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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Wise Men (Matthew 2.1-12)

Sermons by: Robert Austell - December 29, 2013
Text: Matthew 2:1-12

:: 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
Hymn of Praise: "As with Gladness Men of Old" (DIX)
Hymn of Praise: "What Child is This?" (GREENSLEEVES)
Hymn of Sending: "Sing We Now of Christmas" (NOEL NOUVELET)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf)
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose.

1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 2 “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet: 6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, Are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; For out of you shall come forth a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.’ ” 7 Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.” 9 After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way. ~Matthew 2:1-12
She walked into the church service that day – a little late, a little uncertain, and a lot looking out of place. And she didn’t sit down right next to anyone – there were a few empty chairs all around, a kind of buffer. But people saw her. They smiled a little smile, as we do in the hospitable South; but they also felt a little unsettled. Should this woman be in church? Should she be in our church?

And then the preacher – yes, you know the one – started talking about those outside the walls and welcoming the stranger. And yes, it was suddenly less hypothetical and more specific than usual, and a few people seemed to rise to the occasion after the reminder. 

Why is it, I wonder, that we are so surprised at who Jesus draws to himself?  It’s like what we talked about on Christmas Eve: there is this unwritten assumption that we have to get cleaned up before we can get God and the related assumption that we have to get fixed up before God will use us. And neither is right!

Wise Men from Far Off

The story of the Magi, or Wise Men, is such a mainstay of the Christmas Nativity that I think the strangeness of their story is lost on us. After all, the whole birth narrative is already unusual and supernatural, and we are so prone to tone that down; what are a few extra travelers thrown in there?

We also tend to spend more time on Mary, Joseph, angels, and shepherds than on the Wise Men. Nativity scenes place the Wise Men there with the others, but we noted a few weeks ago that they actually came much later, perhaps as much as two years later, and their coming prompted King Herod to act so brutally and the holy family to flee for their lives to Egypt for a time.

But that’s not the part of the Wise Men’s story that I want to focus on today. I’d like to draw your attention to two unusual features of the story: 1) the star in the east; and 2) the presence of foreigners at the birth of the Jewish Messiah.

God’s Truth – General and Specific

The star is one of the really mysterious pieces to this story. Scholars have speculated that it is anything from an ordinary astronomical event with which God timed the birth of Jesus to a supernatural event caused by God to mark the birth for those with eyes to see it. So explanations have ranged from planets in alignment to comets to something for which we don’t have a name. While it is certainly a point of interest, to fixate on it is to miss the more important point: that Jesus was being born! God was coming into the world to live among us in the flesh. To not move on to the birth of Christ would be like fixating on the burning bush and missing the fact that God was talking to Moses. The point is: God showed up and spoke to a human being. What did He say? What was the message? What was the plan? Not, “Now what exactly was going on with that bush?”

Or more in the realm of our everyday life, it would be like standing in front of a beautiful ocean sunset or that breath-taking expanse of mountains and mist on the Blue Ridge Parkway or the awesome force of thunderheads gathering in the distance and never thinking of the one who created them by the power of His Word.

So the Bible talks about God being revealed generally in creation. It is possible to miss it, but it is also possible to see it. And these “wise men” – and perhaps you see now why they were wise! – were paying attention. They were of a culture that believed that events in the night sky heralded significant events on the earth. While that is not a Christian or biblical belief, it did cause them to pay attention closely to the world around them and even to pore over the writings of various peoples, including the prophets of Israel. They were familiar with the prophecies about Bethlehem and probably other of the Hebrew Scriptures as well. And so, God’s created world – whether something that happened in the normal timing of things like a comet or planets lining up or something God created especially for this occasion – pointed them to the more specific words of God through prophets in scripture.

We know these wise men knew of the scripture in Micah 5:2 promising a Messiah born in Bethlehem. Likely they also knew of Numbers 24:17, which speaks of this Promised King as a “star from Jacob” and Isaiah 60:3, which describes foreign kings coming to His light. My point is that God does not hide in buildings built by human hands or in the enclaves of the faithful, but is constantly revealing himself in the world. What IS the treasure of the faithful are the more explicit truths and revelations of His Word. What an extraordinary joy when people come seeking God with only the general truths of creation to prompt them! And what an irony and tragedy when those who have the explicit revelation and Word of God don’t treasure it, read it, listen to or follow it!

The star reminds us that those who seek God will find Him in the Word of God – both the written Word and the Incarnate Word, Jesus.

God for the World

This observation about the star leading the Magi to Christ relates to a second unusual feature of the story: the presence of foreigners at the birth of the Jewish Messiah. There seems to be something in human nature that wants to take possession of things, to set them off with walls and fences, and to create an ‘us’ and ‘them.’ We can do that in the simplest of settings: as children with toys in the preschool classroom. And we can do that with more complicated things like politics, cultures, and religion. We see it in the early church with the tension between Jewish Christians (Jesus was their Messiah after all!) and Gentile Christians (we have to be circum-what?). And we see it today with so much of the church’s focus on “our own.” Even the most generous helping and service ministries can still operate out of an ‘us’ and ‘them’ kind of thing: “I’ll help you in the name of Jesus all day long, but I don’t think you’d feel at home in our worship service.”

So, here at the literal birth of Christ, the Messiah promised to the Hebrew people through their Scriptures, isn’t it unusual to find non-Jewish, non-observant, non-believing, foreigners at the door? But that’s just it: they weren’t Jewish, but they had been extremely observant – not of the Law, but of what God was doing in the world. And who says they were non-believing? Before they left they had fallen to the ground and worshiped Jesus.

Really, it is a set of false assumptions and expectations that would not have them there. When the angels spoke and sang to the shepherds, they announced news that would be “for all the peoples.” It is true that the Jewish people had a very distinct identity that was formed back in their history between God and Father Abraham. But at the very core of that event – and their identity – was God’s declaration that they would be so formed and blessed in order that they might be a blessing to all the nations. And it is true that the early church struggled; but they also figured out that the Holy Spirit was propelling this movement OUT into the world, to all people.

Being God’s people has never been an “insider movement” but an “outsider movement.” We are always to welcome in those who are seeking God and seeking truth, no matter how “outsider” they look or seem. And Jesus, in his adult ministry, invited his followers (that’s us!) again and again to follow him out into the world to seek out those who would receive him.

It’s a messy business to be sure. Just look at the Magi. Their coming brought the heat on the holy family. But their coming was of God and used by God. We can expect to have some discomfort and some mess. We already have since God has directed our hearts outward. But it’s so worth it because it is faithful!

You are the Church and the Church is formed by God FOR the world because God is FOR the world. God is so for the world that He sent His one and only Son to be born into the world. And it is He whom we fall down and worship and serve. Amen!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Light of the World and Lights in the World (John 1.1-11, Matthew 5.14-16)

Sermons by: Kathy Larson and Robert Austell - December 24, 2013
Text: John 1:1-5,9-11 (Larson); John 1:6-8, Matthew 5:14-16 (Austell)

:: Sermon Audio (pt.1-Larson, pt. 2-Austell)
The sermon was in two parts; the first was by Kathy Larson on Jesus as Light of the World; the second was by Robert Austell on Jesus' followers as lights in the world.

:: Some Music Used
Gathering Music: Carol Sing-a-Long
Prelude (Handbells): "Now is Born the Divine Christ Child" (McChesney)
Prelude (Handbells): "Toll of Darkness" (Youngblood)
Special Music (Instrumental): "Silent Night, Holy Night" (Chris Rice)
Song of Praise: "Here I am to Worship" (Hughes)
Musical Interlude (Handbells): "Toll of Darkness" (Youngblood)
Hymn: "Go Tell it on the Mountain" (GO TELL IT)
Hymn: "Joy to the World" (ANTIOCH)
Postlude: "Joy to the World" (Page)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf)
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose.

Christmas Eve 2013
This is a sermon in two parts

Part I: Jesus as Light of the World (Kathy Larson)
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. 4 In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. 5 The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. … 9 There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. 11 He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.  ~John 1:1-5,9-11
Jesus said both “I am the light of the world” and “you are the light of the world.” But in order to understand light, we unfortunately have to talk about darkness. So the beginning of this service is, honestly, a little bit depressing.

When I was putting together those images you saw, I thought to myself, “Ughh, Christmas is ‘supposed’ to be happy and excited; these are kind of depressing and sad.” I have a friend who wrote a blog post this morning about how she knew she was “supposed” to be happy because it’s Christmas-time and she just couldn’t get herself there. And she couldn’t figure out why. She’s just supposed to be happy – lights, and presents, and Santa. But she made the point – and I think it’s a great point – that not being excited in and of herself was probably forcing her to understand Jesus a little bit more. In her darkness and sadness and not really being excited about Christmas she could understand that Jesus was the Light of the world… that Jesus was the Light in her dark places. HE was what she was waiting for this Christmas.

Without disease we can’t appreciate our health. Without suffering we can’t appreciate the good times. Without doubts and questions we can’t appreciate the times that we can understand things. And it’s true about Christ: he uses that image that he is the Light of the World because there is so much darkness around us. There is sadness; there is disease. There are things that we don’t understand and can’t explain away just by some pat answer.

The Good News is that even with all this darkness, Christ is the Light of the World. And what does that mean? When we think about darkness we think about what happens in the dark. A lot of kids are scared of the dark (a lot of adults, too!). Thieves break into your house in the dark. When it’s dark you might not see where you are going, trip and fall, and hurt yourself. Darkness, in general, is not a good thing. But Christ brings light into our lives and our hearts. When there is light you are not as scared of things that might hurt you in the dark. Christ helps us see the way; you can see the obstacles that are in your path – things you can see with him that you can’t see without him. All those things that we fear about the darkness, spiritually speaking, are solved with Christ. It’s like you always have this light around you. Scripture says that in a future time that there will be no need of the sun because Christ himself will light our world.

So tonight when we think about this Light that has come, what does that mean for you and me – that Christ is the Light of the World? Where are those places that you are experiencing darkness – where you are sad, you are depressed, or you are struggling? Think about those… focus on those… and we are going to spend some time in reflection and prayer and ask for Christ the Light to come into those dark places.


Now I get to the good part! We had the depressing images before the Good News. But Jesus said, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness but have the Light of life. Come Jesus, Light of the world; shine into our darkness.”

Part II: Lights in the World (Robert Austell)
6 There came a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the Light, but he came to testify about the Light.  ~John 1:6-8

14 You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; 15 nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. 16 Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.  ~Matthew 5:14-16

I’m just going to talk with you a bit – not quite a “sermon”… rather a few thoughts on light, life, and Jesus. Before I get to that, let me make this one important observation. These verses (and the ones Kathy talked about) use something we know something about – light – to talk about something that is very mysterious to us – God. But be clear on this: “light” here is not a poetic idea about God or an “enlightening philosophy” to help us out. It is used very tangibly and specifically to talk about the person and characteristics of Jesus Christ. It’s more than a metaphor, it’s a descriptive name for Jesus, and so is often capitalized in the Bible. Mainly, I just want you to know that when we are talking about the Light of the World, it’s not an idea or an ideal; it’s Jesus, God glory revealed in flesh, in history, with us, for us, and one of us.

These portions of scripture give examples of pointing others to Jesus, the Light of the World. In John 1, we heard about John the Baptist using words to testify (“tell the truth”) about the Light so that all might believe through him. In Matthew 5, Jesus is speaking and tells those who would follow him that their actions point people to God’s glory.

For a number of years now at Good Shepherd we have grappled with what it means to be bearers of the Light that is Christ.  I can share some of what I’ve learned along the way.

  1. Most Christians experience one of two tensions: either we are good with words, but have a hard time connecting them with the reality of struggles in other people’s lives; or we are good with actions, but have a hard time connecting them tangibly with the reality of Jesus Christ.
  2. Given those tensions, we more or less know how to point to Jesus when people come to us; but we are still being stretched to know how to carry or share Jesus outside the walls of the church. It has helped somewhat to recognize and be reminded (again and again) that the walls don’t make the church; WE are the church.
  3. At all ages and stages of faith, it is easy to think that the light is us – our faith, our words, our deeds, our reputation, our success. This is a self-deception that hurts us and others in so many ways. The Light is Jesus. We are candles – some melted, some broken, some worn to a nub.
  4. For you and me, the Good News is that the Light has come regardless of the condition of your life. You don’t have to have it together, put it together, fake it together to know Jesus or for him to come to you. Many people hold back from trusting God because they think they have to get their act together before God can love them. Not so! The Light didn’t come to the well-lit places; the Light came into the darkness
  5. For the world around you, the Good News that YOU add to the News of Jesus is that you don’t have to have it together, put it together, fake it together; and you are living proof! Many Christians hold back from talking or sharing about God because they think they have to get their act together before God can use them. My mind immediately goes back to so many Biblical characters we have studied in recent years: Moses, Rahab, David, Ruth, Paul, Peter, and more; every one used heroically by God and every one a melted, broken, worn down example of humanity.
In just a moment we have made time and space for you to respond in prayer. The bulletin has this question: “Where are there places of darkness in the world around you, where you need to bring Christ’s light to the world?” The world is a huge place, so let me tweak that a little to make it more specific. Earlier, Kathy asked you to list and pray about places in YOU where there is darkness. Trusting that God will not only meet you there, but work there for His glory, consider identifying darkness in the world that corresponds to your own darkness, trusting that God might use you uniquely to care for another person and shine His Light in a specific way.

For example, if one area of darkness for you was fearfulness; see if you can identify places in the world around you – perhaps even near to you – where others struggle with fear. Or if loneliness; then others who might be lonely. Where would they be? You might be best equipped to know and understand!

Here’s the image. We definitely need to get away from a Christianity that holds up a “light” of false perfection, that says, “be like me in my Christian rule-keeping and apparent togetherness and God will bless you.” The Gospel is nowhere close to that!

Much truer to say, “Here is some light in your darkness; it is Jesus, who knows you and loves you and understands what you are dealing with.”

But even tangibly truer to say, “Hey, I know something of what you are going through; I’ve been there myself. And this is what Jesus has meant to me in the midst of it.”

Let’s take a few moments now and respond. Feel free to write in your bulletin or pray silently or use the time however would be most helpful to you. Amen.


Jesus said, “You are the Light of the World. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they see your good works and glorify your Father who is in Heaven. Come, Jesus, Light of the World, shine through us.”

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Shepherds (Luke 2.8-20)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - December 22, 2013
Text: Luke 2:8-20

:: Sermon Audio (link)
No sermon audio this week (technical glitch); scroll down for written draft

:: Some Music Used
Gathering Music: "Up, O Shepherds" (Schroeder)

Hymn of Praise: "How Great Our Joy" (JUENGST)
Hymn of Praise: "Angels from the Realms of Glory" (REGENT SQUARE)
The Word in Music: "While Shepherds Watched" (Peterson)
Offering of Music: "Joy to the World" (Handel/Cash, arr. Youngblood)

Hymn of Sending: "Good Christian Friends, Rejoice" (IN DULCI JUBILO)
Postlude: "Sing with Joy, Glad Voices Lift" (Schroeder)

:: 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.
8 In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; 11 for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” 15 When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. 17 When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.  (Luke 2:8-20)
Shepherds were rough and rugged men who weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty.  They weren’t fancy or cleaned up for Sunday morning church; they were more like farmers who deal with livestock… except on the move.  While some of them may have been religious and made periodic trips to the Temple, most were probably focused on the work at hand.  They were solid working men, trying to take care of flock and family as they watched their sheep by night.

What do you watch?  We’ve had a farmer or two among us.  Some work construction and know what it is to get your hands dirty.  Many of you with young kids spend your time watching your flock – not the same as sheep, but not entirely different either. Others of you watch the stock market or other economic indicators.  Others watch students or patients.  Many watch friends and the culture to stay current and not get too out of step.  Almost all of us watch hours of TV or Internet or movies or other entertainment.

And for most or all of us, actually seeing or hearing from God in the middle of our daily life seems unlikely, farfetched, and unrealistic.

Seeing and Hearing from God

In the shepherd’s story, their routine was interrupted by a message from God.  While I am no shining angel, there is a real sense in which what happened to them is not unlike what could happen here any given Sunday.  For many, I know Sunday morning or Wednesday night church can seem distant or irrelevant to the things you watch and do during the day.  But my message any given Sunday is some variation on what the angel said: I bring you Good News of a Savior, born from God for your sake.  The messenger is different, but the message is the same.

And then, the shepherds saw an amazing sight – the angels of Heaven praising God.  Again, the heavenly host do not appear visibly on a Sunday morning or Wednesday night, but the people of God do gather to sing and declare the same praises to God.

I am not trying to take anything away from the amazing story in Luke 2.  Rather, I’m trying to make a connection between that amazing story and what happens here on a regular basis.  It’s on the wall as you come in, around the large picture display – we are ordinary people who gather to hear the Good News and worship an extraordinary God.  Like the shepherds, every single person here is an ordinary person, with no special direct line to God.  We simply believe that God is trying to get our attention and speak this message – this Christmas message – of a Savior born into our world.  That is the Good News, not just in Bible times, but here and now.

Seeing This Thing

The shepherds decided to check it out – to “see this thing” that had happened.  That’s the bottom-line challenge I’d give you this morning.  Are you here just to go through the motions – hear some pretty music and get in the Christmas spirit – or are you willing to look closely at what is being proclaimed and worshiped?  Whether you came for tradition, because someone dragged you, out of curiosity, or deep faith – are you willing to see this thing of which the angels speak?

What is it?  It is the angel’s news; it is the Good News.  It is there in verses 10-11:

I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

Listen; check it out.  Are you willing to see and hear this Good News?  I bring you Good News – the best news, which is for anyone and everyone and is cause for real joy.  Jesus Christ, first century Jew from Nazareth, is more than a historical figure; he is Savior and Lord, rescuer and God.  When we gather here to worship – any time we worship – it is not simply to go through some religious routines, but to celebrate God’s salvation and to worship and adore the God who pursues us in love to rescue us.

God’s extraordinary love and salvation is not for spiritual giants; it is for ordinary people – shepherds, construction workers, accountants, teachers, teenagers, moms, dads, grandparents, intellectuals, disabled, sick, well, discouraged, hopeful, hopeless… you… and me.  Have you seen this thing that we call the Good News?

Change and What it Does to You

There is one last piece to this story and it’s worth hearing, both for the challenge of it and in terms of full disclosure.  The shepherds who went to see this thing came away changed; people who come to see this thing... come away changed.  The shepherds went away full of the Good News story and worshiping God.  This thing is contagious; it IS life-changing.  If you claim to believe and are not full of the story and full of worship, then you need to see this thing again. 

Now most of those who encountered Jesus, including these shepherds, went back to what they were doing before.  These shepherds went back to watching their sheep.  BUT they were changed.  They had seen God and were full of the Good News and were full of worship.

So I’m not going to lie and say that Jesus isn’t a big deal.  I’m not going to encourage you to come check him out and say it won’t change your perspective or your choices or your life.  Just the opposite!  I urge you to come see this thing that God has done in Jesus because it is a big thing: it’s the biggest thing of all time.  It should be life-changing.  It should make you re-think everything.  It should leave you full of amazement and worship.

Most likely, God won’t ask you to become a pastor, monk, or distant missionary.  Most likely, God will send you back to your flocks – to the things and people you watch – and send you full of Good News and worship.  If you have never experienced those things or seen firsthand this thing God has done, I offer this to you as the best Christmas gift you will ever receive.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Mystery of the Incarnation (John 1.1-14)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - December 15, 2013
Text: John 1:1-14

:: 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: "Partita on "Once in Royal David's City" (Behnke)

Hymn of Praise: "Once in Royal David's City")
First Lesson: Light in the Darkness (Isaiah 9:2,6-7)
Music: "The People that Walked in Darkness" (Handel)

Second Lesson: The Lion and the Lamb (Isaiah 11:1-3a,4a,6-9)
Music: "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" (ES IST EIN ROS)
Third Lesson: The Annunciation (Luke 1:26-35,38)
Music: (Children) "Be Not Afraid" (Vicki Hancock Wright)

Fourth Lesson: The Birth of Jesus (Luke 2:1,3-7)
Music: "Comfort and Joy" (Cathy Youngblood)
Fifth Lesson: Angels and Shepherds (Luke 2:8-16)
Music: "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks" (Courtney)
Sixth Lesson: "Magi from the East" (Matthew 2:1-12)
Music: "The First Noel" (THE FIRST NOEL)

Seventh Lesson/Sermon: Mystery of the Incarnation (John 1:1-14)
Offering of Music: "Run to the Manger" (Victor Johnson)
Nativity Anthem: "Bethlehem Procession" (Victor Johnson)
Postlude: "In Culci Jubilo" (Bach)

:: 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.

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. 4 In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. 5 The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. … 9 There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. 11 He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. 12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.  (John 1:1-5,9-14)
Today’s sermon will just be a short devotion on the seventh lesson, from John 1:1-14. It is entitled, “Mystery of the Incarnation.” In the scripture lessons you have heard this morning in word and music, you have already heard some of this mystery. “Incarnation” means “in the flesh”; the reason it is a mystery is that it refers to the infinite God coming among us as a finite human being. Who could put words (or music) to that!

Just think of what you’ve already heard:

From Isaiah (9:2,6-8; 11:1-9), there is description of a great light coming to a people who live in great darkness. And that great light will be a child upon whom great names and power will rest through the power of God. This promised one – child and light – will also bring justice, righteousness, peace, and more. What mystery! What promise! What hope!

From Luke (1-2) we heard several of the narratives around the birth of Jesus, again a mix of the human ordinary and the extraordinarily divine and wondrous. We have a pregnancy, birth, a government census, a strangely humble baby-bed and bed-clothes, with working class visitors to the young family. And we also have angels, visions, messages from God, and prophecies fulfilled. The stuff of Heaven meets the stuff of earth!

From Matthew (2:1–12) we heard one more piece of the narrative. More signs in the sky and noble visitors from far off intersecting both with the human family of Jesus and the political power of the day, who eventually goes after the child he views as a threat to his throne. More of the power of God intersecting ordinary life and unsettling the power of this world.

And we come to John (1:1-14), to what is less story and more spiritual reflection on the meaning of Christ coming among us. It begins with echoes of the creation story from Genesis: In the beginning, God…  But John expands that creation story in ways we cannot fully grasp (mystery!) by personalizing the Word (Logos) as the one who would be Light, Life, and ultimately be known as Jesus of Nazareth and Messiah/Christ. Again, what is complete mystery – the personalized Word in infinite pre-existence with God and AS God coming into this world, into this existence, into a body like yours or mine, walking and living among us.

That’s the journey John takes us on in fourteen short verses. In verse one the Word is identified with God and by verse fourteen the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” That’s the mystery of the Incarnation.

So what can I tell you about it?

I can point out the bookends in vv. 1 and 14. The infinite other which is God has come among us, not as a visitor passing through, but as one who “dwelt” – made a home – among us. And in doing that, Jesus living as God-with us, we caught a glimpse of the very glory of God.

Between those bookends, John offers us some imagery and explanation that we can begin to grab onto. Jesus, who is both mystery and God-in-the-flesh-with-us, brought us life, light, and love. And it’s more than bringing us those abstract things; he IS those things, lived out among us and for us. So let me speak to each briefly.

Jesus is the Life – As God, Jesus created life in the beginning. We have our existence because of and through Him. When humanity turned and turns from God, then, it is precisely Jesus who is what we need in the face of sin and death. Without God we die spiritually and physically. In Jesus, we have hope of more.

Jesus is the Light – Light is such a vivid metaphor. Only a little beats back the darkness. It shows the way. It “illumines” our mind as well as our path. It clarifies and helps distinguish truth from deception. Jesus does all that and, more so, embodies all that. Again, for humanity that has turned and turns from God, it is precisely Jesus as Light of the World that gives us hope and help.

Jesus as Love – This word is not used in these verses and is, perhaps, the most misleading of the three descriptions. It’s easy to think of love as “me getting what I want.” This is anything but; this is love as “someone offering me what I really need.” I use that word to sum up Jesus’ actions in these verses. Not only is Jesus involved in our creation and in bringing light and life to us; Jesus comes AS Light and Life so that we might become children of God. He comes and makes a home with us in order to invite us to make a home with Him. It is not forced, but offered. It is not earned, but given. It is not something we can attain, but made possible through His Life and Light. This is why I call it love, because it is what we truly need, offered to us because of God’s love.

It’s a lot to take in and it’s a lot to attach to a baby lying in a manger. But this is the Christmas story. It’s really more than that; it is God’s story, begun before time began but present with us today. It is mystery; it is incarnation. It is extraordinary meeting the ordinary. It is God-with-us: Life, Light, and Love. Amen!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Mary (Luke 1.26-38 et al.)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - December 8, 2013
Text:Luke 1:26-38

:: 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: "Two French Carols" - Susan Slade, flute (arr. Brant Adams)

Hymn of Praise: "Long Ago Prophets Knew" (PERSONET HODIE)
Hymn of Praise: "Angels We Have Heard on High" (GLORIA)

Word in Music: "Miriam" (Pierce Pettis)
Offering of Music: "Magnificat" - women's choir (Kemp)
Hymn of Sending: "Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus" (TIS SO SWEET)
Postlude: "Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying" (Bach)

:: 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 I want to look with you at Mary’s story, but not just the part in the scripture reading. I want to walk you through a lifetime of faith, with all its challenging ups and downs. My hope is not only that you will learn something about Mary, but that you will find a point of connection between your life and hers. My hope is that in finding that point of connection you will hear an invitation to trust God in a new or deeper way.

A Message from God: Luke 1:26–38

26 Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And coming in, he said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. 31 “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. 32 “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; 33 and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God. 36 And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. 37 [The angel answered…] “For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

This morning we heard one of the best-known parts of Mary’s story. It is the “Annunciation” – the message from God through the angel, Gabriel, that Mary would give birth to the Messiah. There’s so much in there, but I want to highlight the miraculous. This is a personal and miraculous encounter with God, requiring faith and trust because the situation is impossible in more than a few ways. Not only is her pregnancy “impossible” with relation to the miracle, it is “impossible” as regards Joseph, her family, and what people might think. And it is “impossibly” significant in terms of the birth of the long-awaited Messiah – LONG-awaited. And yet Mary is told that all these impossibilities were possible. Indeed, as the angel tells her (v. 37 and Mt. 19:26), “Nothing will be impossible with God.” And in terms of Mary’s response – Mary’s faith and trust – it’s all there in v. 38 when she responds, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.”

I’ll admit that this is not one of those passages I am quick to relate to. But I think about those early encounters with God and God’s story. For me, I was a child. You may have been older. But one of the first things anyone has to grapple with is the impossibility of God. This may be – probably is – easier for children. Perhaps this is why Jesus spoke of the “faith of a little child” (Luke 18:17). For adults, this can be the biggest stumbling block to faith, precisely because God is (by definition, I should add) “impossible.” Anything short of impossible would hardly be God and would not require faith. It’s abstract, it’s mystery, and it’s beyond us. Mary encountered several impossibilities personally and up close, and responded in faith and with trust. That stretch to trust and follow, whether in wonder or in crisis, is an essential piece of faith. Your and my “situation” may look nothing like Mary’s, but if you’ve encountered God in concept or in a life-situation, you will be faced with trusting or not trusting.

A Visit with Relatives: Luke 1:46–55

[seeing Elizabeth] 46 And Mary said: “My soul exalts the Lord, 47 And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. 48 “For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave; For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. 49 “For the Mighty One has done great things for me; And holy is His name. 50 “And His mercy is upon generation after generation Toward those who fear Him. 51 “He has done mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. 52 “He has brought down rulers from their thrones, And has exalted those who were humble. 53 “He has filled the hungry with good things; And sent away the rich empty-handed. 54 “He has given help to Israel His servant, In remembrance of His mercy, 55 As He spoke to our fathers, To Abraham and his descendants forever.”

The rest of the snapshots into Mary’s life and faith will go more quickly, but I think you’ll be surprised at how many of these glimpses scripture affords us. In Luke 1:46-55 Mary visits her relative, Elizabeth, who was barren but who now is pregnant in old age. Her child will be John the Baptist. After Elizabeth (and the baby still in her womb) responds with joy to Mary’s news and presence, Mary declares these words which have come to be known as the “Magnificat.” The faith that we saw in the previous passage has blossomed into joy at what God is doing in her life as well as in Elizabeth’s. This is the language of worship, offered in faith to God whom Mary trusts and loves.

If faith in God was merely an act of the will, or however you’d explain trusting something or someone you can’t fully understand, it wouldn’t look like this. Worship is something more than agreement or belief. It is more like falling in love. It is the expression of that act of the will, beyond even an emotional response. It is drawing near to God in… really, love is the shortest word I can put to it. In many ways THIS is what we try to make space for on Sunday mornings – and certainly worship is not reserved for Sunday morning. But this time (Sunday) is not just about showing up, singing a bit, and putting an offering in the plate. It may seem like those things, but it is intended to be a personal encounter with the God of the universe, set in community, so more like a family meal; yet also one in which we marvel at God with us: can you believe God is stopping by here to speak and listen and love with us?!

Birth of Her Baby (and some visitors): Luke 2:6-7,19

6 While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. [angels & shepherds] 19 … Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.

When Mary’s baby was born – and that’s the well-known nativity story with “no room,” the manger, and the shepherds and all – it’s really too much to wrap our minds around fully. I get stuck on the social aspect of it, as if a fleet of truck-drivers showed up in the delivery room after a woman they don’t know has given birth. That just wouldn’t fly at one of our hospitals. But I guess if your delivery was at the equivalent of the snack room at the Motor Inn, it’s not the most far-fetched thing. What I want to focus on in the midst of all this unusual birth and accompanying visitors is in v. 19. Mary “treasured all these things” – shepherds, angels, livestock, the manger, the original message from God, and of course, the birth of her first-born as well – and she “pondered them in her heart.”

Though God tells us He will be with us in all things, it’s another thing when you are going through them. Maybe the birth of Jesus was just crazy enough that it was obvious God was right there. But I also know that I can get so wrapped up in the events of my life, especially if they are stressful, that I shut my eyes and ears to God or even complain that He is absent. I appreciate and am challenged by the note that Mary treasured all these things – the birth, the visitors, the setting; it all became something not only to treasure, but to ponder and meditate on. Would that we would do that with the events of our lives, treasuring that God is with us and continuing to reflect on just how that was so and what it means.

The Law and the Prophets: Luke 2:21–39

21 And when eight days had passed, before His circumcision, His name was then called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb. 22 And when the days for their purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord… [Simeon and Anna’s prophecies] 33 And His father and mother were amazed at the things which were being said about Him. …39 When they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own city of Nazareth.

We begin to move out of the Christmas and child-birth part of Mary’s story. In Luke 2:21-39 we read of the naming and circumcision of Jesus at eight days old. This event is full of meaning. For one, Joseph and Mary are observing the Law of God, having their male child circumcised at the Temple as well as giving him the name spoken by the angel. But not only did they fulfill the Law regarding Jesus, they also encountered two prophets at the Temple: Simeon and Anna. And both spoke words of prophecy and blessing over Jesus, connecting him with the prophets of old. In this way, in just a few short verses, we see Jesus fulfilling the Law and the Prophets, something that would be pointed out later in the New Testament scriptures as well as by Jesus himself (Matthew 5:17). But again, let me focus on Mary, his mother. Not only was she being spiritually faithful in bringing him to the Temple, with Joseph she was “amazed at the things which were being said about him” (v. 33).

We are human creatures, after all. Despite a powerful experience of God in the past, we are still surprised when it happens again. I’m not sure what we are thinking… surely one burning bush, one angel visit, one faith-filled moment of prayer should sustain us. But then God breaks through again in a different way. Isn’t that good! And while I don’t think these things have to be tied together, do you see how God broke through in Word through Simeon and Anna when Joseph and Mary stepped forth in obedience. Said another way, after the birth, they didn’t just check out and decide God would let them know when and if they were supposed to do anything else. They began what would be a lifetime of faithful parenting, taking the baby Jesus and later the boy Jesus to the Temple and to study the scriptures as any faithful Jewish parent of the time would. And it was there, in the Temple and in the midst of keeping God’s Law, that they heard God’s word… not miraculously this time, but through the faithful declaration of two of God’s people. This is not all that different from coming to worship or reading scripture out of obedience. Those are the ordinary and regular places that God speaks to us – not through angel messengers or voices from the sky. Perhaps framed that way you will find yourself one Sunday morning (or one quiet weekday morning reading your Bible) amazed that God has seemingly spoken His Word to you.

Holy Childhood: Matthew 2:11,14

11 After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh … 14 So Joseph got up and took the Child and his mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt.

We saw how Mary marveled at the shepherd’s visit. Typically in a Nativity set we also see the Wise Men (Magi), but scholars think their visit came as much as two years later, when Jesus was a toddler and Mary and Joseph were living for a while in a home near Jerusalem. Two striking things happened with their visit, which would have confirmed some of the prophecy Mary heard in the Temple at eight days. First, the Wise Men brought kingly gifts for the baby. This is really the only glimpse we get into the early childhood of Jesus. And it is clear from the get-go and for some time that it would not be a normal childhood. As soon as these Wise Men have delivered their exotic gifts of gold, incense, and spice, Mary and Joseph find out in a dream that King Herod is out to kill Jesus. And so Mary, Joseph, and Jesus had to flee some 90 miles to Egypt, where they remained until Herod’s death. Even then, they heard that Herod’s son was ruling in Jerusalem, so that’s when they settled in the country region north of Jerusalem, in Nazareth of Galilee.

While these events pass quickly in the pages of scripture and are eclipsed by more miraculous and adult-Jesus events that come quickly, I can’t help but pause at the intensity of events in Mary’s life. Do you remember being parents of toddler? Living in that first home? Getting baby presents? Especially after all the unexpected events surrounding the birth, I would have just started to breathe a sigh of relief that things were moving towards “normal.” Then it’s “run for your life!” I’ve never had to flee the country because an evil king was after me, but I have experienced a sudden change that turned everything on its head. I appreciate in this crisis that Mary and Joseph still displayed those traits evidenced at their first crisis – the news of Mary’s pregnancy. They still were tuned in to God speaking and leading, even if it meant leaving home behind and heading out in faith. I am challenged to look and listen for God in the midst of danger, change, unfamiliar territory, and to release my need for being in my “comfort zone.”

Holy Teenager!: Luke 2:40–52

40 The Child continued to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him. [staying behind in the Temple] …48 When they saw Him, they were astonished; and His mother said to Him, “Son, why have You treated us this way? Behold, Your father and I have been anxiously looking for You.” 49 And He said to them, “Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” 50 But they did not understand the statement which He had made to them. 51 And He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and He continued in subjection to them; and His mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.

I noted that the previous story gave us the one glimpse into Jesus’ early childhood. Likewise, we have one account of Jesus as an almost-teenager. This is a fascinating story, confirming what we might hope to find out about a teenage Messiah – that he already recognizes a connection with his Heavenly Father and amazes the religious leaders with his knowledge of scripture. Many of us also recognize the special experience of raising a teenager, who is beginning to think and act independently, and sometimes not in exactly the same way we as parents might think or act. We read here that Jesus went with them, and “continued in subjection” – he certainly honored and respected his parents. We also get that fascinating verse (52) that describes that Jesus “kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” While we don’t know the full implications of that, we realize that before Jesus entered into public ministry, he grew up in a home with a family.

Not only did Mary experience the astonishment of finding Jesus in the Temple, but also the anxiety (v. 48) of not knowing where he had gone and the anger/frustration of being “treated this way” (v. 48). Sometimes teenagers make the wrong decision, as adults do; but if we believe that Jesus was without sin, it is perhaps astonishing to find that the lesson to be learned here was Mary and Joseph’s, not the teenager’s. What I am reminded of here is that sometimes it is the parents that have to stop, listen, and learn. Teenagers are learning how to think and act independently, and that is a good and necessary part of growing up. What they (as well as children) often offer to us as parents is a mirror in which to see our own shortcomings. Sometimes we parents jump to conclusions and judgments and need to stop, listen, and learn as Mary did. A parent-child relationship with that kind of parental humility and teenage respect – really, it is mutual respect and humility – is truly something to “treasure.” (v. 51)

A House Full of Kids: Matthew 13:55-56a

55 “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary, and His brothers, James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? 56 And his sisters, are they not all with us?

You may know that Jesus had a brother, James. After Jesus’ death and resurrection he became a leader of the Christian church in Jerusalem. But Mary and Joseph actually had a number of children, mentioned in this one place in Matthew. Jesus had four brothers and at least “sisters” (two or more!). I mention this simply to say that Mary was not just the mother of the holy child/holy teenager, but also was mother to a whole house full of kids.

I think many people who became a Christian as a child or teenager have dreams of doing something special for God – maybe becoming a missionary or minister or some other “super-task” for the Lord. And then life happens – children, responsibility, mortgages, work. I highlight Mary’s family simply to note something that I could support from any number of other scriptures: that raising a family IS a calling from the Lord. Mary would not have understood her role as simply mother to Jesus, but as mother to all these kids. This is one of those verses that helps me connect to Mary, as unique as her miraculous role was, as an ordinary young woman serving the Lord.

Is it Time?: John 2:1–5

1 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there; 2 and both Jesus and His disciples were invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to Him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does that have to do with us? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Whatever He says to you, do it.”

The first public miracle of Jesus recorded is in John 2 at a wedding, and Mary plays a fascinating role. At this wedding which would have gone on for days, attended by the entire village, the wine ran out. And Mary tells Jesus about it. He responds that his “hour has not yet come” but she then says to the servants, “Do whatever he says.” I have no idea if Mary envisioned a miracle or just wanted her son to handle it in ordinary ways, but you may know what happened: Jesus miraculously turned 180 gallons of water into the best wine.

I highlight this simply because Mary still has a relationship with her adult son, who was about 30 at this time. She trusts him with the situation and may even know what he is capable of. I am fairly certain that she understood Jesus’ response of “my hour has not yet come.” And the focus of this story is certainly Jesus. But one thing I take away from Mary is her willingness to trust God (through Jesus) for this somewhat ordinary concern. I mean, running out of wine at a multi-day wedding is a big deal, but it’s not healing a blind man or saving sins. But I see here what we are faced with day in and day out: circumstances of life and the choice to offer them to God. There is no clear expectation of a miraculous or an ordinary answer, but she is trusting him for it. Maybe she wants him to just go get some more. Maybe she’s hoping for a miracle. But isn’t that a great model for how we should pray to God? “God, I think I’m failing algebra; will you help me?” Maybe God does something miraculous, or maybe God points you to a new study-buddy. “God, my mom is sick; will you help me?” Maybe God works through medicine or doctors; maybe God brings more direct healing. Said most simply, Mary shows us faith-meets-life-meets-God.

Death of a Son: John 19:25–27

25 … But standing by the cross of Jesus were His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus then saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” 27 Then He said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” From that hour the disciple took her into his own household.

The next specific mention of Mary that I could find is some three years later at the foot of the cross with Jesus hanging there to die. Jesus sees his mother and nearby, the disciple John. Jesus entrusts Mary to John’s care and household. I think of all Mary has seen at this point. As a young girl she heard from God that she would have a miracle baby. She experienced all the power and miracle of God at the birth of Jesus and then a lifetime of raising a boy to be a man. She had some indication early on that being the Messiah and King would be dangerous and costly. After all, they had to leave everything and flee to Egypt for their lives. I wonder what she understood of the crucifixion beyond a mother’s sorrow at the suffering and death of a son.

It is one thing to have fresh faith like a child. It is another to face or experience real loss and suffering. Mary saw more than most of the real presence of God, but she also faced more than most the real death of Jesus. Yet even there in the midst of that, her God-man-son was providing for her. It may be the hardest thing we face faith-wise in this life… acknowledging, listening to, trusting God in the midst of profound loss and sorrow; but this, too, is Mary’s legacy to us. And hear this: God IS there. If God is anywhere at all, if God is God at all, God IS there… in the valley of deep shadow, in the darkness. And God does not ask us to be falsely happy or even put together; it is all we can do to simply be there. But God is also there and is willing to meet us.

Mary, Worshiper: Acts 1:14

14 These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.

Finally, this verse in Acts: in the midst of describing the early church and the believers meeting for prayer and fellowship, we read that among them is Mary the mother of Jesus (and his brothers). Mary, who gave birth to a son and raised him into a man, is listed among those who are followers of Jesus and children of God.

Mary’s real life and spiritual life really mirror our own. Not only does God intend for us to meet and know him through a childlike faith in a miracle-God, but to grow in knowledge and trust of Him even in the ordinariness and the crisis points of life, in the doubts and struggles, and even the face of death. Mary could have reached the end bitter for all that she had lost or deaf to any further message from God. She could have felt like her special time of contribution or mission was done now that Jesus was grown and gone. But she continued to listen to God; she continued to trust God. She gathered with the other believers to worship God.

Today, each of you will surely find yourself at different places along the journey of faith. Some may be waiting to hear from God for the first time. Others may be struggling to find God in the ordinariness of life – school, work, children, routine, bills, and all that. Others may be struggling with doubt and trust and faith in the midst of sickness, death, or some other real loss. And others may feel like life is mostly behind you; what’s left of it or of God?

Mary’s life and testimony – and that’s what we’ve been hearing this morning – is that God is present in all of it. And her testimony lines up with what scripture says: God is there for all of it and God loves you and hears you. My prayer is that, like Mary, you will again and again trust God to be there at every hill and valley of the journey, and know the blessing of recognizing His presence. Amen.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Joseph (Matthew 1.18-25)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - December 1, 2013
Text:Matthew 1:18-25

:: 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: "People Look East" (Wold)

Hymn of Praise: "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus" (HYFRYDOL)
Song of Praise: "Jesus, Name Above All Names" (Hearn)

Word in Music: "It Came to Pass" (Andrew Peterson)
Offering of Music: "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence" - Diana Horne, handbells (Dengler)
Hymn of Sending: "Of the Father's Love Begotten" (DIVINUM MYSTERIUM; Austell)
Postlude: "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" (Brahms)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf)
This "manuscript" is from 2008, adapted for preaching. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose.

One of the lessons we work hard to teach our children is how to say “I’m sorry.”  And you know from experience how hard it is to teach the real lesson of being truly sorry and not just mouthing the words.  An even harder lesson is how to respond to being wronged.  When someone comes to you and says, “I’m sorry,” what do you say?  What if they only seem to be mouthing the words?  What if they don’t say it at all?  Is Christian forgiveness based on the sincerity of another’s apology?  Or does grace produce something else entirely?

Today’s text is primarily about the birth of Jesus.  But today we are going to focus on a secondary, but very important, lesson tucked away in the details of this story.  That lesson is the power and importance of godly and grace-filled forgiveness to open us up to hear and respond to God and move forward into His will for us.

Let me say that another way: there is an “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” that goes through the motions of reconciling two people and there is a grace-based forgiveness that issues out of godly character that not only brings healing with another person but opens us up to be touched and used by God.  That is what is described in today’s story and what I want to hold out to you as a gift and an example from this text.

Godly Character and Action

Joseph is a model of godly character and action.  We have two opportunities to see how he acts out of his conviction and character and in both cases his choices are challenging and instructive.  The situation is tersely captured in verse 18: “When… Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.”  Can you imagine a more difficult situation that that?  In a culture where the bride’s pre-wedding purity was a prerequisite, the only thing more scandalous than the bride and groom getting pregnant before the wedding was if the baby was not his.  Joseph had every right – personally, culturally, and religiously, to leave her in disgrace.

And look what all we are told in one sentence in verse 19: “And Joseph her [promised] husband, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her, desired to put her away secretly.”  That verse tells us three things about Joseph.  First, his character was godly – he was a righteous man.  Righteous means that he wanted and tried to do right by God – to obey God’s Word and will.  Secondly, his attitude toward Mary put her concerns above his own.  He didn’t want to disgrace her or punish her.  There was implicit forgiveness extended on his part, not the “I won’t feel better until I make you pay for what you’ve done.”  That’s one key part of today’s message.  Forgiveness isn’t what you give after someone has paid their dues and pleaded an apology.  True forgiveness is an act of grace.  Thirdly, Joseph acted on his character and conviction, choosing to “put her away secretly” – that is, hide her away from public shame and disgrace.

Now it might be easy to criticize Joseph, but we know the full story and he did not.  Given what he knew, and aided by the Gospel writer’s description of him, there is much to learn from his initial reaction to an impossibly difficult and heart-breaking situation.  How do we respond when another person disappoints or wrongs us?  Can we be described as righteous?  Do we think of the other person first?  Do our words and actions flow from the faith we profess in Jesus Christ? 

Probably no one in this room, including me, thought, “Yeah – I do that.”  It is far more common to speak and act to make ourselves LOOK righteous in the eyes of others.  It is far easier to think and act with our own needs and desires first – after all, we feel as if we have been wounded or slandered.  On a good day, we just want to get the unpleasant forgiveness stuff over with and get back to being happy with God.  On a bad day, well, that’s a lot darker and damaging for all involved.  In either case, what happens is that our natural “revenge cycle” disconnects us further from our faith and hearing what God wants from us.  If we cannot and do not forgive as God has forgiven us – that is, graciously – then it really affects our relationship with God and our ability to listen to God.

And hearing what God wants from us is the other key part of today’s message.

God sent an angel to speak to Joseph and to reveal the fuller plan of what was going on.  I believe that it was Joseph’s faithful first response that gave him the ears to hear what God would then say through the angel.  It was Joseph’s willingness to forgive without all the information that helped him to hear what else God would have him do.

Hearing God Speak

The next verse continues the story, with an angel appearing in a dream and saying to him, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife…”  And the angel goes on to reveal both the divine nature of the conception and the miraculous identity of the child who would be born.  Would God have spoken in a dream if Joseph had not been so initially forgiving?  Probably… but I wonder what Joseph would have made of the dream.  If he had not been inclined to forgive Mary on the first hand, I can imagine him rationalizing or discounting the angel’s message as a bad or crazy dream rather than a message from God.  (Do note, that the message squared with God’s revealed Word in scripture – to “fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet” – that’s how we verify that God is leading us or speaking to us.)

Faith and life have a cumulative and catalyzing affect on one another.  If there is a disconnect between what we say we believe and what we do, it further drives a wedge between the two, making it harder to hear and believe.  If we put our faith into action, it helps develop those ears to hear and eyes to see. 

Look at how this plays out with Joseph.  I believe that Joseph’s initial faithfulness toward Mary helped him to hear and respond to God, when God spoke.  And once God spoke, look at how Joseph responded.  In verse 24, “And Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took her as his wife, and kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.”  Joseph’s faithfulness helped him listen, because he then responded with obedience.  That’s the cumulative and catalyzing effect I was talking about.  He immediately got up from sleep and obeyed the command of the Lord. 

Going ahead and marrying Mary was not his original plan.  But, having taken an initial step of grace toward her, he was already headed in the direction of obedience toward God.  He was faithful with a little (information) and God invited him to be faithful with much.  And indeed, he became the earthly father of our Savior.

Forward through Forgiveness

This story has some significant application for us.  Broadly, it demonstrates the spiritual and practical value of faithfulness – doing what is right before the Lord.  Even if we don’t understand at the time or don’t have all the information, righteousness puts us in the path of God’s blessing, that is, being in God’s will.

More specifically, forgiveness is one act of faithfulness or doing right before the Lord.  It is taught, modeled, and commanded by Jesus.  We repeat it weekly in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debt as we forgive others.”  And how does God forgive our debts or transgressions?  He does so unconditionally and with grace.  He does so preemptively, not waiting for us to earn pardon, but first, so that we may respond out of love rather than fear.

I believe one of the things that most frequently causes us to get “stuck” in life and relationships, including our relationship with God, is our unwillingness to forgive.  We can have all the Bible knowledge and internal faith in the world, but until we are willing to extend that faith outward and extend the grace that we have already been shown by God, we are mired in place. 

Do you feel like you never hear from God?  One of the things we see going on in this passage is the benefit of taking small steps, or being faithful with a little.  It doesn’t mean that the heavens will suddenly open or that burning bushes will start addressing you by name.  But, it does mean that you will be better equipped to listen to God in the ordinary and usual ways God speaks: through scripture, through worship, through the counsel of fellow believers.  And, being faithful with what you do have and who you are will also cultivate the discipline of obedience to God’s Word, which is what is necessary for faithfulness in larger, tougher situations.

Forgiveness is one aspect of faithfulness, but it is one that most of us deal with on a daily basis.  And how we deal with this particular form of faithfulness offers us the choice of getting stuck, again, or moving forward through forgiveness.  Amen.