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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

How Can I Be a Part? (testimonies)

September 28, 2008
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**
We have been asking the mission question: "What is God doing and how can I be a part?" In today's service we had a number of people from the Good Shepherd family share testimony about how they are answering that question. Listen to or download all the testimonies in series above or download individual portions below.

Right click on links below to download mp3 or left click to open in your mp3 player. All testimonies in sequence will play in the window by using the flash player above.

01 Robert Austell - A Faithful Worker (2 Timothy 2:15 mini-sermon)
(starts at 0:00)

02 Melanie Hatfield - In My Neighborhood (starts at 3:42)

03 Graham Meeks - Writing with Purpose
(starts at 9:28)

04 Phoebe Elliot - Serving in Worship (starts at 12:06)

05 Susan Slade - Rediscovering Talent (starts at 14:39)

06 Katie Meeks - A Mother's Calling (starts at 18:47)

07 John Shuler - Art and the Word (starts at 22:58)

08 Barbara Thompson and Jane Chiseck - Knitting in Nicaragua (starts at 25:47)

09 Mary Hill Lane - Piano, Prayer, and Technology (starts at 33:28)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Vessels of Honor (2 Timothy 2:24-26)

September 21, 2008
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**
This month we are focusing on truth and error using the verses you heard again today from 2 Timothy 2. Specifically, this passage deals with the question of how to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ in a context where truth and error are so mixed together. We saw last week that this is not only the challenging context “out there” outside the church, but even within the walls, where there are “wheat and weeds” or, as Paul writes, “vessels of honor and dishonor in the same house.”

Two weeks ago we read that to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ in this mixed up world, it is crucial that we be trained and equipped to study and live out God’s Word of Truth, the Bible. That is why we put such a high value on Sunday school, Bible study, and Christian education. That is why it is essential for your spiritual health and development to be plugged into Bible study beyond what you get in a short sermon each week. I’d remind you that our Wednesday night study is explicitly set up to equip you for personal and group study and we are just getting started. Now is the perfect time to build that into your weekly routines.

Last week we looked at some warnings or cautions to those who would be faithful followers of Jesus Christ, or “vessels of honor.” Paul warned us to avoid empty or meaningless talk, to grow up and grow out of immature pursuits, and to refuse to engage in angry arguments or quarrels.

Today we continue that same topic of how to be “vessels of honor” – but we see the positive side of those warnings. If we are to avoid certain things, now we look at the patterns and behaviors we are to emulate and practice. Remember that there is a special emphasis on confrontation and argument (quarreling) because of the particular issues in the church in Ephesus.

First we will look at four qualities highlighted for those seeking to be faithful followers of Jesus in a culture full of truth and error. Then we will consider the rationale for those qualities. Finally, we will see that there is a spiritual dimension to all this beyond what may be obvious and apparent.

Four Qualities of Vessels of Honor

Having given three warnings or dangers to avoid in the verses we studied last week, Paul now gives four qualities which characterize “vessels of honor” – those seeking to follow Jesus Christ and be approved by God. These qualities are set against the example of Hymenaeus and Philetus, and the damage being caused within the church as they use words like swords to harm and cut up the body of Christ.

Kind to all (v. 24)

First, the Lord’s bond-servant must be “kind to all.” There is the same danger here as with “meekness” – confusing kindness (or meekness) with being a kind of human doormat… getting pushed around by the bullies and never standing up for anything. But this is set precisely in a passage all about standing up for truth! The whole point is about HOW one stands up for truth. Do you do so by arguing, quarreling, lashing out angrily in truth? If you’ve ever wielded the truth in this way, you may have seen how ineffective it seems to be. I’m specifically tying this to the “word-wrangling” which means “to wield words as swords.” Truth and God’s word is indeed like a sharp blade, but more like that of a surgeon’s knife than a thug’s weapon. It only confuses and masks truth to wield it in anger. Here Paul is repeating his admonition from Ephesians 4:15 to “speak the truth in love.”

To illustrate the difference simply, consider the difference between me coming up to you and saying, “You’re wrong, you unthinking idiot” and “You’re wrong, friend.” Magnify those examples by mannerism, posture, tone, and attitude, and you can so deafen people with your posture that they will be incapable of hearing the truth, no matter how truthful it is. Contrast that with kindness, which opens the other’s ears, fosters trust and maintains relationship.

Paul’s advice here goes beyond confrontations about church teachings. It’s good advice for any conflict or confrontation you face.

Able to teach (v. 24)

A second quality of a follower of Christ is the ability to teach. This need not be a Sunday school teacher to a class of 20, but lines up with verse 15 from two weeks ago. We need to be able to handle God’s Word accurately. A Christian should neither be ignorant of Scripture nor mis-handle it from lack of study. This is a re-iteration of the plea and challenge to diligently study the Bible. Likewise, I want to continue to urge each of you to commit to Sunday school and a mid-week study. It’s not to fill our classes or get a Sunday school pin, but to train your mind, heart, and spirit so that God’s Word and will shapes your life, your speech, and your choices.

We have always put a premium on Bible study at Good Shepherd, but we are extra-focused right now on equipping you to read and study the Bible. I can’t commend Wednesday nights highly enough – we are offering seminary level training at everyday relevance and language. Do you want to know what to do with Scripture when you crack open your Bible and find yourself reading laws, or genealogies, or history, or long poems? Come find out! Right now we are covering basics about where the Bible came from and why we believe it to be the Word of God. In three weeks, we’ll jump into how to study it effectively.

Patient when wronged (v. 24)

A third quality of one who would serve the Lord is that he or she is “patient when wronged.” This is getting into “turn the other cheek” territory and is evidence of some Christian maturity and what the Bible calls “fruit” of God’s Spirit. Again, this is set in the context of the internal church conflict in the Ephesian church, but it has broad application. A follower of Jesus starts to look like Jesus. One of the results of diligently studying the Bible and obeying God is that we start growing up spiritually and otherwise. Remember last week? Staying immature in faith is something to avoid. We are to grow; patience is a sign of maturing in faith, even in the face of being wronged.

With gentleness correcting those who are in opposition (v. 25)

The fourth quality of one who follows Jesus – a “vessel of honor” – really takes the first three qualities, combines them together, and puts them into action. When confronted with error, we are to correct that error with gentleness and the truth. This is kindness lived out in our speech. This is “able to teach” in the most applicable kind of way – that we aren’t just imparting knowledge, but leading people to God’s truth. This is “patience when wronged” because one of the hardest times to be patience is when one is verbally or otherwise opposing you. It is Christian maturity and the presence of Jesus that enables one to correct gently and not retaliate against angry words with angry words.

It would be enough that we are simply to reflect the character of Jesus in our speech and behavior, but Paul goes on to give an additional and important reason for exhibiting these qualities in our lives.

Why these Qualities?

Paul holds out this hope in the rest of these two verses:

… perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses… (vv. 25b-26a)

God’s grace and His ability to transform the heart, mind, and soul of a person extends far beyond anything we can imagine. The hardest heart, the most stubborn spirit, the most entrenched position – it can all be changed if God is involved. This isn’t to say that my persuasive words will change someone, but that I do not find myself working counter to what God would do.

It’s interesting also to note that what happens in this hopeful scenario is not that my opponent would become convinced of the truth, but that my opponent would be repentant. That is, the one to whom I am being kind, truthful, and patient, would turn toward God in faith. It is that broken and repentant heart that then leads someone to know God’s truth.

I see this scenario played out and subverted all the time, from the embattled positions held in our local presbytery to my years in youth ministry to my own parenting. Attacking an opponent, even if we are “in the right” usually just pushes them further from you and from the truth. Cultivating kindness and patience in a relationship opens hearts to hear the truth and change.

It’s Not All Good Guys and Bad Guys

I left off the very last part of verse 26 in order to speak to it as its own topic. Paul finishes the description of the hopeful outcome of a repentant heart led to God’s truth with this additional phrase:

… [that they might] escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will. (v. 26b)

Paul observes here what he does in Ephesians 6:12… that our battle is not against flesh and blood, but is part of a larger spiritual battle between God and His enemy, Satan. While other human beings can and do hold opinions and beliefs that are contrary to God’s Word, it is not enough to simply think of truth and error in terms of “good guys” and “bad guys.” Satan is the “Father of Lies” (John 8:44) and would deceive human beings any time and any place he can.

That recognition coupled with the qualities Paul describes here should cause a follower of Jesus not to see others as enemies, but as fellow human beings in need of God’s redemption and truth. Even conflicts of truth and error, which lead us so easily into quarrels, then become for us another mission field, a place to be salt and light, as carriers of the winsome and inviting Good News of Jesus Christ. This connection between truth, error, and mission, also provides some depth of understanding to what Jesus meant when he charged us to “love our enemies” (Matthew 5:44ff).

Summing Up

This passage from 2 Timothy is rich. It is a challenge to all who would be followers of Jesus in a culture and setting where the Father of Lies would deceive and distract many from the Truth. Diligently study your Bible; guard your behavior and turn away from an immature and shallow faith toward a mature faith imprinted with the character of Jesus Christ. Let this faith be evident in word and deed, as even the confrontation of untruth becomes an opportunity to be salt and light for Jesus Christ.

Want to accept that challenge and get better at those things? Then commit to Bible study, worship, and prayer. Our church ministry is here to cultivate that kind of followership of Jesus. Take advantage of the rich resources we offer here.

Next Week: testimony, application, and invitation

I’m very excited about next Sunday’s service. All this study about what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus will come to a head as we personally consider the question, “What is God doing and how can I be a part?” We will hear stories from a number of our own church family who have and are using their gifts and talents to be a part of what God is doing.

We will see how people are applying these scriptures to get up and get out, to be salt and light for Jesus. And I will be challenging and inviting each person to make a commitment to respond to that “How can I be a part?” question. I hope you will come ready and willing to respond to God’s Holy Word and Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

What Kind of Vessels? (2 Timothy 2.16-23)

September 14, 2008
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**
Last week we looked at this passage for the first time, focusing on verses 14-15. There we were challenged to study God’s Word, the Bible, in order to present ourselves to God as approved workers or disciples. Particularly as we try to become better at being “lighthouse” and “searchlight” Christians – that is, people who live out our faith as a witness to Jesus Christ, both in and outside of the church – it is critical for us to study and be grounded in the Bible. We must learn to “accurately handle the Word of Truth.”

In order to learn the Bible better, I challenged you to commit to exercise spiritually at least three times a week – Sunday morning Sunday school and worship, and Wednesday night Bible study. There are also other times and places to study the Bible, like the women’s studies on Monday night and Tuesday morning. If we are going to be effective as outwardly focused Christians, we must be committed to and grounded in biblical knowledge and truth.

Today we continue through the passage, looking at verses 16-23. Paul is writing Timothy to prepare and equip him to lead the local church in ministry and mission. That is the same task we are engaging as we try to become more of a “lighthouse” and “searchlight” church. There are challenges and dangers all around – sometimes from without and sometimes from within.

This chapter is dominated by a danger in the local church community where Timothy was pastoring. We’ll begin by looking at that situation and an analogy Paul made to describe it, then we’ll look at three dangers he notes to Timothy, along with some defenses against the danger.

A Useful Vessel for God

We’ll start in vv. 17-18, which describe the challenging situation in the local church community:
Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, men who have gone astray from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place…
I mentioned this situation last week, when we looked at the phrase “wrangling with words” in v. 14. That phrase literally means “to fight with words as with swords” and I noted that the false teaching about the resurrection was wounding and carving up the local body where Timothy served. That led to Paul’s charge to study and apply God’s Word carefully and accurately.

Note that these men were not outside the church, where there were also plenty of dangers and pitfalls for the mission-minded Christian. The surrounding culture of 1st century Greco-Roman culture was as over-sexed and appetite-centered as anything you could find today. But this passage reminds us that the church itself has never been pure and perfect on this earth. Because it is full of human beings, it is a mixture of “wheat and tares” (to use Jesus’ analogy). And Paul gives his own analogy for it in vv. 19-21. Let’s look at that.

First, he says several important things about the earthly church in v. 19…
Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, “The Lord knows those who are His,” and, “Everyone who names the name of the Lord is to abstain from wickedness.”
First, the mixture and impurity – of right teaching and wrong teaching, the pure and the impure, the wheat and the chaff – does not threaten the foundation of the Church that God has established in Jesus Christ. Indeed, Jesus said that on the foundation rock of His name, even the gates of Hell would not stand against this Church. Secondly, that foundation is sealed with the affirmation that God is not confused by the mixture and impurity. God knows who are His; God can see the human heart; God is not fooled by words, arguments, or anything else. Nor, as one Presbyterian pastor commentator said recently of our own mixed, wheat-and-chaff denomination, is God surprised or somehow sucker-punched by the things we do.

Paul goes on to explore the nature of the mixed and impure earthly church, offering his own analogy for it in v. 20…
Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor.
He compares the earthly church, and particularly the Ephesian situation where Timothy is pastor, to a large house, which has gold and silver vessels, which are lasting and serve a lasting purpose, and earthenware vessels, which have a temporary and limited purpose. The language of “vessels” is interesting, for it is the same word used elsewhere in Paul’s writings to describe human beings, created for God’s purpose and glory. Specifically, Paul uses this word in 2 Corinthians 4:7, where he writes:
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves…
It is the power of God, poured into us “vessels” through His Holy Spirit, that transforms us from clay pots into the “gold and silver vessels” of v. 20. Like a household, Paul analogizes, the church contains those who know and trust in Jesus Christ, are filled with His glory and Spirit, and serve the honorable purposes of God through “every good work.” The church also contains those who are “in the right house” but who do not know Christ or serve him – and are vessels of dishonor.

And yet, Paul is not ready to consign anyone living to be “gold” or “earthenware” as he did in hindsight with Moses and Pharaoh in Romans 9. While Paul would uphold God’s sovereignty and perfect knowledge and will, all we can measure and know while we live is our own response to God’s grace in Jesus Christ. So, Paul holds out hope for Timothy and others to repent and change and prove themselves vessels useful to the Lord. So he can write in v. 21…
If anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified useful to the Master, prepared for every good work.
Look to your own life. Clean up your act. How do you do that? It is through conviction, repentance (turning to God in humility), receiving God’s gracious forgiveness, and responding to God’s invitation to serve Him.

And we will see at the end of this passage (in vv. 24-26) – and this is the subject of next week’s sermon – that Paul holds out hope, even for those who currently seem to be showing themselves to be vessels of dishonor.

What remains, though, in the verses for today, are some practical warnings against the kind of dangers that can distract a Christian from God’s calling and purpose. There are (at least) three dangers that can keep us from serving as “vessels of honor.” Let’s look at those and consider how we may respond in faithfulness.

Danger #1: Empty Talk (vv. 16-17)

The first danger is “empty talk” or “worldly and empty chatter.” In verse 16, we read that we should avoid this kind of talk, because it has at least three negative results. It will “lead to further ungodliness” (v. 16); it will “spread like gangrene” (v. 17); and it will “upset the faith of some” (v. 17).

A faithful Christian should speak truth with substance. This is one of the results of studying scripture as we talked about last week. When our minds are soaked in scripture, it is far easier not to be characterized by “worldly and empty chatter.” Unfortunately, it is not simply a matter of braving the “worldly chatter” out there – but it is a danger within the church as well. We’ve seen that Paul cites a local example of men (Hymenaeus and Philetus) speculating and teaching about the resurrection in a way that did not accord with scripture. Their words evidently were wreaking havoc within the church and upsetting the faith of some believers.

Paul’s advice to Timothy and to us: avoid this kind of talk, whether it’s inside the church or outside. Let your words be full of truth and substance, bearing witness to Jesus Christ. Don’t engage in the chatter or add to it. Guarding the tongue is the best defense; grounding in the Bible is the best offense.

Danger #2: Immaturity and Distraction (v. 22)

Look at v. 22. A second danger is distraction because of immaturity. Our pew-Bibles translate this verse “flee from youthful lusts.” Your first thought at hearing that probably is a warning against sexual immorality, and certainly that is part of the danger here. But, the original words are broader than that, meaning “youthful passions” or “distractions of the young.” This is a broad challenge to grow up in Christ. The breadth of this can be seen in the contrast with what follows. In the place of these youthful distractions, we are to “pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace.” And we are to look for examples, mentors, and fellowship with “those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.”

This language is chosen, in part, because Timothy is so young. He may well have been an older teenager or in his early 20s. Elsewhere Paul encourages him to not let people look down on him because of his youthfulness. Here, Paul cautions him against the kinds of things that can distract a young person (or an immature believer of any age!): “Don’t get sidetracked by these men who are stirring up the church – I know you’d love a good fight – but keep pursuing godly character and draw to you those who are calling on the Lord from a pure heart.”

This is a very timely word for our church as we ponder our ongoing role in our larger denominational context. Last Wednesday night, the elders and I met with the congregation to share our calling and respond to questions. We are trying to find that fine balance between pursuing godliness in our public witness and getting dragged down by Presbyterian church debates and arguments. This passage is such a helpful guide in recognizing both the calling and the dangers as we ultimately pursue faithful and obedient service to God.

Danger #3: False Teaching (v. 23)

Finally, in v. 23, Paul describes a third danger: false teaching…
But refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels.
From “word wrangling” to “idle chatter” to “spreading like gangrene” to several uses of “quarrel,” it is clear that Paul sees great danger in what was going on in Ephesus. It’s not just the false teaching in and of itself, that can lead one astray; it is also the arguing and fighting that can disrupt and damage a church community.

One of the real dangers I have discussed with our elders is that we get so focused on righting the wrongs or fleeing the people with whom we disagree that we fail to focus on the primary and first order ministry and mission God has put before us as a church. And so we’ve talked of finding a godly priority and balance.

Coming Next…

As a church, we are still working at the questions, “What is God doing and how can I/we be a part?” This passage in 2 Timothy charts the path for answering that question in difficult times.

In order to be a faithful and healthy church, we must be grounded in God’s Word. That’s the starting place – studying and applying God’s Word of Truth. Come to Sunday school; worship regularly; get involved in one of our weekly studies. It’s essential to becoming vessels of honor in service to the Lord.

That grounding in God’s Word will also help us avoid the quarreling that is primarily a fight between two people’s opinions. To return to scripture as the arbiter of truth is to seek God’s Word and will over and above our own.

That grounding in God’s Word will also help us grow spiritually such that we can turn away from immature and ungodly behaviors and inclinations and be transformed by the power and presence of God’s Holy Spirit in our lives.

Paul is not done, though. Having warned against quarreling, he goes on to describe a means of engaging, confronting, and correcting those in error. His goal is not the purification of the Church, but the correction and redemption of people, outside and inside the human construct of the church. He also points ultimately to Satan as the source of this discord:
The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will. (vv. 24-26)
We will continue next week with this passage as we move towards a fuller engagement with the question, “What is God doing and how can we be a part?” Amen.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Studying the Word (2 Timothy 2.14-15)

September 7, 2008 – “Rally Day”
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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Truth and error are sometimes not easily discerned. This is one of the early lessons of childhood – children who are warned not to talk to strangers go ahead, explaining that “he was really nice.” Later along, we may hear the crowd of peers saying one thing, but sheer numbers do not create truth. We come to realize that our own feelings may mislead us, and wolves continue to dress in sheep’s clothing. What once seemed black and white only seems to come now in shades of gray.

In a world where truth is an elusive thing, how does one find it? How does one guard against untruth? If we are really going to be salt and light in a dark world, how will we do so without being swept away? This passage from 2 Timothy is rich in answering these questions and more. It is so rich that we are going to take the month of September to go through these verses.

Today, on Rally Day, when we start a new year of Sunday school, and a new season of ministry and mission, it is fitting to pay close attention to this Scripture text, for we will see that study of God’s Word is essential to being a faithful servant of God.

Background: core doctrine and word-wrangling (v. 14)

We are going to focus on verses 14-15, but right off the bat, we are pointed elsewhere. Verse 14 begins, “Remind them of these things…” Well, we’ve got to know what “these things” are! The preceding verses, which we used as a call to worship today, give us a clearer picture of what is at stake. Listen to them again:
11 It is a trustworthy statement: For if we died with Him, we will also live with Him; 12 If we endure, we will also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us; 13 If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself. (2 Timothy 2:11-13)
It IS a trustworthy statement – but why was it being made? It was being made because there were those who were denying the resurrection. This was a bottom-line, essential, and core doctrine of the Christian faith. To deny the resurrection was to deny Jesus himself. Added to this reminder in verse 14 was the charge not to “wrangle about words.” It appears that getting bogged down in this word-wrangling was either taking the place of or a distraction from belief in and proclamation of the resurrection.

What is “word-wrangling?” Some biblical examples from Timothy and Titus show the church arguing about genealogies and the meaning of minute points of the Law, while missing the opportunity to display charity, love one another. It appears, in this context, that word-wrangling had even displaced or replaced a foundational belief in the resurrection.

I believe this practice is one of the pressing issues of our day. Perhaps the most glaring example in recent history is the former President saying “It depends on what the meaning of is is” while apparently dodging the moral elephant in the room. But one need not point the finger at so prominent a public figure. At every college and university in the country, and perhaps even amidst the high schools on down to elementary schools, the basic meaning of words is being challenged as never before. Distorting the technical philosophical approach of “deconstructing a text,” amateur deconstructionists simply vacate important words (even ‘is’!) of meaning and fill in the blank as they see fit. In many ways, we have become the masters of word-wrangling.

If the finger is still pointing too far away, let me come closer to home. Committed, evangelical Christians can often find themselves nit-picking so much over words and concepts that they miss the forest – hours and hours wrangling over free will and pre-destination and missing what God is doing and inviting us to do all around.

There is some balance, of course. When Jesus said, “Love your neighbor,” the natural response from those around was, “And who is my neighbor?” And Jesus went on to explain. And we must be able to discern the difference between the vivid idea of getting a camel through the eye of a knitting needle, and understanding what Jesus meant. It is important to study and understand words, particularly in God’s inspired Word. But we must not miss the really foundational teachings of scripture chasing after secondary things. And verse 14 is talking about more than distraction; it is talking about fighting over such things. The word, “wrangling,” literally means “to fight with words as with a sword.”

Part of the real difficulty, of course, is that to some degree we all have bought into the cultural assumption of personal interpretation. Just like saying, “Jesus is Savior… for me,” we are slowly accepting the notion that ‘is’ can mean one thing for me and another for you. If you’re smart, you’ve learned to discover what another person means by a word – you can’t take it for granted any more. [This does seem to spell the demise of the Dictionary industry!]

Does that seem far-fetched? Consider our denomination – and we’ll be talking about this some on Wednesday night. In denominational circles, I can no longer presume a common understanding of “gospel” or “evangelism” or “justice.” It is necessary to spell everything out with great specificity in order to be precise. We are at the point of wrangling over words.

So what to do? I certainly don’t want to spend my days defining words with excruciating specificity, particularly when they are words that have been so consistently used by the Church. And what assurance do I have that my definitions are any more or less valid than the next person? The next verse points us in the direction we need to go.

The Importance of Reading and Studying the Bible (v. 15b)

How shall I be “diligent to present [myself] approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed?” (v. 15) How do I focus on the foundational truths and not get distracted or re-directed by word-battles? It is by “accurately handling the word of truth.” (v. 15) Do you hear what is being said? These scriptures – this collection of words – is the “word of truth.” It is not wishy-washy or vacillating, or subject to bending to my own interpretation. Rather, it is God’s Word and God is Truth.

This verse also makes clear that human interpretation is involved (speaking of predestination and human responsibility), for it is we imperfect human beings who “handle” this Word in preaching, teaching, reading, and study. There is such a thing as “accurate” interpretation, so also “inaccurate” interpretation. To find God’s truth, though, we do not look within, to personal definitions, feelings, or even experience. Rather, we learn how to read, study, and apply scripture with consistency with itself.

Handling scripture accurately is not easy or obvious, but neither is it mysterious and out of reach. There are portions that speak clearly to the youngest child or simplest mind, and there are parts that will challenge the greatest intellect. It helps to come to scripture with an open mind and heart, but God’s Word can also penetrate the hardest heart. I would say, however, that to accurately handle God’s Word, one must trust in Jesus Christ – that is, be a Christian. For it is Christ himself to whom the Scripture witnesses. To read them apart from Jesus makes no sense at all.

Neither is “accurately handling the word of truth” a job only for theological super-heroes, pastors, and seminary graduates. God’s Word is written for each of you and accessible to each of you, from the youngest child to the oldest adult. And one of the highest priorities at Good Shepherd is not only teaching God’s Word accurately, but equipping each of you to read and study it.

In light of that, I not only invite you, but appeal to you to plug in to Sunday school this year. The purpose of Sunday school is to teach God’s Word to you and to equip you to study it more effectively for yourself. Particularly in today’s world, with the very meaning of words shifting like sand, it is crucial to ground your children’s vocabulary and thoughts in the solid Word of God. And the need is no less for youth and adults.

I also invite you and appeal to you to participate on Wednesday nights. Again children and youth will study and apply God’s Word. And the adults will spend the year studying Scripture through the book “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.” If I had to choose the one most important book (other than the Bible) that I read in seminary, this would be it. With it we’ll look at the Bible and be equipped to read, study, and apply God’s Word. Word is that exercising three times a week is the minimal requirement to stay in shape… I urge you to make Sunday school, worship, and Wednesday night study a minimum in your regular weekly cycle. There are more opportunities above and beyond those – for prayer, study, service, and fellowship. But that grounding in God’s Word is crucial to a healthy faith. And, as the rest of verse 15 explains, that grounding in God’s Word also forms us into approved workers or servants of God.

Approved for Ministry and Mission (v. 15a)

God is on the move. If we ask the questions, “What is God doing and how can I be a part of it?” then we are asking to be used by God as a “worker (or workman).” That’s what is in view here. This is not an appeal to hole yourself away from the world and study ancient manuscripts as the world passes by any more than the realization from Hebrews 11 that earth is not our home means we aren’t active, faithful disciples here and now. Rather, this passage describes the kind of men, women, and young people God delights to use in His mission to the world – those who are rooted in Scripture, committed to hearing, studying, and applying it.

In coming weeks we will return to this passage, for it goes on to address what happens when we accurately handle the word of truth and follow God out into the world. We will talk about discerning truth and error, about being on guard against deception and equipped with truth. In September we will follow the arc of this passage until we arrive at September 28, where I will ordain and install the new church officers and will challenge each of you to identify and respond to God’s calling in your life.

Our church is in the midst of accepting God’s invitation into what He is doing all around us. It is crucial that we know God’s Word, know how to “handle it,” and keep returning to it for truth, guidance, and instruction. Amen.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Coming Home (Hebrews 13:11-16)

August 31, 2008
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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Today we are wrapping up the series on exile and redemption. We started in Genesis in the Garden of Eden and saw that, in mercy, God allowed exile for humanity’s sin rather than immediate judgment and death. That mercy would be short-lived, however, if in grace God did not also come after us in exile to reconcile us and bring us home, for we lack the capacity to find our way back to God.

Over the weeks we have looked at numerous examples of God plunging into the muck and mire of human existence. That existence – that exile – takes many forms, from personal bondage and addictions to societal woes, and everything in-between. But God has come near in order to speak into that exile and call us to faith and redemption.

Until now, we have read and heard the stories of the Old Testament, setting the pattern for God’s involvement and redemption, but not explicitly naming Jesus Christ as God’s ultimate provision. Today, we come to God’s perfect plan, foreshadowed for thousands of years, proclaimed by prophets and teachers, and made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is God with us… God come to get us… God come to call us home.

Sin Outside the Camp (v. 11)

There is a lot packed into a few verses here. I’m going to focus in on verses 11-16. It is there that the writer of Hebrews draws a connection between Jesus and the Old Testament atonement sacrifice, particularly highlighting the phrase “outside the camp/gate.” That phrase is used three times in these verses and I’d like to focus in on them, because they overlap significantly with exile or being separated from God.

The first time that phrase appears is in verse 11:

…the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy place by the high priest as an offering for sin, are burned outside the camp.

This offering is described in Leviticus 16:27 and surrounding verses. In those ancient times, sin was addressed in several ways. Priests would sacrifice animals – a goat and bull – to act out, almost as in a drama, God’s plan for the forgiveness of sin. A bull and a goat were sacrificed – killed – for death is the consequence of sin. Another live goat was taken outside the city gate, symbolically carrying the sins of the people. This was the scapegoat, which carried the sins of others far away. The animals that were killed were not used for eating, as with other sacrifices, but their bodies burned outside the city gate. This was because of the association with human sin and symbolic of the consequences of sin: death and isolation.

This is why exile was such a powerful experience for the Jews and for the human race. It is also dramatic – a preview of our eternal destiny apart from God. In exile, we are cast (or cast ourselves) outside the holy walls of God’s Word and will; we’re just not dead yet. The ancient Israelites very tangibly connected their various exiles with separation from God, even as I have been trying to do in this series.

Jesus Outside the Camp (v. 12)

In so many ways the Levitical sacrifices were like a huge drama pointing to Jesus. There are wonderful points of connection between the atonement offering, scapegoat, and Jesus, who took the sin of the world onto himself and through whom God cast them away as far as the east is from the west.

In our passage today, though, the connection is made between Jesus and the sacrificed animals whose bodies were burned outside the city gate. We read:

Therefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate.

We’ve talked about God wading into the muck and mire of human existence and this is it. This is God entering into exile to bring us out. Jesus was an exile in his own day. He suffered outside the gates of Heaven, during his earthly life. He literally suffered and died outside the gates of Jerusalem on the cross at Golgotha. He not only took the sin of the world onto himself as the scapegoat; he also took the consequence of sin onto his head, enduring death and complete exile from God.

If you have any doubt about God hiding out in Heaven or plunging into the mess of humanity, you only need look at Jesus’ life and death to see God coming to rescue us. Jesus spent his ministry with those “outside the gates” – the lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, and sick, who were considered unclean and outcast. And consider the ripping of the curtain in the Holy of Holies, which Hebrews also makes much of. We were no longer to go seeking God “in there” – God came to seek and save us “out here” – outside the gate, outside the camp.

Humanity Outside the Camp (v. 13)

The passage takes an interesting turn in verse 13. And it is consistent with all that we’ve seen thus far in our study of exile. We read:

So, let us go out to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach.

The author of Hebrews calls us away from the limited sacrificial system of the Old Testament. By extension, we are called away from any effort on our own part to achieve our own salvation. Rather, we are invited to turn to Jesus, the one who is found… out among the exiled. Jesus is a Savior for the broken-hearted, wounded, and lost. We don’t sing “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a saint like me.” We sing “wretch” because God put on human flesh and came out of the city walls to find us in the trash heap. We look for Jesus there among the dying, decaying, and drowning, because it is there that God is working to seek and save the lost.

And not only is that where we see God at work – we who trust in Him for salvation through Jesus Christ are challenged to “Come, follow me.” And look, that’s exactly where the passage goes next.

The Character of Those Called Home (vv. 14-16)

In verses 14-16 we have the whole exile series in three verses. Having demonstrated, in Jesus, that He is plunging into the darkness of this world, we are challenged to recognize that this place – this exile and this world – is not our home. God has made us for more and intends us for more. Look at v. 14:

For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come.”

We talked about that eternal perspective last week. Right? – “Earth is Not Our Home.” But we also recognized that it doesn’t produce passive daydreaming Christians, but active and engaged disciples. So see the challenge of verses 15-16, which describe worship of God and mercy lived out around us:

Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to his name. And do not neglect doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.

All this combined together is both Good News and the vision set before us at Good Shepherd. We are not perfect people, but imperfect people who need and have trusted in the God who saves. We have seen God at work among us and around us – several of you have shared your testimony or “God-story” and I continue to look for folks who would be willing to do this. And, setting our hearts and minds on Jesus, we recognize an eternal and heavenly purpose behind our earthly existence. More and more, we are responding to God-on-the-move.

You may have noticed the new look in our welcome area. I hope that every time you see the lighthouse and the searchlight there that you will be reminded that Jesus, the light of the world, calls to His Church:

You are the light of the world, a city set on a hill. You are salt and light.

What is your personal ministry and mission? How have you or how are you hearing and responding to verse 13: “So, let us go out to Him outside the camp.” How will you follow Christ?

And what is God doing with us and around us right now? How will we be salt and light? As we find out, respond, and run after Him, I believe God is going to light up Old Providence, and beyond, for His glory. Amen.