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Monday, September 28, 2009

The Truth of God in Christ (John 1.14, Exodus 34)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
September 27, 2009
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**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**
Today we are looking at John 1:14 for the third week in a row. In that verse, Jesus is described as showing us God’s glory and as being full of grace and truth. In the past two weeks we’ve talked about God’s glory and about grace. Today we are going to talk about truth.

Let me remind you, briefly, what glory and grace are, then I’ll offer a preliminary definition of truth. Glory refers to the presence of God, or sometimes described in the Bible as the “face of God.” In its purest form, God’s glory is not something we can comprehend or see. But God has shown Himself to us in Jesus. In Jesus, God put on human flesh and lived among us – “moved into the neighborhood.” And so, though we were spiritually blind to God’s glory, through Jesus we can see God.

Last week we talked about grace. I offered a definition of it along with a related definition for mercy. Mercy is not getting what you deserve; grace is getting what you don’t deserve. I tried to offer several ordinary examples of the extraordinary gift that is grace – a sister or friend unexpectedly and even undeservedly saying, “I love you” into the midst of an argument and broken situation. I shared, too, how transformative such grace is – and if so on the human level, how much more so when we truly experience God’s gracious love and forgiveness.

This week I want to talk about truth. Like grace, we can experience it (or lack of it) on an everyday and human level. Someone can tell the truth or lie; there are experiences that seem true or seem fake. What is in view in this verse is larger than those mini-experiences, and reference truth with a capital ‘T’ – that is, God’s Truth. And like glory and grace, John 1 declares that Jesus came to make a home among us to reveal God’s Truth to us.

There may be better definitions of Truth, but particularly in relation to the rest of this verse and the Biblical story, let me offer this one for us to ponder today:

God is Truth: therefore, knowing the Truth involves learning about God, who we are in relation to God, and any implications of that relationship.

Said another way, grace and truth help put some definition and concept to the presence of God we would describe as “glory” – and just as John 1 says that Jesus manifests the glory of God to us, so also Jesus is full of grace and truth, means by which we experience and encounter the glory of God.

Said even more simply, the grace and truth of God we find in Jesus will point us back to God and His glory.

That’s all pretty theological and deep. Let me get a little more specific about truth and maybe those definitions will start to make more sense.

The God that Was and Is

It is a commonly held view that the God described in the Old Testament is mean, nasty, judgmental and harsh. And the God described in the New Testament is forgiving, kind, gracious, and easy. Both are false and distorted views of God and are not the Truth.

I chose to include the Exodus passage this morning because John 1:17 references it and because it so closely follows the John passage in describing God. Remember what we’ve been talking about from John? We cannot comprehend God’s glory except that God drew near in Christ, showing us both His grace and truth?

That giving of the Law through Moses (John 1:17) is described in Exodus 34. In that event, the glory and presence of God also drew near – not in human form, but in a cloud of God’s Spirit. Listen again to the description of God, right before he gives the Law to Moses.

“The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin…” (Exodus 34:6-7)

Sounds like a God of mercy and grace to me! But it also goes on…

“…yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished…” (Exodus 34:7)

And it sounds like a God of Truth, dealing righteously with the reality of human sin and disobedience! And Moses goes on to pray:

“…let the Lord go along in our midst, even though the people are so obstinate, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us as your own possession.” (Exodus 34:9)

And that’s not the end! Here, in the earliest parts of the Old Testament, is the great promise of God. In verse 10:

Then God said, “Behold, I am going to make a covenant…”

That covenant is the great promise that led not only to Jesus as Messiah and Savior, but to God’s salvation being a testimony to God’s glory on the earth.

The story of Exodus is the same story as John and is the same Truth that is known through trusting Jesus Christ: God is merciful and gracious; humanity is sinful and broken; God alone is able to save and has made a way through Jesus.

The Truth about God and Us

Let me try to put all that in more everyday language. The Truth about God and us is that we are a broken mess and we can’t fix it. That plays itself out in all kind of ways, many of which you are well acquainted with. We see that truth in the world all around us and in the darker corners of our own lives. But most significantly – MOST significantly – that is a description of our relationship with the God who made us.

Many people could describe that from the human side of the story: “I don’t believe in God… What’s God ever done for me?... I don’t have any use for a fairy story… God didn’t keep my friend from dying in that accident… or my mother from dying of cancer…” The list of complaints against God is long and easy to come up with. And that list describes the broken mess, our helplessness, and even the disconnect with God.

But Truth is more than seeing the mess. The Bible claims to be God’s side of the story: that God has done something about the brokenness of humanity. Interestingly and perhaps tragically, we are resistant to that Truth. So we deny God’s existence; we deny that anything is broken; even if we admit it is, we hold out that we ultimately can find a solution – in doing so, we can make ourselves out to be gods.

Bottom line is the passage from which we take our pattern of confessing sin and hearing the assurance of God’s grace. It comes from 1 John 1:8-10…

If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. [Even beyond that…] If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and his word is not in us.

So here’s the Truth – God’s own Truth: you and I and every single human being out there is broken and messed up and far from God, and incapable of repairing that breach.

And here’s the Good News, declared (among other places) in John 1: God has come all the way down to where we are, come to live and dwell among us, to make a way where there was no way. God has shown us mercy – not given us what we deserve for our disobedience and sin; and God has lavished grace – given us what we did not deserve, the free gift of forgiveness, restoration, and life.

What Do You Do With Truth?

So there’s the story. It’s at this point that the real challenge of preaching comes in. Up to this point I have played the role of teacher, simply pointing to what Scripture teaches and trying to unpack and clarify words, meaning, and message.

But now we have need to wrestle with the big question: what do I do with that?

More specifically, what are YOU going to do with that?

We’ve talked about seeing God – having our spiritual eyes opened to God through trusting this Jesus. We’ve talked about the power of God’s grace to really transform and impact your life, whether highs or lows. And today we have talked about Truth – who God is, who we are, and what the reality of our relationship with God is.

The first question is, “Have you believed and trusted this message about Jesus – do you trust Jesus?” And that opens up the consequent questions:
  • Have your eyes been opened spiritually to see and know God?
  • Have you experienced God’s mercy and grace?
  • Do you know the Truth about yourself and God?

And those are not questions that you answer once and move on. I continually have my eyes opened to what God is doing in and around me. And I periodically shut my eyes and tune God out. As I described last Sunday, one thing that really turned me around from a real low point was a fresh (and unexpected) experience of God’s grace. And part of what keeps us focused is a continual feeding of our mind and spirit with God’s Word, which is Truth.

Let me briefly mention where we are going in the coming weeks, then I’ll return with a challenge for you this week.

I called these personal questions “the first question.” But as we become outward focused followers of Jesus – or “searchlight Christians” – we start wrestling with the question of how to witness to God’s glory. How do we present God’s grace and God’s Truth in ways that are faithful, effective, and consistent? How do we avoid the errors of cheap grace or legalistic truth and present a whole and complete Gospel – that is, GOOD NEWS – to people who need some good news?

It may not make sense that we talked about grace before we talked about truth. How can you understand the gift of grace if you don’t yet know your need for it? I talked about grace first because it came first in the verse, but also because we often experience grace before accepting of understanding truth (or grace!).

In the coming weeks, we will look to Jesus to help answer these questions. We will see how Jesus approached and interacted with those who were really broken and messed up; and we will see how he presented grace and truth in order to show people the face of God. And we will wrestle with our own words and actions and how we point (or don’t point) people to God.

Now, I said I would return to a challenge. And it’s not unrelated. One of the biggest challenges to presenting grace and truth is our own “stuff” that gets in the way. It’s the whole “blind leading the blind” cliché. So, we start here; it starts with me.

I challenge you this week, out of John 1:14, to deal with the topics of glory, grace, and truth. And let me frame three questions which I hope will point you towards God’s glory, grace, and truth.
  • Where do you long to see or hear from God in your life right now?
  • Where do you need God’s mercy and forgiveness and what would it mean to you to find it?
  • Where do you need to be honest with yourself about your own “junk” and how it affects your relationship with God and others?

May the Spirit give us ears to hear and courage to act. Amen.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Grace of God in Christ (John 1.14-18)

September 20, 2009
Sermon by: Robert Austell
- audio not yet available (technical issues)
download (click, then choose "save to disk" for playback on computer or iPod, or play sermon live in this window below - works in Firefox; IE users will have to use this last.fm link to hear streaming audio)

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**
Some Sundays the sermon varies significantly from the draft manuscript. This is one such Sunday, and I commend the audio version over the written version below.

Last week, this week, and next week, we are looking at the same set of core verses in John 1. Last week we were reminded that Jesus uniquely shows us God the Father. I used physical blindness to illustrate our spiritual blindness apart from Jesus Christ to note that it is only Jesus who opens our spiritual eyes so that God’s Word to us makes sense.

The passage in John goes on twice to describe Jesus in terms of “grace and truth.” This week I want to talk to you about the Grace of God revealed to us when Jesus opens our eyes to God. And next week, we’ll look at the Truth of God revealed to us when Jesus opens our eyes to God.

I will also continue to use the blindness illustration from last week to help us understand grace, truth, and the role of Jesus in allowing us to see and experience these qualities of the glory of God.

Grace in the Blue Box

First, let me define grace. One of the most helpful descriptions I’ve heard comes (I think) from John Piper and deals with mercy and grace. Mercy is not getting what you deserve; grace is getting what you don’t deserve. So, you hurt and offend a friend. They show you mercy by not coming back with you with angry and hurtful words – you don’t get what you deserve. That’s a mature and special thing when it happens, and often can stir you to apologize or seek reconciliation. But what if that friend shows you grace by giving you what you don’t deserve. They seek you out and tell you that, though you hurt them, they love you and desire restoration of friendship. That gift of love in the midst of a wrong – that’s grace, and that is even more powerful than mercy!

God is a God of mercy and of grace. It is a mercy that we don’t immediately experience the consequence of sin, which is death. It is a mercy that God withholds judgment, giving us time to come to knowledge of the truth, repent, and be reconciled. And God has been merciful since the first sin in the Garden of Eden. He had told Adam and Eve that in the day they disobeyed and ate that fruit, they would surely die. God didn’t give them what they deserved, but in mercy delayed that consequence for a lifetime. And in the meantime, God began to reveal His Law, practical ways to live a holy life and work against experiencing the daily consequences of human disobedience.

That is why both the John 1 passage and the Romans 5-6 passage reference the Law. The Law relates to grace and truth and the consequences of human disobedience toward God. The Law accomplished several things, according to scripture. It revealed God’s Will and Word, describing both obedience and the fruit of obedience to God. Unfortunately (or fortunately!), it served to highlight the problem of sin and disobedience, for no one was able to keep the Law perfectly. Romans 5:20 reads, “The Law came in so that the transgression would increase…” That doesn’t mean that God’s Law made people sin more, but that it made people more aware of their sin and the distance between them and God. What is understood there is that the Law came in so that knowledge of human sin would increase. But what a terrible burden of knowledge!!

The verse in Romans goes on to say that where this knowledge increased, grace abounded all the more. What that means is that this knowledge of sin and its consequences made (or at least should have made) humanity ever more aware of the need for God’s grace, that is for God to step in and provide what they did not and could not deserve. For even with the Law, especially with the clarity of the Law, it was clear that all humanity deserved the consequence of our disobedience.

Let me try to illustrate this. Let’s say you are driving your car through a residential neighborhood. And you are going way too fast. How do you know this? Well, you may have some near misses – kids out in the street on bikes dodging out of your way. You may feel out of control. You may sense that you are not being safe. Human beings are born with some sense of right and wrong. But when you are stopped by police and the officer points to the speed limit sign on the side of the road that says 25 mph and you were going 60, that’s the Law and the effect of the Law. It calls you out and concretely lets you know what you sensed (or maybe didn’t sense) in your conscience.

So Romans says that the Law points us toward the need for God to intervene and to provide a solution. That God would do this without us meriting it is grace; it is God’s free gift, given in love.

But here’s the problem, related to last week. God promised and spoke of this provision from the beginning and in His dealings with His people throughout the Old Testament. But like all people everywhere, they were spiritually blind apart from faith. Remember the limitations of blindness – it is as if the Law said, “God has a free gift for you that will remedy this dreadful curse. It’s over there in the blue box.”

Free Gift in Jesus (aka the Giver of Sight)

It’s not that God was trying to hide salvation or grace from us. It’s that, by our own choice of sin and disobedience, we lacked the spiritual equipment to see it. The choice Adam and Eve made, and that each of us has followed after them is like gouging our spiritual eyes out from birth. And then we complain that we can’t see God!

That’s why the news in John 1 is such good news! God didn’t give up on us, despite our disobedience. That is mercy! God came near in Christ and moved into our neighborhood to heal us and open our eyes so that we could see the blue box, so that we could perceive the grace-gift of salvation. That is undeserved and free – it is grace! And that is where we got to last week. It is through faith in Jesus – trusting who he was and what he said enough to believe and follow after him – that opens our spiritual eyes so that these words of grace, truth, salvation, and God-stuff begin to make sense like colors to one who has seen for the first time. Apart from faith in Christ, it just doesn’t compute… at best, they are things you admire in people you love and respect, but you just can’t understand blue until you see it for yourself.

This is what Romans 6:23 is talking about: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” It is near impossible to talk about God’s grace without also talking about His truth. The truth is what the Law revealed, but what most sense even apart from Scripture: this world is not right and I am not right. There must be more than this. Scripture declares that as true, and it declares Jesus as true. He said, “I am the truth… and the truth will set you free.” Through faith in Jesus, we may not only know the truth, but see and KNOW God’s grace for what it is – a free and undeserved gift of God that makes us right with God and grants us life.

Grace for You

I’ve known for several weeks that I was going to preach on these texts and this topic today. I always look out for ways to illustrate the things I’m talking about, especially when they are kind of theological or abstract, like grace.

I’ll be honest and let you know the last 4-5 weeks have been tough. I’ve been physically sick several times with stomach bugs and other things. I’ve been emotionally and spiritually low, struggling with discouragement and depression. And I’ve been struggling with several hurt relationships with dear friends. It has not been a happy place.

And three times in the last few weeks, I have experienced God’s grace in these hurt relationships. Three times I have experienced or witnessed God’s grace, not coming from me, but given freely TO me or in front of me. Frankly, in each case, the situation deserved a fight. It deserved defensiveness or retaliation. And three times I saw godly mercy and restraint. More than that – undeserved and unexpected – three times I experienced grace on top of mercy. Three times I saw people around me lay hold of grace in Christ and pour out a gift of unconditional love and forgiveness.

Sometimes, apparently, even a preacher has to be hit up-side the head with a 2x4 to get it. (Maybe we do MORE than other people?!) I remember verbalizing after the third time, “That felt like God ran a Mack-truck of grace over me…”

And those were human expressions of godly grace. What God has given me in Jesus Christ is so much more and deeper. What God has given YOU in Jesus is so much more and deeper.

So hear this; it is the Good News at the heart of the Bible: in Jesus Christ, God became flesh to come live in YOUR world, to open your eyes to God and reveal God’s grace and truth. There is no sin that can keep you away from God because God has acted. If God’s love and salvation were conditional on our behavior, actions, and choices, NONE of us would know God! Rather, God has come near to you to invite you to know Him through trusting in Jesus. It is an unconditional and free gift – grace, for you.

If you have never trusted in Jesus Christ or put your faith in Him, I invite you to do so. I will pray with and for you in a moment and invite you to agree in prayer and to either let me know or let someone you trust know.

It may well be that you have spent a lot of time in church, but have never experienced or rested in God’s grace. Christianity has been a labor of good works, frustrating ladder-climbing, or ideas that just don’t make sense deep down. I invite you to also agree with me in prayer, for Jesus to open your eyes to grace and dependency on God’s provision. I also invite you to let me know and follow up with some more conversation.

Finally, the story of God is not a story about what we have done or not done, but a story about what God has done in Christ. As you ponder “grace” recognize that it is ultimately God’s action, God’s initiative, and God’s gift, freely given in love. Amen.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Monday Morning App: The Glory of God in Christ

I am experimenting with asking a few people present for the sermon to share how the sermon challenged them. I'm hoping this may develop into a regular thing from multiple people. I'm hoping, too, that others reading these comments will be challenged to engage the sermons (written or audio) more personally and thoroughly, and perhaps even share your thoughts in the comments here or on the main sermon post.

Susan Slade

Being spiritually alive feels awesome! But it’s a hard-to-maintain this state of “feel good” in this world. When the knowledge of Jesus Christ, the understanding of God’s faithfulness and forgiveness and the sensation of love and acceptance is experienced through fellow believers, the spiritual side of us comes alive! It is a tangible awakening of body to the extent that it doesn’t feel numb, rote, dull or flat any longer. A spiritually charged human who is alive in Christ has dimension that can be spotted a mile away. And it’s because there is a living, two-way, open and active relationship in progress. But not everyone understands that the new dimension is of God. John 1: 10 says of Christ that “the world did not recognize him.”

When I talk to myself through times of hurt, sadness, anger, resentment, self-righteousness, fear, and worry, I tell myself, “focus on Christ.” This is my “deep breath” mantra that helps me press forward. And I pray for Him to keep me grounded, to help me to make good choices through my troubles, to keep me walking on the straight path and for Him to bless me and surround me with helpers and friends who will guide me in His Word.

Although I can’t see a physical God, I see his hands at work, I feel the kindness and acceptance of his believers, I hear prayers and praises to Him and hear his encouragements through the voices of fellow believers. And I taste the sweetness and bitterness of his creations. I smell the bread that is shared in caring and friendship. These are real. And they help me to keep my spiritual eyes turned towards our awesome God.

Royallen Wiley

I am a very visual person so I could relate to the object lesson you shared about what it would be like to lose the sense of sight. Also, as one who has corrected vision, I have often wondered what it would have been like to live in a world of blurred vision before the era of contacts and glasses. I would have missed so much of seeing and admiring God's handiwork in creation.

I have always liked the passage from John. It has always been comforting to me to know that Jesus has always been there with God, right from the very beginning, and didn't just show up on the scene 2000 years ago. I liked your reference about humans being spiritually blind and the imagery you used of darkness and light. I connected with "the Word became flesh, so we can now see the face of God."

I too wonder sometimes about how God reveals himself to us and why He doesn't do it in some sort of awesome cosmic display of power. Yet, it's there for me to see every day in admiring a beautiful sunrise or sunset, seeing a beautiful flower or in the smile of an infant. My main takeaway is to live in the moment of God's awesome creation and thank God that he sent Jesus to connect with us.

Patrick Larson

The sermon this past Sunday made me realize that, right or wrong, I have a tendency to view Jesus as the end goal of our existence. I think that accepting Christ as my Savior and Lord and having a relationship with Him is the end-all, be-all of the Christian's life. I think of Jesus as saving me from something bad, but not as enabling me to experience something good! Yes, Jesus saved me from the eternal consequences of my sin, but His sacrifice also makes it possible for me to have the relationship with my Creator that He intended from the beginning.

These Scriptures make it clear that that the purpose of the Christ(Messiah) is to provide a way for us to come in to the presence of God the Father and experience His Glory - a privilege we forfeited in the garden of Eden with original sin. That is why no one can look on the face of God, our sinful nature cannot be in His holy presence. Jesus' sacrifice of blood washes away my sin and He tears away the veil so that I can directly come into the presence of my Creator.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Glory of God in Christ (John 1.14-18)

September 13, 2009
Sermon by: Robert Austell

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**
Text Not Available

Some Sundays the sermon varies so significantly from the draft manuscript that I only post the audio version. This is one such Sunday.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Monday Morning App: Where they Are

I am experimenting with asking a few people present for the sermon to share how the sermon challenged them. I'm hoping this may develop into a regular thing from multiple people. I'm hoping, too, that others reading these comments will be challenged to engage the sermons (written or audio) more personally and thoroughly, and perhaps even share your thoughts in the comments here or on the main sermon post.

Monday Morning App on Where They Are (John 17:13-21)

Shannon Starmer

Thank you for this sermon Robert! I liked it because answered some questions I have been battling with for a while. There is often this argument in my head regarding where I am to spend my efforts and my time. What I mean by this is as follows- I have some really beautiful and meaningful friendships here at our church though I also have a lot of friends and family who don’t frequent church or do not believe and I love them too. Sometimes I feel that I should not spend as much time with them but the other side of the argument is that I think it’s a wonderful thing if I can be with them and try to be someone whom they can look up to in a Christian way.

To be clear I always know that I am dwelling in this world, I often feel protected; I also feel that I am set aside, different than the main stream. I do belong to Him. I try to present myself in such a way that I may be someone who can be trusted when friends/family need someone like me… someone who is different, someone who can help with issues or questions regarding God/Jesus/The Bible/Christianity.

Sometimes I even have enough courage to reach out on my own. It’s very uncomfortable for me but the way I look at it is this- if you feel God has asked something of you, you really don’t have a choice in the matter any longer, He will keep on you. I am always amazed at the outcome of these conversations and how God takes someone like me who is so small, crooked and so insignificant and speaks such powerful messages. I am floored at the outcome and breadth of movement He has caused in these lives I am close to. I am honored that he would ask me to help. I am excited to be knee-deep in the non-believers of the world and to speak His Truth every chance I make. I am here to plant the seeds for Him.

So I think I know the answer to the squabble I have. As long as I can be a person set aside by Him and for Him I will continue to pay lots of attention to all my friends and family. I’ll certainly continue to learn as much as I can about God so that I might be a good servant.

Mike Slade

You noted that on one end of the spectrum are believers (you used the Amish as an example) who have truly separated themselves from society, both figuratively and literally. And you noted that certain groups have been doing that for centuries, especially in early Christendom. At the other end of the scale are believers who don’t look any different from non-believers because they are so in the world that a non-believer would never see anything Christ-like in or about that person. Worse still, the non-believer could ultimately come to the conclusion that they themselves are a believer or a Christian because of the measure of themselves against a person who claims to be a believer.

My logical conclusion was that we need to be somewhere in the middle. However, that makes us “sort of” different and “sort of” no different. It actually seems to make us lukewarm and it makes it easy for us to come to church on Sunday morning to repent for Friday and Saturday nights (blatant theft from Bruce Hornsby).

So the illogical (but appropriate) conclusion is that we have to be both: we have to be so different in what we say and do and believe that we appear “Amish” to the non-believer, while at the same time looking just like they do (living in the same type of neighborhood, kids going to the same kind of school, wearing the same kind of clothes, having the same kind of jobs, dealing with the same kinds of life issues, etc.). At once there is a visible difference and a visible sameness – or there should be. That is the challenge: to be in the world but not of it. It’s a simple concept with lots of earthy human complexities we bring into the mix.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Where they Are (John 1.14, 17.13-21)

September 6, 2009
Sermon by: Robert Austell
download (click, then choose "save to disk" for playback on computer or iPod, or play sermon live in this window below - works in Firefox; IE users will have to use this last.fm link to hear streaming audio)

**Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**
Though I’m sure I’ll continue to mention shorter sabbatical stories for some time, this Sunday is the last that I’d like to spend a significant portion of the sermon sharing an experience from my sabbatical leave this summer. I do so, not just to tell you what I did, but because I think this experience significantly illustrates the point of our scripture text this morning. So, let me share a story with you and then we’ll look at how this text might speak into our lives.

Young Life, Nicaragua

I’ve told you a little bit about the week I spent with Jason and Tiffany Hinton at the Bible school in Nicaragua. I also spent the first and last nights in Nicaragua with Pratt and Ashley Butler, who also grew up in this church.

Pratt and Ashley are on staff with Young Life (or Vida Joven) in Nicaragua. They work at an international school in English-speaking ministry, but are part of the larger Spanish-speaking Vida Joven ministry in Nicaragua, which ministers in many schools.

One of the original slogans of Young Life is "meet kids where they are." Out of this mission/vision comes important values like going into kids' worlds: high school, band concerts, lunch tables (when allowed), sports events, and generally hanging out where kids hang out. It reminds me a lot of the way Jesus was.

In Pratt and Ashley's case (and there are only something like four North American Young Life staff out of 25 or 30 in Nicaragua), this means hanging out at the International School (their assigned school), where students come from influential families - they are the children of the wealthy, diplomats, politicians, and other "movers and shakers." This also means (conveniently) that classes and conversations tend to be in English since students come from all over the world, not just Nicaragua. But don't think Pratt and Ashley aren't learning Spanish - they are diving in culturally and are making friends and building relationships in their neighborhood and everywhere they go. Eventually, they hope to build a volunteer core out of University students in the area. When we arrived at their house, within three minutes, Pratt and Ashley had already introduced me to 4-5 of the folks on the street outside their house, including the ever-diligent "Mr. Whistle" - who patrols and guards their neighborhood making frequent (constant?!) use of his whistle to keep things under control.

Pratt and Ashley are also building relationships with the Nicaraguan Young Life staff, taking the initiative to visit each of the 19 other "clubs" in Managua (the capital city). On my last night there, they took me to one of the other Vida Joven clubs, led by their friend and YL staff, Narcisso. It took place in one of the barrios - because of travel issues, clubs meet by neighborhood rather than by school. It met in someone's home, with leaders taking care to set up and clean up. The entire club was in Spanish, but Pratt and Ashley took turns whispering in my ear to translate. Some of the jokes, games, and songs didn't really translate, but I saw what I've seen in Young Life since I was a child: loving adult leaders building into the lives of teenagers, earning the right to be heard, and sharing the love of Jesus. Narcisso spoke for 4 minutes at the end on John 3:16 and the teens gave him their attention and respect. And they listened carefully to their friend.

Jesus’ Prayer

Before trying to draw a lesson for the church, let’s look at our text from this morning. First, look at this key verse from John 1:14…

The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw God’s glory…

I’ve talked about that before. Rather than wait in Heaven, removed and remote, waiting for some human beings to climb the ladder of holiness or make enough offerings or sacrifices (which we can’t!), God came down! God put on human flesh and didn’t just visit, but “dwelt” – he made His home and lived with us. Eugene Peterson, the translator of The Message version of the Bible says here, “God moved into the neighborhood.”

God’s eternal message, and Jesus’ earthly message is not “Come to me,” though he spoke those words. Rather, look at his actions. He doesn’t camp out in the Temple and preach a message calling people to come to him. He goes into the villages, into homes, out to the sea and even into the boats of the fisherman. It is there that he says, “Come with me.” That’s what “follow me” means: come with me. And that is God’s example and our pattern.

So then, in John 17, Jesus is praying before the ordeal of his arrest and crucifixion. He is praying for himself, for God’s will, and for his disciples. And in that prayer for his disciples, he prays for all who will come after them and believe – in other words, he also prays for us! And listen to what he prays in verses 15 and following…

I do not ask you to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them (or set them apart) in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I also have sent them into the world…

And why does Jesus pray all this? It’s at the end of verse 21…

…so that the world may believe [that you sent me].

Let me pick that apart for a moment. There are other ways ‘world’ is used in the Bible; but often, as here, ‘world’ refers to the broken and darkened place where human beings live apart from God. And there has always been a tension between Christians and the world.

Sometimes Christians have withdrawn altogether (from the 1st century Essenes to the present-day Amish); sometimes there is no distinguishing the Christians from the culture (from the New Testament Corinthians to some of what passes for American Christianity); and sometimes there is a balance of retreating into community but going out in and amongst the world (many of the early to present day monastic communities and other Christian groups).

So what did Jesus pray? Let me briefly note four things.

1. Jesus prayed for God NOT to take us out of the world, but to protect us in it. That’s a huge difference! Rather than retreat and try to protect ourselves, we are to remain in the world, but seek and depend on God’s spiritual protection.

2. Jesus declared that we are not OF the world, as those whose sins are forgiven and who are washed by grace. We do not belong to this world, we belong to Him! This is also an important distinction. It is possible (and even desired according to Jesus’ prayer here) to live in the world while not being identified, corrupted, or co-opted by it. We can live among the people of the world without yielding to the darkness of the world. Jesus statement here is a reminder of who and whose we are, wherever we might live!

3. Jesus asked God to set us apart in truth. That happens through God’s Word of Truth, the Bible, and through the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit living and at work in us. This gets into some of the detail of how God would protect us in the world and how we can be equipped to live there.

4. Jesus asked God to SEND us INTO the world as he was sent. Ours is not just a passive get-out-there-and-try-not-to-get-hurt. Remember how Jesus was sent into the world in John 1:14? He moved into the neighborhood and made his home with us. That’s the example; that’s the mission!

So, with Jesus’ prayer as instruction and Ashley and Pratt’s ministry as illustration, let’s consider what the lesson and the challenge is for us as individuals and as a church.

A Lesson for the Church

I think the lesson for the church is so clear, but is one that seems so hard for American institutionalized Christianity to grasp. If there ever was a time for "build it and they will come" Christianity, that time has passed, and I’m not sure it was ever the right or best means of answering God’s mission.

We (as the Church) need to learn from ministries like Young Life - not because they are successful, but because they are Biblical - and meet people where they are! Their slogan, so succinctly put, is what God has put so heavily on my heart.

We need to understand Jesus’ prayer and challenge to be sent as he was sent and to live among in holy witness rather than live apart in holy hypocrisy.

Practically and specifically, the Church (in general) and Good Shepherd (in particular) needs to explore the surrounding community, learn what the culture is, and enter into it to build relationships and earn the right to speak into it. Less and less will we (whether Church or Christians) speak from a position of respect and privilege just because of who we are. Rather, we need to get up and get out into the world to be the kind of "salt and light" that Jesus taught that we should be.

Let me encourage you that you ARE growing in this direction. We are! Our reaching out to and welcoming of the Windyrush club community, when their clubhouse burned down, has opened more doors and conversations than you can imagine with our literal neighbors. Our willingness to let Swan’s Run and other neighborhood associations meet in our buildings has opened up more doors and conversations than you can imagine. But we need to leap where we’ve tiptoed. These are not “programs” for a few to volunteer for, but a change in our understanding of church and Christian identity. We must become people who roll down the window to introduce ourselves to neighbors walking on the street – remember, it was one of them who brought our shepherd statue back! Do we simply say thanks and go back to our church thing, or do we leap at the opportunity to meet another neighbor… perhaps, even get to know him as Richard?

We stretched one summer and took Vacation Bible school off the property. I think it was one of the most glorious things we’ve been a part of. Do we have the obedience and will to keep doing it? That’s where the Gospel happens – out there!

That’s what Jesus prayed about – for you and for me. May God give us ears to hear – and mold us into those with the heart of Christ. Amen.

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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

24 (Colossians 4.2-6)

August 30, 2009
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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One of my favorite TV shows is “24.” It is a fictional story about a government agent and patriot, Jack Bauer, who gives whatever it takes and all that he has to serve and protect his country. The producers tell his story uniquely because they do so in “real time” with each episode depicting one hour out of a 24-hour day. So over the season, you see one amazing, terrifying, and inspiring day of his life. One of the inside jokes fans have is that Jack never seems to take time to eat, sleep, or go to the bathroom, he is so committed to his calling and purpose.

In some not insignificant ways, Jack is to his country as we should be to God’s Kingdom. Our awareness of, motivation by, and service to God should be a 24-hour a day and every day calling and purpose. That is the true depth of worship.

This is something I’ve talked and taught about before, but I was challenged and stretched on this topic during my trip to Nicaragua and I’d like to begin by telling you some more about that before we turn to the text and one specific application of this all-out worship perspective.

Teaching at School of the Bible

About a year and a half ago, Jason and Tiffany Hinton visited Good Shepherd to share about their work with YWAM. They invited all those present that night to come visit and I casually mentioned that I was having a sabbatical in 2009 and might consider it. Well, Jason didn't forget and invited me down to teach for a week at the "School of the Bible." This is a year-long residency program taught in numerous YWAM bases around the world. What makes Jason's base unique is that it is the only base that teaches the program in Spanish, so people come from all over for the training (including U.S. students interested in Spanish language missions).

I taught for a week in the School of the Bible. It was 20 hours of class time, which was about 10 hours of teaching since it all had to be translated into Spanish. There were 5 students and 3-4 staff in the class (last year there were 19 students). Three of the students were from the U.S., called to mission work in Central or South America. Two other students were from Nicaragua (though one spoke English well). What that all meant was that I was able to talk with the students directly over lunch and in-between classes (something I didn't expect). I enjoyed getting to know each of them and hear about what God is doing in their lives.

The course I taught was intended to teach some skills for Biblical interpretation, using the topic of worship as a case study. The students really dug in and engaged the material, with the highlight being some really diverse and creative responses to a homework assignment to create a worship service from scratch based on the worship principles we identified from Scripture. Each thought so broadly about worship and went far beyond the service to describe a really exciting vision for life, calling, and service together in Christian community. I think the students' perspective flowed out of their desire to obey the word and out of their rich experience living for a year in close Christian community.

Their response lead me to one significant "takeaway" from this experience. I have taught before that worship is more than the Sunday service; rather, it is all of life lived before God. But being a part of this voluntary community and studying and living God's Word with them for a week gave me a new perspective on what this means. Certainly each of the students and staff at the YWAM base had a particular missionary calling to go and serve God away from their home (even the Nicaraguan students and staff experienced this, preparing to go wherever God might send them in Latin America). But what the students and staff had that I believe should be a part of every Christian's life and calling is the perspective that all our life belongs to God. They were living it out and had a vision for a lifetime of living it out.

While I expected the trip to refocus me, it did so very keenly in answer to the question "what matters?" What really matters is not the next American Idol, or whether Jack survived on the season finale to 24. What really matters is not my tennis game or getting the newest golf club. What really matters is not even being successful at my job - whether that means striving to get a raise, get a good review, or beat my competition.

What really matters - and I saw this with such great clarity - is faith, family, and community. What are we doing with all the hours in the day? Is God just a little sideline hobby or the central and dominant reason for all that we say and do? Do we cherish our family and children? Do we become more and more isolated through American "entertainment" and miss all those God has surrounded us with - children, spouses, family, Christian community, and neighbors who need Good News?

One of the greatest treasures of my time in Nicaragua was being reminded in my heart (not just my head) that all I am and all I have belongs to God. I also have a rekindled desire to encourage folks to see the truth of that.

Open Doors, Opportunities, and Responding

With that in mind, let’s look at our text from Colossians. Paul is giving some end-of-the-letter instructions to the believers in the Colossian church. These instructions are specific, but they presume the kind of 24-hour a day alertness to God’s purpose and Spirit that I experienced and witnessed in Nicaragua.

In verse two, Paul writes, “Devote yourselves to prayer.” Well, easy enough – we know Christians are supposed to pray. And if you dig in to that word ‘devote’ you will find that it bears the connotation of some serious praying. This isn’t a 20-second, “God bless me and mine today” prayer, but a call to pray diligently and often. That being true, it’s really the rest of the text that opens up the real mindset Paul is after here, and it is what I would call a worship-mindset, or a 24/7 mindset.

Look what follows:

[Keep] alert in [that prayer] with an attitude of thanksgiving

…that God will open up to us a door for the word

Keeping alert requires constant focus and attention… it is something Jack Bauer does well! This says that our prayer life should have that kind of focus and diligence. But don’t miss the purpose of this particular prayer – it is to ask God to “open a door for the word.” This worship-mindset has a missional focus! We are to be constant, diligent, and alert in our prayers in hopes that God will open a door for the word of Christ to go out.

The rest of the text orients around that twin focus: worshipful attentiveness and missional purpose. In verses 5-6 Paul calls for wise conduct and gracious (but salt-seasoned) speech so that when that door is opened to sharing Christ through word or deed, we will know how to respond to each person. See, too, the result of that worshipful attentiveness and missional purpose: we don’t just toss off the same response in every situation, but respond to the need God puts before us in specific and appropriate ways.

While that may sound like something you aren’t equipped to do, understand the whole context of this. Here in God’s Word, each of you is being challenged to ask God to open a door for you to serve him with worshipful attentiveness and missional purpose. Not only will God not put you in a situation where you can’t faithfully serve and obey Him, but I believe God may well open a door to a situation in which you may serve and obey Him uniquely.

Also don’t miss this phrase in verse five: “making the most of the opportunity” or “redeeming the time” in the KJV. This worshipful attentiveness and missional purpose is not only a posture of obedience, but one of stewardship and faithfulness. This is what it looks like to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. And it can and should happen wherever you are.

God calls some to be foreign missionaries; but God calls all believers to be disciples and local missionaries.

Everyone Should Visit a Missionary

I pray that God will give us ears to hear this challenge. If it’s hard to hear or experience, let me make another suggestion, from experience: go visit a missionary or go on a short-term mission.

When Jason and Tiffany came to Good Shepherd a year or so ago, they told people that one of the best ways we could support God's work in the world is to come visit them. It was that challenge that led Barbara Thompson (and Jane Chiseck with her) to take up needle and thread and go to the YWAM base in Nicaragua and teach local women how to knit. The fruits of that faithful response were very evident when I was there, some 12 months later!

I know I learned things about what God is doing there AND what God would do through me that I would not have learned without going. If all we ever do is send money to missionaries, we miss out on the real opportunity, which is to encounter God at work in the world. It's kind of like only chatting with people on Facebook and never meeting in real life.

All that is to say that I think the short-term mission trips we send our youth on are very important... not only helpful to those they go serve, but invaluable to their larger vision of what it means to serve God with their whole lives. Likewise, I believe it would be invaluable for adults to pack up, take a trip, and take some time out to visit and serve on site with a mission. The lessons learned are many and deep. It gets us out of our routine, away from so many distractions, and what can be a very spiritually dulling setting. Ask Barbara or Jane if they agree. Or some of those (youth or adults) who have gone on Son Servants trips.

Being a follower of Jesus is everything – not in the sense of needing to spend more hours in church, on Habitat build, or reading your Bible. Rather, it is more like being in love. We worship God when we are in His house and when we are away. We talk to God every chance we can get. We look for opportunities to serve and love him and say “yes” when He asks something of us. Sometimes it takes the shock of a mission setting to wake us up to what it really means to worship God fully. My prayer is that His Word this morning calls each of you to see, hear, and respond more clearly and faithfully.

The big question I faced in Nicaragua and that this text raises this morning is: “What is God to you? What is God’s Kingdom to you?” And “How will you respond?” Amen.