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Thursday, December 31, 2009

What Now? (Luke 2:36-38)

Sermon by: Dan Isadore
December 27, 2009

(download)**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Thursday, December 24, 2009

What We Watch (Luke 2.1-20) - Christmas Eve message

Sermon by: Robert Austell
December 24, 2009 – Christmas Eve

(download)**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**
Shepherds were rough and rugged men who weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. They weren’t prissy or fancy or cleaned up for Sunday morning church; they were more like farmers who deal with livestock… except on the move. While some of them may have been religious and made periodic trips to the Temple, most were probably focused on the work at hand. They were solid working men, trying to take care of flock and family as they watched their sheep by night.

What do you watch? We’ve had a farmer or two among us. Several work construction and know what it is to get your hands dirty. Many of you with young kids spend your time watching your flock – not the same as sheep, but more than a few comparisons. J Others of you watch the stock market or other economic indicators. Others watch students or patients. Many watch friends and the culture to stay current and not get too out of step. Almost all of us watch hours of TV or Internet or movies or other entertainment.

And for most or all of us, actually seeing or hearing from God in the middle of our daily life seems unlikely, farfetched, and unrealistic.

Seeing and Hearing from God

In the shepherd’s story, their routine was interrupted by a message from God. While I am no shining angel, there is a real sense in which what happened to them is not unlike what could happen here any given Sunday. For many, I know Sunday morning or Christmas Eve night church can seem distant or irrelevant to the things you watch and do during the day. But my message any given Sunday is some variation on what the angel said: I bring you Good News of a Savior, born from God for your sake. The messenger is different, but the message is the same.

And then, the shepherds saw an amazing sight – the angels of Heaven praising God. Again, the heavenly host do not appear visibly on a Sunday morning or Christmas Eve night, but the children of God do gather to sing and declare the same praises to God.

I am not trying to take anything away from the amazing story in Luke 2. Rather, I’m trying to make a connection between that amazing story and what happens here on a regular basis. It’s on the wall as you come in, around the large picture display – we are ordinary people who gather to hear the Good News and worship an extraordinary God. Like the shepherds, every single person here is an ordinary person, with no special direct line to God. We simply believe that God is trying to get our attention and speak this message – this Christmas message – of a Savior born into our world. That is the Good News, not just in Bible times, but here and now.

Seeing This Thing

The shepherds decided to check it out – to “see this thing” that had happened. That’s the bottom-line challenge I’d give you tonight. Are you here to just go through the motions – hear some pretty music and get in the Christmas spirit – or are you willing to look closely at what is being proclaimed and worshiped? Whether you came for tradition, someone dragged you, out of curiosity, or deep faith – are you willing to see this thing of which the angels speak?

What is it? It is the angel’s news; it is the Good News. It is there in verses 10-11:
I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
Listen; check it out. Are you willing to see and hear this Good News? I bring you Good News – the best news, which is for anyone and everyone and is cause for real joy. Jesus Christ, first century Jew from Nazareth, is more than a historical figure; he is Savior and Lord, rescuer and God. When we gather here to worship – any given Sunday or tonight – it is not to simply go through some religious routines, but to celebrate God’s salvation and to worship and adore the God who pursues us in love to rescue us.

God’s extraordinary love and salvation is not for spiritual giants; it is for ordinary people – shepherds, construction workers, accountants, teachers, teenagers, moms, dads, grandparents, intellectuals, disabled, sick, well, discouraged, hopeful, hopeless… you… and me. Have you seen this thing that we call the Good News?

Change and What it Does to You

I’m tempted to end there, but there is one last piece to this story and it’s worth hearing, both for the challenge of it and in terms of full disclosure. The shepherds who went to see this thing came away changed. They went away full of the Good News story and themselves worshiping. This thing is contagious; it should be life-changing. If you claim to believe and are not full of the story and full of worship, then you need to see this thing again.

Most of those who encountered Jesus, including these shepherds, went back to what they were doing before. These shepherds went back to watching their sheep. But they were changed. They had seen God and were full of the Good News and were full of worship.

So I’m not going to lie and say that Jesus isn’t a big deal. I’m not going to encourage you to come check him out and say it won’t change your perspective or your choices or your life. Just the opposite! I urge you to come see this thing that God has done in Jesus because it is a big deal: it’s the biggest deal of all time. It should be life-changing. It should make you re-think everything. It should leave you full of amazement and worship.

Most likely, God won’t ask you to become a pastor, monk, or distant missionary. Most likely, God will send you back to your flocks – to the things and people you watch – and send you full of Good News and worship. If you have never experienced those things or seen firsthand this thing God has done, I offer this to you as the best Christmas gift you will ever receive.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Magnificat (Luke 1.46-55)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
December 20, 2009

(download)**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**
Today, the fourth Sunday in Advent, we are moving on from the Annunciation passage to another well-known passage in the first chapter of Luke. It is called the “Magnificat” from the Latin first word meaning “it praises.” This song or prayer of Mary’s took place in response to seeing her pregnant relative, Elizabeth. Having trusted the angel, whose message we considered the past three weeks, Mary believes God’s Word to her and Elizabeth declares her blessed for doing so.

We are moving forward from the questions of “Is God trying to get your attention? Is God trying to tell you something? And what is it that God would birth in your life for His glory?” Last week we looked at how Mary didn’t demand proof in the way of specifics or a miraculous sign, but trusted in God’s Word to her. That faith is manifest in today’s text as worship and as joy.

Worship and Joy

Mary’s song begins with worship and joy: “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.” Exalt is a worship word meaning praise or lift up as worthy. I talked last week about how demanding proof of God might address our curiosity, but often can choke out love and trust. Here the converse is demonstrated. Mary’s faith and obedience didn’t result in insecurity and doubt, but in soul-worship or heart-felt praise of God. This isn’t just going through the motions as a religious exercise, but a spontaneous and authentic expression of love for God. And it’s not just worship – lifting God up as worthy; it is also joy-filled, as Mary rejoices in her spirit over God’s salvation.

I highlight all this as the conclusion to what we’ve been talking about the past few weeks. The point of those questions about whether God is trying to get your attention, speak to you, or do something in your life is not to get you to do something for me or the church, but to grow in knowledge and love of God… to tune in to God in your life. Not only is that one good definition of worship, it also results in deep joy and real satisfaction, the kind we find ourselves pursuing without knowing it and the kind Mary demonstrates in her song.

It is worth noting that Mary does not focus for long on what God has done for her, but is drawn to the way God is faithful in all generations. As we have noted before, this is the difference between thinking about or praying to a Santa Claus Jesus and tuning in to a saving God who is at work in the world. God isn’t about me; I need to be about God!

Highs and Lows: the Language of Exaltation and Humility

Most of Mary’s song is spent describing what God has done. What jumps out at me are the “highs and lows” – that is, the language of exaltation and humility. I counted as many as twelve words or phrases that speak to position or perspective. God “has regard for the humble”; God has “scattered the proud”; and so on.

What emerges is this picture: God is high and exalted and worthy of our respect and worship. That’s who God is! Mary sets an example for us of how God is to be honored and adored. And not only does Mary lift God up in worship, she declares God mighty deeds. She sings of what God has done and will do. God’s justice and salvation will accomplish two things: exaltation of the humble and humbling of the exalted.

God will raise up those who are humble and turn to him in need. Mary begins by describing how God “had regard” for her own situation – the “humble state of His bondslave” (v. 48). She is marveling that God would choose someone so young and lowly as herself to give birth to the Messiah. But she moves past this “great thing” God has done for her to praise God for His faithfulness over the generations. God’s mighty deeds include mercy and compassion for “those who fear Him (v. 50)… those who were humble (v. 52)… the hungry (v. 53)… Israel His servant (v. 54).”

And yet God has justice for those who put themselves in His place to take advantage of others – the proud, the unjust rulers, the selfish rich. God will scatter those proud, bring down those rulers, and send away those rich empty-handed. This is a declaration of God’s judgment and justice, to be accomplished provisionally on earth and finally in Heaven.

Another way of tying all this together is to say that Mary’s song describes God as high and exalted, and we as His creatures. Both in God raising up the lowly and in God humbling the so-called mighty, God will be shown to be both merciful King and faithful God.

The Faithfulness of God

This song – the Magnificat – is not primarily about celebrating what God is doing for Mary. Rather, it starts out of amazement at this miracle and moves to Mary marveling at God’s faithfulness in human history, coming to an amazing and miraculous point in her own generation and life.

Mary punctuates and concludes her song with reminders of God’s faithfulness. In verse 50 she quotes Psalm 104 about God’s faithfulness from generation to generation… a phrase that will also figure prominently in the Pentecost outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Then, in verses 54-55, she remembers God’s covenant promise to Abraham, and acknowledges God’s faithfulness in fulfilling those promises through the birth of the Messiah.

Realize that Mary wasn’t living in a vacuum, but was of a generation of Jewish people who had grown up believing in and waiting for God to act. Particularly under the degree of persecution and struggle experienced within the Roman occupation of their country, the longing for the Messiah was keen indeed. Mary seemed to naturally and faithfully make the move from “What is God doing in me?” to “What is God doing around me?” And that’s the final move and question I want to make with you as we try to understand and apply these stories to our own lives.

What is God Doing around Me?

We started with these questions: Is God trying to get your attention, and what is He trying to say?

From there we moved to this one: What does God desire to bring about or birth in your life for His glory?

I asked these questions because these are the questions going on in the story of the angel, Mary, and the announced birth of Jesus. There is one more change of perspective and question, demonstrated by Mary in this song. It is the move from asking the question with a me-focus and asking it with a God-and-neighbor focus.

Mary recognized that God was trying to get her attention, was speaking to her, and did desire to do something in her life. But, accepting all that and putting herself in God’s hands, she realized that what God was doing was bigger than her life. Her focus shifted to what God was doing around her and how she could be a part and serve Him.

That’s the final move and question I want to make with you. If you have wrestled with God trying to get your attention and speak to you, and if you are willing to consider what it is that God would do in your life, I urge you to ask one more question: What is God doing around you and how can you serve Him there?

This is one way to understand the significance of Christmas: it is God’s premiere demonstration of “doing in the world.” With the birth of Jesus, God was not only fulfilling generations of promise, but definitively demonstrating that He is God with us and for us, a sovereign Creator with a deep love and interest in those He created.

The question, “What is God doing around you” is rooted in the Christmas demonstration that God is indeed at work in and for the world. How can you be a part of what God is doing around you and serve Him in and through your own life? That is a worthy Christmas question! Amen.

Postscript: in the actual [delivered] sermon, I also made an extended application point about experiencing God’s peace and joy in service… noting that it is when we turn from God, deafen ourselves to His voice, or strain against His will that we experience discontent at the deepest level. Though obedience to God’s will may seem daunting, frightening, or even impossible, there is no better or more blessed place to be than in the center of God’s will. In fact, the delivered sermon varied quite a bit from this manuscript. I invite you to listen to the audio on this post.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Nothing Will Be Impossible With God (Luke 1.34-38)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
December 13, 2009

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Today we are going to focus on verses 34-38, from Mary’s, “How can this be?” to the angel’s assertion, “Nothing will be impossible with God…” to Mary’s obedient and faithful response. This story is at the very heart of the Christmas story. It is not only the promise of the birth of Jesus, but the claim that God is a God of the miraculous, the seemingly impossible. And that’s not all, God offers Mary proof of the impossible – her relative, Elizabeth, who was old and unable to bear children is pregnant as a sign of God’s miraculous power.

This is a story to lose faith over. I know that sounds strange and provocative. I’m not saying you SHOULD lose faith from this story, I’m saying that this is the kind of Biblical story that is something that many people trip over. The Bible is full of the miraculous, of course, but this one is perhaps the most “in your face” of all of them. Somehow people can get around dealing with healings and walking on water and even resurrection, but pinning the Godhood of Jesus and the salvation of the human race on a divinely sanctioned virgin birth… that’s a biggie. We’ll look at that question with Mary, who asks, “How can this be?”

The second way people can lose faith over this story is by clinging inappropriately to the answer to that question. The angel answers, “Nothing will be impossible with God.” And we read that and get our hopes up and God seems to disappoint, and our hopes are dashed. We’ll also look at that frustrating and disillusioning thought as we look at Mary’s final response to the angel.

Finally, we’ll also look back at the questions from the past two weeks and see how they bear on the miraculous claims held up in this passage.

How Can This Be? (v. 34)

Mary asks, “How can this be?” How will she conceive a child when she’s never known a man? How could that baby possibly be the chosen one, the Messiah? How can the Messiah – the mighty warrior King – come as a baby? Her baby? And how in the world can it be that God chose HER to be the Savior’s mother? How can this be?

The angel gives three answers.

1. The specifics: the angel tells her what is going to happen… how it’s going to work. The Holy Spirit will “overshadow” Mary – in other words, the conception will be divine, miraculous, of God. For that reason, the child will be holy and called the Son of God. It’s not scientifically specific, but it’s specific enough to give Mary an idea of what will happen. In other words, it’s not proof, but it’s direction.

2. Proof by sign: the angel offers another miracle (also involving conception and birth) as a sign that God is at work. Elizabeth was past child-bearing age and had never been able to conceive. The angel offers Elizabeth’s miraculous conception as a sign to Mary of the assertion he makes next.

3. Declaration of truth: “nothing will be impossible with God.” Basically the angel says it can be because God stands behind it, and God can do anything.

Now here’s how that thinking can go…

Simply dealing with the declaration of truth is so hard. It requires such faith! God says it is so; the Bible says it is so; the Bible is from God. So much there to take on faith. Better to have some kind of sign.

Yes, a big sign, that’s what I need… something unmistakable. But that’s so subjective. Maybe an older woman who never could have a baby COULD have a baby. Is that really a miracle? That’s what I meant about all the other miracles in the Bible. Jesus did them as a sign of who he was and where he came from, but it can be easy to write many of them off. Maybe a sign won’t do it. Better to have more specific proof.

Yes, proof, that’s what I need. I need God to spell out what He wants and how it’s going to happen. Who should I marry? Where should I work? What should I do next? Some kind of angelic, personal text messaging – like a magic 8 ball. Funny that I might trust a magic 8 ball more than God’s Word… hmmm. We do so like specifics. And better yet, scientific proof – regarding creation, dinosaurs, miracles, even God’s existence. That’d do it. Except science is only good for what is natural, not what is supernatural. You can’t dissect a miracle. You can’t reduce God to a program or an experiment or a set of rules – that’s too small for a real God.

I’m not trying to trap you with all this. You know what? I get it. I understand just how hard it is to believe in, much less trust in God. My brain is not wired for the humanities; it is wired for math, programming, and science. But I see how unsatisfying the proof I would demand would be and is. It’s like telling your spouse you will only love them if they document where they are every hour of the day, whom they speak to, and what their intentions are. That doesn’t result in love, though it might satisfy curiosity. Love comes from trust extended – a kind of faith given and received. Likewise, requiring God to document His miraculous and infinite plans to our satisfaction may increasingly satisfy our curiosity, but is self-defeating in terms of faith, trust, and love. While Mary likely did not think in those terms, she heard the angel’s answer and trusted in God’s Word. She did not latch on to the specific explanation or the miraculous sign, but responded in faith to the declaration of truth that God could accomplish His Word in her life.

Nothing Will Be Impossible with God (v. 37)

Let’s consider that Word for a moment: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” I’d lift out two features of that sentence. One is that ‘nothing’ can also be translated ‘no word.’ In other words, no word or promise God makes will prove impossible for God to fulfill or keep. Whether ‘word’ or ‘thing’ the point is that God has the power to fulfill what He says He will do. Secondly, the tense is important: “nothing WILL BE impossible.” The angel isn’t just speaking of what God has done in the past or with Elizabeth, but what God WILL do with Mary. This is promise language, with God’s reputation on the line. And God will keep His Word.

I mention all this because I think this one-liner is another place people lose faith with God. We want a Santa Claus Jesus rather than a Son of God Jesus. We hear “nothing will be impossible with God” and break out our wish list. And the more we pin our hopes on God giving us what we want, the more our hope and faith is dashed when it doesn’t happen.

But listen, that’s not the promise here. Neither the angel nor God is saying, “I’ll give you whatever you ask because I can do anything.” Rather, the angel is saying that God can and will keep His Word to Mary. It is fair to extend that claim to us, “God can and will keep His Word to you”; but it is not fair or a good interpretation to turn that into a magic genie God who grants our wishes. The great truth of this verse is grounded in God’s Word and will.

May It Be Done to Me According to Your Word (v. 38)

That brings me to verse 38. Mary’s response is amazing for its depth of faith and wisdom. She doesn’t latch on to the specifics of what will happen or demand more details or proof. She doesn’t say (as others like Thomas), “When I see the miraculous sign, then I’ll believe.” She latches on to the angel’s final statement, the assertion of truth grounded in God’s Word and promise: “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” Not only is she responding, “Thy will be done,” but she is pledging herself as an obedient follower and servant to that Word and will.

That brings me full circle to the questions this text has raised the past two weeks. Those are what is referenced in today’s few verses. I believe that in order to make use of today’s text, each of us first has to answer those three questions, raised in the full text of verses 26-38. “Nothing is impossible with God” is not meant to send us to God like some kind of great cosmic Santa, but to examine God’s Word and our own lives to see what God is doing with us. So let me walk through these questions once more with all this in view.

Is God trying to get your attention? I believe the answer to this is always yes. Perhaps the more important underlying question is whether you are paying attention or want to be on God’s radar. We’ve talked in past weeks about some of the reasons we try to ignore God, but also the reasons to listen.

Is God trying to tell you something? I believe the answer to this is also always yes. The Bible stands as God’s lasting message to humanity… it’s always there and always has something to say. On top of that, I believe God also helps make specific application into our lives as we read, study, and listen to that Word. Again, the underlying question is whether you want to listen.

For some, the first two questions are the struggling point, and there is no shame in that. But do struggle; don’t write God off or turn your back on Him. Give God your attention and try to listen to what He’d say. It’s only in struggling that far that you can get to the question of purpose.

What does God desire to bring about or birth in your life for His glory? We talked about that last week with some specific examples. If you need to think through that again, grab a copy of the sermon when you leave or look or listen online at our website (on bulletin). What today’s text deals with is what to do once you have an answer to that question. What if God desires to birth a new ministry? Or relationship? Or act of faithfulness?

And what if your response is like Mary’s: “How can that be?” How can I possibly do this when I’m so messed up? How can I possibly change this in my life when I feel so dependent on it? How can it be? That’s impossible, God!

Listen to this Good News: nothing that God desires will be impossible for God to accomplish. That is the bottom line of today’s text. God may offer specifics for what He would do in your life, or He may not. God may offer you some kind of sign that He is at work, or He may not. But God always offers His Word in scripture and this promise that He can accomplish what he desires. In the case of God’s will for your life and mine, He invites our participation: to listen, respond, follow, and trust.

What I’m saying is that the promise that “nothing will be impossible with God” is not for our Santa Claus wish list, but for obediently pursuing God’s desire and purpose for our lives.

So I repeat the questions from these weeks:

Is God trying to get your attention?

Is God trying to say something to you?

What does God desire to bring about or birth in you for His glory?

Will you listen and respond in faith, submitting yourself to that desire that God might indeed bring about His glory in your life?

Sound impossible? It’s not!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

You Have Found Favor with God (Luke 1.30-33)

December 6, 2009
Sermon by: Robert Austell

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

We are continuing today in the passage called the Annunciation. It is the story of God sending a messenger angel to tell Mary that she would give birth to the Messiah and Savior.

Last week we looked at the angel’s first words and Mary’s response of confusion and consideration. The two questions that came out those verses were these:

1. Is God trying to get your attention?

2. What is God trying to say to you?

We saw last week that part of God’s message to every person is, “I love you and I am with you.” That’s a lot to take in – to really take in – especially if God is getting your attention when you weren’t looking for it.

Today we are going to press further and see what the angel said next to Mary.

Do Not Fear

I noted last week that Mary “kept pondering” the angel’s greeting, but the angel kept talking. While Mary was rolling around in her head the question of “what does God want with me?” the angel went on to tell her. But first, the angel said what angels often say, “Do not fear.”

Why be afraid? I already noted that this was probably not one of those Hollywood angel moments with a dramatic entrance, fireworks, and sound effects. If Mary was going to be afraid, it was probably not over encountering a heavenly being, but over God wanting something with HER, and perhaps over a man coming to her home with a message from God.

Now that’s something I think we can relate to! What if the answers to last week’s questions are ‘yes’? What if God IS trying to get your attention? What if God IS trying to tell you something? And what if you weren’t looking for it? I can see how that might be a cause for fear or anxiety or discomfort. Many of us don’t especially want to be on God’s radar, especially if church is not a regular part of life, but even if it is… there’s kind of an unspoken strategy of not being TOO bad or TOO religious and hoping God never asks anything of you. It’s kind of the spiritual equivalent of looking at the floor when the teacher asks a question.

But look at the angel’s response. LISTEN to the angel’s response: “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God.” Don’t be afraid, God isn’t interested in you because He wants to smite you or turn you into a religious freak, but because He loves you. We talked last week about God’s favor and how it is a way of describing the fact that God created human beings, imprinted us with His image, and pursues us out of love, in spite of how we fall short. “Don’t be afraid,” the angel says, “because God is interested in you out of love for you.”

A Divine Birth-Plan

Now this is where God’s message to Mary becomes one-of-a-kind. God is going to do something amazing in Mary’s life and something amazing and unique in all of human history. God is going to make good on the angel’s words, “The Lord is with you.” God is going to make good on His promise, “I am with you.” Jesus is going to be born into the world as God-in-the-flesh, as the Word incarnate, to live and make His home with us as one of us and yet fully God.

The angel connected this news with the great prophecies of old, which Mary would have understood deeply. This was the great hope of her people, for generations past and for her contemporaries. The Messiah was to be born in her lifetime, and she would be His mother.

Interestingly, at this point Mary did not seem to be afraid any more. She had some technical and spiritual questions, which we’ll look at next week. She eventually came to not only to accept this news, but to embrace it in obedience (v. 38) and even in great joy (ch. 2). In two weeks, we’ll look at her great “Magnificat” – a song or prayer of celebration over this news.

What is God Birthing in You?

The point at which I’d like to make application is over the idea that God has a purpose for each of you. Another way of saying that is that God is “birthing” something in your life. It may be the earliest signs of faith. It may be a thirst for more knowledge of God or the Bible. It may be steps of obedience in following God’s teaching or Jesus’ example. It may be exploring how to use gifts and passions in service, in keeping with the idea that every Christian is a minister and every Christian is a missionary. God may be birthing a new faith-filled outlook on work, school, family, or community.

I think so many of us get stuck at the point of fear – over what God may say or want with us – that we miss the joy of hearing what it may be.

Don’t think I don’t understand the struggle and tension here. I think there are indeed great parallels to the illustration of a teacher and students. When you are in the 5th grade and the teacher asks the question, I understand the strong, strong compulsion to avert eyes and avoid being called upon. But I also understand the healthy perspective that the teacher is not setting out to embarrass me, but desires to teach and engage me. I also have learned that engaging the learning process is a good thing.

So also it is with God. I fully grant that it is intimidating and even cause for fear to think that you are on God’s radar… that God may be trying to get your attention and even tell you something. I’m hoping that it is helpful and fear-reducing to proclaim to you from this scripture that God is doing so out of love and purpose, and that part of God’s message is “don’t be afraid.”

The follow-up question to what we talked about last week is this: What might God desire to birth in your life, for His glory?

It doesn’t have to be big, but may be a small step of faithfulness or obedience on your part. It may be a change of behavior or a reaching out to another or an act of grace and kindness. It may be a renewed commitment to husband or wife, or to participate in a community of faith.

Is God trying to get your attention?

Is God trying to say something to you?

What might God desire to birth in your life, for His glory?

Monday, November 30, 2009

Say What? (Luke 1.26-29)

November 29, 2009
Sermon by: Robert Austell

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, which is a season of anticipation coming up to Christmas. We are going to spend most of our time in the Gospel of Luke this season, looking at this story, the Annunciation, and then at Mary’s song of praise, known as the Magnificat. And while this is historical narrative, recounting the story of the months, weeks, and days before the birth of Jesus, it is full of Gospel – God’s Good News for you and me.

We are going to spend three weeks on the passage you heard today. And today we are focused on the first three verses, particularly the announcement by the angel, Gabriel, and Mary’s reaction to it. Certainly anyone would be surprised and even perplexed by an angel appearing and speaking, but we will see that God has come to each of us in a strangely similar way. We too are faced with figuring out “what kind of salutation this is.”

So the story begins by setting the scene: a small, rural town, called Nazareth, to the far north of Jerusalem. The main character is Mary, a very young woman engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, who was of the Messianic line of those descended from King David. Angels are the messengers of God, and this one had a message for Mary, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” (v. 28)


I want to start with Mary’s response and we’ll work our way back to the message. She was “very perplexed.” (v. 29) Of course she was perplexed – wouldn’t you be? For one, at the human level, she was a woman and this was a strange man talking to her. In that culture, that would have been unusual enough. It is not clear whether Gabriel appeared angelic or simply as a man. Either way, to have a stranger come in and begin to speak, presumably in her home, would have been perplexing, to say the least. After the initial greeting, things began to get sorted out a bit, at least in terms of putting her initial fears to rest and announcing why he was there, but we get this snapshot into Mary’s thoughts and feelings after the initial greeting, and it’s there I want to pause and reflect with you.

There is definitely a kind of “are you talking to me?” feel to this. Except this isn’t out in a crowd or at the mall; it seems pretty clear that Mary is being addressed. It just seems really unusual. I wonder if you’ve ever had that kind of reaction to God. It’s one thing to go to church where the preacher is supposed to speak of God or teach from the Bible or some such thing. But have you ever felt like God was trying to get your attention and you wonder just that, “Are you talking to me? Don’t you mean the preacher over there? Or my churchy neighbor? Me? Seriously?”

I’m not talking about angels appearing in your kitchen or a big booming voice in the sky. I just mean the sense that God wants your attention. Like you can’t get Him off your mind or you feel like, “I need to be in church,” or even that your kids keep asking you spiritual questions you don’t really have answers to.

What I’m making of this is that there is feeling like we need to explore God or faith or church or something – and that’s a good thing. But sometimes it feels like God (even if you’re not real sure who or what that is) kind of busts into your life demanding attention. And maybe that’s not really all that far away from some sort of godly messenger showing up at your house with something to say. And whether you are a Christian, churchy type or not, that sense of being on God’s radar leaves you a little perplexed, like “what’s going on here?”

Say What?

Mary “kept pondering what kind of salutation this was.” (v. 29) My paraphrase is, “Say what?!” Gabriel had said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” (v. 28) If he’s a burglar, that’s a very strange thing to say. If he’s a holy man or teacher, it’s still mighty strange and inappropriate for him to be at my house speaking to me. If he’s sent from God, what in the world? Why me? What’s he talking about? Favored one? The Lord with me?

If God has been trying to get your attention, well at least it’s God! That’s better than scary nightmares. That’s better than many of the things of this world that want your attention and money and loyalty. (Well, I believe it’s better than all of them, but I realize not everyone would believe that.) But it’s the “say what?” part that I can relate to. It’s the “what does God want with ME?” part I can relate to. Surely there are other people He’d rather deal with. I’m such a mess. I’m not putting myself in your shoes; that’s ME (Robert) talking. That’s what goes through my mind.

Notice, too, that Mary “kept pondering” – what an interesting way to describe that, especially since Gabriel apparently went right on talking. We get this intimate snapshot of her thoughts and feelings, no doubt something she shared later with some of those who wrote the gospels. Even though Gabriel went on to identify his purpose and message, she kept thinking about his first words of greeting: “favored one… the Lord… with you.”

I wonder if you ever hear something at church or in the Bible or about God and it just sticks with you. You can’t get it out of your head. Whether it’s “Jesus loves you” or “God can forgive any sin” or something like what I said last week – “the church is not a museum for finished masterpieces, but a hospital for the sick” – do you sometimes get those spiritual thoughts stuck in your head and roll them over and over?

That’s what I want to focus on in the first part of this narrative this week. I believe God can and does get us in His sightlines. We see something or hear something or get thinking about something and it’s like God wants our attention and won’t let us go. While that can be perplexing, even scary, what do you do with that? What is it that God wants? What is God trying to say to you?

The Lord is with You

Let’s look at Gabriel’s greeting. While this is a pretty unique situation – greeting the woman who would be the mother of Jesus, God speaks similar words to you. And while the announcement of the birth of Jesus was a singular and unique event; Jesus did later speak of a new birth and welcoming him in faith into your life. What is it that God wants with you?

Gabriel said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” (v. 28) While it doesn’t spell out all the particulars, that short statement is a good summary of the Biblical message. And that message is one that God would speak to every one of you.

“Greetings, favored one.” God made the earth and created human beings in His own image. And He declared it good. We have God’s favor because God delights in us as his children and creations.

Who me? Seriously? I’m a mess… why would God delight in me?

And yet, He does. Despite human sin – our messing up left and right and at every turn, God has pursued us in order to show us His love and grace. That’s why Gabriel can say, not only to Mary, but to each of you, “The Lord is with you.” That is the message we’ve been talking about since September: God came all the way down to where we live to make a home with us. The Lord IS with us, and for us.

What does God want with you? Whether you attend church all the time or this is your first time. Whether you feel close to God or far from God, the angel’s message is for you: God loves you… finds you favorable; and God wants you to know Him… that’s why He has revealed Himself in creation, in Scripture, and most perfectly in Jesus.

So yes, it’s a perplexing message, because it can be hard to imagine God speaking, much less to someone like me. It’s a message worth pondering – to grasp what it means that God loves you and wants you to know him. But that short message – “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you” – is the heart of the Christian message. If God has been trying to get your attention, or even if He hasn’t, that is a message He wants each of you to hear. And it’s not a message for perfect people, or some other person; it is a message for you. Ponder it in your heart in these coming days and weeks as we come to Christmas and the celebration of the birth of Christ. It may well be that God desires a birth or re-birth of His son in your own life. I can think of no better Christmas present than that. Amen.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A Glorious Mess (Matthew 9, 19)

November 22, 2009
Sermon by: Robert Austell

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

“Robert, will you come lead a retreat with us on music and worship? We are trying to draw younger families into the church.”

That’s basically the invitation I got from a church in the western part of the state. And last weekend I went to that church to lead an officer/staff retreat and then preach on Sunday morning.

During one of the breaks at the Saturday retreat, having heard about our music, worship, and mission at Good Shepherd, someone asked me if things ever got “messy” at church, meaning chaotic, loud, and disruptive. And was there any push back to it? Because already they had received some complaints about children wiggling and whispering in their very quiet and reverent service.

I responded, “Yes, definitely; but it’s a glorious mess!”

What are they to do about these “twitchy children?” Should guidelines for behavior be passed out at the door of the sanctuary? Should only well-behaved families be allowed to join? Those questions are a bit tongue-in-cheek, but they also unmask a bit the attitude behind the resistance. And I think it is an interaction and a “problem” worth a closer look.

Before I go further, here’s my premise: though God is a God of order, and there are examples of teaching that calls a chaotic congregation to better order (like 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy); there is also such a thing as a “glorious mess” where people become more concerned about encountering and obeying Jesus than about external appearance or pleasing people first. Let me share some examples of the mess we’ve got now. Then we’ll look at our two texts for today and consider if there may be even more mess yet to come.

The Mess We’ve Got Now

This person who was asking me these questions asked me if we had any such “mess” at Good Shepherd and how we had handled it. I told her, then the whole group, that we indeed had a fair bit of mess going on, but I saw it not primarily as something to be stamped out, but to be celebrated as a sign of obedience to God’s mission. I think there are a number of examples of this kind of “mess” at Good Shepherd; let me share a few.

CHILDREN: Do you realize how many children and young families have come into the church in the last five years? Yes, you probably do, because the noise level has gone up significantly – and running, zipping, darting knee-high bodies. And parents do work at the noise and the running, but there is an unavoidable increase in the mess. A few weeks ago the children’s choir sang and there were about 30 kids up for the children’s sermon. We have children stay with us on communion Sundays. All that adds to the noise level and the chaos – to the mess. But it is a glorious sign of life and God’s presence among us!

STAGE: Do you realize how unusual this is [full stage covering 1/3 of sanctuary]? In many, many churches, a drama ministry would have been relegated to the church basement, kept away from the holy space and the holy carpet and the holy furniture in the sanctuary. But what you have embraced is God speaking through our drama. That we had sawdust or scratches or staging in the sanctuary is definitely a “mess,” but it is a glorious one, full of God’s Word and Spirit.

MUSIC: Do you realize how unique our music ministry is? I know there has been discomfort at times over music style or all the extra wires and equipment in the sanctuary, but you have persevered in unity and I trust have seen how God works through diverse music, musicians, and styles to meet us in worship through music. Of the few churches (still a minority) who have added contemporary forms of music to worship, MOST separate that music out and hide it away where it won’t make a mess. That we have let go of personal preferences and stay united as one family of faith through worship is glorious!

PEOPLE: One of the most admitted weaknesses of the Christian church is its economic and racial homogeneity or sameness. When we welcome people different from ourselves, it feels messy – or awkward. I believe our obedience in reaching out to our neighborhood has first manifested on Wednesday nights as a glorious mess. I don’t quite have the words to describe Wednesday night dinner; you really need to see it first-hand to experience it. There are many children, many of whom are friends and guests. There are many teenagers, many of whom are friends and guests. There is a growing group of middle school boys from Brighton Place that come for dinner and tutoring – often running around and fairly loud. There are regularly 3-5 men from the Swan’s Run group home who have become part of our family. They are sweet as they can be, but can be socially awkward, laughing loudly or hugging affectionately. And many of the adults attending on Wednesday night are folks relatively new to the church; some have not joined, but consider this their church home. Now we could tell all the new people and all the neighborhood people to go away, and send all the children and youth off to another building and have a very nice, quiet, and reverent adult meal together, but I think we’d REALLY be missing God’s plan for us. Instead, any given Wednesday night I look around during dinner – and it really is pretty chaotic – and I think, “This is what church is supposed to look like!”

Push Back

Both of the scripture texts we heard involved mess and what I’d call “push back” from some of the people involved. In the second text, some parents brought their children to see Jesus. I’m sure it was loud and disruptive – not the usual setting for a master Rabbi to speak his words of wisdom. So the disciples stepped in to get those kids out of there. “Hush them; get them away from the Master!” But Jesus stopped the disciples and welcomed the children to him, saying, “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Mt. 19:14)

Yes, children are wiggly, noisy, and messy! But what we are doing here isn’t just for adults; it is for them and those like them, maybe especially so! So, I don’t deny the mess exists, or the awkwardness, or even the irritation sometimes. I’ll tell you that every time a child sits next to the worship team platform during the children’s sermon and starts playing with the microphone stand, I get on the edge of my seat, ready to jump over and catch it before it all comes crashing down. But it is well worth any awkwardness for each and every one of those children to be here in God’s house surrounded by the family of God. It is well worth any awkwardness for the boys from Brighton Place to be learning how to be better students here in God’s house with some folks who are showing them outright grace. It is well worth any awkwardness – significant awkwardness – to figure out how to include the group home guys and extend God’s love to them by welcoming them. That is true religion. That is what this is about – not wearing coats and ties or using our fancy words when we pray or hearing a pin drop (hard to do on our carpet!); but being obedient to God’s mission for us, even if that creates a glorious mess.

The other text, from Matthew 9, is similar, but goes a bit further. In it, too, Jesus is on God’s mission and things get messy. But instead of now reaching out to sweet (if noisy) little children, Jesus is reaching out to known sinners, people whose lives are a mess in some very un-sweet ways.

He is eating with tax collectors, considered traitors and thieves. Again Jesus corrects those pushing back against him and says, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick… I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:12,13b)

This is at the heart of the mission of Jesus that we keep talking about. Jesus said that he came to “seek and to save the lost.” And that means mess! As we continue to engage in God’s mission inside and outside our church walls, I believe things will get messier yet. And that may well be unsettling, feel awkward, and make us nervous; but it is not something back away from, but something to embrace and celebrate as a sign of obedience to Jesus.

Messier Yet for the Lord

I want to briefly mention several areas in which I think we might grow further yet – in obedience and perhaps in “messiness.”

The first is outside the walls and is simply pressing on where we have begun. As we press on in reaching out to our neighbors and neighborhood, increasingly we will connect with folks who are less and less churched. Years ago, I challenged the leadership and the congregation not to be content with “low-hanging fruit” – that is, the people who are already church-goers and who may move into our neighborhood. We can simply advertise in the paper and on Christian radio and have good programs and reach more churched people who are moving for one reason or another. But for many of our neighbors, we are the closest and best chance to encounter Jesus Christ. It takes time to build relationships, earn trust, and prove ourselves good neighbors. And as we continue to meet and welcome people who are not used to “church” we will be challenged to accept them, messiness and all!

Another specific area which we seem to be moving toward is reaching out to those struggling with sexual conflict or addiction. While just speaking of the topic already brings a certain level of awkwardness and mess, I believe we are positioned well with both truth and grace (remember those two things?) to minister effectively. Tragically, those struggling in these areas find such a strong push back from most churches that there is no opportunity to encounter God’s grace and truth. Christ-filled ministry in this area is needed outside and inside the church walls, and I believe God is opening doors and preparing people to lead in just that area.

Two weeks ago I reminded you that our ministry within the walls is no less for all the challenge to minister outside the walls. This is true in terms of “getting messy” as well. The church is not a museum for “finished masterpieces” but a hospital for the sick. Within our walls we have financial crisis, struggling marriages, desperate people, depression, and much more. We hope to provide contexts to engage those situations with people you trust and respect – with our Wednesday night small groups, our blended families group, pastoral counseling, and more. But I understand that kind of mess is sometimes what we avoid most of all. If there’s anything this play should remind us of, it is the importance and the real hope of facing the mess, surrounded by prayer and godly counsel. If you are among the many who have your own significant mess going on right now, don’t push it away, but seek help. And know that at least as far as I am concerned – and I believe this whole church family – it is nothing to be ashamed of, but something for which we will stand with you, pray with you, and struggle with you.

Finally, the very pattern of Christian life is to deal with mess and not turn away from it. This is most personally true internally, within the walls of our own skin and heart. The pattern of life for a Christian is not one of arrival and perfection, but one of regularly examining one’s self, facing the mess, and leaning on God’s grace. This is the process of conviction and repentance. We include it every week in our service, but it is meant to be a daily or even more frequent part of life. Where is there mess in my own life? Will I ignore it and pretend it’s not there? Will I confess it to God (and perhaps to others) and seek God’s help and forgiveness? I think sometimes our resistance to the mess of sin and struggle “out there” or even “in here” [church] is that it reminds us of what’s going on in our own lives, and we don’t want to face that.

I call all this “glorious mess,” not because there’s anything good about sin or struggle or mess itself, but because Jesus’ favorite place to be is right in the middle of it. He very rarely hung out in the Temple, but spent his time in messy places.

So hear this Good News: as we follow Christ, we will become more and more aware of the messiness of life, inside and outside the church walls, even inside our own hearts; but God is good and has come ALL THE WAY DOWN to where we live, and it is there that He has declared, “I am for you; come to me, all who struggle and are heavy-laden, and find rest for your souls.” Amen.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Every Disciple, Equipped for Ministry (Ephesians 6.11-16)

November 15, 2009
Sermon by: Carmen Fowler (guest preacher)
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Sermon text not available.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Bit Part (John 6.1-14)

November 8, 2009
Sermon by: Robert Austell

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What is God up to? We have seen that God came among us in Jesus Christ, making a home with humanity in order to reveal God’s glory or face. We have seen this mission born out in Jesus’ words and actions as he extended grace and spoke truth into the lives of people like Zaccheus and the Samaritan woman at the well.

I’ve also shared some stories about what is going on in and around this church, and it seems apparent to me that God is up to something. It is a sign to me that, for years, you have taken the lighthouse metaphor seriously, continuing to gather devotedly to love God, welcome new folks among us, and care for one another in need. It is also increasingly evident that you are taking the searchlight metaphor seriously, engaging more and more with those around us as we try to “love our neighbors.”

At the same time, it is evident that to love God well, and love one another well – inside and outside the church – that’s a God-sized challenge. We are only a small church, one might argue. Best, perhaps, that we hunker down in a challenging economy and an increasingly secular culture and have good sermons, sweet fellowship, and maintain what we’ve got.

Today’s text hits on a number of these challenges and issues, and I’d like to work through it with you as we consider what God is doing and what our part in that is to be.

A God-Sized Challenge

In today’s text, there was a God-sized challenge. On the surface of it, the challenge was trying to feed 5,000 men (and perhaps more women and children) who had come out to see and hear Jesus. As we read and follow the story, we find out that there was an even greater spiritual challenge, somehow conveying to those gathered that Jesus was sent from God, the very bread of life. We just read the story of the feeding of the 5,000, but after the disciples cross the lake, the crowd finds Jesus on the other side and he goes on to reveal who he is and what God is up to. The miraculous feeding serves as backdrop to that teaching. We’ll come back to that God-sized challenge in a moment.

First, let me make a connection to what I believe God is doing with us. I believe we have our own God-sized challenge, inside and outside our walls.

Outside our walls, we are being challenged to be good neighbors, to love those all around us with grace and truth. In recent weeks we have fleshed out what some of those needs are and what some of those neighbors look like. But being salt and light to a neighborhood, much less a city, is truly a God-sized challenge. There is far more need, human and spiritual, than we can begin to wrap our minds around. And one easy way to deal with the size and scope of it is to do nothing at all. But I don’t think God will let it go.

We’ve spent a lot of time and energy in the last eight weeks talking about this mission outside the walls, but our mission inside the walls hasn’t gone away or diminished in the least. We are still challenged to be family to one another within the walls. And even limited to the members and visitors we currently have, that’s a God-sized challenge.

More than ever, we are challenged to be a lighthouse – offering safe harbor, sanctuary, light, and love to all who gather here. And more than ever, in a world hurting and looking for some hopeful news, we are challenged to be a searchlight – going first to those nearby with grace and truth as Jesus did in all these passages we’ve looked at in recent weeks.

But wow, the needs are so great. I think we can have some sense of how the disciples felt when Jesus turned to them and said, “Where are we to buy bread so that these may eat?” (v. 5)

The Test

We read that Jesus already knew what he was going to do, but asked this question to test the disciples. And we get to hear two different responses. Let’s look at those.

The first disciple to respond was Philip. Philip would have made a great accountant. We probably would put him on the finance committee. He counted up the people and calculated the cost, which was substantial. He answered Jesus, “Two hundred denarii of bread would not be enough, and then they would only get a little.” A denarius was a standard day’s wage for a laborer. I can just imagine the rest of the math. “Well, there’s 12 disciples – John’s too young to earn much and nobody would want to hire an ex tax collector like Matthew – that leaves 10 of us working for 20 days and we’d only be able to come up with a bite for each person. Definitely there’s no way to do anything at a moment’s notice.” Jesus doesn’t say so explicitly, but I don’t think Philip passed the test.

Andrew came up with a different idea. He found a boy willing to share his lunch and Andrew presented it to Jesus as an option. Maybe he remembered Jesus turning water into wine – 180 gallons of it at the wedding of their friends in Cana. Or maybe he didn’t know what Jesus would do, but decided to mention the little bit of food he had found. It proved to be the right thing for Jesus to use.

I think now about our own context and the God-sized challenges before us, both inside and outside the walls. I think about myself – even as small as our church is, how can I really care for 250 people well? There’s only so many hours in the day. I think about each of you. We all carry many of our own personal burdens; how can we care for all the needs represented even here in this room? And then to think about the challenge to be neighbors to those outside the walls. Wow – that’s where the number crunchers would sympathize with Philip. It’s not like we have an endless supply of money. Anything but; remember we had to cut back hours on key ministry staff this year. Several members are out of work and money is tight for everyone. How are we supposed to expand our ministry to meet all these needs? Full-time staff, more income, a big stewardship campaign – it would only scratch the surface of what is needed.

Then there’s Andrew’s approach. With or without a miracle, I recognize that collectively we can multiply skills and resources. I can’t meet all the needs of 250 people, but with your help, we can care for one another with love and grace. Likewise, I can’t single-handedly be salt and light to our neighbors; I am not your hired missionary. Rather, each of us is to be a minister and missionary. My role really is that of Andrew in the story. My role is to call out and equip you for the ministry of the church. My role is to say, inasmuch as I can see it, “Here’s what God is doing; how can you be a part?” My role is to invite your participation in what God is doing.

What About You?

So here’s my favorite part about this story, and it’s an insight I only had recently. For many years I focused on Jesus and the miracle, or on the disciples; but rarely did I focus on the boy. And Jesus and the miracle are the main point of this, for he goes on to teach that his mission is more important than miraculous signs, even one as big as feeding the crowd. He is the very bread of Heaven, sent from God to be spiritual food and nourishment… real food and nourishment, even more than the physical food we so desperately need to live.

But today I want to focus with you on the boy. I identified my role with the disciples as those challenged with inviting participation in what God is doing. And we really don’t want to confuse ourselves with Jesus – that’s not our part in the story. But that is where we often put ourselves in our modern context. There is great need all around us, inside and outside the church – and we think we have to be the solution to that need. We have to save lives and save souls. But that is a God-sized challenge and a God-sized miracle, and that is God’s mission and work in the world.

Our role as followers of Christ is to be the boy who offered his lunch. When we see and hear what God is doing, our role is to say, “Here’s what I have, and God, you can have it.” That’s it! And if I were going to talk about stewardship, that is what I would say. Our job is not to hit a magic goal of giving or to fund a certain number of programs or staff. God’s invitation is to be a part of what He is doing and our stewardship – our Christian response – is to say, “Here’s what I have, and God, you can have it.” As little as it was, the boy gave it all! And he got it back in full as he became part of Jesus’ great work there.

I’m not saying mortgage your house and write me a check for all you are worth. I am inviting you to consider deeply what God is doing around you and through this church and offer what you have in faith.

Roles in God’s Drama

I’m also not talking just about money; let me explain. God is the prime actor and mover. He will accomplish His God-sized mission. The question – the test – is whether we will be a part of it, or just go our merry way out of tune and out of step with what God is up to in the world and in our lives.

One reason I so love this story is that you and I are not responsible for feeding the crowd. We don’t have to save the world. Trust me, that is a great relief to me as a pastor and a finite human being! What we are responsible for and invited to do is share what we have.

I am here to call out and equip, based on the possibility of what God can do rather than the limitation of what we can do. For goodness sake, you are a 250 member church (and a good 60 of those are kids)! Every statistic says we are part of the shrinking American mainline church with less and less influence in our culture. But look what God is doing with our “lunch!”

And when you ponder what the God-sized challenges before us, whether inside the church or outside the church or even in your own personal life, don’t let the enemy dismiss you.

You will hear the voices in your head; you may even hear them out loud from some: “You are too young… or too old. You’re too sick. You are too financially strapped. You have emotional hang-ups. Your marriage is on the edge. You have doubts. You have fears. You aren’t good enough. You aren’t smart enough.”

But listen to the truth – to God’s own truth: God is on the move, here and all around us. God’s job is to accomplish the God-sized challenge. My job and the church’s job is to invite and equip you to be a part of what God is doing.

You are simply invited to be faithful with what you have… to say ‘yes’ to God and offer what you have – your small lunch. And in that small act of obedience, God will accomplish what He sets out to do, to the glory and honor of His name on the earth. Amen.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Looking Back (Matthew 25.31-46)

November 1, 2009
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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We have been looking at how Jesus lived out the declaration of John 1:14 that he was the Word of God in the flesh, revealing to us the glory or presence of God, full of grace and truth. Today we look at a parable he told, set at the end of time at the judgment. From that vantage point, Jesus teaches on living faith – what it means to be faithful. This parable raises the important questions for each of us to consider, “Am I faithful? Is my faith alive?”

I want to take a few moments to clarify what this passage is and is not teaching about good works and salvation, then think with you about our own faith and faithfulness.

Judgment and Salvation

It is hard to read this passage and not think we are judged simply by our good works. This is how many people view judgment, God, Heaven, and Hell. At the end you stand before God and He “weighs” your life – if you have done more good than bad, you get to go to the good place; if not, you go to the bad place.

If this were the only Word we had from the Lord, I suppose we might end up with such a scenario, though even then one has to realize this is metaphorical language, since we aren’t actually sheep and goats. There are also things to unpack about “nations” and about “the least of these my brothers” which some take to mean followers of Christ like the disciples.

But here’s the broader response to such a weigh-and-pay view of judgment: the Bible, the New Testament, Jesus, Paul, and even James, present different language of faith and works that is nonetheless remarkably consistent. There is only one “good work” and that is the perfectly faithful obedience of Jesus the Son to God the Father. Through faith in him – that is, trusting, obeying, and following after Jesus – we are made right with God. That’s what “righteous” means – right with God. It is through faith in Jesus.

So what is going on here with talk of good deeds, righteousness, judgment, and consequences? Jesus is saying that one’s faithfulness is evident to God. I use the word “faithfulness” because it pulls together in one word the saving faith Paul writes about so much in Romans and other letters and the living obedience James writes about so much in his letter. Faith without works is dead; and works without faith is just… being temporarily helpful. Jesus, Paul, James, and all of Scripture testifies that true faith is living faith, shown in obedience and action, and witnessing to the active presence of God’s Spirit in one’s life.

A Picture of Faithfulness

So in that greater context of saving faith and living obedience, Jesus gives us a picture of faithfulness (and unfaithfulness) in this story. Those who showed themselves to be faithful were living examples of the Great Commandment. They loved God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength; and they loved their neighbor as themselves. That’s what we have been talking about for a number of weeks now, and especially last week – cultivating a living faith marked with obedience to Christ and participation in his mission to the world. And in this parable about looking back from the end, Jesus gives us some very specific examples of what faithfulness looks like. This isn’t an exhaustive list; it is a representative list. And this isn’t what saves you (or the sheep in the story); rather these are signs of salvation, like fruit on a healthy tree.

“I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited me in; naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me.” (vv. 35-36)

Let me offer you a more context-specific list of examples, taken from our conversations in recent weeks:

“I was desperate for a job and you offered to pray for me at the Barnes and Noble.”

“I was looking for a solution to a problem at Caribou and didn’t know where to find it, and you came and offered one, come to find out you were just following God’s lead.”

“I live here together with five other guys in a group home, without a lot of friends, and you welcomed us into your family.”

See where I’m going with all this? This parable is right where God is leading us and right where faith leads us – to follow after Jesus.

Two Things Faithfulness Is Not

Faithfulness is not doing good deeds apart from saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. That’s a hard, hard message to hear, especially because we legitimately admire folks who sacrificially help those in need. And those good deeds are truly helpful, loving, and sometimes even “save” people from harm, desperation, and even death. And on a human level, we should all urge one another to do good things. But that is not the point nor the message here. If we try to connect good deeds straight to salvation, we get back to the weigh-and-pay salvation model, and that truly is a hopeless model for salvation. Who really measures up?

But neither is faithfulness “getting saved” and kicking back in your comfy easy chair. Scripture simply won’t let you off the hook on that. James calls that “dead faith” and says it is no faith. It’s like one TV show I saw recently where a woman finally consented to marry a man as long as they didn’t have to have a public ceremony, she didn’t have to wear a ring, they would live apart, and they wouldn’t tell any of their friends. Married: really?

Or here’s another illustration – perhaps Halloween is the only time of year I’d even try this one out, but I think it gets the point across. I remember watching some scary movie at one point as a teenager and there was a vampire and a vampire-hunter. Bear with me kids, they aren’t real; just make-believe. Here’s the point: in all those stories, these monsters are supposed to be afraid of crosses, garlic, and the like. So this one guy decides to get all decked out in that stuff, but when the monster shows up, he isn’t put off by any of it. And his comment to the poor garlic clad guy was, “That stuff has no power or potency because you have no faith.”

That’s why faith can’t just be praying a “magic prayer” 20 years ago or signing a card or joining a church. Faith is resting and trusting wholly on Jesus Christ, but faith by its very nature looks to Jesus with attentiveness, obedience, and readiness to go wherever he leads, for hope is in Christ alone! So, faithfulness… that’s what faith looks like in real life!

Looking Back

As Jesus puts us in the place of a final judgment to look back on our own lives, he is interested to help us understand what living faith looks like and to cause us to ask whether we have been faithful. Do we understand what faithfulness is? It’s really important – life and death important!

And to avoid any confusion, let me say this one more time: it is the faithfulness, obedience, and perfection of Jesus that saves us. We are not saved by empty faith; nor are we saved by doing good deeds. We are saved by faith in Jesus Christ, sent from God to live among us to reveal God to us. And real faith – living faith – is marked by love of God and love of neighbor. It is trust, not just belief. You can understand that a plane flies, but you haven’t trusted it until you get on it. You can believe that surgeons help people and even save lives, but you have not trusted one until you go under the knife. Real, living faith is faith lived out – following after Jesus and following after God. That’s what we are talking about and trying to cultivate here in our life together. That’s also why Jesus told this parable – not to scare you or shame you, but to explain what real, living faith looks like.

Faithfulness – it’s what I long for: for me, for you, for us in our shared life together as followers of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

White for Harvest (John 4.27-42)

October 25, 2009
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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Last week we looked at this same story, about Jesus revealing the Father to a Samaritan woman through words and acts of grace and truth. We saw how starting with grace opened the door to the woman asking questions about truth. From there we saw God transform her and even use her in ministry to point a whole village toward Jesus.

We return to that story this week and back up slightly from the end, to the point where the disciples return from going to get food in the city. We’re going to look again at what happened, more from their perspective this time. Then I’d like to share some stories of what has been going on Wednesday nights the past few weeks, because I see many parallels to this passage. Finally I want to challenge you from this text to OBEY and PARTICIPATE in what God is doing – or as Jesus describes it, God’s harvest.

What’s Going On Here?

Let’s look first at the text. Near the end of the conversation, the disciples returned from getting food. Verse 27 acknowledges just how unusual it was for Jesus to be speaking to a Samaritan woman (and one outcast from her own people). John, narrating the story names the questions on their mind: “What are you doing? Why are you talking to her?” But none of them say it out loud. It is, perhaps, an additional small grace to her that they do not challenge her then and there, but go along with Jesus’ actions of grace. Who knows if that didn’t also play a part in prompting her to go into the city?! Verse 28 begins with the word “so,” which could imply some link between their tacit approval and her going.

Last week we saw what happened with the woman. She went into town, against all social pressure to keep her distance, and she pointed everyone back to Jesus as the Messiah, using his knowledge of her sin as proof of his divinity. And as we read on, we see that the whole city turned out to see Jesus, and many believed on the strength of her testimony!

Today I want to focus on the disciples. As we’ve seen, they return and at least participate minimally in what Jesus is doing by not challenging or running off the woman. Once she’s gone, Jesus goes on to have a teaching moment with them. They press on to an eerily parallel conversation to the one the woman had. She had asked about thirst; they ask about hunger (v. 31), urging him to eat something. The whole reason they had gone into town was to get food; and now Jesus didn’t seem interested. Just as he had living water the woman didn’t know about, he tells the disciples that he has food that they do not know about (v. 32). I can just picture their faces now! Jesus goes on to say, in verse 34, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent me and to accomplish His work.”

He presses on into the teaching moment, extending this analogy by adding another: the work of God is like planting, cultivating, and harvesting a crop. And his point to the disciples, no doubt tying all this in to what has just happened with the woman, is that obedience to God means taking part in that very work of God – planting, cultivating, and harvesting faith in others’ lives. Even Jesus only intersected with part of the woman’s life story. Surely someone had planted seeds of faith before she met Jesus, because she knew part of God’s story, including the expectation of a promised Messiah. And surely her story went on after the two days Jesus and the disciples stayed in the area.

The disciples overlapped in a slightly different way. Jesus had showed grace and truth and experienced a transforming moment with the woman, which is when the disciples showed up. But then they were on hand to encourage her further and then receive the townspeople when they came back in great numbers to see Jesus. No doubt the disciples then had their hands full with the work of God and with harvesting the outpouring of faith that followed.

Jesus’ point to them travels well into our context: God is at work in the world and invites our OBEDIENCE and PARTICIPATION in that work. We may just intersect with another person for a few years, an hour, or even a few minutes; but we can either be a part of what God is doing or stay uninvolved and miss out. Or we can insist on focusing on lunch when spiritually hungry people are all around. It is a quite compelling teaching rooted in an experience that unfolded right before the disciples’ eyes. And Jesus declared what is still true today: God’s mission field is white or ripe for harvest – the need and opportunity are great, and God is already working.

Let’s consider this teaching in our own context…

Wednesday Nights Out

For some time now we have been wrestling with God's calling to be a lighthouse/searchlight church - that is, intentional salt and light in our community and near neighborhood. Another metaphor for this activity would be participating in God’s harvest – whether sowing, reaping, or gathering.

You have responded positively to this challenge! I have observed, however, that it remains difficult to change patterns of thinking and being. One result of the twin lighthouse (inviting) and searchlight (sending) challenge has been ever-increasing and effective approaches to inviting folks in to the church community. And that is wonderful!! But, I am also convinced that our growing edge continues to be the searchlight part of our identity in Christ. And while embracing that mission requires head, heart, and feet, one tangible way to start in that direction is literally to "get up and get out" - i.e., leave our church property. So, on Wednesday nights, instead of traditional church Bible study in the building and on the grounds, we have been getting up and getting out.

The first week we had about 15 people go out in groups of 3-5. I gave them several simple questions to discuss (with each other) during the hour out. The questions were something like the following: 1) Where did you see or experience God's presence in your life this past week? 2) Is church important to you? Why? 3) Can we pray about anything in your life?

So here was my VISIONARY HOPE: after 6-8 weeks of this, we might have met a few regulars and the staff wherever we are and perhaps God might open a door or two to more significant spiritual conversation. We would be going to where people are, building relationships, and pointing people to God.

Here's what has happened so far:

WEEK ONE: as my group was leaving Caribou, I went to meet the manager/barista and see if there was any possibility of bringing my guitar the following week and providing an hour of live (non-religious) music in the outside eating area. The manager, Desiree, got a strange look on her face and said, "Live music?" She went on to tell me that at her previous store a co-manager had started live music and it was wildly successful. The other managers at this present store wanted her to start the same thing (because she had been at the store where it worked), but she had no idea how to get it going. She told me she had to Google "acoustic music" to see what it even was (no drums or amps, if you didn't know). I realized the strange look on her face was shock that live music had dropped into her lap. I was shocked to find there was already a desire and need and the door was already open! So, another friend and I started up the next week and are now talking to her about possible regular weekend gigs. On top of that, she suggested that we put out a tip jar as live musicians often do. I'm already thinking we might do that, but have it go to a recognizable local mission like "Loaves and Fishes" or "Crisis Assistance." Unbelievable!! We just ventured off the church property and the need was waiting for us. (I also think God thought we could use some encouragement!!)

WEEK TWO: We have been praying for some time about ways to connect with the group home for men across Swan’s Run. We have had some contact over the past few years, but nothing deep. When we started back up this Fall, two of the guys from the home came over to ask if they could participate. The first week we paired an adult and our high school guys with them to shoot a little basketball in the parking lot. Between that first week and the second, a second adult volunteered to help out and the high school guys and youth advisor decided to meet with the group home guys to study the book of James and pray for each other's needs. Since then we’ve met all the guys from the home, their primary house manager, and five of the six guys in the home are involved and our high school guys are engaging in ministry and discipleship!

WEEK THREE: Between the second and third Wednesday night, one of members shared with me that a boy in her son's 6th grade class (and who had attended some church events a few years ago) was struggling academically. He lives in Brighton Place. We have been praying for an open door to connect with families and children in Brighton Place.

This Good Shepherd mom said she had been challenged by the sermons and Wednesday night vision to reach out to this boy and offer to lead a study group with him during the hour-long Wednesday night out. So, starting the third week, she and another member went to Brighton place to meet with this young man, who ended up bringing one of his friends along. By the time they were done, several other friends had gathered to see what was going on and it looks like a serious study group is forming. In the process, we also got to meet the manager of Brighton Place and initiate some conversation with her about using facilities for this purpose.

WEEK FOUR: On the fourth Wednesday, one of the group that goes to Barnes and Noble in the Arboretum shared with me about what has happened there. They have met two of the folks that work at the Starbucks there. One they just asked his name, and he responded, noting that his name was in the Bible. Another they shared that they were sharing prayer requests with each other and was there anything they could pray about for her – and she opened up with them, asking for prayer.

We could have had another Wednesday night study – same content, but here in the Katibah room amongst ourselves. And we would have missed out on all these connections. But we got up and got involved with our neighbors – with the people God loves and for whom Christ came into this world. And look what God has already done! It has far exceeded my expectations. It has also illustrated what Jesus taught: we have not seen any of these people move from complete lostness to baptism or church membership or a prayer of salvation. But we surely have been a part of what God is doing in their lives. Clearly in some cases God has been working before us to plant seeds, and we were part of the watering process. Hopefully we are planting some seeds. If we persevere, we may also see part of the harvest or some fruit. The point is not the product, however, but being willing to OBEY and PARTICIPATE in what God is doing. That is what Jesus modeled and taught the disciples, and I believe it is God’s instruction and challenge to us.

White for Harvest

So here is the question this passage raises for us:

How will you obey and participate in what God is doing all around?

How can you take what you are hearing in here and live out grace and truth out there? Who has God put in your path and how can you take part in God showing Himself to them?

We are practicing this in a very low-key and enjoyable way on Wednesday nights. If you want a taste of that, come join us! My hope is that what we are doing there will translate well and easily into our personal lives every day of the week.

It starts with a kind word or action: being interested, getting involved, bearing grace. Prayer is a great way to keep that person in your mind, on your heart, and before the Lord. Wednesday nights have proven that sometimes all it takes is just putting yourself out there for God to use you. You don’t have to be an evangelist or Bible teacher or expert; if anything, that would put most people off. Just be there. Be a friend. Be full of grace. God is at work all around.

The fields are white for harvest; but the laborers are few. Come, obey and share in what God is doing. Amen.