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Friday, December 26, 2008

All Creation Was Waiting (Galatians 4.3-7)

Christmas Eve – December 24, 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"**
It’s hard to wait. It’s hard to wait for anything. Especially when we can get just about anything anytime, it’s hard to wait. But here at Christmas, we still do it. We don’t have to; we could tear into our presents any old time. But we know the joy of waiting until just the right time… until Christmas morning, gathered around the tree. There’s not a more magical time than when a child’s eyes crack open in the dim light of just-dawn and the adrenaline surges through their body. It’s Christmas morning… the waiting is over… it’s time!

God’s people had been waiting a long, long time for God’s gift. It was first spoken of amidst the curse there as the first parents were being expelled from the Garden. It was promised to Noah in the wake of horrible judgment and consequence. It was promised to Abraham and all his descendants, later renewed with David and others. God would one day give a gift to restore those consigned to death through disobedience. God would one day make things right and make a way home.

But for many years, there was only Law. God had spoken and His Word was Law. It described what was right, what freedom and obedience could look like. But for broken, disobedient, imperfect – in fact, perfectly imperfect people – the Law only sealed our fate. It only served to remind us that we were slaves to self and chained by our hard hearts to death and separation from God. No one could keep it; no one was pure.

And so we waited. One day God would do what we could not, for He had promised, and what other hope was there? The Law was good for that, for driving us to hope, the promise of freedom inscribed on the chains that enslaved us.

What we needed was for God to act – to send help, to rescue us and purchase our freedom. That’s the gift and the promised help. None of us could fulfill the requirement of God’s Law; only God Himself could do that. So God wrapped Himself in human flesh – no, more than that, He came among us as one of us, to be and do what we could not be and do. He took our place under the weight and judgment of His own rules, His own Law, and set us free in exchange. It was a wonderful and awful exchange – God’s own Son in exchange for each of us.

It was even more than freedom, though. God’s great gift was freedom + belonging. It was release from the dungeon and an invitation, not to the streets, but to a home. The scripture calls it adoption. We have some inkling what that means, though the spiritual reality leaves us speechless. No longer prisoners, God invites us to be sons and daughters. It is an extraordinary change of scenery. Our most extreme story of human adoption could barely describe the reality. From a prison camp in the remotest part of the world, we are brought fully round to a warm, loving living room, with family on every side.

Is it no wonder that we don’t know the language and resist the new way of life? It is so alien to whence we came. Yet God not only sends a redeemer, but also His Spirit, to give us the words to call Him “Father.”

Of course we are called “heirs.” How else would one with so little describe this new life with so much? Our chains have been exchanged for a gift worth more than pure gold. It’s hard to even wrap our minds around!

Here’s the Good News – the birth that we celebrate at Christmas means that the spiritual wait is over forever. In the most significant sense, every day is Christmas day for our relationship with God. Generations waited on God to act and when the time was just right, in God’s perfect timing, Jesus the Son of God was born.

The fullness of time has come, and IS. God has acted and this greatest of all gifts has been given to the world. That is why we sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord IS come.” God’s gift has ongoing and eternal implications for the world and for you.

If you know the weight of bondage – to self, addiction, disobedience, or any other enslaving thing – the Lord is come.

If you feel the aloneness of the orphan, the lonely, the outcast, or the hopeless, the Lord is come.

If you have heard God’s story, want to believe, but lack the language, the conviction, the identity, and the reality of what He promises, the Lord is come.

On this night in which we re-create the longing and we wait for morning to come, let us find the deepest peace and hope in the Good News of God’s coming. All creation was waiting for this – Jesus, God’s great gift. Amen.

All Creation Was Waiting*
By Robert Austell, Christmas Eve – 2008

Time drawn out,
Such a difficult wait
No sign of first light
Time drawn out

Eyes flutter again
Sky lights with first dawn
Strength surges within
Eyes flutter again

In the fullness of time
God sent forth His Son
The greatest of all God’s gifts
All creation was waiting for this

So long in those chains
Heard right but chose wrong
Hurt, broken, in pain
So long in those chains

In the fullness of time
God sent forth His Son
The greatest of all God’s gifts
All creation was waiting for this

Fatherless and forsaken I wandered the earth

From prison, called home
Not just to the streets
From slave to full-born
Child to the King

In the fullness of time
God sent forth His Son
The greatest of all God’s gifts
All creation was waiting for this

*The sermon-song I almost completed in time, but didn’t. [Sorry, no music yet.]

Monday, December 22, 2008

Faith-filled Women (Luke 1.39-56)

December 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"**
When was the last time you had a meaningful conversation with someone? Maybe I’m off-track here, but my guess is that for most of us, those are few and far between.

There’s a lot of, “Hi, how ya doing?” and “Fine, just fine; how ‘bout you?”

There’s some, “Good to see you, hope you and your family are well” and “Yep, yep, same to you.”

There might even be that sticking the toe in the deep end and waiting for a warmer day line, “We need to get together sometime” and “Yeah, let’s do that.” Even if we dare to do it, though, sometimes that getting together is just more of the shallow same.

If this seems to be a strange topic to pick up from this text, let me explain why it’s on my mind. I realize this is the mother of our Lord and her cousin, both of whom are miraculously pregnant and have heard angels speak. I also realize this is holy Scripture, which doesn’t tend to record trivial banter at the water cooler. Nonetheless, I was struck and convicted by the depth and character of the conversation recorded in this text.

I want to look with you at the content of what Elizabeth had to say and then what Mary had to say, then challenge ourselves to step it up a notch… to risk a move towards spiritual depth in our conversations and relationships. Christmas is the perfect time to take this on, as it is natural to think and speak of Jesus and God’s involvement in our lives. Let’s look first at Elizabeth…

Elizabeth: “You are Blessed!”

When Mary first came to visit, Elizabeth exclaimed, “You are blessed!” We are given more of the details surrounding that exclamation. Elizabeth’s baby “leaped” inside her; Elizabeth was filled with God’s Holy Spirit; and she recognized the miraculous work God was doing in Mary’s life, preparing to bring Jesus into the world.

Elizabeth’s baby with Zacharias was a miracle. They were old and she had never been able to get pregnant. Mary’s baby was a miracle, conceived without a man by the will of God. An angel had spoken to both couples, describing great things that God was doing. Elizabeth’s baby was promised to be the last great prophet of the Messiah, and Mary’s baby was to be that Messiah. Both couples received those promises and believed.

It might be easy to think, these two women were so full of faith and in the middle of what God was doing that of course they said deep and holy things. Plus, this was to be recorded and passed on to future generations.

But, consider this: God is still at work in the lives of human beings. No, Jesus is not being born into the world again. But, as we talk about often, God is not hiding in Heaven, but is active here and now, seeking and saving the lost, broken-hearted, lonely, and afraid. And God’s promise, just as sure as to those women, is to use people like you and me, who will listen and obey His Word, to accomplish that mission.

We have just as much reason as Elizabeth to speak of what God is doing, particularly as we see it in another person’s life. That person might be a Christian friend who may or may not feel close to God. Sometimes we serve as “eyes and ears” for each other, when the other is struggling to hear God. Rather than, “How’s it going?” and “Fine, fine; how ‘bout you?” (never actually answering that question), this text challenges us to speak deeply into one another’s life. “Hey, what can I pray about in your life?” “How ARE you doing? … and looking for, asking for more than, “Fine, fine.”

And if that other person is a friend who doesn’t know Christ, you may well be the one God would use to speak of life and hope and truth. Several friends came to the play last weekend and saw something unfamiliar in the faith depicted there. They want to know more. You may have a friend who needs faith and hope. Will you be an Elizabeth to them and speak of what God is doing in their life?

And it’s not just about struggles. Elizabeth affirmed Mary’s own trusting faith. She encouraged her. When was the last time you encouraged someone’s faith? It doesn’t come naturally. Yet this week I tried to do this (working on the sermon usually prompts good behavior!). Someone did something for me that reminded me of Jesus, and a day or two after the fact, I decided to tell them and thank them for that. Will you look for opportunities to be an Elizabeth and encourage faithful decisions others make? The Lord knows we need that kind of encouragement!

Mary: “God is good!”

Let’s look at Mary. Her response to Elizabeth is famous. Many songs and hymns have been written about this, and we’ve heard one today. Whether Elizabeth’s greeting elicited this response or whether Mary was prone to outbursts of praising God, she chose in this case to worship and praise God in the presence of her cousin and friend. In essence, she exclaimed, “God is good!” She described God’s great deeds and kind regard for her; she described God’s promises and faithfulness; and she held up God’s goodness.”

Mary is talking to God, but she is doing so in the presence of another. In terms of application for us, if being like Elizabeth means speaking of what God is doing in another person’s life; being like Mary means speaking of what God is doing in our own life, though Mary goes on to speak far more broadly about what God is doing for the whole world.

This reminds me of the “TEA evangelism” we talked about on Wednesday nights several years ago. Evangelism isn’t about conversion or changing someone’s mind; it’s about telling the story of God… what God is doing. It is hearing the other person’s story, sharing my story, and pointing to God’s story. Mary and Elizabeth were not in need of conversion – they were both women of strong faith. But they were practicing real evangelism – declaring what God was up to in both their lives and in the world. It was an act of worship, and it’s the kind of conversation that should happen frequently with Christians.

In short, Elizabeth said, “Mary – God is surely doing something in your life right now… it’s plain to see!” And Mary responded, “Yes, He is… and it’s even bigger than me… let me tell you and praise God for it!”

Time and Depth

Many of us will be with family in the next few days. Many of us will see friends this week and next for New Year’s. All year long, we interact with friends and loved ones, both Christian and not. In every case, it is such an easy route to put off substantial conversation until a later time, or never dip beneath the surface or near the deep end at all.

Hear the challenge of God’s Word: you are part of God’s story, and that story is Good News in a time when we all need some good news. It doesn’t really take training or skill to go deeper; it takes time and intention. But taking time and choosing such conversation shows love and compassion. It is a reflection of faith and it is an act of obedience as well as love.

Be an Elizabeth – ask what God is doing or affirm what God is doing in another’s life.

Be a Mary – share what God is doing and look for the connections between your own story and God’s greater story.

Faith isn’t a private, internal thing to be hoarded or hidden away. Like love, it is meant to be talked about, shared, and used to build up the faith of others that God is alive and well and active right here and now.

Let’s start talking! Amen.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Forward through Forgiveness (Matthew 1:18-25)

December 14, 2008
Sermon by: Robert Austell

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*Click on the audio player below to hear just "Nearsighted"

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**
One of the lessons we work hard to teach our children is how to say “I’m sorry.” And you know from experience how hard it is to teach the real lesson of being truly sorry and not just mouthing the words. An even harder lesson is how to respond to being wronged. When someone comes to you and says, “I’m sorry,” what do you say? What if they only seem to be mouthing the words? What if they don’t say it at all? Is Christian forgiveness based on the sincerity of another’s apology? Or does grace produce something else entirely?

Today’s text is primarily about the birth of Jesus. But, like the sermon on Zacharias and Elizabeth, we are going to focus on a secondary, but very important, lesson tucked away in the details of this story. That lesson is the power and importance of godly and grace-filled forgiveness to open us up to hear and respond to God and move forward into His will for us.

Let me say that another way: there is an “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” that goes through the motions of reconciling two people and there is a grace-based forgiveness that issues out of godly character that not only brings healing with another person but opens us up to be touched and used by God. That is what is described in today’s story and what I want to hold out to you as a gift and an example from this text.

Godly Character and Action

Joseph is a model of godly character and action. We have two opportunities to see how he acts out of his conviction and character and in both cases his choices are challenging and instructive. The situation is tersely captured in verse 18: “When… Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.” Can you imagine a more difficult situation that that? In a culture where the bride’s pre-wedding purity was a prerequisite, the only thing more scandalous than the bride and groom getting pregnant before the wedding was if the baby was not his. Joseph had every right – personally, culturally, and religiously, to leave her in disgrace.

And look what all we are told in one sentence in verse 19: “And Joseph her [promised] husband, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her, desired to put her away secretly.” That verse tells us three things about Joseph. First, his character was godly – he was a righteous man. Righteous means that he wanted and tried to do right by God – to obey God’s Word and will. Secondly, his attitude toward Mary put her concerns above his own. He didn’t want to disgrace her or punish her. There was implicit forgiveness extended on his part, not the “I won’t feel better until I make you pay for what you’ve done.” That’s one key part of today’s message. Forgiveness isn’t what you give after someone has paid their dues and pleaded an apology. True forgiveness is an act of grace. Thirdly, Joseph acted on his character and conviction, choosing to “put her away secretly” – that is, hide her away from public shame and disgrace.

Now it might be easy to criticize Joseph, but we know the full story and he did not. Given what he knew, and aided by the Gospel writer’s description of him, there is much to learn from his initial reaction to an impossibly difficult and heart-breaking situation. How do we respond when another person disappoints or wrongs us? Can we be described as righteous? Do we think of the other person first? Do our words and actions flow from the faith we profess in Jesus Christ?

Probably no one in this room, including me, thought, “Yeah – I do that.” It is far more common to speak and act to make ourselves LOOK righteous in the eyes of others. It is far easier to think and act with our own needs and desires first – after all, we feel as if we have been wounded or slandered. On a good day, we just want to get the unpleasant forgiveness stuff over with and get back to being happy with God. On a bad day, well, that’s a lot darker and damaging for all involved. In either case, what happens is that our natural “revenge cycle” disconnects us further from our faith and hearing what God wants from us. If we cannot and do not forgive as God has forgiven us – that is, graciously – then it really affects our relationship with God and our ability to listen to God.

And hearing what God wants from us is the other key part of today’s message.

God sent an angel to speak to Joseph and to reveal the fuller plan of what was going on. I believe that it was Joseph’s faithful first response that gave him the ears to hear what God would then say through the angel. It was Joseph’s willingness to forgive without all the information that helped him to hear what else God would have him do.

Hearing God Speak

The next verse continues the story, with an angel appearing in a dream and saying to him, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife…” And the angel goes on to reveal both the divine nature of the conception and the miraculous identity of the child who would be born. Would God have spoken in a dream if Joseph had not been so initially forgiving? Probably… but I wonder what Joseph would have made of the dream. If he had not been inclined to forgive Mary on the first hand, I can imagine him rationalizing or discounting the angel’s message as a bad or crazy dream rather than a message from God. (Do note, that the message squared with God’s revealed Word in scripture – to “fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet” – that’s how we verify that God is leading us or speaking to us.)

Faith and life have a cumulative and catalyzing affect on one another. If there is a disconnect between what we say we believe and what we do, it further drives a wedge between the two, making it harder to hear and believe. If we put our faith into action, it helps develop those ears to hear and eyes to see.

Look at how this plays out with Joseph. I believe that Joseph’s initial faithfulness toward Mary helped him to hear and respond to God, when God spoke. And once God spoke, look at how Joseph responded. In verse 24, “And Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took her as his wife, and kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.” Joseph’s faithfulness helped him listen, because he then responded with obedience. That’s the cumulative and catalyzing effect I was talking about. He immediately got up from sleep and obeyed the command of the Lord.

Going ahead and marrying Mary was not his original plan. But, having taken an initial step of grace toward her, he was already headed in the direction of obedience toward God. He was faithful with a little (information) and God invited him to be faithful with much. And indeed, he became the earthly father of our Savior.

Forward through Forgiveness

This story has some significant application for us. Broadly, it demonstrates the spiritual and practical value of faithfulness – doing what is right before the Lord. Even if we don’t understand at the time or don’t have all the information, righteousness puts us in the path of God’s blessing, that is, being in God’s will.

More specifically, forgiveness is one act of faithfulness or doing right before the Lord. It is taught, modeled, and commanded by Jesus. We repeat it weekly in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debt as we forgive others.” And how does God forgive our debts or transgressions? He does so unconditionally and with grace. He does so preemptively, not waiting for us to earn pardon, but first, so that we may respond out of love rather than fear.

I believe one of the things that most frequently causes us to get “stuck” in life and relationships, including our relationship with God, is our unwillingness to forgive. We can have all the Bible knowledge and internal faith in the world, but until we are willing to extend that faith outward and extend the grace that we have already been shown by God, we are mired in place.

Do you feel like you never hear from God? One of the things we see going on in this passage is the benefit of taking small steps, or being faithful with a little. It doesn’t mean that the heavens will suddenly open or that burning bushes will start addressing you by name. But, it does mean that you will be better equipped to listen to God in the ordinary and usual ways God speaks: through scripture, through worship, through the counsel of fellow believers. And, being faithful with what you do have and who you are will also cultivate the discipline of obedience to God’s Word, which is what is necessary for faithfulness in larger, tougher situations.

Forgiveness is one aspect of faithfulness, but it is one that most of us deal with on a daily basis. And how we deal with this particular form of faithfulness offers us the choice of getting stuck, again, or moving forward through forgiveness. Amen.

Maddie Shuler

If you look past what you can see
a whole world will open up like it did for me
Look beyond your life past the fear,
the guilt, the pain, and the worries
Let the silence calm you;
allow the peace to flow over your mind
Ignore the dust of the world;
don't let it pollute your mind anymore

Why do I have to be so nearsighted?
I don't want to be blind anymore.
I'm gonna open my eyes so I can see this world.

I can't believe I never saw the beauty in the darkest cloud
I can now see the smallest ripples in the waters of life
I've learned to appreciate the smallest things in this world
My eyes have been opened up so now I can see

Why was I so nearsighted? I'm not blind anymore.
I've opened my eyes so I can see this world.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

He Comes to Us (various scriptures as indicated)

The following are scripture readings and meditations from the Good Shepherd Christmas Cantata, "He Comes to Us."

Scripture Readings: Steve Fine
Scripture Meditations: Robert Austell
Christmas Cantata: written and compiled by Lynda Shuler
Click in player to hear selections (downloading is disabled)
Audio for Scripture readings and meditations

download (click, then choose "save to disk" for playback on computer or iPod, or play sermon live in this window below)

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**
[Due to illness and other factors, this is an exact transcript - i.e., I read the manuscript.]

He Comes as Hope
Isaiah 59:9; Psalm 39:7; Romans 15:12

He comes as hope. That statement is full of promise, yet hope is one of the hardest things to identify or quantify. What do we mean by that? Hope is not wishing. God is not a magic genie. God is not the object of our desires but the subject of them. While it is correct, as the scriptures say, to hope in God, we can hope in God because hope comes from God. It is the Lord of hope who comes to save us. It is God’s promised salvation that is not only the root of Jesse, but also the root of our hope. And so we wait for God to act; we wait for God’s salvation.

What does that mean for us today? We no longer wait in darkness for prophecy to be fulfilled, for God’s promises have been kept in Jesus Christ. We now wait for things like prayers to be answered, recognizing that while God answers all prayer, the answer is not always ‘yes.’ We wait for the future, unsure of what it holds, yet hopeful. We can be hopeful not out of optimism or wishful thinking, but because God holds the future. Our hope is anchored in the person and character of God. Likewise, we have hope for an eternal future with God in Heaven. Again, not wishful thinking or uninformed speculation, but based on God’s self-revelation in scripture and through Jesus.

And here is the heart of hope: the all-powerful, loving, and wise God has done all that He has said He would do; and God will do all that He says He will do. Hope is not speculation or groundless optimism; it springs forth from God to all who trust God’s story of our past, look for God’s hand in our present, and believe God’s promises for our future.

In Jesus Christ, God comes to us as hope!

He Comes as Light
Isaiah 9:2; John 12:46; Book of Common Worship

He comes as light… though humanity has a love affair with darkness, perhaps because humanity has a love affair with darkness. As the Gospel of John says, “We love darkness” – we are drawn to it, perhaps like Adam and Eve to get out of God’s line of sight. And yet, it also terrifies us and creates a yearning within us. When the power goes out in the evening, the first thing we do is scramble for candles or flashlights. It’s the practical response, of course; no one wants to stumble and grope around the house in the darkness. Yet, we need to see; we need to know our place in the world. In life we are caught between our dark acts and our yearning for God’s light. Perhaps you can relate to the Psalmist, who wrote in Psalm 130:

1 Out of the depths I have cried to You, O Lord. 2 Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive To the voice of my supplications. 3 If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? 4 But there is forgiveness with You, That You may be feared. 5 I wait for the Lord, my soul does wait, And in His word do I hope. 6 My soul waits for the Lord More than the watchmen for the morning; Indeed, more than the watchmen for the morning. 7 O Israel, hope in the Lord; For with the Lord there is lovingkindness, And with Him is abundant redemption. 8 And He will redeem Israel From all his iniquities.

That Psalm and that image of watching and waiting in the dark for the morning sun to rise is a picture of humanity waiting for the arrival of God’s light. Luke writes of Jesus:

78 … the Sunrise from on high will visit us, 79 To shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, To guide our feet into the way of peace.” (1:78b-79)

The Good News of Christmas is that, in Jesus, God has come as light. The long, dark night of waiting for God’s salvation has come to an end. Oh people of darkness, hope in the Lord; for with the Lord there is lovingkindness and abundant redemption. He comes as light… for you. And then… through you, to others.

He Comes as Love
John 3:16-17

Through Jesus Christ, God comes to us as love. That is, perhaps, the heart of the Christian Gospel. We are not a divine experiment or a cosmic project, but the beloved of God. Every bit of God’s interaction with us – from creation to curse to revelation to law to grace to salvation and resurrection – it is all rooted in God’s loving character.

That is, perhaps, why John 3:16 resonates so deeply and is so memorable. It declares this simple truth: God loves you! And in a sentence it contains the Gospel – God loves you and this is how much! He sent His own Son into the world so that all who believe in Him will live fully and forever. God’s motive is not condemnation, but love.

This distinction becomes one of the deep challenges of the Gospel. Love is not a wishy-washy, let us do whatever we want attitude, as if that were love. We know better than that. Any parent and any child knows better. Love is, as Song of Solomon says, strong as death. And no one knows that better than Jesus, who died out of perfect love.

The Bible describes this deep and perfect love in more depth in 1 Corinthians 13. Many years ago I wrote a song that paraphrased that chapter, which describes “perfect love.”

(It is) Love that binds (together), it gives - is always kind
(It is) Love that laughs, it sees the better half
Love hopes and protects, it even corrects
Love trusts and forgives, it holds on and lives

Love never fails, It neither forsakes
Love is our gift, from fear to escape...

God has come as love through Jesus Christ. Jesus is our gift – God’s love in human flesh, given freely for us that we might live. In him, God has invited us to love Him back and know what it means to truly live.

He Comes as Joy
Isaiah 9:6; 12:3

He comes as joy! And what exactly is joy? This may surprise you – in the Bible joy is linked with obedience to God. Godly joy is what the obedient and faithful experience, particularly as we follow after Jesus, the perfectly obedient one.

And so, if today you awoke to a dark cloud of gloom and if this week wore on you like a heavy weight, turn with me to the words of scripture. If the months have stretched out in joyless monotony, listen to the words of Jesus Christ, for he comes as joy for us!

Hebrews 12:1-3
1 Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart

We are to fix our eyes upon Jesus - as our Savior, but also as our example, for Jesus endured the cross and its shame, and is now seated at God's right hand. He suffered for us, because of the "joy set before him." That joy was the promise of being with the Father. It was the joy of bringing us along with him, that we might also know the joy of salvation and fellowship with our Heavenly Father.

And what were the cross and its shame if not an act of obedience. In Philippians 2, Paul says that Jesus "humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." Jesus obeyed the Father, fulfilling the plan of redemption God proclaimed right after Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden. And for Jesus, that obedience - as terrible as it was - was joy. It was the joy of doing the Father's will.

The rest of that passage in Hebrews encourages us to take heart from what Jesus did. If Jesus suffered for the joy set before him, we also can endure the things of this world for the joy set before us. If Jesus could choose the path of obedience even in the face of great difficulty, with his strength, we too can choose obedience and know the joy of being in the Father's will.

What is the message here today? It is to live in the love of God by obeying God's intent for life. That intent is found in the Bible in the words of Jesus and his followers. It is timeless and true. And living obediently before Christ and our Heavenly Father will fill us up with the joy we all long for. That is the joy that was announced, enfleshed, and offered to us through Jesus Christ.

Pastoral Prayer – Peace

Heavenly Father, receive our tithes and offerings, gladly given. Use them for the ministry and mission of this church for the sake of your Name.

Receive, too, our obedience, freely given in response to your Word and your grace. Take our minds and hearts, take our feet and hands, take our time and plans, that we might also join you in your work in this world for the sake of your Name.

We pray for those who are struggling and suffering.

We pray for…Personal prayers of the church.

Finally, Father, we pray for peace. We pray that those who do not know you might come to know you and find peace. We pray for our own battles against you – our own disobedience – that we might surrender to your wise and compassionate will. We pray for our nation and our world, for wisdom and common grace. And we thank you for your son, the Prince of Peace, who has come to announce your present reign and coming Kingdom. Come, quickly, Lord! Amen.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Finding Silence and Solitude (Luke 1:5-25)

November 30, 2008
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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Today is the first Sunday in Advent and the first sermon in a series called “Looking forward to Christmas.” Advent is meant to be a time in which we prepare both for Christmas and for Jesus’ return. Today I’d like to start on a very practical note and talk about the importance of silence and solitude to having a meaningful Christmas.

I think for many or most of us, this can be one of the most hectic times of the year. Kids are in special programs at school and at church. There are Christmas parties of all kinds – with the office, neighbors, friends and family. There is shopping to be done and many folks travel. Even here at church we have some of our biggest services, programs, and missions of the year. We are trying to focus on the birth of Christ and on helping those in need, but it’s also more to do, go to, and be a part of.

All of that has its place and certainly focusing on Jesus’ birth and the real meaning of Christmas is a vital part of a meaningful Christmas. But today, I want to look at a very special biblical text that may challenge us to try something a little different this year.

Today’s text is the story of a miracle pregnancy – not Mary’s, but that of her cousin, Elizabeth. There are several points we could focus on, but I’m going to focus on just two that are kind of tucked away in the details.

A Miracle Pregnancy

Zacharias and Elizabeth were in a busy time of year. Zacharias was a priest and, as was the custom, rotated through various duties at the Temple. At this particular time, he was schedule to offer the incense offering inside the Temple. This high honor typically only happened to a particular priest once or twice in a lifetime. It was the closest an ordinary priest (i.e., not High Priest) would come to the presence of the Lord in the Holy of Holies. The people would have been at worship in the Temple courtyards while this offering was going on.

It was there that Zacharias had a vision of an angel, who came with news from the Lord. This wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened, but I guess you never think God’s going to send you a hotline. Zacharias and his wife, Elizabeth, were going to have a baby. Like Sarah and Abraham before them, Zacharias and Elizabeth were past child-bearing age and Elizabeth had been unable to conceive when they were younger. She was barren, an emotional and challenging thing in any place and time, but particularly so in a culture where children and family were so very important. In fact, having many children was part of the covenant with Abraham and his descendants and to be barren was especially difficult for a couple who were heirs of that promise.

And like Abraham and Sarah before him, Zacharias fearfully recognized the angel for who he was, but found the message laughable. And this was no hazy promise of one day having a child. This was a full-on vision and promise, with details including the baby’s name, calling, and future. He was to be called John, be raised under strict guidelines, and promised to be a prophet like Elijah. And Zacharias asked the question any of us probably would have asked, “How can this be?” (Or, we might add, “Are you sure you’ve got the right guy?”)

Now here’s where a miraculous story gets even more interesting. Because Zacharias asked how he would know this for certain, the angel (Gabriel) told him he would be unable to speak until the baby was born. Gabriel attributes this action to Zacharias’ unbelief, but the muteness is not a punishment, but a SIGN that God was at work. I want to spend the rest of our time pondering the meaning and usefulness of that sign, and then a corresponding decision made by Zacharias’ wife, Elizabeth.


Zacharias asked for a sign. He said, “How will I know this for certain?” As if an angel appearing with a word from God wasn’t enough… and the answer he got was silence. Now here’s one question: was being struck dumb the sign? Or did being silent allow him the quiet and reflection to recognize God at work?

I’ve never experienced anything quite like that… or perhaps I have. About two weeks ago I came down with a head cold – and it was a nasty one. I know enough about the way my body responds to sickness that I could either lay low for 3-4 days or be sick for weeks. And so I worked from home, slept a lot, and took a break leading into one of the most hectic times at church – the Thanksgiving to Christmas stretch. Was it a sign from God or just a head cold? I think it was the latter, but it accomplished the same thing. I slowed down enough to begin to listen to God and pay attention to prayer and what God was doing in a way that I don’t when I’m running full speed.

In the case of Zacharias, I think being made mute was itself the sign; but I think it also afforded him the opportunity to really ponder God’s word to him through the angel. It probably slowed him down and gave him lots more opportunity to listen since that was all he could do.

Has God provided opportunity for you to really listen to him? Or maybe it’s not something God has caused, but nonetheless invites you to make use of… a head cold, some time off between jobs, a broken down car. The point here isn’t so much the sign as taking time to listen to God. I’m not asking, “Is God trying to get your attention?” I’m asking, “Do you need to give God your attention?” And the answer to that is always YES.

Zacharias needed to listen and give attention to God because God had spoken and God was acting, and those things are true for us as well. God has spoken and is speaking all the time. And God has acted and is acting in and around you. Are you paying attention?


There is a second example of someone paying attention to God. At least that’s what I understand to be going on. Look at verse 24. After Elizabeth became pregnant she “kept herself in seclusion for five months.” Now, our minds might be quick to think that a pregnant woman in seclusion means shame or embarrassment, but look at Elizabeth’s reasoning in verse 25. She is anything but shamed: “This is the way the Lord has dealt with me in the days when he looked with favor upon me, to take away my disgrace among men.” Her barrenness was shame to her; her pregnancy was the Lord’s blessing.

Whereas Zacharias’ voice was taken from him as a sign and so that he could ponder the promise of the Lord, I believe Elizabeth made a conscious choice to be still and wait on the Lord. She withdrew to receive the favor and blessing the Lord had promised to her. Certainly the pregnancy also served as a very real and tangible sign to her of the Lord’s promise. Needing no additional sign, her solitude afforded her the opportunity to really ponder what the Lord was doing and was going to do through this miraculous birth.

Making Time to Listen to God

This silence and solitude is a secondary part of this story. Certainly first was the miraculous action of God in sending a new (and the last) prophet before the Messiah. This is all part of the larger narrative of the Messiah – promised, announced, and arrived in Jesus of Nazareth.

But don’t miss this secondary lesson as we look forward to Christmas – the celebration of the arrival of Jesus into the world. Whether silence and solitude has been your active choice or not, make time this Christmas season to pay attention to God. Pace yourself; prioritize; and if you have to, just say ‘no’ in order to have some moments of quiet reflection, listening for what God is saying and doing in your life and in the lives of those around you.

As important as the once-in-a-lifetime offering in the Temple was, God was doing something even more important with Zacharias and Elizabeth.

As important as Christmas parties, decorating, shopping, and travel are, don’t miss what God is doing – it just might involve you.

I would even extend this challenge to our many church events. Surely, we are trying to point people – including each of you – to what God is saying and doing. But you don’t have to do it all!

I can’t think of any more important thing each of us could do this Christmas season than to seriously make some space in our life for silence and solitude before the Lord. It may be in the quiet of communion in just a few moments. It may be taking the family on a drive to the mountains to get the tree and taking some time to read the Christmas story to your kids. It may be in the car in the parking lot at the mall, taking 5 minutes to pray before jumping into the fray. You don’t have to follow these suggestions to the letter – mix and match; be creative. But give God some time and space and I don’t think you will regret one minute of it.

Zacharias and Elizabeth were privileged to bear and raise the last great prophet who announced the arrival of God into the world. Their preparation and contemplation of that blessing and honor came through paying attention to what God was saying and doing.

One of the things I speak frequently about and am convicted of is that God is still speaking and acting. And I believe that God is inviting each person who trusts in Him to participate in what He is doing. Our paying attention to God this Christmas season not only prepares us for a real and meaningful experience of Christmas, but also for serving God in the way God has called us. And all who find that promise of God find a real gift indeed! Amen.