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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.

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