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Monday, December 26, 2016


"Advent/Christmas" (2016)
Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church
November 27 - December 25, 2016

In this Advent series we look at Jesus invitations to know God through stories focused on the advent themes of hope, love, joy, and peace.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Jesus Has Come to Us (John 1.9-14)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; December 25, 2016 (Christmas Day)
Text: John 1:9-14

:: 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: Elizabeth Austell, piano
Hymn of Praise: O Come, All Ye Faithful (ADESTE FIDELIS)
Song of Praise: Love Has Come (BRING A TORCH)
Offering of Music: In the First Light (Kauflin)
Sending Hymn: Joy to the World (ANTIOCH) - arr. Austell
Postlude: Elizabeth Austell, 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.

We began the service with the great news declared by the Angels: “Behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

This is the great news of this day: Jesus has come to us. This morning we will look at the words of the Gospel of John about this event, as written by the beloved disciple of Jesus.

While the Gospels of Matthew and Luke focus more on the earthly events surrounding Jesus’ birth (as miraculous as those are), John focuses more on the spiritual and eternal significance of Jesus’ birth. He starts his account of Jesus not with genealogies and the birth, as Matthew and Luke do, but at creation. Naming Jesus as the Word, he echoes the beginning of Genesis with “In the beginning.” But instead of “In the beginning God created” he writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) He goes on to place Jesus the Word at creation, involved with and as God in the very creation itself.

He then goes on to use words like “Life” and “Light” to describe Jesus, writing, “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness…” (John 1:4-5a) From verse 9 to 14, John restates the opening of his letter, but with a little more detail. And He reverses the order of Jesus as Word, Life, and Light to take us back through and end with the Word. We’ll pick up John’s telling of the Jesus story there, at verse 9.

LIGHT of the World (vv. 9-12)

Picking back up on Jesus as the LIGHT that shines in the darkness, John names Jesus in verse 9 as “the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every person.” Two things to note here: this is not any old ‘enlightenment’ – as in greater understanding or a philosophical category. This is the truth and the presence of a God who is described as ‘glorious.’ And that relates to the second thing to note: this is personal. Of the “true Light” John goes on to say, “HE was in the world.” This Light which enlightens us is a person who has entered into our world. And indeed, as verse 14 will tell us, he came to show us the very glory of God.

Every two years when we have Confirmation class, we talk through these verses in John 1. How do we understand Jesus as Light? We talk about what light does. It helps us see, especially when it is dark. It can light our way and show us where we need to go. In doing so, light can also protect us by showing us dangers that might be otherwise hidden. Light also helps living things grow and thrive. And it is such a useful metaphor, we have brought it over into the realm of understanding things and use words like “illuminating” and “enlightening” to describe the effect of shining a light on our mind or understanding. Again, what has been murky or hidden to us becomes visible and understandable. All those little ‘lights’ help us to understand what Jesus, yet a person and not a concept, might be as Light with a capital ‘L’. Jesus helps us see, shows the way, protects us, helps us understand, and gives life.

John goes on to talk about “receiving the Light” in negative and positive terms. He tells us that many did not recognize Jesus as the Light of the World, including many of his own people. Even though He was involved in the very making of the world and humanity, many do not recognize Him or receive him. But some do, and John spells out what that means. First, note that John defines what ‘receiving Jesus’ means – it’s there at the end of verse 12: “those who believe in His name.” That’s another way of saying believe he is who he claims to be. His name – his names – are claims. He is Jesus, which literally means ‘savior’ or ‘rescuer.’ He is Emmanuel, God with us. He is the Light of the World and the Word who was in the beginning and who was with God and who was God. And, in fact, the whole Gospel of John goes on to highlight Jesus naming himself in different ways, all various claims to be God and to be from God: Bread of Life, Living Water, the Way, the Shepherd, the Resurrection and the Life, and so on. But in short, to believe in His name is to believe Jesus is who he claimed to be. That’s what it means to “receive the Light.” Next John turns to what it means for those who do.

LIFE as Children of God (vv. 12-13)

In verses 12-13, John says what happens to those who do receive Jesus as Light of the World. He writes, “But as many as received him, to them he gave the right to become children of God.” This is huge! Prior to this, the “children of God” were understood to be the descendants of Abraham. But that’s exactly what John goes on to explain. Those who become children of God in this way are “born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” In other words, Jesus becomes the entry point into the family of God, the means of being “born anew.” Jesus will explore this with Nicodemus as recorded in John 3. Later in the New Testament, Paul and Peter will wrestle with the implications of this for Jewish and Gentile believers. (see Galatians)

Just as Jesus is the Light of the World, John points out that he gives LIFE. In John 3, Jesus will explain how that life is like being born again. We are new creations. In John 11, at the scene of the death of Lazarus, Jesus will say, “I am the Resurrection and the Life” before he gives new life to Lazarus. And here, in the introduction of John, Jesus gives life by granting those who believe in and receive him the right to be adopted into God’s family as children of God. As part of God’s family, we experience a new relationship with God, perhaps demonstrated no more explicitly than when Jesus teaches his followers to call God ‘Abba’ or ‘Papa’ – the Creator God now known in the intimate relationship of Parent to child.

The WORD among Us (v. 14)

Finally, in verse 14, John moves back to the name he used to introduce Jesus and his Gospel. He speaks again of Jesus as the WORD. And this Word that was introduced as present at Creation, with God and as God, he now tells us has become flesh and dwelt among us. That eternal Word has come among us as one of us, to be born, grow, live, suffer, and die as one of us. And those this one verse will just touch on a portion of why, we read that in doing so, Jesus showed us the glory of God as only God-in-the-flesh could. And he was full of grace and truth.

What is the glory of God? It is the magnificence of the Being who is so powerful and great and other that we can’t fully comprehend or even look at or come into the presence of. It is not unlike the sun overhead. It is so hot and bright and powerful that it would consume us. We can’t even look at it directly from 25 million miles away without soon blinding ourselves. If we got any closer we’d burn up. Yet Jesus has brought the very glory of God down among us in a way that we can not only look and understand, but come near… very near.

And what are grace and truth? They are so important that we put them on a permanent banner in our sanctuary. God’s truth sees us for exactly who we are, in all our humanity – both the shortcomings of that and the dignity we bear as God’s image-bearers. And God’s grace comes to us offering restoration, healing, and lifting up from the depths into the dignity. Jesus held both together and embodies the character of God through grace and truth even as he embodies the presence of God through his glory.

This is the news of Christmas, of the Incarnation of the Son of God: the eternal Word has entered into our humanity to show us what it means to live in relationship with God. His invitation, “Come, believe, and follow me” is spoken to all. If you receive him, believing he was and is who he claims to be, you are children of God. Come, see, and believe! Amen.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Born With Us and For Us (Hebrews 2.14-15)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; December 24, 2016 (Christmas Eve)
Text: Hebrews 2:14-15

:: 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 ::
Gathering Music: Venite Adoremus (Wilson) - Linda Jenkins, organ; Rick Bean, piano
The Word in Music: Antiphonal Noel (Raney) - handbells and choir
Hymn: The First Noel
The Word in Music: He is Here! (Heckler, McGlohon, Cterling) - choir
The Word in Music: Light of the World (Daigle) - Kathleen and Karla Katibah, dancers
Music for Reflection: Born that We May Have Life (Tomlin, Cash) - worship team, choir
Music for Reflection: Adoramus Te (Salyn) - worship team
Hymn: Angels We Have Heard on High (Mendelssohn)
Music during Candlelighting: Silent Night Instrumental - Rick Bean, jazz piano
Hymn: 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.

Tonight I want to speak briefly to what God put into motion with the birth of Jesus. Actually Scripture shows us that God’s plan started long before Jesus was born; but tonight we will focus on the meaning of his birth. Looking to these two verses in Hebrews, I want to point out the two simple truths there in the title of my message: Jesus was born with us and Jesus was born for us.

First, Jesus was born WITH us. You may have heard the name, Emmanuel, used for Jesus. It is a Hebrew word which means “God with us.” And the claim of Scripture is not just that God came a-visiting, but that God took on humanity. This letter to the Hebrews, written to explain Jesus in terms of the Hebrew scriptures (our Old Testament), uses the phrase “flesh and blood” to describe this taking on of humanity. It says that Jesus “partook of our flesh and blood.” Later on in Hebrews, the writer goes on at length to explain what “flesh and blood” or “born with us” means. Jesus was not only God-in-the-flesh, but experienced what it is to be human, from birth to death and everything in between. He got hungry, he was tempted, he got cold. “No crying he makes” – I don’t believe it! He cried and wept as an adult; I don’t see why he wouldn’t have cried as a child. The whole point is that God did not zap us from the outside, but came and lived among us. The young disciple, John, who traveled with Jesus as a young teenager, would later write about Jesus, “In Jesus, God moved into the neighborhood; he made a home with us and as one of us.” (John 1:14) And yet John goes on to say that Jesus was not merely human; he also showed us the very glory of God because he was from God and he was God.

How do we possibly understand this? I think it’s more relatable and understandable than you may realize. If you’ve ever been around very young children, you’ve observed the difference between them having to interact with these large beings to whom they are only shin or knee-high. The conversations are, literally, above their heads. But have you ever seen what happens if they are playing on the floor and an adult gets down there with them? You enter into their world, their experience, their frustrations and delights. So, God has come among us to be a part of our lives “down here” – to enter into our world, our experience, our frustrations, and our delights.

Hebrews also tells us that Jesus was born FOR us. The worship team and choir sang about this earlier in the service: “He was born that we might have life.” Jesus’ birth was not only that God might enter into our world and our experience, but so that God might reach us, teach us, and rescue us. Hebrews uses the imagery of slavery to describe the hold that death and evil have on us. And Jesus was born with us – among us – in order to act for us, to free us from that slavery to death and evil. That is, of course, the story of Easter and his death and resurrection. But it was not a surprise that came out of the hearts of those who opposed him; it was the intended course and purpose of his life.

How can we understand this? Let me offer another illustration. In more than a few places, Scripture speaks of the impact of sin, selfishness, and evil on our lives. We are drowning in those things and our lives – emotional, spiritual, mental, and eternal – are at risk. God could simply pitch us the metaphorical life preserver, leaving us to grab hold, hold on, and be pulled to safety. In some ways, the Old Testament Law functioned in this way. But ultimately, God saves us through Jesus by diving into the very waters in which we are drowning, swimming to us, grabbing hold of us, and pulling us to safety. Jesus’ birth was the conscious decision of God to dive into the waters of humanity, with the purpose of doing it for us – coming after us – firmly in mind.

Finally, it is worth noting that Hebrews doesn’t just define the “for us” as life hereafter. Rather, what Jesus has done for us is “free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.” Knowing, trusting, believing this Jesus… makes a difference NOW, during this life. While it doesn’t cover everything, “enslavement to the fear of death” covers a lot of what steers and binds and holds us captive in this life. The claim of Scripture and the claim of Jesus himself is that trusting and following him makes a difference NOW as well as in eternity.

I would be failing you to not speak this to you tonight. It is the heart of Christmas. It is what all these portions of the story you’ve heard tonight point toward. It is good, good news in a time when we really need good news. Listen: Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, is God at work here and now – born with us and for us; born with YOU and for YOU. May God give each of us ears to hear and hearts to receive His Word. Amen.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Peace with God (PEACE) (Romans 5.1-5)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; December 18, 2016
Text: Romans 5;1-5; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21

:: 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."  

:: Testimony :: Megan Butler testimony (audio link)

:: Scripture and Music ::
Gathering Music: Rick Bean, jazz piano
Hymn of Praise: Hark, the Herald Angels Sing (MENDELSSOHN) (link)
Song of Praise: Arise, My Soul, Arise (Kevin Twit/Indelible Grace)
The Word in Music: Silent Night (arr. Austell) (link)
Offering of Music: Bobby White, piano; Linda Jenkins, organ
Hymn of Sending: O Little Town of Bethlehem (ST. LOUIS)
Song of Hope: Even So, Come (Tomlin, Ingram, Cates)
Postlude: 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.

“We have peace with God through Jesus.” That’s how Romans 5 opens and that’s what I want to talk about with you today. And right off the bat notice that it doesn’t say “we CAN have peace with God”… if you do this or say that or accomplish these seven holy things. It is ALREADY DONE. Jesus did it; he made peace. It’s already there through him. And this passage is going to walk us through what that means.

Introductions and Celebrations (vv.1-2)

I appreciate the word choices in this passage. They break up the dense theology of “having been justified by faith” into bits I can grasp and comprehend. And it’s all about knowing and experiencing God. It starts with an INTRODUCTION. Through Jesus “we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand.” “This grace in which we stand” is the justification. It’s the right-standing with God that we cannot earn or accomplish on our own. It was the obedience and perfection of Jesus-in-our-place that earned that right-standing for us. And it through faith – trust – in Jesus that we obtained an introduction into this grace, this justification, this right-standing. Psalm 24 says, “Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in His holy place?” The answer is “The one who has clean hands and a pure heart.” Back to Romans… Paul makes clear that no one has clean hands and a pure heart except one: Jesus. But he brings us into the presence of God and says “She’s with me; he’s with me.” That’s the “introduction into grace.” It’s grace because it’s a gift; we don’t earn it, we receive it.

And that’s worth celebrating! That’s what “exult” means. We celebrate “in hope of the glory of God” because Jesus has introduced us to God; he has brought us before the glory of God. If you have been here to hear the stories of folks about how they came to faith, they involved celebration. It’s a joyful thing to come to know the Lord. It can be a sobering thing, a weighty and humbling thing, to realize the magnitude of the gift of being put right with God; but it is a joyful thing, this “hope of the glory of God.” Hold on to that HOPE; we’ll come back to that.

Redeeming Struggle (vv. 3-5)

I appreciate that reality of the next few verses. They name the STRUGGLE that is this life: tribulation is a catch-all for struggle. The word that it translates – thlipsis – literally means ‘pressed’ or ‘squashed.’ More broadly, it describes the distress or anguish that comes from physical, mental, social, or economic adversity. That covers a lot, right? Now you may have read or heard this verse before and written it off as UN-realistic because after the briefest mention of the struggle, it moves to perseverance, character, and hope. Or you might have been put off before even getting to the struggle because it starts – it STARTS – with “we also exult in our tribulations.” But let me dig into that a bit.

The struggle is real! That’s a saying… a few years old now, but applicable. And the last thing, the very last thing this verse is describing or calling for is what is so prevalent in southern, Christian, evangelical, white, culture. Why do I name all those? I do because it’s the water I swim in and I’m an expert on it! What is prevalent in my waters? It is putting on a smiley, happy, “Christian” face that says, “I have some struggles, but praise the Lord, it’s okay.” [the fakeness of this may be lost in print!] And what’s worse is when we set up a cultural expectation that if you are a “good Christian” you won’t struggle or be angry or get too discouraged.

These verses are among the most powerful of verses describing the human condition because they describe how God REDEEMS STRUGGLE. There is no way to get from the anguish of physical, mental, social, or economic adversity to celebratory hope without the help of God. Those steps – perseverance, proven character, hope – those are what God brings about. And here’s where I think we miss it; here’s the part that WE do. We either reject God’s ability to be present there or we reject the reality of the struggle. The first is despair and the second is deception. And we are perfectly capable of either or both. Rather, we must cling to God’s promise, “I AM there.”

I am still sitting with the testimony Marlis shared a few weeks ago. If you were not here, I encourage you to listen to it on the website, under sermons. She began with her testimony of becoming a Christian, but she ended with an honest faith-filled, faith-FULL testimony to looking for God in the struggle. She might not use the word faith, but I do, because she has neither given in to despair or deceit. I know she’d probably tell you she’s had her moments, but Lord, what honesty! I met with another brother in the church this week who poured out to me his own struggle. He’s railed at God over the struggle, but he has not rejected God; and he sure doesn’t want to gloss over the struggle. That is real faith! And like it or not, I know just enough about most of you to know that each of you struggle in some way – in really significant ways.

And what I want you to hear this morning is two things. One, I want to be a pastor and for us to be a church where it’s not only okay to struggle out loud and honestly, but expected, accepted, and encouraged. We do not do God or each other any favors by glossing over the struggle. Second, I want to be a pastor and a people who cling to hope – that keeps calling each other back to the hope that this [struggle] is not all there is, that there is a God and He is not blind or deaf to your struggle.

So, for a change this morning, all I’m going to say about the exult, perseverance, character, hope part of that struggle verse is that God can redeem struggle; and all that is God’s doing. God can bring hope out of despair, light into darkness. But that’s God-sized work, not a flimsy mask we put on to appear “Christian.” Know that as we are honest and struggle together, THAT will be a church where God shows up in His glory.

Be Reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5)

Finally, I want to jump over to our other passage, 2 Corinthians 5. I mention it because it reminds us of the powerful work God does in a human life. It begins with this declaration: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he or she is a new creature.” (v. 17) And it reminds us that the gift of grace is from God: “Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ…” (v. 18) Reconciliation is another way of talking about peace. And Jesus made peace for us with God where there was no peace. There’s much more that could be said about reconciliation, especially because WE are then charged with being reconcilers – peacemakers – with each other. But I want to end with the appeal at the end of verse 20: “we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

Notice it’s not “reconcile with God” like it’s something you have to initiate, because we’ve already heard and talked about Christ already having made the peace. It’s BE reconciled: accept the peace that God has made possible in and through Jesus. Don’t turn away from it; don’t minimize it or deceive yourself that it’s not needed. In Christ, you have been declared just and at peace with God; you have been introduced into the grace-gift of God. God even redeems struggle and anguish, though that is usually a longer journey than we realize. We are new creatures in Christ. And He pulls us into that reconciling, peace-making, struggle-redeeming, work as partners, as “ambassadors.”

Be reconciled to God. That’s the invitation to know God through Jesus this day. Amen.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Joy of Childhood (JOY) (Mark 10.13-16)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; December 11, 2016
Text: Mark 10:13-16; Psalm 78:1-8

:: 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."  

:: Testimony :: Chris Orr testimony (audio link)

:: Scripture and Music ::
Gathering Music: Rick Bean, jazz piano
Hymn of Praise: O Come, All Ye Faithful (ADESTE FIDELES)
Song of Praise: Children of the Living God (Fernando Ortega)
The Word in Drama: children's skit w/Joy to the World
Offering of Music: Robin Hetterly, piano: Joy to the World (Mason, Arr. Bober)
Hymn of Sending: Good Christians, All Rejoice
Postlude: Royallen Wiley, organ

:: 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 I want to do something a little different. I want to invite all the children of the church to come join me up front like we do when we have the children’s sermon.

But you know what? The whole sermon today is going to be with you and for you. And the grown-ups… they just get to listen in. There was this time – we just heard about it in the reading – when people brought their children and babies to see Jesus. And the disciples wanted to send them away like Jesus was just for grown-ups, but Jesus told them, “No, let the children come… don’t get in their way. For the Kingdom of God belongs to ones like them!”

If Jesus was visiting our church, I think he’d sign up for the children’s sermon. He’d want to see you and talk to you and be with you. So that’s what I want to do today!

I want to tell you a story, ask you a question, and then hear Jesus’ words and blessing.

A Story

I don’t remember a lot from when I was 5, but I remember at least these two things: I prayed a prayer to trust in Jesus as my Savior and I told myself never to forget how much kids see and understand.

I prayed that prayer at Mr. Bill’s club. Mr. Bill was a nice man who met in homes near my house to teach children about Jesus. I don’t remember much about him, but I remember he told stories from the Bible and taught me that Jesus loves me and that Jesus could help me know God and go to Heaven. I got real concerned about going to Heaven and when Mr. Bill said we could pray to ask Jesus into my heart, I did that. I actually did that several times, but then my mom told me all it took was once and that Jesus was in my heart. I’ve never forgotten that!

The other thing I remember is being five and riding in the car with my mom, noticing all kinds of things around us… street signs, people in the cars next to us, and my mom’s mood that day. I remember she asked me something and I felt like I really understood WHY she was asking. I remember thinking that lots of times grown-ups kind of treat kids like they don’t understand things or don’t notice things and I remember just how much I did see and understand. And I remember making a promise to myself that when I got older, I would not forget being five and seeing and understanding the world around me way more than grown-ups gave me credit for. And that was a serious promise, because I’ve never forgotten it.

I share those two things because Jesus must have understood that kids see and understand way more than grow-ups give them credit for. He didn’t just say, let the kids come see me so I can play with them. But he gave them hugs and blessed them in God’s name. He also told the grown-ups that the kids got it – they understood something about God – that the grown-ups didn’t get. So remember… he said… remember what it was like to be a kid.

A Question

So I want to ask you a question. I think you see and understand way more than us grown-ups think. It may be hard to put words to what you are thinking, but I think you are all incredibly smart and see things and understand things. And Jesus told the grown-ups to try to learn from the children.

So here’s the question: What do YOU think grown-ups need to know (or remember) about Jesus? If you got to stand where I do and give the sermon, what would you say to the grown-ups about God or about Jesus?

When grownups sometimes get worried, like about money or their kids, God will help them with their worries.

If a grownup makes a mistake, God will forgive them.

If you ever worry about where your children are, remember that God sees them.

If something bad happens, God sees and knows everything.

If children don’t obey their parents (or if grownups don’t do right), God will always give them a second chance.

God will forgive even if we don’t behave.

Even when parents fight, God wants them to forgive and love each other.

God takes care of people.

The Words and Blessing of Jesus

Here’s the only thing I want to add to your excellent sermons. Jesus mainly spent his time that day with the children and babies. He loved them and he blessed them. But he did say one thing to the grown-ups. He said, “Truly, you’ve got to receive the Kingdom of God like a child.”

Please know that YOU (children) are an important part of our church. One of the many reasons you are important is that you show us grown-ups how to receive God’s gift of love, of Jesus. That’s what Jesus said! And I’m so glad you are here with us!

The last thing I want to do is what Jesus did. Mark says that Jesus laid his hands on each one of the children and babies and blessed them. And I’d like to do that. There are lots of kinds of blessings, but here’s the one I want to do: “May the Lord be with you.” And if you want to ask God’s blessing back on me, you could say, “And also with you.” That’s been around for a long time. Let’s try that with each of you and then we’ll say it to all the grown-ups at the end.

May the Lord be with you! And also with you! Amen.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Called in Love (LOVE) (Mark 14.27-27)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; December 4, 2016
Text: Matthew 14:22-33

:: 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."  

:: Testimony :: Melissa Katibah testimony (audio link)

:: Scripture and Music ::
Gathering Music: Rick Bean, jazz piano
Song of Praise: Let Your Kingdom Come (Kauflin, Sovereign Grace)
Hymn of Praise: Lo, How a Rose (arr. Austell)
The Word in Music: Choir, The Yearning (Boersma/Courtney)
Music during Communion: Rick Bean, jazz piano
Hymn of Sending: Of the Father's Love Begotten (DIVINUM MYSTERIUM)
Postlude: Rick Bean, jazz piana; Linda Jenkins, organ

:: 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 in Advent, a season of church life that anticipates the coming of Jesus. This year we are looking at several different invitations of Jesus to know God through him. We are specifically following the Advent themes of hope, love, joy, and peace and today look at an invitation Jesus gave in love. My hope is that you will also hear or be reminded of God’s love for you and His desire for you to know Him in a personal and meaningful way. Today we will also look at what gets in the way of that.

After last week’s sermon, a friend who follows the sermons online asked me about how I zeroed in on the theme of hope in the story of Jesus walking on water. I thought my reply might be helpful to mention in this current series. I normally select a text to preach on and my guiding principle is to find the main idea of the passage in the context in which it was set. It is easy to zero in on a single verse and miss the actually context (and meaning) of scripture, and I am very careful to not do that. Sometimes, however, a passage has a lot going on and I will choose to highlight what I might describe as a secondary point, like the role of hope in Peter’s response to Jesus last week. I will still try to set that in the context of the main idea, which, incidentally, I saw not as even being about Peter’s faith or the miracle of walking on water, which are what we are often drawn to in that story. Rather, I believe the main idea of that story is Jesus coming to us in God’s power to raise us up, to save us, even when our faith falters and is weak; therein lies our hope!

Today’s story offers a similar opportunity to figure out what exactly the main idea is. It is easy for us to fixate on wealth as an obstacle to salvation or at least to knowing God. And that is at play in this story. But there is something much bigger going on, and that bigger thing – what I believe is the main idea – is anchored in the love of God for us. Let’s walk through the story.

The Question of Eternal Life (vv. 17-20)

“What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”… How can I go to Heaven?… How can I truly know God? These are some of the big questions that come up when we ponder what else there might be beyond this life and our lifetime. And it is the presenting question of this exchange with Jesus. It’s easy to get thrown by Jesus’ initial response. Picking up on the man calling him “Good Teacher,” Jesus replies, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” And we think, well, Jesus WAS good, wasn’t he?

Yes, he was! He is not addressing his own goodness; he is calling into question the man’s understanding of who Jesus is and anticipating the key to the man’s original question about eternal life. After calling to mind Psalm 14, which says there is no one who does good and God is looking down from heaven to see if anyone understands and seeks after God, Jesus begins quoting from the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20: do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, and so on. And the man says, “Teacher (see, he’s listening!) I have kept all these things from my youth up.”

Jesus goes on to say, “One thing you lack…” Well, he actually says several things. He tells the man to go and sell all his possessions, to give to the poor, and to come and follow Jesus. In his response, Jesus illustrates something very important about the Ten Commandments (and God Word in general); the Commandments are mostly stated as prohibitions – do not murder, do not commit adultery, and so forth. But those Commandments have a positive command implied with them. To obey them, to be ‘good,’ it is not enough to not murder, but one must also cherish life. Earlier in his ministry, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes clear that the Commandments are intended not just negatively, but positively, and at the heart level. So do not commit adultery also means DO be faithful and also do not cultivate lustful thoughts in the heart. Likewise, Jesus is expanding on the commandment not to covet other people’s possessions and says that goodness also involves not clinging to one’s OWN possessions, but caring and showing charity to the poor. And the man’s response shows the limits of his goodness. He had refrained from evil, but had not fully embraced the good.

But Jesus said even more. He did more than reveal the limitation of the man’s goodness. He also began to answer the original question of “How do I inherit eternal life?” He didn’t say, “sell all you have, give it to the poor, and you will be saved” but “come, follow me.” The answer to the original question wasn’t “goodness” but knowing and trusting God through Jesus. This is what Psalm 14, that Jesus referenced, teaches as well. That Psalm says that no one is good and that God is looking to see if anyone understands that and is seeking Him. And then the Psalm ends with the declaration that God is the one who will bring salvation (not the goodness of human beings).

It is good to be good, but  goodness doesn’t save us. Rather, God saves us; and God says we must know and trust Him through the one He has sent.

Letting Go of What Keeps us from God (vv. 21-26)

The man turns away from Jesus then and we read that he was “saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.” (v. 22) Jesus then follows up with some commentary with the disciples on the encounter. The problem wasn’t the wealth or property in and of itself, but that clinging to it kept the man from truly following God’s teaching AND from following Jesus. Don’t miss the second part. It’s not just that he didn’t want to part with his wealth and give it to the poor, but that he also didn’t respond to Jesus’ invitation to come and follow.

Reflecting on the encounter, Jesus comments, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!” It sounds to me like the man was trying to do good, but had some definite hold out areas that were standing in the way. I can relate! For you and me it might be money or may be something else. Really that’s the broader point here; money is just the specific example. More broadly, we are not good because we fall short at some point or another; we cling to something that stands between us and God. But most importantly, these things – these idolatries, lusts, stubborn areas, addictions, dependencies, sins, or whatever else you may struggle with – they keep us from following Jesus well or even at all. Sometimes we just turn away sad; other times, we try to follow and find ourselves sinking like Peter in the story last week.

No wonder the disciples were astonished; I think what he was saying registered with them. They asked, “Then who can be saved?” Perhaps they, too, were considering where and how they fell short of God’s Commandments and being truly good.

Now remember what I said previously… our goodness doesn’t save us; God saves us. And here’s Jesus bottom-line answer – truly, a Good News answer – “With people it IS impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.”

Impossible Love (vv. 21,27)

I want you to hear three things today:

1.    All things are possible with God.
2.    God is the one who saves.

Those two things are the main idea. But there’s a third thing, not presented as the main idea here, but essential to the whole. It’s in verse 21.

3.    And God loves you.

Jesus heard the man’s claim to goodness, knew what he lacked, and nonetheless “felt a love for him.” His response and invitation to the man was motivated out of love and that is our focus today. And do you understand the power and strength of taking those three propositions together? All things are possible with God; God saves; and God loves you. To the extent that you can do good things, it is a blessing to you and those around you and honors God.  But goodness has its limits; and OUR ability for the good has its limits. Good thing, then, that God comes after us; Jesus invites us to come and follow; and such a thing is not impossible if God is behind it. And it is motivated out of love.

It reminds me of another well-known verse of scripture, John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Good News, indeed!”

Sunday, November 27, 2016

If it is You (HOPE) (Matthew 14.22-33)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; November 27, 2016
Text: Matthew 14:22-33

:: 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."  

:: Testimony :: Marlis Littleton testimony (audio link)

:: Scripture and Music ::
Song of Praise: Here I Am to Worship (Tim Hughes)
Hymn of Praise: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (arr. Austell)
The Word in Music: Choir, Come, Abide with Us (Mock/Lopez)
Hymn of Sending: Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus (STUTTGART)
Postlude: 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 is the first Sunday in Advent, a ‘season’ in the life of the church in which we look forward to Christ coming, mysteriously to his coming again and also in anticipation of the celebration of his birth. Last week we talked about the importance of knowing God in cultivating a thankful life. And indeed, knowing God is more foundational than that; it is the basis of our faith and practice. During Advent I am going to look with you at four stories of Jesus inviting people to know him better. Those stories will focus through the four Advent themes of Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace. Each week we will also hear a personal account of how people in this congregation have come to know God through Jesus Christ. Today, Marlis Littleton will share part of her story with us as the offering is taken (audio link above).

Today we focus on HOPE, and how Jesus is worthy of our hope and trust. I chose the story of Peter trying to walk on water. It contains a phrase that jumped out at me as a hope-statement, and that is where I’d like to start with you.

Great Hope

This scene takes place after the miraculous feeding of the 5,000. After that miracle, Jesus sent the disciples on across the water in a boat and he withdrew to have some time alone to pray. But then Jesus caught back up with the disciples, not by skirting the sea and meeting them on the other side, but by walking out across the water to meet them on the water. They were already battered by a storm in the middle of the night and were terrified when they saw him, crying out in fear and thinking he was a ghost. But he reassured them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” (v. 27)

And then come the hopeful words, spoken by Peter: “Lord, if it is You…” (v. 28) What an interesting thing to say. You could read it as a test, I suppose; but I think it is something a little different. Peter didn’t say, “If it is you, prove it” or “If it is you, show us a sign.” Peter had a specific request that hinged on the power and person of Jesus: “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to you on the water.” I do not know why Peter chose that, but what is striking to me is that Peter didn’t ask Jesus to do something miraculous; he asked Jesus to include him and invite him in the miraculous. Jesus had included him and the other disciples in the feeding of the 5,000. I’m not sure why walking on water seems more miraculous than that (it does, doesn’t it?!); but I think Peter wanted to be part of what Jesus was doing.

I think that is a point worth pausing and pondering over. And I don’t think I’ve quite sorted it all out yet. But there is something powerful there – something that moves me. Peter has seen Jesus manifest the power of God – healing people, feeding people, teaching people. He is surely frightened along with the rest.  But what I hear him asking for here is something else that touches on faith and miracles and power, but runs deeper still. He seems to want to be a part of what Jesus is doing: “Lord, command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus did! He said, “Come!”

As many of you may have, I just returned from time with family. I was in South Carolina with my parents and brother’s family, in the home where I grew up. It’s amazing how those familiar places bring back such strong memories. I was reminded of childhood, though it was long ago now. And I was reminded of one of the great longings of childhood, to be in relationship with my parents – to know and be known, to love and be loved. Though actually growing up (or parenting) seems to focus on rules and behaviors and grades and curfews and a hundred other things, perhaps the most formative part of growing up is our experience of relationship with parents, whether that is full or missing, good or bad, or whatever it’s like. It’s one of our deep longings, played out again in dating and marriage relationships and then again as we parent our own children.

And I believe that deep longing is at the heart of knowing God. God is not an academic subject or a list of do’s and don’t’s; knowing God is relational and is ultimately about being a part, belonging to a family and to God. I hear echoes of that in Peter’s words, echoes of the great hope, “Can I be part of your life and what you are doing? Will you invite me to come to you, as impossible as that may seem?”

It’s a childlike question, the kind Jesus appreciated – and we’ll look at that story in two weeks. It’s saying, “God, if you are there, can I belong and be a part?”

Little Faith

I kind of wish the story ended there, without telling us what happened. But it goes on: Peter got out of the boat, walked on water, and came toward Jesus. Don’t miss that. For some undefined amount of time, he was part of the power and the miracle and the God-moment. But also don’t miss this: he got frightened and began to sink – which Jesus would name just a little later as doubt, as “little faith.” But don’t miss this: he cried out, “Lord, save me!” and Jesus IMMEDIATELY stretched out his hand and took hold of him.

Though Peter’s faith faltered, his hope was not in vain. Jesus did call out to him and grabbed hold of him just where he faltered, where he was weak. Peter’s great hope was not, I think, to walk on the water. It was to get to Jesus’ side. And he did, with Jesus’ help.

That is a good word. The great hope, to know God and be a part of what God is doing, is not dependent on your faith, strength, or power. It is God’s desire to know you and to grab hold of you, even where you are weak.

Take that to heart! You may be struggling at just that point, saying, “My faith is weak; I’m full of doubt; God doesn’t have any use for the likes of me.” But God DOES want to know you and use you. And knowing God is not dependent on your faith or strength or power. Call out to Him and God will respond. In fact, God may already be grabbing hold of you; do you see it? Do you perceive it?

Knowing Jesus: Teacher to Ghost to God’s Son

There’s one other development I’d like to track with you across this story. It is the growth in knowledge of God among the disciples. Coming into this story, the disciples knew Jesus as their Rabbi, their teacher. Some had suspicions that he might be more. Despite many miracles – amazing things – when they saw him on the water in the storm, they thought he was a ghost, some kind of spirit. But look where the story ends up. After the interaction with Peter, Jesus gets in the boat and the storm stops. And those who were in the boat WORSHIPED Him, saying, “You are certainly God’s Son!” (v. 33) Worship is a strong word here; he clearly is no longer simply Rabbi to them. Jewish people were rightly very particular about their worship, with the most foundational belief and commandment being, “Worship God alone; there is no other God but the LORD.” And they recognized Jesus as God and offered him worship. They were coming to know Jesus in a deep and personal way.

Advent is about “coming to Jesus” and that’s what I want to try to do with you this month. Do you know Jesus? Do you know Him as Lord and God and Savior? Do you know him personally? His invitation is that great hope that runs in us – to know and be known, to love and be loved, to be a part and to be family… with God Himself! It doesn’t matter if you have questions or doubts or struggle with faith. Consider the invitation to “Come!” and see what God does from there. My prayer is that each of you come to know God in a deeper and more personal way. Amen.

Monday, November 21, 2016

==STEWARDSHIP (2016)==

"Stewardship" (2016)
Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church
November 06-20, 2016

A three-week series on worship, stewardship, and devotion.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Joyful Thanksgiving (Psalm 100)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; November 20, 2016
Text: Psalm 100; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

:: 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 ::
Song of Praise: Shout to the Lord (Zschech/Hillsong)
Hymn of Praise: All People That on Earth Do Dwell (OLD HUNDRETH)
Offering of Music: Choir, Fill the Earth with Praise (Williams/Larson)
Hymn of Sending: Great is Thy Faithfulness (FAITHFULNESS)
Postlude: 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.

Thursday is Thanksgiving Day, and I suspect that sometime during the week each of us will give some thought to what we are thankful for.  Some people have family traditions of sharing these thanksgivings around the dinner table; some people spend a little extra time offering God prayers of thanks; still others have an increased awareness of God’s many blessings in our lives. To prepare us for this week and as a reminder that we should be thankful all year long, I chose Psalm 100 as our sermon text.  It is known as a Psalm of Thanksgiving.  It is more than that, it is a beautiful piece of poetry that invites the reader and the hearer to know God, respond to God’s goodness, and worship God with a thankful heart.

It is made up of a series of seven imperatives, or challenges.  And they are arranged kind of like a bull’s-eye target.  At the center of the Psalm is the invitation in verse 3 to KNOW God.  Surrounding that are the calls or invitations to COME into God’s presence in worship.  One more “ring” out are the challenges to SERVE and GIVE thankful offering.  And finally, we find the commands to SHOUT publicly and joyfully and to BLESS the name of God.  This arrangement helped people to memorize the Psalm and to picture God’s invitation, challenges, and commandments for his people.

We’ll look at those same invitations, challenges, and commandments today as God speaks them to us through his Word.

Knowing and Coming to God

We aren’t used to starting at the middle of something to find out the main point, but poetry is different.  The layout makes a difference.  And Psalm 100 invites us into its “heart” to invite us to know God in a personal way.  None of the other challenging words of Psalm 100 make much sense unless we know the Lord God.

And so, in verse 3, we are not only invited to KNOW God; we are also told who God is.  He is the one who has made us.  God is our creator.  And we are His people – we belong to him and respond to the covenant-making God of promise and hope.  And we are the sheep of His pasture – he is our Good Shepherd, caring for us, tending us, and defending us.

That is the central question for each of us.  We can come to church, sing and pray, serve and give, and all the rest; but if we do not know the God who has made us, who leads us, and who shepherds us, we’ve missed it the meaning behind it all.

Do you know God?  It is THE central question to ask – and if so, the central reason to be thankful.

The Good News in the Bible is that God doesn’t leave us on our own to find and know Him.  Rather, He invites us to come to Him and meet Him face to face.  Look at the end of verse 2 and the beginning of verse 4 – one “ring” out from the center bull’s eye of knowing God.  The same word is translated two ways: COME and ENTER.  God bids us to come before Him – literally, before His face, not in fear or terror, but with joyful singing.  And God invites us to enter God’s gates and courts – His very presence – with thanksgiving and praise.

It’s that same message Jesus spoke to his disciples and so many he met: “Come and see; come and know; come and believe.”  And to do so leads us into God’s presence with joy, thanks, and praise.

Responding through Serving and Offering to God

It is natural then, if God has invited us into His presence so that we may know Him for who He is, that we would want to respond to God’s goodness in some way.  The next “ring” of the bull’s-eye is that of responding to God in service and offering.  Verse 2 says “SERVE the Lord with gladness.”  This is one of the Old Testament words for “worship” – an act or action given to the Lord, and in this case, with gladness!  And the second part of verse 4 has the corresponding challenge: “GIVE thanks to Him.”  And interestingly, this particular word for “giving thanks” specifically means “speak it out loud.”  We are to give thanks in a public way.

Having come to know God and having come near to Him with joy, thanks, and praise, we are challenged to serve and give to God.  This is our offering – our response – to the Good News and salvation of God.  It corresponds to Jesus’ own words.  After inviting those he met to “come and see,” he would challenge them with the words “follow me.”  That’s what this Psalm is saying – if you have come to know God as your creator, Father, and Shepherd, now give yourself to Him.  Give your thanks and give your life in service and worship.

Worshiping through Bearing Witness to God

The outermost “ring” of verses have to do with bearing witness to God: saying and demonstrating “this is God!.”  Verse one commands us to SHOUT joyfully to the Lord – we and all the earth.  The end of verse 4 has the command to BLESS God’s name.  Both of these words are about public (as well as private) declaration of God.  The first “shout” described a trumpet signal for an army, or in the context of worship, a loud shout to the Lord signaling all within hearing range that worship was about to begin.  For the whole earth to shout in this way is to signal to the whole world that God is Lord of Heaven and earth, and coming near.  One of our core values at Good Shepherd is “joyful worship” – and here it is commanded – shout with joy, for the Lord is near and worthy of worship and service.

When we bless God’s name, we are speaking God’s name and praises in such a way that we are clearly aligning ourselves with God – on God’s side.  It’s like a love-struck young man not only declaring his love in many beautiful ways, but naming the one he loves so all may know the one toward whom his love is directed.  “Blessing God’s name” is heart-felt and Spirit-filled worship – prayer, songs, and hearts full of adoration and praise, with clarity and outspokenness about the identity of the Lord we adore.

Verse 5 goes on to do just that – to “bless His name.”  It gives praise to God, first naming him as “the Lord.”  And here are the words of praise:

    The Lord is good;
    His lovingkindness is everlasting,
    And His faithfulness (is) to all generations.

Application: Who is God?

That concern with worship that is personal is the heart of Psalm 100, and indeed is the heart of Christian worship and of our worship here. It would be enough to declare God as God and to command all of the earth to worship and serve Him.  But this Psalm, God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, and our Christian testimony is that God has come near so that we might “see His face” (v. 2).  When Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, he wanted to see them face to face to finish telling them and teaching them about God, so they could know God and have “complete faith.” (1 Thess. 3:10)  We see God’s face in Jesus Christ and we are brought into God’s holy presence through faith in Christ.

Psalm 100 centers around the invitation to know God as Creator, covenant Lord, and Good Shepherd.  It concludes with more personal declaration of who God is – the Lord is good, eternally loving, and perpetually faithful.

There are a number of applications of this Psalm.  One is that a personal knowledge of and RELATIONSHIP with God must be at the center of Christian faith.  And God has invited us into that personal knowledge and relationship through trusting in his Son, Jesus Christ. In the next few weeks you will hear some personal stories from our congregation about different ways people have come to that personal knowledge and relationship with God. For me, it was as a child, through parents, church, and friends who, like Paul, pointed me toward Jesus to hear his invitation for myself.

Second, our personal knowledge of, relationship with, and experience of God should call forth an active response or OFFERING of obedience, service, and thankfulness. Said another say, it makes a tangible difference in our life!  And this response bears witness back to God.  It is not public for the sake of “showing off” – at least not showing ourselves off.  But it is public for the sake of showing forth God in Christ.

Third and related to that, our personal encounter with God through Jesus Christ not only produces a response of obedience and service in us, it also leads us to bearing WITNESS to God’s faithfulness in our worship and words. As the songwriter declares, “How can I keep from singing?” If God matters, our faith won’t be a secret.

None of this is new – in fact, it’s the basic flow of the Christian life, demonstrated most tangibly by our participation in and response to Sunday worship.  Like Psalm 100, we come to Sunday worship to be drawn into the heart of God – the encounter of God through faith in Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit.  We respond with offerings and thanks and go forth with the Word of Christ on our lips and lives.

That’s why we fling open the doors and desire to bring people in.  That’s why we send you forth with God’s blessing and the Holy Spirit’s boldness.  May God give you boldness, motivation, and JOY this week as you serve Him.  Amen.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Consecration and Devotion (Acts 2.42-47, Proverbs 3.5-10)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; November 13, 2016
Text: Acts 2:42-47; Proverbs 3:5-10

:: 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 ::
Song of Praise: God of Wonders (Mac Byrd, Steve Hidalong)
Song of Praise: Jesus, All for Jesus (Atkinson, Robin MArk)
Hymn of Sending: Take My Life and Let it Be (HENDON)

:: 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.

Last week I talked about worship and we looked at how the Bible defines all of life as worship. That included serving, obeying, yielding, and loving God with all we have and all we are. This week we are going to zero in a bit more on that all-out love of God by looking at the devotion of the followers of Jesus Christ in the earliest days of the church. We will again see that love and worship of God is not a one-hour a week activity on Sunday, but an all-out, every day, every way kind of thing. I drew the comparison last week between worship and marriage. Just as loving one’s spouse is not limited to a date or special moment, worship is meant to be day in, day out, for better, for worse, in sickness, in health, and with everything we’ve got. Let’s look together at Acts 2:42 and following.

Continually Devoting Themselves (Acts 2:42)

Acts 2:42 tells us that the early believers were continually devoting themselves.  Their faith didn’t stop after they met Jesus or after the supernatural experience of Pentecost; it continued to grow in faithfulness, obedience, and commitment. There are four specific “core exercises” listed here that expressed and strengthened that devotion and commitment.

1.    GOD’S WORD: They were continually devoting themselves to God’s Word – the scriptures and Apostles’ teaching which became our New Testament. Reading, hearing, pondering, studying, listening, responding… this is what it means to devote yourself to God’s Word. How can you know what God has done, what God is like, and what God wants without it?

2.    FELLOWSHIP: They were continually devoting themselves to fellowship, less about eating together than about being church family to one another, with all that implies. This is one of the great blessings of being a part of a church. Is the family of faith important to you? Do you intentionally gather with that family and look out for that family? Like earthly family, those relationships can be neglected or they can be cultivated, and they are so important!

3.    COMMUNION: They were continually devoting themselves to the breaking of the bread, including eating together, but more importantly sharing communion together with its remembrance of, celebration of, and hope in Jesus’ saving death. Jesus is at the center of it all. We are more than a club or service organization. The news that God loved the world, pursued us in love, and redeems and reconciles us through Jesus is at the heart of what we do. Continual devotion is one reason we celebrate communion regularly (as well as worship weekly); we want to remember, retell, receive, and respond to that Good News message regularly: not once long ago, but regularly and freshly.

4.    PRAYER: And they were continually devoting themselves to prayer, communicating with God in praise, thanksgiving, intercession, and confession. I confess that I do not pray as regularly as I would like. At its heart, it is talking to and listening to God. Again like marriage, if I don’t talk to and listen to Heather, my marriage will suffer; so it is with my relationship with God. How can you and I cultivate continual devotion through prayer?

To those “core exercises” that strengthen our devotion, commitment, and relationship with God, I want to add another from the Old Testament. It is the practice of “first fruits.”

First Fruits (Proverbs 3:5-10 and Deuteronomy 26:1-2)

Exercises and practices to strengthen one’s devotion and commitment to God were not new in the New Testament. In fact, many of God’s commandments and teachings in the Old Testament were for that same purpose. One of those that I want to highlight is the practice of “first fruits.” It is the practice of offering God the first and the best of what we have rather than the leftovers (or nothing at all). Proverbs links it with wisdom, right choices, and earthly blessing:

5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. 6 In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight. 7 Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and turn away from evil. 8 It will be healing to your body and refreshment to your bones. 9 Honor the Lord from your wealth and from the first of all your produce; 10 So your barns will be filled with plenty and your vats will overflow with new wine. (Proverbs 3:5-10)

That is not a prosperity theology, but practical advice. Good financial advisors will tell you to prioritize your spending and saving. If you truly want to save, take it off the top. It rarely will happen if it’s left to the end. So it is with giving to God. It’s hard, and that up-front commitment will often force you to re-prioritize other spending. But that’s part of the point. I’ve learned that with exercise as well. If I commit to a time for it, especially first thing, and then let my calendar fill up, it will happen and my body will experience the natural consequence of the healthy commitment. Same with time with my family.

First fruits is about two things: PRIORITY and COMMITMENT. If something is important, we have to put it first. For it not to be pushed to the side, it has to be an intentional commitment.

Deuteronomy 26:1-2 reminds us of what we heard last week: that the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it. When God’s people came into the Promised Land, they were reminded that it – like everything else – comes from God. And they were challenged to make a first fruits offering to establish that pattern of priority and commitment.

I can share multiple examples in my own life – with money, with relationships, with health and exercise, and with God – where I have made a first fruit commitment and where I have not. It’s not an easy thing, but the difference it makes is unmistakable. A little bit later in the service, Todd Pearce is going to share some similar examples around this theme from his own life.

Exercise and Commitment Yields Results (Acts 2:43-47)

Acts 2 goes on to describe some of the things that God did out of the devotion and commitment of the early Christians.

For one, they experienced the POWER and PRESENCE of God. They felt a sense of awe (v. 43) and they witnessed signs and wonders. I think that so often we want to turn that around: I want to have the powerful experience of God, or the Hollywood romantic experience, or the endorphin rush of health, and THEN I think that will motivate my commitments and priorities. But reality and experience seems to be the opposite (sorry, Hollywood!): commitment, habit, practice, and priority lead us closer to the things or people we prioritize. Want to experience God? Then put God first; test that out; see for yourself.

In vv. 44-45, we read of their GENEROSITY, an almost unbelievable sharing of property and possessions. That scares us – sounds like socialism. But this was voluntary, neither required by government or cult leader; they took care of the needs in their fellowship and their community. Our Deacon’s Timothy Fund is not unlike that. Part of your giving to the church goes into that fund that is used exclusively for church and community crisis needs. It is a sharing of resources, led by God’s Spirit. We’ve done some amazing things with it on a small scale. I sometimes wonder what it might look like if God really got a hold of us!

And in vv. 46-47 we see that their DEVOTION CONTINUED. Even as God showed up and did extraordinary things, they did not sit back, but kept on with the core exercises of worship, study, communion, fellowship, community, and first fruits. And God grew and multiplied them – not for their sake, but for His own Name.

Looking Ahead

As we look ahead to 2017, there is much that I believe God would do through this church. I challenge you to step up and step out in faith. Embrace these core exercises of devotion and commitment. Embrace the practice of “first fruits” even for a time and see how God changes you and uses you. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed; I think you’ll be amazed… in awe! This week Shannon Klar will be sending a letter out to our members asking you to make an intentional financial commitment of first fruits. Please consider that thoughtfully. I will continue to ask you to join me in figuring out where God is leading us: I suspect it will increasingly be out into our community, across racial lines, into the spiritual and economic need of those to whom Jesus has asked us to consider our neighbors. I believe God has brought you and me together in this special place, this special church, for an extraordinary reason, because He is an extraordinary God. Join me; step up; step out! Amen!

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Cultivating Worship (Genesis 2, Exodus 20, Joshua 22,24)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; November 6, 2016
Text: Genesis 2:15-17; Exodus 20:1-6; Joshua 22:1-6; 24:15

:: 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 ::
Call to Worship: The Earth is the Lord's (Ps. 24) (Nygard)
Hymn of Praise: This is My Father's World (TERRA BEATA)
Song of Praise: We Give Thee But Thine Own/We Give Thee (SCHUMANN; arr. and refrain Austell)
Offering of Music:Oh, How He Loves You and Me (Gwen Ingram, soloist; Rick Bean, piano; Crouch)
Hymn of Sending: These Hands (Deyo)
Postlude: 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.

Wow, there is a lot going on today! We could celebrate All-Saints on the first Sunday after Nov. 1. We are celebrating the Lord’s Supper. We are coming up to Election Day on Tuesday, with all that surrounds that. We have this musical, our single biggest outreach of the year coming up. And we are coming into our stewardship season, when we traditionally talk about giving – tithing, pledging, time, talents. What to preach, what to preach?

I originally chose the text today as a stewardship text, but it goes far deeper than that. It goes all the way to the heart of worship and to why we are on this earth and to how and why God created us. In doing so, I think these texts will not just speak to how we view money and other resources, but speak to how we understand ourselves period. And my hope is that these texts will speak, in that sense, to some of those other issues and the context in which we live on November 6, 2016.

I want to talk about worship. And while that may seem like a churchy side-issue with all that is going on in the world, I would hold out to you that worship, which is how we relate to God, is at the very center of all we do as human beings and particularly as those who trust and follow God through Jesus Christ. Said another way, God’s Word says that worship (or not worshipping) is the core issue for every human; and as professing people of faith, what God says about worship must be central and of highest importance.

It may help to tell you that by worship I don’t mean the narrow activity of Sunday morning at 11:00, though that is a specific example of worship. No, I mean the rich and all-encompassing understanding that begins in Creation, expands throughout biblical history, and is perfectly completed in eternity (cf. Revelation). And it intersects every aspect of our lives; in fact, it is the reason for our lives.

I want to walk you through three biblical texts that help unpack what worship is and means and then end with a challenge.

Created to Worship (Genesis 2)

We’ll begin in Genesis 2. After God made the heavens and the earth and the first human beings, do you know what he did next? He put Adam to work! The Garden of Eden wasn’t laying around in hammocks sipping nectar and listening to the birds sing. Work is part of creation! And Adam’s work is described there in verse 15:

The Lord God took the man and put him into the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.

Realize that this is the Creation story. Everything is important here! What was the relation of the Garden to Adam and what was his role? It’s where he lived; it’s where he worked; he ate the produce of the ground. But was it Adam’s garden? No – clearly, this was God’s garden, entrusted to Adam for care. This verse is the heart of biblical stewardship. For though much time has passed and we no longer live in paradise, the earth is the Lord’s and all it contains (Ps. 24). Though we built or paid for our homes and the land they are on, are they not the Lord’s? Though we work and produce goods and services, are they not the Lord’s?

What Adam was doing in the Garden was tending the ground; but in doing so, he was rendering an act of service to God. Serving God is at the heart of worshiping God. And Adam’s work in the Garden was really worship in the Garden, because it served God’s will and purpose in the young world. In fact, the word translated here as ‘cultivate’ is most often translated ‘serve’ in the Bible. It is the act of actively doing God’s will; and that is one essential kind of worship. Closely connected to that is the word translated ‘keep.’ It also has the sense and is translated as ‘obey’ as in “keep the rules.” And that’s just what Adam was doing (until he didn’t!); the one rule at that point was “don’t eat from a certain Tree.”

By serving God’s will and obeying God’s Word, Adam worshiped God in the Garden. It’s what Adam was created to do and it’s what we are created to do. When we serve God’s will and obey God’s Word, we worship God and fulfil our creation purpose!

Commanded to Worship (Exodus 20)

As you know, Adam and Eve fell short. They did the opposite of worship because they disobeyed God’s Word and they grasped after what belonged to God to have it for themselves. And so they were expelled from the Garden. But the opportunity to worship God did not go away. In fact, as God communicated with His people, He made worship the cornerstone of the Law, what was commanded and expected from God’s people. Let’s turn to Exodus 20 and the Ten Commandments and we will see this.

In the first two commandments, God identifies Himself as the starting point upon which the commandments rest: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” And then first are the worship commandments and prohibitions: “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol…” And then verses 5-6 detail and define worship:

You shall not worship them [idols, false gods] or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love me and keep my commandments.”

The two worship principles from Genesis show up again here as ‘serve’ and ‘keep (my commandments).’ So doing God’s will and obeying God’s Word are still front and center. But the definition of worship has been expanded to include two other principles, found in the words ‘worship’ and ‘love.’ Here, ‘worship’ literally means “bow down” or “yield one’s will” and ‘love’ will soon be defined as everything we’ve got: heart, soul, and strength. (cf. Deuteronomy 5) The Ten Commandments go on to prohibit the same kinds of anti-worship we already saw in the Garden: grasping after what belongs to God and what belongs to others (life, property, etc…).

So not only are we created to worship, but we are also commanded to worship – through yielding our will, serving God’s will, obeying God’s Word, and loving God with all we are and all we’ve got!

Choosing to Worship (Joshua 22, 24)

The third text I chose for today is Joshua 22 and 24. Here, only a generation or two after Moses and receiving the Ten Commandments, Joshua is in the Promised Land with God’s people. And in ch. 22 Joshua praises the people for their faithfulness and obedience… for their worship. Look at all the places worship shows up! I have changed the word ‘kept’ to ‘obeyed’ so you’ll more easily see the Genesis worship word in the text.

You have OBEYED all that Moses the SERVANT of the Lord commanded you, and have listened to my voice in all that I commanded you. 3 You have not forsaken your brothers these many days to this day, but have OBEYED the charge of the commandment of the Lord your God. 4 “And now the Lord your God has given rest to your brothers, as He spoke to them; therefore turn now and go to your tents, to the land of your possession, which Moses the SERVANT of the Lord gave you beyond the Jordan. 5 “Only be very careful to OBEY the commandment and the law which Moses the SERVANT of the Lord commanded you, to LOVE the Lord your God and walk in all His ways and OBEY His commandments and hold fast to Him and SERVE Him with all your heart and with all your soul.” 6 So Joshua blessed them and sent them away, and they went to their tents. (vv. 1-6)

Joshua was praising the Israelites and highlighting for them the great importance and blessing of living lives of worship before God. Indeed, God was now entrusting the Promised Land to them – in many ways a “second Eden” and second chance at stewardship. They were to serve, obey, and love God through their care of this land-blessing. Only two chapters later, everything comes to a head. It turns out that many of the Israelites have brought along or picked up foreign idols and are worshiping and serving them. They had grasped at what God had said was out of bounds to them, repeating Adam and Eve’s sin. So Joshua stands up before the people and makes his famous declaration:

If it is disagreeable in your sight to SERVE the Lord, choose for yourselves today whom you will SERVE: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will SERVE the Lord. (Joshua 24:15)

SERVE: that’s the ‘cultivate’ word. And Joshua issued it as a challenge to God’s people, blessed as they were in the Promised Land. Serving, obeying, loving, yielding to God’s will and Word remain our purpose, commandment, and invitation today… to cultivate worship in our lives.

A Challenge for Today

So that’s your challenge: to cultivate worship in every aspect of life. Anti-worship grasps after what belongs to God and what belongs to others. Worship asks:
  • How will I serve God’s will today, in this community, with money, with time, with choices I make?
  • How will I obey God’s Word in my life, my relationships, my priorities, my community?
  • How will I yield what I want to what God wants?
  • How will I love God with all I am and all I’ve got? (and love others as myself)
It’s big, I know. It’s so much more than what we do in here for an hour on Sunday morning. In many ways this is rehearsal for everything else out there! And God asks a lot, more than a lot! It’s everything. But that’s why we are here; that’s our purpose and we either turn towards it or away from it.

As you may have realized, our understanding of worship broadens as we move through the Bible. One of the other aspects of worship that I didn’t touch on this morning is that God made us to worship Him TOGETHER, as a community, as a family of faith. And that’s what the Church is – a family of faith together. So, it’s a big purpose, a big commandment, a big choice; but it’s not one you have to do alone. That’s what God has brought us together in this place for – let us choose together this day whom we will serve. I want to serve the Lord! Amen.