginning, we are told that this one who is God with skin on, God come to live with and be with us, is full of truth. So no wonder that he says at the end of his earthly ministry that he was born to testify to the truth; he has lived it, spoken it, acted it, and sung it with the very fabric of his being. Not only that, he was born to manifest God’s glory, grace, and truth – to show us God the Father living in and among the stuff of this world.

Though we don’t tend to do this at Christmastime, it is easy to make Jesus all about his death. We leave off his life and we leave off his resurrection. And it is true that he was born to die. But he was also born to testify, and not just through words, but through his very life. That’s what it means that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And his testimony, his witness, his story was all about the glory, grace, and truth of God the Father. 

Born that We Might Have Life (John 3:16)

Finally, the phrase “only begotten” made me think of one more verse from John… perhaps the best known scripture reference in the Bible. It is John 3:16. Listen… 

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

It, too, answers the question, “Why was Jesus born?” He was born to die; he was born to testify or show us God; and he was born that we might have life. And this famous verse also adds that all this was out of God’s love for the world, a love we have been hearing about for weeks now as we’ve heard the old story from Genesis. God loves you and God has come after you in loving pursuit of life with you.

And that brings us back full circle to Jesus’ response to Pilate in John 18:37. After Jesus explained why he was born – to testify to the truth – he added, “Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.” Jesus was born to die, born to testify or show us God, and born that we might live. But all of this is wasted on us unless we listen. That’s how we hear his voice, see the Father, and experience life with him… listen and believe and follow. 

Born for This

It’s easy to hear the Christmas story and leave off thinking of a little baby, lying still or gently cooing in the manger or in his mother’s arms. But Jesus was born for much more. He was born to show us the face of God; he was born to die; and in so doing, he was born that we might have life. Don’t miss that story; don’t miss that purpose; don’t miss God’s greatest, loving gesture toward you and for you. Listen, believe, and come follow him.

And come back. Starting in January we will be focusing on what it means to belong to Jesus – what it means to listen, believe, and follow. I hope you’ll come be a part of that with us. Amen.

Born That We May Have Life
Chris Tomlin

No reputation, no stately bearing
No palace bed for royalty
But a star in the heavens, a sign full of wonder
Announcing the coming of the King of kings

Rejoice! O, world Your Savior has come
Through the love of a virgin's womb
Son of God, Son of Man
Born that we may have life
You were born that we may have life

A throne in a manger, the cross in a cradle
The hidden revealing this glorious plan
A child who would suffer, a child who would conquer
The sin of every woman, the sins of every man

Rejoice! O, world Your Savior has come
Through the love of a virgin's womb
Son of God, Son of Man
Born that we may have life
You were born that we may have life

© 2009 worshiptogether.com Songs / sixsteps Music / Vamos Publishing (Admin. by EMI CMG Publishing) (ASCAP)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Great Grace (Genesis 17.1-7,15-19)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
December 18, 2011
Some Music Used
Prelude : "The First Nowell" - Linda Jenkins, organ; Cathy Youngblood, piano (Anna Laura Page)
Advent Candle Hymn: "We Light the Advent Candle" (Grindal)
Hymn of Praise: "Prepare the Way" (Evans & Nuzum)
  The Word in Music: "Joy to the world" - Acapella Choir (Cash, Norman, Levi; arr. Youngblood)


Offering of Music: "Carol of the Bells" - Walker Austell, piano (Leontovych)
Hymn of Sending: "The First Noel" (THE FIRST NOEL)
Postlude: "Fling Wide the Door!" (Pepping)

A Great Grace
Text: Genesis 17:1-7,15-19


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

Years had passed… long years. God had made a promise long ago and there had even seemed to be a few reminders and answered prayers along the way, but in many ways, they were still waiting… waiting on God.

The people living in the time of Mary and Joseph had been waiting for generations. It was easy to lose hold of the promise day in and day out. It was also easy for the story to change – from the thing, the One, who had been promised into the thing that they thought they needed. There were ancient promises and prophecies – a Messiah, an Anointed One – but what they really needed was the government off their back.

Really, for those who would stop to think about it, their waiting – their story – was not that different from a much older story. 

“Now when Abram was ninety-nine years old” (v. 1)

Abram and Sarai had been waiting for a long time for that promised son. They had seen God’s promises of land and blessing fulfilled – Abram was rich and respected and prospering, but no son with Sarai. We heard last week about his back-up plan of passing his inheritance to Eliezar, a relative, but God promised him a biological son. Since then we find that he has had a son with Sarai’s servant, Hagar. That too, was a kind of trying to make his own destiny. And God would protect and bless Hagar and Ishmael, but he was not the son God intended for Abram and Sarai.

So in many ways, the cycle repeats. Abram has had to wait to see God’s promise fulfilled and has made his own back-up plan. After all, God had told Abram (in last week’s text) that the son would “come forth from your own body” (15:4) And it was accepted practice in those days for a servant to bear a child if the wife was infertile. At Sarai’s request (16:2), and then eighty-six years old (16:16), Abram had a child with Hagar, and named him Ishmael. Now at ninety-nine years old, we can see how Abram must have concluded that Ishmael would be the son who would inherit the promise. Abram made that leap that any of us have probably made – “Well, this must be what God meant!” But this was not yet the child God had promised. 

Reminders and Renewal of the Covenant (vv. 2, 19)

In last week’s text, God spoke to Abram in a vision to remind him of the covenant promises. It has been many years, but God does not leave His people without a witness to His will and purpose. In Abram’s case, God not only sent messengers like Melchizedek and visions, but in today’s text appeared as when He first spoke to Abram. Note that, as unusual as this direct communication was, it’s not like God spoke with Abram every couple of days or even years. This is only the second time God has “appeared” and spoken directly to Abram… it’s been twenty-four years since that first time (12:4).

So God speaks to re-affirm and renew the covenant: 

I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.
I will establish my covenant between me and you
And I will multiply you exceedingly. (vv. 1-2)

In the presence of God Almighty, Abram falls to his face as God continues: 

As for me, behold, my covenant is with you
And you will be the father of a multitude of nations.
No longer shall your name be called Abram
But your name shall be Abraham
For I will make you the father of a multitude of nations. (vv. 4-5)

Nothing has changed from the original covenant promises of land, descendants, and blessing; but God nonetheless seems to “up the ante” here – re-asserting in the face of Sarai’s barrenness and Abram’s old age that he will not just have a child, not just be the father of a multitude, but be the father of a multitude of nations! God changes his name – a powerful symbol in any culture, but especially then – from Abram, which means “exalted Father,” to Abraham, which means “father of a multitude.”

God is saying that not only will He keep the promise about children and descendants, but He will do so far beyond anything Abraham, could have envisioned or imagined. That’s hard to pull off after saying the descendants would number as sand or stars, but indeed God has expanded the promise even further!

God goes on to elaborate that nations and kings will come forth from Abraham. He also changes Sarai’s name to Sarah, which means princess, perhaps alluding to the nations and royalty that will come from them. She was part of the plan! And as He did in response to the “Eliezar Plan,” God specifically indicates that the son will come from Sarah: “I will bless her, and indeed I will give you a son by her… I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” (v. 16)

And all of this is in the context of renewing the covenant, not only with Abraham and now Sarah, but also with the yet unborn child and their descendants that would follow. Listen to God’s words in verse 7: “I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you.”

God has not forgotten them, and years after that original covenant promise, now promises even greater things for Abraham and his family. 

Laughing at God (v. 17)

What would your response be? What would you say or do if God had spoken to you some twenty-five years ago and, despite a few significant answered prayers and reminders along the way, you were still waiting on God to act?

Would you doubt? Would you have lost faith? Would you have made a few back-up contingency plans, as Abraham did?

And what about this new “Word from the Lord” – sure, God was very present and real; Abraham fell on his face in God’s presence. But now an even more outrageous promise?

Abraham laughed.

And I don’t read that as a complimentary, joyful laugh of faith and welcome, but one of complete disbelief. I read it as coming from one who had known the blessing of God and thought he had figured out God’s plan – a plan that looked like having a child with his wife’s servant and moving faithfully ahead. I can even admire him for that plan and for making the best of his situation.

But God was not done with him. Do you ever wish God was done with you? Hmm… that’s a hard one to answer well.

And God gave Abraham and Sarah a name for the baby, even as He would to Mary and Joseph hundreds of years later. “You shall call his name Isaac.” Do you know what it means? Isaac means ‘laughter.’ No, Abraham and Sarah would never forget this conversation and God’s outrageous promise. 

Great Promises

God’s final words here in our text remind me of the Gospel Christmas story. “Your wife will bear you a son, and you shall call his name… and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant…”

Listen to Luke 1:30-33, to the overlapping promises and message to Mary from the angel-messenger, Gabriel: 

Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.

Next Sunday we will hear the story of two births – Isaac/Laughter and Jesus/Rescuer. Abraham, Sarah, Mary, and Joseph were trusting and struggling with God-sized promises… but then, the one making the promises was the Most High God.

I think it is helpful to hear the story of Abraham and Sarah at Christmas-time because it helps us hear the story of Mary and Joseph with fresh ears. I hope it also helps you consider your own stories with fresh ears.

The story of Abraham, Sarah, Mary, and Joseph, and the babies they would have, is a significant part of the story of the Bible, of God drawing near, pursuing the human race – pursuing YOU – in love. God’s promises and actions are God-sized, requiring faith and sometimes generating doubt. The testimony of Scripture, of multitudes who have trusted in God and seen answered prayer and covenant promises fulfilled, is that God is faithful and worthy not only of trust, but worship, love, and service.

God can handle your questions, your doubt, and even your laughter; and God presses in all the same to remind, renew, invite, and pursue. What will you do with that? What will you do with God’s extravagant love for you – not just people in general, but you specifically?

I invite you to dig in, listen carefully, trust hopefully, and believe anew this Christmas season. Amen.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Great Faith (Genesis 15.1-6)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
December 11, 2011
Some Music Used
Prelude : "Good Christians, All Rejoice" (Johann Michael Bach)
Advent Candle Hymn: "We Light the Advent Candle" (Grindal)
Hymn of Praise: "Long Ago, Prophets Knew" (Fred Pratt Green)
  The Word in Music: "Come, Come, Emmanuel" - Children's Choir (Bailey & Mayo)

Offering of Music: "Do You Have Room?" - Jim Terrell (Shawna Edwards)
Hymn of Sending: "Joy to the World" (ANTIOCH)
Postlude: "Joyful, Joyful/Jesu, Joy" (arr. Ham)

A Great Faith
Text: Genesis 15:1-6; Luke 1:46-55)


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

We’ve been looking at the story of Abram in Genesis as we move through Advent and prepare for Christmas. While the connection between Abram/Abraham and baby Jesus may not seem apparent, there are a number of connections between the two. Abram was waiting for the birth of a baby as God fulfilling His covenant promise to His people. This baby would signal God’s blessing on the world through a particular people. Abram faced obstacles, doubt, temptation, and even periods of unfaithfulness; and God was faithful. So it was with God’s people, Israel, as they waited for the coming of the Messiah. So it ever has been with us as we wait on God to keep His promises in our own lives.

Today we will see the humanness of Abram – both the doubt of his “back-up plan” and the great faith he put in God after a renewal of the promise. We will be reminded what faith is – with no answer in sight, it is believing that the Lord is faithful and true, and will come through. 

Back-Up Plan (vv. 1-4)

In chapter 14, we saw how the Lord sent a messenger, in the form of Melchizedek, to remind Abram of the greatness of the “Most High God.” Having refused to keep the earthly reward gained in the local “war of kings,” Abram tithes it to Melchizedek. Now, in chapter 15, the Lord speaks to Abram in a vision to remind him of the covenant. The Lord begins, “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; your reward shall be very great.”

It is at this point that Abram breaks out his back-up plan. The covenant promises of land and blessing seemed to be developing well enough, but Abram had not yet had a child to be his heir. So, he has lined up a relative in his house, one Eliezer of Damascus. But this was not what God had promised, as unlikely as God’s plan seemed to be at this point. Surely this was just pragmatism. In order for Abram’s house to continue, he had to have an heir. And so, he lined up Eliezer.

And yet, there is a touch of rebellion or impatience. Abram addresses God, seemingly in complaint, “Since you have given no offspring to me… (like you promised!)” (v. 3).

But God counters directly, “This man will not be your heir; but one who comes forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” Well, there could be no confusing the covenant promise now. There is no way to think that God meant the promise metaphorically or non-literally. God has re-upped and specified exactly what He would do. Abram will have a biological son and heir, period. 

A Renewed Promise (vv. 5-6)

At this point, God renews the original covenant promise in one of the most memorable and vivid descriptions in scripture. He takes Abram outside and tells him to look toward the heavens and count the stars… if he is able. Implicit in that statement is that God is able to count them, because God made them. This is the power standing behind the promise. And the Lord continues, “So shall your descendants be.” … uncountable. Even more explicitly than the first time, God has spelled out that Abram would have biological descendants numbering more than anyone could count.

I am reminded of one of the verses of the song, “Step by Step,” that I sing with the preschoolers. In the verse, Rich Mullins sang of this covenant promise, seeing himself in the midst of it:
Sometimes I think of Abraham
How one star he saw had been lit for me
He was a stranger in this land
And I am that, no less than he
And on this road to righteousness
Sometimes the climb can be so steep
I may falter in my steps
But never beyond Your reach
That’s precisely the connection we’ve been looking at. We are part of the promise to Abraham as well as those to whom God has promised He would never leave.

And finally, we are told of a great faith – not without moments of doubt, but with no answer yet in sight, believing that the Lord is faithful and true, and will come through. Look at verse 6: “Then [Abram] believed in the Lord; and [the Lord] reckoned it to him as righteousness. Hebrews later holds up this faith as an example of saving faith in the Old Testament. Abram trusted that God would do what He said He would do. God would yet do all the work, even as He would in Christ. But, in faith, Abram trusted. 

Mary: the Faith of a Mother (Luke 1)

I am reminded again of Mary, whose story is told in Luke 1. Last week we saw the connection between Melchizedek and Gabriel. So also this week I see a parallel between Abram and Mary. After receiving the news from Gabriel, Mary goes to visit her relative, Elizabeth, who is also pregnant. Elizabeth testifies again to the promises and faithfulness of God, even as in the vision Abram had. And, in response to this reminder of the promise, Mary speaks the words that have become known by their Latin name, the Magnificat.

She praises God for what He has promised, what He is doing through her child, and for what this would mean for future generations (v. 48). What I most wanted to highlight for you, comes in verses 54-55. She makes a direct connection between the faithful promises of God kept through her own pregnancy and the impending birth of Jesus, and the promises made to Abraham and his descendants, Israel. Listen… “[God] has given help to Israel His servant, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his descendants forever.”

I’m not making this connection up! God’s promise to Abram for land, descendants, and blessing – for the sake of the world – was not only fulfilled provisionally in the Old Testament, but completely through the birth of Jesus Christ. Even before Jesus was born, Mary recognized the connection with the promises of old. While Isaac would be the child Abram longed to hold, Jesus would be the child in whom the promise was finally fulfilled. 

Faith in the Age of iPads

So, here we are two thousand years later, rolling rapidly towards another Christmas morning. For what do we hope? Maybe it’s an iPad or the latest game or the newest fashion trend.

If you are a Christian, you know in your head that Christmas is about more than those things. If you stop and take time – which we encourage you to do! – you know that the Christmas question is not “For what do you hope?” but “In Whom do you hope?”

But here’s the challenge, and it’s the same challenge Abram and Mary faced. When there is no answer in sight, what do you do with God? When the second coming has not yet come, the heartfelt prayers have not been answered, and perhaps even the earthly material needs aren’t being met… what do you do with that? Especially at Christmastime… what do you do with that?

Abram started making his own back-up plan, just in case the God-thing didn’t work out. Do you do that? Do you have a back-up to God’s plan for you? It seemed to cross Joseph’s mind… or at least the narrator of the story. He could have “put Mary away quietly” to avoid the disgrace of her having a child out of wedlock. But, reminded of God’s faithfulness to His promises, Abram, Mary, and Joseph all trusted. They demonstrated faith.

That’s what I want to do this morning. It’s my one real purpose with this sermon. I want to remind you of God’s faithfulness to His promises – not to give us everything we wish for, but faithfulness to His promises. God is faithful! His story is told and validated throughout the pages of this Bible. His faithfulness is demonstrated once and for all through Jesus Christ, born at Christmas and obedient to the point of death for us on Good Friday… and God’s faithfulness is proven yet again on Easter morning. God IS faithful.

So what is your response to God? With Abram and Mary, God help me, I will believe! Will you? God grant us the strength and wisdom for it to be so. Amen.


Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Great Prophecy (Genesis 14.17-24)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
December 4, 2011
Some Music Used
Prelude : "Sing We Now of Christmas/God Rest Ye"
- Tanja Bechtler, cello (arr. Brandt Adams)
Advent Candle Hymn: "We Light the Advent Candle" (Grindal)
Song of Praise: "Here I Am to Worship" (Hughes)
Offering of Music: "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" - Tanja Bechtler, cello (arr. Jay Rouse)
Hymn of Sending: "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" (MENDELSSOHN)
Postlude: "Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying" (Burkhardt)

A Great Prophecy
Text: Genesis 14:17-24)


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

Last week we began talking about Abraham, which may seem like an unusual topic for the Christmas season. I chose Abraham because he, too, was waiting for the birth of a child. He, too, was trusting in God’s promises. He, too, had moments of doubt and wandering from God. He, too, experienced God’s faithfulness through promises graciously kept anyway. And he, too, found himself with Sarah, his wife, marveling at a newborn son, miraculously conceived and delivered.

My hope is that hearing Abraham’s story will help you and me enter more easily and fully into the Christmas story and into God’s promises and faithfulness towards us today.

Last week we left off in Genesis 12, with God making the first great covenant promises to Abraham, promises for land, descendants, and blessing in order to bless the whole earth. I shared how those promises were and are fulfilled and deepened in Jesus. God offers us an eternal home with Him (land), adopts and grafts us into His people (descendants), and offers us salvation and callings as the followers of Jesus (blessing) in order that we might share that Good News in the world.

Abraham’s story, like our own, was not a steady mountaintop experience of the presence of God or Abraham’s own human faithfulness. Rather, he faced some real hardship and also had periods of wavering faith. Immediately after our text from last week, Abraham faces famine and then war. I’ll briefly tell you about that and then we’ll see how God reminded Abraham of His Word and Promise.

War and Famine (chs. 12-14)

Famine

We left off in Genesis 12 with Abram reaching the place God had showed him. But then there was a famine in the land and Abram took his family to Egypt, where the waters of the Nile offered Egyptians some buffer against drought and famine. Abram lied for protection (and advantage) there, offering Sarai up as his sister. Indeed, she was taken into Pharaoh’s house and Abram treated well, but God struck Pharaoh’s house with plagues (sound familiar??) and the truth came out. Abram and his household were sent away with all that they had gained. It was a great foreshadowing of Moses and the Exodus, where God worked to deliver His people through plagues, despite the moral failings of His chosen leader. Though Abram’s story came first, I recall to you that Exodus story of God’s faithfulness despite our unfaithfulness.

Then, in Genesis 13 (vv. 3-4), Abram gets back to Bethel, where he had built the altar and worshiped in 12:8. He and Lot divided their herdsmen and families and Abram gave Lot the choice of where to go. Lot chose the more choice land (though he eventually moved to the city of Sodom), and Abram settled in the land of Canaan. And then, at the end of chapter 13, God renewed the covenant promises to Abram, promising land as far as he could see (vv. 14-15) and descendants as numerous as the dust of the earth (v. 16).

War

Then, in chapter 14, we read about the “war of the kings.” After a local clash of kings resulted in the defeat of all of the Jordan River valley and the capture of Abram’s nephew, Lot, Abram went after the victorious king and defeated him, rescuing his nephew and the possessions of the local kings. While Abram was not involved in the local clash, his victory in the course of rescuing Lot provided the responsibility to deal with the spoils of war. He was approached by two different local kings, who provided two distinctly different approaches to those spoils.

One of the local kings – the king of Sodom offered Abram a reward of the goods he recovered. Abram refused his offer, saying that the Lord God Most High had made him rich. But then, Melchizedek, the king of Salem, offered Abram bread and wine and blessed him in the name of God Most High. Abram received the bread and wine and gave Melchizedek a tenth of his possessions.

Precisely at the moment when Abram could have forgotten God, he was reminded of God’s authority and offered a choice to remember or forget God’s place in his life. Abram was at a seeming peak of success – rich, locally powerful, and in a place of influence. In a way, he was experiencing a version of the covenant promises of land, wealth, and influence. What would he do? Who would get credit?

Melchize…who?

Who was Melchizedek? We know he was king of Salem, presumably the region where the city of Salem or Jerusalem was later built. We can translate his name – it means King of Righteousness or “the Righteous King.” We know that he not only knew the real and living God, but was considered a priest of God before the priesthood was even established with Moses and Aaron. He was a godly King who also functioned as a priest of God and whose kingdom was known as “Peace.”

And he was a messenger from God to Abram. He was a preacher and a prophet as well as a king, because he reminded Abram of who God was and of the faithfulness of God to keep His promises. He recalled Abram to the covenant and to living faith in what God was yet to do.

Two kings come out to Abram after his victory. The king of Sodom invites Abram to keep the spoils of battle and become richer yet. (It also would have put Abram in his debt (v. 23)). The king of Salem, Melchizedek, invites Abram to worship and give thanks to el elyon, “God Most High.” Listen to his words again, offered after coming to Abram with bread and wine, and a blessing:
Blessed be Abram of God Most High,
Possessor of heaven and earth;
And blessed be God Most High,
Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.
Who is God of heaven and earth? Who gave Abram the victory? Who has brought Abram to this place? Who is faithful? El Elyon… God Most High.

A Great Prophet

Why do I focus on Melchizedek as we are trying to get ready for Christmas? It is because we need that reminder of what it’s all about. Abram, the father of God’s people, wandered and was faced with trial and temptation. And God spoke through a preacher/prophet to remind him what it was all about. Later, God’s people (Abraham’s descendants) would wander and be faced with trial and temptation. And God would send preacher-prophets to recall them to the covenant promises, to trust that God would do what He said He would do. The last human prophet was John the Baptist, who would announce Jesus’ coming in the days before his public ministry began. But in this season, I think more of Gabriel, who was sent to a young Mary and Joseph, to invite their trust in God in the midst of miraculous and confusing words about the birth of a child. They, too, could have chosen other paths, other explanations, to “put her away quietly” – but God sent a messenger to speak of God Most High. Listen to Gabriel’s words to Mary in Luke 1:30-35…
The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus.” … Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.”
It may be that those are the words you need to hear most this morning. Not the specific words to Abram or Mary, but the reminder that “the Most High God” is still on His throne and invested in your life. You need to know that the God in whom you trusted all those years ago still knows you and loves you and sees you and wants you. You need to know that, though you may have wandered and been tempted and even failed, that God still loves you and has a plan and purpose for you. You need to know that the Most High God invites you to turn, trust, and follow. You need to know that God’s promises are good, for a home, for a people, and to be blessed to be a blessing.

There will always be the other voices, like the other King who spoke to Abram. But God’s invitation stands. Come and trust in the Most High God, Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.