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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Thankful for a King (Matthew 2, 21, 27; Revelation 17.14)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - November 24, 2013
Text: Matthew 2:1-6; 21:1-11; 27:27-44; Revelation 17:14
Christ the King Sunday

:: Sermon Audio (link) - manuscript not available for today; I am posting a sermon from 2008 from which today's sermon was based, so there are some of the same core ideas. But you'll need to listen to the audio for what was said in worship today.

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: ""Variations on 'O Worship the King'" (Michael Burkhardt)

Hymn of Praise: "Crown Him with Many Crowns" (DIADEMATA)
Song of Praise: "Lion of Judah" (Robin Mark)

Word in Music: "Coronation" (Craig Courtney)
Offering of Music: "Only You, Lord" (David Crowder)
Hymn of Sending: "Behold Our God" (Sovereign Grace - Bairds, Altrogge)
Postlude: "Crown Him with Many Crowns (Michael Burkhardt)

:: Sermon Manuscript
As mentioned above, this manuscript is actually from 2008 and formed the basis of today's sermon, but I do not have a closer transcription of what I actually preached. You'll have to listen to the audio for that.

Today is what is called “Christ the King Sunday.”  As you may know, the Christian Church has organized the calendar year in such a way as to tell the biblical story year after year.  Some individual churches use this church calendar more than others, but almost everyone observes Christmas and Easter and the seasons leading up to the celebration of Jesus’ birth and resurrection.  Next Sunday we will begin Advent, and will begin looking forward to Christmas.  But today, is really the end and culmination of the church calendar because we celebrate Christ as King.  Next Sunday we start telling the story all over again.

I have chosen a number of scripture lessons today.  The call to worship described the final scene of Christ as King, victorious over the powers of evil and death.  But in another sense, the whole biblical story points towards that ending.  And so I have chosen several texts which name Christ as King, to remind us that at every point in history, and at every point in our own lives, Jesus Christ IS King of kings and Lord of Lords. That is something for which I am so thankful and it is Good News indeed!

Let’s look briefly at each of these texts.

Expected King (Matthew 2)

Matthew 2:1-6 is a familiar text, particularly as we enter into the Christmas season.  Look at that with me.  Matthew tells us that just after Jesus was born, magi (the “wise men”) from the east came to find him. 

The wise me traveled and came to the ruler of Judea, Herod the King.  They asked, “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2)  Of course, this led to trouble with Herod; but the point is that Jesus birth was no accident, nor was the arrival of this “King of the Jews.”  He was the fulfillment of God’s promises from the beginning of time.

Promised King (2 Samuel 7)

To understand that expectation, let’s back up and look at its roots. The point I want to make here is that the birth of God’s Messiah as “King” was promised ahead of time.  One approach to Jesus is to believe that he was an ordinary man (and baby) who God blessed in a special way and set apart.  But that is not the biblical story.  From the beginning of time God planned to send His Son into the world to make a way for us to be restored to relationship with God.  From the earliest parts of scripture, in the stories and promises of God’s people, and even as far as these foreign wise men, God’s promise was known.  This promise was implicit in the curse and promise in the Garden.  The promise was there in the covenant with Abraham and explicitly so in the covenant with David.  The Old Testament prophets looked forward to the King’s coming.

Sent King (Matthew 21)

From this account of the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life, let’s jump to Matthew 21 to the end of Jesus’ earthly life.  This is the great Palm Sunday text, where the people welcome Jesus with shouts of “Hosanna!”  When Jesus sends the disciples to find a donkey, he quotes the prophet Isaiah, “Behold your King is coming to you…” (v. 5).  And indeed, the crowds went on to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem as a King and hero, shouting for him to save them.  The people were waiting for a Savior-King, and thought Jesus might just be that one who would set them free from the oppression and rule of the Roman army.

We’ve talked about Palm Sunday before – how the expectations and dreams of a Savior-King were close, but missed the reality of who Jesus was.  People were looking for a political Savior rather than a personal and spiritual Savior.  Nonetheless, this does not take away from the “sentness” of Jesus as the Savior and King promised and sent from God.

The King who Suffered (Matthew 27)

Fast forward just five days in the life of Jesus and you reach the scene in Matthew 27.  There, he is being tortured and crucified, but not before being mocked with purple robes and a crown of thorns as the “King of the Jews.”  This description, which had been with him all his life, was affixed over his head on a sign on the cross.

A while back, we made much of Jesus, the Great High Priest, who suffered and was tempted in every way as we have been, but who did not sin.  Likewise, Jesus our King, suffered and was taken captive and defeated before, as Ephesians 4 describes, he took captivity captive and released us all from our chains.  If you have never seen or read the great depiction of this scene in C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it is well worth doing!

Jesus as suffering King is another reminder of our God, who does not remain hidden and aloof in the far reaches of Heaven, but who has come all the way down to where we are to plunge into the depth of human experience and rescue us, employ us, and bring us home.

The Returning King (Revelation 17)

Finally, I want to point you to Revelation, to the verse that began our service.  It is from Revelation 17:14, which reads, “These will wage war against the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, because He is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those who are with Him are the called and chosen and faithful.”  Not only is Jesus the promised and sent King who has suffered with us and for us; he is also the returning King, who will come to establish God’s reign forever.  And look at that wording – “those who are with Him are the called and chosen and faithful.”  Those are all words we have used to describe what it is God saves us for.  That’s part of the whole energy behind the lighthouse/searchlight vision – that God doesn’t just save us for Heaven, but saves us for His work here on earth.  That’s what called and chosen and faithful describes – you and me engaged in the Lord’s work.  That’s what it means to be with Him! 

The King who Saves Us

Christ the King Sunday and these connected texts describing Jesus as King are a fitting last word for the Christian calendar year as well as our struggles, hurts, and fears.  We’ve talked about trouble, discouragement, and doubt – both the steps we can take to draw near to God and the ways that God promises to draw near to us. 

Hear this Good News – Jesus is God’s final Word!  Our trouble, discouragement, and doubt – even our sin and death – have not and do not take God by surprise, though they certainly can take us by surprise.  Sickness, job loss, family issues, nor anything else takes God by surprise, though those things can lay us low.  The Good News is that from the beginning of time, promised from the moment Adam and Eve disobeyed and turned from God, God has purposed to send His Son into the world to face what we face and to emerge victorious over it all with all who believe in tow. 

This is no magic wand for trouble and sorrow; but it is Good News.  God is here; God is not surprised, nor reeling defensively from the things that knock our feet out from under us.  Rather, God has acted with all the foresight, wisdom, and compassion of a Heavenly Father to send us real help in times of real trouble.

Jesus is Savior and King, and at the end of the day, as God’s called, chosen, and faithful ones, there is no better place we could be than with Him at His side.  And there is no better place to put your trust, offer your prayers, and rest your hope, than in the King who saves us.  Amen.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Consecration (Ephesians 4.17-25, John 17)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - November 10, 2013
Text:Ephesians 4:17-25; John 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: "Gather Us In" (Jeffrey Honore)

Hymn of Praise: "I Sing the Mighty Power of God" (ELLACOMBE)
Song of Praise: "Jesus, All for Jesus" (Robin Mark)

Word in Music: "Consecrated, Lord, to Thee" (Craig Courtney)
Offering of Music/Doxology: "The Stand" (Joel Houston)
Hymn of Sending: "Take My Life" (Tomlin/Giglio)
Postlude: Solemn Recessional" (Colin Mawby)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf)
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.

Today is Consecration Sunday. I realize that the word consecration is not one we use in everyday language. And it may be that if you recognize it at all, the only thing you know about it is that it’s the pledge card Sunday. There is a reason we use words like ‘stewardship’ and ‘consecration’ though. If all we were focusing on or interested in was money, budgets, and pledges, we’d just call it “Budget Sunday” or “Pledge Sunday.” But there are deeper and more important things at work, and they apply in many (even all?!) areas of life, not just that of money and finances.

One example of that was last week’s sermon. It was our “Stewardship Sunday” but I talked about my own health and weight-loss. Ultimately, that was a stewardship issue for me, and the point of sharing that story wasn’t primarily to talk about weight-loss, but to talk about how God’s transforming power had intersected one area of my life. One of the things I kept coming back to last week was that God was not only in the salvation business, but also in the transformation business. I was saved long ago, but this area of my life is newly transformed and I give God all the credit for that.

Today’s topic of consecration is related. It goes hand-in-hand with stewardship and transformation and I’ll try to talk about it with words and images that are more familiar because it is something of vital importance to our lives.

Our call to worship today was from John 17, the long prayer Jesus prayed the night just before his arrest. He prayed for himself, his followers, and those who followed after, like us. And in that prayer he used the word we translate “consecrated” – or sanctified or made holy. That’s what ‘consecrate’ means: to make holy. But that doesn’t really help, does it? We’ve heard the word ‘holy’ but it is just as mysterious as ‘consecrate.’ Here’s my simplified version, which I have shared before. The concept of holy or sanctified or consecrated literally means “set apart” but that can be misleading because our minds tend to go to the idea of separation. We think, if I am to be “set apart” then I must withdraw or separate myself from others who are not set apart. But Jesus’ prayer makes it clear that he doesn’t mean for his followers to be separated or withdrawn from the world, but sent INTO it! A better understanding of holy or sanctified or consecrated is “made distinct for God's use.” 

And Jesus speaks of TRUTH. That’s the connection with today’s passage in Ephesians, which also speaks of truth and describes a consecrated life in some detail. Jesus prays for his followers, present and future, to be consecrated IN TRUTH and sent INTO the world. Truth is what makes them distinct as Jesus-sent missionaries living life in the world around them.

That’s the core message this morning: that Jesus desires people not just to be saved from sin, but to follow him as consecrated men and women, and that means that we are to be distinguished by truth for the sake of mission. And everybody has a mission. Said even more simply, Jesus’ desire for each of us – you and me – is that we not only be FACING in the right direction (toward God), but also MOVING in the right direction.

The Old Path: futile, false, and rebellious

So the passage in Ephesians 4 breaks up into two main sections on the topic of how we live life, or as it is put in Ephesians, how we “walk” (v. 17). The first several verses (17-19) describe the OLD way of life, the old walk. There are a series of descriptors for this old way of life, which is likened to the Gentile or unbelieving way of life:
  • In the futility of their mind
  • Being darkened in their understanding
  • Excluded from the life of God (two reasons given: ignorance and a hard heart)
  • Have given themselves over to self-centered sensuality and impurity
The result of not having the light or life of Christ is a “darkened understanding” that is at once an ignorance and a misleading blindness. That FALSENESS is tied to both a FUTILITY and a REBELLIOUSNESS that spirals into further darkness. The point here is that even those who have been “saved” by faith in Christ still face the temptation to lead this kind of life. That path is still there, as dark, dangerous, and futile as it is. But v. 20 appeals to us: “But you did not learn Christ in this way!” There is another path that leads to life!

The New Path: right, true, and obedient

In contrast to that old way of life is the new way of life with Christ. In vv. 20-24 we realize that salvation does not automatically result in transformation or consecration. Let me use the language of Ephesians to explain that, and then I’ll try to say it even more simply.  Vv. 20-21 teach us that if we have heard what Christ had to say – if we have really heard – then we have heard the TRUTH. See there at the end of v. 21: “truth is in Jesus.” And here is some of that truth in what follows: “In reference to your former manner of life (what we were just talking about), lay aside the old self.” This is the Jesus truth: if you have trusted and listened to Jesus then you must make a choice to follow him. And part of that choice is to leave behind the old way and take part in the new way.

There is more: that old self or way of life faces ongoing temptation and corruption. Against that, we must seek to be “renewed in the spirit of our mind” and “put on the new self.” Now, it’s not all on our own steam. God has done the hardest part through Jesus. See the end of v. 24: “…the new self… has been created in the likeness of God in righteousness and holiness of the truth.”

Let me try to say this even more simply.  If you have trusted God in Jesus Christ for salvation, then God has created a new you. That’s the miracle! That’s the thing we could not do for ourselves. Before that we had our back to God in futility and rebellion and all we could see was the one futile path before us. When God saved us in Christ, we saw God face to face and if we listen, we hear Christ’s invitation to “Come, follow me.” There is the new path. But that salvation has just opened our ears to the truth and opened our eyes to the new path. But we have yet to move. We still see the old and the new stretched before us. We must choose to follow and put on the new and walk in the new.

Even a few steps in, we still see and hear the old. I think of the ancient Israelites, who were rescued out of slavery, delivered through the Red Sea, and sustained in the wilderness. Yet they constantly remembered how it was before in Egypt and, more than a few times, complained and wanted to go back to the old and familiar place. It’s that way with us, too. I’d like to say that the further you walk after Jesus the further in the distance the old way becomes, but it’s more like there are constant detours and supposed “short-cuts” all along the way. And then, as I described last week, there are multiple situations of “putting on the new” in every aspect of our lives, whether health, finances, relationships, thoughts, or other things.

There is one word for all of this: consecration. That is the act of laying aside the old and putting on the new, with God’s help. The transformation I talked about last week is the kind of change that God is pleased to do when we submit to Him. But consecration is the setting aside for God’s purpose. It is saying, “God, this area of my life belongs to you; do with it what you will!”

In contrast to the FUTILITY, FALSEHOOD, and DISOBEDIENCE of the old way of life, a consecrated life or area of life is marked then by what is RIGHT, TRUE, and OBEDIENT. And we experience those things not by God zapping us or forcing us, but by submitting to God and asking for His help to trust and follow him, in relationships, finances, health, work, school, dreams, and more.

Path to Somewhere

And here’s the final part: Jesus not only makes possible a new life (salvation), but invites us on a path to somewhere (mission). You can see this in Ephesians 4 in v. 25: “Therefore, laying aside falsehood (the old way), speak truth each one of you with his neighbor, for we are members of one another.” There is an amazing parallel there with John 17. Jesus’ intent for his followers, present and future, was to consecrate them with the truth of God’s word for a mission in the world. So also Ephesians 4 says we are to speak the truth (of Christ) with our neighbors, with whom we are connected.

So here’s the big picture: God loved the world, which was lost in darkness, falsehood, and futility, so he sent His Son into the world as light and life and truth. Jesus, the Son came to rescue all who believed in Him, but not just for the sake of rescue and salvation, but also for a purpose and a mission, that like him we would be sent into the world of darkness, falsehood, and futility in love and with truth. If Christianity is just a ticket to Heaven for you, then you have not heard Christ’s message clearly. He saves to send as he was sent, which is to say he saves that we might go into the world and love those around us as he came among us and loved those in the world.

Consecration is the act of putting on that mantle, that new identity of being not just a Christ-believer, but a Christ-follower. It involves giving over every area of our lives to him – some we cling to more tightly than others, I know! But consecration is the first act of following. It is saying and doing what it takes to give to God our days, our dreams, our energy, our finances, our relationships, our work, our school, our everything… laying aside the old perspective and taking up the mindset of “God, this is yours; what would you have me do with it?”

As I said last week, though we are at a focal point for our church budget and capital campaign, these sermons are far broader than those things. It may well be that you need to hear about transformation and consecration around the area of personal and family finances. But it may be that God is speaking into an entirely different area of your life. I’ll leave that up to you and God. What I do ask is that you consider the path you are on – whether you are moving and where you are going. Is God leading? Is it characterized by what is RIGHT, TRUE, and OBEDIENT? Remember that Jesus not only was Truth, but he said he was the way – going before us; and he was and is the LIFE, come that we might have more life. May God give each of us ears to hear and hearts to follow.  Amen.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Transformational God (2 Corinthians 1.1-11)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - November 3, 2013
Text:2 Corinthians 1:1-11

:: 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: Jazz piano (Rick Bean)

Hymn of Praise: "Jesus, Come, for We Invite You (SICILIAN MARINERS)
Song of Praise: "Lord, You Are Welcome in This Place"

Hymn of Sending: "Blessed Assurance" (ASSURANCE)
Postlude: Jazz piano (Rick Bean)

:: 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. Because of the personal nature of this particular sermon, I'd commend the audio version; but, if you are inclined to read instead, you'll still get the gist of it.

In the last 9-10 months I have lost fifty pounds. You’ve noticed and many others have noticed. And the question is inevitable, “How did you do it?” It’s not an unwelcome question at all; I’m glad to talk about it. What is hard is boiling the answer down to a few words. My kind of funny answer, which is also kind of true, is “I found an app for that.” I’ll tell you more about that in a bit. The less interesting, but also accurate answer is that I’ve been eating less and exercising more. But that is the physiological answer, not the motivational, emotional, or spiritual answer; and, having heard that answer from others before, it’s also not very satisfying.

Really, what I want to share today is the FULL answer, and it’s only what I’ve come to understand so far; I know there is and will be more in the days to come.

Here is, more or less, the order in which I began to understand what is going on.

Parking Lot Prayer

About a year and a half ago, I had come out of my annual physical with my doctor and I sat in my car in the parking lot and poured out my heart to Jesus. It was about the third physical in a row when my doctor had made it clear that my weight and health needed my urgent attention. The first “come to Jesus” talk with the doctor was about four years ago, but I had successfully dieted and gamed the calendar so that I had lost 5-10 lbs. at the next physical and could report that I was making progress. But this one caught me on the way back up. And it had become clear that my diets were only effective for a short period of time and never for more than a fraction of the weight I needed to lose. So, caught on the way back up, I despaired. And in the parking lot about a year and half ago, I actually “came to Jesus” and asked for his help, not “help me do what I need” but “help me do what I can’t.” Actually, it was even stronger than that. In 2 Corinthians 1:9, Paul writes of “having the sentence of death within ourselves” and that’s what I had… a physical death sentence, slow-moving, but sure. And the deepest truth of what I want to share today is in those few verses around that:
“…we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead; who delivered us from so great a peril of death, and will deliver us, He on whom we have set our hope.” (vv. 8-10)
What I want to share with you is not the story of how Robert lost weight, but one example of the Gospel of Jesus Christ applied in one very specific and very real instance. It is easy to read scripture and always spiritualize it to being about sin and the consequence of death, and Jesus’ life-giving sacrifice on our behalf. And all of that is true and real. But that salvation and resurrection is also played out in mini-salvations and mini-resurrections in hundreds of ways each day, in real physical, material, and practical ways. And I want to share with you the truth of that Good News. So listen, not for details of weight-loss, but for principles of salvation that may well and hopefully will apply into areas of your own life where you feel the “death sentence” and “burden beyond your strength.”

From the Beginning…

I’m going to start now at the beginning for me, just because it is easier to be chronological then remember the order in which I came to understand of all this. Much of it came as insight on the long walks I’ve been taking. Much of it came in a rush in recent weeks, not at the beginning. It is mostly framed in terms of weight and health, but I hope you will try to pull out the principles more than the specifics.

I was born HUGE; and it was a labor and delivery of epic proportions. I was 10.5 lbs. and I was breach, and there was no C-section. I have heard the story many times throughout my life – of an active labor of some 40+ hours, so long and hard that I nearly suffocated (and that not even mentioning my poor mother!). So, in addition to being 10.5 lbs., I had overworked my lungs and was put in NICU in an incubator next to the preemies. My lungs and chest were also big from the exertion and there I lay, literally ten times the size of some of those preemies. It became and is part of my identity; I was born a heroically huge baby. Oh, and this – my grandmother asked God to spare my life and she offered me to the Lord in return… kind of a Hannah and Samuel kind of thing. And when I went into ministry, she reminded me of that. So, my epic story was tied to God and my calling.

Then there was a second defining event in my life, related to weight and size (and calling). When I was 19, after my freshman year in college, I went on summer staff, like a number of our young people have done. I was assigned all summer to the Dominican Republic, with high school mission groups coming in and out every two weeks. About halfway through the summer, I was out ahead of a group prepping a work site. It was a very hot day and I ran out of my own water (or had forgotten to bring it). Despite warnings about drinking local water, I saw the Dominicans happily drinking water that looked too good to turn away. And I figured dehydration was a worse and more pressing fate than whatever unspoken disease MIGHT be in the water waiting for my puny American immune system. And I was wrong. I began getting sick to my stomach that night and had to go see a doctor; I was diagnosed with two things – Salmonella and Typhoid Fever. I was given medicines, but was not able to keep any food down for two weeks. For the four weeks after that, all I could eat was chicken broth strained out of chicken noodle soup. Six weeks with virtually no food. I survived (and stayed the whole summer), and learned a lot spiritually in the process. But upon returning home and seeing my doctor there, I heard something that has stuck with me at a deep level until this day. My doctor weighed me and I had dropped from something like 165 lbs. to 135 lbs. He said a lot of things, but the one that stuck with me was that “losing nearly 20% of your body weight so fast and all at once is a shock to your system that may have long-term consequences.” I returned to college and pretty quickly put back on the weight I had lost and then some. In retrospect, with only the exception of several short diet successes over the years, I began steadily gaining weight from that point until this past February. And here’s the part I want you to hear: because of this thing that happened to me, there was a voice in my head and heart that said, “It’s not your fault; your weight is the result of something that happened to you that is out of your hands.” And, to top THAT off, it was also spiritualized; I suffered what I believed to be a life-long metabolism injury doing the Lord’s work. There was a bit of a martyr complex to it.

So, throughout my adult years, as I would successfully diet and lose maybe 10 lbs. for a few months, then put it back on, what was running underneath was “good try, but you are the heroically huge baby and this is the price of serving Jesus and all that you learned in that missionary experience.” Our birth and the things that happen to us are so powerful! And this is true whether our stories are rather noble-sounding or whether they are heart-wrenching like those born to loss or who have experienced abuse and exploitation. These identities and self-definitions shape us in profound and deep ways.

Tools Along the Way

I remember one of the things my doctor said which stuck with me. He encouraged me to “pull out all the stops” – to not just diet, but harness friends and tools and anything else I could find. I didn’t do all that at once, but as I take stock of what I’ve done in the last year, I realize that I am indeed using a number of means to address my health and weight loss. I can’t point to just one (like the phone app), and I think they have all worked in concert together, and I’d like to mention them to you, noting the broader spiritual principles also at work.


I already mentioned my parking lot prayer for God’s help. That was actually my second parking lot prayer. The first one, the year before, was more generic and less desperate. But it was prayer, nonetheless. And that prayer three years ago is something I shared with the elders at the time. I told them about my doctors’ words and asked them to pray for my health and weight, which they did that night at the session meeting. We did not come back to it, but I think that put it on their radar for prayer and personal concern in a significant way. I’m also going to mention accountability, and one example of that has been various elders who were there that night continuing to offer me encouragement in their own ways in the months and years that followed.

Transparency and Accountability

For some time I have noticed articles and other sources that claimed that keeping a “food journal” was an effective tool alongside whatever else one was using. I think the principle behind that is solid. It’s a form of self-accountability (or shared accountability if shared with another). I had contemplated keeping track of what I ate, but it seemed too much of an extra burden until I found this app on my new phone a year or so ago. It drew on a large database of nutritional information so all I had to do was say, “I ate a Wendy’s hamburger” or “I had a bowl of homemade chicken soup” and it would pull the calories, fat, protein, and other nutritional information. It also tracked drinking of water and gave a suggested daily calorie goal based on my current weight, my activity level, and how much weight I wanted to lose. What I found, with this easy form of self-accountability, is that I was eating far more than I realized in the form of going back for seconds, snacking, and late-night snacks. And as I tried out the calorie limits, I quickly saw the correlation between calorie intake and weight. The app also had a place for exercise and factored that into the daily formula. I started with short walks, which turned into more regular and longer walks. And again, the transparency and accountability of the journal app helped me see when I was fooling myself and the effectiveness of limits and exercise. It also had a feature to share some or all of that information out with a friend by e-mail or Facebook, so I shared with Heather for additional accountability.

I also found another accountability friend. It was another pastor who had asked for prayer around weight-loss. He is also a Presbyterian pastor and he had even more to lose. But he was also ahead of me and had experienced some success. So I wrote to him and asked if we could check in with each other once a week, which we’ve done since last spring. He is the one that noted the effect on behavior of some of the life narratives we carry with us and, as he shared some of his stories, helped me make connections with my birth and mission experience stories and just how significantly they have shaped my behavior and thinking.

Play to Your Strengths

After years of on-again off-again at the Y, I decided to try walking in the neighborhood.  Plus, when I first started walking, it was for less time than it took to drive to and from the Y, change clothes and shower there. I went for 20 minute walks up the street and back. As I used to do at the Y, I also did everything I could to distract myself from the exercise. I played music; I listened to sermons; I listened to audio books; I talked on the phone. And there was some enjoyment in that. I was able to really turn up the music that I seldom get to listen to during the day or at home. I was able to listen to some sermons and books that I was eager to hear. But eventually, I kind of ran through all that. And what I begin to find several months in was that I really enjoyed the time alone with no distractions. I mention all that to say that the exercise time has become one of the things I most look forward to each day, not because I love exercise, but because I cherish the alone-time. It has become a unique and important time to simply have an hour alone (yes, it’s an hour now) to think, pray, enjoy nature, and otherwise be uninterrupted.

Now, if you are more of an extrovert that may sound horrible. To you, I would also say “play to your strengths.” If you are an extrovert, find exercise buddies. Or go to the Y to those classes full of people. Find a place where you can engage, interact, talk, and visit; and you may find yourself looking forward to it with great enthusiasm! Or if you miss one-on-one time with a particular close friend, see if that friend would be willing to meet you once or twice a week for some regular exercise. And whether it is exercise or your spiritual life or shopping frugally, playing to your natural strengths may help make those challenge areas more doable and enjoyable.

Christ in Me… what do you mean by that?

So this is the bold claim I’m making today: I have lost weight because of the power of Christ at work in me. Oh, that’s such a preacherly thing to say, I know; but I mean it nonetheless. And here’s why I say that…

When it comes to hard work, I am no stranger. I was raised to set my mind to a task and give 110% to achieve it. And over the years I have tried to lose weight. As I think back on the 8-10 times I have engaged in diet and exercise in as many years, I think of the intense effort, brief success, and disappointing failures. You would think then, that if losing 10 lbs. was that hard, that losing 50 would be significantly harder. It hasn’t been; in fact, in a sense it has been easier. I’m not sure how to describe that more specifically, but it has not only been easier, but enjoyable (which probably is part of what made it seem easier).

Am I saying that God “healed” me? In a way, yes, though it was not an instant lightning-strike kind of magic stripping of 50 lbs from my body. And it was me running the miles and eating (or not eating) the calories. If a scientist added it all up on paper, you’d see the correlation between calories, exercise, and weight loss. But far more than that happened. God released something inside of me. God CHANGED something inside of me.

I know there was repentance involved. Though I carried those stories and identities with me, I also had added my own behaviors and choice to them. I chose to eat when sad, eat when stressed, eat when bored. I covered over those choices with that narrative of heroic birth and mission-born metabolism. I had to admit those behaviors to God and ask forgiveness for making excuses. I had to acknowledge before God that my deepest identity and reality comes from Him, not from my parents or my life experiences.

About two weeks ago, I reached several round numbers in terms of health. I had walked or run 500 miles this calendar year; I had lost 50 lbs.; and for the first time in my life I ran 5 miles. (The next closest runs to that – in my life – were 4 and 3.5, which happened the week before!) I posted that on Facebook and said I had met some significant goals. A friend shared those to her friends and said, “Look what you can do when you set goals!” To which I wrote her a note and clarified – because this is important – I do believe setting goals is good, but this is not actually what happened there. I used the wrong word; I had not set out with those goals in mind. In fact, I could not have and did not conceive of goals of that size. I told her these were better described as “Ebenezers” – markers of how far God had brought me.

I mention that for two reasons. Two experiences help confirm to me that God has been up to something. The first is that scripture tells us in Ephesians 3:20 – “[God] is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think (imagine), according to the power that works within us…”  Last February, I know what I would have said my goal was because I entered it into that phone app I told you about. My goal in February was to lose 20 lbs., and I felt like that was a huge stretch at the time. That would put me at the lowest I had weighed since I’ve been at Good Shepherd… 12 years. When I got there in early summer, my pastor friend asked me what my next goal was and I didn’t know. I had not been able to see beyond that horizon. So, I decided to be real crazy and set the next goal at 50 lbs.  Might as well go all the way. But I really had no expectation of getting there. That was my 110% kicking in; set the bar higher than you can reach. I also was still only walking about 1-2 miles a few times a week. I had not yet conceived of exercise becoming any more than that. Then starting in late summer, walking 5 miles sometimes two times a day, I realized at that point that I could probably walk as long as wanted to without getting tired. Maybe I should try running. And I made it about a quarter mile. Every so often in my walks I would jog that quarter mile and then walk some more. And about two weeks later on September 1, having made a half-mile without slowing to walk or stop, I decided to see if I could run a mile. That was the single hardest thing in the last nine months and I about collapsed. Yet two weeks after that I ran 3; a week after that I ran 4; and on October 18 I ran five miles without stopping.

Besides the “more than I could have imagined” part, here’s the other thing. When I finished the 5-mile run, I might have expected to feel great pride or accomplishment or victory; that’s what I expected, particularly since I knew it was coming for the week or two leading up to it. But when I got back to my house in one piece the overwhelming – OVERWHELMING – thing I experienced was the purest sense of the Gospel that I’ve experienced in my adult life. It was an experience of “I was lost, and I’ve been found,” and I can FEEL the presence and power of God at work. That’s what I mean by “Gospel.” There was a profound and humbling gratitude and a vivid recall of me sitting in that car in the doctor’s parking lot and praying, “Jesus, help me; I can’t fix this.” And there in that moment I knew God had answered that prayer and I was reminded how real and tangible the Gospel can be in our lives.

The Gospel – the Good News of and about Jesus Christ – is not just about our eternal destiny. It is that. But it also the Good News of a Savior who binds up the broken-hearted and looses the captives’ chains. 

Comfort in Affliction

In 2 Corinthians 1, Paul shares about his own afflictions with the Corinthians in order to encourage and comfort them with the comfort of Christ. It is my hope that in my story you haven’t heard the story of a determined man who fought his way to health; rather, I hope you have heard the gratitude of a humbled man who has known Christ all his life but who has and is experiencing the power of Jesus Christ in this life here and now.

God is not just in the salvation business; God is in the transformation business. God changes hearts and lives and that’s real and tangible and meets us where we live.

I want to be a transformational God pastor of a transformational God church. We surely do much here that we can be proud of and excited about: music, youth, children, outreach, and more. But what is more important than any of that – and real in this place – is that this is a place where God shows up and transforms lives. I’ve seen it in you! This is a place where God shows up and transforms health and relationships and finances and wounds and priorities and broken places and dreams and every other thing that we carry with us. That is the Good News! And I can think of no more compact way to say it than what is written across the wall when you first walk in: ordinary people, extraordinary God.

I went around and around in my head a few times about how to connect all this to stewardship, of whether to connect all this to stewardship. And convicted by the truth of my own story, this is where I landed on that. Just as my story really turned on a prayer in a car in a parking lot, I want to simply pray for our finances, for your stewardship, for how the Gospel intersects that part of our lives just as the Gospel intersected this other part of my life that was my physical health. And I’ll trust the Holy Spirit to make any other connections than those.  Let us pray…

Lord God, as I consider yet another appeal for money for what I do believe are good and godly ministries, I can’t help but think of my almost annual efforts, sometimes Herculean efforts, to lose a few more pounds for a good and godly goal of health. Instead, Lord, on behalf of these friends, this dear church family, I invite you to come into the finances of our lives and release your power, for your glory. Show us – show me – what that means, what I need to repent of, what life-narratives and habits I need to release to you. Show us the freedom and joy that comes when we experience your Gospel in our day to day life. And Father, as we also turn to a time of personal confession and prayer, bring to mind other specific areas of life where we need to invite you in: relationships, work, school, family, finances, lusts, idolatries, thirsts, desires, hungers, and more. Remind us again, we ask, that you are not only a God of salvation, but the God of transformation. We pray in the power of Jesus’ name. Amen.