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Sunday, January 31, 2016

Loss and Anger (Psalm 137, Matthew 27.46)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; January 31, 2016
Text: Psalm 137; Matthew 27:46

:: 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: Mighty to Save (Reuben Morgan)
Hymn of Praise: How Long Will You Forget Me, Lord (MARTYRDOM)
The Word in Music: On the Willows (Schwartz, from Godspell)
Assurance of Grace and Praise: Amazing Love/I'm Forgiven (Foote)
Offering of Music: My Song in the Night, Rick Bean, piano (arr. Wilberg)
Song of Sending: How Deep the Father's Love for Us (Townend)
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 we are going to look at what may seem like a strange combination: loss and anger. What I should say up front is that neither this sermon or text says all that could be said about either topic. Significant loss does not always lead to anger. And all anger does not stem from significant loss. But I do hope that what we look at and what scripture teaches can have wider bearing on what are two of the really significant points of struggle in the human experience.

I have delayed the special music today because I wanted to include it in the sermon itself. It is by Stephen Schwartz, who you may be more familiar with as the writer of the lyrics and music to the Broadway musical, Wicked. In this song, written in the 70s for the musical, Godspell, he has an almost word-for-word adaptation of our text for today, Psalm 137. In that Psalm, the people of God are in the Babylonian Exile, defeated and taken from their homes and land. And the scene in the Psalm depicts the Babylonians asking them to sing songs from home in order to mock them. Played on a modern ‘lyre,’ listen to this song as if it is being demanded by the singers’ enemies and captors. Listen as they wrestle, not only with the mocking demand to sing a “Song of Zion,” but also with all the loss of having Zion (Jerusalem) taken away from them.  [audio link]
On the willows there
We hung up our lyres
For our captors there
Required of us songs
And our tormentors mirth

Sing us one of the songs of Zion
But how can we sing,
Sing the Lord’s songs,
In a foreign land?

On the willows there
We hung up our lyres…
We have talked before about what the Exile meant to the people of Israel. They had been promised land and children and blessing since God’s original covenant with Abraham. It took generations, slavery in Egypt, delivery through the Red Sea, wandering in the wilderness, and battling through to the Promised Land to finally reach home. And then in a matter of generations, under the leadership of increasingly godless kings, it was all lost as foreign empires came in and crushed them. The many prophets in the Old Testament were writing to God’s people in Exile. Many Psalms, including this one were written in or about the Exile. And, to me, this one is one of the most heart-wrenching and poignant… not only describing the horrible loss and setting of exile in Babylon, but being asked to sing one of the “Songs of Zion” – likely one of the older Psalms that spoke of Zion (Jerusalem) as the evidence of God’s pleasure and blessing with His people. And it’s not just the immense sadness of singing, but the mocking demand of the captors to sing one of the songs about God’s goodness and blessing and land, when those things all were seemingly gone.

And yet, the weeping captives say in verses 4-6, “How can we not sing?” To forget Jerusalem and to forget God’s promise would be an even greater loss. They pronounce a kind of self-curse upon themselves… “If we can’t and won’t sing these songs, may we never sing anything again.” I am struck by the balance of grief and faith in that. It would be easy, upon losing so much, to “curse God and die.” But even in the depth of loss, sorrow, and grief beyond their control, they rightly recognize that to abandon hope in God (which is within their control). So they weep, they grieve, they cry out – all healthy expressions in the face of loss.

An alternative to the “curse God and die” response to loss is anger. And that is seemingly what happened next.


I will confess that I am very uncomfortable with verses 7-9. I’ve always avoided them – even dwelling on them, much less preaching them. But I think they are vitally important, especially if you struggle with or experience intense anger. As I said before, this Psalm and its context do not describe every situation. In this case, anger seems somewhat justified, even at the same time that the intensity and degree of anger is shocking to us. Biblical scholars believe that the contents of this prayer are not just an emotional outburst, but an expression of lex talionis, otherwise known as “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” The Israelite’s homes and city had been razed to the ground… it was in the practice of the nations of that day to kill the children of their enemies. What they are praying for here is as much for justice as for revenge.

But these are also the people of God, whose law commands:

“You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:17-18)

True enough, that law has to do with fellow Israelites, but God’s Law marked a distinct move away from the “eye for an eye” approach of the surrounding nations. Said another way, here’s what I see happening in these verses. People who have endured unimaginable loss, yet clung to faith, are now longing for justice. But rather than ACTING out vengeance, they are praying to God for justice: “God, here’s what I want; here’s what would be just.” But that anger… that vengeance… that longing for restoration… is left in God’s hands.

I can imagine the alternative, holding on to the hurt and nursing the grievance until an opportunity for vengeance arises. Or, it never does, and the anger eats us alive. Did you ever imagine or know that the Bible, the Psalms, had such language… for the most intense loss and anger in the human experience? And yet even then, this Psalm holds out to us two critical and healthy examples: 1) cling to faith; you may not have chosen the loss, but you have a choice to turn from God or not; 2) pour out your intense emotion – even anger – to God; or better, name it specifically, and release it to God.

There may not be a quick solution for you, but both actions are infinitely healthier and more healing than the alternative – death and vengeance.

One Who Knows Us and Is Us

Finally, I’d like to make a connection to this Psalm that may not seem at all apparent. And that is to Jesus. Most folks know the explanation of what happened on the cross, that Jesus took the sin of the world onto himself. But what does that mean? For one, it means that he represented us on the cross – in all our fallen, sinful, lost, and grieving state. His last recorded words were “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Interestingly, that’s the opening verse to Psalm 22 – you should go read THAT sometime, with Jesus in mind. He felt the full weight of what humanity had lost in their rebellion and alienation from God.  There is no loss you or I have or will experience that Jesus cannot meet us in, because he has carried it all.

Do not curse God and die; Jesus has already died with our loss on his shoulders and it is possible to cling to God in the midst of sorrow, grief, and loss.

Do not nurse anger and vengeance; trust that God’s justice and grace and power can do more with those prayers, redemptively so, than anything your anger can produce.

Most of all – don’t forget God – He doesn’t ask you to hide any part of life, high, low, rocky, or ragged. God meets us in those places through Jesus Christ, who has lived, suffered, died, and lived for our sake. Amen.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Silence of God (Waiting) (Psalm 143, 130)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; January 24, 2016
Text: Psalm 143; 130

:: 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: Everlasting God (Brenton Brown)
Hymn of Praise: Be Still My Soul (FINLANDIA, arr. Vanderheide)
The Word in Music: The Silence of God (Andrew Peterson; feat. Katie Meeks)
Offering of Music: Near to the Heart of God (arr. don Phillips; Linda Jenkins, organ)
Song of Sending: It is Well with My Soul (VILLA DU HAVRE)
Postlude: Diapason Dialogue (Gordon Young; 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.

This morning we continue in our series that asks “Where is God in the dark seasons of the soul?” Today we are going to talk about those times when God is ‘silent’ – when we feel cut off and feel like God isn’t listening and isn’t acting. We are going to look at two Psalms (130, 143) at two different approaches to that silence. Both are honest and realistic, though each has a little bit different tone. But in both cases, I want to lift up some healthy and helpful approaches to that waiting.

Psalm 143 is like a road map to healthy, honest struggle with God. I want to break it into three distinct parts, then we’ll briefly look at Psalm 130 for a visual picture of this approach to God’s silence.

Are You There God? It’s Me (vv. 1-2)

Psalm 143 begins with a plea – “Hear my prayer… listen to me… answer me!” Right from the start you get the feeling that this Psalm is one of those prayers where you are desperate to get through. Maybe it’s the tenth time you’ve prayed it. Or maybe your faith is wavering. Or maybe your words seem to not rise above the ceiling. Is God listening? Do your prayers matter? PLEASE God, will you hear me?

And yet also right off the bat – and this will set the tone for the whole prayer that is Psalm 143 – there is a respect and humility. After such a bold start the one praying acknowledges unworthiness to so boldly approach the throne: “Do not enter into judgment with your servant, for in your sight no man living is righteous.” (v. 2)

One of the healthiest things we can do is pray HONESTLY, but also HUMBLY. God is not a genie or a cosmic butler to make demands of or issue orders to. Also right off the bat we see that these pleas to be heard are framed in who God is – faithful and righteous (v. 1). We will see all those things repeated and fleshed out as the prayer continues. The Psalmist prays honestly about the situation and the need, frames those prayers in humility as a limited human being coming before an unlimited good and faithful God.

These first two verses serve as a kind of preface to the rest of the prayer, which will elaborate on and expand what was briefly stated up front: hear me and help me, for you are God and I am not!

Naming the Problem (vv. 3-4)

It is important to pray specifically. In verses 3-4, the Psalmist names the problem: “The enemy has persecuted my soul… crushed my life to the ground.” What follows sounds like a description of depression, dwelling in “dark places, like those long dead” and “my spirit is overwhelmed… my heart appalled.”

Sometimes, we are so at the end of our rope, we are out of words or can just gasp out, “Help me, God!” But when you can, one thing that keeps the lines of communication open is to name your struggle, your fear, your problem. Be specific; it’s not that God doesn’t know the details, but it helps us open up to God’s help in a healthy way. Consider the difference, when someone asks you how you are doing, between saying, “Fine” and taking time to let them peek behind the curtain. It takes trust and relationship, to be sure; but where that can happen, it opens you up to help and hope. So it is with God. Our prayers (or lack of prayers) can amount to a “God is good and I’m fine. Amen.” Or, you can really pour yourself out to God. And if there is anyone to trust, is it not God?

Remember, REMEMBER! (vv. 5-6)

I also noted the importance of relationship. And what the Psalmist does next is something we’ve mentioned before. He remembers God’s character and works – how he has known God’s presence in the past. And doesn’t that make sense if God seems distant or absent now? – That remembering when God seemed close and present would be helpful?

So the Psalmist remembers and meditates and muses (vv. 5-6). That remembering is itself a kind of “stretching out my hands” to God. (v. 6) I can’t overstress the importance and helpfulness for the Christian of taking time to remember and think about God’s past presence and faithfulness when you are feeling disconnected. It’s a reminder that God is both faithful and real!

Humble Appeal, Expanded (vv. 7-12)

The rest of the prayer is an extended petition – asking God specifically, pointedly, and honestly for help. But also notice that what could sound like a list of demands (“answer me… don’t hide… let me hear”) becomes something else because each appeal or petition is paired with some reason for the prayer, either rooted in help or change for the one praying (“my spirit is failing”) or in God’s character (“in your righteousness”). Let me list them out:

ANSWER ME                              my spirit fails
DO NOT HIDE                            lest I go to the pit
LET ME HEAR                           I trust you
TEACH ME                                 to you I lift up my soul
DELIVER ME                             I take refuge in you
TEACH ME                                 you are my God
LEAD ME                                    …
    for the sake of your name      REVIVE ME
    in your righteousness             [RESCUE – ‘bring out’] MY SOUL
    in your lovingkindness           CUT OFF MY ENEMIES
DESTROY AFFLICTORS              I am your servant

What is all that? It is an expanded version of what we saw at the beginning: “Hear me and help me! You are God; I am not!”

Wait How? (a picture from Psalm 130)

So what do we take from all that? What can we do when God is silent or seems far away, when we feel like we are in a spiritual holding pattern waiting and waiting?

First, these elements of Psalm 143 are not a recipe for making God speak. There is no magic way to pray that makes it ‘work’ or ‘not work’ – what I am lifting up to you are important components of healthy prayer. In them are ordinary means of cultivating faith and relationship, which is the context when we do experience God’s presence and power. Those elements are:

1) speaking/praying to God with honesty, but also with humility;
2) making your needs and wants known specifically;
3) remembering who God is and what He has done.

You’ll see these elements in Psalm 130 as well. It begins with an honest appeal: “Out of the depths I have cried to You, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” It does so in humility, naming God’s holiness and human iniquity, but also recognizing and remembering God’s merciful forgiveness (v. 4), loving kindness (v. 7), and abundant redemption (v. 7).

But what I want to end on is a wonderful picture from Psalm 130. And though it is somewhat removed from our experience, it still frames for us what spiritually healthy waiting is supposed to look like. It’s in verses 5-6. Our waiting is not impatient and demanding, but is hopeful and expectant, like the watchmen waiting for the morning. Most of us have not served as watchmen, in a modern or ancient setting, but you get the picture well enough, right? The watchman must endure the night watch and all the fears and dangers inherent in it. But that same watchman waits for morning with hopeful expectation of its arrival. Sunrise is not something greeted in bitterness, but in celebration. And every so often, the watchman might look to the horizon to see if there are yet pale streaks of dawn about to come.

Those of us who are waiting on God in some time or place in our life find ourselves in a similar situation. You may yet be in the night watches. What does it mean for you to wait for God? It means trusting that God will arrive, just as surely as the sun will rise. It will not be night forever. The silence will not last forever. The darkness will not endure forever. And in the meantime, pour out your soul to God. Be specific and don’t be afraid to repeat yourself! And remember God’s faithfulnesses before. That’s the other wonderful thing about the picture of the watchmen. They faced night and dark and danger again and again; but they can wait hopefully for the sun to rise because they have seen it rise before time and time again.

So with Israel, the Psalmist can say to you and to me with all confidence: “Hope in the Lord”… even in the silence. Amen.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Discouragement and Despair (Psalm 42-43)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; January 17, 2016
Text: Psalm 42-43

:: 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: My Hope is Built on Nothing Less (SOLID ROCK)
Song of Praise: As the Deer (Nystrom)
Song of Praise: All Who are Thirsty (Brown, Robertson)
Offering of Music: Cry No More (Forrest)
Song of Sending: My Soul Longs for the Lord (Getty, Kendrick)
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 we continue in our series, “Dark Season of the Soul: Where is God?” We have looked at the loss of strength and hope. We have looked at fear, which so often can turn to anxiety. Today we look at discouragement, which so often can turn to despair.

Our text today is Psalm 42 and 43, which many scholars think are two halves of one Psalm.  I will treat them as one and think when you look at them with me you’ll see why.  This is no upbeat call to constant praise and celebration.  This is a Psalm full of sorrow and struggle, yet it does look to God for help.

The perspective of the Psalm writer is that of one captured in battle and taken away from home and family.  Along with the very tangible implications of that capture are also some serious spiritual implications.  Why did God let this happen?  Where is God now?  Why does God seem so far away? 

Many of you can relate to these questions.  You may have lost something or someone and be asking some of these same questions of God.  Or as you face the future and all its challenges and uncertainty, these questions also can arise.  Why did you let this happen?  What am I supposed to do now?  Will I ever get through this?  And where are you, God?

This is one of the most REAL Psalms I know of.  It doesn’t hold back or cover up the real struggles of the one who wrote it.  Because of that, I think it can be encouraging to us, not because it gives simplistic answers but because we can realize that we are not alone in our situation or feelings.  And it is okay to express those feelings out loud and before God.  Turn with me to Psalm 42 and let’s walk through this text together.

Things Have Changed (42:4)

Psalm 42 begins with a verse that may be familiar to you, “As the deer pants for the water… so my soul pants for you.” (v. 1)  For some reason, I always pictured that deer standing at the water.  It has been thirsty, but now it’s about to drink.  But that’s not the image at all.  The Psalmist (and the deer) are still far from water.  That’s why the spiritual throat is parched.  The Psalmist cries out, “When shall I come and appear before God?” (v. 2)  God seems far away and there seems no soon-coming satisfaction for a parched soul.

The imagery just gets stronger from there:

My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” (v. 3)

Rather than God’s presence being food and drink for the soul, the Psalmist is overwhelmed by sorrow from within and questions from without.  While we may think we see some of the reason for the sorrow in the situation of captivity, it is the next verse that really tells us what has happened:

These things I remember and I pour out my soul within me.  For I used to go along with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God, with the voice of joy and thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival. (v. 4)

It is only in reading verse 4 that we see how much things have changed.  At one time the Psalmist was so close to God, joyful and full of the Spirit as he led in the worship procession.  Now, captive and far from home, with captors teasing and taunting and with tears for food, God’s absence is all the more keenly felt.

Have you ever been where this Psalmist was?  Have you ever felt like God was nowhere to be found and your tears were your only food and drink?  Have you heard that question so clearly, whether from others or in the hidden privacy of your own thoughts, “Where is God now?”

Things have changed so much.  Surely this sounds familiar to those who have lost loved ones, for whom life at the deep level and on the everyday level is just so different now.  These verses must sound familiar to those who once felt close to God, whether in youth group or in another stage of life, and for whom God now seems distant or doubtful.  Those who have been through divorce or who are really struggling in marriage might know what this Psalmist is talking about.  Things have changed and aren’t as they once were; and while that describes earthly things and relationships it almost always also impacts our experience of God.

I have felt this Psalm 42 kind of thing most keenly right after I graduated from college.  Like the Psalmist, in college (and high school) I led the procession of the faithful to worship God.  I was involved in church, Bible study, small groups, retreats, mission trips… I was surrounded by a supportive Christian community and had many dear friends to share in faith and worship.  When I graduated from college and moved to Nashville, I was following a dream of pursuing music writing and publishing, yet I quickly found myself alone and feeling far from God.  A friend from college lived with me for the summer, but then he moved back for his senior year and I felt truly alone.  Things had changed so much!  I wasn’t sick, hadn’t lost anyone to death, and was in fact doing one of the things I loved most.  But, things had changed so much and God no longer seemed real or near to me.  I remember, in fact, thinking about this Psalm, mainly because I knew the song, “As the Deer.”  I remember thinking about the deer panting for the water and thinking that God seemed so distant and unreal that I didn’t even feel thirsty.  It would be a spiritual step just to get to where I thirsted for God’s presence again.  It just didn’t matter to me anymore, but I knew enough to know that it should.

Soul Conversation: At this point the Psalmist has the first of three of what I would call “soul conversations.”  By that I mean that he has a little talk with his soul.  He says:

Why are you in despair, O my soul?  And why have you become disturbed within me?  Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him for the help of His presence.  (v. 5)

I remember having that chat with myself.  I remember thinking, “What’s wrong with me?  God used to seem so real.  What will it take to get that back or to feel God in my life again?”

You may have experienced this as talking to yourself or simply as a knot deep within that defies words and untangling.  In this case, the Psalmist surely hadn’t figured it all out. 

He wasn’t feeling suddenly better or more holy.  In fact, if my experience is any indication, these words simply marked his realization that something was very wrong and perhaps only God could make it right.  If you have lost someone or something, and it feels like your faith went along with it, listen carefully, for the writer of this Psalm knows what you feel like.

The Psalmist will return to this “soul conversation” two more times, like the refrain of a song.  Each time, the words take on more weight, as his thoughts develop.  As if the memory of that procession to the house of the Lord takes hold, the Psalmist now consciously decides to remember more about God and what God has done in his life.

Remember What God Did (42:6)

The first memory of God in this Psalm was in terms of what was lost: “I remember leading in the Assembly… and now that’s gone.”  But in verse 6, the Psalmist remembers in a different way. The change in focus from the self-focus of v. 4 to God-focus here in v. 6 is noticeable as well:

O my God, my soul is in despair within me; therefore, I remember you from the land of the Jordan and the peaks of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. (v. 6)

It is as if the Psalmist, disconnected from God, chooses to try to remember that previous time, when God seemed near.  The Psalmist does not dismiss the despair, minimize it, or hide it from God, but out of it CHOOSES to remember what God did.

And listen to what comes next.  It is very powerful and a bit mysterious. 

Deep calls to deep at the sound of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have rolled over me.  (v. 7)

What is being described is God “talking” to us.  Whether he can yet hear it, the Psalmist remembers God’s ways and the sometimes subtle way God has of communicating with us. It also marks a move from the past (what God did) to the present of what God is doing (“deep calls to deep”). That itself marks a significant shift of perspective.

In my life I have had two dreams that I think have come from God.  One of them came nearly two years after I moved to Nashville, after about 20 months of this isolated, lonely, and spiritually dry time.  I didn’t even want to want God, yet I knew that I needed to.  The few times I prayed, it was, “God, help me want to want you in my life.”  That’s how distant and removed God seemed.  I did finally make myself start going to church, mainly to be around the people of God.  I think that was part of me remembering what God had done before, even if these were new people and I felt like I had “lost” the old college friends.  I kept hoping that some sermon or conversation or realization would open everything back up, and it just never happened.  Then I had a dream. 

In that dream I was visiting a large mansion with a huge grassy lawn all around.  One of the musicians from the church I was attending came out… it seemed like his house.  And he came out and hugged me and invited me to run and play in the yard.  If I could have scripted the dream, I would have made him Aslan, but I think he probably played the same role.  And I wept tears of release and joy.  I hadn’t cried once in the two years I had been there, and not much before that.  Something opened up in me during that dream – something deep within me.  The best description I have of that is in verse 7… “deep calls to deep.”  I believe God answered my prayers and communicated with me in the way I needed it.  I had probably created enough walls and barriers that no sermon or song or thought could have done it.  But God’s ways are far deeper than our ways.

It was not an instant turnaround, but it was the significant spiritual turning point in that very dry and lonely time in my life.  It opened me back up to conversation and relationship with God.  That’s what seemingly happened with the Psalmist as well.  He turns from choosing to remember to believing that God will act to planning to talk God in earnest (note the use of the forward-focused “will”):

The Lord will command His lovingkindness in the daytime; and His song will be with me in the night, a prayer to the God of my life. I will say to God my rock, “Why have you forgotten me?  Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?”  (vv. 8-9)

Soul Conversation: Again, the Psalmist has a conversation with his soul.  This time, the refrain takes on different meaning…

Why are you in despair, O my soul?  And why have you become disturbed within me?  Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God. (v. 11)

He has taken steps to hope in God: he has chosen to remember God’s previous works in His life.  In doing so, he opens himself up to communication and relationship with God.  This is valuable counsel for us when we have lost much, when things have changed.  Of course we remember how things used to be; but consider God’s faithfulness and constancy previously in our life.  God does not change; God is still faithful and compassionate.  Invite God to reach out to you deep down – where sometimes God communicates without words.  You may find yourself pouring out your sorrow and even anger to God, but that is also a new beginning to conversation and to relationship with God.

Prayer: Honest Conversation with God (43:1-4)

Look at Psalm 43 at what happens next.  It begins as a prayer, concluding with the same refrain that was used twice in Psalm 42.  It is as if that memory that led to remembering and an intent to converse with God has now taken root: the conversation begins as direct prayer. 

I know from experience what it feels like to not be able to pray.  I also know that when we once again are able to, whatever the content or attitude of our prayer, that communication is important in our experience of God.  Listen to the Psalmist’s prayer.  It is not pretty or nice or gentle.  He holds nothing back, but that is exactly the point.  If we don’t or can’t or won’t pray, we are holding everything back from God.  When we pray, God scoops up our words, our concerns, and our lives.

Vindicate me, O God, and plead my case against an ungodly nation; O deliver me from the deceitful and unjust man!  For you are the God of my strength; why have you rejected me?  Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?  O send out your light and your truth, let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling places.  Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy; and upon the lyre I shall praise you, O God, my God. (vv. 1-4)

It’s a prayer asking God to make things right.  It’s also a prayer asking God to restore some of what was lost, even if it won’t be exactly the same.  The Psalmist, who once led the worship procession to the house of God is praying that he might once again praise God in a place of worship.  To ask again for something that was lost – a relationship, a peace, companionship, closeness with the Lord – that may seem unimaginable now.  But that’s what the Psalmist does.  It’s what I was eventually able to do after two years of feeling very cut off from God and church.  And it took time to grow back and never looked exactly like it did before in college, but that closeness and peace did come back.

Soul Conversation: Here for a third time in sixteen verses we have this refrain:

Why are you in despair, O my soul?  And why are you disturbed within me?  Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God. (v. 5)

Does it sound different this third time?  I think so.  At this point the Psalmist has acknowledged what was lost, remembered what God has done previously, and come to God in heartfelt prayer.  Note that the soul is still disturbed, but note too the way the last sentence sounds.  It sounds hopeful to me: “I shall again praise Him.”  I believe it can and does happen that way; it has in my life and I’ve seen it in other peoples’ lives.

Hope: I Shall Again Praise Him (42:5,11; 43:5)

Finally, let me point out two phrases that mark the progression in this Psalm.  I want to be realistic, too.  This is not a five step march out of grief or loss.  This is not a prescription for feeling better.  This is more like the personal diary of one person who is in the process of God’s healing and help.  We don’t see the ending, which is probably okay; that would be too neat and tidy, and life isn’t neat and tidy.

I want to point out two phrases: “tears for food” and “the help of my countenance.”  I think “tears for food” is self-descriptive.  If you’ve lived with that, you know what it means.  It is a heart-breaking sorrow where it just seems like the storm will never lift. That’s where this story starts, but it ends with the other phrase, which is part of the refrain the second and third time. 

In the first refrain in Psalm 42:5, it is “the help of God’s presence,” which is important.  But in v. 11 and then at the end of Psalm 43, it is “the help of my countenance.”  Literally, that phrase means “the lifter of my face.”  The image is related to “tears for food.”  The image as this Psalm progresses and the refrain is reached each time is that God comes (His presence) and re-establishes communication and relationship with the one who has lost so much.  God bends down, tenderly, and raises the tear-stained face of His child, lifting their face to look once again into His. 

If you have lost something dear or things are not as they once were, I invite you to soak up this Psalm this week, or for weeks to come.  Share with this Psalmist as one in process of rediscovering God’s presence.  And that presence is not a wave-the-magic-wand and fix it presence.  It is not a buck-up-and-put-on-a-happy-face presence.  God’s presence is a gentle, compassionate, loving presence that reaches down to tenderly raise your eyes to see Him in your life once again.  I invite you to once again look into the face of the One who loves you so very much.  Amen.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Fear and Anxiety (Psalm 27)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; January 10, 2016
Text: Psalm 27

:: 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 (link) ::
Eric's words about experiencing fear and discouragement, shared before the final song.

:: Scripture and Music ::
Call to Worship: Mercies Anew, v.1 (Sovereign Grace)
Song of Praise: Better is One Day (Redman)
Hymn of Praise: Ancient Words (DeShazo)
Song of Confession: Mercies Anew, v. 2 (Sovereign Grace)
Assurance of God's Grace: Mercies Anew, bridge (Sovereign Grace)
Affirmation of Faith: Mercies Anew, v. 3 (Sovereign Grace)
Offering of Music: On Eagle's Wings (Joncas)
Song of Sending: No Longer Slaves (Bethel Music)
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 we continue our series entitled, “Dark Season of the Soul: Where is God?” We are looking at some of the experiences and emotions we struggle with and how faith and God speak to those struggles and our questions. I have noted in the past that the Psalms give us language for some of the deepest human struggles. Today, specifically, we are looking at FEAR and ANXIETY, using Psalm 27.

What Do You Fear?

What do you fear? Take a moment and think about it. For some of you it may be close to the surface, easy to name. Others may have to think a little harder. But what is one thing or situation or person – one anything – that you fear?

Is anyone having trouble? Let me prime the pump a bit: spiders, snakes, the dark, being alone, a certain person, your boss, your parents, your kids, the future, the Democrats, the Republicans, losing something, never finding something, not making a difference, not leaving a legacy, terrorism, terrorists, violent people, sickness, getting old, losing your ability to think clearly, losing your health and mobility, losing independence, losing yourself, people very different from you, not having enough money, losing your job or the money you do have, losing someone you love, getting hurt, guns, flying, water.

Anybody still having trouble thinking of something? What do you fear? What makes you afraid? Related to that, what makes you worry?

Listen to the list of dangers, evils, and trouble in Psalm 27. Some are real and already experienced; others are potential, something perhaps to worry about:

- evildoers who came to devour my flesh, my adversaries and my enemies (v. 2)
- a host (army) encamped against me… war raised against me (v. 3)
- a “day of trouble” (v. 5)
- enemies around me (v. 6)
- God hiding His face, turning away in anger, abandoning or forsaking me (v. 9)
- adversaries, false witnesses, violent people (v. 12)
- I would have despaired…. (v. 13)

Anybody think the Psalmist lives a happy-go-lucky life with no troubles, no worries, and no struggle? If you listened to the whole of Psalm 27, you know that these fears were mixed in the middle of faithful prayer, seeking, and trusting God. But they still amounted to two real fears: 1) that these many dangerous and violent adversaries would overcome me; and 2) that God would not show up, not help.

So think again; what do you fear?

What Shall We Do With Our Fears?

What shall we do with our fears? All alone, of course, fear is not an unhealthy thing. It is the appropriate reaction – often instinctually – to danger. In some contexts it can save our lives. The real problem comes when fear turns to worry and anxiety. Our fears themselves can become the adversary and enemy, taking on a life of their own. They can become our gods, that which directs our path, our choices and behavior. Our fears can enslave us, stealing our freedom, joy, and purpose.

What shall we do with our fears? I do not have quick or easy answers, but I would point you to several themes in Psalm 27. None of these are the kind of antidote you can purchase off the shelf, but are patterns of belief and behavior, habits that can only be ingrained over time and practice. Let me describe them and offer a personal illustration, then we will return to the question of what to do with our fears.

Confidence in the Lord (vv. 1-3)

Confidence seems like a strange place to start, and it is. Confidence is the fruit of belief and behavior made habit; it’s not the starting place. But this is poetry and the Psalmist isn’t teaching a lesson, but describing life. Consider it an up-front description of the hope and courage this Psalmist has found in the face of serious challenges. I’ll come back and say more in a bit, but will simply note know that the confidence isn’t in the writer’s own strength or cleverness or resources, but in God. Too often we plug something or someone other than God into the lines: ______ is my light and salvation; _____ is the defense of my life. And if we put lesser things or people as our light, salvation, and defense, is there any wonder our confidence is shaky? But, I also understand that one does not just decide to be confident in the Lord. It is the result of something else.

Seeking God’s Presence (vv. 4-10)

In vv. 4-10, the writer describes “one thing I shall ask and seek” – in a word, it is to know God. This is a person who is choosing to cultivate faith and behaviors that LOOKS for God. You can read in these words the patterns of worship, of offering, of singing, of praying:

- v. 4 – prayer (asked), seek, dwell, behold, meditate
- v. 6 – offer sacrifices, shouts of joy, I will sing praises

It is a fitting counterpart to what we talked about last week – that though we want to focus on WHY we struggle, it is more important to focus on WHO God is. You see that in this writer’s words. You can never go wrong praying for God to show Himself to you!

Learning While We Wait (vv. 11-14)

I appreciate the reality of this Psalm, that God isn’t waiting at the drive-thru window to immediately dispense whatever we have ordered up in prayer. Rather, seeing and experiencing God is relational, not unlike cultivating relationships with people. Those take time as well. Those relationships often involve some waiting and seeking. Meanwhile, the writer cultivates more habits of faith and behavior. “Teach me your way” (v. 11) recognizes the need to learn about God and God’s will. “Wait for the Lord” (v. 11) recognizes the discipline of cultivating relationship, even if it’s with a holy God.

A Picture of Confidence

I’d like to try to illustrate the importance of cultivating habits of faith and behavior as relates to having confidence in the Lord and overcoming our fears and anxiety.

If I asked you to stand up right now and sing in front of the church, would you do it?  I know a small few of you might, but many of you… it would not be your choice of a good time.    If you asked me to sing a song or play it on an instrument – now, at a party, out of the blue, wherever – I would not be afraid. There are things I do fear, that I am anxious about; but that is not one of them. Yet there was a time when playing the piano or singing in public TERRIFIED me. I remember sitting at my piano recitals with my hands shaking and my heart pounding louder and louder as we got closer and closer to my time to play. Do you know what has changed? It’s not talent or natural ability. It is the pattern and habit of practice – over and over and over. It is playing scales and learning chords and notes and actually doing it – playing and singing – over and over again, such that if you ask me to do that, the unknown is mostly removed. Those patterns and habits of behavior (and belief) were like bricks, slowly building a foundation of confidence. I also very clearly know what I can’t do… what is beyond me. I might tell you, “I can play that song” or “I can’t play that song” – but I would be confident in my answer, because it is undergirded by years of habit and practice and action.

That analogy is not quite right because I’m not advocating you ultimately to build up a foundation that trusts in your own strength. But it does help describe the net effect of making worship, offering, singing, praying, and seeking God part of everyday life. Those things build up a foundational relationship with God that you can lean into when you need it. The power of those things is not in you, but in knowing God more deeply. It is the reason I think this Psalmist, who is in the midst of so much opposition that could rightly cause fear and anxiety, does not despair. He has habit and history and knowledge of God. And it is never too late to start building those habits, building the kind of faith and knowledge that can say, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the defense of my life; whom shall I dread?” (v. 1)

Sunday, January 3, 2016

When Hope is Dead (Lamentations 3.1-18, Ezekiel 37.11-14)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; January 3, 2016
Text: Lamentations 3:1-18; Ezekiel 37:11-14

:: 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 ::
Hymn of Praise: My Soul Longs for the Lord (Gettys/Kendrick)
Hymn of Response: Spirit of the Living God
Offering of Music: Mercies Anew - Karla Katibah, vocalist (Altrogge, Kauflin)
Song of Sending: In Christ Alone (Getty/Townend)
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.

I wrote in the church newsletter that went out this past week that I am equal parts excited and intimidated over where the Lord is leading me to preach over the next six weeks. I have become increasingly aware of folks real struggles: emotionally, spiritually, and otherwise. And if this Jesus stuff is real at all (and I believe it is!), then it’s real in struggle… perhaps there most of all. I’ve entitled the series: “Dark Season of the Soul: Where is God?” and hope you will join me in turning to the scripture to acknowledge and call out to the Lord our real struggles, but also WAIT in faith for God’s faithfulness to show. Over the next six weeks we will talk about fear and anxiety, discouragement and despair, waiting and silence of God, loss and anger, and finally desperation and hope. I think it will be a challenging, but meaningful season in our worship and study together and I hope the Lord will speak to each of us through it.

I want to book-end the series with passages from Lamentations 3 that starts today with “my strength has perished and so has my hope from the Lord” (vv. 1-18). Six weeks from now we will return to Lamentations 3 to “the Lord’s mercies are new every morning… great is [God’s] faithfulness” (vv. 19-26); but we won’t rush there too quickly and miss the opportunity for God to speak into the struggle.

No Strength; No Hope

I’m going to start at the end at the place of stuckness, because that’s where so many of us get stuck so much of the time.

v.18 – “My strength has perished, and so has my hope from the Lord.”

I’ve lost all hope and I don’t have any strength left to keep trying. Platitudes won’t help; telling me to pick myself up won’t help; telling me to try harder won’t help. Do you even know what I’ve been through?

My life… my family… my friends… and I AM THE ONE who bears it all. God must have it out for me because not only has God not stopped any of it, it seems like God has caused it. So not only do I not have anything left to give, there is no one who can give me anything.

What Happened?

For the writer in Lamentations, everything had been lost. It was the 6th century B.C. and the Babylonian empire had rolled over Israel, crushing everything – destroying the Temple, houses, people. Many or most had been killed or taken captive. The WHOLE nation – or at least most of it – like everything but Florida… utterly defeated. And as catastrophic as all the loss and defeat were, it was even worse because faith and God were so wrapped up in it all. Israel was God’s chosen people, blessed on the earth. And those blessings were specific, including the land. How could it be taken away if God was still on their side? And maybe God wasn’t still on their side… so there was a faith crisis on top of what would have already been a faith crisis.

Ezekiel lived through the same events. He was a prophet or a preacher where the writer of Lamentations was a poet or musician. Ezekiel saw visions about what was going on. Lamentations is a series of five poems trying to process all the tragedy. In fact, the poems in Lamentations are acrostic or A-Z poems, as if the writer was trying to instill some kind of order on the chaos all around. Each of the five poems begins with “How much” – as in, “How much can we take….” “How bad it is…” “How can words describe it…”  Eugene Peterson simply translates the first line of each poem, “Oh, oh, oh…!”  Except the middle poem – the third of five – the one here in chapter 3. It gets personal and begins instead with, “I am the man.” In other words, “Let me tell you my story.” And that story proceeds to tell all the ways God has cursed him: A to Z, a long list of sufferings, perhaps even grievances against God.

It is God’s anger (v. 1), God’s beatings (vv. 3-5), God’s captivity (vv. 5-7), God disregarding him (v. 8), God’s obstacles (v. 9), God’s prey (v. 10), God’s target (v. 12), God’s ridicule (v. 14), and so on and so on. Even in grief, the poet does not lack for words to describe all his complaints or disappointments with God.

We find a similar description in Ezekiel 37, though now cast in one dramatic image rather than the many poetic images of Lamentations. Ezekiel has a vision of Israel as a valley full of bones – dead, dried human remains. This reflects Israel’s own words, “Our bones are dried up and our hope has perished; we are completely cut off [from God].” (v. 11)

Though this is one particular story of loss, anger, hopelessness, and disappointment, it is not hard to relate. I imagine each of us have experienced something that gives us a point of connection here. And one of the things I want you to hear in this series is that it is okay to name the experience. It is believed that the poems of Lamentations were not just written about these events, but used in worship repeatedly. Now there is more to Lamentations and this poem in chapter 3 than the portion we read; the rehearsing of loss and blame is not all there is. But I didn’t want to move so quickly past it that we didn’t see its place and purpose, even in the worship and life of God’s people.

Not WHY? but WHO?

The place we often get hung up and confused is with the question, “Why?” It is especially confusing because there is no one simple question to why we experience suffering, loss, disappointment, or hopelessness. It is especially confusing when reading the Bible because a given passage (like this one) may have a reason why, but it may not be our reason why. And that can lead us off track.

Is this the result of sin?
Is this God teaching us something?
Is this God’s judgment?
Is this evil winning the day?
Is this simply the world we live in – like rain falling on the just and the unjust?

There are more examples and any of them may be part of the reason ‘why.’

In the case of Israel in this time period, they had broken the covenant with God and God explicitly was rendering judgment on them. Yet, we will see that the key question is not WHY but WHO. And I will submit that at the end of the day – and more importantly, at the end of our hope – it is not getting an answer to ‘why’ that will help us, but turning to a ‘who’ that will save us.

But that is not the simple Sunday school answer it sounds like, because again, it is not an answer (why) but a person who is hope. Consider then…

It was God’s faithfulness to keep the covenant even in the face of their unfaithfulness that provided a way out for them. That’s where Lamentations 3 eventually goes. Israel and the poet in Lamentations got why – that for them, they had been unfaithful and this was God’s righteous judgment. They understood why, but had not yet come to grips with WHO God was.

In other cases, suffering and loss is unjust or the result of evil or other people’s choices. Understanding that may do something for you, but it cannot in itself save you or give you hope. If anything, it may make it harder to hope because of a sense of helplessness.

We will be unpacking these things for the weeks to come, and invite you to allow yourself time to sit here and not rush to quick answers. I’d encourage you to read through all of Lamentations. It is only five chapters long – one for each poem. We’ll be mainly in the Psalms the next four weeks until we return to Lamentations after that.

Denial and Despair

But let me end with Ezekiel and his vision, because it reveals two shortcuts we most often take out of our reality. Eugene Peterson names these two shortcuts as DENIAL and DESPAIR. And chances are, most of us (perhaps all of us) fall into one or the other in some way.

DENIERS say, “It’s not that bad: I’ve lost some things, but I am still making a good life for myself.” Denial is especially easy to put onto others: “Oh, that is bad, but you’ll recover; time heals all wounds; you’ll move on.”

DESPAIRERS say, “All hope is lost and hope is dead.” It’s Lamentations 3, with verse 18 as the end: “My strength has perished and so has my hope from the Lord.”

This may shock you, but in many cases I believe that despairers are closer to help than deniers are! In Ezekiel’s vision – a metaphor for describing Ezekiel’s friends and family and self, the people are not just dead bodies, but dried up and broken apart skeletons – dead, dead. It’s not going to get better. They cannot heal themselves. Time will not knit their bones back together. Their losses are not less grievous than imagined, but MORE so. If Ezekiel had anything to say to the poet of Lamentations, it would be that his A-Z list of grievances did not go far enough. Denial will not get one to the truth.

And yet, Ezekiel’s vision was not simply of grim, dusty death. It was not a vision of despair, but one that looked up from human resources, human faithfulness, human goodness – because those had failed. His vision looked to a God – a WHO – who could knit bones together, put muscle and tendon and skin on, and grant new life and new hope.

Denial doesn’t face reality. Despair is more realistic, but does not look far enough… which is okay, because God does not demand that we find Him; God finds us. Sometimes – perhaps more times than not – we have to reach the end of ourselves for that to happen.

Behold, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves, my people; and I will bring you into the land. Then you will know that I am the Lord… I will put my Spirit within you and you will come to life, and I will place you on your own land. Then you will know that I, the Lord, have spoken and done it. (Ezekiel 37:12-14)

Thus says the Lord.