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Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Cry for Help (Jonah 2)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - January 27, 2013
 :: Some Music Used
Prelude: "Out of the Depths I Cry to You" (Drishner)
Call to Worship: Jonah video interspersed with "Out of the Depths" choir and cong.(Luther)
The Word in Music: "O Hear My Voice (Ps. 27:7-10)" (Youngblood)
Song of Response: "Shine into Our Night" (Sczebel)
Hymn of Sending: "Blessed Be Your Name (Redman)
Postlude: "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen/All Night" (arr. Mark Hayes)
"A Cry for Help"
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Text: Jonah 2

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

Last week we looked at Jonah 1, particularly focusing on Jonah’s flight and our own tendency to try to run from the presence of God, despite the absurdity of that.  It was also very evident that Jonah was in a bad place with his back turned to God.  There were many prayers offered in Jonah 1, but none came from Jonah.  There was worship and sacrifice and vows offered to Yahweh, the God of Israel, but it was all from the pagan sailors who came to faith in the powerful God of wind and sea. And there was great mercy shown, when all the lives were spared, not least of which to Jonah, who, despite being thrown into the sea, survived by God’s own hand.  But throughout chapter one Jonah seemed to have no comprehension of the mercy of God, only His judgment.  And Jonah seemed to think the full force of that judgment was coming down on him for his disobedient flight.  We left Jonah having just been swallowed up by the great fish. 

I want to look with you at Jonah’s cry for help.  Do you ever need to cry to God for help?  It may be that you can find in Jonah some direction in how to do that.  In fact, like most of Jesus’ disciples, Jonah is a helpful model for prayer because he isn’t perfect; he’s relatable.  We’ll look at the components of his prayer as well as some of what he missed, and see that it didn’t matter.  Like Moses, Rahab, and David before him and Peter, Mary Magdalene, and Paul after him, God was in the process of saving and using him for a greater purpose despite his imperfections.


Most of Jonah 2 consists of Jonah’s prayer to God from the stomach of the great fish.  The first and last verse are narration telling us what is going on.  And most of Jonah’s prayer consists of a kind of out-loud, prayed recollection of what has led him to this point.  The bulk of it is past tense.  What Jonah is doing is an important component of good prayer; he is REMEMBERING.  What does he remember?  In this case he is remembering the terrifying consequences of all that was described in chapter one.  Having disobeyed and tried to run from God’s presence, he is found out and has been thrown into the sea.  His prayer here is remembering with vivid imagery what it was like to sink into the sea and think he was about to die.

You can almost picture it as you hear his words, a description of his descent toward death interspersed with his own reflections about what is happening, starting in verse three:

For You had cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas,
And the current engulfed me. All Your breakers and billows passed over me. (v. 3)
    So I said, “I have been expelled from Your sight.
    Nevertheless I will look again toward Your holy temple.” (v. 4)
It’s interesting… we can picture him sinking down beneath the surface, but we not only see what is happening, we hear what he is thinking.  He understands it to be judgment: God has expelled him and only now does Jonah consider turning back towards God’s face.  He continues sinking.

I also imagine Jonah exhausted and nearly dead, perhaps fading in and out of consciousness as he remembers.  But he does remember: he almost died, but he has lived.  In good Hebrew fashion, he revisits the whole scene again, but now we get more detail.  He not only remembers his failure, God’s judgment, and his near death; his mind and heart also turns toward God and the future.  That’s what we call repentance!


Listen as I pick up at verse 5.  He is still describing sinking to his death, but a bit more of his change of heart.

    Water encompassed me to the point of death.
    The great deep engulfed me, weeds were wrapped around my head.
    I descended to the roots of the mountains.
    The earth with its bars was around me forever… (vv. 5-6)
    While I was fainting away, I remembered the Lord
    And my prayer came to You, into Your holy temple,
    “Those who regard vain idols forsake their faithfulness,
    But I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving
    That which I have vowed I will pay.
    Salvation is from the Lord.” (vv. 7-9)
It is unclear whether these prayers of repentance and future intent came to him as he neared death or whether that last part is now as he is remembering and praying inside the great fish.  It could just as well be both.  Who hasn’t prayed that prayer, “Lord, if you just get me out of this I will do whatever you want me to!”  At any rate, if we do not see a full-on understanding of God’s mercy and grace, we at least see Jonah recognizing that he indeed did not escape from God and he is willing to obey.  He has been rescued or saved by God – might we even say “caught?” – and is at least willing now to face the presence of God through obedience.


Jonah’s prayer in chapter two offers us a good example of facing the past and turning toward God: remembering and repentance.  What we don’t get to see, at least not in this chapter, is the kind of redemption and grace we might want for Jonah. 

That’s what made me think of Psalm 130.  We sang and prayed at the beginning of the service using language from Psalm 130.  It starts out with very similar language to Jonah’s prayer:

“Out of the depths I have cried to You, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.” (vv. 1-2)

And surely like Jonah in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, the Psalmist knows what it is to wait:

 “I wait for the Lord, my soul does wait… my soul waits for the Lord more than the watchmen for the morning…” (vv. 5-6)

But Psalm 130 is also full of faith and hope, not only in God’s mercy, but God’s loving grace.  Just listen; it’s sprinkled throughout the Psalm:

 “…there is forgiveness with You… (v. 4)
“I will wait… in His word do I hope…” (v. 5)
“O Israel, hope in the Lord, for with the Lord there is lovingkindness, and with Him is abundant redemption. And He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” (vv. 7-8)

That’s what comes after remembering and repentance, turning back toward God; God freely and joyfully offers redemption.  That’s what we mean by GRACE.  It is not deserved, but it is lovingly and lavishly given.  God is pleased not only to welcome us back home, but to make a place for us and make us useful again.

For all that he is a prophet of Israel and a prophet of God, Jonah struggles with the idea of God’s mercy and grace.  We saw that in his running from God and we will see it again as he struggles with the repentance of the people of Nineveh and God’s mercy toward them.  But just as God doesn’t give up on the people of Nineveh, who did not know him, but repented; neither did he give up on Jonah, one of His own, who remembered and returned to God.

Crying for Help

So what can we take from all that when we feel like we are drowning or sinking, or when we recognize that we have been running from God?

Several things…

1.    Though God is holy and just, he is merciful and loving.

2.    God is persistent and pursues us, but not to punish and destroy us, but to invite and welcome us back home.

3.    As you pray, if you can pray, it is important to acknowledge and remember the ways you have turned from God.  That is a necessary first step in order to then repent, or turn back to God.  And if you don’t know how to start or what to say, try reading Jonah 2 or Psalm 130 as a prayer to God.  That’s what the Psalms are… they are songs and prayers to God.  They are there for you to use in just that way!

4.    Be encouraged by Jonah; you don’t have to do these magic steps of remembering, repenting, and trusting in God perfectly.  That’s because it is God that saves.  Jonah got that right!  “Salvation is from the Lord!” (v. 9)  But if any of that is going on with you, know that God is working on you and in you!

This is the Good News: the holy God loves you and has and will come after you at great cost, not to do as you fear, but beyond what you could hope.  God is a God who saves.  Amen.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Running from God (Jonah 1)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - January 20, 2013
 :: Some Music Used
Prelude: "The Majesty and Glory of Your Name" (Fettke)
Song of Praise: "Jesus Calls Us O'er the Tumult" (Public Domain, arr. Enfield)
Song of Praise: "Draw Me Nearer" (Crosby/Sheets)
The Word in Music: "Run" - sung by Karla Katibah (Maddie Shuler)
Offering of Music: "Little Prelude in C" - Walker Austell, piano (J.S. Bach)
Hymn of Sending: "All I Have is Christ" (Jordan Kauflin)
Postlude: "Great is the Lord" (Michael and Deborah Smith)
"Running from God"
(Click triangle to play in browser; Left-click link to play in new window; or right-click to save)
Text: Jonah 1 
Testimony: Ray Ball on Jonah 1

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

I run so far away from what I don't want to face
I can't see it anymore; I've lost sight of what I'm looking for
~Maddie Shuler, 2010

I think all of us can relate to running from what we don’t want to face, and perhaps also losing sight of what we are looking for. 

Today we turn to the story of Jonah.  It’s really a story about the startling immensity of the mercy and grace of God.  But as we focus in on chapter one in today’s text, we find a man running from God, not wanting to face the daunting task God has set before him.

Running Away

The Word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai: “Go to the great city and cry against it.”  The year was approximately 760 B.C.  The Kingdom of Israel was ruled by Jeroboam II and was prosperous.  Assyria was the world power and had a record of cruelty and conquest.  40 years later, in 722 B.C., Assyria would conquer northern Israel and take the people into captivity.

All of the other prophets of Israel spoke messages to the people of Israel.  But things were going relatively well under Jeroboam; Israel was prospering, though not particularly faithful.  The Lord told Jonah to go to Ninevah, one of the great cities of the Assyrian Empire.  Jonah was told to undertake the 500 mile journey to the heart of the oppressive Assyrians to denounce their evil ways.  Not only would the journey have been an exceedingly long one, it doesn’t seem like the kind of thing Jonah would have returned from.

So, who can really blame him for running?  There is something slightly humorous about the geography.  If you look at a map, Jonah is in northern Israel.  Ninevah is approximately 500 miles to the northwest, near the modern city of Mosul in northern Iraq.  Jonah went to the port of Joppa and caught a ship headed to Tarsus.  Scholars think Tarsus was in what is now Spain – pretty much the western edge of the world, literally as far as he could imagine from Nineveh.  At the least, leaving by ship from Joppa meant heading in the other direction, wherever Tarshish might have been in the Mediterranean.

Jonah’s Story: Things to Pay Attention To

There are a number of gripping details in the story that follows.  God comes after Jonah by means of a storm.  The sailors are pagan and superstitious, and eventually elicit Jonah’s story from him.  They are not quite ready to hurl him into the sea, and row harder, but eventually give in to Jonah’s suggestion to throw him into the sea, and the storm subsides.  Convicted of the power of the Hebrew God, the pagan sailors actually come to believe, offering a sacrifice and making vows.  The chapter ends with a great fish swallowing Jonah.

While I won’t dwell on them this morning, there are a number of things worth pondering in this chapter.  What is the purpose of the storm – is it to punish Jonah?  Certainly not, for God spares Jonah.  Rather, like one of Jesus’ miracles, it signals the presence and power of God in a place where God might have been least expected to show up: outside Israel among a pagan, superstitious lot of sailors… foreigners, outsiders, strangers.  And despite Jonah’s disobedience, reluctance, and failures, God reached the sailors anyway.  Perhaps this is even some indication of what God could accomplish in Ninevah, should He want to?

I’m also struck by the willing blindness and deafness of Jonah and the openness and faith of the pagan sailors.  While the storm rages Jonah sleeps.  Jonah is not only fleeing; he is hiding from God, and perhaps has even lost sight of God’s power and presence until the sailors make him confront what is going on.  Even then Jonah does not offer prayers, sacrifices, and vows, but simply accepts judgment and retribution.  He seems to know little of the mercy of the Lord, which we will see again in the fourth chapter of Jonah, when he struggles so with God having mercy on Nineveh.

Maybe you are wondering what kind of prophet he is; he seems like kind of a lame one.  But all he had known was prosperity; what he is learning is God’s power, presence, and mercy.

Fleeing the Presence of the Lord

Finally, what I want to focus on is one phrase early in the chapter.  While it might seem like Jonah flees for Tarshish because he is afraid of going to Nineveh, in the text we are given a different reason for his flight.  Indeed, he may have been afraid or simply unwilling to undertake such a challenging journey; but look and listen again to the reason for his getting on the ship.  It’s there in verse 3: “Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” Whether disobedient or afraid, he was fleeing the presence of the Lord.

I think of Adam and Eve in the Garden after they had disobeyed the Lord and eaten from the Tree.  It’s in Genesis 3:8: “They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.”

I think of young children who have disobeyed their parents or teacher.  Often they do not want to look at you.  Sometimes they will even go hide. 

I think of many, many of us youth and adults, who have done this or that in life; we’ve messed up and things are out of order.  And we back away from church and even friends.  Somehow we tell ourselves (or will even say out loud), “I’ll go back when I get my life together.”  Or we build up the walls and masks and blockades to shut people out and hide behind.

There is something about the presence of another person, particularly one who is loving, faithful, and represents what is true and right… that we just want to cringe and hide and not be seen.  Right?  Don’t you know that to be true?  And that’s what Jonah was doing – he was fleeing from and hiding from the presence of the Lord.  He didn’t want to feel God’s presence or hear God’s voice or be reminded of his own disobedience.  He didn’t want to look God in the face.

And Yet…

And yet… one of our greatest needs is to be known and loved.  What sense does it make, when we have strayed or messed up or unraveled, to avoid being known and refuse to be loved?  It’s the thing we need most, PARTICULARLY from God!  And it’s what God offers! 

Not only did God not let Jonah go, He came after him.  And despite the storm and the waves and the wind, God didn’t come to punish Jonah, but to be known by him, to get his attention again.  It sure may have felt like the end of everything, but God scooped Jonah up and kept him safe.  And next week we will get a peek at their face-to-face, their heart-to-heart, in the belly of the fish.

So hear this… and I know this is one of the things Ray would shout to you with every fiber of his being – I know it because he’s teaching a Sunday school class on the very thing.  God made us to be known – to be in relationship, and open up, and trust, and love.  Please do ask Ray for the rest of his story; it’s riveting… and not because Ray is awesome, but because God is awesome. 

Hear this… if you’ve managed to be here today and it’s the last place you want to be, there is no better place you could be than in the presence of God.  Yes, God is true and holy and right and pure; but God loves you extravagantly and will go to the ends of the earth to demonstrate that to you.  As the story of Jonah and Nineveh unfolds, that will become more and more clear.  Risk being known; it is worth it.

Or, if someone you know is avoiding church or you or other people that love them, invite them.  Tell them why you love them and care for them.  Tell them why it’s so important to you to come into God’s presence. 

I remember my children hiding their face and sometimes their whole selves when they were little.  And there was nothing I wanted more than to go looking for them, find them, and make things right between us. 

That’s what God is like.  And if you ask me, that is Good News!  Amen.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Guest Preacher

Sermon by: Robert Austell
January 13, 2013
Some Music Used
Prelude: "Praise the Name of Jesus/All Hail" (arr. Mark Hayes)
Song of Praise: "Raise Up the Crown/All Hail" (arr. Tomlin)
Song of Praise: "Bless the Lord/10,000 Reasons" (Myrin/Redman)
The Word in Music: "Nunc Dimittis" (Helen Kemp)
Offering of Music: "Savior of the Nations, Come" (Pachelbel)
Hymn of Sending: "Called as Partners in Christ's Service" (Huber, HOLY MANNA)
Postlude: "All Creatures of Our God and King" (Diemer)

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

There is no sermon audio for January 13.

Monday, January 7, 2013

In My Father's House (Luke 2.41-52)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
January 6, 2013
Some Music Used
Prelude: "My Shepherd Will Supply My Need" (Joseph Martin)
Hymn of Praise: "Better is One Day" (Redman)
Hymn of Praise: "My Shepherd Will Supply My Need" (RESIGNATION)
Offering of Music: "Cantad al Senor (Sing to the Lord) (arr. Youngblood)
Hymn of Sending: "Come All Christians, Be Committed" (traditional)
Postlude: "O God Beyond All Praising" (Bedford)

"In My Father's House"
(Left-click to play; or right-click to save)
Text: Luke 2:41-52; Psalm 84:1,8-12

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

This story has been a long-time favorite of mine.  It is the only story that gives us a glimpse into the life of Jesus between his birth and his public ministry.  It gives the briefest hint of an answer to questions like:

    What was Jesus like as a teenager?
    Did Jesus do miracles as a child? (Did he have to clean his room?)
    Did Jesus always know he was the Son of God?
While this story doesn’t answer every question we might like to ask, it does give us a wonderful snapshot of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the context of parents, religious life, and relationship to God.

Today, we are only going to focus on one part of this wonderful and fascinating story – the part that is the main point.  That main point is that Jesus, even as a young boy, prioritized and emphasized serving God and being in His presence.  And if our goal as Christians is to be imitators and followers of Jesus Christ (which scripture says it is!), then we are to seek to have the same mind and heart that would say, “I had to be in my Father’s house.”

The Customary Visit

It was religious law for adult, Jewish men (aged 13 and up) to travel to Jerusalem for the annual Passover Feast.  It had become customary for Jewish women and families to travel with the men, and at twelve, Jesus was almost old enough to observe the law himself.  Yet, at twelve, he came to the Passover under the authority of Joseph, his earthly father.

While we are quite distanced from the practice of an annual pilgrimage and religious feast, we do know something about a “customary visit” to church.  For many of us, particularly in the South, it is expected that we will attend church on Sunday.  Though much of that expectation has eroded in the last 40 years, it is still socially acceptable and even expected that one attend a Sunday church service, even if infrequently.  Perhaps a closer parallel to the annual Passover pilgrimage is demonstrated at Christmas and Easter, when even the most non-religious person is drawn to that one Christmas Eve or Easter morning service with family or friends.  It’s just part of the culture, part of the religion.

Jesus’ Surprising Expectation

What stands out in Luke’s story as very unusual (even for modern Christians reading with full knowledge of who Jesus is), is that the boy Jesus did something so seemingly unexpected, and did so with complete confidence that he was doing the expected thing.  We relate much more with Mary and Joseph, who ask, “Why have you treated us this way?… [we] have been anxiously looking for you.”  Even knowing who Jesus is – as Mary and Joseph did – we are a taken off guard a little by his answer: “Why is it that you were looking for me?  Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?”

They did not understand.  You HAD to be?  In your FATHER’S house?  Yes, yes, we understand that God is our Father, and particularly Jesus’ Father.  Yes, we understand that love and service to God are the most important thing there is.  But what of normal expectations?  Surely one is expected to leave when it is time to leave.  Surely a boy is expected to leave when it is time to leave.

I remember one of you recently sharing a frustration with not being able to locate one of your children when it was time to leave after church… and then finding him in the nursery holding one of the babies.  Everything flipped on its head in that moment.

What is additionally surprising is that Jesus’ action is no act of childish rebellion.  He immediately leaves with his parents and the Bible says that he “continued in subjection to them.”  He was an obedient and faithful child.  And that’s exactly what led him to stay in his Father’s house.  To him, it was the most natural place in the world to be – listening and asking questions of the teachers.  It was Jesus’ expectation and priority to be in his Father’s house seeking and serving God.  Though the natural expectation was otherwise, his heart was so attuned to his Heavenly Father that his full expectation was to be there in the temple among the teachers.

Our Surprising Expectation

What is the point of all this, other than to say that Jesus was clearly a very special twelve year old?  I’ll just say it outright, then tell you why:

I believe the point of this story is to challenge us to spend our time, attention, money, talents, gifts, and energy generously (if not extravagantly) in our Father’s house and in His service.

I believe that being a true follower of Jesus Christ will so transform our heart, priorities, expectations, and our “world” that we will understand what it means to say, “I have to be in my Father’s house.”  We will seek every opportunity to gather, pray, worship, serve, ask questions, and offer ourselves in worship and service to God. 

I’ve heard ones of you express this often… “My week isn’t the same without coming to church… I wish I could be there all the time… I look forward to Tuesday mornings… to Wednesday nights.”

Here’s why: Following Jesus Christ often, if not always, puts us at odds with the expectations of this world.  I fully expect the “normal reaction” to these statements to be, “You want me to do what?”  We have jobs, families, commitments, hobbies… things to do, places to go, people to see.  Surely, coming to church and maybe an occasional special program is enough to be a “good Christian.”  But I’m not talking about being a “good Christian.”  That’s a misnomer. 

Christianity isn’t about a checklist of activities or memberships.  And I realize there is possibility for confusion on this.  I am not talking about a checklist.  You don’t have to be in choir to be a Christian.  I am talking about a not-of-this-world desire to be near God and be a part of what God is doing.  And that heart-transforming desire WILL cause us to be drawn to our Father’s house and work in surprising ways.

God IS here.  God IS at work here – through this church and through you. 

The Heart of Christ

Where will your Heavenly Father fit into your priorities, goals, and decisions in 2013?  That’s God’s challenging question to us today.

This is an appropriate challenge to consider as we begin a new year together at Good Shepherd.  I’m not asking you to sign up for a certain number of activities to qualify as a “good member.”  I am asking much more!  Hear and respond to God’s challenge from the Bible: follow Christ; imitate Jesus; seek the Lord’s will and work until you understand what it means to say, “I have to be in my Father’s house… I have to be about my Father’s work.”  Press forward toward the Father until following and serving Jesus Christ is your first priority, your highest goal, and your surprising expectation.  Amen.

The End Represents a New Beginning (Romans 13)

Sermon by: the Rev. Billy Flippin (guest preacher)
December 30, 2012
Some Music Used
Prelude: "What Child is This" (Rick Bean, jazz piano)
Hymn of Praise: "Angels from the Realms of Glory" (REGENT SQUARE)
Hymn of Preparation: "Away in a Manger" (AWAY IN A MANGER)
Offering of Music: "Christmas Child" (Rick Bean, jazz piano) (Loonis McGlohon)
Hymn of Response: "Go Tell it on the Mountain" (GO TELL IT)
Postlude: "Sing Noel" (Rick Bean, jazz piano)

"The End Represents a New Beginning"
(Left-click to play; or right-click to save)
Text: Romans 13:11-13

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