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Sunday, September 13, 2015

Living Rooted in God's Word (Psalm 1, John 14, Jeremiah 17)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; September 13, 2015
Text: Psalm 1; John 14:23-25; Jeremiah 17:5-8

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell." 

:: Some Music Used ::
Call to Worship: Christ is Made the Sure Foundation, GSPC choir (arr. Dale Wood)
Song of Praise: Break Thou the Bread of Life/Come Feed (trad. hymn, ref., Cathy Youngblood)
Word in Music: Speak, O Lord, GSPC choir (Getty/Townend; arr. Mary Mcdonald)
Hymn of Response: How Firm a Foundation (FOUNDATION)
Offering of Music: How Firm a Foundation, arr. Rick Bean, piano
Song of Sending: Every Promise of Your Word (Getty/Townend)
Postlude: Rick Bean, piano

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf)::
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose.

Today marks the startup of our Fall ministry season at Good Shepherd. With that I want to spend the month preaching on three of the core ministries of the church – not just this church, but any church. Those core ministries are Christian Education, Hospitality, and Christian Service. Today, with “Rally Day” and the start of our Fall Sunday school classes, I am going to focus on Christian Education. And really, the focus isn’t so much on how we do that, but on the subject of that education: God’s Word. We will start with an amazing illustration about God’s Word in the poetry of Psalms. We will look at how Jesus said we are to relate to that Word. And we will conclude with some of the benefits or blessings that God’s Word produces in our lives, especially when things get hard.

Study and Delight (Psalm 1)

When I thought about the importance of the Bible and learning God’s Word in Scripture, the first thing that came to mind was Psalm 1. I think it’s because the picture described there is such an easy one to picture. The picture is of a tree planted next to a stream of water. (v. 3) For that tree it doesn’t matter if the weather changes or if drought comes. The tree is rooted and those roots reach the life-giving water nearby. That allows the tree to bear fruit in season and not to weaken or wither or fade away.

Just like that healthy, fruit-bearing tree planted near life-giving water, spiritual health comes from our being rooted in and nourished by God’s Word in scripture. And the Psalmist gives us two specific non-metaphorical descriptions of how to relate to scripture in that way: study and delight.

By STUDY, I don’t mean cramming the night before a test. That’s not how we are to relate to scripture. The Psalm describes the blessed person as one who meditates in God’s Law day and night. I mean the kind of study that keeps returning again and again for more knowledge – and not just head-knowledge, but the kind of knowledge that is life-changing and life-giving. To ‘meditate’ on scripture is to read it and learn it and ponder it and test it and live it. That kind of study only starts in a Sunday school class, Bible study, or quiet time. It continues throughout the day and the week until it becomes part of who we are. And that kind of relationship with scripture is closely related to the other description given here.

To DELIGHT in God’s Word is to be captivated by it. It becomes something we enjoy and look forward to, not a burdensome chore or obligation. I realize there is not a delight switch that can make you love the Bible like some of us love ice cream. But that’s where the study comes in. It is very rare for someone to delight in something they only relate to casually and don’t spend much time with. It may be that studying the Bible starts as a decision and a commitment; but precisely because it is full of life and hope I think it will turn to delight. And if you can experience just a little delight, it makes it all the easier to then study and meditate on scripture.

Our desire in offering opportunities for study at Good Shepherd is not to put one more spiritual obligation on you, but to offer a place where you can, with others, experience both the study and the delight that is described in Psalm 1.

Love and Obedience (John 14)

Jesus also speaks of our relationship to God’s Word in John 14. And there it sounds like Jesus is, in fact, naming an obligation. For him, studying scripture is kind of a given because he speaks of OBEYING scripture. He says, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word.” (v. 23a) That does sound like obligation, doesn’t it? But it’s not a should/ought kind of obligation like what we are used to: “You should read your Bible more… a good Christian has a daily quiet time”… that sort of thing. It’s more like what we know or desire in our families. Children, if you love your parents you will listen to them and obey them. Or this might be more clear: you love your parents BY listening to them and obeying them. You love God BY obeying His Word. It’s not a conditional thing so much as a how-do-you-do-it thing. You’ve heard that God loves you; have you ever wondered how exactly to love God back? Jesus tells us: we love God when we keep or obey His Word. There is an intimate connection between love and obedience and that’s what Jesus is getting at here.

But what about the next part – the end of that sentence? “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word; and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our abode with him.” (v. 23) Does that mean that God only loves us when we obey Him? No, the Bible is clear that God loves us even when we are running the opposite direction. That’s the whole running story throughout the Bible of God pursuing us IN LOVE. And He has done so through His Word, His prophets, and even His Son. No, this verse describes what God’s love looks like – how we experience it – when we are obedient. We experience God’s love differently when we are disobedient. That’s true for parents and children, too. I love my children when they are obedient and when they are disobedient; but they experience that love differently. They feel it differently. And they and I can feel when things are out of sorts.

Let me re-read the verse to you, emphasizing these points about love and obedience and how we experience God in the process:

We love and honor God by keeping God’s Word. When we do so we will experience God’s love as God being “at home” in our lives.

It’s worth stating the flip-side of that. If you want to dishonor or express hatred toward God, then disobey His Word. What is amazing is that even if you do – even when we do – God will love you. But that love does not feel like being “at home.” It may feel intrusive, unwanted, and unsettling, like God’s love of Adan and Eve, Noah, David, Peter, or Paul. Or perhaps it will feel patient and persevering (like the Father’s love of the prodigal).

Obedience to God’s Word is not a condition of God loving us; it is how we express love toward God. We will only know how to keep God’s Word (and so love God) if we study and learn God’s Word.

Rooted During Drought (Jeremiah 17)

Finally, not only is knowing and obeying scripture how we express love and experience God’s presence, it is also one of the ways we experience God’s PROTECTION. In Jeremiah 17, there is a passage that sounds a lot like Psalm 1. There Jeremiah says that ‘trusting’ God is also like a tree planted by the water. And again we get the image of a tree rooted near the life-giving water, offering protection when the heat and drought come. (vv. 7-8)

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to drop the metaphor and name what “heat and drought” are for us, because we’ve experienced these things firsthand: job loss, betrayal, rejection, sickness, crushing debt, loss of a loved one… each of you has your own experience of “heat and drought.” The question Jeremiah raises for each of us is if we have a similar corresponding experience to “being planted and rooted by water.” Are you planted and rooted? Our various scriptures today name for us at least one way to do that: through study, delight, and obedience of God’s Word. And Jesus drew a direct connection between that and experiencing God’s love and presence in our lives… so much so that he described it as God “making a home” with us.

What does it sound and feel like in your “heat and drought” to be rooted in God’s love and presence with you?

Jeremiah adds one thing to the language of Psalm 1 that I find even more helpful. He names some of our emotions that get attached to the “heat and drought” – sometimes those emotions themselves become the “heat and drought.” He says of the one who is a rooted tree: that one “will not FEAR when the heat comes… and will not be ANXIOUS in a year of drought.” And not only that, but the “heat and drought” will not rob the person of life, for the rooted tree will continue to have green leaves and to yield fruit. (v. 8)

Do you ever find yourself crushed by the emotions surrounding the “heat and drought” circumstance?

Being rooted in God’s Word does not take away the tough stuff. But it anchors you… or to stick to the metaphor, it roots you and keeps you connected. One of the first things that we often experience during the tough stuff is a perceived distance from God. I’ve often heard from the wisest people I know that scripture has been such a resource when life has been hardest. Our feelings will fail us in those moments, but God will not; and God’s Word can be a lifeline back to the one who does love us and is present for us.

This past week I heard a wonderful testimonial of being spiritually rooted in just this kind of way. It was the Late Show interview between Stephen Colbert and Joe Biden. Knowing from his own experience of losing close family members to tragedy, Colbert asked Biden how his faith had sustained him since losing his son Beau to cancer this past year. I commend that interview to you. You can watch part 1 below (or click the time links to open a new window to youtube to VP Biden talking about his son at 2:20, then answering the faith question at 4:49). You can also click this link to see part 2 of the interview.

I encourage you – whether you are currently experiencing “heat and drought” or anxious about doing so or even if this is a time of relative peace and calm – find an opportunity to reconnect and root yourself in God’s Word. We have some great classes on Sunday morning. There are several Bible study options during the week. There are great resources online (though there is much to be said for also seeking out community). And may God bless and cultivate a delight in you for His Word. Amen.

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