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Monday, December 31, 2012

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Why the Christmas Story Matters to Me (Is 11, Lk 1-2, Mt 2)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
December 24, 1012
Some Music Used
Prelude: "Pastorale (from "Messiah") (Handel)
Prelude: "Once in Royal David's City" (Behnke)
Prelude: "Carol of the Bells" (handbells) (Leontovich/Peninger)
Hymn of Praise: "O Come, All Ye Faithful" (ADESTE FIDELES)
The Word in Music: "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" (choir) (Andrews)
The Word in Music: "Praise My Soul the King of Heaven" (worship team) (Enfield)
The Word in Music: "O Holy Night" (choir) (Adam/Rene Clausen)
The Word in Music: "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks" (worship team) (Peterson)
Hymn of Response: "Sing Aloud on This Day" (PERSONET HODIE)
Candlelighting Hymn: "Silent Night, Holy Night" (STILLE NICHT)
Hymn of Sending: "Joy to the World" (ANTIOCH) 
Postlude: "Noel" (Louis-Claude Daquin)

"Why the Christmas Story Matters to Me"
(Left-click to play; or right-click to save)
Text: Isaiah 11:1-5,9-10; Luke 1:26-38; 2:1-8; 2:8-20; Matthew 2:1-12

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

I’d like to do something a little different for my Christmas Eve message tonight.  Rather than preach the usual kind of sermon, I’d like instead to share briefly about each of the scripture lessons you heard read (and sung) tonight and why they collectively matter to me.

Prophecy (Isaiah 11:1-5,9-10)

This passage from the prophet – the preacher – Isaiah, like several others we’ve heard in the past few weeks, speaks words of hope and promise to those who are suffering and struggling.  God will send help, says Isaiah, and it will be a fulfillment of earlier promises God made to King David. 

I’ve been struck in recent weeks at how gritty and real the messages of Isaiah are.  It is clear that Isaiah the preacher knows his audience and the depth of suffering they are enduring as a conquered, displaced, and discouraged people.

Unlike the people of Isaiah’s day, we have already seen the Messiah, God’s Promised One.  We don’t have to wait for that like they did.  But the promises about righting all wrongs and no more suffering and no more sadness?  We’re still waiting on that.  So, in a way we have the same two things Isaiah did – 1) trust that God will come through in the future as he has in the past; and 2) a very long wait.

Bottom line, the prophets give me HOPE in a God who knows the human condition and delivers on His promises, and who waits with me in the meantime.

The Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38)

The Annunciation is the account of a very ordinary girl being given an extraordinary message.  And while none of us will be asked by God to do anything quite so extraordinary as bear the Son of God, we are nonetheless asked to bear the Son of God into the world!

One of the descriptions we use at Good Shepherd is “ordinary people, extraordinary God.”  Mary’s story reminds me, as do many of the people God called upon in biblical times, that God uses everyday people like you and me to accomplish the really significant things He is doing even now in the world.

Mary challenges me to respond with faith and obedience, to say ‘yes’ – “may it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

The Birth of Jesus (Luke 2:1-7)

What shall I say about the short account of the birth of Jesus.  It’s actually only half of one verse – “and she gave birth to her firstborn son.”  All around that are the mundane details that any of us might be dealing with around the birth of a child.  We had to submit our taxes; we had to register for baby gifts; we had to drive a ways to the hospital.  If anything, this birth was a little less than ideal – out of town, area crowded with visitors, a feeding trough for a place to sleep.

I suppose there are a number of things to say about the birth of Jesus, but if I just look at this account what probably stands out the most is that God didn’t just come to earth, but came all the way down.  Jesus wasn’t born like Moses, God-directed into the family and court of the King of Egypt.  He was born into a family of little means, from the country, and without connections. 

One of the really meaningful things I take away from the birth story is that Jesus is one of us.  And that’s a big deal.

Angels and Shepherds (Luke 2:8-20)

I preached on the angels and shepherds a few weeks ago, so won’t repeat all that tonight.  The thing that stood out to me so much about this part of the story was the way Heaven opened up and connected with earth in that moment.  It was like a Heavenly birth announcement and gave us a little bit of a preview as to what Jesus would be about.  He, too, would be Heaven come to earth – and it’s what he would eventually talk about so much in his earthly ministry.

It is a continuation of the birth narrative: we just split it into two readings for tonight’s service.  But it continues right after the birth of Jesus and also reminds me that Jesus came for ordinary people like shepherds – working-class men just out doing their thing.  And they responded faithfully.

The shepherds challenge me to pay attention and respond to what God is doing all around me.

Wise Men (Matthew 2:1-12)

The wise men, or magi, are an interesting part of the story.  Best we can tell, they were scholars of another nation and religion who were paying close attention to world events and were led to Jesus, eventually finding him and even hearing from God in a dream.

There is a modern saying about this story, that “wise men still seek him.”  I think that gets at one of the things I take from this part of the story.  If there is something so compelling and true about Jesus – something that will even draw those who did not grow up surrounded by the community of faith – then surely He is worth seeking and finding.  And for my part, surely he is worth making known.

The wise men challenge me to do a better job studying and seeking the one in whom I already believe – they put me to shame a bit.  They also challenge me to make Him known, as one worth seeking.

Much More…

These Christmas stories are so much more than stories, more than fables or myth; and they are more than a tradition that means a lot to many people.  These purport to be the story of God – the very story of God come among us, and I believe them to be true.  More than that, I don’t just believe them to be factually true, but True with a capital ‘T’ – that is TRUTH… the kind of thing that you not only can live your life by, but stake your life on.

As you turn to these stories again and again – and to God’s Word in general – I hope they will encourage you and strengthen your own faith, perhaps inviting you to listen to them in a new way and respond to them with fresh ears.  Amen.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Joy at Christmas (Isaiah 35, Luke 2)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
December 23, 1012
Some Music Used
Prelude: "Carol Medley" (arr. Mark Hayes)
Hymn of Praise: "Good Christians, All Rejoice" (IN DULCI JUBILO)
The Word in Music: "Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree" (arr. Poston)
Hymn of Response: "Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus" (HYFRYDOL, refrain Youngblood) 
Offering of Music: "Come, Lord Jesus" (Behnke)
Hymn of Sending: "What Child is This?" (GREENSLEEVES)
Postlude: "Let All Together Praise Our God" (Paul Manz)

"Joy at Christmas"
(Left-click to play; or right-click to save)
Text: Isaiah 35: Luke 2:10-11

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

“I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people!”  That’s what the angel said to the shepherds (Luke 2:10-11).  We’ve got two days to go to Christmas and I wonder if you are feeling it.

What is IT – stress? hurried last-minute shopping? family dynamics on overdrive? national and world events closing in like a dark cloud?  What about the joy?  Is it possible to experience joy at Christmas? Or any time anymore?

Luke recorded the message of the angel – an announcement of joy tied to the birth of Christ.  But if you’re not feeling it, you’re not feeling it.  How do you get it? How do you find it?  Is it actually out there for all people like the angel said?

For those kinds of questions, let’s turn back to Isaiah the preacher.  He also spoke of joy and he was speaking to people and times like ours.  We talked about that a few weeks ago.  His audience had lost their homes in a crushing economic and political defeat, which included war and death and loss.  Their families were scattered and their faith in a shambles.  Isaiah was no rosy peace-time preacher; he was facing some serious darkness.  And yet he spoke of joy.  I’d like to take a look at that with you today.

The initial visual paints the whole picture: the desert blossoming with flowering life will be like the joy of God’s glory coming.  I don’t know if you’ve seen Judean wilderness and desert before, but it’s about as bleak as you’d imagine desert to be.  And here’s the picture, with imagery and emotion all wrapped together: “it will rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it will blossom profusely and rejoice with rejoicing and shout of joy.”  Do you remember how I’ve said that in Hebrew you repeat things for emphasis, like we bold or underline or use exclamation points?  Did you hear it there… “rejoice with REJOICING and SHOUT OF JOY!!”  There’s some joy to be had; the question is how.
The Hard-Pressed

This text is packed with reality and the human condition.  Listen to all the folks Isaiah names and see if you don’t identify with one or more, which range from the literal to the metaphorical:

The exhausted (v. 3) – Work, school, family, sickness, debt, depression, recession, expectation, travel, bills, news, disappointment, and more.  It is exhausting; my guess is that a significant number of you, of us, feel completely exhausted.  Ironic, isn’t it?  You finally made it to Christmas break or vacation and you just want to crawl into bed for a week?  And we’re not just physically exhausted, but mentally and emotionally exhausted. 

The feeble (v. 3) – Not too much past exhausted is “feeble.”  Sometimes we don’t bounce back and we get borne under.  Or our bodies have failed us; or our will has failed us.  And we are beyond exhausted to feeble.

Those with anxious heart (v. 4) – In a different but related vein, we can be full of anxiety and fear.  That can either come with the exhaustion or can create or make it worse.  As bad as the present may be, we fear the future even more.  And that can be debilitating.

To each of these, Isaiah’s message is “Hold on; take courage; do not fear. God is coming with strength to take on that which oppresses you. God will save you.” In the case of Isaiah’s audience, this was a generation or more of literal defeat and captivity from an opposing nation.  And the salvation would require the repentance and turning back to the Lord of His people.  But help would come.  Death, defeat, and darkness did not (and do not!) have the last word.

Blocked Off from God

Isaiah also names four physical limitations, which in context speak beyond the literal to the spiritual.  Let me mention why I say that.  It is indeed possible that God’s people contained numerous blind, deaf, and similarly disabled people; and it is true that Jesus performed miracles of healing on people just like this.  But Jesus made the point that the healing was just a sign of something greater.  In healing a lame man one time he asked, “Which is harder, to say ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or ‘Get up and walk.’?”  To help their belief, he healed; but what he was doing (forgiving sin and reconciling people with God) was the real miracle.

These limitations, taken as descriptors of one’s spiritual condition, actually block us off from experiencing God.

The blind (v. 5) – You’ve heard the line in “Amazing Grace” – “I was blind, but now I see.”  This is one of the most easily understandable metaphors for coming to faith.  Until we believe and trust God, we are blind to so much of who God is and what He is doing.  God’s glory and handiwork can be all around us and like the dwarves in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia book, “The Last Battle,” we only see mud and straw and refuse.  “I can’t believe until I see,” we cry; but in reality, we can’t see until God opens our eyes.  And that is just what Isaiah describes with God’s salvation: “the eyes of the blind will be opened.”

The deaf (v. 5) – Likewise, we can be deaf to God’s Word and Spirit, both of which speak words of life and help.  It is a double-curse, is it not, that we suffer so in this life and are spiritually blocked from seeing or hearing the One who could help us?  Yet, that is the human curse – to be deaf and blind toward God.  And yet, Isaiah’s good news is that God will one day unstop the ears of the deaf.

The lame (v. 6) – He continues, with the lame promised to “leap like a deer.” How well being lame describes those who are crippled by the exhaustion and anxiety we’ve already mentioned.  We can hardly stand, much less run after God.  Like the man by the pool of Bethesda that Jesus healed, we are stuck on our mats waiting for the equivalent of a magic pool rather than looking for the true hand of God to lift us up.

The mute (v. 6) – And we are mute.  That’s a strange one.  Most of us don’t know too many mute people.  But I do know people who are so bound up that they can no longer speak words of love to a spouse or admit to the truth because of a web of deceit.  With all that binds and weighs us down, is it any wonder that we are mute and unable to profess love of God, sing praise, or be free to worship sincerely?  And yet those are the ones – the mute – who will “shout for joy!”  Not just croak out a sound here or there, but shout for joy!

Isn’t that what we want?  More than just to not be afraid or discouraged – though that at the very least – but to see, hear, walk, run, and shout?

A Final Picture

The scorched land (v. 7)  The rest of the passage is one more word picture, building on the initial image of wilderness and desert.  Isaiah comes back to that in verse 7 and describes “the scorched land.”  I know there are some of you that are way past exhausted, anxious, or feeble; you feel like scorched earth… blasted and blasted and there is simply no life or hope left.  Isaiah is talking to you!

He speaks of scorched land, thirsty ground, haunted by scavenger jackals and threatening beasts.  And in the midst of all that, Isaiah paints a picture of hope.  It’s not just rosy, “Trust Jesus and life will be wonderful.”  It is a gritty and real description of a God who knows right where you live, and walk, and suffer.  And there he describes scorched and thirsty land filling with life-giving pools of water.  In the midst of jackals and lions, he describes a path of safety and rest.  In the lost place of the wilderness, he describes a way that has a destination and a purpose and those who travel on it experience joy and gladness, such that sorrow and sighing flee away.

Isn’t that what we want?  Well yes, and no.  I remember talking to the Confirmation class about the lame man on the mat.  “Of course he wants to walk!” we always say on first reading the story.  Then we dig in and think about how long he’s been there – 38 years.  We think about his mat and his space, reserved day after day.  It’s a horrible existence… but it’s familiar.  What would walking mean?  What would picking up his mat mean? 

The Jesus Factor

As we read this mini-sermon from Isaiah, we see a promise of joy, which as we’ve seen elsewhere was sealed at Christmas with the birth of the promised Messiah.  And we see the promises of God to help, to encourage, to lead, and to save.  But we also have plenty of opportunities to turn away: to close our eyes to God’s work, to shut our ears to God’s Word and Spirit, to lay down and refuse to follow.

There is joy to be found at Christmas, as well as any time of the year.  What is more accurate is to say that there is joy to be found in Jesus, and it is his birth that is in focus at Christmas.  The Good News – declared by God through Isaiah and throughout this Bible – is that God has made a way where there seemed to be no way.  God has spoken and acted, and invited, and leads.  That doesn’t mean there is a magical money tree waiting for you, or a sudden reversal of years of sorrow.  But it does mean that there is a way for you in the scorched desert.  There is hope in the darkness and help for the helpless. 

Will you look, listen, get up, and follow?

With all this in mind – this whole passage – listen to one more thing.  This is what Jesus read, from another part of Isaiah (ch. 61), when he began his public ministry as an adult.  It should give you a good idea of why the birth of Jesus is such a joyful thing in God’s history.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord… Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-21)

What do you hear? What do you see? What will you do? What will you say? 

The answer to those questions has everything to do with joy at Christmas.  Amen.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Message: Do I Get It? (Luke 2.8-20)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
December 9, 1012
Some Music Used
Prelude: "People, Look East" (Susan Slade, flute) (arr. Powell)
Hymn of Praise: "Angels, from the Realms of Glory" (REGENT SQUARE)
Hymn of Praise: "I Wonder as I Wander" (I WONDER AS I WANDER)
The Word in Music: "Behold the Lamb of God" (arr. Andrew Peterson)
Offering of Music: "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus" (Susan Slade, flute) (arr. Powell)
Hymn of Sending: "Angels We Have Heard on High (GLORIA) 
Postlude: "Oh Lord, How Shall I Meet Thee?" (Paul Manz)

"The Message: Do I Get It?"
(Left-click to play; or right-click to save)
Text: Luke 2:8-20

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

The scripture text we heard this morning is among the most familiar in scripture.  It is part of the Christmas story.  It is the text that Linus quotes in the Charlie Brown Christmas special.  It’s the text we read every Christmas Eve as a part of our hearing of the full Christmas story.  It’s the text that many, many songs about angels and shepherds have been written.  And it’s all about a message – hearing it, acting on it, and passing it on.  So, I want us to ask ourselves this morning: “…about that message, do I get it?”

Hearing the Message (vv. 8-14)

The text divides out into several parts.  The first is the sharing of a message, from angels to shepherds.  The scene opens with the shepherds out in the fields, doing what shepherds do (v. 8).  And suddenly, an angel of the Lord stood before them (v. 9).  That would be enough to startle anybody, but the really frightening part – and we are told how terribly frightened they were! – was the “glory of the Lord” around them.  We often gloss over that, thinking that angels are imposing enough on their own… which they are.  But this was beyond that.  The “glory of the Lord” is what was present at the burning bush, on top of Mt. Sinai when Moses received the Ten Commandments, in the vision that brought Isaiah to his knees in complete repentance and awe.  It is the very manifestation of God’s presence.  At the appearance of this angel (and this is underscored a few verses later when the multitude of heaven appear) it is as if a curtain was pulled back and Heaven itself was briefly present on earth.

The word angel means “messenger” – and that’s just what this angel did; he gave a message.  Here’s the message:
Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. (vv. 10-12)
Let me start with “Do not be afraid.”  This is typical for angels to say because people are usually terrified.  But again, this is more than just the angel.  This is heaven opening and the glory of God engulfing the shepherds.  THAT was what “undid” Isaiah and what few humans ever encountered.  Realize how unusual and new this was – for God to reveal His very glory to a group of human beings.  But that was exactly what God was about to do through Jesus.  No longer would God be primarily confined to the holiest of holy places, but revealed for the world to see through Jesus, whom John later described as “God’s glory among us” (John 1:14).

Next, the angel brought “good news of great joy for all the people.”  That’s a world of significant stuff right there.  We can understand “good news” quickly enough.  We’ve all received good news and we’ve all received bad news.  But this is beyond good; this is the BEST news of all, because it is from God, it is for the world, and it involves a Savior.  (We’ll get to that in a minute!)  But think about what “great joy” might mean.  Most of us have trouble understanding “joy.”  We know it’s different than “happy.”  The Bible says it often comes in the presence of suffering and sorrow when we recognize God’s presence and power with us.  And that’s just what this message is all about.  God is with and around the shepherds and God is about to come into the world through the birth of Jesus.  It is great joy not only because of the nature of the news – a Savior! – but because of the scope of the gift – for the world! 

Then comes the announcement of the actual content of the news, the joy, and the gift: “today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  This is all the detail of prophecy and promise.  Last week we talked about the prophecy of Isaiah, how God had promised a Savior, a light in the darkness of human reality and suffering.  These details all connect with the various prophecies about the Messiah, the one God would send.  “In the city of David” fulfills the covenant promise to David about one of his descendants sitting on an eternal throne and ruling an eternal Kingdom.  “Born for you a Savior” connects to the promise in Isaiah that we heard about last week: God’s promised light would come through the birth of a child.  “Christ the Lord” is actually a direct reference to the Messiah or “anointed one” from God.  “Messiah” is Hebrew for “anointed one”; “Christ” is the Greek translation often Hebrew word Messiah.

So the message is this: the promised Messiah of God, the Savior of God’s people, is being born right now near Jerusalem, in the town of David’s family; and this is for the world!  The angel even offers a “sign” – which is a something that points to God’s involvement, “proving” if you will that the message is true (as if the glory of God isn’t enough!).  And the sign is so ridiculous as to be a sure thing; wrapped in cloths, yes, but surely no King or Messiah would be lying in a manger, a feeding trough for animals.

Then though it’s not called a sign, there was one more thing, and it was not insignificant.  Suddenly a multitude of “heavenly host” appeared and began praising God.  These “heavenly host” were part of Heaven opening up and appearing on earth.  Through their praise, the multitude of angels added a bit more to the message: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”  This was the birth announcement… more than that the announcement that the Great God of Heaven was coming to earth to establish peace and restore people of all nations to right relationship with Himself.  That word, “peace,” describes that right relationship, truly only possible through God’s involvement with us. 

Acting on the Message (vv. 15-16)

Now did the shepherds get all that?  I don’t know; I probably would have been in a quivering heap on the ground.  But they got the basics: God showed up, announced the birth of the Messiah-Savior, gave us multiple signs, and we’re still alive.

The shepherds collected themselves and decided to go see for themselves (v. 15).  After all, the angel had told them where the baby was born, given them a sign to look for, and this was the greatest news of all time.  So they went “in a hurry” (v. 16) and found Mary, Joseph, and the baby.  And they found him “in the manger” just as the angel had said.

I only point all this out to say that it is not enough that a message be spoken, even if it is by an angel and all his friends.  It was also necessary that the message be heard.  Anyone who has tried to communicate with another person has realized that.  A parent can say “please set the table” in many different ways, but until the kids (or husband) tunes in, it’s just floating out there.

Listening means we take in a message.  And if we’ve truly listened, then we always act in some way.  Acting may mean disregarding or rejecting the message, but that’s still acting on it.  In this case, the shepherds acted more positively.  They listened, believed, and followed; and they did so in a hurry and with great excitement.  They also acted in one more way…

Passing on the Message (vv. 17-20)

After hurrying to see this baby and the sign the angel had described, the shepherds could have just gone back home feeling blessed to have witnessed such a thing.  But that’s not what they did.  In fact, the text describes several additional responses from the shepherds.  Having heard and acted on the message, they saw the object (or subject!) of the message with their own eyes.  And when they had seen this…

They made known the statement which had been told them about this Child.  Presumably that means they told Mary and Joseph.  Now an angel had come to Mary, but had not spelled out all the things that the angel had told the shepherds.  This was another reason that listening well was important.  The shepherds told the “good news of a great joy for all the people” to Mary and Joseph.  They, too, heard the connections back to prophecy and promises, and the announcement that this child was the Messiah-Savior of God for the sake of the world.  Mary and Joseph, and all who heard it – maybe others later – wondered at these amazing things (v. 18).  Mary specifically treasured this message and continued to ponder it deeply in her heart (v. 19).

Then, the shepherds went back home, back to their fields and back to their sheep.  But they went back “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (v. 20).  Another part of acting on the message, at least on this particular message, was to share it with others.  They first shared it with Jesus’ parents.  Then they shared it as they went.  After all, this was “great news!”

And finally, the shepherds went in an attitude of worship, “glorifying and praising God.”  I don’t know if they were serious worshipers before all this, but they sure were after.  Think about the two different ways they testified to God.  They shared the specific message with Mary, Joseph, and perhaps others.  But they also were changed into folks captivated by the glory of God.  If you’ve ever met anyone that takes God that seriously, that loves to worship God and does so freely, you know that’s yet another way of passing on the message.

Do I Get It?

So, where I want to end is with a question: “Do you get it?”

It’s easy enough to speak the message, though I can’t summon legions of angels as a back-up choir.  But it’s there in the text itself: God has come from Heaven to earth through the birth of Jesus, and that Jesus is understood and demonstrated to be, at least by eye-witnesses, the very Savior God promised throughout history. 

I could try to say that in different ways.  In one sense, every sermon, every Sunday school lesson, and just about every verse in the Bible speaks that message in one way or another.  But are you listening?  Have you heard?

And if you’ve really listened, how have you acted on that message?  Again, if you’ve heard it, you’ve acted… in some way.  How have you acted?  Have you gone to see?  Have you checked Jesus out?  Have you studied scripture and tried to learn more about this so-called Savior?  Has it changed you in any way? 

And finally, if all these things are true – that you’ve listened and acted in faith – have you passed it on? Has it made you more devoted to, interested in, in love with, however you might frame it… with God?  Can others see and hear the great news through you?

That’s what I mean by “Do you get it?”  Christianity is good news about God and humanity, meant to transform a person’s life in a way that will transform the world.  Do you get it?  Do you want to get it?  That would be a good start… and the way to get there is to really listen.

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

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Light of Hope (Isaiah 9.1-7, Matthew 4.12-17)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
December 2, 1012
Some Music Used
Prelude: "I Wonder As I Wander" (Niles;arr. Hayes)
Hymn of Praise: "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus" (Wesley, HYFRYDOL; Refrain. Youngblood)
Song of Praise: "Of the Father's Love Begotten" (Prudentius, DIVINUM MYSTERIUM arr. Austell)
The Word in Music: "Comfort, Comfort Now My People" (15th c./arr. Youngblood)
Offering of Music: "Silent Night" (Rick Bean, jazz piano) (arr. Bean)
Hymn of Sending: "Lift Up Your Heads" (TRURO) 
Postlude: "Lift Up Your Heads" (Ernst Pepping)

"The Light of Hope"
(Left-click to play; or right-click to save)
Text: Isaiah 9:1-7; Matthew 4:12-17

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

Today we begin the period of Advent, coming up to Christmas. We begin today by looking at a text in Isaiah that speaks of hope in God’s promises.  Not only is it a great text because it is hopeful, but because it is grounded in reality, in the challenges, struggles, and disappointments of this life.  And yet, God holds out light in the darkness, something in which we can find hope.  That hope is grounded in the promises of God.  Let’s look first at Isaiah 9.

I Have Seen Your Sorrow

Darkness. It may seem a strange place to start our season of coming to Christmas.  Or it may be right where you are.  That’s part of our reality as human beings; in this world there is darkness.  And that darkness often seems to be a lot harder to bear at Christmas time.  It may be because you lost a loved one at Christmas time.  Or it may be the contrast between the happiness you THINK you are supposed to feel and the struggles that you face.  But this whole season can be a very difficult and even lonely time.

It is an unfair and untruthful characterization of God to say that God is distant from all that.  Now I know God may FEEL distant; but He is not.  Generations before the text in Isaiah God’s chosen people had known all the blessings of a prosperous nation, a powerful government, and a strong economy.  But they had run afoul of the powers of their day.  The Assyrians had risen up as a mighty empire and conquered most of the Middle East and known world at the time.  God’s people had lost their independence, prosperity, and perhaps even more crushing, had seemed to lose the blessing of God.

Did you hear some of the language used in this passage?  - gloom, anguish, contempt, darkness, and more.  But God sees and God knows.  God knows of the “yoke of their burden” and the “staff on their shoulders.”  God has seen the “rod of their oppressor,” the “boot of the booted warrior” and the “cloak rolled in blood.”  Does that seem possible to you? …that God has seen your gloom and anguish, your oppression, your suffering and loss?  God has seen all that has been lost, stolen, wasted, and crushed.

Sometimes, it is simply enough to know that you are not alone, that someone sees and someone knows.  God is not aloof, but has seen every bit of what they and we have faced.  But that is just part of what is said here.  Isaiah has another hopeful word from the Lord for His people.

Remember the Past!

Isaiah lifted up the past to give God’s struggling people hope for the present and future.  His words tapped into the cultural history of every Jewish man, woman, boy, and girl.  First was the promise to Father Abraham.  In the language of restoring the land taken from Zebulun and Naphtali (v. 1), multiplying the nation and their gladness (v. 3), and waiting on the birth of a promised child (v. 6), Isaiah reminded the people that God had been faithful to Abraham to provide land, children, and blessing, and God would not give up on these covenant promises.  God would again restore the land, the people, and the blessing.  God’s name and ‘zeal’ stood behind this promise (v. 7).

Second, as Isaiah spoke of God breaking the yoke of their oppressors, he tapped into the story of the Exodus, of God setting His people free from slavery and oppression in Egypt.  God had done it before, in a big way; God could do it again.

Third, when he mentioned the “throne of David” and a kingdom established forever (v. 7), Isaiah called to mind another great covenant.  This one was a promise God made to King David, the greatest of the Kings of Israel, to maintain his kingly line forever.  This, too, seemed to have been lost when Assyria came in, but God reassures His people through Isaiah that this great promise had not been forgotten.

All of these promises and hopes would be a great light in the darkness, perhaps still far off as a point of light at this point, but nonetheless promise and hope to a struggling people.  And the hope, as with Abraham, was wrapped up in the birth of a child who would sit on the throne and who would be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.” (v. 6)  He would rule with peace, justice, and righteousness, and do so forever, with God’s blessing and power.

Jesus the Promise-Keeper

Hopefully your mind has already jumped to Jesus.  We understand him to be, and rightly so, this child born to us and the son (of God) given to us.  What we may miss is just how completely and amazingly Jesus matched up to what was promised some 700 years before his birth.  That’s one reason I included the passage from Matthew, but even it just scratches the surface.  Listen to it again and listen for the points of connection to Isaiah:
Now when Jesus heard that John had been taken into custody, He withdrew into Galilee; and leaving Nazareth, He came and settled in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali. This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, By the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— “The people who were sitting in darkness saw a great Light, And those who were sitting in the land and shadow of death, Upon them a Light dawned.” From that time Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:12-17)
At the beginning of his earthly ministry, after John the Baptist had been arrested, Jesus settled in Capernaum.  This region of Galilee, near the land of the ancient Israelite tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, had been taken by the Assyrians, but would one day, so Isaiah said, be the site of something glorious.  It was where Jesus conducted most of his ministry until the end, when he went to Jerusalem. It was literally “by the way of the sea” in the very area Isaiah described.  Matthew notes that when Jesus moved to this area, that’s when his public ministry began, with the message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  There is even a reference in Matthew to the “shadow of death” of Psalm 23.

Matthew is only one example of an explicit connection to Isaiah, saying that Jesus’ living and ministering in that location fulfilled the prophecy. It was another disciple, John, who made connection with the language of darkness and light:
He was in the beginning with God… in Him was life and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. (John 1:2,4-5)
There are many other passages.  Have you ever wondered why those long genealogies are at the beginning of Matthew?  It was explicitly to trace Jesus' ancestry back to Abraham and King David.  God did keep His promise to Abraham and to David – He kept it perfectly in Jesus.  Would a descendant of King David sit on an eternal throne?  Indeed, Jesus was a descendant and would, as we discussed last week, sit on the throne of Heaven as the King of kings, greater even than David.  In fact, the whole reason Joseph and Mary were going to Bethlehem was for the census, because that was the “city of David” – and you had to go back to sign the census in the place your ancestors called home.  That and many other details about Jesus’ life connect him with the centuries’ old story and promises of God and His people.

Promises to You

And that’s the real connection point to you and me.  Jesus is the real connection point.  We aren’t suffering under the oppression of the ancient Assyrian Empire.  It would be easy to see only a disconnect with ourselves and Isaiah’s “light in the darkness.”  But that light was the Light of the World, the same Jesus who is our Savior and Lord.

That means that in our darkness – whether that is depression, loneliness, sickness, disobedience, or the evil or oppression of others – God has something to say.  Not only is God there with you, seeing the very rod of oppression and the blood-stained clothes of your struggles; but God has words and a promise of hope, of light in YOUR darkness, and that is through Jesus Christ.

What help is Jesus to my stuff or your stuff? 

As the “Wonderful Counselor” he sees, hears, listens, understands, and offers wisdom and discernment in our confusion and lostness.

As the “Mighty God” he is as bigger than, stronger than, whatever challenge you or I may face.  If he was bigger than the most powerful world empire of the time, he is bigger than a lost job, a medical diagnosis, a storm of depression, or any other darkness we face, big or small.

As the “Eternal Father” he is wise, present, and loving.  He’s not going anywhere.  Even when God’s people were at their worst in terms of disobedience, lack of faith, and outright rebellion, God did not leave or abandon them, but continued to pursue them in love.  Jesus pointed us to God as “Abba” Father: personal, close, compassionate, and not afraid to come running after us like the Father of the Prodigal.

As the “Prince of Peace” Jesus proves to be both warrior-king and gentle mediator.  He is strong enough to face anything, but wise and merciful enough to bring peace where we need it most.

Hear the Good News in God’s Word today. It is not a promise for a quick-fix, but all the hope of a steady light in the darkest of places: through Jesus, joy will replace anguish and gloom, the oppressed will find freedom, and we will come to know the strong but peaceful reign of Christ in our lives.

Cling to hope; cling to this Great Light; cling to the promise of God in Jesus.  Amen.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Your King is Too Small (John 6, 12, 18, Revelation 17)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
November 25, 1012
Some Music Used
Prelude: "Italian Hymn" (Albert Travis)
Hymn of Praise: "Come, Thou Almighty King" (ITALIAN HYMN)
Song of Praise: "Let Your Kingdom Come" (Kauflin)
The Word in Music: "Be Thou My Vision" (Rutter)
Offering of Music: "You Are the Great God" (Geiler, arr. Terrell)
Hymn of Sending: "Joy to the World" (ANTIOCH, arr. Austell) 
Postlude: "Joy to the World" (Anna Laura Page)

"Your King is Too Small"
(Left-click to play; or right-click to save)
Text: John 6:14-15; 12:12-18; 18:33-38; Revelation 17:14

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

I hope you all had a good Thanksgiving!  Thanksgiving is over, though I hope you never stop giving thanks.  Next Saturday we will flip the page on the calendar to December; Christmas is on its way! 

Now the calendar that we flip from November to December is not the only calendar, especially in the worship life of the church.  You may have heard me talk before about the liturgical calendar, or the worship calendar of the Christian Church.  Some denominations follow it more than others, but the basic idea is that over the course of the year, one celebrates not only the significant anchor points of Christmas and Easter, but the whole story of God’s redemptive history, from the prophets anticipating the coming of the Messiah to the birth of Jesus at Christmas to the life and ministry of Christ to his death and resurrection at Easter on through Pentecost to the glorious return and reign of Jesus as described in Revelation.  Though I don’t follow that order every week every year, I often will note key moments in that calendar and God’s redemptive history.

Today is one of those days.  In the liturgical or church worship calendar, this is actually the last Sunday of the year, and next Sunday starts Advent, the watching for the birth of the promised Messiah.  This is known as “Christ the King Sunday” and is an opportunity to be reminded of how the story ends, with the Lamb on the throne in worship.

It is a fitting conclusion to our series this Fall, which moved from the definition of a Christian to the nature of the Church as the gathered community of Jesus to the mission and purpose of the Church, including the particular community we call Good Shepherd. 

The Lamb is King (Revelation 17:14)

I want to start at the end, with the description of Christ as King, but then work backwards a bit to where we are now and what we do with that knowledge.

We actually started the service with the scripture I have in mind.  It comes from Revelation 17:14.  There are a number of passages in Revelation that describe Jesus on the throne as King, but this one is short and sweet.  All the enemies of God will war against Him, and the Lamb Jesus will overcome them.  A few weeks ago we talked about worship from a passage in Hebrews and I noted that Jesus was both the spotless lamb and the Great High Priest.  That’s why he’s called the Lamb here, because he sacrificed himself for the sin of the world.  Revelation 17:14 says that he will overcome his enemies because “He is Lord of lords and King of kings.”  All of creation, those with God and those against God will acknowledge His reign.  As scripture says, “Every knee will bow and every tongue confess He is Lord.”  He truly is Lord of Heaven and earth.

Making a King (John 6, 12)

What I really want to focus on today is how we take this King of kings and Lord of lords and try to make him into something else, and not just something else, but something much, much smaller.

In the first scripture reading today you heard John 6:14-15 and John 12:12-18.  The first is the end of the “Feeding of the 5000,” a miracle story where Jesus multiples five loaves of bread and two fish into more than enough for a huge crowd.  The verses I pulled out are from the end.  It’s what happened after this amazing miracle.  The people saw the sign and said, “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.”  And Jesus realized that they were intending to take him by force to make him king, and he withdrew. 

He was king, right?  Why would he not want this recognition and approval?  How better to get the word out than with a crowd of 5000 men, plus women and children, endorsing you as “king?”  The problem was, they wanted him to be the king they wanted.  They wanted an earthly leader, a revolutionary.  They wanted someone to take on the Roman Empire and re-establish their sovereignty as a nation.  They wanted to regain the glory days of King David and the united kingdom of Israel. 

The John 12 passage is what we call “The Triumphal Entry.”  It’s the event we remember on Palm Sunday, a week before Easter.  There, too, Jesus was given the hero’s welcome, hailed as the revolutionary Messiah who would take on the Romans.  The people were calling out “Hosanna,” which means “Save us now!”  But they weren’t talking about sin, but about their desire to be free of Rome.

Here’s the thing: they were not being intentionally heretical or unscriptural.  That hope for a revolutionary Messiah had simply become the standard interpretation and dream for a people subjugated by Rome for generations, with heavy taxes and a strong presence of Roman soldiers to enforce the law.  And to give them credit, it’s not like they were turning the Messiah into a lucky charm or a bobble-head doll or something.  A king to take on Rome is a big vision.  I’ll give them that.  King David returned – that was no small hope.

It was just so much smaller than who Jesus actually was!

What Did Jesus Say? (John 18:33-38)

I included the second scripture reading, from John 18, because it gives us a unique window into Jesus’ own language about himself and God’s Kingdom.  This is the scene where Jesus is on trial before his crucifixion, and he is talking to the Roman governor, Pilate. 

Pilate is questioning Jesus and asks him outright, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33)  They have an exchange about how Jesus ended up before Pilate – basically, the religious leaders accused him of plotting against Rome, which required a response from Pilate.  This next part is the part I want to focus on:

My kingdom is not of this world.  If my kingdom were of this world, then my servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, my kingdom is not of this realm. (v. 36)

Pilate hears his language and presses in, “So you are a king?” And Jesus confirms it.  He is a king; he was born for this, to testify to the truth to all who will hear.  And there is more… Pilate’s famous response, “What is truth?”  But it was Jesus' description of his own kingship that I want to focus on.

It is so much bigger than what he was on trial for.  He was not a threat to Caesar in Rome… well, he was, but not in the way they imagined.  His Kingdom was not an earthly one, but a godly one.  And his whole life – his whole coming into the world – was wrapped up in this Kingdom and his Kingship.  If you read the Gospels and his teaching, it’s about this Kingdom at every turn.  It’s the thing he talked about the most.  He was announcing the beginning of God’s reign, breaking into this world in himself.

In fact, the religious leaders were far closer to the truth than Pilate.  They understood that he was claiming to be God and they opposed him for it.

Kingdom Come

I want to say a word about announcing God’s reign.  Throughout his ministry, Jesus didn’t teach that “one day God’s Kingdom will come”; he taught “the Kingdom is here among you.”  He spoke of the arrival of the Kingdom like the vanguard of a victorious army; the victory was assured, but the “arrival” would take some time.  His resurrection sealed that victory, a victory over evil, sin, and death itself.  But again, God’s Kingdom was both “now here” and “not yet fully arrived.” 

And that’s the time in which we live.  The victory has been declared through Jesus' death and resurrection.  God has won.  God’s reign has been announced through the words of scripture and Jesus’ own teaching.  That’s what happens in a believer’s life when we trust in Jesus as Savior and LORD – we accept his reign in our life and begin living as citizens of Heaven.  Get that?  Citizens of Heaven right now on earth.  That takes dual-citizenship to another whole level!

That’s why, in the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “Thy Kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”  We aren’t praying for one day way out there, but for God’s reign to be a present reality in our lives.

And let me return again to Revelation 17:14 and finish out the verse.  Speaking of the Lamb who is Lord of lords and King of kings, it says: “those who are with Him are the called and chosen and faithful.”  Those are all words we have used to describe what it is God saves us for.  That’s our mission and vision – that God doesn’t just save us for Heaven, but saves us for His work here on earth.  That’s what called and chosen and faithful describes – you and me engaged in the Lord’s work.  That’s what it means to be with Him!   

Your King is Too Small

Earlier in the week, I read this quote on a friend’s Facebook wall.  It is attributed to Wilbur Rees:
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please, not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I want ecstasy, not transformation; I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack. I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not only are human beings guilty of having too small a view of Jesus the King, these days we’ve packaged him down far smaller than the vision of Jesus’ contemporaries of a Messiah as earthly ruler.  We turn Jesus into an expletive, a lucky charm, a tag on the end of a quickly muttered prayer.  We sing sweet songs to him, but are not brought to our knees in humility and awe before the King of the Universe.  I think many of us simply have no idea and are comfortable having our name associated with the milquetoast Jesus of culture.

Imagine the most overwhelmingly powerful and awe-inspiring thing or sight or force you’ve ever witnessed… something that took your breath away and made your stomach sink at the same time.  Something on the magnitude of a category five hurricane, or the 180-degree spread of the Appalachian Mountains or meeting a great earthly leader.  That’s barely scratching the surface of the Lamb seated on the throne, in power and glory and dominion and strength, with all bowed down before him.  That’s the one we so casually call Lord.

Christ the King.  King of kings.  Lord of lords.  Sovereign ruler of the universe.

Now listen to this unexpected and mind-boggling declaration: though in eternity what will be true has always been true, he did not grasp onto his place or power or glory, but willingly emptied himself, taking the form of a servant and the likeness of humanity.  He humbled himself and offered himself for you and for me. That’s the story we begin again next week and the one that, really, should inspire our awe and adoration and worship even more than the power.

That’s our King.  That’s our Savior.  Amen.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

== Identity, Community, and Witness Series Index ==

Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church
September 9 - November 18, 2012

"Christian Identity" - who you are in Christ
"Christian Community" - who WE are in Christ
"Christian Witness" - the foundation stones of our story

      Monday, November 19, 2012

      Light #3: Sent into the World (John 17:13-21)

      Sermon by: Robert Austell
      November 18, 1012
      Some Music Used
      Prelude: "Thanks Be To Thee" (G.F. Handel)
      Hymn of Praise: "Come, Ye Thankful People, Come" (ST. GEORGE'S, WINDSOR)
      Song of Praise: "Mighty to Save" (Morgan, Fielding)
      Offering of Music: "We Gather Together" (Steurlein/arr. Sanborn)
      Hymn of Sending: "Christ for the World We Sing" (ITALIAN HYMN) 
      Postlude: "Sing to the Lord of Harvest" (Dutch tune/arr. Sanborn)

      "Light #3: Sent into the World"
      (Left-click to play; or right-click to save)
      Text: John 17:13-21

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

      This month we have been talking about why God gathers Christians into the community called the Church.  This has also provided a good opportunity to talk about the spiritual underpinnings of our capital campaign, as we ultimately want to be about God’s business as a church!  We have talked about the spiritual foundation of confessing Jesus as the Christ and the Son of the Living God.  We’ve talked about the core purpose of gathering in worship, and how that worship not only honors God, but fuels us for God’s mission in the world.  And today we are going to look at that mission.

      It should not be anything new.  We have been trying to keep before us for many years now that the church is not just gathered, but gathered and sent, gathered and sent.  We have talked about not only maintaining and strengthening the bonds of fellowship and faith within this worshiping community – our LIGHTHOUSE – but also equipping each member to carry the light outside the walls of the church – our SEARCHLIGHT mission.

      Today we are going to look at one of the very significant passages in understanding how God wants us, as the Church, to relate to the world around us.  This passage is actually a prayer of Jesus to God the Father.  In this portion of that prayer, Jesus is praying about his followers, both the immediate disciples and all who would come later, including us! 

      In the prayer he distinguishes two ways we are NOT to relate to the world, and then the one way we ARE to relate to the world; in each case, paralleling his own relationship to the world that God loves.  So, we will look at that and then try to understand at least part of God’s purpose for us as a church in the world in which we live.

      So what did Jesus pray?  Let’s start with the relationship of his followers to the world in which they live, then we’ll conclude with what he prayed for them and what his desire is for the world.

      Prepositional Truth (not of, not out of, into)

      It may have been a long time since you studied English grammar (or you may be in the middle of it!), but the key to understanding this prayer and our relationship to the world comes through prepositions.  Remember those?  Prepositions are words like “in, about, through, with, and many more.”  They indicate relationship between people or things.  Here they will specifically describe the relationship between Jesus-followers and the world.

      It would be good to briefly describe what is meant here by ‘world.’  There are other ways ‘world’ is used in the Bible; but often, as here, ‘world’ refers to the broken and darkened place that 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).  Let’s consider what Jesus said about this relationship in his prayer to the Father.

      NOT OF (v. 14, 16)

      To be “of the world” is to belong to it, to the culture and to the values.  It is to so identify with the human world around us that we lose our Christian identity and witness.  The church in Corinth that I just mentioned struggled with being too much “of the world” and looking just like the depraved culture around them. 

      In his prayer Jesus says that his followers are “not of the world, even as I am not of the world.”  Jesus stood out.  He was light and the world was dark.  He lived out God’s Kingdom here on earth.  And he was opposed, arrested, and eventually killed.  In his prayer he says that the world will hate his followers in the same way.  That’s some of that persecution that Quay preached about a few weeks ago. 

      Now think about a real-life social setting, like the high school lunchroom or Friday night out on the town.  There are two obvious solutions if you don’t belong in a group.  One is to retreat and one is to blend in.

      One kind of blending in has us so indistinguishable in appearance, morality, beliefs, or practice, that the “salt has lost its flavor” and there is no way to tell the difference between a Christian and one who is not.  Look at the diagram again – which blue bubbles are the Christians?  Would the world know one if they saw one? And then there are the embarrassing cheap ways we substitute to try to make ourselves stand out.

      Consider “Jesus coffee” – this is one example of many where we are blending in, with embarrassing results.  You probably can’t read the names of the coffees on there: they are “Raise the Dead, Vanilla from Heaven, Holy Grounds, and Be Still.”  This may actually be a sincere attempt to do outreach to the world, but it has just resulted in a kitschy knock-off of branded coffee.

      But there is no talk of blending in here.  We are NOT OF this world.  Becoming indistinguishable from the world around us is not an option for a Christian!  If we belong to Jesus, we become like him, and like him is not of the world or its values.  And that will cut against the grain, against the culture.

      Said another way, if you belong to Jesus you won’t belong to this world.  Some days that may feel lonely – “I don’t belong.”  But don’t miss the first part!  You belong to Jesus!  You do have a home and a family and a belonging.  That’s all part of belonging to Jesus and not being of this world.

      NOT OUT OF (v. 15)

      So there’s option two: retreat!  Get me out of here.  That might be to a place of solitude or it might be with a group of people just like me, but it’s out of here.  In reaction to the sins and evils of the world around them, many groups of Christians through history have retreated into an enclave or sub-culture.  By that I mean a mini-world where they are out there and we are in here. 

      And if your goal is to not be part of something, that kind of isolation can be one of the best defenses.  Don’t want to deal with the pressures of dating?  Go to an all-male or all-female school.  Don’t want to deal with the moral slide of society?  Withdraw into a commune and set up your own rules.  Don’t want to deal with the world?  Withdraw into an all-Christian, all-the-time sub-culture.  And so on. 

      It’s a circle the wagons strategy. Christians have been taking that approach since the beginning. Heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls?  They are famous and important partly because they are religious history from the time of Jesus, but also because they are the writings of a religious branch of Judaism like the Pharisees, but one that withdrew into their own community apart from the rest of the Jews and especially the rest of the world.  And it’s not just an ancient phenomenon.  The Amish and Mennonites have done something similar in more recent and even current history.  And there is something admirable about it.  It definitely helps to preserve a purity of belief and morality.  But it’s also missing something crucial.

      BUT INTO (v. 18)

      Jesus did not pray for God 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.  As you realize that, your eyes are opened to just how consistent that approach is throughout all of biblical history.  God created the world to be a part of it.  Even when humanity sinned and the world “turned dark,” God did not withdraw back into Heaven, but sent His Law, His prophets, and finally His own Son INTO the world.  And when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, God sent the Church out INTO the world with the message about Jesus.

      And that’s just what Jesus prays for all who would follow him.  Jesus asked God to SEND us INTO the world as he was sent.  How was he sent?  Good old John 3:16 tells us: “For God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.”   He was sent in love to the world for life instead of death.

      And so, Jesus has sent us in love to the world with the message about him for life instead of death.  That’s actually the purpose and goal of all this, there in verse 21: “so that the world may believe…”

      So that’s the relationship we are to have with the world.  Not of it; not out of it; but sent to it in love, but not just lovey-dovey let’s all get along, but love expressed through the true word about Jesus, for life instead of death.

      Sanctified and Sent (v. 17-18)

      There’s one last part I want to focus on.  That is the word “sanctify” in verses 17 and following.  It is a translation of a word from which we also get ‘holy,’ ‘consecrated,’ and ‘saints.’  The basic meaning of all of those is “set apart.”  The bread and juice on the communion table is sanctified or set apart for the special use of communion.  This sanctuary (hear the root of the word ‘sanctify’ in there?) is set apart for worship.

      It is natural to think of things being holy, sanctified, consecrated, or set apart as being removed from common usage.  That is true in one way.  But think about it, anything that is truly set apart for God is not hauled off to a museum or put under glass or not used.  It is used for God with people.  The bread and juice of communion are no longer used for preschool snack or lunch, but are set apart FOR USE with you and me at the Lord’s Table.  The sanctuary is not walled off as meeting space, but is dedicated to worship and the proclamation of God’s Word.  Even Jesus, the holiest of the holy that the world has ever seen, did not remain vaulted away in Heaven, but was born into the world in the lowliest of places, to walk and suffer and fully be a part of this world.

      The true explanation of how Jesus’ followers are to be sanctified or set apart is right there in verses 17-18.  We are set apart in the truth to be sent into the world.

      Don’t you see, then, why that’s the way God designed it?  The difference between life and death in the world is hearing and trusting the Word of Jesus.  If we become completely of the world the message will be lost and if we withdraw completely out of the world the message will be hoarded.  We are sent into the world for the sake of the world, just as Jesus was.

      Building Buildings

      So, a final word about the third part of our capital campaign.  We want to build a youth and family life center.  It would be easy for it to become a retreat, a hide-out, a place to go and gather and send our kids to get them out of the world.  And it will be a place of fellowship and teaching and training.  But just as there are deeper spiritual purposes to the other parts of our repair and renovation projects, so this one has an underlying spiritual purpose.  We must continue to grow in our understanding and practice of being the church for the world.  It’s especially easy to protect and hoard something new… even sometimes from our messier selves (like teenagers!). But if we build, it will be not only for teaching, training, and fellowship, but to extend hospitality send us out into the world God loves. 

      Not of the world; not out of the world; but sent in love into the world God loves with the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Amen.

      Sunday, November 11, 2012

      Light #2: Keeping the Light through Worship (Hebrews 10.19-25)

      Sermon by: Robert Austell
      November 11, 2012
      Some Music Used
      Prelude: "Dialogue en trio" (Couperin)
      Hymn of Praise: "My Hope is Built on Nothing Less" (SOLID ROCK)
      Song of Praise: "Speak, O Lord" (Getty/Townend)
      The Word in Music: "A Prayer" (Halls)
      Offering of Music: "This Little Light of Mine" (Berg)
      Hymn of Sending: "Take My Life/Here Am I" (Tomlin/Giglio) 
      Postlude: "Carillon" (Tambling)

      "Light #2: Keeping the Light through Worship"
      (Left-click to play; or right-click to save)
      Text: Hebrews 10:19-25 

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

      19 Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; 24 and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, 25 not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.  (Hebrews 10:19-25)
      In November I am taking several weeks to talk about what it is that the gathered community of Christ-followers that we call the church does… what our purpose is in God’s Kingdom.  Alongside that, we have the opportunity to consider how that purpose specifically lines up with what we are doing in THIS community that we call Good Shepherd.

      Last week we talked about the foundation of who we are – our “rock” – and that is Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  That’s the core, the heart of our mission and purpose.  Right alongside that comes our created purpose as God’s people and that is to worship God.  From the moment God created man and woman and called them good, He purposed them for worship in all its rich array of expressions: work, service, praise, love, community, offering and more. 

      Today we are going to look at a key scripture passage on worship, from Hebrews 10:19-25.  There two Gospel truths are stated and several purposes derived from that for the people of God.  That’s what we want to look at today as we consider how we specifically can live out God’s purpose for us at Good Shepherd.

      First, the two Gospel truths.

      We Have a New Way to God and a Great High Priest (vv. 19-21)

      Verses 19-21 describe what is the great declaration of the book of Hebrews: Jesus has, once and for all, become both the sacrificial lamb and the high priest.  In the Old Testament sacrificial system, the centerpiece of worship was the high priest offering an unblemished lamb to atone for sin.  Coming not to do away with the old laws and worship, but to complete or fulfill them, Jesus offered his own life, unblemished by sin, to make a once and for all sacrifice for sin.  You can see some of that spelled out in verse 19.  We now have access to the “holy place by the blood of Jesus.”  This is a “new and living way” begun in and through the flesh, the body of Jesus.  The final and lasting sacrifice has been made!

      And yet, Jesus has also become the Great High Priest (v. 21).  No longer does a human priest enter the Holy of Holies once a year to offer the sacrifice; Jesus has become our mediator and go-between, and has opened the way.  He has made a way and IS the way, and he invites us to the Father.

      These two truths – Jesus is the sacrificial lamb and the Great High Priest – are what constitute the confidence of the Gospel.  Last week we focused on the sure foundation, the “rock” that Jesus is who he says he is, the Christ and Son of the Living God.  And Jesus said that the one who builds on that rock is wise.  Today’s truths are the building permit that says, “You can build your house here on this rock.”  It is God’s invitation to trust; it is the declaration that says, “this rock is here for you!”

      And these truths form the basis of our worship.  The writer of Hebrews goes on to urge three actions, all acts of worship, based on the confidence we have in God’s invitation to “come build here!”  You’ll see each one cued by the words “let us.” 

      Let us Draw Near (v. 22)

      First, in verse 22: “Let us draw near….”  This is near to God!  Having just said that we have this new and living access to the holy place and the house of God, we are to draw near to God.  This is new; in ancient times, God might visit a leader like Moses or speak to the King, but the people were one or more steps removed.  Now, because of Jesus – the Lamb and the Priest – we are invited into God’s presence to worship.

      The rest of the verse describes how to worship and the basis of our access in more detail.  We are to draw near to God “with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith.”  It is through the childlike faith in Jesus that we worship.  I wonder if you noticed the “confidence” of verse 19 and the “full assurance” of verse 22 and thought, “I don’t have that kind of sureness to my faith; I’m all full of doubts and questions.”  I understand that; my faith wavers and I have questions all the time.  But that’s not the point here.  Our confidence and our assurance is not in ourselves, but in Christ.  THAT is the point here… to describe in no uncertain terms how completely Jesus has accomplished what needed to be accomplished.  Sure, you and I may have days where we aren’t sure we want to draw near to God; the message here is: the way is clear and you are welcome!

      You and I may also have more than a few moments of thinking, “I’m just not worthy to draw near to God.”  You are absolutely right!  None of us are.  But look at the rest of verse 22.  This is also why we can have “full assurance”: Jesus has “cleaned us up” to come into God’s presence. 

      Let me just say all that again in a different way.  So many of us hesitate or don’t draw near to God because we innately recognize that God is holy and we are not.  Scripture would actually go on to validate that; you are not holy, should not come near to God, and in fact cannot approach God.  But this is the Good News: God has made a way and has issued the invitation.  There’s your confidence!  The one who by all accounts souldn’t have you has asked for you by name.  So, draw near with confidence, sincerity, and assurance!  That is Christian worship.

      Let us Hold Fast (v. 23)

      Second, in verse 23, “Let us hold fast….”  We are to hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering.  I think of Quay's sermon again, from two weeks ago.  And I think of Jesus’ parable from last week about building on the rock and building on the sand.  Whether because of persecution, hardship, or faltering faith, we are urged to hold fast.  The “confession of our hope” is that rock-like, foundational confession we talked about last week: Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  We are challenged to not waver; again, that’s not a statement about OUR strength or willpower, but about the firmness and the reliability of Jesus.  See how the verse continues?  “…For he who promised is faithful.”  What did Jesus promise?  He promised to build his church on the rock of who he said he was, and the gates of Hell would not prevail against it.  He also promised never to leave or forsake us.  He promised to leave his Holy Spirit with us.  And this passage in Hebrews affirms Jesus’ promise when he said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

      Last week I said that our bedrock was the declaration that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  As we gather as the community God has pulled together in this place, we are purposed to worship.  And a key reminder here ties us back to the bedrock: as we gather and move and grow, we must continue to hold fast to that foundational belief.  That, too, is worship.

      Let us Encourage Love and Good Works in Community (vv. 24-25)

      Third, in verses 24-25, “Let us consider….”  This one is a little longer; it has a first part, but then a “not this, but that” part.  Let’s look.

      “Let us consider how to stimulate (spur) one another to love and good deeds.”  What a great one sentence description of the Great Commandment and Jesus’ teaching!  Do you remember?  The greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and to love your neighbor as yourself.  It’s the motto of our youth ministry: “Love God; love others.”  This, too, is worship, and recognizes that worship or serving God extends beyond gathering in a sanctuary to sing, pray, and learn; we are the church for the world!

      The “not this, but that” part is interesting.  Sometimes folks can get so into “love and good deeds” that they lose sight of love of God and the “drawing near” part (note the “as is the habit of some” part!).  But we are to spur one another on – we continue to work as a community of believers when we move out into the world.  And verse 25 reinforces that we are not to forsake “our own assembling together.”  Instead, we are all the more to continue to gather and send, gather and send, encouraging each other in every way.  All this, too, is worship!

      Sanctuary Stuff

      In talking about a capital campaign, we’ve used the term “three lights” as an application of bearing the light of Christ and as an exploration of our metaphor of being a lighthouse/searchlight church.  Though we are talking about repairing, renovating, and building wood and nails and block and mortar, these things wrap around three essential parts of our witness to Jesus, the light of the world.

      This passage names all three of these lights in one place, though in a slightly different order than we are taking them. 

      We can repair the core parts of our building – AC, lights, phones, and more – but it’s all for nothing unless we hold fast to Jesus as our foundation-rock.  Verse 23 names the importance of holding fast to our core confession of faith, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and is the foundation of this church. 

      We can improve the sound, music, lights, look, and more here in the sanctuary; but if what we are doing is not worship it is all in vain.  Verse 22 names the importance of drawing near to God in worship, understanding the truth of human sin and the grace of the new and living way in Christ. 

      We can build a new youth and family life center with space for eating, teaching, and reaching out, but without full participation of this community of believers, it either won’t happen or will become the work of a few.  Verses 24-25 remind us that God has called us all together as this unique church, to grow in love and community both inside and outside our walls.  The church is not this building (or a new one), but is this community where we gather and go, where we love and act.  You are the church for the world, first in our neighborhood, then beyond as God gives us opportunity.

      To this church, the community of believers God has formed together here and anchored on the rock, God has issued an invitation – a kind of “building permit” if you will – to fulfill the purposes laid out in this passage.  It ultimately is not a material endeavor, but a spiritual one, and one God has uniquely equipped us to carry out in this place.  Amen.

      Sunday, November 4, 2012

      Light #1: Built on the Rock (Matthew 7,16)

      Sermon by: Robert Austell
      November 4, 1012
      Some Music Used
      Prelude: "The Church's One Foundation" (Charles Ore)
      Call to Worship: "Light of the Word" Video (Kathy Larson; VBS 2011)
      Hymn of Praise: "The Church's One Foundation/I Lay in Zion" (AURELIA; refrain, C. Youngblood)
      Song of Praise: "Draw Me Nearer" (Fanny Crosby; Diane Sheets)
      The Word in Music: "Built on a Rock" (Jay Althouse)
      Song of Sending: "Holy Spirit" (Townend/Getty)
      Offering of Music: "Rock of Ages, You Will Stand" (Baloche and Brown)
      Hymn of Sending: "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" (HAMBURG) 
      Postlude: "Prelude & Fugue in G Major" (Bach)

      "Light #1: Built on the Rock"
      (Left-click to play; or right-click to save)
      Text: Matthew 7:24-27; 16:13-16 

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

      In September we talked about basic Christianity – what it is to believe in and follow Jesus Christ.  In October we talked about the community of Christ – how God draws people together as Christian family for encouragement, worship, and a mission.  In November we are going to focus on that mission – what it means to be a community of Christ-followers, gathered and sent into and for the world. 

      November is typically the time we talk about stewardship – that is, giving to the church financially and with time and talents.  This particular November also brings us to an exciting time of raising capital funds for maintaining our facilities, enhancing our worship, and providing for new ministries of welcome, fellowship, and outreach.  As I wrote in this month’s newsletter article, while we must talk about the specifics and logistics of raising those funds, what undergirds the fund-raising is more foundational and central to our lives as those God has called together in Christ to be the Church in this place.

      So in my sermons these next few weeks, I want to dig into that foundational and central purpose – the mission and vision that inform and explain the activities of pledging and capital fund-raising.

      In keeping with our lighthouse/searchlight imagery, we find some imagery for the next few weeks and for our campaign.  In order to fulfill its purpose, a lighthouse must be built firmly and maintained well.  Likewise, we want to be continually mindful of our spiritual foundation as we seek to maintain both our faith and our facilities.

      Built on the Rock (Matthew 7)

      I chose two scriptures from Matthew today.  The first comes from Matthew 7 and is a short parable in which Jesus stresses the importance of “building on the rock.”  There is such a thing as building on sand, and the parable makes it clear what foolishness that is.  Storms, rain, flood, and wind easily weaken and demolish such a house; but one built on the rock withstands all that comes against it.

      I am reminded of Quay’s sermon from last week.  If we follow Christ, we should expect trouble to come.  There will be persecution and there will be suffering.  And the way through is not to run from such things, but to anchor ourselves in Christ.  He is the strong and firm foundation. 

      What does it mean to have a spiritual foundation of rock?  Jesus tells us: “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock.”

      Do you want to have a secure faith, even when storms come?  Then listen to the words of Christ and act on them – follow them.  That was our definition of being a Christian, remember?... believing and following. 

      The same holds for when Christ-followers are called into community as the Church.  How can we have a Church founded on the rock of Christ?  We must listen to the words of Jesus and act on them. 

      I Will Build My Church (Matthew 16)

      The second scripture reading, from Matthew 16, is more explicit.  Jesus asked his followers who people were saying that he was.  After getting several different answers, he asked them who THEY said he was.  Who has been listening?  Who was laying a spiritual foundation of rock?

      Peter responded, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  He has heard and believed.  Jesus tells Simon that he is blessed – truly blessed, for God has put it in his heart to believe and profess this.  Then Jesus says this: “…you are Peter (petros, rock), and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” (v. 18)

      What a direct connection to the other scripture! Want to talk about how to build one’s Church on the rock?  It must be founded on the most foundational declaration: Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  Never mind storm and rain; Jesus says that even Hell itself will not prevail against such a Church. 

      Whatever else we do and say and become, that must always be at the very heart of our testimony at Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church: Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God!

      He is the Christ - the one God sent in love into the world, for the world. He is the Son of the living God - he IS God... God-in-the-flesh, God with us. That declaration of Jesus as God with us in love for the sake of the world not only shapes who we are and what we do; it is the foundation upon which all we are and do is built.

      So, when we have a new members class, or a baptism, or examine new officers for leadership, we do not test on knowledge of Presbyterianism or whether you can memorize facts about Good Shepherd’s history.  Our first question, the most important question – in some ways the only question – is “Who is your Lord and Savior?”  That’s the foundation; that’s the rock.

      In our preaching, teaching, music, drama, worship, fellowship, service, mission, and more; there are tasks to accomplish, people to help, songs to sing.  But at the very heart of it all is Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  He is our foundation; he is our rock.

      What Are We Building?

      The scripture says that “unless the Lord build the house, the laborers labor in vain.”  Jesus said that Peter didn’t get the answer on his own; God gave him the answer through the Holy Spirit and Peter was faithful to listen and speak.

      We could raise a million dollars to strengthen the wood, stone, and mortar of this facility; but if we lose sight of our true foundation, it would be in vain.  So let me be clear.  Good Shepherd exists first and foremost to be a house built on the rock of faith and proclamation that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  Whatever we build, whatever we do, is being built on THAT foundation.

      So, is replacing failing lights, heat, air, phones, and stuff important?  Yes, but in the big picture it is important not first because it takes care of our facility, but because it takes care of a house of God built on the rock that seeks to endure as a testimony to Christ in this place for generations to come.

      Who are we and whom do we serve?  Jesus alone; he is our rock and our foundation.  Amen.