Sunday, August 13, 2017

Bless the Lord (Psalm 103, Matthew 7.7-11)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; August 13, 2017 - Psalm 103; Matthew 7:7-11

:: 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: Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven (LAUDA ANIMA)
Singing Together: Everlasting God (Brenton Brown)
The Word in Music: Canon of Praise, choir (arr. Hopson)
Offering of Music/Song of Praise: Bless His Holy Name (Andre Crouch)
Song of Sending: Here and Now (Kirkland)
:: 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.

We began today's service acknowledging the tragic events in Charlottesville. I noted that I was not changing the sermon - focused on blessing the Lord, it is all about aligning our heart, mind, and soul with God's Will and Word, which is at cross-purposes with racism and white nationalism. I invited the congregation (and will publicize opportunities) to join a book study with me or others of "Waking Up White" - a book that has greatly helped me see my own racial "blind spots." We also spent time in prayer for the racial issues behind Charlottesville (and our country), and ended the service with a wonderful song ("Here and Now") which invites us, as the church, to be the bearers of mercy, justice, and hope. If you are reading this, I invite you to enter into a season of prayer and self-examination with me around the racial realities and waters in which we all live in this country. ~Robert

We are continuing our summer series, “Psalm+1.” Today we look at Psalm 103, which challenges us and models for us how to “bless the Lord.” We will also look at a short teaching of Jesus from Matthew which further illustrates one portion of the Psalm.

Earlier this year we talked about blessing. When talking about God blessing us or our being blessed, scripture defines it as what happens when we are aligned with God’s Will and Word. That is the best place to be! So blessing is not what we want, but what God wants.

We’ll work through this Psalm in order. It has several sections which are arranged in a classic poetic structure like an hour glass:

Bless the Lord, O My Soul! (theme)
What the Lord has Done
What the Lord is Like
What We are Like
What the Lord is Like
What the Lord has Done
Bless the Lord, O My Soul (revisited)

Bless the Lord, O My Soul (vv. 1-2)

The Psalm begins with the words, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name.” (v. 1)  The idea of blessing can be confusing because it is sometimes used to describe something God gives or does to us; and sometimes it is something we say or do to God. But the two are very much entwined, since they both happen together. Maybe this illustration will be helpful: in most places where there is a gas line, there is a small lever that opens and closes the gas line. If that lever is perpendicular to the gas line, no gas flows. If it is lined up with the gas line, the gas flows. When you “turn on the gas” you line up the lever and it “turns on the gas” so your stove or fireplace will light. “Bless the Lord” is like lining up your heart, soul, and life with the gas line. The “Lord’s blessings” are the flowing of God’s presence into and through your life. Got it? Now let’s light the fire! 

In this Psalm, blessing God is the posture we take towards God to line up with Him, where we will also then be recipients of God’s blessing. So verse one is the challenge to line up with God: to bless the Lord. Verse two reminds us to “forget none of His benefits.” That’s what happens when we are lined up – the blessing, the power, the benefits flow.

Having said that, more than once I’ve gone to light the fire or stove, or the pilot light, and I’ve forgotten to turn on the main switch to the gas line. It is crucial to remember that the gas comes from outside (ourselves) and how we can access it. Likewise, we do forget and we do take our eyes off of God as the source of what we need. The Psalm goes on to walk us through several important ‘remembrances’ that help us keep the sequence straight.

What the Lord Has Done (vv. 3-7)

Verses 3-7 are packed full of words describing what the Lord has done. Let me just read them off. The Lord PARDONS, HEALS, REDEEMS, CROWNS, SATISFIES, PERFORMS, and REVEALS (makes Himself known). Remember those ‘benefits’ from verse two that we are supposed remember? There’s an overflow of benefits. And it’s worth slowing down to hear the full sentence for each of those verbs; the Lord…

    Pardons all your iniquities (sins) (v. 3)
    Heals all your diseases (v. 3)
    Redeems your life from the pit (v. 4)
    Crowns you with lovingkindness and compassion (v. 4)
    Satisfies your years with good things (v. 5)
    Performs righteous deeds and judgments (v. 6)
    Made known His ways and acts (v. 7)

Wait a minute, wait a minute. That’s a great list, but there are a few that raise some questions for me. Does God heal all disease? That seems clearly to not be the case. And “satisfies your years with good things” – does THAT always happen? And let’s not go with the answer that says to the degree that you trust God these things happen. Besides our own experience of suffering, scripture itself makes clear that disease is not always the fault of the individual (though sometimes it might be a consequence). And there are plenty of folks in scripture who also struggle throughout their years, particularly in old age. So what could those phrases mean?

I think rather than being a list of promises, like a contract, these are meant to serve as a reminder that WHEN sin is forgiven, or healing comes, or rescue, or good things, or justice; God is the source of those things. God doesn’t promise us all good things all the time in this life; but we do know some measure of God’s goodness. So rather than reading “God will heal every disease” this reminds us that if you found healing, praise God for it. Some scholars see “heals all diseases” as a parallel with “pardons all your iniquities” and a way of talking about that which weakens or sickens us before God. So, not a physical meaning so much as spiritual pardon and healing.   

What the Lord is Like (vv. 8-14)

From there, the Psalm moves slightly into a series of verses that describe what the Lord is like. We’ve moved from the works of God to the character of God. In this case, verse eight has all the descriptive words – the Lord is COMPASSIONATE and GRACIOUS, SLOW TO ANGER and ABOUNDING IN LOVINGKINDNESS. IN the verses that follow, each of those descriptive words is explored and illustrated in more depth.

In v. 9, God will not always strive with us, nor keep His anger forever. (SLOW TO ANGER)  In v. 10, God has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.  (GRACIOUS) In v. 11, God’s lovingkindness is “high as the heavens” (ABOUNDING LOVE) In v. 12, He has removed our transgressions as far as the east is from the west. (GRACIOUS) In v. 13, the Lord has compassion on us that is like a father’s compassion on his children. (COMPASSIONATE)

It is that verse that brought to mind the passage from Matthew 7. There Jesus is teaching about God’s character and says: You know how fathers won’t give their children rocks if they ask for bread? or a snake instead of a fish? Well if human father’s love their children like that, think HOW MUCH MORE your Heavenly Father loves and cares for you. That teaching is in the context of: ask, seek, and knock; and you will find God. That’s another way of describing blessing. If you seek to align your heart, soul, and life with God; God will not hide, but will show up. That’s two-way blessing.

In the last part of that “what the Lord is like” section, we read that God KNOWS us and is mindful that we are ‘dust’ – we are fragile and mortal. (v. 14) That leads into the short center section that describes what we are like.

What we are Like (vv. 15-16)

These middle verses are brief, perhaps to illustrate the point of what they say – human life is lovely, but is brief. As the grass or flowers are to us (quickly fading and forgotten), so are our lives in the expanse of time and history. That’s not meant to be discouraging, but to simply remind us of our limitation and, I think, to point us back towards an eternal God who endures.

And like that - fleeting like humanity – the Psalm is back to God. The next section simply re-visits the two sections we’ve already seen, this time in reverse order.

The Lord, Revisited (vv. 17-19)

First, two verses about what the Lord is like: his LOVINGKINDNESS (mentioned previously in v. 8) is everlasting and enduring, a clear contrast with the fleeting nature of human life. And then God’s RIGHTEOUSNESS (mentioned previously in v. 6) – here, too, set in contrast to our short lives as something that will pass on to children, grandchildren, and successive generations. We may live and die, but our children and grandchildren can know the same God that we knew and worshiped.

Then, v. 19 returns to the action verbs describing what the Lord has done: He has ESTABLISHED His throne and, as King, He RULES over all.

We add those character traits and deeds to those accumulated in the early part of the Psalm. And then we return to a final section of blessing, revisiting the original theme from v. 1.

Blessing Revisited (vv. 20-22)

Whereas the Lord’s character and deeds were somewhat compressed in the reprise, the theme of blessing is expanded at the end. Now all of Heaven is called into the action of praise, of aligning with the Lord’s Will and Word. The ANGELS (v. 20) bless the Lord through their obedience to the voice of God’s Word. The HOSTS (v. 21) of Heaven bless the Lord by serving God, doing His will.  Even God’s own WORKS (v. 22a ) bless His name – that’s yet a new version of blessing – not only can God bless us and can we bless God; God can bless Himself! This reinforces the definition of blessing – God’s works bless His name because they demonstrate God’s consistency with Himself – His Will and Word lines up with His Work. He walks His talk!

And then we end where we began: “Bless the Lord, O my soul!” (v. 22b) Remember what God has done, what God is like, and what we are like. Seek, ask, and knock, that we might align our lives – heart, soul, mind, and strength – with the Will and Word of God. When the gas line is on and not blocked, the flame can light. That’s God’s desire and invitation for each of us. Amen.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Limitations of Idols (Psalm 115, John 1,17)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; August 6, 2017 - Psalm 115; John 17:1-5

:: 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: Come Praise and Glorify (Chester, Kauflin)
Singing Together: Mighty to Save (Morgan, Fielding)
Invitation to Communion: We Will Feast in the House of Zion (McCracken, Moore)
Hymn of Sending: To God Be the Glory

:: Youth Mission Testimonies ::

Elizabeth Austell
Maggie Slade
:: 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 look at another Psalm in our Psalm+1 series, along with a New Testament passage which connects that Psalm to Jesus Christ. Psalm 115 contrasts the idols of the surrounding culture with the one true God of Israel. Though the particular idols have changed, we are in many ways still surrounded by idols and faced with trusting those false gods or the one true God. Today I want to specifically look with you at several limitations of idols as described in Psalm 115, then we will see the contrasting power and truth of the one true God, all the more demonstrated and made known to us through Jesus.

Limitation #1: the gods we make are all about us (vv. 1-3)

The Psalm begins pointing away from ourselves: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Your name give glory.” (v.1) What a counter-cultural perspective, not just then, but for today as well: it’s not all about me! What’s the point of Christianity? of religious faith? Is it to secure a better life for me and mine? Is it wish-fulfillment? With this opening, the Psalmist sets up the first limitation of false or man-made gods. We tend to create or be drawn to gods that are all about us. That’s why even within the Christian faith the prosperity theology runs so strong.

The Psalmist quotes the teasing of the surrounding culture: “Where, now, is their God?” What has your God done for you lately? Where is this invisible God of yours? The Psalmist’s response: “our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.” (v. 3)

That might even rub you a little the wrong way. But think about it… do you really want a god so small that it lives on your mantle or in your checking account or on your wish list? If God is really GOD – maker of Heaven and earth, we follow Him, not the other way around. We go bask in the sun; we don’t ring it up and tell it we are ready for it to shine. While it may initially feel distancing, a true God cannot be all about what I want and what I need.

If we make gods in our image or according to our needs, then really we are posing as creators and gods ourselves.

Limitation #2: the gods we make are only as strong as you are (vv. 4-8)

Related to that limitation is another: the gods we make are only as strong as we are. Do we really want to call such a thing ‘god’? The Psalmist plays with this a bit. Yes, you can see and touch such gods: they are “silver and gold, the work of man’s hands.” (v. 4) But even though they look familiar and present, they are not alive; they cannot speak, see, hear, smell, feel, walk, or make a sound. (vv. 5-7)

Are you picturing a tiny golden statue as an idol? That was certainly one version. But isn’t “silver and gold” – not in statue form – one of our common false gods as well? In money we trust (ironic, since it says “in God we trust” right on it!). If we don’t have it, it’s the thing we think will save us. If we do have it, we think just a little more will secure us against the uncertainties of the future.

Or what else do we make into false gods? The right relationship… the right neighborhood… the right friends… a strong military… a good security system… good health? Those things, which are desirable and often good, are still only as strong as we or our circumstances are. They cannot bear the mantle of divinity; they cannot be God though we sometimes serve and pursue them as if they were.

The gods we make are only as strong as we are, which in the face of this world and darkness and death is not very strong at all.

Limitation #3: idols cannot help or protect us (vv. 9-11)

Building on the second limitation, the Psalmist points out a third: if false gods are all about us and subject to our human limitations, then they cannot truly help or protect us. The Psalmist doesn’t say this outright, but uses the contrast with the God of Israel to make the point. It is only the God who made us, the Heavens and the earth, who does whatever He pleases, who has the power to help and protect us.

So the Psalmist makes the appeal to trust the Lord as help and shield. Over and over he says it:

“O Israel, trust in the Lord; He is their help and their shield.” (v. 9)
“O house of Aaron, trust in the Lord; He is their help and their shield.” (v. 10)
“You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord; He is their help and their shield.” (v. 11)

It is only such a powerful and self-determining God who CAN help and protect us. A man-made god – a false god, an idol – cannot do such a thing.

Limitation #4: man-made gods are not capable of originating blessing (vv. 12-18)

And here’s the hope: God is powerful and self-determining, but He has also “been mindful of us; He WILL bless us… Israel… Aaron… those who fear the Lord, the small together with the great.” (vv. 12-13) God has been compassionate in the past, so our hope is that He will be so again.

The fourth limitation of an idol is that they are not capable of originating blessing. They are neither living nor God. They are just our meager creations and subject to our limitations.

And so the Psalm ends where it begins, pointing away from US and giving glory and praise to God, thanks for a powerful, self-determining God who chooses to reveal Himself to and bless humanity.

The Great Contrast: Jesus, the Glory of God Revealed (John 17)

I chose the John 17 passage which we heard as the Call to Worship because it makes a connection with the first verse of the Psalm. The Psalm begins with “Not to us, but to Your name give glory.” That word ‘glory’ is the same word used in the Gospel of John to describe Jesus.

In chapter one of John, John writes that Jesus was in the beginning with God. “All things came into being through Him… in Him was life… Light [which] shines in the darkness.” (John 1:1-4)  John goes on to say that the Word [Jesus] “became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (v. 14) Later, in John 17, Jesus is praying and all throughout that prayer is the idea of ‘glory’ ending with “glorify me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.” (John 17:1-5) Jesus showed us the glory of God, the face of God through his work and words and existence.

What does all that have to do with idols and Psalm 115? Jesus serves as a vivid contrast to the idols and the limitations of idols described in the Psalm.

Limitation #1: idols are all about us
     ==> Jesus was there in the beginning and all things came into being through Him

Limitation #2: idols are not alive and are only as strong as we are
     ==> Not only was Jesus alive, but in Him was LIFE. He was Light to shine in the darkness.

Limitation #3: idols cannot help or protect us
     ==> Jesus made a home among us to bring the very glory and presence of God into our lives; in terms of help, his name means ‘rescue’ which is what he accomplished on the cross and through his resurrection

Limitation #4: man-made gods are not capable of originating blessing
     ==> Jesus is precisely God originating blessing when we could not help ourselves; truly originating – from the beginning of creation itself.