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Sunday, May 25, 2014

But I've Got a Plan (John 5.1-17)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - May 25, 2014
Text: John 5:1-17

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

:: Sermon Video (kind of) 
Trying something new here... it's the PowerPoint slides with the audio playing in a youtube video format. It should make it easier to listen right on this page. If you like this format, please let me know in the comments or by e-mail and I'll keep doing it!

:: Some Music Used
Gathering Music: "The Journey/He Leadeth Me" (Heather Sorenson)
Song of Praise: "O for a Thousand Tongues/One Great Love" (David Crowder Band)
The Word in Music: "Beautiful Savior" (Tom Fettke)
Hymn of Response: "Lord, Your Church on Earth is Seeking" (AUSTRIAN HYMN)
Offering of Music: "How He Loves" (David Crowder Band; McMillan)
Our Song of Praise: "The Doxology"
Hymn of Sending: "Go Forth for God (v. 2)" (GENEVA12)
Postlude: "Hymn to Joy" (Albert L. Travis)

:: 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 After these things there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2 Now there is in Jerusalem by the sheep gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew Bethesda, having five porticoes. 3 In these lay a multitude of those who were sick, blind, lame, and withered, [waiting for the moving of the waters; 4 for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool and stirred up the water; whoever then first, after the stirring up of the water, stepped in was made well from whatever disease with which he was afflicted.] 5 A man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he had already been a long time in that condition, He said to him, “Do you wish to get well?” 7 The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, but while I am coming, another steps down before me.” 8 Jesus said to him, “Get up, pick up your pallet and walk.” 9 Immediately the man became well, and picked up his pallet and began to walk.
     Now it was the Sabbath on that day. 10 So the Jews were saying to the man who was cured, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not permissible for you to carry your pallet.” 11 But he answered them, “He who made me well was the one who said to me, ‘Pick up your pallet and walk.’ ” 12 They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Pick up your pallet and walk’?” 13 But the man who was healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had slipped away while there was a crowd in that place. 14 Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “Behold, you have become well; do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you.” 15 The man went away, and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. 16 For this reason the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because He was doing these things on the Sabbath. 17 But He answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working.” (Acts 1:1-8)

Last week I shared about visiting The Grove (church) and the clear demonstration of the power of God in bringing that church from near-death to life. I had also listened to the Hinton’s sermon from the previous week and been so encouraged by their testimony to the power of God to do what they could not do. So we looked last week at the mission Jesus gave to his followers after his Easter Resurrection. It amounts to this: God is doing some amazing things in the world and you are to be witnesses to that work. Sometimes you will even get to share in that work, but never forget that the power to witness and to work comes from God.

I confessed my own slowness to rely on God’s power, being quick instead to come up with my own ideas and plans. We talked about what it would mean as a church and as individuals to look first to God’s power and work so as not to run ahead or lag behind what God is doing. I framed a key question like this: Lord, what are you doing in and around us; how can we be a part; and will you help us?

While that question and those verses do have a personal application, the focus leaned towards us as a church community; how we trust and follow God together. Today’s text very much picks up the same themes, and has application for us all together; but it is much more focused on an individual story and I think will offer a good follow-up to last week’s message. Let’s turn then to John 5.

A Multitude… a Man (vv. 3,5)

The story opens up with a movie-like wide shot of Jerusalem at feast-time. Zooming in, we find ourselves focused on one of the gates in Jerusalem and the large pool complex near that gate. Don’t think “swimming pool” though; scholars believe these pools were for ceremonial washing and near to the Temple area. As we zoom in further reading John’s description, we see “a multitude of those who were sick, blind, lame, and withered.” (v. 3)

There are a number of reasons this multitude could have been there. Many sicknesses were considered ceremonially unclean, so the ritual washing may have been part of religious requirement. It may have also been a convenient place to beg and receive food and support, with many travelers stopping by the pools on the way to the Temple or coming from the sheep market. And apparently there was also a belief that one could experience healing by entering the water at the right time when it was “stirred up.” (vv. 4,7)

But John’s purpose here is not to describe or critique the dynamic between the Temple worship, the animal sacrifice and market system, or the socio-economic plight of the multitudes of sick and disabled in Jerusalem. There are other places in the Gospel of John all those things are addressed more directly. Today, John is zeroing in on one of the multitude – one man’s story and his encounter with Jesus the Son of God.

“A man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years.” (v. 5) The person in focus has been “in his sickness” (it’s not specified what that is) for most or all of his life. His sickness, whatever it was, kept him down on a pallet; he could not move himself to the water without help. He likely lived off the assistance and mercy of others, perhaps asking for food and basic necessities from family or from strangers. This was more than “a man was beset by robbers” like in the Good Samaritan story; this was his life. It was all he knew.

Suddenly the story becomes personal. It could be about me or about you. I wonder what comes to mind. Is there anything you’ve struggled with for a lifetime? I’ve had incredibly poor vision since I was a child. That’s about thirty-eight years. In an ancient society that would have crippled me and left me with very few options. And that’s just for starters. What about you?

What is holding you down? What is keeping you from moving forward? What can you not see around or get around?

Maybe it has to do with money: not enough to pay the bills or debt you can’t pay off or habits you can’t break.

Maybe it has to do with family and relationships: kids out of control, parents you don’t respect, marriage that is more difficult and lonely than anything else, or singleness with a relentless restlessness.

Maybe it has to do with health: a chronic illness or a terminal diagnosis or being overweight or the darkness of depression.

Maybe it has to do with an addition: any number of behaviors, habits, or strategies that have become as tangible and unbreakable as real chains.

Or you fill in the blank. If John’s movie camera were to pan down to South Charlotte and pass over the multitudes of sick, blind, lame, withered, discouraged, indebted, lonely, addicted, stuck, lost, bound up people and zoom in on your life, what would he see? I’m not going to ask you to say it out loud or write it down or share; but I would ask you to look deep, because Jesus has a question to ask you.

Jesus’ Question; Our Answers (vv. 6-7)

“Do you want to get well?”

That’s the question Jesus asks: “Do you want to get well?”

You’d think it’s a no-brainer, right? But there’s a dark side to those real life-binding, stuck places; we seem to not just get stuck there, but they become our life. That’s how we come to understand life and ourselves and our place in this world. And while we might spend a lot of time wishing things were different and better and ideal, it’s a very different thing for Jesus to show up with the power of God and ask the question: “Do you want to get well?”

For one thing, we aren’t quite ready to answer THAT question – not if it involves the power of God showing up in our life. So, with the man by the pool, we answer a little off-target for what Jesus actually asked. “Lord, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; others get there first.” (v. 7) Do you see what he did there? As if he already knows how Jesus would answer the question… he’s got the answer figured out, he just doesn’t know how to make it happen.

Jesus asks if you want to get well – in your situation – and where do our minds go? Sure, all I need is a higher-paying job. Sure, all I need is for my spouse to get their life together. Sure, all I need is to have a better life, like that person over there. Sure, but I don’t really have a problem. I distinctly remember having those kinds of thoughts related to my weight and health. I sure am trying to get from here to there; maybe this is as good as it gets and I just need to find contentment here in this place.

I have no reason to think that the man by the pool was being anything other than sincere; he just couldn’t think beyond the solutions and hopes and dreams he had already tried for years and years. Maybe he even thought Jesus might stick around and help try to get him to the pool the next time it got stirred up. Now there is a case of asking God to bless our limited strategies!

But what happened next is not something he had imagined.

Jesus’ Answer: God’s Power (v. 8)

Jesus said to him, “Get up; pick up your pallet and walk” (v. 8) and IMMEDIATELY the man became well. (v. 9) No strategies, no ritual or superstition; it was the power of God. And here’s the second part, the participating in what God is doing part: the man “picked up his pallet and began to walk.” (v. 9) Jesus healed him through the power of God and the man chose to get up and participate in what God was doing.

After all, he could have stayed there, healed in body but stuck in place, not knowing how else to live life. After all, this was his home, his livelihood, his community, and his dream – probably for years and years and years. Leaving that behind would be hard. In fact, maybe he could just come hang out there anyway; being healed didn’t keep him from coming there. But Jesus told him not just to get up, but to take his bedroll with him, not to come back and try to claim that space any more. In fact, Jesus runs into him later in the Temple and says, “Behold, you have become well; do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you.” (v. 14) Jesus recognized that one option would be to go back to the pool, to begging, and to a life of stuckness, even if his body had been healed. And Jesus warns against that.

And here’s one place I want to be careful… so hear me well. I am NOT saying that we should do nothing but wait on God’s power and healing. Well, in a sense I am saying that; but God’s power and healing sometimes looks like crawling to the pool. Sometimes the help and healing does come through the help of others or financial counseling or opening up to a friend about struggles in marriage or following your doctor’s medical treatment plan or admitting you have an addiction. We recognized that distinction last week in talking about God’s power and our church plans. It’s not wrong to have a church vision or renovate the worship space or figure out how to be better neighbors in our neighborhood. We just dare not leave God out of those plans! Our strategy can’t be “here’s what I’m going to do and, by the way, God will you sprinkle some of you blessing on it?” Rather, we need to look and wait and pray and do our best to figure out what God is doing and join up in that!

Last week I tried to boil that down to a simple prayer: Lord, what are you doing in and around us; how can we be a part; and will you help us?

I’d do the same this week, for our personal struggles and obstacles and chains:

Lord, how would you make known your healing and helping power in my life; what do I need to take up or leave behind; and how can I say ‘yes’ to you?

Witnesses (vv. 11ff)

As a short epilogue, the man had the opportunity to give witness to what had happened. In this case, the religious leaders were trying to catch Jesus breaking the Law by healing on the Sabbath. Talk about missing the power of God for repeating old strategies! But don’t miss that though that was going on, the man was willing and able to say, “This is what God has done and what God is doing even now.” That is our mission in all this – to point others to what God is doing in our own life and in the world around us.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Witnesses (Acts 1.1-8)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - May 18, 2014Text: Acts 1:1-8; Luke 24:46-49

:: 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: "Aleluya! Cristo Resucito!" (Bedford)
Song of Praise: "Lion of Judah" (Robin Mark)
Song of Praise: "Build Your Kingdom Here" (Rend Collective Experiment)
The Word in Music: "Go Out into the World" (de Silva)
Hymn of Response: "Go to the World" (ENGLEBERG)
Our Song of Praise: "The Doxology"
Hymn of Sending: "Go Forth for God (v. 1)" (GENEVA12)
Postlude: "Go Out to the World" (reprise) (de Silva)

:: 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 The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, 2 until the day when He was taken up to heaven, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen. 3 To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God. 4 Gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, “Which,” He said, “you heard of from Me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” 6 So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; 8 but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” (Acts 1:1-8)
This week I listened to Jason and Tiffany Hinton’s message from last Sunday. Both of them shared about their plans – exciting plans – to serve God in Greece. They have had this on their mind for many years and actively left Nicaragua to pursue this plan five years ago. But they have had to wait. “Lord, when are you going to send us to Greece?!” And they really expended all the human power and effort they had to make that happen and came to the end of themselves. And now, in God’s timing and definitely through God’s power, doors have opened that they could not open. The way that they could not press through is clearing. And there is no doubt in their mind; God is at work. It’s not exactly what they imagined; in fact, it is far more expansive than they imagined. God seems to be calling them to responsibility over many countries, of which Greece will be one. Who could have imagined that? Listening to their message I was reminded so strongly that God has the POWER and the PLAN.

Interestingly enough, while they were here sharing that story, I was worshiping at the Grove, where my friend, Kate, serves as pastor. Kate was appointed by the presbytery to serve as the pastor there because the Grove could no longer afford to call a pastor. They were aging out and dying, no longer able to attract people from a changed neighborhood. Presbytery offered to fund one last-ditch effort to turn things around and offered Kate as pastor through that process. It sounded crazy: introduce praise music, reach out to the surrounding neighborhood, change the layout of the sanctuary. Over half the dwindling congregation left. The choir director quit. After the initial support, the presbytery bowed out. Kate, as gifted a pastor as I’ve ever met, scrambled to get the support of some churches that might sponsor the work. Several stepped up, including Good Shepherd, who sent Chuck and Linda Jenkins as volunteer choir director and choir member to try to bolster the flagging choir. One large church even seemed poised to fund things for a while. But that fell through and shortly after the Jenkins left, the choir quit. Membership dropped significantly and worship attendance was something like 20-30 people. And financial support dropped so low that the church was within a month of closing, and Kate dropped to less than half-time. That was about a year ago.

I knew things had picked up from seeing some pictures on Facebook. And Kate had told me that they had re-instated some of her hours. But I was not prepared for what I experienced when I walked in on Sunday morning. I was a few minutes late, so the service was in progress. The door from the parking lot enters into the front of the sanctuary. I walked in to see a sanctuary full of white, black, and brown faces. I saw over 100 worshipers of every age and attire. I saw hands raised, voices in full song, and ‘alleluias’ being shouted as a full praise band led the congregation in “Blessed be Your Name.”  In fact, I walked in to “When I’m found in the desert place, though I walk through the wilderness, blessed be your name.” The praise band had one of the oldest drummers I had ever seen, and there was an older lady singing on the end. I later found out she had been in the choir and a while after it disbanded she came to Kate and said she missed leading worship in song and wondered if she could sing with the praise team.

During the service I alternated between overwhelming joy and tearful gratitude for the new life in what had been a desert place. I couldn’t wait until after the service when I got to speak to Kate. I said, “Kate, this is… glorious! You know that, right?” And she shared with me for about half an hour about what God had done. And the bottom line was this: she and the Grove had come to the end of themselves. They had exhausted all human plans and strategies and funding streams and everything else. And then God had showed up. Kate said there was no confusing what had happened. It was like the four day dead body of Lazarus… no doubt that anything had happened other than the POWER of God in their midst.

The Best Plans… (vv. 6-7)

“Lord, NOW are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”  Now you’re going to wipe out the Romans, right?  You obviously have the power – their torture and soldiers couldn’t keep you down.  Now you’re going to bring it, right?  The insistence of the disciples in asking the next question would be laughable if I didn’t do the same thing all the time.

“Lord, is this the year our church is going to grow? Is this building renovation going to help? What about our plans for small groups? What if we do a better job of connecting with our visitors?” Yep, right there with the disciples. I am struck – and convicted – by the disciples’ question that I still have much to learn about “Thy will be done” and putting God’s will ahead of my own.

Jesus’ answer is short and deep; and then he moves on.  His answer is verse 7, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority…”  What in the world is an epoch?  We don’t get to know the day and time the end will come.  And we don’t get to know the timing, that is, God’s time.  What Jesus is saying is that it’s God’s business and we would do better to listen to what God IS saying then speculate about what God is not revealing.  Jesus is very clear in this passage that he would reorient us towards a present mission.

The message for the disciples – and often for us – is WAIT for God’s POWER and look for God’s PLAN.

The POWER (v. 8a)

Here’s the best part: the fuel, the POWER, for this work is not something we have to generate. It comes from God. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would be poured out on those who trusted in Him, and that Spirit would energize, compel, protect, embolden, catalyze, and bless the words and actions of human witnesses. 

And God’s Holy Spirit is not something we have to earn a degree to figure out, or scale a mountain to discover, or have a special quality to deserve. God promises it! If you are a Christian, you believe and trust and follow Jesus Christ; and Jesus has promised his Spirit will live and work in you.

But here’s what we can do. We can ignore, tune out, dismiss, and otherwise miss out on that power. Or we can try to run on our own power. And that may even work for a while; but it won’t in the long run and it won’t when we hit that impossible wall, whatever it may be.

The PLAN (v. 8b)

Jesus spells out the PLAN in one sentence in verse 8, and it is clear that it is not our plan, but what God is doing.  Jesus said, “…you shall be My witnesses…”  What is it that we have witnessed?  Think about a witness in a courtroom.  The questions are, “What have you seen?  What have you heard?  What do you know?”

Luke summarized the Christian witness in verses 1-5.  That is what is referenced by “witnesses” in verse 8.  We are witnesses to four things:
  1. Jesus’ ministry as recorded in the Gospel of Luke – what he did and taught (v. 1)
  2. Jesus suffering and resurrection (v. 3)
  3. Specific teaching about the Kingdom of God (v. 3)
  4. The promise and reality of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life (and sign of the promised Kingdom of God) (vv. 4-5)
That’s the basic story we need to have under our belt, applied and experienced and explained through the filter of our own lives.  Said even more simply, we need to know God’s story in Christ, as witnessed through our own story and experience.

Then Jesus goes on to describe the scope of this PLAN – the where of it: “…in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (v. 8).  We have talked about this phrase before.  In fact, it underlies the mission of this church as we attempt to be a faithful witness to Jesus Christ within our walls, then in our near neighborhood, then in the larger community, and in the world. 

The POWER and the PLAN

Why do I share all that? It’s because I need to hear it (I think it no mistake that God queued it up twice for me to hear this past week!) and because we need to hear it.

We have had and do have some exciting plans at Good Shepherd. Our deep care for one another, our keen mission to our neighborhood, our creative arts ministries, our children and youth ministries, our Primetimer ministry, our teaching and preaching ministry, and so much more. It’s really good stuff. And these renovations to Norton Hall and our worship space are very exciting!

And I don’t mean by any of this that God wants us to stop doing those things. But what I do read in these scriptures is this caution: none of these things will save us. None of these things are the “answer” to why we are together here as a church. We do them because we think God has gifted and called us to them. They are neither the PLAN, in and of themselves, and they are certainly not the POWER behind the plan.

Let me boil this down to two statements which apply to us individually as Christians and collectively as the church:

We must not confuse our power – our gifts, interests, passions, and abilities – for God’s POWER, which is spiritual and infinite and effective.


We must continue, daily and always, to ask what God is doing in and around us and how we can be a part of that.

I pray we need not get to the end of our rope to wait on God’s power. That’s not the only way it happens. In wisdom and humility, we can even now wait on and ask for God’s POWER.

So, even more compactly, let me close with this. First I’ll read it; then I’ll pray it.

Lord: what are you doing in and around me, how can I be a part, and will you help me?

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Treasure in the Waiting (Isaiah 43.18-21)

Sermon by: Jason and Tiffany Hinton - May 11, 2014
Text: Isaiah 43:18-21

:: 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: "Be Thou My Vision" (Fred Bock)
Hymn of Praise: "Be Thou My Vision" (SLANE)
Song of Praise: "Step by Step" (Beaker, Mullins)
The Word in Music: "Be Not Afraid" (Courtney)
Offering of Music: "Oceans" (Hillsong)
Our Song of Praise: "The Doxology"
Hymn of Sending: "Great is Thy Faithfulness" (FAITHFULNESS)
Postlude: "Oh, God, Thou Faithful God" (Karg-Elert)

:: Sermon Manuscript
Not available

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Build Your Kingdom Here (Matthew 6.9-10)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - May 4, 2014
Text: Matthew 6:9-10; Luke 24:44-48; 2 Samuel 7:8-17 

:: Sermon Audio (link) - scroll down for written draft  
Audio not available.

:: Some Music Used (all in bluegrass style)
Prelude: "The Church in the Wildwood" (William S. Pitts)
Gathering Hymn: "Called as Partners in Christ's Service" (attr. William Moore)
Response of Praise: "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" (v. 3) (Showalter)
Musical Offering: "Build Your Kingdom Here" (Rend Collective Experiment)
Affirmation of Faith Hymn: "Apostles' Creed" (BEACH SPRING)
Offertory: "Get in the Boat" (The Purple Hulls)
Offertory Response: "Doxology" (Genevan Psalter)
Sanctus: "Holy, Holy, Holy" (LAND OF REST)
Memorial Acclamation: "Christ Has Died; Christ is Risen" (LAND OF REST)
Amen: "Amen" (LAND OF REST)
Meditation Music: "Simple Gifts" (Chip Meyers, guitar; Carolyn Meyers, cello) (Brackett)
Sending Hymn: "This Little Light of Mine" (Harry Dixon Loes)
Postlude: "Bluegrass Medley" (various)

:: 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.
9 “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10 Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:9b-10)

8 Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; 9 and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. 15 But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever. 17 In accordance with all these words and with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David. (2 Samuel 7:8-17)

44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24:44-48)
Preached at Matthews Presbyterian Church for “Bluegrass Sunday”
with Good Shepherd and Morningstar Presbyterian Churches 

Why is the Church here? I bet that’s a question that could generate some good discussion. Ponder for a moment how you’d answer that question. I know it’s vague: do I mean Matthews Presbyterian Church? Or Morningstar? Or Good Shepherd? Or the Presbyterian Church? Or all the Churches together?    ….Yes. Whichever you want to think about is fine. Why is it here?

And if this helps, let me remind you of something; this building isn’t the Church. You would just as much be the church if we were sitting here in an open field, gathered in worship and fellowship. YOU are the Church here in the world. It’s a little easier to see this morning when we have three congregations together mixing and mingling in worship. So, let me offer at least that much direction and ask again: why are YOU the Church here in the world?

The Bible provides several answers to that question; but at least one of the several answers has to do with something almost all Christians pray every week. You heard it as the call to worship, framed not only in the usual prayer-form, but as an invitation to worship:

Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name. Your Kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:9b-10)

How familiar and yet how mysterious! Father in Heaven, holy name… that’s pretty straightforward. But then something about God’s Kingdom, God’s will, and all of that not just distant and removed in Heaven, but intersecting with the here and now on earth.

I want to take a few minutes with you this morning and try to understand that a little bit better, not only because it is something Jesus taught us to pray, but because it points us towards the very understanding and purpose of why the Church is here. God is up to something and WE are a part of it!

A Long, Long Time Ago… (2 Samuel 7)

One of the key features of the Old Testament that links it to the New Testament is God making gracious, lasting, faithful promises to human beings. We call those covenants and they all find their “final answer” in Jesus. And Jesus isn’t shy about point that out. On numerous occasions he lifts up the “Law, Prophets, and Psalms” – his scripture, our Old Testament – and explains or demonstrates how he is not replacing them or doing away with them, but fulfilling them and making them complete.

There is one of these covenants recorded in 2 Samuel 7. It is with King David. As part of God’s larger plan and as an extension of the older covenant with Abraham, God is graciously promising David that God will maintain his line and his throne. This has an immediate fulfillment in David’s son, Solomon; but the scope of the covenant is more far-reaching than that. God will preserve David’s line and kingdom, promising to “make it sure” and “establish it forever.” (2 Samuel 7:16) This is one of the reasons the Gospel writers make sure to include the genealogies of Jesus. He is of David’s line; this covenant with David was understood to be one of the reasons to hope in God’s Messiah. And it overlaps with our question today because it has in view God’s over-arching will (“Your will be done”) and God’s eternal Kingdom intersecting with what is here on earth (“on earth as it is in heaven”).

There is a lot more that could be unpacked there, but the part that has to do with our text and question this morning is this principle: that part of God’s plan is to create a picture on earth of what is already true in Heaven.

Church-Planting Pre-meeting (Luke 24; Acts 1)

Luke 24 includes two post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. The first is on the road to Emmaus, where Jesus appears to two people who had followed all the events in Jerusalem surrounding his arrest, crucifixion, and death. They were among those who hoped he might be the Messiah. Jesus walks and talks with them, even breaking bread and eating with them. Then he appears to the disciples, still gathered together, struggling to make sense of Jesus’ death and the report from the women who found the tomb empty on Easter morning. Jesus moves among them – talking, touching, explaining, and eating. In both cases, he “explains from the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms” what has happened and how he has fulfilled the scriptures.

That was a recurring motif throughout his ministry. At Good Shepherd, we have been looking at Jesus’ use of scripture since January of this year, particularly those places where he would say, “It is written…” and quote the scripture. What we saw was a pattern: Jesus never through away scripture; he always explained it more deeply, either in words or in his own actions. And for all his public ministry, he said that those scriptures pointed to his suffering, death, and resurrection. But now, in Luke 24, something is different. There is something BEYOND the resurrection and beyond Easter Christianity. It’s there in vv. 47-48: “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day…” – he had said that on numerous occasions – “…and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

In a nutshell, Jesus is giving the brand new Church its mission and rooting it in the scriptural revelation of God.  Just as all the scripture – from the Law to the Prophets to the Psalms – pointed to Jesus as suffering and victorious Messiah, so the scripture (says Jesus) sends the Church out into the community and the world as testimonies to what God has done. This same theme is mentioned in the beginning of Acts when Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit to empower this mission. And I love the way it’s put here in Luke and in Acts: we are WITNESSES of what God has done and is doing in the world. It’s not our work so much as it is our telling God’s story. What is clear is that it is PUBLIC and OUT THERE and that God is already at work!

So, yes, we are getting close to one important answer to “Why is the Church here?” or more personally, “Why are we here?” Let me end with an illustration to try to get at what I think Jesus and a whole lot of scripture is saying here.

An Illustration

The Fire Department is right around the corner from us here. It, too, has a mission and a purpose for being there. Imagine, if you will, that fine building full of firefighters, training regularly to be physically fit and to rehearse strategies for fighting fires. That’s necessary and good, right? Imagine over time the community that would build up of firefighters and former firefighters, and their families. Because it is a mix of paid and volunteers, they periodically have events to build camaraderie and to raise funds. When it is parade time, they are an exciting site; they also open their doors for tours and they sound the sirens and turn on the water hoses for children to play under in the heat. In so many ways, all of that reminds me of the ways our churches function and thrive internally – training, fellowship, fund-raisers, open doors for special events. But what am I missing? What is the Church sometimes missing? What would the Fire Department be if it didn’t actually go out and fight fires?

Do we actually think folks need God’s salvation? Do we think folks need forgiveness of sin, as sung in Psalm 118, accomplished in Jesus’ death, and lifted up here in Luke 24? And to broaden and take a look at Jesus’ full declaration of how he fulfilled scripture: do we think our community and world needs to hear about the justice, freedom, healing, and good news promised by the prophet Isaiah and announced by Jesus? Do we think our community and world needs to experience the compassion and love of neighbor described in the Law of Moses and affirmed in the “Greatest Commandment” by Jesus?

I’m very, very careful not to use bits and pieces of Bible verses to make a point; but in this case huge long swaths of Old Testament scripture declare it; Jesus quotes, teaches, lives, and reaffirms it; and the story of the early Church bears it out: we are here to declare God’s story to our community and to the world. God IS working for justice, forgiveness, to reconcile humanity and we are the ones God has called on to speak and live that news out beyond our walls.

What goes on inside the walls is vitally important – from teaching and training to worship to care of one another. But if we miss the mission, if we miss the “going out there” part, we are like a thriving old Fire Station community that no longer fights fires.

We are here to bear witness to what God is doing – building His Kingdom – not inside the Church, but in our community and in the world. We are not somehow creating Heaven on Earth, but ARE speaking and living God’s Kingdom in such a way that this world experiences the life, love, and blessing that God declares and promises in scripture and through Jesus Christ.

The real question for us is how to take what we are celebrating in here and witness that Good News – in word and action – out there. We could spend weeks and months and years answering that question and living out the answers… and in fact, we should. For today, I simply wanted to raise the question to help remind us that we are not a closed community celebrating what was, but are far more like a Fire Station, training, practicing, and ready at all times to go out.

As Jesus was fond of saying, “Let them with ears hear.” Amen!