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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Baptism as Ritual (1 Corinthians 10:1-4)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - September 29, 2013
Text: 1 Corinthians 10:1-4; 1 Peter 3:20-21; Genesis 17:7,10-11; John 13:5-17

:: 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: "Toccata in D Major" (J.S. Bach)

Hymn of Praise: "The Solid Rock" (SOLID ROCK)
Song of Repentance: "Have Mercy on Us, Living Lord" (ST. FLAVIAN)

The Word in Music (choir): "Witness" (Mark Patterson)
Offering of Music (Billy Howell): "I Need You" (Billy Howell)

Song of Sending: "I Have a Shelter" (Cook and Kauflin/Sovereign Grace))

Postlude: "God of Grace and God of Glory" (Anna Laura Page)

:: 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.

“Space… the final frontier… these are the voyages of the starship Enterprise…” One night many years ago I sat down to watch Star Trek: the Next Generation. I enjoyed the show for all the technology and space-travel, but this particular night it was a different kind of show, marking one of the most memorable television episodes I have ever seen of any series. The crew of the Enterprise was meeting another species for the first time, hoping to establish friendly and diplomatic relations with them. They had records of previous failed attempts, failed because of a basic lack of communication. So, too, as the initial conversation began, it seemed doomed to failure. The other species only mentioned names and places, speaking in short animated phrases like “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.” Captain Picard launched into an opening diplomatic speech full of technical jargon and carefully chosen phrases. And both groups looked perplexed at one another. Then, the captain of the other group said something to his first officer, who seemed to protest, but the order was given: the other captain pulled out two knives and the next thing you knew he and Captain Picard disappeared, beamed off their ships to the planet below.

What unfolded was fascinating. We come to realize that the alien species communicates by metaphor. The names and places they spoke (their only speech) called forth for them a historic event between two people; whatever happened at that event was meant to speak to the present situation. We come to realize that “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” was a famous encounter between two strangers who faced hardship together (at a place called Tanagra) and became friends and allies. The alien species was also interested in a diplomatic relationship, but the only way they knew to say so was unintelligible to Captain Picard and the other humans. So what the alien captain did was to transport the two strangers to a place where they would face a common foe, a terrible beast on the planet below. The knives weren’t to be used against Picard, but shared with him as they defended each other together. They would create a new story which both groups would be able to refer to as the start of their alliance. In the end, what actually happened was that the alien captain lost his life defending Picard, who was able to explain this to the alien crew using his discovery of their communication patterns. “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” became "Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel.”

I was struck, while watching this story unfold, of how God came and became one of us to live out the baptism story: judgment, mercy, salvation, and presence. It was something more than words could bear, so the Living Word, the Logos, came among us.

Today we are going to look at baptism as PUBLIC RITUAL, something very close, in fact, to the mode of communication in the story I just related. Baptism has a way of not just pointing to what God has done, but calling it forth in front of us. It is, in many ways, a kind of drama, an acted out portrayal of something to communicate meaning to those who witness it. Using some of the symbolism and scriptures from previous weeks, I’d like to walk you through four Biblical events (there are even more) dramatized and recalled by baptism.

Noah and His Family in the Ark (1 Peter 3:20-21)

20 …the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. 21 Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ... ~1 Peter 3:20-21
Let’s begin with “Noah and his family in the Ark.” 1 Peter 3 makes a link between baptism and the Ark. The waters of the Flood were God’s rightful judgment on human sin, but God also spoke and provided a way through the judgment, an Ark of Refuge, for Noah, his family, and other created life. “Noah and his family in the Ark” was for the generations before Jesus, as well as those after, an example of God’s way of pursuing us: rightfully judging our sin and disobedience, yet coming to us with deliverance and mercy, and with a promise never to leave us. As those early Christians were trying to understand all the implications of a Savior who had been crucified, but also raised, Peter’s reference to one of their ancient stories helped explain to them in ways they could understand: what God has done through Jesus is like this, like “Noah and his family in the Ark.”

Abraham and God with the Covenant (Genesis 17:7-11)

7 “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. … 10 “This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 “And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.  ~Genesis 17:7,10-11
Moving chronologically, let’s consider “Abraham and God with the Covenant.” We talked about the covenant last week, God’s promise of land, descendants, and blessing, which included the intended purpose of blessing the world through this covenant people. In Genesis 17, we read of the sign of the covenant, circumcision, which we saw last week corresponds to baptism as a sign of the new covenant. Again, for generations of people before Christ and for those early Christians, being given a new covenant sign helped explain to Jewish and especially non-Jewish Christians how Jesus fulfilled, completed, and perfected the Old Covenant rather than signaling something new and completely different. Jesus and baptism is like "Abraham and God with the covenant."

Moses and Our Fathers through the Sea (1 Corinthians 10:1-4)

1 For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; 3 and all ate the same spiritual food; 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. ~1 Corinthians 10:1-4
In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul references “Moses and our fathers… under the cloud and… through the sea.” He makes all the connections there with words. Those ancient Israelites had passed through the waters of judgment, delivered not only from death there but from slavery and death behind them in Egypt. They were “under the cloud” of God’s Holy Spirit, eating spiritual food and drinking spiritual drink provided by God. They were being sustained by a “spiritual rock” that would come later, and that rock was Christ. Again, for early Christians (and us) trying to understand how Jesus fit into God’s plan, the Jewish people, and life in this world, Paul uses a story and an experience etched into the collective memories of the Jewish people – the “baptism into Moses” events of coming out of Egypt and through the Red Sea – to explain in ways they could understand what God has done through Jesus. Salvation in Jesus is like “Moses and our fathers through the Sea.”

Jesus and Peter, Washing the Feet (John 13:5-17)

5 Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. 6 So He came to Simon Peter. He said to Him, “Lord, do You wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered and said to him, “What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter.” 8 Peter said to Him, “Never shall You wash my feet!” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” 9 Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, then wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.” 10 Jesus said to him, “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.” 11 For He knew the one who was betraying Him; for this reason He said, “Not all of you are clean.” 12 So when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 “You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. 14 “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 “For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. 16 “Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. 17 “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. ~John 13:5-17
And then Jesus, himself, did this kind of lived-out explanation on many occasions. One excellent example, where the connection with baptism is easy to see, is when he washed the disciples’ feet. Surprising them all, he took on the servants’ role and went around the room washing and wiping his friends’ feet with a towel. What better way to explain what was about to happen then to demonstrate it with actions? Soon he would give his life as the ultimate act of service for the sake of the world. He even said to Peter, “What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter.” (John 13:7) We’ve already talked about one aspect of baptism – and Christ’s work – as being washed clean of sin or forgiven. Just imagine what it was like for Peter later, after Jesus forgave him for his denials, after Jesus’ death provided forgiveness for all his sins, to think back on that foot-washing and understand: “Jesus and Peter, washing the feet.”

Jesus and Robert, Marked with Water

And so, think about these waters of baptism. Not only do they dramatize and communicate the specific and eternal story of God’s judgment, mercy, salvation, and presence through Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit, but that story – that reality – rests on many, many stories of God acting out that same pattern in more limited ways: “Noah and his family in the Ark”; “Abraham and God with the Covenant”; Moses and our Fathers through the Sea”; “Jesus and Peter, washing the feet.”

And on top of all that, what these waters of baptism dramatize to me every time I see them or think about them is God’s story with me: “Jesus and Robert, marked with water.” It is my specific story that rests in the rich drama of God’s loving pursuit of humanity since before the foundations of the world. It is my specific story of covenants and family and church, of identity and promise, of faith and acceptance, of calling and purpose.

We tend to think of rituals as mindless repetition, but what they are meant to be are re-enactments of powerful stories. Baptism is a PUBLIC RITUAL, enacted to tell the ancient, present, and eternal story of what God has done in Jesus Christ. It doesn’t just communicate information; it tells a story. And it’s not just a story to entertain, but communicates a reality based in history and relationship. What a powerful gift God has given the Church, this ritual of Baptism!

If you have never been baptized, and are interested, I would love to talk to you more about it! And for all of you, every time you see a baptism, think of baptism, or walk past this font, be reminded vividly of what God has done. It is the story of the ages! Amen.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

BAPTISM: Sign of Our Identity (Genesis 17, Galatians 3.26-29)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - September 22, 2013
Text: Genesis 17:7,10-11; Galatians 3:26-29

:: 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: "Prelude on 'Bunessan'" (Fred Bock)

Song of Praise: "Come, People of the Risen King" (Getty, Townend)

Hymn of Praise: "The Church's One Foundation" (AURELIA)

The Word in Music (choir): "One Faith, One Hope, One Lord" (Craig Courtney)
Offering of Music (duet, Annie Ball, Karla Katibah): "Worn" (Tenth Avenue North)
Song of Sending: "Baptized in Water" (BUNESSAN)
Postlude: "Let the Whole Creation Cry" (Gerald Near)

:: 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.
7 “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. … 10 “This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 “And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.  ~Genesis 17:7,10-11

26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.  ~Galatians 3:26-29

Today we are in our second week of a series on baptism. Last week we looked at the symbolism of baptism. In the Bible, water symbolizes death, washing, life, and the Holy Spirit. Using water in baptism then specifically symbolizes and points to four things God has done that correspond to those four symbols. Death corresponds to God’s rightful judgment of sin, the consequence of which is death, borne by Christ on the cross and buried in the tomb. Washing corresponds to God’s generous mercy, shown through the forgiveness of sin, the “washing us clean” through Christ. Life corresponds to salvation, raised with Christ to new life with God now and forever. And the Holy Spirit is a direct basis for Christian hope that God has done and will continue to do what He promised, and remains with us and in us.  All that water baptism symbolizes then serves as a SIGN, pointing to what God has done: judge, forgive, save, and remain.

Today we continue with another way that Baptism serves as a sign. Remember, a sign is not “the thing” but points to the thing, the reality, the person, or the action. Today we will see in Scripture that not only does Baptism point to what God has done, it also points to WHO WE ARE because of what God has done. This is our IDENTITY at the deepest level.

What God Did Before He Did It

So interestingly enough our story starts about 4000 years ago with a man named Abraham. Well really, our story starts all the way back, before that. Abraham’s story came about because of Adam and Eve’s sin, because of the Fall, because humanity was estranged from God and facing a death-judgment for that collective sin and disobedience. I often say, with wondrous gratitude, that God did not turn away from us when we turned away from Him, but pursued us in love. And so He did. That is the story told again and again in Scripture.

We touched on one example last week, when we talked about Noah and the Flood. There God spoke into a world facing rightful judgment for human sin and disobedience. And one man listened and obeyed to build an Ark of Refuge, a means of grace, a God-given means of salvation. And in obedience and faith, Noah led his family into the Ark and was delivered through the water-judgment in an event that Scripture connects with water to baptism in terms of judgment, mercy, salvation, and promise (those four symbols we talked about last week!). And God made a covenant with Noah and his descendants not to ever again destroy the whole world with water and signified that covenant with a rainbow. (Genesis 9)

And so, generations later, when the world was again dark with rebellion, God spoke into a world facing rightful judgment for human sin and disobedience. And one man heard the call and followed it to a new place where God would establish a land and a people and bless them in order that they might bless the whole world. That man was Abraham and God established those promises of land, people, and blessing through a covenant, an enduring relationship with Abraham and his descendants based on the faithfulness of God. And that covenant was signified by circumcision. We heard a concise summary of this covenant and sign in the first scripture reading from Genesis 17:7,10-11.
7 “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. … 10 “This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 “And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.
And in so many ways, the rest of the Old Testament is the story of God keeping His covenant with Abraham and Abraham’s descendants, though they would seemingly test the limits of God’s faithfulness again and again. Fortunately, God’s faithfulness is greater than human faithlessness!

What God Did When He Did It

That brings us to the time of Jesus and the New Testament. As in the days of Noah and the days of Abraham, the world and humanity continued in disobedience and sin. And as God has always done, He did not turn away from us, but pursued us in love, and now at the right time sent His Son into the world, to be born of a woman and to become one of us, fully human while also fully God. This marked the beginning of the New Testament or New Covenant between God and humanity.

And the story of this new covenant is very much what we heard last week (and hopefully most every week!). Jesus lived and suffered and died as one of us, bearing the full weight of God’s rightful judgment on the cross. Yet through him and that obedient sacrifice, God showed mercy on all who trusted in Him, washing them clean of sin. On Easter morning, God raised Jesus from death to life, and us with him to a new life “in Christ.” And even when Jesus ascended back to God’s right hand, he left the promised Holy Spirit with us… IN us, that we might never be alone or apart from God. These are the four great movements of God symbolized in the waters of baptism. It is the story baptism depicts, pointing to the great and merciful act of God. Baptism is the sign of God’s new covenant with humanity through Jesus Christ.

So what’s the deal? I’ve told you about Noah and Abraham and recapped last Sunday’s sermon. Are we covering any new ground here today?

The Joining of the Two and Where We Fit In

Indeed we are, for those old covenants and this new covenant are intimately connected. I hope you heard and understand how consistently God has acted throughout human history. Where humanity faced death as a spiritual consequence, God provided hope, in His mercy. To those who would listen and follow, God provided life. And God has always held out hope and a future. With each covenant, God has acted in the same redemptive ways. With each covenant, God has provided a sign to indicate what He was doing and would faithfully do. With each covenant, God “marked” people with an identity, as those who were part of the covenant. And with each covenant God was faithful to present a means of mercy and salvation to those who would listen, trust, and believe. Let’s look at how Scripture explains this connection.

We heard Romans 11:17-18, which addresses the relationship between God’s old covenant people and God’s new covenant people:
17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, 18 do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you.
It’s a complex bit of theology and life-application, tucked into a word-picture, but Paul is telling Gentile Christians not to despise the Jews (whether Christian or not), but to realize that the Gentile believers are not a new people or new club, but have actually been made a part of something there before them. They are, in every sense of the term, Israel. But they are not “new Israel”; they have become the children of Abraham. Paul actually goes on to say that the Jewish people of his day are “hardened” regarding this new covenant, but it is a great blessing because it has led to a great influx of Gentiles to faith. Finally, God’s covenant with Abraham that his children would bless the nations of the world was really coming to fruition!

Let me say this another way and try to be even clearer. Just as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 that he didn’t come to do away with the Old Testament Law, but to fulfill or complete it, so those who trust in him for salvation have not replaced or done away with Abraham and his children, but have become the fulfillment of what God intended for Abraham and his children. And so Paul warned, “Don’t be arrogant toward the Jews; it is not even the case that you must support them because, in fact, it is they who support you.” It is their Father Abraham, who is your father. It is their old covenant that is the basis for your covenant. It is their scripture that is your scripture. And so on. Let’s consider several more scriptures.

You heard part of the story of the Ethiopian eunuch from Acts 8:36-38. Philip, the Apostle, encounters this African (not Jewish!) man who has been reading the Jewish scriptures. Hearing from Philip about how Jesus fulfilled the words of Isaiah he was reading, the Ethiopian eunuch asked to be baptized. Not only did that event mark his profession that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, it also signified this non-Jewish, African eunuch becoming a son of Abraham and heir of God’s promises to Abraham. You may be thinking, “Where is all that in this passage?” My point is that this very non-Jewish man was reading the Old Covenant scripture promises in Isaiah, and was baptized into the New Covenant. Now listen to what Paul wrote in Galatians 3:26-29 about this very situation:
26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.
The Ethiopian eunuch, trusting in Christ, became one of Abraham’s descendants and heir to the covenant promises, now perfectly fulfilled in Christ! Just one of those covenant promises was for God’s blessing – God’s presence through His Spirit, again no longer a future hope but a present reality in Christ. And we read in 1 Corinthians 12:13…
13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
That gets at one part of what is so shockingly radical about Christianity. It is often berated for being exclusive, for Christ being the “only way to God.” And Jesus did say that. But in reality, it is God’s salvation thrown wide open to the world. It is God, who so loved the world, sending salvation among us. It is throwing open the doors of the Ark saying, “If you want to live, come find rescue here!” It is making a covenant that not only identifies and blesses a particular people, but has in view all the nations of the world. That’s what God promised to Abraham! But it was only fully realized at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit blew out from Jerusalem into the nations of the world. Jesus is very much keeping and fulfilling the covenant with Abraham when he gives the Great Commission to go to the nations, making disciples, BAPTIZING and teaching them. (Matthew 28:19-20)

Our Identity in Christ

So, what does all this mean related to baptism and our identity as Christians – our identity in Christ?

In the Presbyterian Church, we baptize the children of believers as Abraham and his children did with circumcision. This is not because baptism or even being in the covenant saves, but because it says God has spoken to us and is faithful and we mark you with the covenant promise that God will not turn from you. Like Ishmael or Esau or the older brother of the prodigal, a child may grow up to reject their name – their earthly family name or their Spiritual Family name; but God has declared His faithful covenant promise over them: “Though you deserve death, I have offered life and wholeness and hope in Christ.” We also baptize those who would trust God for those promises, who would turn from sin and turn toward God, not because their faith or their baptism saves them, but because God is faithful and says through Christ: “Though you deserve death, I have offered life and wholeness and hope in Christ.”

Said even more simply, baptism is a sign that God is faithful, and it is something that folks come to from outside the covenant, like the Greeks of Paul’s day, and from within the covenant, like the children of covenant families. In either case, salvation is only through Christ, through God’s salvation. Baptism is not simply a sign of conversion, but a sign of God’s covenant faithfulness.

So, to be clear, baptism doesn’t save and doesn’t assure us that someone of any age will be saved. It is a declaration, a marker, a sign, that God is faithful to save all who trust in His salvation through Jesus Christ.

Remember your own baptism. It continually serves as a reminder that God is faithful. God is faithful! Amen!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

BAPTISM: What God Has Done (Colossians 2.8-14)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - September 15, 2013
Text: Colossians 2:8-14; Romans 6:3-4

:: 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: "Whiter than Snow" (arr. Heather Sorenson)

Hymn of Praise: "We Know that Christ is Raised" (ENGELBERG)
Song of Praise: "What the Lord Has Done in Me" (Reuben Morgan/Hillsong)

The Word in Music: "Agnus Dei (Lamb of God)" (from Gospel Mass, Robert Ray)
Assurance of Grace: "Redeemed" (Cowart and Weaver; aka "Big Daddy Weave")
Song of Sending: "Marvelous Light" (Charlie Hall)
Postlude: "We Know that Christ is Raised" (Craig Phillips)

:: 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.
8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. 9 For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, 10 and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; 11 and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; 12 having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. 13 When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, 14 having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. ~Colossians 2:8-14

Today we are starting a new series that I think will be very significant for us. I recognize that it sounds like (and is!) a pretty theological topic and to spend six weeks on it seems like we are going to wade into some pretty deep theological waters. Indeed we will! But this is not an exercise in abstract theology, but an exploration of something that I think will be at once both at the core of our faith and immediately applicable to our daily life.  So yes… BAPTISM.

I think for many people it is that thing you do, depending on your religious tradition, either when a new baby is born or when a young person comes to faith. There are variables, too, as to amount of water and method of interacting with it (i.e., sprinkling, pouring, dunking); but it is my hope to go much deeper than that. I also intend to dig the biblical MEANING of baptism long before we ever get to the METHOD of baptism; and I think you will find that whether one practices infant baptism or believer’s baptism that both share a wealth of biblical meaning.

So today we are going to focus on one piece of the meaning of baptism, and it is just one piece. We will not come close to exhausting or understanding the meaning today, but this will be an important part. Today we are going to focus on baptism as a symbol and sign of what God has done.

I will offer a brief word about SYMBOL and SIGN, terms we will continue to hear and use over the next six weeks.  A SYMBOL is something that represents something else, and is usually a kind of “shorthand” for something more complex and complicated. Think of mathematical symbols like the ‘plus’ or ‘equals’ symbols. They represent a set of rules that govern how numbers or sets interact with each other. You have to be taught what they mean, but they are very handy in quickly representing something that would be much more lengthy to explain in words.  Or think about the handy little man or woman graphic on a restroom door. Those are not actual people, but symbolize actual people – the kind who might need to use a restroom!

A SIGN is similar to a symbol, but functions somewhat differently. Rather than representing something more complex or complicated, a sign points to something else (usually more complex or complicated). So a street sign, like the one that says “Rea Rd.” out on the corner points to or marks the existence of the actual Rea Road. It is not the road, but points to it. A stop sign points to an action: “Stop right here.” Now just to complicate things – but this may help in thinking about baptism – sometimes something is a symbol and a sign at the same time! A stop sign is a great example: the eight-sided red sign with the white border is a symbol for “Stop!” It would actually function without the word “Stop” on it because the red octagon is a symbol for stop allowing it to still function as a sign that marks where to stop. In fact, many signs that we think of make use of symbols to save space. All that is to say that one aspect of baptism is to serve as a SYMBOL and SIGN of something more complex and more complicated, something that is not baptism itself, but somewhere else. And baptism not only represents that as a symbol; it points to it as a sign.

Sometimes symbols can represent more than one thing. Consider the “at symbol”: it can represent “at” or “around.” Historically, it has been used in finance to mean “at the rate of.” And more recently, with the widespread use of the Internet, it is used in e-mail addresses to indicate what e-mail service one uses, like @gmail.com. It also is used by some other online programs to direct communication to or at someone, like “Hey @gspcrobert, what are you doing today?” [Twitter, Facebook]

Likewise, baptism represents a number of things in the Bible, not because it is multi-purpose like the “at sign,” but because it symbolizes and points to such a wealth of meaning and action. Let’s look at some of the things baptism symbolizes and I think that all will become more clear. Then we will end with the one most significant thing that it points to: what God has done.

Water Symbolizes Death (Judgment)

First, water symbolizes death. Too much water can destroy as well as drown you. This symbolism is played out in the great “water-judgments” of the Old Testament, most notably the Flood in Genesis 7, the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus 14, or for that matter the hurling of Jonah into the sea in Jonah 1. For all the wonderful and life-giving things water can do, it can also be destructive and death-dealing, and God explicitly used water to judge the unrighteousness and sin of humanity in those two events.

In the days of Noah the world had become exceedingly wicked, so God determined to judge the wickedness of the world by sending a Flood. In Exodus 14, after defying God successive times through the Ten Plagues, Pharaoh finally let God’s people go from slavery, but then changed his mind again and pursued them. After parting the waters for Israel to escape, God caused the waters to close in on the Egyptian army in judgment of Pharaoh. In Jonah, after fleeing God and bringing God’s wrath on the ship headed for Tarshish, the sailors threw Jonah overboard to face God’s judgment in the waters of the sea.

In the New Testament, Peter makes an explicit connection between the judgment (and deliverance) of Noah at the Flood and the judgment and salvation in Christ symbolized by baptism (cf. 1 Peter 3:20-21).

Baptism also symbolizes death, because that is ordinarily the result of God’s judgment. That’s why we heard in our call to worship that “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death…. We have been buried with Him through baptism into death…” (Romans 6:3-4)  That’s why we heard in our first scripture reading from Colossians 2 that we have been “buried with Him in baptism…” (v. 12)  Why did Christ die? Why was he buried? It was because he bore the full weight of God’s judgment against human sin and unrighteousness.

Just as in the Old Testament water-judgments against sin and unrighteousness, so baptism symbolizes God’s judgment upon Jesus Christ, resulting in death and burial. And it does not just symbolize past judgment in the Old Testament or upon Jesus, but coming judgment at the hands of the righteous one. So, Jesus speaks of the coming judgment in Luke 17 and says, “Just as it happened in the days of Noah, so it will be also in the days of the Son of Man…” (Luke 17:26) Jesus’ judgment of humanity is linked to baptism and to the water judgments of old.

If for no other reason than this, we should take baptism very, very seriously, for it represents the righteous judgment of God and that judgment’s consequence: death.

Water Symbolizes Washing (Forgiveness)

BUT, that is not the end of the symbolism or of God’s dealings with humanity. The Good News that we celebrate is that God has not abandoned us to sin, but has come to us with help and hope. That hope is forgiveness, and is a second symbolism to be found in the water of baptism.  In fact, that may be the first attribute of water that one thinks of. Water washes things clean. And so it is that the water of baptism symbolizes the forgiveness of God, the washing or cleansing of sin that we might be “clean” before Him.

So we read in John 1:29, in the context of THE baptism (of Jesus by John the Baptist), that John names Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” In Acts 2:38-42 we read of the massive response to Peter’s sermon at Pentecost and Peter’s invitation and challenge to “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” In Acts 22:16, just after Paul’s conversion, a man named Ananias said to him, “Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.”

The water of baptism symbolizes washing or cleansing, and so represents not only the judgment of God, but also the mercy of God in forgiving sin.

Water Symbolizes Life (Resurrection)

A third symbol found in the water of baptism is that of life, and by extension, resurrection. This, too, is an expected meaning for water since we need it to live and thrive. How can it be that baptismal water symbolizes both judgment-death and resurrection-life? Let’s go back to the same water-judgments I’ve already mentioned. It was all I could do not to point out the double-symbol in the midst of those stories!

In the water-judgment of the Flood, God showed mercy and had a plan of salvation. There was one “righteous man” left on the earth in Noah and God spoke His Word to Noah to build an Ark, which served as a merciful refuge – a salvation – from the judgment and death of the Flood. Noah and his family were delivered THROUGH the waters in God’s mercy. And so, I previously mentioned Peter, who makes a connection between baptism and the Flood. He writes in 1 Peter 3:21 that baptism corresponds to the ark that brought Noah’s family safely through the water. (He also mentions the cleansing nature of baptism, hitting all three symbols – judgment, cleansing, and deliverance in one passage.)

In the parting of the Red Sea, not only was the Red Sea a water-judgment on the Egyptians, it was also deliverance for the Israelites, literally salvation from death and slavery toward life and the covenant Promised Land. If you remember our series on Jonah, those waters were waters of judgment, but God also provided salvation through the great fish that swallowed Jonah. Again, God’s mercy was found in the midst of His righteous judgment.

And so, our Call to Worship in Romans 6:3-4 not only links baptism to Christ’s death and burial, but also Christ’s resurrection from the dead and our new life. Likewise, our first scripture reading from Colossians 2:8-14 not only speaks of being “buried with Him in baptism” but also being “raised up with Him.”

Water Symbolizes Spirit (the promised Holy Spirit)

Finally, the water of baptism is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. In fact, throughout the Old and New Testament times, water represented God’s Holy Spirit. And so it was on the last day of the great feast in John 7, when the priest stood before the people and poured water from a pitcher into a font to symbolize God’s promise to one day send His Holy Spirit on the people, that Jesus stood up and cried out, saying, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:37-38)

John the Baptist linked his water-baptism to Jesus’ Holy Spirit baptism when he baptized Jesus in John 1:29-34. On the day of Pentecost, Peter called for those listening to him to be baptized, not only for forgiveness – the washing of sin – but also as a sign of receiving the Holy Spirit.

All that is to say that the water of baptism also represents the promises of God, fulfilled at Pentecost, fulfilled daily in the Spirit-indwelled lives of believers, and held in hope for that day when Jesus returns.

Baptismal Water Signifies What God Has Done (judge, forgive, save, remain)

So baptism and specifically the water of baptism is a rich SYMBOL that points to four things (at least!): death, washing, life, and spirit. In addition to all that, baptism is more than a symbol; it is also a SIGN. It doesn’t just represent abstract death, washing, life, and spirit; it POINTS TO God’s judgment, forgiveness, salvation, and promised faithfulness. The water of baptism doesn’t do those things; it doesn’t even generically symbolize those things. It specifically points to the God of history who has acted toward humanity in those ways, most specifically in and through Jesus Christ.

And so when we baptize and when we witness baptism, we are being directed to God and what God has done. It should be slightly terrifying that we are invoking the righteous judgment of God; but it should be even more humbling and comforting that we are directed to the Good News of forgiveness and salvation in Jesus Christ.

This is why I say that baptism is not just an abstract theological topic. It is, in a compact and evocative symbol and sign, the very Gospel story. It is the declaration of all that is wrong with humanity and all that God has done to rescue us. It is like being able to take the whole long, rich story of scripture and squeeze it into one symbol and sign (though it turns out there are TWO such symbols and signs which we call the Sacraments of Baptism and Communion). Think about the Lincoln Memorial or the American flag or the image of the cross. Each one evokes (or SHOULD evoke) a long, rich story of action, emotion, history, and influence. That’s why we’ve put a cross up for the first Sunday of talking about Baptism. It symbolizes such rich and critical aspects of God’s story and it points to the God who acted.

Whether you are pondering your own baptism or witnessing another, or even if you see the font as visible reminder of its purpose, I hope you will more deeply associate the water of baptism with all that God has done through Jesus Christ for the sake of the world.

Next week we will see that not only does baptism serve as a SIGN pointing to what God has done, but it also serves as a SIGN pointing to WHO WE ARE in Christ. Amen.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

==Summer Index 2013==

Soak in the Word Series
Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church
June 2 - September 8, 2013

Each week focuses on a “verse every Christian should know” in hope that by the end of the summer you will have a core set of 15 scripture verses held deeply and dearly within. This series was also born out of one other reality, that often we hear and learn some of these key verses and do so out of the context in which they were written; so we want to focus on these verses each week IN CONTEXT so that we lock  the intended word into our hearts.
Series Artwork

Artwork: Kathy Larson

"Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; He is the faithful God, keeping His covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love Him and keep His commands."
~Deuteronomy 7:9

Artwork: John Wright

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight."
~Proverbs 3:5-6
Artwork: Billy Howell

"But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."
~Romans 5:8

Artwork: Elizabeth Austell, age 10

"For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast."
~Ephesians 2:8-9

Artwork: Charlie Henderson

"I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." ~John 14:6

Artwork: K-5th Graders

"And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose."
 ~Romans 8:28

Artwork: Joanie Fedor

"And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
~Philippians 4:6-7

Artwork: Maggie Slade, age 11

"I can do all things through Him who strengthens me." ~Philippians 4:13


Artwork: Annie Houston

"God is faithful [and] will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it." ~1 Corinthians 10:13b 
Artwork: Gail McKitterick

"...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

Artwork: Joanie Fedor

"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 12:2

Artwork: Susan Slade

"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
Artwork: Emily Pearce

"'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 
Artwork: Alina Harrington, age 11

"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction." ~Proverbs 1:7

Artwork: Kathy Larson

"All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man or woman of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work."  ~2 Timothy 3:16-17

Sunday, September 8, 2013

When God Breathes (2 Timothy 3:1-17)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - September 8, 2013
Text: 2 Timothy 3:1-17; Psalm 119:129-135 

:: 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: "How Firm a Foundation" (arr. Joseph Martin)

Song of Praise: "Every Promise of Your Word" Getty & Townend)
Song of Praise: "Break Thou the Bread of Life/Come Feed My Soul" (refrain C. Youngblood)

The Word in Music: "Speak, O Lord" (Getty & Townend/McDonald)
Offering of Music: "Your Strong Word" (Paul Manz)
Hymn of Sending: "How Firm a Foundation" (FOUNDATION))
Postlude: "Fugue in A Major" (Kuhnau)

:: Some Visuals Used
Prelude: Video* on 2 Timothy 3:16-17

Artwork by Kathy Larson

:: 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.
“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man or woman of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.
~2 Timothy 3:16-17
Today, as we come to the beginning of our Fall classes, programs, ministries, and more, we also come to the end of our summer series on “Soaking in the Word.” Rather than it be an ending, I hope that it is a beginning of a new season of study and growth through God’s Word. Today we come to that verse that says that Scripture is inspired or “God-breathed.” It is that, indeed; but rather than have a theology class on the origin and development of the Bible (which I’m glad to have any time!); this verse falls in a context that is more like giving a critical operations and strategy manual to a desperate army officer in time of war. Let’s turn to 2 Timothy 3 and look at the context for this important verse about God’s Word.

Difficult Times

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

In this personal letter to Timothy, Paul is trying to encourage him in life, faith, and ministry.  He comes to chapter three in this second letter to Timothy and writes something that should grab our attention, because it is like Paul is living and walking among us in 2013:
Realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come.  For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power.
Whether we are in the “last days” or not, whatever Paul has to say to Timothy will be applicable, for Paul has described our “days” with startling accuracy.  That last one is the most heart-wrenching of all.  People will claim to be religious, but miss the heart of true religion – the power of knowing and being loved by the True God.

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

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

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

God’s Breath Upon Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four Uses

Paul lists four more uses of scripture in our lives – scripture is profitable (useful)…

    …for teaching
    …for reproof
    …for correction
    …for training in righteousness

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

Paul says that when we have submitted to the teaching, reproof, correction, and training of scripture, the result is that we are “adequate, equipped for every good work.”  We will have what we need to face the selfishness, deception, malice, and evil of the world.  It’s not super-power, like Superman or Spiderman, but it is adequate equipment to be God’s men and women.  It is the courage and freedom to speak the truth in the face of deception.  It is the purity to reject temptations of money, sex, or power.  It is the endurance and perseverance to live with hope through suffering or persecution.  It is the sure knowledge that God goes with us, before us and behind us, leading us on His path and in His will.

School on Sunday?!

Do we want our children to be saved?  Do we want them to know God by trusting in and following Jesus Christ?  Then certainly we want them to grow up with the sacred scriptures that give the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith.  We also want adults to come to a saving knowledge of God in Jesus Christ.  So, we continue to stand on and proclaim God’s Word boldly as a church.

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

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

Worship is primarily where we give to God – we worship God in Spirit and Truth, offering ourselves in response to who He is and His Word to us. Sunday school is where God gives to us… riches out of His Word.  It is where you will get the equipment you need to not only live life, but live it well as God would have you live.

Let me end with three challenges:
  1. Commit to coming to Sunday school each week – you and your whole family.  It will transform your faith and your life.
  2. Commit to personal study of God’s Word – reading it, pondering it, wrestling with it, and living it.  There is a women’s Bible study on Monday nights and Tuesday mornings as well, organized to help you study daily.
  3. Commit to coming on Wednesday nights each week – you and your whole family.  Seven days is a long time to be away from God’s Word and family.  Wednesday night is a chance to eat and fellowship with the church family and then for every age group to study and live out God’s Word.  It will also transform your faith and your life.
I won’t give you a 30-day guarantee like on TV, because I think these are things we need to be doing out of obedience, even if we don’t “feel the blessing” right away.  But, having said that, I am confident that you will experience life-changing transformation by committing to the study of God’s Word on a regular basis.

And if our greater calling is not to just come to church but to BE the church in the world, this study of God’s Word, tuned for those called to live and be in this world, is of critical value in our preparation and work.

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

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Wisdom and Humility (Proverbs 1.1-7)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - September 1, 2013
Text: Proverbs 1:1-7; Psalm 111:9-10; Matthew 7:24-29

:: 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: learning "Come Ye Sinners" (Matthew Smith/Indelible Grace)

Hymn of Praise: "All Creatures of Our God and King" (LASST UNS ERFRUEN)
Song of Praise: "Come Ye Sinners" (Matthew Smith/Indelible Grace)

Offering of Music (Mike Slade): "Who Am I? (Casting Crowns)
Song of Sending: "Be Thou My Vision/Open My Eyes, Lord" (Austell/Youngblood)

Postlude: "All Creatures of Our God and King" (Hal Hopson)

:: Some Visuals Used
Prelude: Video* on Proverbs 1:7

Artwork by Alina Harrington

:: 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.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.
~Proverbs 1:7
Today we are in Proverbs, that book of the Bible that is chock-full of wise and pithy sayings like “Anxiety in a person’s heart weighs it down, but a good word makes it glad.” (12:25) And one of my favorites: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (15:1)

Proverbs is what is called “wisdom literature” and highlights the difference between wisdom and foolishness. Wisdom is the ability to make godly choices in life. Today we are looking at the introduction to Proverbs, which sets the tone and purpose for the whole collection, which is spelled out in verses 2-6. If you didn’t quite follow the syntax of the sentence, let me highlight it by reading the first verse a little differently, followed by vv. 2-6.

These proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel are hereby collected with these goals:

•    To know wisdom and instruction (v. 2a)
•    To discern the sayings of understanding (v. 2b)
•    To receive instruction in wise behavior, righteousness, justice and equity (v. 3)
•    To understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles (v. 6)

Then comes our memory verse (v. 7), which I will also save to the end as in the text.

Listen and Learn (vv. 4-5)

In the middle of the stated goals for collecting these proverbs, we get some insight into the breadth of audience, from the naïve and young to the older and wiser. Let me restate those verses in this way: these proverbs are collected…

•    For the naïve, to give prudence
•    For the youth to give knowledge and discretion
•    For the wise man (or woman), who will hear and increase in learning
•    For the man (or woman) of understanding, who will acquire wise counsel

Notice the change from verse 4 to 5. The proverbs give the naïve and young something they are lacking. It is given like food, in order to eat and grow. But the wise and understanding person knows what to do with the proverbs! Those persons will “hear and increase in learning… and acquire wise counsel.” Interesting!

If I had to choose one everyday, practical trait for becoming wise it would be LISTENING. We see that the young and immature need to be taught. We see that the more mature and wise know how to listen, from the “will hear” to seeking out wise counsel. And we see in the last part of v. 7 that the fool despises instruction, not wanting to listen or be taught.

For each goal of Proverbs and as illustrated with the intended audience, LISTENING is a critical skill. And it is more than a skill, it is an attitude. Hearing only requires ears that work, but listening requires a willingness to pay attention and accept instruction. That’s when LEARNING happens.

Learn and Act

It is also evident in this text and in the others we heard today that LEARNING is not the end of wisdom, but ACTION is. It is not enough to hear if we don’t learn; and it is not enough to learn if we don’t act.

Consider v. 3: wisdom, instruction, and understanding in v. 2 expands in v. 3 to “wise behavior, righteousness, justice, and equity.” Those are wisdom applied. Remember the original definition of wisdom (the ability to make godly choices)? These are examples of godly choices: righteousness, justice, and equity.

Our other texts for the day also connect wisdom to action. Psalm 111 equates wisdom and good understanding with “doing God’s commandments.” (Psalm 111:10) In Jesus’ parable in Matthew 7, the wise man (who built his house on the rock) is the one who “hears these words of mine and ACTS on them.” Or in the scenario of the parable, wisdom wouldn’t be just listening to the weather forecast of a storm or the builder’s instructions on the importance of building on rock vs. sand, but ACTUALLY BUILDING on rock to prepare for the storm. So, Jesus teaches, we must not only hear God’s Word (and Jesus’ teaching), but ACT on it!

This is a good point to draw some initial application. If we consider the scripture and sermon you hear in worship as one example of God’s Word to you, we may ask several critical questions in regards to your being wise or foolish.

1. Do you HEAR what God is saying through the scripture and the Word preached? (Unless you’ve fallen asleep or have headphones in or are VERY distracted, probably so!)

2. Are you LISTENING to what God is saying through the scripture and the Word preached? (This takes much more attention, intention, and involvement!)

3. What are you going to DO with what God is saying through the scripture and the Word preached? (And the rubber meets the road…!)

Holy Fear is the Beginning

All this is very practical and common sense: listen, learn, and act. Then we get to verse 7… to the beginning: the fear of the Lord.

Two questions immediately arise: 1) What in the world is “the fear of the Lord?” and 2) How does that related to knowledge and wisdom?

Let’s start with the first question. Interestingly enough, a pastor-friend was asking about the “fear of the Lord” earlier this week and I was able to say, “I’m preaching on that THIS Sunday!” Fear of the Lord is a complicated and elevated concept, related to our common use of fear, but so much more than that. We might round out our understanding of “fear of the Lord” with words like “holy reverence,” “awe,” “humble respect,” and “worship.” Mostly in this life we fear things or people that want to hurts us, but God is not evil, but good. Rather, it is that God is so pure and powerful and holy that we dare not approach or treat God lightly. I’ve heard “fear of the Lord” compared with the way one might approach a power transformer or a fire, with caution and respect for the fact that there is enough power there to kill you if you aren’t looking what you are doing. And that is going to be the point of connection to how “the fear of the Lord” relates to this passage in Proverbs: just as a wise person gives full attention to a power transformer or blazing fire, so a wise person gives full attention to the Lord, what God is saying and doing.

First, though, let me say a bit more about “fear of the Lord.” If I had to pick one passage to epitomize this attitude toward God, it would be the Isaiah 6, where Isaiah encounters God in all God’s glory and power. Isaiah is a believer, a prophet of God, but the encounter causes him to fall to the ground, “undone” in his language. God does not strike him or attack him or threaten him; it is simply what being in God’s presence does to him, convicting him to the very core of his being and all at once of his mortality and his unrighteousness.  I would call that a “holy fear.”

But, hold that in tension with the teaching in the book of Hebrews, that we may “have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus.” (Hebrews 10:19) The King James translated that verse that we have “boldness” to enter God’s presence. So, yes, there is a “holy fear” that is not only appropriate, but inevitable in God’s presence; but because of Christ there is a “holy confidence” or “holy boldness.” I think we probably have an inadequate concept of both ideas and tend to think of God either too casually or too timidly. But somewhere in the tension between the elevated concepts of “holy fear” and “holy boldness” there is our reality in Christ.

While we continue to wrestle with our own limited understanding of God in that tension, what we can be assured of in Proverbs 1 is that God warrants our FULL ATTENTION!  Whether because God is so powerful that looking away may mean the difference between life and death or because the grace we have to approach God through Christ is so generous and magnificent (and BOTH are true!); the wise man, the wise woman, the wise boy, the wise girl… listens, learns and obeys God. That is the point of Proverbs 1:7. Listen, learn, and obey as if your life depended on it! Listen, learn, and obey like you would if an emergency worker if you were trapped in a falling building. Listen, learn, and obey like you would if a doctor if you had a life-threatening illness. Listen, learn, and obey as if the one, all-powerful, all-wise, all-loving God of the universe were speaking and had your best interest at heart.

To really get at this, I would offer this adaptation of words you will know well.  You have heard it said that we are to LOVE the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength – basically, will all you’ve got! This passage teaches an application of that love of God – another good way to understand “fear of the Lord.” Hear it then this way: this is wisdom… to listen to, learn from, and obey the Lord your God with all you’ve got!

And there is a related teaching like it. You will see this echoed in verse 5 in the actions of the wise: listen to others! We might even say, “Listen to others as you would yourself.” Fools only listen to themselves; they despise wisdom and instruction (v. 7). But the wise ones, they listen, learn, and obey God and learn from their neighbor. Something to ponder, to be sure!  Amen.