Sunday, September 17, 2017

Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes (1 Corinthians 12.12-27)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; September 17, 2017 - 1 Corinthians 12:12-27

:: 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." 

:: Scripture and Music ::
Come, Christians, Join to Sing (MADRID)
Every Praise (Hezekiah Walker)
You are Mine (arr. Hayes) - worship choir
Oh, How Good it Is (Getty/Townend)
:: 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 we are starting a new series for the fall. It’s simply called “The Body.” That is a reference to one of the metaphors used many times in scripture to describe the Church. Over the coming weeks we will be looking at a number of those passages and the way that the human body illustrates and helps us understand how we relate to Jesus and each other. Today we are looking at Corinthians, a letter by the Apostle Paul to the early church in Corinth. That group had its issues (but who doesn’t?!) In particular, different spiritual gifts in the church were being ranked above others, and in general there was a “look at me” kind of attitude that distracted from worship of God and damaged relationships within the church. And so Paul wrote to his beloved fellow-believers to call them to a unity of spirit – unity of THE Spirit, that God would be worshiped and people would care for each other. Now, I’m not saying we have that Corinthian problem, but any church – ours included – will be blessed by growing in the worship of God and the care of people. In fact, that sounds a lot like the Great Commandment, doesn’t it? Love God; love others. So, in today’s text, Paul talks a little theology, but mainly offers this extended analogy of the church being one body with Christ. And it’s something I encourage you to take to heart.

One in Christ (vv.12-13)

Paul sets out what he has to say in verse 12: “For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ.” Now he’s going to break that down and explore the implications of that shortly, but there is what he’s trying to say in a nutshell. The church is ONE body with Christ.

Now that’s already an analogy, because he starts it out with “even as” – just like the body, so is our spiritual reality. But before he really dives into the metaphor, he offers the theology behind what he’s saying: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” (v.13) The church is not supposed to be a ranked or caste system of insiders and outsiders, but one of equal and full participation in what God is doing. This particular verse conjures up the separate water fountains of the 60s; but God has a different plan, with different nationalities and socio-economic statuses in the same line for the same outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit.

And while the issue in Corinth was manifestly about gifting and role in church, no doubt there were ethnic and cultural divisions underlying and, perhaps, emphasizing the presenting issues around spiritual gifts as well.

But I will be the first to admit – even as a theologian – that hearing that you and I are “baptized into one body and made to drink of one Spirit” makes me think unity, but doesn’t really explain to me why that unity is good or how it works. So, with my appreciation, Paul turns to this analogy of the body.

Illustration #1: the body (vv. 14-24)

He really takes his time with this, in verses 14-24 (and beyond), and walks us through the theology by using the analogy. And I would divide the illustration into two parts. In the first, he illustrates the benefit of one body having many parts. In the second part he addresses the tendency to think some parts are more important or “honorable” than others.

So, for the first part, in verses 14-19, he sets the body parts to talking. You can almost connect the dots: maybe these were actual statements from members of the Corinthian church. So he imagines a foot saying, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body.” We know that’s ridiculous, right? Obviously, a foot is still a part of the body! And he repeats it with an ear also wondering if it doesn’t belong since it is not an eye. That’s the benefit of the analogy: we hear the ridiculousness that we otherwise miss. “Well, I’m not in the choir… [actually, let me be even more pointed]… I don’t really like to sing, I don’t really belong in this very musical church.” Or, “I’m new and don’t know a lot of people; I don’t really belong yet.” Paul’s claim is even stronger than “Yes, you do belong at Good Shepherd” it’s “You are part of the one Body of Jesus Christ and you are every much a part of that Body as the person singing at the microphone or as one of our elders, or anyone else here.”

That point flows naturally into the second: we tend to have a false tendency to elevate some roles over others. So perhaps we think the people in front of microphones are more important than people sitting in the back row. Or those who are highly visible matter more than those who are not. And Paul addresses that in verses 22-24, saying that all the parts are necessary, and those which are deemed weaker or less honorable are worthy of appreciation. So this is not talking about function. There are only a handful of people that can run the sound board. It does not mean that putting little Millie on the sound board is what we need to do. It is talking about belonging to Christ. My standing at the pulpit or your sitting in your “regular spot” or running the sound board with skill or reaching out to the community in the garden do not give higher or lower standing with Jesus. Those are all different functions like an eye seeing or a hand squeezing or a liver purifying the system. But each of you – EACH OF YOU – belong to Christ simply because he loves you and you trust him.

In between those two points of the body having many parts and those parts belonging to the one body, Paul makes two other applications within the analogy. In verses 17-19, he asks, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?” His point? We would not be complete with a whole church of sound booth operators, or seminary-trained preachers (yikes!), or 30 year-old white men. A body is made of many parts/members; that’s how God has desired and designed it (v.18) and that’s what a body is (v.19). And so, application two: don’t dare say to a member of the body, “I have no need of you.” That’s hurtful, harmful, and it’s a lie.

Other Illustrations

Let me break out of the analogy altogether (so avoiding using ‘body’ language) and try to state the points Paul is trying to make:

1.    The church is made up of a diverse set of people
2.    That amazingly diverse group of people make up one people belonging to God
3.    With God’s people, there is no place of honor, except perhaps to raise up the least among us
4.    To the extent that we push out or restrict the full breadth of God’s people, we distort and reduce the image of God that we bear

I’d like to offer briefly two other analogies for God’s people to see if we can hear these points more clearly and freshly. I went to the Butler-Providence game this past Friday night, so these two analogies are fresh on my mind.

Pep Band

So both schools had their bands there. Bands play at key times throughout the game, to celebrate what is happening on the field or to encourage the team and fans audibly. They are a part of the whole school there, which included team, students, cheerleaders, fans, band, guard, and more. But let’s focus on them for a minute. Let’s run our four points with the band.

1.    A band is made up of a diverse set of instruments.
2.    That diverse set of instruments also made up one band – as opposed to sitting randomly in the stands with a trumpet and playing whenever you wanted.
3.    We may be inclined to have favorites – oh, I love the drumline (after all, my kid is there) or the brass. We may be inclined to discount the flutes; who can even hear them? But they all play a role, sometimes seen and heard, sometimes not. In fact, during one song on Friday, the band was dancing and the flutes were dancing the best, perhaps because they didn’t have to also hold 40 pounds of brass on their shoulder while dancing.
4.    What if we played to our favorites – let’s just get rid of flutes and clarinets and maybe a few other things. While there are such things as a brass band, at that game, it would have reduced what having a pep band is for. We needed them all!

Sports Team

And of course there was a game going on as well. Think about the football team. Who comes to mind? The quarterback? The linemen? The kicker? The head coach? Other coaches? The assistants or medical staff? They all play a vital role for the whole.

1.    A team is made up of a diverse set of people and roles (not all of which even step onto the field itself!)
2.    That diverse set of individuals make up one team, especially as they work together towards one purpose.
3.    We may be inclined to have favorites – either because you know someone in one of those roles (when our team played against Myers Park last year, we found ourselves cheering for their kicker, because “we know him!”) or because we tend to think of certain roles as more important. Certainly some roles are more visible than others, but ask any coach or player… the effectiveness of the whole depends on EVERY person doing their role well. This past Friday, the game was more determined by extra point kickers and by sportsmanship decisions than by the QBs. Every role important!
4.    And what if we just had a few positions playing? Just two kickers squaring off, or two linemen without a ball? or two coaches without a team? It might be curiously interesting for a moment, but it wouldn’t be football.

God’s Purpose: Unity and Care (vv. 24b-27)

So, back to the church. Hopefully you’ve heard Paul well by this time. Because of and through Jesus, you are all part of this people of God. And God both desires and designed the many different ways we go together. Paul ends our text today by talking about the purpose behind God’s design. Listen: “But God has so composed the body… so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.” (vv. 24b-25) God’s purpose is two-fold: unity and care. It’s the two “so that’s” you just heard. It is so that there may be no division… that’s UNITY. And it is so that you may CARE for one another. He elaborates on the care. Because we are one, “if one member suffers, all the members suffer… if one is honored, all rejoice.” (v. 26)

So whether or not our issues line up with those of Corinth, what God desires and has designed for us is the same: that we would know unity in Christ and that we would suffer and rejoice with each other. That’s a healthy body; that’s an exciting pep band; that’s an effective team!

In the coming weeks we are going to look at several other significant texts which also deal with the Body of Christ. I invite you to come back and go deep, for you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it. Amen.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Living Word of God (Psalm 129, Matthew 5.17-19)

 Sermon by: Robert Austell; September 10, 2017 - Psalm 119; Matthew 5:17-19

:: 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." 

:: Scripture and Music ::
Wonderful Words of Life (arr. Austell)
Good, Good Father (Tomlin)
Everlasting God (Brown)
Come, Thou Fount (NETTLETON)
Show Us Christ (arr. Grassi) - worship choir, benediction
:: 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 we are going to look at Psalm 119, which is a very special Psalm focused on the Law or Word of God. Why do I say it’s special? There are several reasons. With 176 verses, it is the longest chapter in the Bible. And almost every one of those 176 verses refers to one of eight words (synonyms) for God’s Word: including Law, statues, testimonies, word, judgments, precepts, ordinances, and commandments.

On top of that, it is an ACROSTIC poem, which means that it is tied to the Hebrew alphabet. This was often done to aid with memorization. So, there are 22 stanzas of eight verses and each one is tied to a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. And when I say ‘tied’ I mean it is really tied. Every one of the eight lines of a given stanza starts with the same letter of the alphabet. So, the first stanza is the ‘aleph’ or ‘A’ stanza, and each line starts with the Hebrew letter aleph. So imagine, eight lines start with the letter ‘A’ and each line has a reference to God’s Word. Then eight lines starting with ‘B’ and so on.

Primarily we are going to listen to God’s Word, but I will briefly reflect on each stanza before or after we hear it. Now that acrostic feature is lost in translation to English. Not only do the words not necessarily start with the same letter, but Hebrew word order is different, so the A-word isn’t necessarily the first English word you see in your translation. So, I have prepared slides and a handout with the acrostic word in bold. You’ll see that it sometimes is the first word in English, but sometimes gets moved later in the sentence after translation. I have also put the reference to God’s Law or Word in bold all-caps.

Finally, to try to give you a sense of what you are missing from the Hebrew, I have chosen an English word that starts with the acrostic letter of each stanza to summarize that stanza. So, for example, I have chosen “ABIDING” to summarize the main idea of the ‘A’ stanza. As we go through I’ll say a bit about each stanza, then give you the one or two word summary word in English that starts with the letter corresponding to that stanza.

We ABIDE with God when we ‘walk’ according to his Word. In this stanza you will hear language of ‘observing’ and ‘learning’ and ‘keeping’ and ‘walking.’ It is a description of life lived in obedience to God. And the way we know what that looks like is by intimate knowledge of, love for, and obedience to God’s written Word. This stanza sets up the whole Psalm/song by inviting us to “make our home” in God’s Word as we live life.

The next stanza features the word ‘blessed’ and the pronoun for mine and yours, which is a ‘b’ tacked on words like heart, lips, and several of the variations for God’s Word. Overall, the focus is on the blessing of belonging to God and holding God’s Word in our hearts and lives, so I doubled up on the B’s and call this section BLESSED BELONGING.

The ‘G’ stanza names a number of difficult situations – being a stranger, being crushed, dealing with the anger and contempt of others; God’s Word in its various forms offers encouragement, strength and serves as a ‘counselor.’ I chose the word GRACE because of the way God cares for us through His Word in these difficult situations.

The next section is ‘D’ (I know this doesn’t match our ABCs) and uses the word for ‘way’ four times to describe how God’s Word leads us through life. So, I chose the word DIRECTION to summarize this stanza.

The next section is ‘H.’ This letter shows up a little differently. Instead of showing up as different words, it is a prefix put on the front of verbs to make them an imperative (or appeal). So we have eight appeals to God: teach me, give me understanding, make me walk, etc… So I chose the word HELP to illustrate calling out to God for help through His Word and teaching.

The next letter is ‘V/W’ and it is also unusual like the ‘H’ was… it is the word ‘and’ or ‘also’ and can be tacked onto any word to say “and ___.” In this stanza it has the effect of piling up the eight verses to say “God’s Word does this” AND “God’s Word does this” so I chose WHAT’S MORE to illustrate the abundance that we find in God’s Word.

There’s a certain word that repeats several times. It’s ‘remember’ which starts with the Hebrew ‘Z.’ This stanza demonstrates the value in remembering God’s Word when we are in difficult places. I couldn’t think of a Z word, so I chose MEMORIZE (hear the Z in the middle?) as one way we can remember God’s promises.

The next letter is one Hebrew has that we do not. It is ‘Heth’ and the closest we have is a ‘CH’ sound. You may have heard me speak of Hesed before; it shows up in the last of the eight verses as ‘lovingkindness’ – it is God’s compassion and faithful, enduring love. While the CH words vary widely, the stanza as a whole is about this love of God, so I chose the word CHERISHED.

There was one predominant word in several English forms in this stanza – did you hear it? Good, better, well – they all point to who God is and what God is like: a good Father. I chose the word TRUE for this stanza.

The next stanza features ‘Y’ – two Y-words are ‘hands’ and ‘know’ and then it shows up as another prefix on verbs that you see in English five times as “May you….” So I chose the word YOU since all of these focus in a personal way towards God as our help and hope.

In an interesting pairing with the preceding YOU stanza, this K (or hard C) stanza catalogues a series of low points in life: a languishing soul, eyes failing, a wineskin in the smoke, pits, and near destruction. So I chose COLLAPSED, realizing that more than ever we need God’s help.

The ‘L’ stanza speaks of God’s Word and faithful character as continuing, being exceedingly broad, and lasting forever. So I chose the word LASTING to describe this stanza. Listen to where this theme shows up.

The ‘M’ stanza mostly uses the Hebrew letter ‘mem’ to show that the resources of God’s Word (particularly wisdom) is greater than any other resources or power. So I chose the word MORE to highlight this “more than” feature of God’s Word. 

That may look like an I, but it is an ‘N’ – and the sense of the whole stanza is that we are to be INCLINED toward God and His Word. We look to it as a lamp, we incline our will in allegiance, we make offerings, and so forth. The last line summarizes this as we “incline our hearts” in obedience.

With God as hiding place and shield, and words like sustain and uphold, I could not come up with one ‘S’ word, so chose several: we are SUPPORTED, SAFEGUARDED, and SUSTAINED by God. Where do we learn more about this? In God’s Word and as we obey that Word!

The next stanza is for the Hebrew letter ‘ayin’ which is not really an ‘A’ but that’s the closest thing we have. I chose ATTUNED because it starts with ‘I have done justice and righteousness’ – in other words, “God, I’m tuned in, be with me!” And there is language of serving God as well as the overarching theme of reading, heeding, and trusting God’s Word.

For ‘P’ there was no one word to make me think of a PRESENT, but the overall idea of this stanza suggested that to me… from the delight in the word ‘wonderful’ to the plea for God to “be gracious to me” to the picture of God’s “face shining upon us” – I thought, God’s Word and God’s presence really are a PRESENT to us!

One of the more unusual Hebrew letters is “tsadhe” which corresponds to a TS sound in English. While there are several TS words used in this stanza, the word for ‘righteous’ and ‘righteousness’ are so central to Biblical theology overall, and it happened to have a T and S if you kind of get creative. RIGHTEOUSNESS is so important in the Bible as a whole because it is the nature of God’s holiness and lack of it is what keeps us from God. It is Jesus’ obedient act of compassion (hesed) on the cross that ultimately covers us with righteousness. So this stanza is an appropriate lead in to our time of confession and the assurance of God’s grace.

The next stanza is ‘Q’ (or close enough to it). In this stanza the Psalmist does a lot of crying out, looking in hope, and calling out to God. So I chose the word QUESTION, which is a very appropriate way to approach God and His Word.

The calling out and pleading for God’s intervention continues in the ‘R’ stanza, as the Psalmist says: Look on my affliction, plead my cause, Revive me, and more. So I chose REVIEW, asking that God REVIEW my situation and help.

The next stanza is a letter that makes a ‘SH’ sound. Again, I could not settle on one word or image, so I chose SHIELD and SHEPHERD, pointing to two ways in which God protects and cares for us.

The next stanza is the last of Psalm 119 and is a (different) letter ‘T’ from one we had earlier (tet). In most cases in this stanza, this is another prefix which is translated ‘let’ in English. So, I chose ENTREATY, though in this stanza it is a double ENTREATY, first to self (e.g. to “utter praise”), but then to God to hear and respond to our ENTREATIES.

And finally, the choir will sing a benediction over us. In it they sing “Show Us Christ.” And this is the net effect of Psalm 119 and all of God’s Word. Think of some of those one-word summaries: BLESSED, GRACE, HELP, TRUE, PRESENT, RIGHTEOUS. We could trace each one to a teaching of Jesus to see how he embodies each one… but I won’t today. I would read this one summary passage from the Gospel of Matthew (5:17-19)

17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

All of this, all of God’s Words, all of God’s will, is to show us Christ, who in turn has shown us God and made a way for us TO God. Listen now and receive the choir’s benediction. Amen!

Sunday, September 3, 2017

LIght in the Dark (Psalm 27, John 1, Romans 8)

 Sermon by: Robert Austell; September 3, 2017 - Psalm27; John 1:1-5; Romans 8:15-17

:: 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." 

:: Scripture and Music ::
Singing Together: No Longer Slaves (Helser)
Singing Together: Our Confidence is in the Lord (Richards; arr. Austell)
Hymn of Sending: The Solid Rock (SOLID ROCK)
:: 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 in our summer “Psalm+1” series, we look at Psalm 27, which deals with God’s help when we are afraid. We will also look at John 1 and Romans 8 as New Testament passages that remind us of just what Psalm 27:1 says, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” Along the way we will discover some tools God gives us for strengthening our trust and hope in Him.

What Do You Fear?

What do you fear? What makes you afraid?

If phobias first jumped to mind (spiders, snakes, etc…), let me press in a little different direction. What makes you worry?

Listen to the list of dangers, evils, and trouble in Psalm 27. Some are real and already experienced; others are potential, something perhaps to worry about:

- evildoers who came to devour my flesh, my adversaries and enemies (v. 2)
- a host (army) encamped against me… war raised against me (v. 3)
- a “day of trouble” (v. 5)
- enemies around me (v. 6)
- God hiding His face, turning away in anger, abandoning/forsaking me (v. 9)
- adversaries, false witnesses, violent people (v. 12)
- I would have despaired…. (v. 13)

If you listened to the whole of Psalm 27 as it was read, you know that these fears were mixed in the middle of faithful prayer, seeking, and trusting God. But they still amounted to two real fears: 1) that these many dangerous and violent adversaries would overcome me; and 2) that God would not show up, not help.

What Shall We Do With Our Fears?

What shall we do with our fears? All alone, of course, fear is not an unhealthy thing. It is the appropriate reaction – often instinctually – to danger. In some contexts it can save our lives. The real problem comes when fear turns to worry and anxiety. Our fears themselves can become the adversary and enemy, taking on a life of their own. They can become our gods, that which directs our path, our choices and behavior. Our fears can enslave us, stealing our freedom, joy, and purpose.

What shall we do with our fears? I do not have quick or easy answers, but I would point you to several themes in Psalm 27. None of these are the kind of antidote you can purchase off the shelf, but are patterns of belief and behavior, habits that can only be ingrained over time and practice. Let me describe them, then return to the question of what to do with our fears.

Confidence in the Lord (vv. 1-3)

Confidence seems like a strange place to start, and it is. Confidence is the fruit of belief and behavior made habit; it’s not the starting place. But this is poetry and the Psalmist isn’t teaching a lesson, but describing life. Consider it an up-front description of the hope and courage this Psalmist has found in the face of serious challenges. I’ll come back and say more in a bit, but will simply note know that the confidence isn’t in the writer’s own strength or cleverness or resources, but in God. Too often we plug something or someone other than God into the lines: ______ is my light and salvation; _____ is the defense of my life. And if we put lesser things or people as our light, salvation, and defense, is there any wonder our confidence is shaky? But, I also understand that one does not just decide to be confident in the Lord. It is the result of something else.

Seeking God’s Presence (vv. 4-10)

In vv. 4-10, the writer describes “one thing I shall ask and seek” – in a word, it is to know God. This is a person who is choosing to cultivate faith and behaviors that LOOKS for God. You can read in these words the patterns of worship, of offering, of singing, of praying:

- v. 4 – prayer (asked), seek, dwell, behold, meditate
- v. 6 – offer sacrifices, shouts of joy, I will sing praises

We often want to focus on WHY we struggle, but it is more important (and helpful!) to focus on WHO God is. You see that in this writer’s words. You can never go wrong praying for God to show Himself to you!

Learning While We Wait (vv. 11-14)

I appreciate the reality of this Psalm: God isn’t waiting at the drive-thru window to immediately dispense whatever we have ordered up in prayer. Rather, seeing and experiencing God is relational, not unlike cultivating relationships with people. Those take time as well. Those relationships often involve some waiting and seeking. Meanwhile, the writer cultivates more habits of faith and behavior. “Teach me your way” (v. 11) recognizes the need to learn about God and God’s will. “Wait for the Lord” (v. 11) recognizes the discipline of cultivating relationship, even if it’s with a holy God.

A Picture of Confidence

I said I would come back to confidence, which I said was the fruit of belief and behavior made habit. I’d like to try to illustrate the importance of cultivating habits of faith and behavior as relates to confidence in the Lord.

It’s high school marching band season. Heather and I went to parent preview night a few weeks ago and got to see our high school band going through the paces and previewing some of their show. The director shared some of the process of the rigorous “band camp” leading up to the start of school. They learn the notes, learn the marching patterns and start and stop points on the field. And then they drill them – over and over and over and over… three hours, four hours, ten hours, even twelve hours a day. Day after day, week after week. They drill to create muscle memory. And they drill to create confidence, because if there is confusion, if there is hesitation, you will get your band on the #failarmy video of the week… tubas colliding, color guard being run over… and embarrassment in front of friends and family and the competition.

Have you ever practiced anything like that – over and over to create muscle memory and confidence? That’s a picture of what the Psalmist is describing in these verses. Worship, offering, prayer, serving, learning; it creates spiritual muscle memory that leads to confidence when things are shaken.

Pictures of Help and Hope

I also want to offer two other pictures of God’s help and hope, found in the other scriptures we read today. Both are in the New Testament.

John 1 opens with a description of the Word who was in the beginning with God and who was and is God. John goes on to name Jesus as the Life and Light of humanity. And verse five offers the first picture of help and hope that I want to mention to we who might be afraid. That Light, which is Christ, shines in the darkness and the darkness did not comprehend (or overcome) it. What fear is more foundational to humanity than darkness? We can’t see, we feel alone, and it is related to what we fear about death. But John announces the Good News as this: the Light shines in the darkness. Because of Jesus, we can see and we are not alone. Light is hope; light is help.

Romans 8 offers moving pictures, framing a story in just a few verses. Beginning with “you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again,” (v. 15) it explains that in Chirst we are now FREE because we have been adopted by “Abba Father” as children of God (v. 16). So the story is that we are no longer slaves, but adopted children, so fully counted as family that we are named as ‘heirs’ – written into the metaphorical will as inheritors of God’s spiritual riches. What a journey of salvation-rescue that is, from fear-slaves to inheriting children.

Both John 1 and Romans 8 offer vivid pictures of exactly what Psalm 27 holds up in the very first verse: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?”

Hear that Good News; use the tools and steps God gives to develop that spiritual muscle memory so that when things become shaky, your confidence will be in the Lord. Amen.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

PRAISE! (Psalm 148,150, Luke 19)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; August 27, 2017 - Psalm 148,150; Luke 19:37-40

:: 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." 

:: Scripture and Music ::
Singing Together: Every Praise (Hezekiah Walker, John David Bratton)
Singing Together: Great Are You, Lord (Ingram, Jordan, Leonard)
Offering of Music, Men's Choir: Praise the Lord! (Rick Bean)
Song of Praise: All Creatures of Our God and King (v.1) (LASST UNS ERFREUEN)
Hymn of Sending: Holy, HOly, Holy (NICAEA)
:: 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.

Did you ever sing the song, “Hallelu,” when you were a kid? It’s the first song I teach the preschoolers every year. Partly it’s because the words are so simple. Will you sing it with me if you know it?

    Hallelu, hallelu, hallelu, halleluia; praise ye the Lord. 
    Hallelu, hallelu, hallelu, halleluia; praise ye the Lord. 
    Praise ye the Lord; Halleluia! Praise ye the Lord; Halleluia! 
    Praise ye the Lord; Halleluia! Praise ye the Lord!

That is essentially Psalm 148 and Psalm 150. The word ‘hallelu’ is Hebrew for ‘praise ye’. It’s a command, and imperative: (you) praise. ‘Hallelu-yah’ puts the short version of the Lord’s holy name (Yahweh) onto the end, so: (you) praise the Lord! If you look at Psalm 148 in Hebrew you see something like this (I’m leaving out some of the articles and prepositions):

    Hallelu Yah (the LORD)
    Hallelu the YHWH min ha samayim (the LORD from the heavens)
    Hallelu hu beha meromim (Him in the heights)
    Hallelu hu kal we malakay (Him, all His angels)

And it goes on, ‘hallelu’ him all His hosts; ‘hallelu’ him, sun and moon. Psalm 150 is the same: ‘hallelu yah’ then ‘hallelu’ God in His sanctuary; ‘hallelu’ Him in His mighty expanse and so forth.

Today, looking at these two Psalms at the end of the Book of Psalms, we see that the theme of PRAISE is the grand conclusion of the collection of 150 songs of Israel. We will also look at a fascinating passage from the New Testament, in which Jesus speaks of stones crying out in praise of God. Today we will talk about what it means to praise God and see that it is one of the most important activities in which we can participate.

Praise: When, Where, and Why (Psalms 148,150)

We opened the service with portions of Psalm 148, which surveys the wide swath of creatures and beings engaged in and exhorted to praise God. These include angels, heavenly hosts, sun, moon, stars, heavens, waters, kings of the earth, princes and rulers, young men and women, old men and children, and more!

Psalm 150 is also all about praise, but takes a different tack, calling for praise in the sanctuary, in the mighty expanse, and with a range of instruments: trumpet, harp, lyre, timbrel, stringed instruments, pipe, cymbals, and more cymbals! There is dancing, too! We are invited to praise God for His mighty deeds and according to His excellent greatness – for Who He is and for what He’s done. And finally, as the last word of Psalm 150 and of all the collection of Psalms, we hear this encompassing charge: Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord! (v. 6)

There’s not much room for confusion there – praise is the activity of all things in all places, for God is worthy. But what exactly IS praise?

What is Praise?

We know what it is to praise another person: “Hey, great game!” or “You look good today!” It’s a kind of compliment or acknowledgment of a positive action or attribute.

When we think about God it is easy to merge together things like thanks, love, and praise. Right? If we say, “I love you, Lord,” that is praise, right?

Psalm 150 provides a great definition of praise in verse 2 when it says, “Praise Him for His mighty deeds; praise Him according to His excellent greatness.” I summarize that as “for Who God is and for what He has done.” But we often imagine that as a private activity (like in the slide of the man, arms raised, at the sunset). But there is another component of praise that is important to note. Generally, praise is PUBLIC. Just look back at both those Psalms: praise is enjoined in all places, by all things, by all people, with every means possible. While private praise may be possible, it seems evident that the point of praise is that it be heard and witnessed and public.

For that reason, I want to suggest an easy mnemonic to remember what praise is: pull out the first letter and think of it as P-raise… the P is for ‘public’ and RAISE is what we do with the Lord’s name. We raise or lift up God’s name in a public way. That’s praise! That’s where worship and mission meet, for if we are loving and serving God, we will share God’s heart for the world and desire for the world to hear and know that the Lord is God. Our words and actions become a public raising of God’s name: PRAISE.

Can Stones Really Praise? (Luke 19)

I searched in the New Testament to find an example of the word ‘praise’ being used and found the passage from Luke 19. It is the account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday. He was welcomed as the expected Messiah and Luke tells us that “the whole crowd of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice.” (v. 37) Those folks who shouted, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord” were publicly raising up God’s name and works for all to hear.

But here’s the part I want to focus on, because (for one) I’ve never spoken directly about this and it adds so much to the concept of praise. After the Pharisees tried to hush the disciples, Jesus responded to them, “I tell you, if these [disciples] become silent, the stones will cry out!” I’ve always loved that imagery, but never quite known what to do with it, other than kind of shame humanity into praise, like “you don’t want to make the rocks have to do your job, do you?”

But here’s what scripture says, in Psalm 148 (and elsewhere): God’s very creation engages in praise. That’s why the sun, moon, stars, and seas can praise Him. It’s because praise publicly raises up the character or work of God and what does that more publicly than God’s glorious creation. Think about the eclipse last week. What an amazing event, with the small moon at just the right distance from the earth to block out the ginormous sun. More than a few believing friends marveled at God’s power and design when they saw the eclipse. More than a few folks who don’t identify with a particular faith were moved deeply and spiritually by seeing it. Even a few agnostic or questioning folks marveled at the precision and specificity required for such an event to occur as it does. And that’s just one thing. Whether you explore the immensity of the universe or the tiny, tiny intricacies of cells, DNA, or sub-atomic particles; it is simply amazing. And sure, some people simply cannot or will not see God behind those wonders. But that’s not Jesus’ point: he claims, with Psalm 148, that the stones and very creation itself are publicly raising up God’s character and work.

An Essential Activity

So here’s why praise is so vital for us. It’s not because God needs the affirmation. That’s warping the definition of praise because that’s what WE so often get out of being praised. Instead, praise is where we engage with who God is and what God is doing, and that is our reason for being here. Praise then is more than singing ‘hallelu’ to God (privately or publicly); praise is living out our faith PUBLICLY – that is, in the community and in the world. Jesus said, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works… and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) Praise is not a private me-and-Jesus moment, but following Jesus who left Heaven to enter into this world. The public nature of raising God up is not for the sake of you or I being seen, but in bringing glory to God. Praise asks what God is doing in the world He loves and joins in. It is as much or more what we do out there as what we do in here.

The stones crying out are not your backup singers; they are a reminder that God’s creation already publicly declares who God is. Our invitation is to join in, not turn away. It is the same invitation God gives every human and praise is our response to that gracious invitation. Amen.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

If Not for God (Psalm 124, Ephesians 6.10-18a)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; August 20, 2017 - Psalm 124; Ephesians 6:10-18a

:: 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." 

:: Scripture and Music ::
Singing Together: Your Name (Baloche, Packiam)
Singing Together: I Have a Shelter (Cook, Kauflin)
The Word in Music, Dawn Anthony-vocalist: If the Lord Had Not Been on Our Side (Dourox)
Offering of Music, Dawn Anthony-vocalist: Lamb of God (Twila Paris)
Hymn of Sending: Be Still My Soul (FINLANDIA)
:: 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 (this is one of those). Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.

We are continuing in our summer series, entitled “Psalm +1.”  Each week we are looking at one of the Psalms, from the songbook of God’s people; and we are pairing it with a text from the New Testament which connects or opens up the Psalm to the Good News of Jesus Christ. This week we are looking at Psalm 124, one of the Psalms called a “Psalm of Ascent,” to be sung on the walk up to the Temple in Jerusalem. In this particular song, the Lord is being praised as Deliverer, with the imagery bringing to mind the Exodus, when God delivered His people from slavery in Egypt. The New Testament passage we will look at is Ephesians 6, which is the description of the “Armor of God” – the spiritual resources God has provided His people to withstand wickedness and evil in the present day.

This year and last week we talked about the concept of blessing – whether our act of blessing God or God’s act of blessing us. We talked about the place of blessing being a place of aligning with God’s Will and Word. As I re-read today’s texts, chosen back in May, the language of slavery, rising up, anger, and rage speak powerfully into our modern context, as does language of deliverance and help. The Psalm and the Ephesians text also make clear that help is in the name of the Lord, but that does not absolve humanity – and US – from participating in what God is doing. And that brings me back to blessing – precisely what we have the opportunity and responsibility to do is to align ourselves with what God is doing. So, let’s look together at these texts and listen for what the Holy Spirit would say to us.

Singing the Exodus (Psalm 124)

Exodus has been called the “Gospel” of the Hebrew scriptures. Exodus tells the story of God delivering His people from 400 years of slavery in Egypt. To do so, God raises up Moses, an unlikely front man for a number of reasons. He is older, he stutters, and he has run away from Egypt for murdering an Egyptian. And yet… God calls him, equips him, and sends him to confront the ruler of Egypt and say on behalf of the Lord, “Let my people go.” After no less than ten plagues – miraculous signs of God’s power – and much back and forth and changing of Pharaoh’s mind, he finally relents and the Hebrew people flee in the night. Even then, Pharaoh changes his mind and sends the army after them to bring them back (or kill them) and God parts the waters of the Red Sea to allow the Hebrew people to escape, while causing the Egyptian army to enact judgment on the Egyptians. It is the core story of God’s power and deliverance in the Hebrew scriptures and is still remembered every Passover.

Psalm 124 appears to be a song reflecting on that that deliverance. Verses 2b-7 describe with various images, some metaphor and some frighteningly literal (when you think about the Red Sea):

    Men rose up against us…
they would have swallowed us alive
when their anger was kindled against us (v.2b-3)
    Waters would have engulfed us,
the stream would have swept over our soul,
the raging waters would have swept over our soul. (v.4-5a)

The deliverance is pictured in imagery of wild animals escaping death and the snare:

    [The Lord] has not given us to be torn by their teeth (v.6b)
    Our soul has escaped as a bird out of the snare of the trapper (v.7a)
    The snare is broken and we have escaped (v.7b)

And then bracketing all that is the refrain that points to the Lord as the source of deliverance:
    Had it not been the Lord who was on our side…
    [Let Israel now say] – as if to say, “Let’s all sing this one together!”
    Had it not been the Lord who was on our side… (v.1-2)
    Our help is in the name of the Lord
        who made heaven and earth. (v.8)

One of the ways people remember is to put history to song. It was important to not forget slavery, the danger of escape, and the miraculous deliverance of the Lord.  One of the reasons we opened the service with another Psalm is that Psalm 121 expands on “our help is in the name of the Lord” – it asks and answers “From where shall my help come?” (v.1) Those who trust in the Lord are wise to remember and to hope in God for help in every age and every situation.

But does God still do “Red Sea” miracles? I certainly believe He can, but I also read in the New Testament that Jesus was like a 2nd Moses, not only setting people free from sickness and bondage in his earthly ministry, but this time coming to deliver those enslaved by sin, through an even more deadly trial – that of the cross. After that more complete deliverance, we see God’s help extended in a different way.

Spiritual Resources (Ephesians 6)

In the generations after Jesus’ death and resurrection, there was still plenty of suffering, injustice, and conflict. Christians were among those heavily persecuted and killed in those first generations. The Apostle Paul traveled, ministered, and wrote to these early Christians, encouraging them in their faith and in their coming together as the community of faith. In the end of his letter to the Ephesians, Paul offers the help that comes from God through Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet, even facing extreme earthly trials, Paul begins this section by saying this:

“Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (v. 12)

This is not to say that a hate-filled man driving a car into a group of people isn’t deadly, evil, or worth resisting. It is rather a reminder that there is a deeper war being waged for men and women’s souls, that the answers to such evils will be more than better information, better security, or better laws. Those things may all be helpful, if rooted in justice and truth; but those who can say “our help is in the name of the Lord” have access to an extraordinary, a supernatural, a God-empowered set of resources. I’d like to look at those briefly with you now.

First, Paul urges us to prepare for what we face in this world. We are to BE STRONG, not in ourselves and our own strength, but in the Lord and the strength of His might. (v.10) We are to PUT ON (v.11) and TAKE UP (v.13) the full armor of God. It’s like getting dressed for the day and then getting on with the day. Only then can we “resist in the evil day… and stand firm.” (v.13)

Then, fully prepared, we engage the world. What does that look like – are we archers, cavalry, raiders, or what? It turns out that we are simply to get out in the world and go about the mission and ministry to which God has called us… sharing the Gospel, loving our neighbor, serving God through all that we have and are. In doing so, we STAND FIRM (v.14). Remembering that the schemes of Satan are lies, temptation, and earthly power, the spiritual armor offers us a full range of spiritual resources. Note that it is described as already having been put on!

We are girded with the TRUTH of God to combat the lies of Satan, which surround us at every turn. We are covered in the RIGHTEOUSNESS of Christ, combatting sin and the temptation to sin, calling us to holiness, and covering us with gracious forgiveness when we fail and fall.  And though Satan’s earthly power might seem daunting, we are prepared and shielded by the very power of God in the GOSPEL to which we hold by faith. The spiritual armor of God is a metaphor which points to the spiritual realities of the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ, which we put on and take up by FAITH. The helmet and sword are special parts of the full armor. The helmet represents our SALVATION, as if to say Satan can’t have our neck! He can scare us, immobilize us, and even wound us, but cannot steal us away from God. The sword is the WORD OF GOD, able to both defend and repel Satan’s lies and power. Scripture tells us, “Resist the devil and he will flee.” We must be careful here, because people have twisted God’s Word to use against other people. We must always ensure that we use God’s Word truly, not out of context or falsely.

Finally, Paul offers two final challenges that, interestingly, move out of the metaphor of “spiritual battle” and into the specifics of the challenges he is facing – imprisonment and opposition because of the Gospel. Paul urges us to PRAY at all times (v.18) and BE ON THE ALERT (v.18). If you are wondering how you “put on” metaphorical, spiritual armor, these last two give some direction: talk to God and keep your eyes open to what God (and Satan) are doing. The armor is just spiritual realities that come with trusting and following Jesus. Prayer and open eyes of faith are how you put it on and take it up!

Today and Tomorrow

And that is a good place to jump into the realities of the day. There is so much that could be said. Let me offer this as a starting point for myself and for us here today, with hopes that a conversation continues, that we commit to seeking the Lord’s help, that we “put on and take up” not our own desires, but God’s; that we pray and open our eyes.

The events in Charlottesville have our attention right now. It is relatively easy to look at the self-proclaimed Nazi’s and white supremacists or the man who drove his car into the crowd and say, “That’s wrong; that’s evil; that’s not me.” I also know it can be easy for some to critique the counter-protestors. What I want to focus on this morning, however, is you and me, and I’ll start with me.

I believe our great challenge is not a few or even many white supremacists, but a culture of racial inequality. Let me illustrate from my own life. I was raised to be “color blind.” I was taught that was the opposite of ‘racist.’ I was also taught, whether explicitly or not, that achieving such color-blindness (particularly internally) was the goal. And that viewpoint is reinforced when folks like the neo-Nazi’s and white nationalists are so clear in their hatred of others. But my attempt to be color-blind actually left me culture-blind! I had a huge blind spot for most of my life. It is one I am still trying to see around and I am trying to listen, read, pay attention, and see what I can’t see. I believe my blind spot was reinforced by the perceived ideal of being “color blind.” Really what all that had to do with was being prejudiced, or pre-judging someone based on the color of their skin. What I have come to see as my eyes are opened is that we are all swimming in waters saturated with racism.

What does that mean? It means that a person of color has a very different experience than I do of seeking housing, getting an education, being listened to, getting a loan, getting medical attention, what happens at a traffic stop, and 100 other every day experiences. One of the most mind-boggling, humbling, discouraging, eye-opening moments in my life was sitting in a workshop with 50 white pastors and 50 black pastors and hearing near unanimous testimony of being pulled over, suspected, doubted, questioned, and worse by my black colleagues who are pastors, many with advanced degrees, respectful, humble men and women. It opened my eyes. Observing the surveys, dialogs, priorities, and passion in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system and the various responses about how and where to draw school district lines… it has opened my eyes. Being blessed to be a part of a presbytery, a collection of Presbyterian churches rich in racial diversity and realizing even there the vast differences in pastoral salary, transition, and other factors. It has opened my eyes. We swim in water full of inequity and inequality and experience it so radically differently just because of the color of our skin. There is so much more to say, so much more to do. But, for today…

Two questions: 1) What does this have to do with the Bible and with our faith? and 2) What can we do?

First, it has everything to do with the Bible and with our faith. From the beginnings in Genesis to the endings in Revelation, God’s vision for humanity is for the nations and races of the world is that they know Him, be gathered in to Him, and reflect the glory of being made in the image of God. Divisions of race, language, and culture are first manifest at the Tower of Babel and are the result of human sin. Human sin – not God’s will, but turning away from God and toward human self-rule and self-supremacy. But God comes to Abraham with a plan and a promise to reach and bless all the nations of the world. That covenant lies at the heart of God’s dealings with Israel and unfolds in the coming of Jesus, who announces the Kingdom of God and dies for all the world. At Pentecost, God pours out His Spirit in a vivid demonstration of calling together the nations under Christ. The Apostle Paul is called and sent to the nations and to the world, preaching a Gospel where there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free. The final picture of eternity in Revelation has people from every tribe, tongue, and nation gathered around the throne of God. That is God’s design for humanity; not one race or one people, but the nations of the world gathered in holy worship.

Secondly, there are many ways for the church to respond to the inequity and inequality found in our culture and society. But I believe the FIRST STEP for many of us is to seek to see beyond our blind spots. There is more after that, but we cannot engage what we cannot see. So, I’d offer a tangible, doable first step toward where I believe God is leading us. I have mentioned the book, Waking Up White. It has been a useful tool in opening my eyes to my own blind spots. I’d like to invite you to read it and discuss it with each other. My hope is that you see it not as a chore, but as an opportunity God is offering you. There is a sign-up sheet in the welcome area where you can indicate your interest, along with a preferred time of daytime, evening, or weekend. If none of those work, I am open to exploring an online option, though I think face to face is better. I would encourage you to read and discuss the book in a group and not on your own, but if you need to read it on your own first, I would not discourage that either. If you do, would you at least let me know? I am glad to provide a copy of the book if you cannot afford one and will have several copies for the church library. There’s more to understand and do beyond that, but I think that particular book will offer us some common language and information to move forward together and I’d strongly encourage you to make time and space in your life this fall to read it with me.

God has been pressing on me for several years in this area and I’ve been fortunate to have some experiences and training in the past year that have open my eyes and equipped me in a way that I was not prepared two years ago. May God lead us and join us and bless us as we respond to this Word. Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made Heaven and earth. Amen.