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Sunday, August 25, 2013

God's Blessing (Jeremiah 29.1-13)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - August 25, 2013
Text:Jeremiah 29:1-13

:: Sermon Audio (LINK) - scroll down for written draft
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."

:: Some Music Used
Gathering Music: "Andante" (JS Bach)

Hymn of Praise: "This is My Father's World" (TERRA BEATA)
Song of Praise: "God of this City" (Boyd, et al.)

The Word through Music (men's choir): "If You Search with All Your Heart" (Craig Courtney)
Offering of Music (men's choir): "How Great Thou Art" (arr. Fred Bock)
Song of Sending: "O For a Thousand Tongues/One Great Love" (David Crowder)

Postlude: "Let Us with a Gladsome Mind" (Albert Travis)

:: Some Visuals Used
Prelude: Video* on Jeremiah 29:11

Artwork by Emily Pearce

:: Sermon Manuscript
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon, not used in the service. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose.
“'I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans for welfare and not calamity, to give you a future and a hope.'
~Jeremiah 29:11
This is one of those very encouraging-sounding “promise verses” of scripture that I hear quoted a lot. I’ve seen it on coffee mugs and dorm rooms and dressed up on Facebook posts and more. And I agree that it is a hope-filled, encouraging, promise verse, but to paraphrase a beloved movie character, Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, “You keep using [those words]; I do not think [those words] mean what you think they mean!” So, it is a prime candidate for our summer series of important-to-know, oft-quoted, and often misunderstood verses.

We have spent some time in Jeremiah 29 before, more than once. It has become one of the passages I find most applicable to being the church in the 21st century. In it, the people of God have been displaced from Jerusalem and the Temple, from God being at the center of society. Those tangible and visible reminders of God’s presence and blessing have been lost and they are literally and spiritually far from home, with no sign of return soon. They are a people who long, who LONG, to get back to where they were before, and they have more reason than most to hope and pray for God’s blessing for the future.

And that’s just what God gives them in this verse: God has plans and a future and a hope for them; their future is not calamity, but welfare, a word which is a translation of shalom – God’s peace, well-being, blessing, or wholeness. It is certainly the thing they need, as torn apart, displaced, unsettled, and disrupted as they are. But you can’t understand verse 11 without understanding verses 1-10, which explain how God’s people will come to know this shalom, this welfare and blessing. That’s the part we often skip over to get to the goodies at the end. But it’s a very unexpected and unusual context that sets up this shalom. In a word, it’s the PLANS of verse 11 that need to be unpacked in order to understand it. It’s the PLANS of God that are explained in the preceding verses, and what we need to understand if we are to know and experience God’s blessing and peace.

What Plans… Whose Plans?

Before we get to “what plans?” maybe the more immediate question is “whose plans?” That’s part of where we get off-track right off the bat. We hear verse 11, plug in “OUR PLANS” and latch on to a promise God didn’t make. God didn’t say, “I know your plans and I will give you blessing, future, and hope.” God said, “I know the plans that I have for you…”  That’s a big difference!

So, what are those plans? For the Israelites in 597 B.C., defeated and torn from Jerusalem, the Temple, and their homes, and taken into exile and captivity in Babylon, it was probably hard not to substitute MY PLANS. My plan would have been to get home, to rebuild my house and re-plant my crops, to find my family members and restore what had been lost. Surely God’s plans looked something like that? How often do we assume that the thing we want so badly must be God’s plan? (all the time, right?!)

But God spoke through Jeremiah and described a very different plan.

A Very Different Plan (vv. 5-7)

God’s message comes in two main parts. The first part is in verses 5-6 and is a whole series of verbs set in pairs:
BUILD houses and LIVE in them
PLANT gardens and EAT their produce
TAKE wives and BECOME fathers…
All of those pairs have a common theme.  Yes, you are far from home, cut off, and exiled.  But don’t give up on life; make a home for yourselves.  Build and live, plant and eat, marry and have families.  In other words, keep living life!  For the Jewish people, these particular challenges tied rather directly to the covenant challenges to grow families and teach them about the Lord.  While the Holy Land was part of God’s gracious provision, it was not the only place where His people could be faithful.  Indeed, both in the generations before coming to that land and in many generations after being displaced, His people had to learn and re-learn what it meant to be faithful in every setting.  God’s challenge to the Exiles was no less than His challenge to His people wandering through the wilderness between captivity in Egypt and arrival in the Promised Land: “listen to me; trust in me; make a home and teach them about me.” 

The second part is in verse 7, with the challenge to “seek the welfare of the city… and pray to the Lord on its behalf.”  This challenge also connects to the covenant of old, in which God told Abraham He would bless him and his children so that they might be a blessing to the whole world.  It does not matter that God’s people have been taken from Jerusalem; they are still able to fulfill their covenant purpose of being a covenant community of faith and blessing those among whom they lived. God is charging them with praying for their captors for the very thing they so want for themselves – shalom. Can you imagine? “But what about me, Lord?! What about MY welfare?” Listen to what God says: “In the city’s welfare you will have welfare.” In other words, as you pray for your captors, your enemies, and their shalom – as they experience my peace, healing, and wholeness – then YOU will experience my peace, healing, and wholeness.

Let me say this one more way, which I have said before in studying this passage: the shalom I long for – that I NEED, Lord – is not found in the place I came from, nor where I think I might want to go, but in obediently following the Lord to the place He leads.

Some Warnings (vv. 8-9)

I would be remiss in not also noting the warnings Jeremiah gives in vv. 8-9. Not only might God’s people substitute their own plans for God’s plans, but there are always multiple voices pulling in every direction. On first pass, one might think the false prophets mentioned in v. 8 are Babylonian, and there would have been plenty in the Babylonian culture to tempt God’s people. But these are false teachers among the Israelites, for God makes it clear that He did not send them. What might they have been saying? And how would one know whether to trust them or Jeremiah? We aren’t told in the text, but we can be pretty sure they were not speaking the same message. Perhaps some of their “dreams” were just what the people longed to hear – that they would soon return home. Or maybe some of their messages were to continue to view the Babylonians as enemies and have as little to do with them as possible. That certainly would be easy to do when they took so much away. How would God’s people know they could trust Jeremiah’s challenging words to make a home and live among the Babylonians? One good clue is that his message was so rooted in and resonant with the covenant, with God’s Word. They had always been a people meant to pass faith on through the witness of the family. They had always been a people blessed to be a blessing. There was nothing novel or new here; it was just a new, unfamiliar, and difficult setting. But there was a path of faithfulness and a message of faithfulness, and Jeremiah was delivering it.

I think about our own calling as God’s people: to BE the church IN the world. It would be so easy to listen to the preachers who tell us just what we want to hear, that God majors in wish-fulfillment and will give us everything we ask for. It would be so easy to withdraw from the world and huddle in our Christian enclaves and leave the rest of the world to themselves. But this is not God’s way; it has never been God’s way. If it were, we’d not know Him ourselves! Being the Church IN the world is very challenging, but it is the very thing Jesus prayed for in John 17 and something we can obey with confidence.

Jeremiah’s Challenge and Us

So, how exactly might we apply Jeremiah 29, realizing that there are significant differences between then and now? In Jeremiah’s challenging words I am reminded of Jesus’ teaching to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44) and “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39) If you and I were to take Jeremiah and Jesus seriously, what would that look like?  For whose welfare would we pray?

Perhaps the most literal application would be to seek and pray for the welfare of our city.  God challenged the Exiles to pray for Babylon – their captors!  Surely we should pray for our city and our neighborhoods.  Let that be the first and broadest challenge today: and not JUST prayer but “seek and pray” – get up, move, do, listen, pray, follow, obey, connect with Charlotte, with the Old Providence neighborhoods, with our neighbors around the church and around where you live.  Where in our neighborhoods and city do people most long for or need God’s shalom – His peace, wholeness, help, completeness, and healing?  If we are to be God’s covenant community in this place – this Church – than that is our mission.  If we want to know God’s complete plan for us, then we need to seek and pray for the welfare of THIS city.  After the pattern of God’s people of old, we are to live full and godly lives where we are, and diligently pray for and seek out those all around us, that they might know the fullness of knowing God.

More specifically, I want to challenge you on a personal level.  It may be for different reasons than the Exiles, but you may recognize a need for God’s healing, help, and wholeness in your life.  It may be work-related; it may be a hole in a relationship; it may be physical disability, sickness, or limitations; it may be spiritual dryness or feeling completely disconnected from God – in whatever form you need God’s shalom, consider this prescription for finding it: Seek and pray for those who need what you need, and in connecting with them and laying those other similar needs before the Lord, you may find the peace and wholeness you need as well.  Amen.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

What We Treasure (Matthew 6.19-21, 13.44-46)

Sermon by: Kathy Larson - August 18, 2013
Text:Matthew 6:19-21; 13:44-46; Psalm 19:7-10

:: Sermon Audio (LINK) - scroll down for written draft
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."

:: Some Music Used 
Gathering Music: "I Will Wait Patiently for the Lord" (African Choir)
Hymn of Praise: "May Jesus Christ Be Praised"
Song of Praise: "Praise God, Praise God" (led by African Choir)
Word in Music: "I Will Exalt Thee, My God and King" (African Choir)
Offering of Music: "Hold on Fast" (African Choir)
Hymn of Sending: "Give Me Jesus" (traditional spiritual)
Choral Sending: "Hallelujah!" (African Choir)

:: Some Visuals Used
Prelude: Video* on Matthew 6:19-21

Artwork by Susan Slade
:: Sermon Manuscript
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon, not used in the service. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose.
“But store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in and steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
~Matthew 6:20-21
There is no manuscript for August 18.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Life as Worship (Romans 12.1-6a)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - August 11, 2013
Text: Romans 12:1-6a; Hebrews 13:15-16

:: Sermon Audio (LINK) - scroll down for written draft
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."

:: Youth Testimony

 Abby Austell (AUDIO LINK)
Zack Goudy (AUDIO LINK)
Testimony Video (coming if we can overcome the technology demons)

:: Some Music Used
Song of Praise: "Marvelous Light" (Charlie Hall)
Song of Praise: "Jesus, All for Jesus" (Robin Mark)
Song of Sending: "Revelation Song" (Jennie Lee Riddle)

:: Some Visuals Used
Prelude: Video* on Romans 12:2

Artwork by Joanie Fedor

:: Sermon Manuscript
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon, not used in the service. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose.
Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.
~Romans 12:1-2
A few weeks ago I saw a post on Facebook that declared a commonly held view: that worship is a particular activity of the church. In other words, this “Sunday morning stuff” is different than meeting God in the woods or having a personal spirituality. It is important and it shapes us and it is worth doing. And I agree with all that. But this view also points to one of the great challenges to being the church: how our Sunday mornings relate to our “whole life” or the “rest of life.” And that is what we will look at today.

Similarly, you have heard and will hear some important testimony from our youth about how meaningful their mission trip experiences were. And I have no doubt that they were. Those kinds of experiences are important and shape us and are worth doing. But with those, too, comes a challenge: how will those experiences relate to our whole life or the rest of life? Again, that is what we want to take a closer look at together.

Today we are focusing on two important verses in Romans 12. We shortened the memory verse just to verse 2, but originally we had verses 1-2, and both are equally important. And, as always, we want to not take these verses out of context, but understand them in their context. So,

A Living and Holy Sacrifice (v. 1)

Romans 11 ends with a great benediction of praise. Speaking of God, Paul declares, “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:36) Echoing other parts of scripture, Paul is caught up in praise recognizing that all of creation and history will result in the glory of God. And then he says, “Therefore….” That’s the beginning of chapter 12: “therefore.” Since all creation and history are in God’s hands and to God’s glory, Paul is moved to give a charge to us, the “brethren” or followers of Jesus Christ. He is moved to URGE us, by the mercies of God no less, to present our “bodies [as] a living and holy sacrifice.” (v. 1)

Sacrifices were not new to the Jews or even Greeks of Paul’s day. That’s what you brought to God (or to gods) for all kinds of reasons. But Paul is not talking about the old Jewish sacrifices or even the pagan sacrifices. He isn’t writing about buying an animal or bringing produce or money as an offering. He is talking about US! He makes it so we can’t mistake his point: we are to present OUR BODIES, our physical selves, and to do so as a living sacrifice. So, in addition to being personal, it is not a one-time offering, but a LIVING sacrifice, to include our waking and sleeping, our eating and drinking, our work and rest, our loving and community-building. Our living sacrifice is also a HOLY sacrifice, which is one that is acceptable to God, distinct and set apart from any other sacrifices or offerings we make in life.

Are you following this? Because all things are from God, through God, and to God, resulting in His eternal glory, it is urgent that we who follow God present our whole LIVES as a holy sacrifice to God. And THAT is described as “your spiritual service of worship.” It’s a bit more comprehensive than even the most rigorous church service, don’t you think?

Also consider our other scripture text this morning: Hebrews 13:15-16.
Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name. And do not neglect doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
This isn’t describing a Sunday morning worship service, but LIVING LIFE ITSELF! We are to continually “offer up a sacrifice” of praise and thanks as well as the sacrifices of “doing good and sharing.” Though we may sing praises in Sunday morning worship and take a collection for those in need, these verses clearly describe something broader and more continual than the one hour in the sanctuary.

What both these texts, Romans 12 and Hebrews 13, teach us is that there is a broader definition of worship that includes all of life. Sunday morning worship is not diminished or excluded, but we realize there is more to life and more to worship than that.

The Dangers and Opportunities of Real-Life Worship (v. 2)

Paul is not done urging us. Presenting our bodies as a living and holy sacrifice was just one half of his message. The other half comes in verse 2 – you can see the word ‘and’ connecting what comes next. Paul also urges us to “not be conformed to this world”; instead, he continues, “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

I appreciate this verse coming where it does because just as Paul pushes me out of the safety zone of Sunday morning worship, out of the “come to church” mindset, he warns me that there are dangers out there. In keeping with Jesus’ defining prayer in John 17, that we not come out of the world but live and witness IN it, Paul warns us not to be conformed to the world (what Jesus would describe in John 17 as becoming OF the world). Paul warns us that there will be a push and pull on our lives – you know, the lives we are to live out as a holy sacrifice, acceptable to God as a spiritual service of worship. There will be pressure, a push and pull to conform us to other values, other gods, other priorities. So Paul warns, “Look out! Don’t be conformed to the world.” Being conformed to the world is, in fact, the opposite of the biblical concept of ‘holiness.’ If we are conformed to the world, we lose our distinctness as God’s people and we miss out on the reason God has called us into being. Instead, Paul writes, “Be transformed!”

Here is another place I appreciate Paul. Rather than just talk about presenting our bodies – our physical selves – like showing up for Sunday school and checking a sign-in sheet or showing up for the Church 2.0 class out in the public square, Paul urges us to plug in our minds. If our minds are renewed, he says, then we will be changed… transformed. And that will run counter to the conforming pressure of the world. Instead, godly transformation through renewal of our minds – where we make our choices – will result in a visible and tangible witness to God’s good and perfect will. Got that? If we submit our minds and choices to God’s leading, our lives will be transformed and we will BE the living and holy public sacrifice God deserves. This is truly what it means to BE the Church!

So as we look beyond the narrow idea of coming to church to the broad, biblical view of being the church, we are presented with a danger and an opportunity. The danger is that we might be conformed to the world. But that is going on all the time! The opportunity, and really the defense against being conformed is being transformed through the renewing of our mind, with the result of living life to the glory of God in the world.

In the Training Room of Worship: pros and cons

It is significant that we would talk about this on the Sunday that the youth share about the mission experiences, but perhaps not for the reason you might imagine. I think in many ways short-term mission trips are similar to Sunday morning worship. Both Sunday morning worship and mission-trip experiences are important and shape us and are worth doing. I don’t doubt for a moment that our teenagers had a powerful experience of God and of helping others. And I don’t doubt that they did help others. We have high standards and looked hard for mission agencies that build relationships in the communities they serve, that empower local people, that work alongside local people, and that ground the service work in the context of worship, study, reflection, and evaluation.

But here’s where I think the danger lies. Like Sunday morning worship, youth group, or a “mountain-top” experience like the Bonclarken retreat, the youth mission trips aren’t “the real world.” That may seem counter-intuitive or just wrong. After all, they were helping some of the poorer people in the world with home repair, water collection, and any number of important activities. But, our kids also got to go sleep in a safe environment and get on a bus or plane and head home after a week or so. While on the worksites, they were watched over by responsible adults and we had medical info and plans ready to go at a moment’s notice should anyone get hurt. And there’s nothing wrong with any of that; in fact, we require it!

Here’s what I’m getting at. Let me shift away from church things for a moment and share an illustration.  Have you ever been to the gym? I’m thinking particularly of the big workout room at the YMCA. All those machines… Nautilus and treadmills and Stairmasters and the like. Do you know what they are there for? Of course you do… to get in shape. And, in fact, they are there to get in shape SAFELY. There are trainers watching, safety instructions posted, and the machines themselves are designed for safe exercise. On the treadmill you can attach the clip so that if you fall the machine will shut off. On the Nautilus machines, the motion of your exercise is carefully controlled so that you shouldn’t have a sudden, unexpected motion and injure yourself. And then, there is air condition, televisions, and more.

Do you see where I am headed? So, let’s say you go to the YMCA every morning for an hour and you do the machines. That’s good! Will you get in shape? Yes! Here’s the question of the hour… WHY?

Why do you do it? Is it because being healthier is a good thing? Of course. But is that all? Could there be more? Could being healthier actually change how you live life? Could it change how you interact with people, the kinds of things you do, and the choices you make day in and day out? YES! YES!  To take the illustration to a further extreme, there are some who go beyond basic health and grow bigger and bigger muscles… for some, these can even be just to look at.

There are similar dynamics at work when it comes to Sunday morning worship or mission trips or retreats or any number of things we do to stretch our God-muscles. If all you ever do is attend Sunday morning worship, will you end up knowing more about God? Yes, probably so, if you are engaged at all with what is going on.  But there is a bigger question to ask… WHY?

Why do we do it? Is it just to look at? Is it just for our own good? Why do we do these things, safely protected (well, usually protected) from the dangers of the world? In Romans 12:1-2, Paul says… no he URGES!... that it is so we can live lives of worship before God and IN THE WORLD.  That is a dangerous opportunity and it is our Christian calling. Should we abandon church worship, retreats, and the like? By no means! That’s where we can train with experts, safety, and the encouragement of fellow believers. And, to be sure, there is more going on than just training. But, is that the ultimate purpose of our Christian lives? No… we are to follow Christ out into the world God loves, with God’s mercy and for God’s glory.

So, to you for whom the summer mission trips were so meaningful… well done! Your eyes have been open to a world of needs, material and physical. You have seen God at work out in the world and in your own life. You have been through boot camp and are ready for the world in which you live and move, for the start of school and sports and friendships and choices and living all of life for God.

To you who gather today for Sunday morning worship… well done! You have been through worship training and are ready to go out into the world in which you live and move, to the workplace and child-raising and grocery-shopping and traffic stops and friendships and living all of life for God.

We meet here every week; come back again! But know that the mission, the calling, the work… is out there, for God’s glory. Amen!

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Help from Above (Isaiah 40, Matthew 11)

Sermon by: John Kreutzer - August 4, 2013
Text: Isaiah 40:27-31; Matthew 11:25-30
“...those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary.” (Isaiah 40:31)

"Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28)

:: Sermon Audio (LINK) - scroll down for written draft
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."

:: Some Music Used
Gathering Music: "My Faith Looks Up to Thee" (arr. Rick Bean)
Hymn of Praise: "My Faith Looks Up to Thee" (OLIVET)
Hymn of Praise: "I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say" (VOX DILECTI)
Offering of Music: "Teach Me, Lord" (arr. Rick Bean)
Hymn of Sending: "Arise, Your Light is Come" (Walter/Duck)

:: Some Visuals Used
Artwork by Gail McKitterick