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Monday, December 28, 2015

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Seek, Worship, Serve (Matthew 2.1-15)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; December 27, 2015
Text: Matthew 2:1-15

:: 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."  

:: Scripture and Music ::
Hymn of Praise: We Three Kings
Hymn of Praise: The Angel Voice (Dawson, Austell)
Offering of Music: In the Bleak Midwinter - Linda Jenkins, Lisa Honeycutt, vocalists (Rosetti/Courtney)
Song of Sending: As With Gladness Men of Old
Postlude: Go Tell it on the Mountain (Rick Bean, jazz 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 we heard the story of the magi, often called the “wise men.” In our nativity stories we often focus on the gifts they brought – gold, frankincense, and myrrh; but the gifts are just one part of their larger story, which involved a lengthy search and triggered a dangerous response from King Herod. Herod is also involved in the portion of the story we ended with, which described the family of Jesus fleeing to Egypt for a time to avoid Herod and keep Jesus safe. We won’t focus on that last part today, but it is an interesting part of Jesus’ story that is often overlooked. Rather, our focus today is on the magi themselves and their encounter with Jesus. We want to look at what led them to Jesus and at how they responded once they met him.

Where Did the Manger Go?

I want to press on to some of the significant parts of the storyline, but there are a number of fascinating details, so let me mention some of those first. The magi came to Herod asking to see the newborn king. They were not, themselves, “three kings” but likely were the chief advisors to kings. As such, they were probably not traveling alone, but with a large group of attendants and guards. And their journey probably took several weeks. (For example, if they had come from Babylon itself, the trip would have taken about 40 days by the main trade route.) That this is who they were and how they traveled helps explain how they were able to gain an audience with and the attention of Herod.

To say a bit more, magi were a kind of scholarly priest that advised kings and rulers in the Middle East. We know that these magi were specifically familiar with the writings of the Hebrew scriptures (vv. 5-6) and that were also astronomers/astrologers (v. 2) because they mention both in the conversation with Herod. By ‘astronomer’ I mean that they were knowledgeable about the planets and stars and their movements, even in some surprisingly accurate detail. By ‘astrologer’ I mean that they ascribed meaning to the movement and relation of the planets and stars.

Remember, too, that many of the writings of the prophets in the Old Testament were written to Jewish exiles in Babylon in the 8th through the 5th centuries B.C. These were the same writings that spoke of the Messiah, the birth of a God-promised King. It was this same culture – in Babylon – that produced the magi. They were the scholar-priests who advised the kings and rulers of the Babylonian and successive empires. It is no accident that these magi would have come in contact with the writings like those of Micah, who wrote of a ruler who would one day come out of Bethlehem.

We also know from a little bit later in the story (v. 11) that when the magi found Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, the family was no longer in the setting for the birth, but were in a house in Bethlehem, probably staying with family there. Remember that Mary and Joseph had traveled to Bethlehem for the census at the time of Jesus birth (which was one reason it was hard to find room). But in the days that followed, it would have been very normal and typical, after giving birth, for relatives to house the young family for a time.

Finally, given the timeline and details, particularly of Herod’s decree in the horrible story that follows this one (Matthew 2:16ff), Jesus may have been anywhere from six weeks to two years old by the time the wise men came. It was only after his family fled to Egypt and Herod died that they returned and settled in Nazareth, where Jesus would grow up.

If you want to know any more about any of those details, let me know and I can tell you more or point you to where they come from in the text.

But let’s turn now and look more closely at the encounter between the magi and Jesus.


First, it is fascinating and encouraging that the magi are a part of this story. Because who are they? They are non-Jewish seekers, interested in the truth and in significant matters of life. They do not have all the truth, but are searching with what information they have. For us, reading the story, they depict God’s interest in ALL the nations and peoples of the world – that ancient promise to Abraham to bless him in order to bless the world.

Said another way, they are a reminder to us that you don’t have to be born to the in-crowd to belong to God. God welcomes – even expects! – outsiders. And as Paul puts in theological terms in Romans in the New Testament, God has spread pointers to Himself across the natural world, such that no one is without excuse… all have an opportunity to notice and ask and seek. This is just what the magi did. They came looking – not even knowing specifically what they were looking for or what they would find.

To say that another way: if Jesus is God’s True Word (and I believe He is!), then any honest search for truth will lead you to God through Christ. Depending on your starting place, you may wander through some strange territory indeed. But if you are willing to let go of what is not Truth and keep seeking, you will find God. We have a great example of that with these magi. They thought they were coming to find a newly born “King of the Jews.” That’s probably why they went to Herod, thinking perhaps that Jesus would have relocated to the palace. But when they did find the holy family, in humble dwellings, they were able to adjust their expectations and encounter Jesus on his own terms. By the end of that encounter, God even spoke to them in a dream, leading them to choose another route home and away from Herod.

Though we also believe God finds people and does what we can’t do in terms of making us right with Him, Jesus also says that if we seek Him, we will find Him. God won’t hide or turn you away. So even if you don’t know all the particulars about God, about Jesus – even if you didn’t grow up in church or in the Christian faith; I encourage you to ask questions, to read, to look. That led the magi just where they needed to go, even if it wasn’t quite what they originally envisioned.

Worship and Serve

The magi came looking for the newborn king in order to give gifts and to worship. They said this to Herod up front (v. 2) even before meeting Jesus. It is unclear what they mean by ‘worship.’ The word means to literally bow or prostrate before an authority, so here likely means to offer him early recognition as king than the more spiritual overtones we associate with the term. They were advisors and, in a sense, envoys, to foreign kings and rulers; so this was also an opportunity to pay respect to a new king being born into the world.

On the one hand, we don’t know that they had any revelation or transformation upon finding Jesus. We read that they “fell to the ground and worshiped him.” Then they offered a kind of service when they “presented to him gifts.” (v. 11) These two acts were what they intended from the beginning. Perhaps the intent to worship and serve was part of their “seeking” that prepared them to see truly. Did those acts of worship and service take on new meaning once they arrived and saw Jesus and his parents? I don’t know.

Seek, Worship, Serve
It leaves me with the same kind of ambiguity and tension and hope I have when I talk to so many folks who are seeking God, trying to understand faith, or questioning faith. Isn’t there some magic prayer or secret answer or experience I can offer to make it all work for you? (for me?)

Here’s what I tell people; and I’ve realized it is the magi answer I’ve been giving all along… not the magic answer, but the magi answer.

Seek the Lord; seek Truth. Ask questions and be willing to have your mind, heart, and direction changed. Don’t do it in isolation; do it with people you trust. And the best place to seek and ask those questions is in the context of the worshiping community, the church. Nature and mountains and sunsets and oceans can point you in the general direction of God (that was Paul’s point in Romans), but if you want the specifics, it’s in the Bible. And If you want to test that out, live with it, see it in action, push back on it, do that in the context of worshiping and serving God in the faith community.

You may feel like you are going through the motions. You MAY BE going through the motions. But they are the right motions. The magi may have thought they were kneeling before and giving gifts to the next up-and-coming king. They were; he was just so much more. That’s okay.

Consider what they did see and experience along the way – whether they understood it or not. They read the Holy Word of God and trusted it enough to act on it. They saw some sort of sign, whether natural or supernatural, and followed it to Jesus. They offered worship and service to Jesus, whether they really grasped who he was or not (do we ever really grasp all of who he is?!). And God ‘spoke’ to them in a dream to lead them away from Herod as they left.

If you seek God, read and listen to His Holy Word, gather with others in worship and service, and are willing to follow where those things lead… none of those things create faith or make peace with God; but I sure can’t think of a better place to be to encounter God.

I can’t create faith or make peace with God either. But God can. And He said, “Seek and you will find.”

May God give us ears to hear.  Amen.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas and Easter Faith (John 1.14)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; Christmas Eve, 2015
Text: John 1:14

:: 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."  

:: Scripture and Music ::
Gathering Music: Coventry Carol (Diana Horne, Melissa Lancaster - handbells) (Caulkins)
Gathering Hymn: O Come, All Ye Faithful (ADESTE FIDELES)
The Promise: Micah 5:2-4
The Word in Music: O Little Town of Bethlehem (Susan Slade, Gabby Holland, Savannah Ball - flute trio) (Holcomb)
Promised Child: Isaiah 9:2-7
Music for Reflection: The First Noel (Rick Bean, piano; Linda Jenkins, organ) (Page)
The Word in Music: Good Christian Friends, Rejoice (arr. Youngblood/Austell)
The Anunciation: Luke 1:26-35
The Word in Music: Mary, Did You Know? (choir) (arr. Schrader)
The Birth: Luke 2:1-7
The Word in Music and Dance: Welcome to Our World (Karla Katibah, dancer; Eric Vanderheide, soloist) (Rice)
Angels and Shepherds: Luke 2:8-20
The Word in Music: While Shepherds Watched (Peterson)
Candlelighting Hymn: Silent Night (Rick Bean, jazz piano)
Hymn of Sending: Joy to the World (ANTIOCH)
Postlude: Joy to the World (Rick Bean, jazz 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.

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 1:14)

If you ask just about anybody, Jesus is pretty well recognized as a wise man who lived and spoke of a humble and generous way of life. That’s true whether you are of Christian faith, another faith, or no faith at all.  Most people, even today, recognize Jesus’ adult life and teaching as something important and worth some measure of respect. Where things start to diverge, however, is at Christmas and Easter. It is there that you either have to get on board with Jesus or have to pretty well tune him out.

Since it’s Christmas Eve, I want to focus on the Christmas part of who Jesus is, but I will mention Easter along the way. I will start with a quick round-up of what we’ve been talking about for the last four weeks. We’ve been “getting ready” for Christmas by studying four themes in the Bible. These are the same themes for which we’ve lit these candles. They are: hope, love, joy, and peace. And they have everything to do with Christmas and Easter.

HOPE – from the promise of God through Isaiah to the story of the old man, Simeon, in the Temple: there is hope to be found in the dark places of life… John names Jesus as the “Light of the World.” CHRISTMAS: this light was born into a dark world.

LOVE – God’s love for the world – for you – is such that while we were yet sinners, God sent Christ to die for us. That love is so strong that nothing can separate us from it. That love also serves as example and fuel for our own love of others. EASTER: Jesus died for love – God’s love for humanity.

JOY – Joy is declaring God’s goodness and sharing it with others. It’s an expression of the experience of God’s life-saving love. It’s all about the message; we are like the angels in the sense that we (can) bear the message of the Good News of what God has done. CHRISTMAS and EASTER: the joy is the news of the experience of God.

PEACE – Most foundationally, peace is known through knowing God. It is shalom, the wholeness, healing, peace, and overflowing blessing of being aligned with God’s will and purpose. The only way that happens is through Jesus Christ. Peace with God brings the peace of God, which becomes our story in and to the world around us. God has come to us [CHRISTMAS] to make peace with us [EASTER].

That brings us to tonight’s text from John 1:14.

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.  

That’s the big deal about Christmas. Jesus was more than a man with important teaching about life and God. He WAS God. He was God among us, God in the flesh, God-as-man, to restore and heal the image of God so broken and tarnished and distorted. In Jesus we didn’t just hear about God; we SAW God – God’s glory, God’s grace, and God’s truth.

Come to church any other time during the year, and you might get Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness, justice, grace, or integrity (though we try really hard to remember the big picture every week!). But come at Christmas and you can’t miss it. What you do with it is up to you, but there is no skirting around the claim: Jesus was more than a wise man; he was (and is!) God in the flesh, who lived among us, to restore us and redeem us and re-make us.

Come at Easter and you can’t miss that he accomplished that work through his own sacrificial death. But since he WAS God, death was not the final word; he overcame even that, extending the restoration, redemption, and re-making – the Resurrection – to all who will believe.

We light candles tonight, not because it’s pretty and sentimental; we light them to symbolize and to take part in the re-telling of the story: that at Christmas God came among us, in the flesh – as Light of the World – and His name is Jesus, which means ‘Rescuer.’ Come and behold him!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

I Know the Peace of God (Isaiah 9.6-7; Philippians 4.6-7)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; December 20, 2015
Text:Isaiah 9:6-7; Philippians 4:6-7

:: 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: You are Holy (Prince of Peace) (Imboden, Rhodon)
The Word in Music: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (arr. Dave Williamson)
Song of Response: Silent Night (arr. Robert Austell; alt. tune)
Offering of Music: It Came Upon the Midnight Clear (Annie Ball, horn; Walker Austell, piano)
Hymn of Sending: Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light (ERMUNTRE DICH)

:: Testimony ::  Cynthia Roberts shared about Peace (audio link) 

:: 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 is the fourth Sunday of Advent, that ‘season’ in the life of the church in which we anticipate and prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ at Christmas. Each week we’ve focused on a different theme and today that theme is PEACE.

We need peace desperately today. I don’t have to tell you that – wars and threats and terror and shootings all fill our news feeds and our minds… even seeping into our souls! A recent New York Daily News cover declared, “God isn’t fixing this!” What response does a person of faith have to that declaration? More personally, what about when we are asking and praying that question ourselves, “God, why aren’t you fixing this?” What do the scriptures have to say to us? What does it mean to know the peace of God?

What Peace? (various scriptures)

In a word, peace is not about ‘fixing’ anything. That’s simply not what the biblical concept of peace means. Our English word, peace, has far less substance and application and so we mis-hear and mis-read some of the scriptures that mention peace.

It would be easy to hear the Isaiah passage, speaking of a government and a “Prince of Peace” and a kingdom and long for God to set right all the evil and war and injustice of this world. As Isaiah’s ancient audience heard it, and even as the people of Jesus’ day heard those words, that’s exactly what they would have imagined: God intervening to throw off the injustice of Assyrian, Babylonian, or Roman rule. God’s Messiah would bring God’s peace to the earth.

And this only seemed validated when the heavenly host appeared to the shepherds and declared, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased.” (Luke 2:14) We also heard those lines sung in the music by the choir. They ARE biblical, but do we have the right understanding of what they mean?

In his public ministry, Jesus had a different understanding of God’s Kingdom, His own role, and what peace meant. He did not speak of making peace with the Romans. Neither did he speak of making war with them (which many longed for him to do!). He did speak of God’s Kingdom – a spiritual, but present Kingdom. As a sign of God’s rule he healed the sick. But what did he say when he did that? So often he also told them their sins were forgiven, and then he told them to “go in peace.” (cf. Luke 7:48-50; 8:48) Why? Because he declared them reconciled with God. That’s how he used the word ‘peace’ – it was the old Hebrew concept of shalom – wholeness, rightness, blessing, and peace with God.

I would go so far as to say that Jesus came to bring peace with God, not peace on earth. In fact, Jesus seems to indicate that those who are at peace with God may find themselves increasingly at odds with the world around them. That’s the only sense I can make of him saying something like “Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division. (Luke 12:51) He is describing the tension between God and the things of this world to which so many often give allegiance. But he ALSO prays that God will leave His people in the world to influence and witness to it. (John 17)

He weeps over Jerusalem, saying, “If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:42) Surely he does not mean that Jerusalem could have avoided exile, captivity, and Roman occupation by being more clever, more powerful, or somehow more in the resources of this world. Rather, scripture is clear that it was breaking peace with God that led to exile. And Jesus is lamenting that in his own day so many of his people seemed blind to the Good News of God’s Kingdom that he brought. His tears echo the Psalm which says, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: May they prosper (shalom) who love you.” (Psalm 122:6) Peace is tied to knowledge and love of God, expressed in obedience to God’s Word and Spirit.

And there is that great scene I mentioned a few weeks ago. The old man, Simeon, has been waiting his whole life, praying to see God’s Messiah before he dies. And Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus to the Temple to be circumcised and Simeon recognizes him as the “hope of Israel.” As he offers a prayer to God, he says, “Now let your servant depart in peace, according to your Word.” (Luke 2:29) Simeon isn’t at peace because his bills got paid or the Romans got off his back; he is at peace with God, known most perfectly now through His Son, the promised Messiah. Simeon is at peace with God.

More explicitly, Paul explains peace this way: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ....” (Romans 5:1) He goes on there to say that we have this peace though we live in the mist of trial and tribulation in this world.

So consistently we see that peace is cast in terms of our relationship and standing with God. In fact, going back now to the message from the heavenly host in Luke 2, we are pointed toward relationship. The old King James spoke of “good will toward men” – newer translations rightly identify that God’s peace is directed towards those who have experienced God’s “good will” or “favor” or “pleasure.” Those terms are related to the salvation term ‘propitiation’ by which Jesus’ death not only saved us, but brought us into right or favorable standing with God. In other words, peace is the experience of being saved through Christ for relationship with God. This was the Good News the angel announced and of which the heavenly host sang.

That peace does have present bearing on life in this world, but should not be confused with the present ending of wars, conflict, trial, or tribulation. In fact, for those who trust and follow Christ, it becomes part of our witness to God in the midst of life in this world.

So, let me return to our scripture texts for today. They speak of two expressions of peace – of Biblical shalom – which we can hope to experience as believers and followers of Christ.

Peace of God (Philippians 4:6-7)

The first is the peace OF God described in Philippians 4:6-7, which says:

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

So, do not fear; do not be afraid. But PRAY! And how can you pray except in the context of a relationship with God. Jesus Christ is our mediator, the one who presents us and our prayers as pure and holy offerings to God the Father. It is because of Christ that we have audience and favor with God, not only as God and King, but as Father.

Peace, itself, is more than we can really comprehend. That’s why the concept of shalom is helpful; it’s such a big term we have trouble fully defining it! But I love the imagery here. For all that we have said that peace is not a simple ‘fixit’ to our worldly situations, the imagery here is that peace “stands guard” over our hearts and minds. It is not a wimpy, abstract thing. Or said another way, to say that it is a spiritual reality doesn’t remove it from a powerful presence in our lives today. The peace of God is bigger than our fears and will stand guard over us.

But to underscore the main point – it does all this IN CHRIST JESUS. We know the peace of God because of God’s initiative through Jesus, the Messiah. And that brings us to the bottom-line: we only know true peace – the peace of God – when we are at peace WITH God.

Peace with God (Isaiah 9:6-7)

What is behind the great prophecy and promise of Isaiah 9 is God’s faithfulness to His covenant promises (and God’s own character). God will keep the covenant that we could not keep. God will be the King we could not be. God’s Messiah will be called the Prince of Peace because through Him God will MAKE and KEEP the peace we could not keep – peace with Himself.

When we’ve talked about the covenant before, we’ve noted the unusual nature of it. Back in Abraham’s day, the normal way a King would establish a covenant would be to draw up terms: “I’ll do this and you’ll do that” and both the King and the subject would walk between slain animals to signify a life-and-death vow to keep the terms of the covenant treaty. But God’s covenant was different: there was an “I’ll do this and you’ll do that” part. God would provide land, descendants, and blessing (even to the world!) and Abraham and his children would worship God alone. But God alone pledged the life-and-death vow, on His holy name, to keep both sides of the covenant. And when Abraham’s children – when WE – broke covenant; God kept it. And when we turned away, God pursued in holy love. Ultimately, God made peace to establish and keep – to guard – the relationship with all who would accept the peace.

This birth which we celebrate this Friday, is God’s humble, holy, persistent, faithful, and effective declaration that “I will not forsake you.” The birth of Christ truly was the coming of the Prince of Peace, who made a way where there was no way, to bring us peace with God.

That is the first and the foundational peace when we speak of peace. Out of that comes the peace of God, which serves as our testimony in this world to the goodness and the saving love of God.

Shalom – peace be with you. Amen.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

I Have the Joy of God (Luke 2.8-14, Micah 5.2-4)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; December 13, 2015
Text: Luke 2:8-14; Micah 5:2-4

:: 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: O Come, All Ye Faithful, children's choir
Hymn of Praise: Angels We Have Heard on High (GLORIA)
Song of Praise: Joy to the World/Unspeakable Joy (arr. Tomlin, Cash, Gilder)
Offering of Music: The First Noel (Maddie Buchmann, piano)
Nativity Procession: Hark, the Herald Angels Sing (Robin Hetterly, piano)
Hymn of Sending: What Child is This? (GREENSLEEVES)

:: Testimony ::  Karen Katibah shared about Joy (audio link) 

:: 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 is the third Sunday of Advent, a season observed by the Church looking forward to Christmas and the celebration of the birth of Christ. Each week we light a candle on the advent wreath and remember a particular biblical theme as part of that preparation. Last week we talked about love as we considered the extent of God’s great love for us, shown through Jesus Christ, His Son. We also saw that we are able to love because God has first loved us.

Today we are on the theme of joy, particularly the joy that comes from knowing and sharing the Good News of God’s salvation which is the love of which we spoke last week. We will also hear personal story about joy as Karen Katibah shares part of her story with us after the offering.

I wanted you to hear the reading from the Old Testament prophet, Micah, who spoke of the king and shepherd who would be born in Bethlehem. That was written over 700 years before the birth of Christ, during the reign of the Assyrian empire in the 7th and 8th centuries B.C. It and other descriptive passages formed the basis of the Jewish hope for Messiah in Jesus’ day. When the angel appeared to the shepherds in Luke 2, even the shepherds would have known the significance of a Savior being born in the “city of David” (i.e. Bethlehem), not least of which when the angel named him as “Christ the Lord.” Christ is the Greek translation of “Messiah.”

Today I want to focus with you on the joy in the midst of the angels’ message.

Good News of Great Joy (v. 10) – ευαγγελιον

Do you know what the word ‘angel’ means? In its original and common form, it meant ‘messenger.’ In the Bible, since the messages were primarily from God, the angels are typically more than human messengers. But that’s the primary role for an angel. We get distracted by their appearance; and no wonder, they almost always have to begin their message with, “Don’t be afraid.” And then there is all the art and mythology we have built around them. But the basic and usual role of an angel is to bear a message from God. I mention that because I want to come back to it at the end.

Good news – The message on this particular night was extra-special. But first, these words about the message: “I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people.” Whatever the message is, it is good news. And here’s a little aside about that, just because it’s so interesting – it will come in handy if you ever have to play ancient Greek Scrabble! That “good news” is the same thing we also sometimes hear translated as ‘Gospel.’ And it’s the same word from which we get ‘evangelism.’ (and both the Greek and English have the word ‘angel’ in the middle – that’s because the angel bears the news or message!)

Great joy – This news would also bring great JOY – and that’s what we are particularly focused on today. We don’t know yet, but what we want to pay attention to is what causes joy – what news or circumstance or message does God (or God’s messenger) link, not only to joy, but to “great joy?”

For all the people – This will be shown to be a specifically Messianic message, so “all the people” can be understood here to mean “all of God’s people.” While immediately this would have meant Israel, both the original covenant and the new understanding of the covenant promises of God would show that God’s blessing or salvation was intended for all the peoples of the world, as many as God would call to Himself (cf. Acts 2:39).

The Message: event and signs (vv. 11-12)

And then the actual message, which is an event with several verifications or signs signaling its truth.

First, the event: “Today… there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (v. 11) The long-awaited Messiah has just been born. The coming of the Messiah was the hope of every Jewish person of that time, especially because of the rule of the foreign Roman empire. And it had been generations upon generations since God’s people had thrived under the apparent blessing of the Davidic kingdom. One day they would get it all back, and an angel had just announced that day was here!

The angel also gave a ‘sign’ – which was one of several that verified this was a true message from God. The one given explicitly by the angel was this: “you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (v. 12) That was kind of an immediate prophecy – “Go and see and you will see the truth of what I have told you.” What the shepherds may have missed was also the message in that sign – that this Savior-Messiah was not arriving as a king-in-power, but as a humble baby born in the humblest of settings. This first sign would continue to mark the difference between public expectation for the Messiah and the type of Messiah Jesus showed himself to be.

But there were other signs as well. One drew upon the ancient prophecy from Micah that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. But it was part of the angel’s message: “For today IN THE CITY OF DAVID there has been born…” (v. 11) That’s another verification – it is as Micah foretold! And then there was the sudden appearance of a “multitude of the heavenly host” who worshiped and glorified God (and added a message of their own). It’s more than one angel replicating into a bunch of angels. It’s more like an initial messenger or envoy and then the sudden appearance of a massive army, with all its variety and awesomeness. If one angel made the shepherds afraid, I can’t imagine what seeing the whole host of Heaven would do. But at the very least, you’d think it would verify the authenticity of the message!

Declare and Share (v. 14)

And it’s this last bit with the host of heaven that I’d like to end on. The message had been given and the heavenly host was responding to it in worship. The host PRAISED God with their words: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased.” There is more that could be said about their praises, but what I’d like to lift up is that the Good News which produces JOY is meant to be declared and shared and leads to worship (giving God glory). Upon hearing it, the whole company of heaven declared the glory and goodness of God and they did so publicly, before the watching shepherds.

From there, in the very next two verses, the shepherds decided to go see the baby for themselves. And having done so, they went back home, “glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.” (v. 20)

If you want a picture of what JOY looks like, that is it. It is declaring the goodness of God and sharing it with others. It is a fullness about the Good News of Jesus Christ that overflows into life and words and actions. We often confuse joy with lesser emotions like ‘happiness,’ but it is such a bigger (and better) thing, and something that can exist alongside or in the face of suffering, evil, loss, or any of the other realities of life that quickly use up ‘happiness.’ Joy is understanding that God has loved you enough to save you and that is a Good News that results in a response of thankful worship. Joy is an expression – and that’s helpful; not a feeling, but an expression – of the experience of God’s life-saving love in your life and others. Joy expresses and acknowledges God’s goodness in a way that points others to it. In effect, you become a living ‘sign’ of what God has done and become part of the Good News itself.

So, there will continue to be struggle and loss and sickness and sorrow (yes, even sorrow can exist beside joy!) until the end of this world. But no one can take away God’s love shown through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of His anointed one, His Messiah, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

I Know the Love of God (John 3.16-17, 1 John 4, Romans 5,8)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; December 6, 2015
Text: John 3:16-17; 1 John 4:9-11; Romans 5:8; 8:35-39

:: 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: The Love of God (Rich Mullins)
Song of Praise: Here I Am to Worship (Hughes)
Special Music (Baptism): Long Love Foresaw this Day (Dawson/Austell)
The Word in Music: Before the Marvel of This Night (Schalk)
Preparation for Communion: What Feast of Love (GREENSLEEVES)
Offering of Music: O Holy Night (Bobby White, piano)
Hymn of Sending: Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus (STUTTGART)
Postlude: He is Here! (Rick Bean, piano; Royallen Wiley, organ) (Loonis McGlohon)

:: 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 is the second Sunday of Advent, a season observed by the Church looking forward to Christmas and the celebration of the birth of Christ. Each week we light a candle on the advent wreath and remember a particular biblical theme as part of that preparation. Last week we talked about hope as we considered God’s promise to send a light into this dark world. We recognize Jesus as that light – the Light of the world.

Today we are on the theme of love, especially God’s love for humanity, seen most perfectly through Jesus. We will look at several biblical passages that explore that theme and also some of the implications for our lives. We will also hear another personal story about our theme as Marlis Littleton shares part of her story with us during the offering.

God So Loved (John 3)

One of the most basic truths of the Christian faith is that God loves us. That’s one reason John 3:16 is so famous and so memorable. But don’t miss the full verse, including the one after it. Taken together, they are a good, concise summary of the Good News and just what it means that “God loves you.”

For God so loved the world – What kind of love are we talking about here? Is it “I want a pony for Christmas; yes you can have anything your little heart desires” kind of love? Is it a warm fuzzies kind of love? The rest of the verse tells us – and teaches us about real love.

He gave His only begotten Son – What could be more precious and costly than that? It would be one thing if God waved a magic wand, spoke a word of power, or zapped a few bad guys. But God’s love was expressed through the Incarnation – through taking on human flesh by being born into this world, to live, suffer, feel, and die as one of us. God gave it all and Jesus paid it all. What God gave, in love, was dear and costly and personal.

That whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life – This wasn’t for ponies or warm fuzzies, but was a life and death situation. God’s love saves us from death and gives us life.

For God did not send the Son…to judge… but [to] save – There is a time and place for judgment, but that’s another thing. God’s love – through Christ – was to save us.

Romans 5 also tells us about how God shows (present tense) His love toward us:

While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us – What is that important? It is because God is not sitting back waiting for us to impress Him. We don’t have to be good enough or strong enough or holy enough or faithful enough. God’s love is not conditional in that way. Rather, while we were still sinners – and facing a spiritual and eternal death sentence because of it – God came after us. That’s God’s love! We are reminded of that in baptism, as we have been today with Millie’s baptism!

There is a lot more that could be said about God’s love – what it’s like, how we experience it, and more. But bottom-line, most simply said, God loves you so much that he sent Jesus to experience death so that if you trust him, you might live. That’s what is meant by salvation or being “saved” – God loves you so much he came and comes after you to rescue you.  All the way down, as far and long as it takes, God has come that far and further. God loves you that much.

Love So Strong (Romans 8)

Just how strong is God’s love? Romans 8 does a good job of telling us. I think that’s why those verses are so memorable and encouraging. We often hear them at funerals because we can’t imagine anything stronger than death, yet scripture says that love is stronger than death and these verses declare that very thing and more.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?... I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (vv. 35,38-39)

I’m not going to spend a lot of time trying to explain those verses. I think they speak for themselves. Rather, what I want you to do is hear them, receive them. You may well need to be encouraged by truth like this. It’s at the end of Romans 8 if you want to go look again later. We often feel alone and isolated in life – people disappoint us, jobs go away, our bodies fail, there is war and terror loose in the world. It is easy to lose hope and give in to despair. And to say “God loves you” can just sound like another warm, sentimental dream.

But did you hear the declaration in those verses? That love isn’t a comfy blanket, it is stronger than war, famine, death, the future, and more. Listen one more time and dig into this as God’s truth:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?... I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (vv. 35,38-39)

We Love Because We Are Loved (1 John 4)

I said earlier that God’s love is unconditional. We do not have to be good or holy or perfect to get it. Rather, God gives us generously and powerfully while we are yet sinners – while we are yet in complete rebellion against Him!

The letter of 1 John explains to us our part in all this. First, John recaps what was in the Gospel of John:

By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him…. not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:9-10)

Pretty similar to John 3, but then there is verse 11: Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

So we are to love like God loves. We don’t do it to impress God or earn His love. We do it because we learned how from God!

How do we know what love looks like – how it behaves, what it does, how it perseveres? We know because we have experienced the unconditional, strong, tenacious, fierce, love of God. And once you’ve been loved like that, and know it, you want to give love like that!

Do you see how that goes? If you are not loving others well, don’t hear a guilt trip that says “do better, try harder.” Instead ask yourself if you really grasp how God has loved you – at your worst, in your darkest, without ceasing. Many of us think we have to earn it and we won’t accept it out of shame. Don’t miss it for that. God loves you; each of you. God loves you; you who push against it. God loves you.

That can change a person. It can even save you. Amen.