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Sunday, September 27, 2015

Fit for What? (Hebrews 12.1-11)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; September 27, 2015
Text: Hebrews 12:1-11

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
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: Come All Christians, Be Committed (BEACH SPRING)
Song of Response: One Pure and Holy Passion (Altrogge)
Offering of Music: Lead Me, Guide Me (Eric VanderHeide, solo) (Akers/Smallwood)
Song of Sending: Take My Life/Here Am I (ref. Tomlin/Giglio)
Postlude: Rick Bean, piano

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

“How ya doing?”

That’s something we often say to each other in greeting. And often the quick response is “fine.” Or sometimes, if it’s someone we think will hear more than that (or if our filter is down), we’ll say more: “I’m having a hard time” or “not too good.”

“What are you doing?” – That’s another question we ask. Often children will ask that of parents or others. And that’s a question we often ask at church. Or we try to answer it: “Here’s what you should be doing.”

But the deeper question, the one we ask far less, whether of others or even of ourselves, is “Why?”

“Why are you doing what you are doing? And why are you having a hard time?” What drives you? What motivates you? Where are you headed?

I had the opportunity this past week to take part in something where I was encouraged to ask all those questions, from “How are you doing?” to “What are you doing?” to “Why are you doing it?” I want to share some of what I learned and invite you to ask those questions as we look together at this passage from Hebrews 12. I’ve chosen the Message translation today because I think it presses the translation a bit into words and phrases that may get through our filters and reach us in a way we need to hear.

“Start running – and never quit!” (v. 1)

In the middle of verse 1 we read, “Start running – and never quit!” That sounds kind of horrible, doesn’t it? Is that really in the Bible? But what this passage is picking up on is the example from the previous chapter of men and women who ran after God and ran to God, people who were blessed and a blessing because they participated in God’s work in this world. And they are lifted up both as “pioneers who blazed the way” but also as “veterans cheering us on.”

Said another way, and to quote Bruce Springsteen, we were “born to run.” But we run after and to all kinds of things. Even if we might be described as inactive and lazy, we are figuratively running – perhaps in that case AWAY from something.

What are you doing? Are you running away from something or someone? Are you running after or to something or someone? And why do you do it?

The Bible lifts up God, not only as the one who made us and gives us purpose, but as the One who loves us most perfectly. The writer of Hebrews lifts up a number of men and women who ran after and to God and reminds us of God’s perfect love for us. The gist of the message in chapter 12 then is “the best thing you could do is to run to God!”

And this writer urges, “Start running – and never quit!” But running a race is not easy… life is not easy… and faithfulness is not easy.  But we are told to persevere… hang in there… don't give up.  Keep working at removing the hindrances and the sin… keep on running the race.

“No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins” (v. 1b)

Our usual translation warns us to “lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us.” And that is not unintelligible, but somehow it lets me off the hook. If I can carry the “encumbrance” and not get tripped up by sin, then I must be okay. But did you hear the Message translation? That nails me: “No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins.” I know enough about physical health to know that I can carry extra fat, but it’s not healthy for me. And the image of sin as a parasite, living off me – that is a) disgusting; and b) convicting.

In fact this hits very close to home in a literal way. One of the things I became convicted of this past week is that I had been coasting along satisfied with being “healthy enough.” After all, I lost a bunch of weight two years ago and “got healthy.” And I’ve maintained the exercise – which is good! But some extra weight crept back on. It’s leveled off, but it’s not healthy. It came about through patterns and habits of eating that are literally sucking the life out of me, even as I exercise and pursue health. And what a parable on my spiritual life as well! In fact, that’s just what Hebrews 12 is about. Most of us, if we believe in Christ, are running the race in some way or another. But it is easy to pick up extra spiritual weight, parasitic behaviors and habits, which bog us down. Can you relate?

So we pour our energy and attention into work or relationships or behaviors that do not lead toward God, but weigh us down or lead us away from God’s race. Maybe the question that needs your attention today is simply, “What are you doing?” After raising those questions, Hebrews offers us a way forward.

“Keep your eyes on Jesus… study how he did it” (v. 2)

In verse 2, we are urged: “Keep your eyes on Jesus… [and] study how he did it.” How do we know where to run and how to run? It’s because Christ has gone before us. Verse 2 goes on to say that Jesus “both began and finished this race we’re in.” And listen to the rest: “He never lost sight of where he was headed – that exhilarating finish in and with God – he could put up with anything along the way: cross, shame, whatever.”

What does that say to the question, “How ya doing?” Jesus has not only shown us how to ‘run’ – that is, to live; he has suffered pain, loss, suffering, and disappointment like we have. But he was sustained through it! Wouldn’t you like to know the secret to that? Well it’s given to us here. He endured those things because he was running to and after God. Your ability to face and endure suffering relates to the value of the thing you are running after (or from). That’s what gives meaning (or lack of meaning) to our suffering. And running to and after God – God’s whose loving plan is for our ultimate best in relationship to Him – gives the most meaning to this ‘race.’

Instead of asking “What am I doing?” or “Where am I going?” this passage urges us to ask “What is God doing?” and “Where is Jesus leading me?”

“Go over that story again” (v. 3)

Then, when you find yourself “flagging in your faith” (v. 3), you are urged to “go over that story again.” (v. 3)

“How are you doing?” – not well; not well at all. Where is Christ? What is Jesus doing?

“What are you doing?” – I don’t know or I think it may not be the right thing. Where is Christ? What is Jesus doing?

“Why are you doing it?” – Where is Christ? What is Jesus doing?

“Go over that story again, item by item, that long list of hostility he plowed through.” Christ has endured suffering, sin, and death on our behalf.  Christ has gone before us.  He has marked the course and cleared the way.  He knows what we must persevere through and does not leave us to face it alone.

“Training us to live God’s holy best” (vv. 4-11)

I have resolved to revisit my eating patterns, to track and be accountable for what I eat, but even more than that to try to understand when and why I eat beyond what I need. The rest of this passage in Hebrews speaks to what is involved to run the race well. And in a word, it’s TRAINING. I remember training when I was a child – I hated it; it felt like punishment. And that’s just the illustration used in vv. 4-11. But we are reminded that training is good and it’s just what good parents do with their beloved children. And that’s who God is, our Heavenly Father and parent. Just listen…
It’s the child [God] loves that He disciplines; the child He embraces, He also corrects. God is educating you; that’s why you must never drop out. He’s treating you as dear children. This trouble you’re in isn’t punishment; it’s training, the normal experience of children. Only irresponsible parents leave children to fend for themselves. Would you prefer an irresponsible God? We respect our own parents for training and not spoiling us, so why not embrace God’s training so we can truly live? While we were children, our parents did what SEEMED best to them. But god is doing what IS best for us, training us to live God’s holy best. (vv. 6-10)
Just to be clear, when we answer “How ya doing?” with “not good, not good at all” – THAT is not God’s discipline. God’s discipline is shedding the extra spiritual fat and the parasitic sin and running after Jesus. That’s what can feel like punishment, but is actually life. That’s the invitation.

That’s the catch, of course. Before I got a little healthy, I scoffed at running. Frankly, I couldn’t even imagine it. If you remember my testimony of that significant change, I prayed for God’s help to do something I hadn’t been able to do for myself. So if running after Jesus seems elusive or impossible, that would be a good start today. Let’s pray and ask God for help.

Father, I believe you are who you say, but I can’t seem to get off the spiritual couch. I realize I am unhealthy or even headed in the wrong direction. Help me; save me! Redirect my heart and help me get moving after you. I trust that you are life, and I want that life and hope. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Heartfelt Hospitality (Hebrews 13, Romans 12, Matthew 25)

Sermon by: Royallen Wiley; September 20, 2015
Text: Hebrews 13:1-2; Romans 12:10-13; Matthew 25:37-40

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
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: We are One in the Spirit (ST. BRENDAN'S)
Song of Praise: Holy Spirit (Getty/Townend)
Offering of Music: As We Believe (choir) (Grenz/Butler)
Song of Sending: Lord, You Give the Great Commission (ABBOT'S LEIGH)
Postlude: Rick Bean, piano

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

Heartfelt Hospitality.  You may be asking, “aren’t there more pressing issues?”  Yet, when we read the Bible more events are hospitality related than any other.   There are many examples:  Jesus performed his first miracle at a wedding in Cana, Abraham showed hospitality to three strangers who turned out to be God and two angels, and Jesus often made a point of relaxing with friends like Mary and Martha. The area around Jerusalem has rough terrain and can be very unforgiving.  There were no Marriott Courtyards or Ramada Inns on every corner.  Paul and other itinerant missionaries who were spreading the gospel through the Middle East and Asia Minor were dependent on the kindness of fellow Christians and total strangers.

In this day and age, we may exhibit hospitality differently, but it is no less important.   When I was a young boy, I remember my Grandma Wiley being the model of Christian hospitality preparing family picnics, fixing a light supper for her Pinochle club and baking pies for a church bazaar.  In today’s helter-skelter world, home-made meals may no longer be the cornerstone of hospitality, but it is shown in other ways.  It may involve inviting friends out to dine at a favorite ethnic restaurant, linking up with buddies for a pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks or even in today’s busy world a casserole or homemade soup from a caring neighbor is still very much appreciated.

In today’s scripture from the last chapter of the book of Hebrews, the writer includes many encouragements and specifically emphasizes that believers must show love and hospitality to others, especially strangers.  This sentiment is echoed in the writings of Paul in the book of Romans as he talks about being devoted to others in brotherly love and gives several examples of that.  In the Greek, there are many different meanings for the English word love. In this particular verse in Romans, Paul uses the Greek word that means familial love.  Christians are to love members of the family of God like they would their own physical families.   At Good Shepherd church, we are committed to our church family and showing that love to one another.

In the scripture from the gospel of Matthew that John read this morning, we hear Christ telling his disciples how to treat those in distress and in need of aid.  When we show compassion and kindness to those in difficult circumstances, we are practicing the merciful attitude that God expects us to exhibit.  It can be difficult to not be so tender-hearted that we become an easy mark for those who would take advantage of others.  Unfortunately, we don’t have the ability to see into the other person’s heart to gauge their true motives.  We need to develop a keen sense of discernment that realizes when mercy is a better option than the strict application of rules.  It has also been my experience that in many cases these opportunities to show compassion come at unguarded and unexpected moments.

Concerning hospitality at Good Shepherd Church you may wonder, “Don’t we have a committee for that?”  We do.  A couple of years ago, Pastor Robert felt we needed to put together a more systematic plan to make sure we were providing a warm welcome to visitors.   We have a lot more visitors than you think and have always been curious how we come across to first time visitors.   And that’s hard to figure out if we only see them one time.    We are well aware of those with whom we connect.  But, wonder why we don’t connect with others.  In some cases, it may simply not be a good fit with theology or style.   We encourage visitors to visit Good Shepherd at least 2 or 3 times to get the full effect and determine if this is the place where God is calling them.

There are formal approaches to church growth and less formal ones.  I have learned that larger churches in our area put such an emphasis on hospitality and greeting visitors that they have paid staff whose job it is to greet first time visitors and shepherd them all the way to joining the church and at that point are handed off to another paid staff member.  My cousin Scott Wiley, attends a large Presbyterian church in suburban Maryland that I have visited from time to time.  Between visits, I noticed that the size of the congregation had grown significantly and that they had built a new sanctuary.  I asked him what sort of program that they used to recruit new members and grow the church.  His reply: “There was no plan.  People just kept coming and we finally had to do something.” 

As Abraham Lincoln once said “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.”   A common issue in many churches, is that a guest shows up for a worship service and never returns.  Recently, there was an unscientific Twitter poll conducted by a church growth consultant, Thom Rainer that asked why first time visitors don’t return to a church.   The results were fascinating and generated a lot of internet chatter and even controversy.  This information was shared at a Session meeting last year and generated some good discussion. Below are the top ten reasons in order of response why first time visitors don’t return to a church

1. Having a stand up and greet one another time in the worship service. This response was my greatest surprise for two reasons. First, I was surprised how much guests are really uncomfortable during this time. Second, I was really surprised that it was the most frequent response.
2. Unfriendly church members. This response was anticipated. But the surprise was the number of respondents who included non-genuine friendliness in their answers. In other words, the guests perceived some of the church members were faking it.
3. Unsafe and unclean children’s area. This response generated the greatest emotional reactions. If your church does not give a high priority to children, don’t expect young families to attend.
4. No place to get information. If your church does not have a clear and obvious place to get information, you probably have lowered the chances of a return visit by half. There should also be someone to greet and assist guests at that information center as well.
5. Bad church website. Most of the church guests went to the church website before they attended a worship service. Even if they attended the service after visiting a bad website, they attended with a prejudicial perspective. The two indispensable items guests want on a website are address and times of service. It’s just that basic.
6. Poor signage. If you have been attending a church for a few weeks, you forget all about the signage. You don’t need it any more. But guests do. And they are frustrated when it’s not there.
7. Insider church language. Most of the respondents were not referring to theological language as much as language that only the members know. My favorite example was: “The WMU will meet in the CLC in the room where the GAs usually meet.”
8. Boring or bad service. My surprise was not the presence of this item. The surprise was that it was not ranked higher.
9. Members telling guests that they were in their seat or pew. Yes, this obviously still takes place in some churches.
10. Dirty facilities. Some of the comments: “Didn’t look like it had been cleaned in a week.” “No trash cans anywhere.” Restrooms were worse than a bad truck stop.” “Pews had more stains than a Tide commercial.”

At Good Shepherd we do most of these really well so I just want to touch on a couple of the reasons that are listed.   Number one was a surprise in that you would think this would be seen as a way to welcome folks especially the first time.   It also surprises me that “boring or bad service” was listed all the way down as #8.   Personally, I would have also listed name tags.

This unscientific poll generated so much controversy that it spawned a follow up poll to understand the first choice of most who responded. So what is it about this stand and greet time that many guests don’t like? Here are the seven most common responses, again listed in order of frequency.

1. Many guests are introverts. “I would rather have a root canal than be subjected to a stand and greet time.”
2. Some guests perceive that the members are not sincere during the time of greeting. “In most of the churches it should be called a stand and fake it time. The members weren’t friendly at all except for ninety seconds.”
3. Many guests don’t like the lack of hygiene that takes place during this time. “Look, I’m not a germaphobe, but that guy wiped his nose right before he shook my hand.”
4. Many times the members only greet other members. “I went to one church where no one spoke to me the entire time of greeting. I could tell they were speaking to people they already knew.”
5. Both members and guests at some churches perceive the entire exercise is awkward. “Nowhere except churches do we have times that are so awkward and artificial. If members are going to be friendly, they would be friendly at other times as well. They’re not.”
6. In some churches, the people in the congregation are told to say something silly to one another. “So the pastor told us to tell someone near us that they are good looking. I couldn’t find anyone who fit that description, so I left and didn’t go back.”
7. Not only do some guests dread the stand and greet time, so do some members. “I visited the church and went through the ritual of standing and greeting, but many of the members looked just as uncomfortable as I was. We were all doing a required activity that none of us liked.”

If there’s a takeaway from this information, it is this:  no matter how well- meaning folks are, people seem to have a way of detecting fake friendliness.   If I were to use one word to describe the fellowship at Good Shepherd, it would be genuine.  Call to Community is a signature Sunday morning event at Good Shepherd.  Rest assured, no emergency elder meeting is going to be called at Good Shepherd to do away with greeting time.  

My Mother is quite skilled at reaching out to others.   Across the road at a neighboring farm was a small tenant house that was rented and there was a good bit of turnover. Whenever a new family would move in, my Mom, without fail, would invite them to go to church with us.  Usually Mom was rebuffed but one time she hit pay dirt.   Guy and Ruth Coffey had four young children ages 6, 5, 4 and 3.  One right after the other.   Guy wasn’t keen on church so Mom and I would pick us the Coffey Family in our Ford Galaxy and cars and seat belt laws being what they were in the early seventies we were able to fit all 7 of us in the car.   Ruth and the Coffey kids liked church and since a big Sunday was 40 or 50 at most, the congregation just increased by 10%.  The pastor serving the church at that time on a part time basis was a retired pastor, Charles Pratt.  Rev. Pratt had a rather aristocratic air as he had previously served large churches.   He was a humorous and gentle soul.

After a time Rev. Pratt paid the Coffeys a visit and convinced Guy to come too.  After visiting a couple of times, they agreed to join the church and have their four children baptized.   This was quite a coup for Rev. Pratt.   The big day came and just like we do here at GSPC, we ask the parents to come forward to the front and participate in the sacrament of baptism and publicly answer a couple of questions.   This isn’t always easy for people to do.   In this particular case it was very true.   I had a birds-eye view sitting up front seated on the organ bench.  As Guy approached the front of the church, I could see he was visibly nervous.  And by the time Rev. Pratt launched into the baptism questions. I was seriously concerned that he was going to make it thru as he was trembling so badly.  I also thought to myself that although we love public proclamations of faith this is not what we should be about, to scare people to death during a sacrament of the church.  Mercifully, Guy and his family survived the ceremony.  But, that’s not the end of the story.  After a time, Guy decided that the Presbyterian Church was a bit too tame and decided to check out the Southern Baptist Church down the road where things were a bit more lively.   He decided that was the place for this family and to Rev. Pratt’s credit he went with them to the service at the Baptist church where they have the honest to goodness dunking and baptism.   The Coffey family became regulars at Beaverlick Baptist Church sitting on the front row whenever the church was open.   All the result of a simple invitation and as it turned out our little Presbyterian church was a stepping stone for that family to find out where God wanted them to be.

A few weeks ago we held a church retreat with officers and staff that was led by In Christ Supporting Ministries.   Sarah, the retreat leader, asked us to visualize our service to Christ (whatever it is) with Jesus being present.   Sometimes we forget that and see our Christian service as a burden and a chore.   At the retreat, we were reminded that Christ carries the burden; we don't save, we don't heal, we don't fix... Jesus does all the heavy lifting and just invites us to be present. I think that is very freeing, especially for those hearing and understanding it for the first time. For example, rather than think that as a result of today’s message that I need add “invite 5 people to church” to my to do list.  Instead, think of it as Jesus doing the inviting.  As Jesus said, “My yoke is easy and my burden light.”

Scripture tells us, that we are not alone.   We read in the Old Testament that God was with the people of Israel. As part of the Great Commission Jesus says “I am with you always.”  He’s with us at soccer practice, he’s with us at Wal-Mart when the check-out clerk is having a bad day, he is with us when we see a homeless person asking for a hand out.

Related to that, this past summer I have been spending a few Saturday mornings trying to tame the wilderness on the outer edge of our property around the curve on Swans Run Road.  Mostly I was spraying round up to kill weeds.  I was very hot and sweaty and not in the greatest of moods.  Invariably, someone would stop by whether on a bike, walking a dog or driving a car and inquire if I was with the church.   I would smile and suppress the urge to answer sarcastically.   A conversation would ensue and I politely answer questions.  I would explain our goal to be a good neighbor and that was well received.  You’d be surprised about how much people observe about what goes on here.   There are many comments on the nice condition of the grounds.   A comment about how great it is to have a ball field for kids to use.   There’s a garden.  What’s that about?   Some light griping about the weeds and landscaping along Swans Run….working on it.   The conversation usually wrapped up with an invitation to come join us Sunday AM at 11 and check things out.   As I reflected on these conversations after the officers retreat I could see how Jesus was present, not in a formal moment, but in a moment when I wasn’t at my best.  I evangelized, even if by accident, more this summer than I have in the past twenty years. 

God calls us to serve by offering hospitality to others.  We need to be alert and observant for opportunities.  We need to be genuine.  And, we need to invite folks to join in fellowship on Sunday morning.   Do you have to go to church to be a Christian?  No, but that seems to me like someone saying they are a Panthers fan and the only way they root for the Panthers is sitting at home and listening to the radio.  What if you had the opportunity to be invited by a friend to sit in a prime location at the 50 yard line and experience being a fan?   Isn’t church much the same way?  How great it is to be with other believers and to feed off the enthusiasm and energy of Sunday worship.

When you enter the building through the glass doors you may have noticed that we have something plastered on the wall that says we are ordinary people with an extraordinary God.  We’re just ordinary people tuned in to God.  Think for a moment about the people who have come through those doors over the years.   Through those doors have come people feeling hopeless and they have found hope.   Through those doors have come people feeling hungry, literally and figuratively and they have been fed.  Through those doors have come people needing encouragement and a kind word and they have received a hug.  Through these doors people have entered people seeking something even if they don’t know how to articulate it.   A classic example is Paul Hamilton, who randomly showed up one day.  I didn’t know Paul when he was a young man but my understanding from his friends is that Paul was not only an atheist but a very vocal one.  Then something happened where God started working and stirring in his heart and he came to Good Shepherd.  Today, Paul pastors New Life Community Church in Abingdon, MD.  Does this mean that everyone who walks through the church doors transforms from atheist to pastor? Probably not.  But there is a reason that God calls them here.  Won’t you join me in inviting others to join the fellowship and rest in the heartfelt hospitality of Good Shepherd Church?

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Living Rooted in God's Word (Psalm 1, John 14, Jeremiah 17)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; September 13, 2015
Text: Psalm 1; John 14:23-25; Jeremiah 17:5-8

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
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 ::
Call to Worship: Christ is Made the Sure Foundation, GSPC choir (arr. Dale Wood)
Song of Praise: Break Thou the Bread of Life/Come Feed (trad. hymn, ref., Cathy Youngblood)
Word in Music: Speak, O Lord, GSPC choir (Getty/Townend; arr. Mary Mcdonald)
Hymn of Response: How Firm a Foundation (FOUNDATION)
Offering of Music: How Firm a Foundation, arr. Rick Bean, piano
Song of Sending: Every Promise of Your Word (Getty/Townend)
Postlude: Rick Bean, piano

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

Today marks the startup of our Fall ministry season at Good Shepherd. With that I want to spend the month preaching on three of the core ministries of the church – not just this church, but any church. Those core ministries are Christian Education, Hospitality, and Christian Service. Today, with “Rally Day” and the start of our Fall Sunday school classes, I am going to focus on Christian Education. And really, the focus isn’t so much on how we do that, but on the subject of that education: God’s Word. We will start with an amazing illustration about God’s Word in the poetry of Psalms. We will look at how Jesus said we are to relate to that Word. And we will conclude with some of the benefits or blessings that God’s Word produces in our lives, especially when things get hard.

Study and Delight (Psalm 1)

When I thought about the importance of the Bible and learning God’s Word in Scripture, the first thing that came to mind was Psalm 1. I think it’s because the picture described there is such an easy one to picture. The picture is of a tree planted next to a stream of water. (v. 3) For that tree it doesn’t matter if the weather changes or if drought comes. The tree is rooted and those roots reach the life-giving water nearby. That allows the tree to bear fruit in season and not to weaken or wither or fade away.

Just like that healthy, fruit-bearing tree planted near life-giving water, spiritual health comes from our being rooted in and nourished by God’s Word in scripture. And the Psalmist gives us two specific non-metaphorical descriptions of how to relate to scripture in that way: study and delight.

By STUDY, I don’t mean cramming the night before a test. That’s not how we are to relate to scripture. The Psalm describes the blessed person as one who meditates in God’s Law day and night. I mean the kind of study that keeps returning again and again for more knowledge – and not just head-knowledge, but the kind of knowledge that is life-changing and life-giving. To ‘meditate’ on scripture is to read it and learn it and ponder it and test it and live it. That kind of study only starts in a Sunday school class, Bible study, or quiet time. It continues throughout the day and the week until it becomes part of who we are. And that kind of relationship with scripture is closely related to the other description given here.

To DELIGHT in God’s Word is to be captivated by it. It becomes something we enjoy and look forward to, not a burdensome chore or obligation. I realize there is not a delight switch that can make you love the Bible like some of us love ice cream. But that’s where the study comes in. It is very rare for someone to delight in something they only relate to casually and don’t spend much time with. It may be that studying the Bible starts as a decision and a commitment; but precisely because it is full of life and hope I think it will turn to delight. And if you can experience just a little delight, it makes it all the easier to then study and meditate on scripture.

Our desire in offering opportunities for study at Good Shepherd is not to put one more spiritual obligation on you, but to offer a place where you can, with others, experience both the study and the delight that is described in Psalm 1.

Love and Obedience (John 14)

Jesus also speaks of our relationship to God’s Word in John 14. And there it sounds like Jesus is, in fact, naming an obligation. For him, studying scripture is kind of a given because he speaks of OBEYING scripture. He says, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word.” (v. 23a) That does sound like obligation, doesn’t it? But it’s not a should/ought kind of obligation like what we are used to: “You should read your Bible more… a good Christian has a daily quiet time”… that sort of thing. It’s more like what we know or desire in our families. Children, if you love your parents you will listen to them and obey them. Or this might be more clear: you love your parents BY listening to them and obeying them. You love God BY obeying His Word. It’s not a conditional thing so much as a how-do-you-do-it thing. You’ve heard that God loves you; have you ever wondered how exactly to love God back? Jesus tells us: we love God when we keep or obey His Word. There is an intimate connection between love and obedience and that’s what Jesus is getting at here.

But what about the next part – the end of that sentence? “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word; and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our abode with him.” (v. 23) Does that mean that God only loves us when we obey Him? No, the Bible is clear that God loves us even when we are running the opposite direction. That’s the whole running story throughout the Bible of God pursuing us IN LOVE. And He has done so through His Word, His prophets, and even His Son. No, this verse describes what God’s love looks like – how we experience it – when we are obedient. We experience God’s love differently when we are disobedient. That’s true for parents and children, too. I love my children when they are obedient and when they are disobedient; but they experience that love differently. They feel it differently. And they and I can feel when things are out of sorts.

Let me re-read the verse to you, emphasizing these points about love and obedience and how we experience God in the process:

We love and honor God by keeping God’s Word. When we do so we will experience God’s love as God being “at home” in our lives.

It’s worth stating the flip-side of that. If you want to dishonor or express hatred toward God, then disobey His Word. What is amazing is that even if you do – even when we do – God will love you. But that love does not feel like being “at home.” It may feel intrusive, unwanted, and unsettling, like God’s love of Adan and Eve, Noah, David, Peter, or Paul. Or perhaps it will feel patient and persevering (like the Father’s love of the prodigal).

Obedience to God’s Word is not a condition of God loving us; it is how we express love toward God. We will only know how to keep God’s Word (and so love God) if we study and learn God’s Word.

Rooted During Drought (Jeremiah 17)

Finally, not only is knowing and obeying scripture how we express love and experience God’s presence, it is also one of the ways we experience God’s PROTECTION. In Jeremiah 17, there is a passage that sounds a lot like Psalm 1. There Jeremiah says that ‘trusting’ God is also like a tree planted by the water. And again we get the image of a tree rooted near the life-giving water, offering protection when the heat and drought come. (vv. 7-8)

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to drop the metaphor and name what “heat and drought” are for us, because we’ve experienced these things firsthand: job loss, betrayal, rejection, sickness, crushing debt, loss of a loved one… each of you has your own experience of “heat and drought.” The question Jeremiah raises for each of us is if we have a similar corresponding experience to “being planted and rooted by water.” Are you planted and rooted? Our various scriptures today name for us at least one way to do that: through study, delight, and obedience of God’s Word. And Jesus drew a direct connection between that and experiencing God’s love and presence in our lives… so much so that he described it as God “making a home” with us.

What does it sound and feel like in your “heat and drought” to be rooted in God’s love and presence with you?

Jeremiah adds one thing to the language of Psalm 1 that I find even more helpful. He names some of our emotions that get attached to the “heat and drought” – sometimes those emotions themselves become the “heat and drought.” He says of the one who is a rooted tree: that one “will not FEAR when the heat comes… and will not be ANXIOUS in a year of drought.” And not only that, but the “heat and drought” will not rob the person of life, for the rooted tree will continue to have green leaves and to yield fruit. (v. 8)

Do you ever find yourself crushed by the emotions surrounding the “heat and drought” circumstance?

Being rooted in God’s Word does not take away the tough stuff. But it anchors you… or to stick to the metaphor, it roots you and keeps you connected. One of the first things that we often experience during the tough stuff is a perceived distance from God. I’ve often heard from the wisest people I know that scripture has been such a resource when life has been hardest. Our feelings will fail us in those moments, but God will not; and God’s Word can be a lifeline back to the one who does love us and is present for us.

This past week I heard a wonderful testimonial of being spiritually rooted in just this kind of way. It was the Late Show interview between Stephen Colbert and Joe Biden. Knowing from his own experience of losing close family members to tragedy, Colbert asked Biden how his faith had sustained him since losing his son Beau to cancer this past year. I commend that interview to you. You can watch part 1 below (or click the time links to open a new window to youtube to VP Biden talking about his son at 2:20, then answering the faith question at 4:49). You can also click this link to see part 2 of the interview.

I encourage you – whether you are currently experiencing “heat and drought” or anxious about doing so or even if this is a time of relative peace and calm – find an opportunity to reconnect and root yourself in God’s Word. We have some great classes on Sunday morning. There are several Bible study options during the week. There are great resources online (though there is much to be said for also seeking out community). And may God bless and cultivate a delight in you for His Word. Amen.

Monday, September 7, 2015


“Teach Us to Pray”: The Lord's Prayer Series
Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church
June 7 - September 6, 2015

This series looks phrase by phrase through the Lord's Prayer, using scripture to understand and interpret the phrases that Jesus taught his disciples (and us) to pray.

    Sunday, September 6, 2015

    Amen (1 Chronicles 16, Revelation 5,7)

    Sermon by: Robert Austell; September 6, 2015
    Text: 1 Chronicles 16:34-36; Revelation 5:11-14; 7:9-12; Psalm 72:18-19

    :: Sermon Audio (link) ::
    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: Turkish March, Walker Austell, piano (Mozart)
    Hymn of Praise: Praise to the Lord, the Almighty (vv. 1-2) (LOBE DEN HERREN)
    Offering of Music: Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major, K. 331, Walker Austell, piano (Mozart)
    Communion Music: Piano Reflection, Walker Austell, piano (W. Austell)
    Song of Sending: Praise to the Lord, the Almighty (vv. 3-4) (LOBE DEN HERREN)
    "Amen" Response throughout: Amen (Marty Haugen)

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

    I have this distinct memory of sitting in church, tired. The people up front just seemed to talk and sing and go on forever. But I wasn’t allowed to sleep; it would be appropriate to shut my eyes for a short nap. Everyone would see that. So finally, when it came time for the preacher to pray – you know, that longer prayer that comes toward the end of the service – I was relieved to get to close my eyes. It was for a holy reason; everyone was praying after all. But it just felt good to close those eyes and relax… if I didn’t lose my balance and fall over into the person next to me, I could almost get a short power nap. But there was a part of my mind tuned in, waiting for the signal. At some point I would hear it and know: it is time to wake from slumber, to once again look alert and sit up. Somewhere in there, and only at the end, the person praying would say it: “Amen.”

    I’d like to tell you that was only a story from my childhood, but it has happened more recently than that… and more than once.  Maybe you can relate.

    Having said that, my hope is that today you will come to understand that word in a far more meaningful way. It’s a powerful word, one that Jesus used over 100 times in the Gospel accounts of his ministry. In fact, he typically STARTED with the word, Amen. So, I want to look at that. And then, I want to look at what it means to say, “Amen,” and when and how we might say it the way scripture instructs us to say it.

    Today we come to the end of our summer series on the Lord’s Prayer. And we are looking at the final word of the prayer: Amen.

    “Amen” is a Hebrew word; in other words, it is not a translation, but an actual Hebrew word from ancient times. It is one of those words that carries such meaning that it passed on into other languages untranslated, but understood. Jesus spoke a local dialect of Hebrew called Aramaic and he said, “Amen.” When his words were written down in Greek by his followers, they translated his teaching into Greek, but left some of the words in the original, like “Amen” and “Abba.” Even thousands of years later, when scripture was translated into English and many other languages, one word continues to stay in the original language: Amen. Let’s look more closely at some of the ways it is used in scripture.

    Amen as YES

    “Amen” is found throughout the Old Testament in just the kind of way we might imagine. Today’s first reading came from 1 Chronicles 16, which describes bringing the Ark of the Covenant into the new tabernacle that David had built for it in Jerusalem. After the Ark was put in place Chronicles records an extended time of praise and worship, with large portions of several Psalms (Pss. 105, 96, 106, 72) recited or sung back to back. The first reading you heard today catches the very end of that with a portion of Psalm 72: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting even to everlasting.” Then we read that all the people said, “Amen,” and praised the Lord.

    In the Old Testament, as in the New Testament and today, “Amen” is a way of saying “Yes” to what has been declared. It is particularly used after hearing scripture read or declared – that is, God’s Word or truth. It means “Yes, that’s true!” and “Yes, I agree!” In this passage God’s people had just finished hearing multiple declarations from the Psalms about who God is and what God had done. And they responded and participated by saying, “Yes, that is true!”  Amen!

    That may sound strange, but we do it all the time. Think about watching your favorite team. When there is a great play you cheer. And how like worship it is – it’s better when you are with a group, with a community of people that are focused on the same thing. You don’t have to script it or tell people to cheer when their team scores or catches a great pass – we do it naturally.  “Yes!”

    And it’s very different than the signal to wake up and pay attention. It’s actually the signal that you have been paying attention and something has grabbed hold of you.

    In fact, sometimes after the choir or a soloist sings you’ll hear someone say “Amen.” Or you’ll hear it in the middle of a sermon or testimony. It is saying, “Yes, that’s true – what you sang to us is true and good… the Word you preached is true. I agree! Yes!” And I invite and welcome those responses! It’s a way of participating in what’s going on in the room. 

    Amen as TRUTH

    As with many things in scripture, Jesus took that concept of “Amen” as ‘yes to something true’ and took it higher and deeper than anyone could have imagined. Instead of reading or teaching Old Testament scripture and ending with “Amen,” Jesus STARTED his teaching with “Amen.” In fact, he started with a double-Amen, which is how people emphasized things in his day.

    You’ll recognize it when you hear it – recorded over 100 times in the Gospels:

    “Truly, truly I say to you…” or “Verily, verily.”  What he actually said – the sound that came out of his mouth – was “Amen, Amen.” And then he would lay some truth on them. This was another one of the ways he claimed to be God. He was not just repeating the scripture they all knew. And to be clear, he wasn’t doing away with any bit of it. But, as he said in Matthew 5, he came to fulfill or complete God’s Law.

    In fact, several New Testament writers make it even clearer for us: Jesus wasn’t just teaching God’s true Word; Jesus WAS God’s true Word. In John 1, Jesus is the Word who was with God and the Word who was God. In an even more mind-boggling passage at the end of 2 Corinthians 1, Paul tells us:
    …all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for His glory. (2 Corinthians 1:20-21, ESV)
    In fact, in Revelation 3, in the letter to the church of Laodicea, Jesus introduces himself as “The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God.” (Revelation 3:14)

    We are not Jesus, however, so why would I focus on this? It’s because Jesus’ use of “Amen” brings into focus just what we would say “Amen” to. It is not just saying “Yes, I agree” it also declares, “True, this is true!” And no one and nothing is more true than Jesus, God’s living and true Word.

    Amen as WORSHIP

    “Amen” has one more crucial component. It is more than saying “Yes” and it is more than saying “True” – it is tied to worship. That is what is going on in the passages in Revelation. It was actually there in Chronicles as well. After the Psalm-singing around the Ark having a home, the people said “Amen” and praised the Lord. In Revelation 5, as the four living creatures say, “Amen,” the elders “fell down and worshiped.” In Revelation 7, those gathered around the throne “fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying “Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”

    That “falling down” describes one of the key components of worship: yielding our wills to God’s. Said simply, the point of saying “Amen” is not to just give lip-service to God, “Yes, yes, God is true.” It is to bow down and offer worship to God. “Yes! Jesus is God’s true Word and I yield my life and my will to Him!”

    That’s the full extent of “Amen” – it’s YES, TRUTH, and WORSHIP all together. Ponder that when you say it at the end of the Prayer. Or as you hear something sung or spoken in worship that invites your yielding response of faith.

    I get that none of us is that tuned in and mature and focused all the time. But now you know. Now you know what a powerful word and invitation it is. Let it invite your attention and participation and worship: “Your Kingdom come… into my life… Amen!”  “Forgive my debts as I forgive others… Amen.” You can hear why participation is necessary; I’ve already prayed things that involve my will and my life. The Amen is a final reminder of just how important this truth is!

    Also take heart that as with all our shortcomings, Jesus is our righteousness. We can’t be good enough or holy enough or attentive enough. We can only put our trust in Jesus. So if you hear nothing else, hear this: Jesus is our “Amen” to God. If you follow after him, you’ve got it right.

    And all God’s people said…. AMEN!