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Sunday, February 28, 2016

Leaving Our Comforts (Luke 5.33-39)

Sermon by: Michael Mair; February 28, 2016 
Text: Luke 5:33-39

The guest preacher today is the Rev. Michael Mair, minister at St. David's Broomhouse Parish Church in Edinburgh, Scotland.

:: 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: The Wonderful Cross (Tomlin et al.)
Confession through Music:Merciful God (Getty/arr. Courtney)
Hymn of Praise: O Jesus, I Have Promised (ANGEL'S STORY)
Offering of Music: I Will Follow (Tomlin et al.)
Our Song of Praise: The Doxolog
Hymn of Sending: He Leadeth Me/The King of Love (Gilmore, Baker; Bradbury)
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.

It's so lovely to be with you this morning.  Thank you for the opportunity for me to share with you, we so enjoyed it when Robert came to St. David's where I serve, and shared in our worship, so I'm delighted to be here as well.

Now, I don't know if you know this, but Edinburgh in Scotland, is slightly different from Charlotte, North Carolina.  I've only been here for a few days - but already one major difference is clear to me. Your weather.  As you can see I wear glasses, and for many years I have owned a pair of sunglasses which match my prescription so that I can enjoy the weather and relax in the sunshine without having to squint my eyes to see the way.

In all the years I have lived in Scotland, these sunglasses have stayed very firmly on the shelf, no days quite sunny enough to merit their use.  So thank you for the opportunity to finally wear my sunglasses - my optician will be pleased.

But because there is less sun, it’s also colder.  I'm not quite sure how you cope in the heat of the summer time, but I find that if it goes above 25 degrees C, which is about 80 degrees Fahrenheit. I just melt into a sweaty, grumpy puddle. I cope much better in the cold and because our text spoke about old coats - I thought I would bring mine from home.

This is my favourite coat.  I found it about two or three years ago in a Charity shop near to where I live, and I discovered it on a mannequin, and let me tell you - it looked great.  I was immediately drawn to it and I asked the assistant if I could try it on.  She struggled with the mannequin for five minutes, and eventually managed to twist the coat off and handed it to me.  I held it in my hands, felt the weight, looked at the fibres as if i knew something about coats and then threw it on.

Well, the coat was just fantastic.  The length was perfect for keeping the chill out of the torso, it fit round the middle, which is always an important thing to ascertain, it sat right on my shoulders but as I looked down it was about six inches short on the sleeves.  Disaster!

I commented on this to my wife, Laura, who was with me as we played out that conversation between us of - should we get it, despite the sleeves (while both being fully aware that we were buying it anyway) - do you find yourselves having those conversations often?  Someone says - should i get this? But you know they've already decided to buy it.

Well we were in the midst of that conversation when another shopper came over to me, took the coat from my hands and said - well, if you aren't going to buy it - I'll take it for my husband, he has shorter arms, and then she looked at me - as if I were a gorilla.

I knew I had a choice, I could stay very British and polite and allow the injustice of a stolen coat, or I could say something and take the coat back.  As you can see ladies and gentlemen - I boldly ensured that the coat came home with the right owner, gorilla arms or not.

But of course, when I took the coat home, I had a problem.  The sleeves.  I went to a tailor and had them taken down, which has been fine - but if you look closely you can see exactly where the old sleeve used to be.  The new bit had been protected for the last 20 years, while the old has weathered away - so when Jesus talks about putting new cloth on old clothes, I have this very real example.
When we meet Jesus in our readings this morning he is being asked a question - the pharisees and religious leaders have come to him and say, the disciples of John and our own disciples, they all fast - but yours, they eat and drink?  In the ancient world, just like in our day, there were protocols for how you trained someone to complete a role.  So just like we have rules and induction training for new members of staff, there were things you did back then.

And if you were a Rabbi, or a traveling preacher like Jesus and John, you ensured your disciples fasted, to test their commitment to the ministry you exercised, and to further their own spirituality. Fasting was as necessary to discipleship as prayer and listening to the teachings of your rabbi. Religious leaders were expected to fast during holy days, and they would whiten their faces with ash so that people could see, just by looking at them that they were fasting, and would presumably be impressed.

But Jesus, he doesn't insist that his disciples follow this tried and tested route.  Instead, he feasts with his followers - sharing in their joy.

But the question of fasting that the Pharisees raise is only the topical issue of a much deeper issue - what the Pharisees really want to know is; why Jesus is training his disciples in a different way? Already Jesus has been challenged for naming Levi as a disciple and now he is being questioned about why he trains his disciples in the way he does.

In response to these challenges, Jesus replies in the form of parables, the bridegrooms feast, the old coat and the old wineskin.  And if we are not careful, we can assume an easy meaning on the face of these texts.  Traditionally they have all been understood to be very simple parables that proclaim that the new thing Jesus is doing is better than the old faith of the Jewish people.  The disciples should celebrate with the bridegroom because they won't always have the opportunity to is prophetic to our ears now we know the ending of the story.  And the parables of the coat and the wineskins seem to suggest that the new is better than the old, up until that tricky last verse where Jesus proclaims that the Old wine is best of all.

So what is Jesus saying?

I think that Jesus is arguing for a middle way forward, in the first story of the bridegroom and his guests, Jesus speaks knowing what is coming his way.  He knows the path he is going to walk and he knows that his time with the disciples will be short.  So he wants to spend that time encouraging them, celebrating with them and leading them forward.

But then he goes on to talk about the old and new cloth, and old and new wineskins.  Cloth in Jesus day was important.  It was a signifier of your status and wealth within the community, and most people wouldn't have very much of it so if you got a rip or tear in your tunic, unless you were wealthy you would have to mend and fix it as best as you were able.

But what you could not do would be to attach a brand new piece of cloth to an old garment, because as soon as you washed that item of clothing the new cloth would shrink, the old cloth would stay the same size and the whole item of clothing would rip and be ruined.

Instead, you had to make new items of clothing out of the new cloth, and if the tear in your old clothes was too bad to mend, then you would put it aside and hope that one day you needed it.
But at no point would you discard the old clothes.  We may well throw out our clothes when they develop a hole, but the ancients knew that just because something stops doing what it was made for, that doesn't make it obsolete.  Jesus was telling the Pharisees that he was doing something that was different, not a way that needed to replace how they were doing things, but that his way was different enough that it wouldn't sit comfortably with their understanding, and that ultimately could destroy everything

It is the same with the wineskins.  The raw products of wine were poured into skins and the natural elasticity of those skins would allow the wines to ferment, but after a while the skins lost their elasticity and if you attempted to use them for making wine, they would burst and you would lose all your wine.  But again, those listening would know that you wouldn't throw the skins out - you could coat the inside of the skins with pitch or tar and reuse the skins for holding absolutely anything.  Sometimes, old wineskins were more valuable than new wineskins!

So what does this mean for us today?  Well it can mean that the things of the past can still be useful. In my community in Edinburgh we are discovering that we need to do new things to engage with our community.  I serve a community in Broomhouse where generations of people have not set foot inside a church, where the secularisation of culture has pervaded our land so that Biblical knowledge is a fraction of what is was 20 years ago and where scandals have torn across the face of every institution in our land so that the institutional church is generally distrusted.  No longer can we sit back and expect people to come to us, rather, we need to be active and engaged with those living around us.

We started an event called the Tent, which we run in a local park.  We have partnered with local churches in the area - about 7 or 8 in all and we put up a great big Tent, 9m x 24m and fill it with activities for the community.  In the morning we ran a Vacation Bible School, in the afternoon we had community groups come and lead activities - a dance class led a dance workshop, a supermarket showed us how to decoate cupcakes, and the scouts showed off their survival skills.

In the evenings we ran community events, Pub Quizzes, Pedal Powered Cinemas, a Jazz night, un under 18s disco and a Ceilidh.  Over the weekend we held a family fun day, complete with bouncy castles, face painting and games and on the Sunday, we all cancelled our own individual church services and held one joint service of worship.  Through the course of the week, we were in touch with 1000 people, from children to adults, reaching out and engaging.

[click to see Michael's 8min. presentation on "The Tent" at a recent conference]

But we can't just run the Tent and cancel our Sunday gatherings, the new must sit alongside the old. We can't dismiss the old thing, just because it is different.  And we can’t expect that the new thing will somehow automatically lead into the old thing - we are not expecting anyone from the tent to start joining us on a Sunday morning - if they do, great, but that's not our main effort.

Of course, there comes a time when it is time to stop what we have been doing.  I think that's one of the most difficult things we can do as Christians, recognise when it's time to stop.  There will be a day when my coat, as wonderful as it is, is threadbare and useless.  No matter how comfortable that coat is, I will have to stop using it, and buy one that's new.  And there will be programmes we run in church which have become threadbare, that no longer occupy the place they used to, we have to be open and honest enough to see when that is the case - and sometimes to stop doing what we have become accustomed to.

Jesus called his disciples to follow him in a way that was radically different to the way that disciples had been trained before.  To follow him took courage, joy and wisdom, and we must apply the same to our own church programme and lives.

As we wrestle with coats and wine and wineskins of all ages, we can rejoice knowing that the oldest wine - that which we find in God, is truly the best of all.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Who Needs a Doctor? (Luke 5.27-32)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; February 21, 2016 
Text: Luke 5:27-32

:: 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: "Hear the Call of the Kingdom" (chorus) (Getty/Townend)
Song of Praise: "Hear the Call of the Kingdom" (Getty/Townend)
Song of Praise: My Soul Finds Rest (Ps. 62) (Keyes, Townend)
The Word through Drama: Camden Campe, monologue
Assurance of God's Grace: Gospel Song (Sovereign Grace)
Offering of Music: Walker Austell, piano
Our Song of Praise: The Doxology (a capella)
Hymn of Sending: Where He Leads Me I Will Follow (a capella) (NORRIS)
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 are continuing in a series called “Things We Leave Behind.” We are looking at what it means to follow Jesus and considering those things that might be in the way or holding us back from following. Last week we looked at the first disciples, the fishermen, and particular at the story of Peter. We saw some themes common to following Jesus, like acknowledging his presence, experiencing the presence and power of God, responding with humility and worship, and responding in obedience to the particular call of Jesus on your life.

Today we are looking at the story of another of the twelve disciples: Levi (also known as Matthew). As we did last week, we will also consider the story of someone similar to Levi who followed Jesus “in place.” And we’ll look at some of the other particulars of the passage, especially some of the push-back Jesus got about Levi.


First, let’s consider Levi. We’ve talked about first century tax collectors before. They were absolutely despised by the Jewish people because they were Jewish people who worked for the Romans to collect taxes. Their taxation was enforced by Roman soldiers and they were fully authorized to line their pockets with extra taxes charged at their whim. Both for serving the Romans and for exploiting their own people, they were truly hated. So for Jesus to include a tax collector in his follow-me invitation was unusual to say the least.

This time around we don’t get much insight into what motivated Levi to leave his booth and follow Jesus. We might think he was unhappy with his role as tax collector and saw a way out (though it was a pretty luxurious, if despised, lifestyle). Or we might speculate that Levi heard some of Jesus teaching and found it compelling.  Though the scripture we heard as the call to worship happened later chronologically, it might be indicative of the kind of teaching Levi heard: “What does one profit if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?” (Luke 9:25)

Instead of explanation for Levi’s action we get more details about what happened afterwards, and it is significant! Levi wanted all of his friends, who were equally despised by the religious folks, to meet Jesus. Those details also give you a glimpse into what Jesus was doing. He wasn’t just calling wicked tax collectors out of their business to a life of following a master Rabbi; he actually was socializing with whole groups of outcasts! This scandalized… SCANDALIZED… the Pharisees, who not only despised the tax collectors as most Jews did, but also would have found the non-religious friends as or more undesirable than the tax collectors.

Whatever else we might say, it seems like Levi’s life was really changed by his encounter with Jesus. But I’m stuck with the same issue as last week. Is the only way to follow Jesus to drop everything and run off into ministry or missions? Let’s look briefly at the story of another tax collector. His story is in Luke 19.

Zacchaeus (Luke 19)

A tax collector who “stayed in place” (presumably) and transformed his work and relationships.

Later in his ministry, Jesus was traveling through Jericho on the way to Jerusalem. While there the chief tax collector came out to see and hear him. You may remember the story about Zacchaeus being short and climbing the tree in order to see Jesus. Well this time, Jesus didn’t wait for an invitation to dinner or a party; he asked (or told!) Zacchaeus that he was coming to his house for dinner. During that dinner, for which Jesus was also criticized by the religious leaders, Zacchaeus was convicted to give half of his possessions to the poor and to repay those he had defrauded. And Jesus declared him saved and a son of Abraham.

In this case, we have no indication that Zacchaeus left his job as chief tax collector of Jericho. Rather, following Jesus for him was a radical transformation of how he treated others and how he approached his job. Indeed, if he followed through with his statement, he would have been unique among tax collectors in that time period.

Again, my point is to say to you that “following Jesus” is not for ministers and missionaries or for some kind of super-Christian. It is the response – your response and my response – to encountering God through Jesus Christ. It does mean something; it does look different. But what it looks like is as varied in the details as there are people here today.

Said another way, following Jesus isn’t necessarily a change in geography (though it could be that); rather, it involves a change of perspective. It trades any number of things (or pursuit of those things) that we grow up hearing are important – wealth, success, power, security, health – for something greater: the glory of God through obedience to Christ. I’d like to share a short video with you that unpacks what it means to trade perspectives, indeed to be a “missionary,” but perhaps not the kind that you imagine when you hear that word.

It’s a lot to think about, isn’t it? And then there is one more question raised by our text today.


When you trade the pursuits of this world for pursuing Christ, sometimes (maybe usually?) things start to look different. The company we keep may change. The places we go may change. We may find ourselves having a modern-day equivalent of dinner parties with tax collectors. It sounds messy. If I said it sounds like coffee in the sanctuary, crying babies, people who don’t dress like me or talk like me, and don’t know how to “behave like a Christian,” I’d just be scratching the surface.

I remember saying over and over a number of years ago that we would know we were starting to reach outside our church walls when things started getting messy in here. That’s not when you back up and pack up and head for comfort and safety. That’s when you know you are on to something. When our Sunday school faith starts rubbing shoulders and holding hands with those struggling with depression, disease, racism, betrayal, hopelessness, crushing poverty or insulated affluence; just when we really start to feel uncomfortable, we’ll know that we are on to something.

Becoming aware of the scandalous dinner party with Levi and friends, the Pharisees asked the disciples why Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners. They only had one template for religious faithfulness and it was law-keeping and Temple worship. The rest of the world, including non-religious or non-observant among their own people, were to be avoided and shunned. Yet Jesus seemed to turn all of this upside down and backwards. Jesus heard about their questions and responded in two ways, with an analogy and with scripture.

Jesus responded with an analogy: “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick.” (v. 12) It is from this idea that we understand the church to be a “hospital for sinners.” The point is easy enough to understand: doctors are for sick people. But think of all the ways we complicate that analogy. For one, we have well checks. So, sometimes doctors are for healthy people. And think about hospitals, though I know many of you don’t like to. They would be pretty fascinating places – with all those halls and labs and cafeteria and gift shop and research and doctors and nurses – except for what? …all the sick people?

Mix all that together and you get a pretty good picture of what the church often turns into: a place we go for “well checks” periodically just to make sure we have a dose of this or that for our good… and a place where we’d just as soon see other healthy people as deal with real spiritual need. In fact, if you can gloss over or keep out the real spiritual needs, churches can be pretty fun and interesting places to be… sometimes even like a mall or movie theater or restaurant. But do you see how we get off track? Jesus just laid it out there: “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick.”

And then, if you missed the analogy, for once he just said it plainly: “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (v. 32)

And that is where this story connects with our story. There are some key questions we need to ask ourselves:

•    Is this church primarily for the healthy or the sick?
•    Are you the healthy or the sick?
•    What would it mean for God to heal, bandage, revive, and even raise a person up?
•    What does it mean for us to show compassion?

And to move out of the healthy/sick language and back to the dinner party:

•    With whom would Jesus (specifically) ask us to have a dinner party? Would you come?

Within our walls we have financial crisis, struggling marriages, desperate people, depression, and much more.  Outside our walls we have all the same, and more. Why we gather here is not because we are actually well, but because of the news and hope of the Great Physician, who we believe does heal, bandage, revive, and raise up the sick, and even the spiritually dead, to life. If we are doing anything less, we are falling far short of Jesus’ intent for us and we may be missing the dinner and God’s purpose altogether.

To say all this another way, Jesus asked a very basic spiritual question: Who needs a doctor?

It’s another way of saying, “Follow me.” It’s another way of understanding our belonging to God. And in response to him, I know that I do. Amen.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Leaving Our Nets (Luke 5.1-11)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; February 14, 2016
Text: Luke 5:1-11

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

:: Scripture and Music ::
Song of Praise: Jesus, All for Jesus (Robin Mark)
Song of Praise: My Soul Finds Rest (Ps. 62) (Keyes, Townend)
The Word in Music: The Things We Leave Behind (Roley, Card, Medeira)
Offering of Music: Hope of the World (Lloyd Larson)
Our Song of Praise: The Doxology
Hymn of Sending: All the Way My Savior Leads Me (ALL THE WAY)
Postlude: Jesus Shall Reign (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 we are taking a turn as we begin preparing for Easter. Over the next several weeks I want to follow the theme, “The Things We Leave Behind,” and talk about what it means to listen to Jesus, to trust Jesus, to follow Jesus. At our Ash Wednesday service last week we talked about repentance, what it is to turn from one way, one perspective, one direction, and turn around to trust God.

Often more is involved than just changing direction. I am reminded of the man Jesus healed by the Pool of Bethsaida. Jesus changed his life in an instant, but also instructed him to pick up his mat and walk, to leave that place that had been his home and way of life for so long. Even healed, it would have been easy to stick with what he knew and keep coming to the pool to beg. In the same way, trusting Jesus isn’t just a set of beliefs or a ticket to Heaven. It transforms everything. And that’s what I want to look at with you as we approach Easter over the next six weeks.

Today and next week we will begin with the stories of the first followers of Jesus. We will look at how they responded to Jesus and what they left behind. Today, I want to tell you their story, share a modern day story, and then look some at the details behind the dramatic response.

I’d like to begin with Peter and Matthew’s story, told in a song that I heard sung back when I was 22 years old and trying to figure out what to do with my life. I have sung it many times since, most often with the Confirmation students when we go on our weekend retreat. And its title helped inspire this series.

Two Stories: Peter and Matthew (song)

"The Things We Leave Behind”
Roley, Card, Medeira

There sits Simon so foolishly wise; proudly he’s tending his nets
Then Jesus calls and the boats drift away and all that he owns he forgets
But more than the nets he abandoned that day;
He found that his pride was soon drifting away
And it’s hard to imagine the freedom we find from the things we leave behind

Matthew was mindful of taking the tax and pressing the people to pay
But hearing the call he responded in faith and followed the Light and the Way
And leaving the people so puzzled he found
The greed in his heart was no longer around
And it’s hard to imagine the freedom we find from the things we leave behind

Every heart needs to be set free from possessions that hold it so tight
‘Cause freedom’s not found in the things that we own;
It’s the power to do what is right
With Jesus, our only possession, then giving becomes our delight
And we can’t imagine the freedom we find... from the things we leave behind

We show a love for the world in our lives by worshiping goods we possess
When Jesus says, “Lay all your treasures aside and love God above all the rest”
‘Cause when we say no to the things of the world
We open our hearts to the love of the Lord
And it’s hard to imagine the freedom we find from the things we leave behind.

A Modern Follower: Bob

After college I worked for a man named Bob Farnsworth, who had dramatically heard and followed Jesus’ invitation to “come and follow me.”  He, too, had grown up in my home church and participated in youth group, youth choir, and similar experiences, though he was twenty years older than I.  He had gone to college with a strong academic record in English and literature and was a talented musician.  He also came to recognize as a teenager the authority of Jesus Christ in his life and he obeyed God’s call to “follow Jesus.”  He also wrestled with the thought, “Should I go into ministry?”  But Bob realized that God had given him unique skills and experience and he went from college to start a business writing music jingles for radio and television.  Is that a profession in which one can follow Jesus?  It is – Bob demonstrated that to me in the two years I worked for him.  And if you can honor God in the business of advertising and jingle writing, I believe you can honor and follow God no matter what you do – as long as you strive to obey Him and bring credit to His name.

I was Bob’s technical and personal assistant, so I witnessed firsthand how he ran his business.  He ran the company on Christian principles; he opened every employee gathering with prayer; he prayed for and with clients; he witnessed to clients; he refused to do cigarette and liquor jingles and gave thoughtful reasons when approached about doing so.  He prayed with me daily and discipled me in the faith.  In many ways, my time with him was as much preparation for my own ministry as the seminary education which followed my time in Nashville.

Could such a business succeed and be profitable?  I’d give two answers to that.  The first is, it didn’t matter to Bob.  His early years were tough and lean and he continued to honor God all the same.  And by the time I worked for him, his company was very successful, and he continued to honor God all the same. As in all of life, following God is about faithfulness. There may be successes and there may be hardship.  It’s the being faithful that is the challenge, and God’s pleasure the reward.

Key Qualities of Encountering and Following Jesus

Rather than focus on the outcomes of these encounters with Jesus, let me look with you at several key qualities of encountering and following Jesus. I think this is where you may find common ground with the disciples or modern followers of Jesus and discern what being a disciple looks like for your specific context.

Acknowledging and Listening

The song I sang spoke of Peter’s “pride.” In doing so, I think it puts its finger on one important piece of this story. Peter knew fishing; he had been fishing all of his life. And he was done for the day – and it had been a bad one. Despite the frustration of a bad day, he was willing to let Jesus use his boat to teach the crowd. He acknowledged Jesus as a teacher and helped him, even though it was out of his way.

After Jesus taught the crowd – and we might surmise that Peter heard something that he connected with – Jesus told him to fish again. And Jesus told him where and how to do so. It would have been easy to think, “Teaching the crowd is your thing and fishing is mine; mind your own business.” And you can hear the frustration in v. 5, “Master, we worked hard all night and caught nothing….” But he LISTENED, “…but I will do as you say…,” even in the midst of that frustration and knowing how to do the very thing Jesus was asking him to do. The first part of his encounter with Jesus that led to following Jesus was acknowledging Jesus’ authority and listening to him, both his teaching and his specific instruction. It involved an openness and humility. Without those, things would have looked very different.

Before following Jesus, we must give Jesus our attention and listen to what he has to say.

Power and Presence

We read in v. 6 that following Jesus’ instructions resulted in “a great quantity of fish,” so much so that “their nets began to break,” even beginning to sink their boat and that of friends, James and John, he called over to help. It is interesting and instructive to see Peter’s reaction in the next verse. Clearly this catch of fish was beyond ‘good’ or even ‘great’ – it was a little scary… like awe-FULL power of God scary. That’s what I see in v. 8. Without it, we have amazement in v. 9 (which is understandable); but something about it caused Peter to fall to the ground and confess his sinfulness and Jesus to respond, “Do not fear.” This was a miracle: it was clearly beyond earthly explanation. It caused Peter to recognize the POWER and PRESENCE of God with them and led to all four of them (Peter, Andrew, James, and John) leaving everything to follow him in v. 11.

To follow Jesus, we must ask if we are following the one who is God-in-the-flesh and God-among-us or some lesser notion that may be substituting in his place.

Humility, Amazement, and Worship

To go back over that last part one more time, also note the response of Peter TO the power and presence of God. He did fall to the ground in confession of his own sinfulness. He and the others were AMAZED. In so many words, Peter and the others responded to Jesus in WORSHIP, with humility, amazement, yielding of self, and response to serve.

True worship leads to true discipleship. One key question for all of us is, “What is going on when you worship?” That’s why we put so much thought into how we worship. Take time sometime to read through our approach to worship; it’s on the back of every bulletin and informs the order of worship every week. We orient every part of the service around God’s Word, inviting the Holy Spirit to lead us and teach us and bind us as the community of Christ. We believe that true worship leads to true discipleship.

Call and Response

Jesus had their attention. He spoke words of a ‘call’ over them: “From now on you will be catching men.” (v. 10) Despite all that had happened, they still had a choice. They could stay where they were, even having experienced all that, or they could follow Jesus. And we read, “When they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed Him.” (v. 11)

What Are “Our Nets?”

Here’s where I think we run a great risk of mis-applying this text. Is it saying that to truly follow Jesus that you or I must give up family and profession, drop everything, and run after Jesus? And what would that look like today anyway, since Jesus is not here calling a band of followers to walk around the countryside with him? Let me note some guidelines and boundaries to that question, then I’ll suggest how we might answer it for today.

First, Jesus was looking for some followers to serve in a specific role. He seemed to be looking specifically for twelve, probably to reflect the twelve tribes of Israel. After Judas betrayed him, the remaining eleven cast lots to replace him, choosing from two candidates to bring the number back up to twelve. All that is to say that Jesus didn’t ask every person he met to drop what they were doing and follow him in the exact way that Peter and the other fishermen did.

Second, in the coming weeks we will look at encounters Jesus had with people who did believe and trust him, but who remained “in place” as followers of Jesus. Really, only this week and next deal with the call of two of the disciples; after that we’ll see Jesus interacting with many others. So, without discounting that God might call some of our young people into ministry or missions, my hope is that EACH of you will hear the common themes of listening, encountering, responding, and following in your own situation and circumstance.

And that leads me, finally, to ask: “What represents your nets?”

Think beyond profession to what it is that may represent old patterns and behaviors, things holding you back or holding you down, limitations on listening to God or serving Him in your life. Think for a moment…

And let me throw this twist into the application: What if the nets aren’t the focus, but the catching is? 

Peter was a “catcher” – he was trained to do it with nets. When Jesus met him, those nets were failing him and he wasn’t catching. By yielding his pride and listening to Jesus, those same failing nets were used to bring in the catch of a lifetime. But then, Jesus challenged him by saying, “You will catch even more than this.” I am reminded of the movie that ends with the line, “Roads? Where we’re going we won’t need roads!” It is as if Jesus is saying, “Peter, where we are going – for the catching you will do – you won’t need those nets.”

My point is that we need not fear these texts as if Jesus is going to ask us to give up something near and dear. Following Jesus does involve sacrifice, but it is also a calling to be more fully who God made you to be. If you are good with people, God will use that for His glory. If you are analytical, God will use that for His glory. And it doesn’t have to mean leaving one’s job: consider my friend Bob or the Roman centurion we will look at in a few weeks.

Here’s the question: What does it mean for you to follow Jesus?  

 We’ll keep asking and trying to understand that question in the weeks to come.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

==DARK SEASON (2016)==

Dark Season of the Soul: Where is God? (2016)
Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church
January 3 - February 7, 2016

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. So bookending with passages from Lamentations 3 that starts with “my strength has perished and so has my hope from the Lord” (vv. 1-18) and moves painfully through struggle to “the Lord’s mercies are new every morning… great is [God’s] faithfulness” (vv. 19-26), we are going to take God at His Word: that He is faithful. 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. 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.

    Monday, February 8, 2016

    Desperation and Hope (Lamentations 3.19-26)

     Sermon by: Robert Austell; February 7, 2016
    Text: Lamentations 3:19-26; Hebrews 10:23-25

    :: 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: No Longer Slaves (Helser)
    Hymn of Praise: Mercies Anew (Altrogge, Kauflin)
    Offering of Music: God's Mercy is Wide (Choplin)
    Communion Music: Rick Bean, jazz piano
    Song 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.

    Five weeks ago we began this series called “Dark Season of the Soul” in order to ask the question, “Where is God” when life is at its most challenging and difficult. We started in Lamentations 3, which I said would book-end this series, which has covered anxiety, discouragement, God’s silence, loss, and anger. I’ll remind you that Lamentations was written in poetic form to try to express and process the tragedy of God’s people losing their land, homes, livelihood, place of worship, and way of life.

    Along the way there have been several recurring themes when it comes to God and personal struggle. One is the importance of asking WHO over WHY. We want to know why and we may use up what little strength and energy remains chasing answers to that question. But in doing we may fail to ask the WHO question: Who is God? What is God like? What is God’s relationship to me and mine to Him?

    We’ve also seen the importance of REMEMBERING, which is really another way of getting at the WHO question. In remembering God’s faithfulness and our experience of God in the past, we have opportunity to rediscover God’s presence and power in the struggle we face now. We will see that for the poet, the songwriter of Lamentations, who reached a real point of desperation, there was more. And that “more” came about through REMEMBERING, particularly through remembering God.


    Let me remind you of the situation, of the desperation. The songwriter in Lamentations does a more thorough job than most at chronicling the loss and the sorrow and the grief. With repetition, alliteration, vivid imagery, and no hesitation to blame God, the poet describes the source of desperation over and over in the first 17 verses, ending with the declaration in v. 18, “My strength has perished and so has my hope from the Lord.”

    Desperation is rightly understood as the opposite of hope, so is a good description of where things are in v. 18 and probably a place you’ve been before. To be technically correct, however, it means “away from hope” – hope is not truly dead or gone, it’s just that we’ve lost sight of it, turned away from it by circumstance or choice. It is only dead to us; but it’s still there. I think that’s an important distinction, and one that is shown to be true as the rest of this chapter unfolds.

    Starting with a quick prayer to God, “Remember my affliction and my wandering, the wormwood and bitterness,” the hopeless poet does something very important that we have talked about. He talks to God! It’s not fancy and it’s not cleaned up. It’s honest and to the point. After composing all his words about his suffering and bitterness, there is a turn from self-reflection to (short) prayer. After 18 verses of “things are so bad” there is a one verse prayer: “God, remember me!”

    And perhaps it is as simple as using the word ‘remember,’ but the next thing that happens is what we’ve seen happen every week in every text we’ve looked at. The one suffering starts to remember.


    “This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope.” (v. 21) Remembering God enough to talk to Him seems to open up the suffering one to remembering more about God, which leads to hope. We’ll come back to hope in a moment, but let’s look at what the poet remembers.

    Ever the poet, we get the same idea explored in four ways in vv. 22-23: 

    The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease.
    His compassions never fail.
    They are new every morning.
    Great is Your faithfulness. 

    God’s character is merciful, loving, compassionate, faithful, and good. The main term for this in Hebrew is behind “lovingkindnesses” – it is hesed. Then, like a good poet, the writer gives us lots of synonyms. God’s hesed is also unceasing, unfailing, and new every morning. What a wealth of words and images to draw upon as we remember God. And this isn’t just thinking up the things we need most – it wouldn’t be remembering then; it would be fantasizing or imagining. It’s remembering because God has shown Himself to be this way over and over again since the beginning. THAT is why remembering is so healthy and good. God is faithful and merciful – if you have no experience or memory of that in your life, then ask others or look to scripture; God is consistently faithful throughout.

    Take a moment, though, and see what you do remember. When have you felt God close in your life – as a child? as a teenager? as a young adult, in midlife, in old age? In crisis, at high points, at low points? Has God ever answered prayer in a way where you felt your faith and prayers confirmed?

    I know I’ve mentioned this a number of times, but I wonder how many people take time to do this, to make time and space to remember. But let me challenge you to do this and keep it in your Bible or some other special place. Come up with a short list – maybe your “top 3” times that God was near, or tangible, or real. You were confident in your faith and connected to God or Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit. If something already comes to mind, take a moment and jot it in your bulletin or text yourself on your phone – go ahead; you can use your phone! At some point this afternoon, before kickoff, transfer it to someplace you can find it later.

    I tell you; when we need that list most is the time our memory seems to go blank; at least that’s true for me. I feel like God is far away and absent and doubt my faith and convictions as if I’ve never known any different. The ancient Hebrews had a standard practice of marking God-events and God-moments; they did it with rocks. Find those things for yourself and mark them somehow. That REMEMBERING is so vital and important; these last five weeks have been a sure reminder of that!

    Also, I’ve invited this before, but if you have stories – short or long – of those times in your life, I’d like to hear them. I’d like to share them in the newsletter or on a video or in church. We’ll find a way that works for you. It can be so encouraging to others. While you are on your phone or marking your bulletin, shoot me a note that says “I’ll do it” or “I’ve got something” and I’ll follow up with you. I can think of nothing more encouraging and helpful to the collective faith and struggles of our church community.


    From that remembrance and reflection on God’s loving compassion, we see a shift toward hope: “’The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘Therefore I have hope in Him.’” (v. 24) The idea of ‘portion’ there is, “I may have nothing else, but I have the Lord… He is my portion, what I need, daily bread.”

    And interestingly, without having to wait for a preacher to make the application, the writer draws some self-conclusions from that hope: “The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the person who seeks Him. It is good that he waits silently for the salvation of the Lord.” (vv. 25-26)

    We talked about waiting a few weeks ago. God is not a genie that we approach with the right combination of words or gestures to summon an outcome we desire. Rather, God is the good and wise King and Father, who hears and sees His children in need. And God is proven faithful and compassionate. Our hope is not ill-founded or wasted.

    That leads me to a final observation about hope. Hope is not ultimately located in us. It’s not something you get or have or hold on to or lose. If it were, we might have real cause to despair. Said another way, God is not the OBJECT of our hope – a place to locate our hopes and dreams, an alternative to money or success or health or luck. Rather, God is the SUBJECT (and the only true subject) of hope because hope is located in God’s faithfulness and God’s goodness. That’s why we can depend on it, because it will not fail. We may turn away from God and become desperate (“turned from hope”), but the hope is still there because God is still there. The scriptures and this broken, wordy lamenter from the 6th century B.C. remind us that God is still there and that God is worthy of hope. So wait and seek; it is good to do so.

    Let me end with a word from the New Testament, from the book of Hebrews. Written to Christians who were struggling and suffering in a very different time period, it also speaks of hope:

    23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; 24 and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, 25 not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.  (Hebrews 10:23-25)