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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Elders, Deacons, and Saints (various texts)

Some Music Used
Praise the Lord (Cameroon Procession)
Mighty to Save (Hillsong United)
Take My Life and Let It Be (Chris Tomlin)
He Saved Us to Show His Glory (Tommy Walker)

Texts: 1 Peter 5:1-3; Acts 6:1-6; 1 Corinthians 1;1-3; Romans 1:1-7
September 26, 2010
Sermon by: Robert Austell

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

Sometimes the spoken sermon varies significantly from the written version. This is one of those cases. Because of a very full service, I summarized the points about elders and deacons and preached primarily on the "saints" portion (last 1/3) of the sermon. That's what is on the audio recording, though the original manuscript is included below.

Today we are installing our new elders and deacons. I thought this would be a good opportunity to give a brief overview of what elders and deacons do in the New Testament and at Good Shepherd. I also want to use that study as an opportunity to talk to the folks who are not elders and deacons.

What Do Elders Do? (1 Peter 5:1-3)

There are actually a number of passages that talk about elders. If you didn’t know, elder is the English translation of the Greek word, presbyteros. Sound familiar? That’s where “Presbyterian” comes from. “Presbyterian” means “ruled by elders.”

You can find qualifications of elders and other such passages, but I chose this short passage from 1 Peter 5:1-3 as a good overview of what elders do, particularly in the Presbyterian church. Let’s look at that passage and I’ll highlight five key phrases:

1. Shepherd the flock of God among you (v. 2)

Elders are “shepherds.” That means they are to care for, protect, defend, and lead the congregation. That’s why they chair all the ministries of the church and are granted local authority in the Presbyterian form of organizing the church. Pastors are understood to be one type of elder-shepherd, given particular responsibility for teaching and preaching. But the whole group of elders, which we call our “Session,” are collectively the shepherds for this flock.

2. Exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily (v. 2)

I said that “Presbyterian” means “ruled by elders.” But this scripture makes clear that this rule is not by might, but through service. That’s why we nominate and elect elders. The congregation chooses to submit to their leadership, in recognition of God’s gifting and calling. That leadership is never forced, but welcomed.

3. According to the will of God (v. 2)

Elders are to lead “according to God’s will.” The primary way to do that is through attentiveness to scripture. I’ve been teaching the last few weeks about the importance of studying the Bible for knowing and responding to God’s will, and this is all the more true for our elders. That’s why you’ll find many of them teaching Sunday school or leading studies, and why participation in our Christian education program is one of the key qualifications as people are considered for nomination.

4. Not for sordid gain, but with eagerness (v. 2)

I’m not sure anyone thinks that being an elder could produce “sordid gain.” It’s not like they are paid. Having said that, sometimes people do seek church leadership positions for less than pure reasons. Some may seek visibility in the community or for what was already addressed, exercising authority over others. This phrase commends eagerness – elders should be enthused about serving, but for the right reasons, not selfish ones.

5. Nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock (v. 3)

If it was not yet clear what biblical leadership looked like, this description makes it clear that elders are to be servant leaders who strive to model their lives and actions after Christ. Elders are not perfect (including pastors); but our goal should be consistent Christ-like character and behavior, including repentance and reconciliation when we do fall short.

I commend our elders to you as well-chosen, gifted, and called by God. We are blessed by the leadership God has provided at Good Shepherd.

What Do Deacons Do? (Acts 6:1-6)

Now, what do deacons do? I would invite you to turn to Acts 6:1-6. We haven’t always had deacons. We added the deacons’ ministry about six years ago for similar reasons to those found in this Acts passage. We also modeled our deacons’ ministry after this passage.

Like there are for elders, there are passages listing the qualifications for deacons. What I want to look at with you this morning is a brief description of what deacons do.

In the Acts 6 passage, the twelve Apostles were becoming less and less able to keep up with the needs of the growing groups of Jesus-followers. And so, in order to not neglect the prayer and teaching ministries, they identified a group of people to serve those in physical and material need, particularly the widows among them. First acting as literal “table servers,” (the meaning of the word ‘deacon’), these deacons became those set apart for various ministries of mercy and compassion in the early church.

And so, at Good Shepherd, we have set apart men and women to serve our congregation and the neighbors around us in areas of visitation, crisis, material and physical need, and hospitality. Each member of the congregation should have their own deacon who communicates with you regularly, prays for, responds to, and communicates any needs to me or to our larger prayer ministry. They meet with folks inside and outside the church who are facing financial needs and can offer both immediate help and longer-term counseling and tools around budgeting, saving, and wise use of resources. They help coordinate our welcoming and hospitality ministries.

Like elders and pastors, our deacons are not perfect! They also get discouraged, lose jobs, have crises, and need prayer. But they are here to lead the way in caring for those in need in the name of Christ, and God has called together a pretty extraordinary group of men and women as deacons at Good Shepherd.

Please, when your deacon calls you, welcome that contact and make use of them. They aren’t just performing a routine administrative task. God has gifted and called them as Christian servants and they are exercising those gifts and helping us experience the compassion of Christ in this place.

Who are Saints? (1 Corinthians 1 and Romans 1)

And now, for the rest of you! I hope that even if you are not an elder or deacon, you gained something from hearing about the ministry of elders and deacons. But I’m not done; you are not left out!

Please turn to 1 Corinthians 1 as I speak briefly about God’s “calling” on the rest of us – actually on every Christian, including pastors, elders, and deacons.

Listen again to verse 2, to the identified recipients of Paul’s letter:

…to the church of God which is at Corinth … with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.

Paul is writing to the whole church in Corinth, and to all Christians beyond – all who call on the name of Jesus as Lord. That’s the basic definition of a Christian and of what makes up the Church – it’s all those who trust Jesus as Lord.

But I left out the part I want to focus on. I wanted first to make sure you knew Paul was talking to you. You are the church! If you trust in Jesus Christ, if you are a Christian, look again at verse two at how Paul identifies you: …saints by calling.

God calls some to be pastors, some to be elders, some to be deacons. But those callings are not super-Christians or more or less than Christian; they are simply people set apart for certain roles. But every Christian has a calling – YOU have a calling, and it is as a saint!

I realize that most of us may have a different idea about what a saint is, but much church tradition in that area has moved away from the biblical use of the word. And it’s not that any of the traditional saints weren’t saints; it’s just that everyone who trusts in Jesus as Lord is a saint.

So just as I did with elders and deacons in describing their calling, I want to do with you saints to describe your calling.

First, let me start with where I ended in that description. I said that pastors, elders, and deacons were not perfect people. Likewise, saints are not perfect people. That’s not what the word means. It means “set apart” or “distinct.”

For some of those specifics, let’s look at some more details in this passage in 1 Corinthians 1, then we’ll turn to Romans 1.

1. The church… (1 Cor 1:2)

In both these passages, as well as some 60 times in the New Testament, followers of Jesus are called “the saints” as well as the church. In fact the two words ‘saints’ and ‘church’ give us insight into God’s intent for a Christian. The word ‘church’ means “gathered together” and the word ‘saints’ literally means “set apart” with the specific connotation of “make distinct” The saints are the followers of Jesus who also constitute God’s church. God’s purpose for the followers of Jesus is to gather you together and make you distinct.

2. Those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus (1 Cor 1:2)

“Sanctify” is a word that is related to “saint” – it refers to the process of making you distinct by molding or growing you into the character of Jesus. It began at your spiritual birth and continues through your earthly life. A saint belongs to God’s family, but is growing up into spiritual maturity.

3. All who call on Jesus as Lord (1 Cor 1:2)

As I said, this is the basic definition of a believer. But with the words or actions of “calling on Jesus” comes the obedience and submission implied in the words “as Lord.” Jesus makes clear that it is not enough to say “Lord, Lord” but that being his involves believing and following. A saint is a believer and a follower of Jesus.

4. Called among the Gentiles (Romans 1:6)

Turning now to Romans 1, notice that in verse 7 Paul is again writing to a church – this time in Rome – to those “called as saints.” In verses 1-6 he is describing his own ministry, but in the midst of that, after making a reference to the Gentiles, he refers to the saints as those who are “called among the Gentiles.” Remember I said that saints were gathered together to be made distinct? Here (as in many places) we see that we are not gathered and set apart AWAY from the world, but gathered and made distinct FOR the world. Jesus described us as “salt and light” in the world, and here Paul is reminding the saints that they are “made distinct” in order to be out among the Gentiles in the world. Saints are those who Jesus described as being “in the world but not of the world.”

5. All who are beloved of God (Romans 1:7)

Finally, as a good reminder in verse 7, saints are “beloved of God.” God loves you! Notice the order in verse 7. God does not look for saintly people in order to then reward them with His love. Paul is writing to all the Jesus followers in Rome – those who are beloved of God. That is simply an identifier for Christians – you are loved by God. Paul writes that first, and then identifies them as the ones God is making distinct in the world. In fact, God’s extravagant love for you is part of what makes you distinct, bearing the perfume or aroma of Christ.

Called by God

What do all of these scriptures and points have in common? It is that each of you is “called by God.” Every Christian is called or named as a saint. That is not a role to play, but an identity to accept. You are gathered together and are being made distinct for the sake of God’s work and witness in the world.

Some are called for a season for a particular work in the church and community. Those are elders and deacons, but they are not super-Christians. And, more practically, they are not the designated worker bees of the church. They are servant leaders for the church. But you – each of you – are gathered together (that’s “Church”) so that God may make you distinct (that’s “saints”) for His work and worship.

Do you yet need to call on the name of Jesus as Lord?

If you have or will, how will you respond to God’s declaration of who you are?

For what has God called you here and for what is God making you distinct?

Those are the questions of a saint and those are God’s questions for you. Amen.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Eat, Cook, and Serve (1 Corinthians 3.1-9; Hebrews 5.11-14)

Some service music used -
Wonderful Words of Life (WORDS OF LIFE)
Light the Fire Again (Doerksen)
Choir: Here I Am, Lord (Schutte/Courtney)
May the Mind of Christ My Savior (ST. LEONARDS)

September 19, 2010
Sermon by: Robert Austell

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

In the two passages we read today, one of the big questions is that of spiritual food. What are we eating when it comes to our spirit and soul?

I also want to press beyond that to a second big question: what are we doing besides eating? To talk about these questions, I want to talk in three categories, as named in the sermon title: EAT, COOK, and SERVE.

What Are We Eating?

In both passages we heard today, we read about believers getting stuck on “milk” and never moving on to “solid food.” In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul writes that he cannot communicate with the church because they are not mature spiritually – they are like “spiritual infants.” (v. 1) He explains more in verse 3: “…for you are still fleshly.” He cites jealousy and strife in the church as the proof, and perhaps also the cause, of his description. In Hebrews 5, there is a different problem. It has become difficult to explain the depths and riches of the Gospel of Jesus Christ because the people have become “dull of hearing” (v. 11). The believers have back-tracked so far, that “milk” has become necessary to re-educate them in the basics of the Gospel message.

I wonder if either of these situations describe any of us? And rather than diagnose the person sitting next to you, I’d ask you to consider your own health and maturity. Do you have the Corinthian challenge? Have the things of this world – that is what Paul calls “fleshly” – stunted your spiritual growth? These are not just sins, though sins like jealousy and strife, like Paul mentions can definitely keep us from growing up spiritually. There is also lust, pride, and many more. There’s also the spiritual “junk food” all around us. It’s not just that we settle for “milk” – which is healthy, but not deep. We also take in hours and hours of television, Internet, and media, with spiritual lessons from sources ranging from Oprah to Britney to Larry King.

What chance does a 20-minute sermon have against all the TV, music, movies, and Internet we take in each week… probably anywhere from 10 hours up to 50! This is what we talked about last week – the vital importance of studying God’s Word. It is the reason for a personal quiet time – a time of prayer, reading scripture, and listening to God. It’s not because it makes God happy, but because it’s critical to your spiritual health and development. This is the reason for participating in Sunday school and weekly Bible studies. It’s not because you have to for God to like you, but because it’s critical to your spiritual health and development. Without regular, intentional study of God’s Word, you will not grow in faith and mature past spiritual infancy.

Or maybe this isn’t you. You come to all these things and try, but it just puts you to sleep and doesn’t connect with you. Maybe you have the Hebrews challenge – you have become dull of hearing. I think this happens easily in our culture, especially if you have been coming to church since you were a child. Church can become only habit and not heart. The Good News of Jesus can become information and not transformation. We will see that there is a remedy for this as well – and it involves putting faith into practice. That’s what wakes us up and clears the plugs out of our ears.

The first challenging question from these passages is “what are you eating?”

What Are We Cooking? Are We Cooking?

A second challenging question comes from the Hebrews passage. It is the question, “What are you doing?” Said more colloquially, “What you got cooking, spiritually speaking?”

I mentioned that putting faith into practice is a remedy for the dullness described in Hebrews. Hebrews 5:12 has the zinger… “by this time you ought to be teachers.” A few verses later, we read that the mature are able to eat “solid spiritual food” and discern good and evil because of practice. If we don’t use what we are learning from God’s Word, it is not only useless, but dulls us to hearing more of it.

Consider this: every single one of you in this room who is over 16 probably has more formal education than the typical house church pastor in China. And yet, each of these pastors risks life and livelihood to teach what he or she knows of God’s Word each week as believers gather out of the sight of the government authorities.

Every single one of you probably has multiple Bibles in your home. And yet, these same house churches in China sometimes must share individual pages out of one Bible so that the Word of God will not be confiscated by authorities.

For the first six years of my ministry here, we spent at least 4-6 weeks doing evangelism training. For years we have emphasized sharing the Good News of Jesus as our primary mission. Many of you have sat through multiple Sunday school classes surveying numerous books of the Bible.

We should be teachers by now. By that, I mean that except for those who are preparing to profess faith for the first time, be baptized, and join the church, every single one of you has what it takes to live as an effective disciple of Jesus Christ. You’ve heard the story; you have the information; you have the mission directions; you are challenged regularly.

But here’s what Hebrews says: if you don’t use it, you lose it. I’m not talking about salvation, but I’m talking about your spiritual health and vitality. How do we grow spiritually? How do we discern good and evil? Hebrews says it is through practicing our faith – putting it into action.

It’s not unlike the experience of the college graduate or young adult who moves back home. It gets harder and harder to get out there and find a job and make a life. What is hard at 24 is excruciatingly difficult at 28, and only gets harder and harder. The only way forward is to use what we’ve learned and put it into action. Only then will we continue to grow and mature. We’ve got to learn to cook!

Where Will We Serve?

Now, let’s look briefly back at 1 Corinthians 3. It asks yet another challenging question: where will we serve? For those of us who don’t really have a good answer to that question, spiritually, Paul gives us some direction.

In a nutshell, the church in Corinth had gotten side-tracked on its famous pastors – Apollos and Paul. Paul had planted the church; Apollos had developed it. But Paul was reminding them that God is the one who causes growth. Neither Paul nor Apollos are anything; only God, who causes the growth. (v. 7)

Paul is describing the pitfall of looking to a pastor or teacher to “do the Christian work” for us. Your success as a Christian does not depend on how good a pastor or preacher I am or what famous teacher you read or follow on TV, but on your responsiveness to God’s Word and work in and around you.

Just as parents can’t find a job and do it for their grown child, neither can I be a Christian or even serve the Lord on your behalf. My job is to preach and teach God’s Word to you, to challenge you in your faith, to pray for you, and to care for you; but it is not to be spiritual or faithful for you.

Paul rightly asks where you will serve – where you will focus your attention. That focus must be on God alone, for it is God alone who causes growth. It is God alone whom we follow and serve.

Who Does God Say That We Are?

Finally, I want to end with the last verse from the 1 Corinthians passage. This is a reminder of who we are. Listen to verse 9:

We are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.

With a rich history as a biblical and Christ-centered church, a desire to worship and serve God faithfully, and a vision for ministry with each other and to the community around us, I believe we are at a pivotal time in the life of Good Shepherd. And by that, I mean that you are at a pivotal time in your own spiritual journey, for this church is not the building or the land, but the people – YOU are God’s field and God’s building. You are the ones God would plant and build for His glory. You are the ones God would use to reach our neighbors with the Good News and the compassion of Jesus. You are the ones God would use to bring glory to His name in this place, in Old Providence, and in South Charlotte.

I would challenge you to come out on Wednesday night. We have created a program to put into action what we are talking about today. Or give me a call and let me know you are ready to go and I’ll help you figure out what that might look like. We have an amazing and rich resource in this church – like a well-stocked kitchen. But like a kitchen, God has brought all this together to prepare a rich feast and to serve it to those who are hungry.

God is alive and on the move, and you are God’s fellow workers. He has given you all you need. It is time to get to work! Amen.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

School on Sunday? (2 Timothy 3)

Some service music used
Praise God's Holy Name (Cameroon Procession)
Praise to the Lord - Alleluia (arr. Nockels)
Speak O Lord (Getty/Townend/McDonald)
Doxology (congregation a capella)
Every Promise of Your Word (Getty/Townend)

September 12, 2010
Sermon by: Robert Austell

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

Why in the world do we ask you to go to school on Sunday?

That’s what Sunday school is after all; right? You go to class; a teacher stands up; you might even take notes; and sometimes, there’s even homework.

If you’re a kid, you get that Monday through Friday. If you’re an adult, you did that for at least 12-13 years, if not more. And now you may work, and that can even consume the weekends. Isn’t it enough to come to church – pray and sing a little bit and listen to the sermon? Maybe you even squeeze in some prayer time or devotions during the week.

So, with as much going on in your lives, why do we keep making a big deal about Sunday school? I believe the scripture we’ve heard today answers that question in a compelling way. Let’s look...

Difficult Times

The verses we heard this morning were written by the Apostle Paul. He was writing to a young friend of his named Timothy. Timothy was a student or disciple of Paul. He was younger in the faith, non-Jewish “Godfearer,” and an eager follower of Jesus Christ.

In this personal letter to Timothy, Paul is trying to encourage him in life, faith, and ministry. He comes to chapter three in this second letter to Timothy and writes something that should grab our attention, because it is like Paul is living and walking among us in 2010:

Realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God… and holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power.

Whether we are in the “last days” or not, whatever Paul has to say to Timothy will be applicable, for Paul has described our “days” with startling accuracy. That last one is the most heart-wrenching of all. People will claim to be religious, but miss the heart of true religion – the power of knowing and being loved by the True God.

Paul warns: Avoid such as these.

But there must be more we can do to survive our lives in these difficult times. Certainly, avoid evil. But Paul follows up with more… much more!

First, though, he paints an even more disturbing picture in verses 12-13. Not only must we live in such a difficult world as described in the opening verses, but if we follow God, Paul says we will be persecuted. People will actively oppose us and try to hurt us! And in v. 13, Paul writes, “But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.”

What help is there for us if we are going to follow God in this world?

Paul’s answer to Timothy, and to us, is scripture – God’s Word, the Bible.

It’s more than an answer; Paul says that it is the key to being prepared and equipped for living well and following God in such a world as this.

Inspired by God

Paul refers to scripture twice. First, in v. 15 he calls it “sacred writings” – the scripture that Timothy read as a child. Living before the New Testament had been collected as such (he’s writing part of it right here!), Paul is referring to the Hebrew Scriptures – the Law, the Prophets, and the Wisdom writings.

Second, in v. 16, Paul writes, “All scripture is inspired by God…” He writes that God breathed Himself into and through the scriptures. We understand this to be God’s Holy Spirit, described often in the Bible as “the breath of God.” The scriptures – this Bible – is more than great human writing… it is God’s gift to us, a revealing of Himself, written by and through human beings under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. These are the very words of God!

When we ask what help we have in the face of evil, suffering, deception, and even persecution, Paul’s answer is more than a book. It is help from God – God’s own words and direction for our lives. Scripture is God’s breath upon us, saying, “I am here; I am your help and your salvation. Come, follow me.”

Wisdom unto Salvation

Paul tells us that God’s Word does several things when we read and follow it. First, and certainly most importantly, it imparts the “wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.” (v. 15) This was how God worked in Timothy’s life to lead him to Jesus Christ. Timothy had read these scriptures as a child, and they pointed him to Jesus Christ (even with just the Hebrew Scriptures!).

Why is hearing, reading, and responding to the Bible so important? It is important because it bears witness to who God is and what He has done in history, especially through Jesus Christ. It tells people what they need to know to come to Jesus with faith, understanding, and belief, in order to follow him.

That’s why our worship is organized around God’s Word. We read it, we pray as it teaches us, we hear it proclaimed in sermon and song. And we teach it to our children, that they might come to faith in Jesus Christ. It is the Good News about what God has done in Jesus Christ. It is at the center of our faith and it is the forward banner of our testimony to the world, that all might believe.

All that is of supreme importance! But, once we have trusted in Jesus Christ, is there really a need to keep our heads buried in the Bible? Once we are “saved,” isn’t that enough?

I think the context Paul has already described – our context in a difficult and disappointing world – should send us running back to the Bible! For, though salvation would be enough, scripture also gives us tools – means for facing and living in the challenging world of ours.

4 Uses

Paul lists four more uses of scripture in our lives – scripture is profitable (useful)…
…for teaching
…for reproof
…for correction
…for training in righteousness

Now all those things overlap a bit. It may be that reproof, correction, and training all describe the teaching of scripture. Or, it may be a progression, becoming more and more personal in the effect scripture can have in our life. The point is that God’s Word, this inspired scripture, is given to us to be used. And the use – the benefit – it has for us is that it teaches us what we need to live as God’s people in this world. It does so by teaching us what we would not know on our own. In the Bible God is revealing Himself in specific ways, ways that cannot be intuited from beautiful sunsets, an infinite universe, or the intricacy of a flower. And scripture challenges us. It “reproves” or rebukes us in areas where we disobey God and act against His will. It “corrects” us, not just issuing rebuke, but doing so with the goal of straightening out our path – teaching us the right way to go so that we may indeed go that way. And scripture “trains us” – teaches us in a life-changing way… a habit-changing way… a transforming way. That’s what righteousness is… the goal of the teaching, reproof, correction, and training. It is God’s will and God’s way for our life.

Ready for the World

Paul says that when we have submitted to the teaching, reproof, correction, and training of scripture, the result is that we are “adequate, equipped for every good work.” We will have what we need to face the selfishness, deception, malice, and evil of the world.

It’s not super-power, like Superman or Spiderman, but it is adequate equipment to be God’s men and women. It is the courage and freedom to speak the truth in the face of deception. It is the purity to reject temptations of money, sex, or power. It is the endurance and perseverance to live with hope through suffering or persecution. It is the sure knowledge that God goes with us, before us and behind us, leading us on His path and in His will.

School on Sunday?!

Do we want our children to be saved? Do we want them to know God by trusting in and following Jesus Christ? Then certainly we want them to grow up with the sacred scriptures that give the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith.

We also want adults to come to a saving knowledge of God in Jesus Christ. So, we continue to stand on and proclaim God’s Word boldly as a church.

What about this Sunday school, though? Do I really need to bring my kids for one more hour of instruction when they already do so much in a week? I’d say yes, that one hour of teaching, reproof, correction, and training in God’s Word – which is the goal of Sunday school, is one of the most critical things a child will do in any given week.

But I’d go even further, because most people feel some unspoken urge to get their kids to church. I’d say that Sunday school is just as critical for teenagers and for adults. The teaching, reproof, correction, and training in God’s Word that you get in Sunday school equips you in critical ways to face and live through all the many things you will face Monday-Saturday. Are you going to lose your job this week? Is your best friend going to lie to you? Will someone steal from you? Will your body fail?

Worship is primarily where we give to God – we worship God in Spirit and Truth, offering ourselves in response to who He is and His Word to us.

Sunday school is where God gives to us… riches out of His Word. It is where you will get the equipment you need to not only live life, but live it well as God would have you live.

Let me end with three challenges:

1. Commit to coming to Sunday school each week – you and your whole family. It will transform your faith and your life.

2. Commit to personal study of God’s Word – reading it, pondering it, wrestling with it, and living it. There is a women’s Bible study on Tuesday mornings as well, which is organized to help you study daily.

3. Commit to coming on Wednesday nights each week – you and your whole family. Seven days is a long time to be away from God’s Word and family. Wednesday night is a chance to eat and fellowship with the church family and then for every age group to study and live out God’s Word. It will also transform your faith and your life.

I won’t give you a 30-day guarantee like on TV, because I think these are things we need to be doing out of obedience, even if we don’t “feel the blessing” right away. But, having said that, I am confident that you will experience life-changing transformation by committing to the study of God’s Word on a regular basis.

May God give us ears to hear and hearts to follow. Amen.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Second Chance Love (John 21.15-22)

Some service music
Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior
Depth of Mercy (Kauflin)
Draw Me Nearer (Crosby/Sheets)

September 5, 2010
Sermon by: Robert Austell

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

Today we are wrapping up the “follow me” series. Over the course of his ministry, Jesus issued that basic “follow me” invitation many times. We’ve looked at a number of those invitations and seen some important things.

Jesus didn’t reside in the holy places waiting for people to come to him. Rather, he went where people were, teaching and loving them, healing them, and inviting them to listen, believe, and follow.

Jesus didn’t limit his followers to holy people. Rather, he said explicitly that he came to seek and to save the lost. So he spent his time with those known as sinners, with the sick and the broken, and with those who needed him the most.

Jesus was a Lord worth following – proving himself to be the Messiah (anointed Son of God) and the Good Shepherd.

Following Jesus is also a costly thing, involving surrender and sacrifice in all aspects of life. It is neither a hobby nor a casual thing, but a commitment of one’s very life.

And following Jesus means FOLLOWING Jesus – looking and listening carefully to see where God is at work around us and sharing in that work in Jesus’ name.

Today we come to a final aspect of Jesus’ invitation, which may be something many need to hear most clearly.

To say it most simply, God has not given up on you.

It is a normal part of human life to have highs and lows, and with faith to have times when we have felt close and connected to God and then other times when we don’t. And sometimes, our doubts or actions or failures leave us thinking that we are no longer of any use to God. If you can relate to any of that, then today’s encounter with Jesus is especially for you.

The Bigger They Are…

Peter, to whom Jesus is speaking in today’s text, is perhaps the most “famous” disciple. There are others who are prominent and well-known, but probably none more so than Peter. He was the one who clearly confessed Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” and on whose testimony Jesus declared that he would build the Church. He was the one who asked Jesus if he could also walk on water. He is the one who tried to banish demons and heal people and tried to answer correctly so many times. He was all heart and effort and faith. He’s the one who fiercely refused to let Jesus wash his feet, then volunteered a full bath when he realized Jesus was making a point. And he’s the one who said he’d never, ever desert Jesus.

And he’s the one who fell the hardest. In the hours of the night after Jesus had been arrested, he stayed close by to see what was going on, but when he was recognized and questioned by a young girl and then others, he loudly denied knowing Jesus, swearing finally that he did not know the man. And he ran away, not even present at the crucifixion of his Lord and friend.

Can you imagine what it is to fail or fall, particularly before God? My guess is that most of us can.

And my guess is that, like Peter, such an experience can leave us feeling cut off from God. And often, if that feeling persists, we can, also like Peter, go back to our “life of fishing (old life)” doubtful that God has any useful purpose left for us.

Second Chance Love

I have preached on the first part of today’s text several times before. It describes Jesus’ love and forgiveness of Peter, specifically related to his denials the night of Jesus’ arrest. You may have heard this before, but listen with fresh ears, perhaps imagining yourself in Peter’s place.

The group that was gathered for breakfast was the group that had followed Peter, who went out fishing. Again, Jesus had come to where they were rather than summon them to the empty tomb or some other holy site. He had come out to that place where he had first found Peter – the place to which Peter had returned… the fishing boat. And Jesus ate breakfast with the group and then pulled Peter aside.

Three times Peter had denied Jesus.

Three times Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?”

Three times Peter answered, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”

Three opportunities to counter his denials and re-affirm his love for Jesus.

Three times Jesus responded, “Take care of my flock.”

Three times, in effect, Jesus said, “I love and trust you, and I forgive you.”

It was just what Peter needed and it wasn’t a gimmick or a ritual; it was genuine forgiveness. It was genuine grace – unexpected, undeserved, and more than Peter could ask or imagine.

And that was not all.

In that invitation to “take care of my flock” Jesus not only implicitly forgave Peter, but also said, “I still want you as a follower and disciple.” Jesus still had work for Peter to do. He was still saying, “Follow me.” Forgiveness didn’t just promote the fallen Peter to a second-class version of disciple who now had to sit on the bench while other less tarnished disciples were in on the action. Jesus forgave Peter and called him freshly into service as a disciple.

And so in addition to the three times Jesus said, “Take care of my flock,” he also twice said, “Follow me.” (vv. 19, 22)

Growing Up…

I just want to look at the second half of the text briefly, but that’s where Jesus twice says, “Follow me.” Jesus gets to those invitations by giving Peter a glimpse of what is to come. And this may be the most compelling part of the whole invitation. Not only did Jesus forgive him and renew his call, he indicates how much more Peter has yet to do and grow. He says, “…when you were younger, you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished.” This is just an image of childhood, but doesn’t it describe the headstrong Peter we read about in the Gospels? That’s the immature Peter who rushes into action and fails and falls so hard. But then Jesus says, “…but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go.” And we are told by the narrator that this indicated the way Peter would die. Tradition says he was crucified (upside-down, not worthy to die in the same manner as his Lord) years later for being a Christ-follower.

The last time Jesus predicted Peter’s future, it was to say that Peter would deny him. Now Jesus holds forth an image of growth and maturation. One day, Peter’s service to the Lord and depth of faith will be so mature that he will give his very life for the sake of Christ.

“And when he had spoken this, he said to [Peter], ‘Follow me!’”

Interestingly enough, we see that Peter is not quite there yet.  He then looks back over to the younger disciple, John, and asks, “What about him?” And Jesus responds, “Don’t worry about him… YOU follow me!”

Not only had Jesus not given up on Peter, how much more he had for him to do!

What I hope you hear as Good News today is that even as Jesus had not given up on Peter, neither has God given up on you. Even if you have failed and fallen, even if you have doubted and grown distant from God, even if it has been months and months or years and years, God still loves you, offers extravagant forgiveness and grace through Jesus, and says to you, “Follow me!”

Oh, I pray that God will open your ears to hear this, especially if you feel like God has given up or isn’t interested in you. This is the very heart of God, as described in His Word and at the heart of the faith – in Jesus Christ, sin is forgiven and lives are redeemed, and God invites YOU to listen, believe and follow.

Hear Jesus’ words again, God’s Word spoken to you:

Do you love me? Follow me.