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

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.