Sunday, May 28, 2017

A Spiritual Memorial (Joshua 4.1-13, Exodus 13)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; May 28, 2017 - Joshua 4:1-13; Exodus 13:1-14

:: 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: We Will Remember (Tommy Walker)
Singing Together: Merciful God (Getty, Townend)
Offering of Music (Madeline Buchmann, piano): Sonata No. 16 in C Major (Mozart)
Hymn of Sending: Great is Thy Faithfulness (FAITHFULNESS)

:: 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.

I’d like to begin today with a question, not for you to answer out loud, but to think about: What is a challenge you are facing right now?

I imagine for some of you there is something that comes immediately to mind; for others, you may need to think for a moment, so I’ll give you that moment and ask again. What is a challenge you are facing right now? Hold the answer to that question in your mind – you may even want to jot it down on your bulletin or in your Bible next to this Joshua 4 passage or in the back. As we study that passage I hope that remembering what God has done will help provide some insight and hope into how God will help you in what you are facing today.

Tomorrow our nation observes Memorial Day, a day in which to remember and honor those who gave their lives in service to our country.  Indeed, when we come to prayer later in this service, we will remember and give thanks as well. Memory is a powerful thing. It is often tied to the emotion of the past; it can inform our present; and it can shape our future. The wise person remembers and learns from the past; the fool forgets the mistakes of the past, doomed to repeat them.

As I thought about a sermon text for this morning, I was struck by the role of “remembering” in the Bible. It is a significant and major theme, for all the reasons already mentioned and more. And there is an additional link to Memorial Day, for not only are their many reasons to remember the work of God in history, but we also have in Jesus the prime example of one giving his life for the sake of other, in service to the highest authority.

So, I’d like to look with you at one story in which remembering played a significant role and we will see how that “Memorial Day” can be a spiritual blessing in our own lives.

Remember the Jordan

In the text we heard from Joshua 4, the Israelites have just crossed into the Promised Land. This has been a looooong, multi-generational and wandering journey, but they were finally there. A whole generation had lived and died in the desert, because of the sins of those who first came out of Egypt. Even their great leader, Moses, had died and the mantle of leadership had passed to Joshua. The Jordan River marked the edge of the Promised Land and Jericho now lay before them. In this text, Joshua and the people pause between a miraculous crossing of the Jordan (ch. 3) and the “Battle of Jericho” (ch. 6) for an unusual and memorable celebration. It was their Memorial Day!

So what were they remembering? They were remembering what had just happened and what had happened long ago.

What had just happened was that the Lord had instructed them to take the Ark of the Covenant into the Jordan River and the waters parted so that the people were able to cross on dry ground. It was a sign that God was in their midst and going before them into this Promised Land. It was also a reminder of a similar miracle a generation earlier, when their parents and grandparents had come through the Red Sea.

And so Joshua told a man from each of the twelve tribes to take up a stone and mark the place where the Ark had rested during this miracle. And Joshua specifically instructed them about it: it was a sign, “so that when your children ask later, saying, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ then you shall say to them, ‘Because the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord; when it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off.’” And so this was to be “a memorial to the sons of Israel forever.” (v. 7)

Think about that… imagine driving along the road and seeing a huge pyramid of rocks on the side of the road. And your curious 4-year-old in the back seat says, “What’s that, mommy?” And you could tell him, “That’s where thus-and-so happened; and our family was a part of it!” That marking of the passing into the Promised Land was what had just happened. What had happened long ago was Egypt…

Remember Egypt

Today we also heard several verses from Exodus 13. That’s the chapter that establishes the memorial meal of the Passover. That is a different kind of Memorial Day that recalls what God did in bringing His people out of Egypt. Every Jewish family and child, from then until now, knows that story. They know it because it is remembered every year. Moses explains in Exodus 13: “Remember this day in which you went out from Egypt, from the house of slavery; for by a powerful hand the Lord brought you out from this place.” (v. 3) When the children ask, tell them this: “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.” (v. 8) And tell future children and grandchildren, “With a powerful hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.” (v. 14)

The reason God’s people were finally coming into the Promised Land in Joshua 4 is because they had remembered Egypt. Had they forgotten that deliverance from slavery or the long-standing promises to Abraham, they may well have settled for desert or any number of places before they ever got to the Jordan. Or they may have not risked the crossing and facing the city of Jericho. But God had promised this land and had brought them this far. God had parted waters before and had defeated superior armies before. And they hadn’t forgotten.

And this story – this REMEMBRANCE – was passed on from parent to child. It was shared and told and re-told, so that the children would know both the promises and the faithfulness of God and be able to respond in faith when the day of action came.

And so I would ask you this question: What do you remember about the character or involvement of God from the Bible?

Jot a word or phrase down in your bulletin or there at Joshua 4. You may want to take it directly from these stories. In Exodus, God hears His people cry out in their suffering. God delivers; God saves. Or in Joshua, God goes before them; God is faithful to His promises. Or you may remember another story: Jonah and Ninevah, the fruit of the Spirit, the story of Lazarus. What was God like? What did Jesus do? What comes to mind. Maybe you want to write the question down and spend more time with it later… that’s a great start into remembering.

What do you remember about the character or involvement of God from the Bible?


That brings me to today and one more question: What do you remember about the character or involvement of God in your own life?

Where has God shown up before in your life? If you are a Christian, He has. Even if you do not yet trust in Jesus Christ, God has shown up; it may just be harder to see or acknowledge.  So ponder that question deeply. We’ve looked to the stories of the Bible to remember about God’s character and involvement. Now consider the story of your own life.

Let’s start with Jesus. His life was spent in perfect service and obedience to God. And all the more, His death was an act of loving obedience, given in service to God for the sake of the world. That’s what John 3:16 teaches us… God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes will not die, but have eternal life. And Jesus embraced that mission. Jesus gave his life out of love for God and love for you. If you can remember nothing else, remember that! That is why Good Friday is the ultimate Memorial Day! In fact, the night before Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, which is our ongoing “Memorial Day” remembrance of that ultimate act. It’s right there on our Table and most others: “In remembrance of me.”

And then for each of you, the story of God in your life is as individual as you are. Can you think of one example of God showing up in your life? Maybe it was an answer to prayer, or encouragement deep in your spirit when things looked hopeless. Maybe it was direction or guidance when you were confused and lost. Maybe it was an experience of closeness or “connection” in worship or a feeling of peace in the middle of great distress. I have shared with you before one example from my own life when I was all closed up and closed off in my 20s and after an extended time of spiritual and emotional dryness, God broke through, first in a dream and then in real life. What about you? Where has God shown up?

What do you remember about the character or involvement of God in your own life?


And finally, think back to the question I asked at the beginning of the sermon. What is a challenge you are facing right now? And with that in mind, let me ask one more question.

How do these memorials of God’s character and involvement inform the challenge you are facing?

What does remembering God’s character and involvement in scripture tell you about how God will meet you in your current challenge? What stood out to you in your remembering… that God was faithful, strong, near, forgiving, merciful, or something else? What about God’s involvement; what stood out… that God listens, delivers, saves, or something else?

What did you remember from your own life? What stood out? Is that something you need to be reminded of… to remember?

I would encourage you to write these things down, to ‘mark’ them both to help in the current challenge and to remember in the future. Scripture even says we can use such things to teach the next generation about God.  If answers to these questions didn’t come to mind in the short time I gave you to answer, I’d encourage you to write the questions down and work through them on your own.  Here they are again:

What is a challenge you are facing right now?
What do you remember about the character or involvement of God from the Bible?
What do you remember about the character or involvement of God in your own life?
How do these memorials of God’s character and involvement inform the challenge you are facing?

If you were able to respond, I’d encourage you to write those responses down in your Bible or some other place you can find them again. Maybe you could mark them “Memorial Day 2017” or have a special page in the back of your Bible for “Things to Remember about God.” That was the purpose of the stones Joshua put in the Jordan River… it was to remember and be reminded, both for himself and for the generations to come.

Scripture says that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” (Psalm 46:1)  Trouble is, our memories are short and we forget that. Beloved, hear the Good News: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31) Remember that and be encouraged! Amen.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

God's Perfection (Ephesians 1, Philippians 1, Romans 12)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; May 14, 2017 - Luke 2:21-24,36-40; 2 Timothy 1:3-8a

:: 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: Our God Saves (Brown, Baloche)
Confirmation Song: Now You Make it Your Own (Austell, Dawson) - lyrics+video after sermon below
Singing Together: The Wonderful Cross (Watts, Tomlin, Reeves)
Offering of Music (Choir): Revelation 19 (LaValley, arr. Schrader)
Hymn of Sending: It is Well (DiMarco, Spafford)

:: 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’s sermon is for the Confirmation students.  It’s the story of God working in time and out of time to bring about the salvation of His children.  It is a promise to those who have trusted Jesus Christ and committed their lives to him – that means this sermon is also for you, if you have trusted Christ and made that commitment.  The promise is that God is working on you and in you, perfecting you until you are transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ.  God is getting each of you ready for Heaven.  Finally, the sermon is for you, even if you have not yet trusted Jesus Christ, because it describes the great love and purpose with which God pursues His children. 

God Chose You in Christ (Ephesians 1:3-4)

Today I’m simply going to talk about three different passages from the Bible.  The first is Ephesians 1:3-4.  There Paul writes:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him.

This is the truly mind-boggling part!  God, who exists outside of time and space was pleased to choose us in Christ before the foundation of the world.  This is neither the time nor place to get mired down in discussions of fate, predestination, free will, temporal mechanics, or if-God-chose-me-what-about-the-other-people.  Today’s message is directed at YOU.  If you are a Christian, the Bible says God not only knew about you before the world was made, but God chose you for the purpose of salvation and being perfect in His presence – “holy and blameless before Him.” 

It’s that purpose of God that we are focusing on today… God’s perfection.  Why did God create human beings?  Genesis says that it was because He was pleased to do so, for mutual relationship, and for humanity to worship God.  Even with Sin and the Fall and all that seemed to mess that plan up, God’s plan was bigger – when the time was right, He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross and accomplish salvation for all who believe.  That means you, confirmation students.  That means you, brothers and sisters in Christ.  That means you, who may not know Christ, but who would believe in him.

And these words in Ephesians not only say that God purposed to rescue us from sin; God’s purpose all along is that we might be made perfect to stand in His presence to enjoy relationship and worship of our God and Father.

God Told His Story to You (Philippians 1:3-11)

The second passage I want to mention is Philippians 1:3-11.  In short, this passage reassures us that God does not leave us on our own to accomplish either our salvation or the perfection of our lives.  This passage says that God is at work in you, willing and working in you to make you perfect.  There are two handy theological words to describe all this.  The one is “justification,” which describes the instant right-standing granted to us by the grace of Christ.  Christians are justified by the crucifixion of Jesus Christ – we are forgiven and viewed by God as having the perfect righteousness of Christ.  The second word that describes God at work in us is “sanctification” – God has not only declared us holy in Christ, but is MAKING us holy through the work of the Holy Spirit. 

All that is a complicated way of saying what Paul says pretty simply in Philippians 1:6 – “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” 

God not only chose you and made you for salvation through Jesus Christ; God is in you, working on you to mold and shape you into the likeness of Christ, to do what the old children’s Christmas hymn says, “fit us for Heaven to live with you there.”

This assurance of God-at-work is both testimony to what is going on in the lives of these confirmation students and hope for all of us as we look ahead.  Each of these students have been loved and raised in the church.  Like the young Christians to whom Paul was writing in Philippians, the seed of the Gospel was planted by parents, Sunday school teachers, VBS after VBS, youth advisors, church services, summer camps, and friends.  And now in hindsight we can see how God has been at work to cultivate faith, belief, and commitment.

And the hope for all of us as we look ahead is that God is not finished with us.  He will continue to cultivate and grow our faith, belief, commitment, purity, and holiness until the day we stand before Him in Heaven.

It’s such a great promise and such a relief!  We don’t have to get our act together to get into Heaven.  God has given us that gift in Christ.  Rather, God’s additional gift is that he continues to participate in our lives to cause us to become more and more like the one whom we call Savior.

Each Day You Will Follow (Romans 12:1-2)

All I will say about predestination and free will this morning is that the Bible makes it clear that there is a mystery – God is sovereign over everything, including our salvation AND He invites and requires our participation in life and salvation.  This work that He is doing in our lives is not the tinkering of a great inventor on inanimate robots; it is the interaction of a Father and a child. 

In Romans 12, the Apostle Paul urges us to present our bodies as a living and holy sacrifice.  He goes on to challenge: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  These are concrete acts of commitment on our part.  This is what the confirmation students are doing today.  Most, if not all, of them trusted Jesus as their Savior a number of years ago. But in addition to making absolutely clear what they believed, we also made it very clear that being a Christian means being a follower of Jesus Christ, and that means committing our lives to him completely.  Each of them has made that conscious decision, marking it in a memorable morning on our retreat this past February.

That’s what Paul is calling for in these verses in Romans – commitment.  Again, it is not so that we can earn our way to Heaven or clean ourselves up enough to please God.  Instead, and here is the great and mysterious connection between our will and God’s will… it is “so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Our commitment to God helps us see and understand God’s commitment to us.  That is important enough a statement that I’ll repeat it: Our commitment to God helps us see and understand God’s commitment to us.

God’s Perfection

So, what does scripture teach us?

It teaches that God created us with purpose. 

It teaches that God intervened in human history to provide a means of salvation through Jesus Christ – and that to accomplish His eternal purpose.

It teaches that God continues to be involved in the lives of His children, to lead us, mold us, make us, and shape us into the likeness of His Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ.

It teaches that our part in God’s plan is to respond to the great gift of grace by offering ourselves whole-heartedly in obedience and service to our Lord.  In doing so, we realize more and more how much God loves us.

God’s purpose is perfect.  God’s purpose is for you – for your life and your salvation.  He who began this good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus – that is what is good and acceptable and perfect to God.

You are God’s perfection!

Now You Make it Your Own

To the confirmation students:

As I said earlier, God planted the story and the seed in your hearts.  For some of you that began as far back as you can remember.  The Bible said it began before the world was made!  When you were little children, you depended on your parents for everything, including your relationship to God.  You have all shown that you are old enough to hear Jesus’ call to “Come, follow me” for yourselves.  So now you take your parents’ faith and training, your church’s teachings, the testimony of the Bible, and God’s timeless purpose for you, and you make it your own.

Today you have publicly confessed and demonstrated your faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  I charged you to “remember your baptism” – for all baptism is a witness to the saving event of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and to God’s eternal purpose and plan for your lives.

Though you are still young and have some years before you are adults in the world’s eyes, you are adults in your faith – choosing for yourselves to trust and follow Jesus Christ with your lives.  Know that God goes before and behind you, above and below you, working with and within you for His perfect will. Amen.

Now You Make it Your Own
By Gerrit Scott Dawson and Robert Austell, 1997

God chose you in Christ before the world was made
He came here for you... the Word was enfleshed
In Jesus, on the cross, your sins were laid
So dying, then rising with him, you are kept

Long love foresaw this day
Parents vowed before the throne
Friends in Christ showed the way
... now you make it your own

God told his story through those in your home
Christ showered love as water was poured
The Spirit brought friends, you’re never alone
So in the Church, you share one faith, one Lord


The world will insist that you turn its way
But dear ones resist, remember this day!!

Before God and us, you make holy vows
The name of Jesus you confess in Word
And in your heart.  Each day you will follow
The Savior whose call to serve you have heard


Sunday, May 14, 2017

Ordinary Women, Extraordinary God (Luke 2, 2 Timothy 1)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; May 14, 2017 - Luke 2:21-24,36-40; 2 Timothy 1:3-8a

:: 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 ::
Call to Worship: O God Beyond All Praising (arr. Forrest)
Singing Together: Come People of the Risen King (Getty/Townend)
Singing Together: Speak, O Lord (Getty/Townend)
Hymn of Sending: Called as Partners in Christ's Service (HOLY MANNA)

:: 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.

If you’ve ever wanted a Bible hero who was not super-strong like Samson, able to kill giants with a stone like David, or a world-traveler like Paul, you may find something remarkable in today’s characters. One is an 84 year old widow; one is a homemaker whose son has just grown up and moved out; and one is the grandmother of that same young man.

And if you don’t think you can find inspiration in these ordinary people of faith think again – these are ordinary people who trust in our extraordinary God. They are not the ones who do extraordinary things, but God is!  They teach us that one of the greatest things God can do through you is passing on faith to others, particularly the next generation. To get there, they will also teach us about trusting and waiting on God, worshiping and serving Him, and sharing His story.

Anna (Luke 2)

Anna is tucked away in the story of Mary and Joseph bringing the infant Jesus to the Temple for circumcision and presentation to the Lord.  Simeon often figures prominently in that story as well, as the old priest who has been waiting for the Messiah, and who bursts into song when he sees the baby. Anna is right there as well.  She is 84 years old, widowed (likely as a young woman) only seven years into her marriage.  And she has lived out the rest of her life in the Temple.  Listen to the description again:

    She never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers. (v. 37)

The particular quality of Anna’s life that I want to highlight for you is her life of service and worship.  She spent all her time serving, fasting, and praying in the Temple.  She demonstrated both action and devotion.  These are things that anyone can do, but in the wake of her husband’s death, she did not pull back from God, but rededicated herself to Him all the more. What do I mean by action and devotion?  For her it may have been serving the priests or the people who came to worship at the Temple.  She may have acted like a tour guide, knowing the Temple as well as she did.  She may have cleaned up after the many, many visitors.  Surely her fasting and prayer is just what it sounds like; she alternated between service and spending time talking and listening to God.

That’s really what worship is – both the service and the devotion.  Worship is not only what we do when we gather here or when you spend time in private prayer or scripture reading.  It is also a life of service to God, whether that be helping inside the walls of the church or reaching out to others as a “good neighbor.”  All of that is a life of worship, and that’s what Anna lived. It’s reasonable for us as well.  I’m not talking about being a nun or a monk, retreating to a walled monastery and chanting prayers all day.  I’m talking about a life with God at the center, where faith isn’t an hour Sunday morning, but day in and day out action and devotion before God.  And that is something for 30 year old men, 84 year old widows, 16 year old teens, and 6 yr. old children.  Talk with God and live for God.  That’s Anna’s story.

And there’s more!  When she saw the baby Jesus, she recognized who he was.  Luke tells us this:

At that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. (v. 38)

Her faithful life of worship (action and devotion) expressed itself outwardly.  She didn’t keep it to herself.  Not only did she serve others in the Temple, she continued to speak of him.  That implies not only that she told the news of God’s salvation from that point forward, but that she was probably talking about God’s promised salvation for many years before.  Like Simeon, she recognized God’s Messiah because she had been waiting for him.

We, too, can speak of God’s promises kept.  We can tell the story of what God has done for us and for the world.  It doesn’t have to be a six-point outline or a rehearsed presentation, just in your words and your style – your way of talking.  It’s part of a life of worship – action, devotion, and telling God’s story. That’s who Anna was; and you – women, men, and children – you can be Annas, and God will tell His story through your life.

Lois and Eunice (2 Timothy 1)

Let’s look at two other women, Lois and Eunice.  They are mentioned in 2 Timothy in Paul’s letter to his young friend, Timothy.  Paul is urging Timothy to hold fast to his faith, and to fan its flames with power, love, and discipline.  And Paul gives us a tidbit of insight into where Timothy learned of this faith:

For I am mindful of the sincere faith within you, which first dwelt in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am sure that it is in you as well. (v. 5)

Timothy became one of the significant early leaders of the Christian church, under the tutelage and blessing of Paul.  But where did this faith and this calling develop?  It came from his mother and grandmother in the home. Paul knew grandmother Eunice and mother Lois, and knew them both to be women of faith.  And he knew them enough to know that they told God’s story and shared their faith with young Timothy.

Anna had to wait on God’s Messiah, for a long lifetime.  She served God through a life of worship.  And she shared God’s story with those around her. In a different way, Eunice and Lois did the same thing.  Sharing faith with one’s children is not a knock on the door or walk forward to the altar kind of thing.  Like raising children in general, sharing faith is a day by day process of words, actions, and prayer, with lots of waiting, patience, and trust in the Lord.  Sometimes, you see faith bloom early.  Sometimes, it takes years and years. Many parents, teachers, and mentors are still waiting, and for a spiritual parent, that is a tough, tough wait.

Eunice and Lois surely led a life of worship as well, as every parent of faith must as we try to model faith to our children.  Even that doesn’t guarantee that our children will believe – they are, after all, human beings who must respond to God on their own terms.  But, God has established the human family for the purpose of passing on faith.  That is part of our understanding of the covenant and baptism and church.  And Eunice and Lois demonstrated God’s intent for parenting and grand-parenting.  So, like Anna, they too shared God’s story to the one closest and dearest to them.  And he, in turn, became one who shared God’s story with the world.

Our first mission field is our home.  God doesn’t guarantee our success, for our children must make up their own minds, but we can pour ourselves into them as Lois and Eunice did for Timothy.  God delights in telling His story and showing Himself through the lives of parents of faith.

Ordinary Women

What can we take away from the brief stories of Anna, Eunice, and Lois?  All three women demonstrated a pattern of faithfulness that is well worth embracing and emulating.  First, trusting God often involves waiting on God.  It is exciting and wonderful when God answers a prayer quickly.  And in our culture, we are used to fast results.  But God is not a genie, nor is prayer about getting our way.  And so, trusting God usually means waiting.  Sometimes that wait is unbearable.  I recognize that and don’t know any shortcuts.  I just know that faith includes waiting.

Second, a faithful life is a life of worship.  By that I don’t mean coming to church every Sunday (though that is not a bad thing!).  Rather, a life of worship is a life characterized by action and devotion.  It is a life with God at the foundation and at the center.  It is organizing and prioritizing our life and purpose and goals so that we are in line with God’s will.  Tying back into prayer, if we are to pray for God’s will, we are likewise to live God’s will, and if we stray from that, turn back again and again. That’s the whole point of Hebrews 12:1, where we are running after Jesus and avoiding the trap of sin.  It’s living a life of worship.

Thirdly, a faithful life results in telling the story of God, whether that is to our children, our neighbors, or the world around us.  Worship always spills over into mission.  In fact, telling the story is a part of a life of worship – it is not only devotion and action, but also mission.  Anna told God’s story to all those around her.  Lois and Eunice passed on God’s story to Timothy, who shared it with the world.

This is not a magic formula.  God changes human hearts and human beings can and do stubbornly resist God’s love and grace.  But the focus this morning is not on results, but on faithfulness.  That is God’s design and desire for each of you – a life of worship, which is a personal relationship, ministry, and mission with God.

These women lived ordinary lives of faith and obedience to our extraordinary God; and I’d like to be more like them.  God help us make it so!  Amen.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

So What Does it Mean to be Blessed? (Psalm 1, Joshua 1)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; April 30, 2017 - Psalm 1; Joshua 1:1,7-9

:: 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 Promise of Your Word (Getty/Townend)
Singing Together: Ancient Words (DeShazo)
Offering of Music: Bobby White, piano
Hymn of Sending: How Firm a Foundation (FOUNDATION)

:: 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 come to the end of a series by the same name as this sermon: “What Does it Mean to be Blessed?” We have looked at Jesus’ own teaching , as well as some other scripture, to try to understand this term which gets used in so many ways in the church and our culture.

Today I’d like to walk us back through what we’ve learned, then end with a brief look at the two passages you heard read today from Psalm 1 and Joshua 1. My hope is not just that you would better understand blessing, but that you would also BE blessed as you draw near to God’s will and Word in your own life.

Blessings and Woes (Luke 6:20-26)

Blessed are the poor (v.20) – Jesus warns against settling for any comfort in life that is less than God’s own hope, healing, and true comfort. Blessing is to be found in God alone, not in the stuff of this earth.

Blessed are those who hunger now (v. 21a)
– Jesus speaks of what ultimately feeds or satisfies us, warning again against settling for the immediate, temporary, or mundane. As he taught in John 6, Jesus is the Bread of Life – the source and sustenance for our lasting and true satisfaction.

Blessed are you who weep now (v. 21b)
– Jesus speaks of sorrow over the brokenness of this world and the joy that God will set things right. It is this perspective, even in sorrow, that is the source of true joy, the present experience of our future hope.

Blessed are you who are hated… for the sake of the Son of Man (v. 22)
– Jesus speaks of true rewards, not as a prize given to us for our service to God, but as the blessing of trusting and following Him. The relationship with God through Christ is itself the true reward or blessing.

Action Steps (Luke 6:27-38)

Jesus moved from those blessings and woes to three pretty direct action steps. In a series of varied and repeated teachings and illustrations, he said that blessing is found in doing three things: LOVING, DOING GOOD, and GIVING FREELY. But he goes way beyond the ordinary expectation of what these mean by challenging us to love, do good, and give freely to those who have not treated us well, even enemies. Our example is God Himself, who has lavished us with these things even though we didn’t deserve it and have been, at times, enemies of God.

Jesus teaches that blessing is not a one-way gift from God to us, but is a lived reflection of God’s intent toward us. If we want to experience blessing, then we live as Christ has lived and love as God has loved.

Jesus, Our Example (Holy Week events)

We saw several examples of Jesus as our example of blessing over the course of Holy Week…

Palm Sunday (Mark 11)
– Jesus was BLESSED, the one who came in the name of the Lord. That wasn’t just something the crowd shouted or a prophecy fulfilled, it described Jesus and describes blessing for us. Jesus was blessed because he was perfectly aligned with God’s will. That’s where blessing is rooted, not in our will or wishes. That is perhaps most simply and powerfully captured in his prayer, “Thy will be done.”

Maundy Thursday (John 13)
– In that simple act of footwashing, Jesus demonstrated what it means to love. Remember the action steps? Loving beyond ordinary expectation is one of them. Jesus commanded his followers to love others like he loved them. It was (and is) a welcoming, generous, humble love. It extends the love of God to others. That is blessed.

Easter Sunday (Acts 13)
– The resurrection account in Acts 13 read like a news report. In the course of that report, it is explained in Jewish-historical terms and also in relational terms. Part of the historical explanation named the resurrection as the “holy and sure blessings” of David because it made good on God’s promise to His people through David. The report went on to describe forgiveness and freedom as two specific blessings that we can enjoy because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Resurrection Appearances (John 20)
– Last Sunday we looked at Jesus’ appearance to the disciples after the resurrection. Thomas missed it and did not believe. We looked at some of the unhealthy fruit of his unbelief: doubt, demands, and isolation. But we also saw the healthy fruit of belief, which may still include doubt, but leads to love, salvation, and worship.

Rooted in God’s Word (Joshua 1, Psalm 1)

Today you heard part of the introduction to the book of Joshua. He was the leader God chose after the great leader Moses died. In charging Joshua for that task, God told him not only to be “strong and very courageous,” but also to be very careful to obey the scripture. And God told him not just to obey it, but to “meditate on it day and night.” (v. 8) In so doing, God said, Joshua would experience blessing.

Here in Joshua, then, as well as again and again over these past weeks, we have seen that blessing is rooted in God’s will and Word. Last week we talked a bit about Psalm 1, but I was drawn back to it this week to look a little more specifically at how we can root our lives in this way. People often ask me, “How can I know God’s will? How can I be ‘rooted’ in God’s Word?”

The picture described in Psalm 1 is such an easy one to picture. It is 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 and blessing 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.

Study and Delight (Psalm 1)

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.

So What Does it Mean to be Blessed?

So do you want to be blessed? It doesn’t mean trouble will go away. It doesn’t mean you will get rich or famous or get well. What it means is trying to figure out what God is up to – what God would want – and aligning your choices, desires, decisions, and life with Him. The very practical way to figure out how to do that is to root yourself in God’s Word, in scripture. That’s where God reveals what He’s up to and what He wants. Study it; delight in it. Or at least study it until you can delight in it!

There will be times when you won’t want to hear what God has to say. Many of us have had that experience when we are headed in the wrong direction and a parent, teacher, or friend calls us on it. It’s hard to delight at that stage. But surely we know the wrong direction is not #blessed. God loves you perfectly and His Word and will are always worth heeding, even if it’s hard to delight in the moment. But it is the way to come to know and experience real blessing, which is what God desires for you and for me. Amen.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Those Who Did Not See (John 20.19-29)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; April 23, 2017 - John 20:19-29, 1 Peter 1:3-9

:: 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: Worship Christ the Risen King (REGENT SQUARE)
Singing Together: Great are You, Lord (Ingram, Jordan, Leonard)
Offering of Music: It is Well (DiMarco, Spafford, Bliss)
Hymn of Sending: Breathe on Me, Breath of God (TRENTHAM)

:: 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.

Last Sunday we celebrated with Christians all over the world that God raised Jesus from the dead. Today is for those who struggle with doubts. Today we hear the story of Thomas the disciple, so-called “doubting Thomas.” Our own doubts may range far and wide from intellectual to emotional to reacting to struggle and the “why?” questions; but I believe there is something important and universal in this story.  It touches on needing and wanting answers and the intersections of faith and doubt and belief.

Is Jesus Risen? (v. 25)

This particular story began on Easter Sunday night.  Jesus appeared to the disciples, who were locked away in fear and hiding.  He appeared just as the angel said and just as Mary told them when she ran from the empty tomb to find them.  And Jesus came to them with the greeting of peace.  He showed them his hands and side, then again spoke words of peace.  He then told them he had work for them to do, and he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  It was a powerful encounter, for everyone who was there.

But one disciple wasn’t there.  Thomas was not with them when this happened, and he couldn’t believe that the others had seen Jesus.  Who can blame him?  The story was just too fantastic!  And after headstrong Peter, isn’t Thomas the disciple many of us identify with most?  He declared, “Unless I see the nail prints in his hands and put my finger in them, and unless I put my hand into the wound in his side, I will not believe.” Did you hear that last part?  I will not believe.  That’s the issue here – not doubt, but unbelief.  That is a critical distinction!  To skip to the punch line, doubt is not the opposite of faith; unbelief is the opposite of faith.  Let’s consider that in more detail.

Unbelief and its ‘Fruits’ (v. 27)

I don’t really know the state of Thomas’ soul in those days after Easter Sunday.  We know he was a disciple… that he had chosen to follow Jesus.  And then, we hear him speak twice in the biblical account before this scene.  When Jesus and the disciples were headed to Bethany after Lazarus had died, Thomas said, “Let us go then, that we might die with him.”  He was anticipating more conflict with the religious authorities like what they had just left behind in Jerusalem.  The other occasion for Thomas to speak is recorded in John 14, when Jesus is talking about going away to the Father and preparing a home for them there.  Thomas says, “What are you talking about?  We don’t know where you are going!”  It may be, then, that Thomas never really understood who Jesus was.  He may have been following him simply as a great teacher or as a revolutionary. 

And so, with regard to the great promise of a Messiah – a deliverer who would rescue God’s people – it seems that Thomas may not have experienced a life-changing encounter with the Son of God, though he had followed him for three years. And if there is doubt on this issue, consider Jesus’ words to Thomas in verse 27.  He tells Thomas to touch his wounds, and then speaks strongly to him, “Do not be unbelieving, but believing (or faithful).”  Jesus recognized that his fundamental problem was not proof, but belief.  Does it seem strange that someone could be a disciple of Jesus for three years and not have that crucial faith or belief in him as the Son of God?

It is no stranger than attending church for years and not ever having experienced a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  In fact, tragically, it happens all the time. So, I have two questions.  First, how can we recognize if our own life is rooted in God’s salvation in Christ?  Secondly, how can unbelief become faith – that is, if we do not know God in a saving way, how can we come to know Him in that way?

The way to evaluate our own faith is to examine our ‘fruit.’  Consider Thomas, as described in our passage.  The DOUBT that we often focus on when we read this passage is really just one fruit of his basic unbelief.  How indeed, could he imagine Jesus to be alive if he never understood who Jesus was or what Jesus was talking about when he spoke of leaving them and preparing a place for them in Heaven.  And Thomas’ doubt led him to make DEMANDS.  “Unless… unless…” (v. 25) he said.  Thomas was quite specific and detailed about what he required of a risen Jesus.  And his unbelief also resulted in ISOLATION from the other disciples.  Perhaps his unbelief was why he wasn’t with them when Jesus first came.  Certainly, his negative response to their joyous shouts of “We have seen the Lord!” would have put some kind of barrier between himself and them.  Basically, to the combined testimony of 10 disciples and the women at the tomb, Thomas replied, “I don’t believe you!” If the unbelieving heart is allowed to run unchecked, it will manifest in a person as doubt and demands, and often will result in or lead to self-imposed isolation from those who do trust in God.

Faith and its ‘Fruits’ (1 Peter 1:8-9)

A life of faith is also known by its ‘fruit.’  Please note that faithful and believing people are not perfect; far from it! They also struggle with doubt, but our doubts should spur us towards seeking and understanding, saying, “I want to find out more.”  But notice, too, that the fruit of a believing heart isn’t certainty or lack of doubt, but other qualities and characteristics.  For example, Psalm 1 tells us that faith and belief are rooted in the Law of the Lord, or the Word of God – the Bible.  And 1 Peter describes a number of ‘fruits’ of the faithful or believing heart:

…and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:8-9)

The faithful heart LOVES God – even though we may not have seen God with our own eyes.  Faith and trust grow, are nurtured, and are refined into something precious and strong because we love God through worship and praise.  The faithful heart expresses itself through BELIEF in Jesus Christ.  We trust in God’s promises and in Jesus as the one sent by God.  And though we do not see Him now, faith results in active belief.  The faithful heart is characterized by and produces inexpressible JOY because of the presence of God in the human life.  We are literally, filled with the glory of God – with God’s Holy Spirit, which produces joy in us, even in the face of sorrow and suffering.  And Peter tells us that the outcome of such a faith and believing heart is the SALVATION of the soul. 

Finally, and most importantly, the chief fruit of a faithful heart is WORSHIP.  We see this back in the passage with Thomas and Jesus.  Worship is the combination of the other fruit as well – it is love expressed, belief demonstrated, joy experienced, and salvation celebrated.  And in the moment that Jesus appeared to Thomas, something happened.  Though Jesus offered to meet his demands for proof, Thomas’ doubts and demands were dropped, and his isolation ended immediately.  He was transformed on the spot, because he did not respond by taking Jesus up on the offer to touch the wounds.  He did not rush over to examine Jesus’ scars, hands, and side.  He simply exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”  Jesus confirmed that this happened by saying, “Because you have seen me, have you believed?”  Thomas took one look at Jesus, perhaps simply recognizing him, and declared one of the most simple and complete sentences of worship in the New Testament.  Jesus was “my Lord” – leader, ruler, king, master, the one Thomas would serve and follow, and it was personal and specific to him.  And Jesus was “my God” – not just teacher/Rabbi, but GOD, personal and specific to him.

A Changed Life

The believing heart and the unbelieving heart face the same life conditions, the same struggles, the same questions, and even the same doubts.  Both have parents die; both get cancer; both wonder why bad things happen to good people; both wonder why the evil sometimes prosper.  Both the believing heart and the unbelieving heart are born into the same world.  But their roots, their support, their nourishment, and their hope are entirely different.

Faith is rooted in trust and love.  If I love and trust someone (including God), I will take my doubt and seek understanding.  If I do not believe in someone (including God), my doubts will turn into demands and will eventually cut me off and isolate me even more.

Faith is rooted in the Word and promises of God.  If I don’t understand something, if I struggle, if I am discouraged, but am rooted in God’s Word, I will seek out God’s promise to me and trust in Him, even in times of shadow and darkness – especially in those times.  If I am rooted in unbelief, I dangle helplessly, battered by all that life throws at me.

So maybe we can tell the difference.  Maybe we can see areas in our own life – little plantings in our life that are unbelieving rather than faithful.  Or maybe some have realized that more than an area of life needs to be transformed – the whole tree needs to change!  We may have an idea now how to identify our “roots and fruits” – our life and core commitment.  But how can we change?  What happened to Thomas and how can it happen to me – either in whole or in areas where I still cling to unbelief?  What can I tell my friend or my parent or my child who struggles so with doubts or demands of God? How does unbelief become faith? 

God promises that if we earnestly seek Him, He will be found! (Proverbs 8:17) And Jesus invites, “If anyone is thirsty, come to me and drink!” (John 7:37) When we encounter God, the realization of just who God is – HOLY – causes us to realize just how big is the gulf between us and God.  This realization is CONVICTION – being ‘pierced through to the core’ by the realization that things are not right between me and God, and that will be the end of me.  Often, along with conviction, CONFESSION means naming or presenting myself to God.  From that condition of realizing and confessing that I am undone, REPENTANCE means desiring to change or be changed.  God offers FORGIVENESS and CLEANSING from sin and disobedience through his Son, Jesus Christ.  And then God CALLS us to follow and serve Him. 

This is the change God desires, requires, and accomplishes for all who would be in right relationship with Him.  The process of conviction, confession, and repentance is the process of having our ‘tree’ cut down.  It means being leveled before God, realizing that apart from God’s help, we are undone.  And God is the One who makes us new. It is death and resurrection!  Through Jesus Christ, God re-plants us and causes new growth in our lives. 

Whether in all of life or in little holdover areas we all have, do you desire to be faithful rather than unbelieving?  Do you want your heart to be governed by love, belief, joy, salvation, and worship, rather than by doubt, demands, and isolation? If you do, I would invite you to take a concrete step of asking God for help, joining me in your heart as I pray this prayer:

Holy God, help me to see and understand who you are.  Help me to see and understand exactly who I am.  Help me to see and understand the great separation between us.  God, save me, for I am lost without you!  God, thank you for the way you have made through Jesus.  Help me to trust him and follow him; Help me to believe him and serve him; and help me to grow in faith and love of you.  Thank you for loving me; thank you for forgiving me; thank you for making me clean and right, my Lord and my God.  Amen.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Holy and Sure Blessings (Acts 13.29-41) - EASTER SUNDAY

Sermon by: Robert Austell; April 16, 2017 (Easter Sunday); Acts 13:29-41

:: 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: Christ the Lord is Risen Today (EASTER HYMN)
Singing Together: In Christ Alone (Getty/Townend)
The Word in Music: (Choir) Easter Alleluia Canon (Mozart, Liebergen)
Song of Response: Mighty to Save (Morgan, Fielding)
Hymn of Sending: Behold Our God (Sovereign Grace, Baird, Altrogge)
Postlude: (Organ/Piano) Because He Lives 

:: 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.

“I will give you… holy and sure blessings.” Thus God spoke through the prophet Isaiah (55:3), and the Book of Acts links that declaration to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ which we celebrate this morning. We have been talking about blessing for a number of weeks, seeing that it is not a reward God heaps upon the lucky or the faithful, but is the experience of being a part of what God is doing.

Looking for references to God’s blessing led me to some different places over the last few weeks and today is no exception. This is the first time I’ve gone to the Book of Acts to talk about Easter Resurrection, but it’s there in chapter 13, a quick recap of what happened this Easter weekend, and then an explanation of what it means. So I invite you to listen up and maybe hear something you haven’t heard before in this account of the death and Resurrection of Jesus.

The News: Resurrection! (vv. 29-31)

The big news is Resurrection and it’s described right there in the first three verses of our text. We will take up what it means in a moment, but here is the report of the news, according to Luke the Physician, who investigated, interviewed, and wrote the books of Luke and Acts with the intent of making an orderly account of all that happened. (Luke 1:1-4)

“When they had carried out all that was written concerning Him…” (v. 29)
– That refers to the many things that happened to Jesus that were written about in the Hebrew scriptures, our Old Testament. He would suffer, he would serve, he would be beaten and whipped, he would ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, he would heal, he would announce the Kingdom of God. Jesus did all those things in his life and ministry, and once he had given up his life, “they took Him down from the cross and laid Him in a tomb.” That’s a super-short summary of his life and death, but if you want the details, you can read it all in the Gospels, the eye-witness accounts from his followers.

“But God raised him from the dead” (v. 30) – It’s frustratingly short, but not even the Gospels tell us how that happened, just that it happened. The Gospels include the reactions of the women, the disciples, and that sort of thing, but we don’t get the answers to our questions like “How did that work?” and “Did his body recompose?” Elsewhere we are told that he was changed somewhat, so it was more than just resuscitation, like might happen after someone has drowned. He was three days dead and God raised him. It’s supposed to be supernatural, beyond our experience or understanding, divine mystery.

“For many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, the very ones who are now his witnesses to the people.” (v. 31) – This is an important part of the Resurrection news. It’s not just myth and fable because in the days that followed people saw Jesus of Nazareth. You might even attribute it to a vision or hallucination if only one or two saw him at the empty tomb, but he appeared to different people and groups over the course of many days. He spoke, he touched, he ate, he visited. And those who saw him became witnesses – eye-witnesses – of the Resurrection news.

The Promise (vv. 32-37)

But what does the Resurrection mean? Why is it such a big deal? Luke turns to that question next, starting with some long-standing history and hopes of the Jewish people. Luke speaks of the “good news of the promise made to the fathers” (v. 32) and says that “God has fulfilled this promise to our children.” (v. 33) He then quotes from the Hebrew scripture, the Old Testament, from Psalms and Isaiah, to name the promise. God promised his people another like the great King David, born of God as a son, inheritor of David’s blessing and birthright, and proof against death and decay. This was the Messiah that God’s people waited for in faith for a thousand years. And Luke claims all that for Jesus, that he is the promised Messiah, the Son of God, the heir to King David. These are the “holy and sure blessings” of David. But Jesus is more than and greater than David, the greatest of all Jewish kings, he says, because David died and his body decayed; but Jesus was raised from the dead.

Luke says that the Resurrection is a big deal because it proves that Jesus was the expected Messiah. Well that has a lot of significance if you are Jewish, but it may still leave most of us asking, “So what?” What does that have to do with me, Jewish or not, in 2017 in the United States of America? And what does all that faith, hope, and promise stuff have to do with my life full of deadlines, internet, science, politics, and modern sensibilities.

Luke says there are two results of the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, these “holy and sure blessings” of the Promised Messiah of God: FORGIVENESS and FREEDOM.

Forgiveness and Freedom (vv. 38-39)

“Therefore let it be known to you… that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you…” (v. 38) – You don’t have to be Jewish or even Christian to understand FORGIVENESS. It is that undeserved act offered by one toward another out of mercy or love. Maybe you hurt my feelings by a casual comment, or maybe something worse. You may or may not come to say “I’m sorry,” but regardless, I do not owe you forgiveness, but it is my choice to offer it. The old way was “an eye for an eye” – you hurt me and I have the right to hurt you back in equal measure. That kind of justice has been around in many cultures since ancient times. But Jesus taught something different: forgiveness of the other as one part of his broader teaching to love one’s neighbor. The forgiveness described here is an even greater kind. It is forgiveness of sins proclaimed to you. Sin is a certain kind of rift, specifically between us and God. Yes, it’s a spiritual term. It describes any number of ways we have wronged God or the humanity or creation God loves. Sin may be defiance or dismissal of God; it may be through the way we treat others. But here’s the result of Jesus’ life, suffering, and death: God knows you and forgives you. It’s undeserved; you don’t earn it through good deeds. Like our own forgiveness of others, it’s out of mercy and love.

“…and through Him everyone who believes is freed from all things from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses.” (v. 39) – Forgiveness from God is the result of Jesus life, suffering, and death; the result of the Resurrection is FREEDOM. Here it says “freed from all things from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses.” The Law of Moses is the system of right behavior prescribed in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. It includes the Ten Commandments and many other rules and regulations. Hear this: the commandments are good. It is good not to kill, not to covet, not to lie. To the extent that you or I heed and follow them, we are better off than not following. The key there is “to the extent.” None of us can keep them all the time. And so the net result of those commandments is the sure and certain knowledge that we fail and fall short. Maybe you already knew that? You might think that’s obvious to everyone, but I think many of us go to great lengths to avoid that truth. We are “good enough” or “better than that guy.” But whether we own up to it or not, there is a weight – a captivity – that comes with being human. And the claim is that somehow you can be free from that weight and captivity because of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Let me press in and try to make this personal. Can you think of a place in your life where you have messed up? I trust you are all with me so far.   And don’t worry, you will not have to whisper this to the person next to you or write it on a card. But whether it’s the Law of Moses or the law of the land or just the unspoken law of what is right and wrong between you and another person, you’ve messed up; we’ve all messed up. Has that mistake had consequences? Or, perhaps worse yet, you are waiting for the consequences to fall on you like a hammer. Have you experienced what I mean by a weight or feeling captive to that mistake? I think our two human responses to that kind of situation is 1) we want to get away with it; or 2) we want to pay in full so we can be free. Both of those have problems. Getting away with something may sound appealing, but it doesn’t truly remove the hammer, because we know we might be found out. And then there is our conscience, which often won’t let it go. Paying in full is sometimes appealing, too, except there are something we can’t pay in full, particularly under the “eye for an eye” scenario. If I’ve hurt you deeply, is full payment for you to hurt be back? Worse yet, we try to combine the two, keeping our mess a secret but trying to make ourselves suffer until the sin is atoned. That version is particularly damaging as it causes further hurt to ourselves and doesn’t actually solve the problem. To truly get unstuck and out from under requires forgiveness which leads to freedom. Not freedom like I’m off the hook, but the freedom that comes from a new start, granted through forgiveness.

Now, I realize, what comes to mind for most of us when I ask about messing up is something related to another person or situation. But I would suggest that underneath that is messing up toward God. And if you can truly recognize that and accept God’s forgiveness and freedom, it will open you up to the opportunity for human forgiveness and freedom. And if you’ve heard anything from the blessing series, you realize that one of the key ways to find God’s blessing is to extend it to others. You may find that the first step towards human reconciliation is offering forgiveness and freedom to someone else who has messed up.

A Final Word: Take Heed (vv. 40-41)

This text in Acts ends in an interesting place. After all the news and context and results of the Resurrection, v. 40 reads, “Therefore take heed, so that the thing spoken of in the Prophets may not come upon you.” What is that thing? It is in v. 41 – that someone hear this news described and dismiss it and perish, missing out on the great gift of life through forgiveness and freedom.

I have described it to you. May God grant you ears to hear that you might be forgiven and set free. Amen.

Do the Things You Know (John 13.5-17,33-35)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; April 13, 2017 (Maundy Thursday); John 13:5-17,33-35) 

:: 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 ::
Song of Praise: How Deep the Father's Love (Townend)
Song of Preparation: Behold the Lamb (vv. 1-3) (Getty, Townend)
Song of Response: Here is Love (Lowry, Ross)
Song of Commitment: Step by Step (Beaker, Mullins)
The Word in Music: (Choir) Wait with Me (Johnson)
Confessional Hymn: Ah, Holy Jesus (HERLIEBSTER JESU)

:: 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.
5 Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. 6 So He came to Simon Peter. He said to Him, “Lord, do You wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered and said to him, “What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter.” 8 Peter said to Him, “Never shall You wash my feet!” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” 9 Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, then wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.” 10 Jesus said to him, “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.” 11 For He knew the one who was betraying Him; for this reason He said, “Not all of you are clean.” 12 So when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 “You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. 14 “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 “For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. 16 “Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. …33 “Little children, I am with you a little while longer. You will seek Me; and as I said to the Jews, now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. 35 “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
This passage is the basis of the Maundy Thursday service. The word ‘Maundy’ comes from the Latin for ‘command’ or ‘commandment’ and it is in THIS story, on Thursday night before his arrest and crucifixion, that Jesus says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.” (v.34) That’s the ‘Maundy’ part – that you love one another. Jesus doesn’t leave us wondering what he means by “love one another.” He says that it is “even as I have loved you.” This is how people will know you belong to me, and if you belong to me, this is what you need to do – your new commandment, your ‘Maundy,’ your mandate – love others like I love you.
Jesus had also just given an example to help his disciples, and us, understand. The chapter opens by saying that Jesus loved his disciples to the end, then shares the story of the foot-washing. It was surprising, even shocking. It was the act of a host or a servant, not a revered Teacher (much less Messiah!). But that was just what Jesus wanted to demonstrate. When we look at all four Gospels and piece together the events of that night, it appears that the disciples had been arguing about which of them was most important, which was “the greatest.” And then Jesus sets an example for them. And it’s an example that he will make clear is his Maundy expectation, his new command of love.

This is what love looks like: it welcomes the dirty, soiled traveler, and offers the hospitality necessary to bring them into your home. It is not for others, or lesser, or hirelings, to do, but is an act of love that shows the heart of Jesus.  Jesus asks, “Do you know what I have done to you?” He has acted out a living sermon; he has acted out his new commandment; he has set an example: love one another as I love you.

We have been talking for the past six weeks about blessing, asking “What does it mean to be blessed?” We have seen that blessing is rooted in the will and purpose of God. It is explained in God’s Word and extended to us from God. One way we experience God’s blessing is by obeying God’s Will through His Word. And that’s just what Jesus says here in verse 17: “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

If you have known the love of God through Jesus and you extend that love, that service, that hospitality, that welcome to others, you are blessed. Just to be clear, you won’t be rewarded with a gold star or three guaranteed answered prayers; that IS the blessing. You are loving as Christ loves; that is the blessing. And that extends God’s blessing to others. That’s God’s best for you and for others; that’s what God desires; that’s what Christ commands.

Do the things you know – with God’s help, to be sure – but love as Christ loves. In so doing, you are blessed. Amen.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Blessed is He Who Comes in the Name of the Lord (Mark 11.1-11, Psalm 118)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; April 9, 2017 (Palm Sunday); Mark 11:1-11; Psalm 118 

:: 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: All Glory, Laud, and Honor (chorus and arr. Austell)
Singing Together: Hosanna - Praise is Rising (Baloche)
The Word in Music: Hosanna to the King (Courtney)
Hymn of Sending: Great are You, Lord (Ingram, Jordon, Leonard)

:: 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 is Palm Sunday, which marks the beginning of Holy Week, in which we remember the last week of Jesus’ earthly life, including the Last Supper on Thursday night, his crucifixion on Friday, and his resurrection on Easter Sunday. I am also continuing in our series asking, “What it means to be blessed?” because right there in the middle of the Palm Sunday story, right after “HOSANNA!” is this statement: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord; Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David.” (vv. 9-10)

So, though we have left the Beatitudes in Luke, it would appear there is something here to learn about blessing and being blessed.

Prep Work (vv. 1-7)

The text begins with what I’ll call “prep work.” Just before entering the city of Jerusalem, Jesus sends two disciples into the nearby town to get a colt on which to ride into Jerusalem. That mission was as fascinating and confusing as the rest of the day: Jesus seemed to know right where it would be, people questioned them when they were taking it, but seemed fine once they said “The Lord needs it,” and it was a very specific animal – a young colt (can mean young horse or donkey) which had never been ridden. In the Hebrew scriptures, a young unblemished/unused animal was used for a sacred purpose, and that seems to be the purpose here.

When the disciples got it back to Jesus, they seemed to know what to do: they threw their coats on the colt and put Jesus on it. It turns out that this was one of the well-known things the Messiah would do. It came from the prophet Zechariah, who wrote:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, humble, and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)

The stage was set! If Jesus was going to claim to be the Messiah – if he WAS the Messiah – this is how it would be announced; this was a public sign to go with all the teaching and miracles that said, “The Messiah is here.”

The Messiah We Want (vv. 8-10)

So here’s the thing: Jesus was the promised Messiah, but not the expected Messiah.  And that’s no reflection on Jesus or the promises of God; it’s a reflection on how people’s expectations can change. We often see what we are looking for, and we look for what we want to see!

We’ve talked about this more than a few times before. The Hebrew scriptures – our Old Testament – is packed full of teaching, promises, prophecies, and anticipation of the Messiah, or God’s “anointed one.” The Messiah was God keeping His covenant promises to not abandon His people and to bring them BLESSING. Specifically, the Messiah was God keeping His promise to King David that the kingdom and the kingly line would last. But that’s where the promise and the expectations started to diverge, even as our concept of ‘blessing’ sometimes diverges from God’s definition of blessing.

The kingdom was not ultimately David’s kingdom; it was an earthly manifestation of God’s Kingdom – God’s covenant blessing on His people. And while David was the earthly king, GOD was the Great King. And so as the earthly kings and kingdom struggled and failed and fell, it is not surprising that Israel would latch on to the scriptures full of God’s promise of a lasting King and Kingdom and a “Return of the King” as a specific anointed one God would send. And in a hard world full of empires, kings and emperors, and occupying armies like that of Rome, the expectations became increasingly political, powerful, and nationalistic.

It is clear that the people of Jesus’ day understood Jesus to have a claim to be the Messiah. And you read accounts of people wanting to make him king. Even among the disciples there was at least one ‘Zealot’ – that was the member of a political party committed to overthrow Rome by revolution. It may well be that “Simon the Zealot” joined up with the twelve disciples with the explicit hope that Jesus would rally the people for a Zealot revolution.

And what is so fascinating and confusing about Palm Sunday is that the crowd AND the disciples AND the Pharisees recognized that Jesus was making a Messianic entrance into Jerusalem. But none of them seemed to really understand what Jesus was really doing. According to the other Gospel writers, the crowd was shouting the words from Psalm 118:25-26 – “O Lord, do save (Hosanna!), we beseech You; do send prosperity! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord (i.e., the Messiah).” Though all of writers makes clear that the crowd was shouting the words of Psalm 118, Mark’s account makes it clear that they are looking for a King, for the Messiah-King: “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” (v. 10) They saw what they wanted to see.

The Pharisees also seemed to have the same understanding of Messiah – and that Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah – but they desperately did NOT want a confrontation with Rome. Certainly that’s what they used with the Jewish High Council and then with the Roman Governor and King Herod to get Jesus arrested and executed. “He’s claiming to be the ‘King of the Jews’ – and Rome won’t stand for that!”

Even the disciples didn’t seem to understand. They struggled so with his death, even when he told them outright what was going to happen. In fact, even AFTER the crucifixion and resurrection and just before the day of Pentecost, they still asked: “Okay Lord, is NOW the time you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)

So if Jesus wasn’t there to restore the earthly kingdom to Israel and lead a revolt against Rome and Caesar, what did it mean for him to be the Messiah?

Had the crowd shouted and sung only a verse further in Psalm 118, they might have understood a bit more of what was coming: “The Lord is God, and He has given us light; Bind the festival sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar.” (v. 27) Jesus didn’t come to be an earthly king, but to be the Light of the World and the perfect Sacrifice for the sin of the world.

In fact, I think our whole tension around blessing is summed up in the two phrases shouted that day: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” and “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David.” (Mark 11:9-10)

What Does it Mean to be Blessed?

I realize that anyone can claim to come in the name of the Lord, but if we recognize that Jesus truly and legitimately came in the name and with the authority of the Lord, we recognize that he was blessed precisely because he was perfectly aligned with God’s will. That’s where blessing is rooted, not in our will or wishes.

In contrast, we see the well-intentioned and earnest definition of blessing offered by the crowd: “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David.” But that was their definition and expectation and did not line up, at least not as they understood king and kingdom, with what God was actually doing.

That’s the key! When we talk about being blessed and when we ask, “What does it mean to be blessed?” we need to be rooted in God’s will and purpose, not our own wants and desires. God invites us to let those be known, but understanding blessing is understanding saying to God, “Thy will be done” – even when it’s different from our will. Most essentially, blessing is participating in God’s will and purpose, whatever that is. The events of Palm Sunday bring that distinction to the fore. What if the one who comes in the name of the Lord looks different than I expect? What if the way God saves or helps or heals or ‘blesses’ looks different than my expectation or prayer? Then it’s still BLESSED, because blessing is not rooted in me, my need, or my expectation; it is rooted in God’s will and purpose and action. To the extent that you and I can align with that, participate in it, and live with it, we will be blessed. That’s a change from the way blessing is often described or understood, but it is consistently the way Jesus and the writers of scripture use the word. (It is also not an invitation to passively say “whatever will be will be… #blessed”; rather, to seek to obey and seek God’s revealed Word and Will.)

There is so much right about Palm Sunday: Jesus is in view; most recognize his claim to be unique and special; people are even shouting “Save us!” But what salvation? What savior? Many then wanted freedom from Rome – political and economic salvation or rescue. But Jesus said he had greater news – the advent of the Kingdom of God in our midst. Some wanted physical healing – hearing that Jesus could do that sort of thing. But Jesus said he had a greater gift – forgiveness of sin.

What about you? “Hosanna – save us!” is the right thing to say. What blessing do you want? In our tense political context, it is easy to resonate with wanting political and economic rescue. It’s also easy to resonate with wanting prayers answered – for healing, health, security, happiness, and more. But Jesus has greater news; Jesus has greater power.

Who is your Lord and Savior? Is it the right politician being in office? Or the right new Supreme Court Justice? Is it somehow getting enough money to pay the bills? Is it the right relationship or job or accolade? All those things are important. Probably none of us would admit or use “Lord and Savior” language for any of those things. But our behavior sometimes gives us away. We are waving palm branches and throwing our coats down and we miss the time of visitation.

It’s a part of every service where we welcome new members into the church, every time there is baptism or confirmation: Who is my Lord and Savior? Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior… Who is he? What has he said? What has he done? And where is he leading you and me next? Amen.