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Sunday, March 27, 2016

Leaving Death Behind (EASTER) (Luke 24.1-12)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; March 27, 2016 (EASTER)
Text: Luke 24:1-12

:: 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: Piano Meditations, Rick Bean, jazz piano)
Song of Praise: Christ the Lord is Risen Today (EASTER HYMN)
Song of Praise: See What a Morning (Townend, Getty)
Offering of Music: Christ the Lord is Risen Today (Rick Bean, jazz piano)
Our Song of Praise: The Doxology
Hymn of Sending: We Know that Christ is Raised (ENGLEBERG; arr. Hopson)
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.

Easter Sunday is understood to be one of the two “big Sundays” of the Christian Church. The other, of course, is Christmas. For many of us, our quick summary of those two days is the birth and death of Jesus. But that’s not quite right. Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus; but the cross and the death of Jesus really is what happened on the Friday before Easter, the day we call “Good Friday.” What the Church celebrates on Easter Sunday is the Resurrection of Jesus. And of those three most significant events – the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus – I think Easter is the one that is the most “out there,” the most full of mystery and miracle.

Of course it’s all miraculous, if you believe what scripture says about Jesus. But we have points of connection with birth and death, because we all are born and die. But resurrection? We have resuscitation, like after drowning or a heart attack; but that’s often a matter of minutes, before the brain is deprived of oxygen for too long. But three days dead? That’s beyond; that’s unbelievable; it’s non-sensical! But that’s the claim; that’s the story.

“Why do you seek the living One among the dead?

You heard the story read in today’s text. Jesus had been crucified, confirmed dead by the Romans, and buried before the Sabbath began. The women had gone back after the Sabbath to bring spices to complete the burial process. They found the stone moved and the body gone. And they encountered “two men… in dazzling clothing.” (v. 4) Terrified at the appearance of these messengers from God – angels – the women bowed to the ground. The angels spoke, saying, “Why do you seek the living One among the dead?” The angels go on to say more and the women go to share the news.

“Why do you seek the living One among the dead?” (v. 5) – what an unusual way to start! In fact, that’s kind of a Jesus-like thing to do, to start with a question. Why not just tell them Jesus is alive and that they should go tell the others? I think the angels were trying to do more than impart information; they were stirring up faith. The one you seek is not in the box you have drawn – he is not “among the dead”; rather, he is alive! The angels asked a question that cut right to the heart of things. Then they did say outright what had happened: “He is not here; but He has risen.” (v. 6) And they helped the women remember that Jesus had talked about this. And the women remembered, and believed.

Non-sense: Unbelief or Wonder?

The women went to tell the apostles (v. 10), who had a near-unanimous reaction. To the apostles, “these words appeared… as nonsense, and they would not believe them.” (v. 11) I take that particular word literally – “nonsense” – this news was beyond the senses, beyond reason, beyond experience or comprehension. Peter evidently had a different reaction and ran to see for himself; but he only saw linen wrappings and no body. When he left the tomb, though, he was “marveling at what had happened.” (v. 12)

That’s the sticking point with God, isn’t it? If only God would speak from a burning bush or make an appearance or send an angel or two my way… then it would be easy to believe. But that’s not God’s usual m.o. AND I’m not sure that would help anyway. I mean the women got two angels and a huge stone rolled away. Peter saw the empty tomb and graveclothes. But it’s easy to rationalize those things away. What REALLY stumps us is the part that’s beyond our senses – a holy, infinite God who loves us; a God become human who died and lived; that there is something after death that is beyond what we can measure, touch, dissect, or truly comprehend.

When it comes down to it, there are two basic responses to this non-sense, this stuff beyond the human senses and comprehension. There is unbelief and there is wonder. There may be others, but those are the two responses in today’s text and I think they cover a lot of ground and common experience. Unbelief and wonder. Both make sense. I get unbelief; I really do. I don’t believe in unicorns, fairies, or genies in a bottle; it would be easy to dismiss the claims of Jesus and what scripture says about him as one more fairy-tale. But I also get the wonder; what if it is true? Doesn’t it line up with what Jesus said and what hundreds and thousands of years of independent testimony and inspiration and teaching said about God. Have you read God’s story? Do you REMEMBER? It is just as He said.

Clinging to Death

And here’s the thing; here’s the place where this connects to life and living. Much of the time, we live clinging to death. We live as if there is nothing more, as if there is no Savior and no Heaven, as if there is nothing eternal about our souls. Sure, we come to church – occasionally or a lot, but neither is a measure of our unbelief or wonder. Neither is necessarily a measure of our faith.

Even when we look to Jesus, we sometimes still cling to death. Let me explain. So much of the time we live out a faith that has Good Friday as its end-point… that is, forgiveness. Keenly aware of the ways we fall short of holiness, with God and with others, we are often reluctant even to do that. But when we muster up the faith and courage and humility to come before God, it’s a Good Friday faith: “Lord, I don’t deserve it; but would you forgive me? I’m sorry.” And God is good and faithful, and does! But we just cycle, rinse, repeat. We just go from the cross right back to the sins and habits and patterns that separated us from God in the first place. But listen; God has more intended for us!

The cross was not the end-point. Don’t misunderstand me there; the cross is central… it is foundational. Without it, without Jesus’ obedience and sacrifice in love, we could not be made right with God. But there is more; there is so much more! THAT is what Easter is about. Jesus took our sin and death onto himself on the cross, but on Easter he rose to life and defeated sin and death. And the Bible says that if we trust Christ, we are united with him in his death and in his resurrection.

That’s where the Easter story ties into the series we’ve been looking at over the last number of weeks.

Leaving Death Behind

We’ve been talking about the things we leave behind to follow Jesus, to trust and obey and follow in his footsteps and where he would lead us day in and day out. So far we’ve mainly talked about leaving behind things that are easy to comprehend: things like safety nets, comforts, preconceived notions of God and the like. But this is perhaps the biggest thing of all. Following Jesus means leaving death behind.

By that I don’t mean some sort of weird view that we can’t die, but in the way that the Bible talks about death as the period at the end of the sentence of life apart from God. But when you add God’s redeeming work to the sentence, you get more. Let me show you a passage from Ephesians 2 to demonstrate:

v. 1 – And you were dead in your trespasses and sins [description of sins].

In essence, it says “You were dead in sin,” period. But then it says this…

v. 4 – BUT GOD [a bit describing God] made us alive together with Christ!

There’s actually more after that, but this is enough for today and to illustrate the point of Easter. We cling to death when we do not yet know Christ or only see him as a forgiveness-dispensing device from God. Easter puts a semi-colon there – you were dead; but God made you alive with Christ.

So practically, what does that look like? How do you DO that?

Here’s the thing – you don’t have to DO it; God did it. God says that is reality for all who trust Christ. We just keep turning away from following Christ onward and we keep circling back to make sure the forgiveness took.

You leave death behind by following Jesus. Those who followed Jesus laid down nets and left their boats. Those who followed Jesus paid back those they had cheated and invited friends to meet Jesus. Those who followed Jesus focused more on the Spirit of God’s Law than the letter of God’s Law. Those who followed Jesus kept company with those in need – spiritually and otherwise. Those who followed Jesus, though sometimes confused, allowed Jesus to teach them who he was and what he was about.

Easter means that death is not the period at the end of your sentence. It is the semi-colon before what God has in store for you. And what God has in store – that’s what I want for you; that’s what I want for this church; that’s what I want for my family; that’s what I want for me. May it be so. Amen.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Sermon by: Robert Austell; March 24, 2016 (Maundy Thursday)
Text: selections from the Gospels of Mark and John

Tonight's service was organized much like a "lessons and carols" service, following the scripture of Jesus' Passion from Thursday evening through his burial on Good Friday. The "sermon audio" is a compilation of the reflections throughout the service on different parts of the story. The order of worship below lists the components of the service.

:: 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."  

:: Order of Worship ::

Call to Worship: John 14:19-21,23b; 15:8-9
19 “After a little while the world will no longer see Me, but you will see Me; because I live, you will live also. 20 “In that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you. 21 “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.” 23b “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him.

8 “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples. 9 “Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love.
Song of Praise: How Deep the Father’s Love

Scripture: Mark 14:17-21
17 When it was evening He came with the twelve. 18 As they were reclining at the table and eating, Jesus said, “Truly I say to you that one of you will betray Me—one who is eating with Me.” 19 They began to be grieved and to say to Him one by one, “Surely not I?” 20 And He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who dips with Me in the bowl. 21 “For the Son of Man is to go just as it is written of Him; but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had not been born.” 
Message: Thoughts on Betrayal

Scripture: Mark 14:22-26   
22 While they were eating, He took some bread, and after a blessing He broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take it; this is My body.” 23 And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, and they all drank from it. 24 And He said to them, “This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. 25 “Truly I say to you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” 26 After singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. 
Song of Preparation: Behold the Lamb (vv. 1-3)

Communion (up to distribution)

Scripture: John 13:5-17,33-35
5 Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. 6 So He came to Simon Peter. He said to Him, “Lord, do You wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered and said to him, “What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter.” 8 Peter said to Him, “Never shall You wash my feet!” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” 9 Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, then wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.” 10 Jesus said to him, “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.” 11 For He knew the one who was betraying Him; for this reason He said, “Not all of you are clean.” 12 So when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 “You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. 14 “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 “For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. 16 “Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. 17 “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

33 “Little children, I am with you a little while longer. You will seek Me; and as I said to the Jews, now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. 35 “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Testimonial: On Footwashing (Clay Cupples)

Scripture: John 13:36-38
36 Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, where are You going?” Jesus answered, “Where I go, you cannot follow Me now; but you will follow later.” 37 Peter said to Him, “Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for You.” 38 Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for Me? Truly, truly, I say to you, a rooster will not crow until you deny Me three times.
Song of Commitment: Step by Step (Mullins/Beaker)

Scripture: Mark 14:32-42  
32 They came to a place named Gethsemane; and He said to His disciples, “Sit here until I have prayed.” 33 And He took with Him Peter and James and John, and began to be very distressed and troubled. 34 And He said to them, “My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death; remain here and keep watch.” 35 And He went a little beyond them, and fell to the ground and began to pray that if it were possible, the hour might pass Him by. 36 And He was saying, “Abba! Father! All things are possible for You; remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what You will.” 37 And He came and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? 38 “Keep watching and praying that you may not come into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 39 Again He went away and prayed, saying the same words. 40 And again He came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to answer Him. 41 And He came the third time, and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? It is enough; the hour has come; behold, the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners. 42 “Get up, let us be going; behold, the one who betrays Me is at hand!”
Choir Anthem: Silent Was the Night (Martin)

Scripture: Mark 14:43-50
43 Immediately while He was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, came up accompanied by a crowd with swords and clubs, who were from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders. 44 Now he who was betraying Him had given them a signal, saying, “Whomever I kiss, He is the one; seize Him and lead Him away under guard.” 45 After coming, Judas immediately went to Him, saying, “Rabbi!” and kissed Him. 46 They laid hands on Him and seized Him. 47 But one of those who stood by drew his sword, and struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his ear. 48 And Jesus said to them, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest Me, as you would against a robber? 49 “Every day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize Me; but this has taken place to fulfill the Scriptures.” 50 And they all left Him and fled.
Hymn of Confession: Ah, Holy Jesus

Scripture: Mark 15:22-39
22 Then they brought Him to the place Golgotha, which is translated, Place of a Skull. 23 They tried to give Him wine mixed with myrrh; but He did not take it. 24 And they crucified Him, and divided up His garments among themselves, casting lots for them to decide what each man should take. 25 It was the third hour when they crucified Him. 26 The inscription of the charge against Him read, “THE KING OF THE JEWS.” 27 They crucified two robbers with Him, one on His right and one on His left. 28 And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And He was numbered with transgressors.” 29 Those passing by were hurling abuse at Him, wagging their heads, and saying, “Ha! You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, 30 save Yourself, and come down from the cross!” 31 In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes, were mocking Him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; He cannot save Himself. 32 “Let this Christ, the King of Israel, now come down from the cross, so that we may see and believe!” Those who were crucified with Him were also insulting Him. 33 When the sixth hour came, darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour. 34 At the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “ELOI, ELOI, LAMA SABACHTHANI?” which is translated, “MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?” 35 When some of the bystanders heard it, they began saying, “Behold, He is calling for Elijah.” 36 Someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed, and gave Him a drink, saying, “Let us see whether Elijah will come to take Him down.” 37 And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed His last. 38 And the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 When the centurion, who was standing right in front of Him, saw the way He breathed His last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
Communion: Distribution

Music during distribution: What Wondrous Love is This? (John Purifoy)

Scripture: Mark 15:42-47
42 When evening had already come, because it was the preparation day, that is, the day before the Sabbath, 43 Joseph of Arimathea came, a prominent member of the Council, who himself was waiting for the kingdom of God; and he gathered up courage and went in before Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus. 44 Pilate wondered if He was dead by this time, and summoning the centurion, he questioned him as to whether He was already dead. 45 And ascertaining this from the centurion, he granted the body to Joseph. 46 Joseph bought a linen cloth, took Him down, wrapped Him in the linen cloth and laid Him in a tomb which had been hewn out in the rock; and he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses were looking on to see where He was laid. 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Leaving Our Pre-Conceived Messiahs (Luke 19.28-44)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; March 20, 2016
Text: Luke 19:28-44; Psalm 118:24-29

:: 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: Piano Meditations, Rick Bean, jazz piano
Song of Praise: Prepare the Way (Evnas/Nuzum)
Song of Praise: Hosanna/Praise is Rising (Brown/Baloche)
The Word in Music (Choir): Ain't No Rock Gonn Shout for Me (Williams/Larson)
Offering of Music: Hymn Medley (Bobby White, piano; Linda Jenkins, organ)
Our Song of Praise: The Doxology
Hymn of Sending: All Glory, Laud, and Honor (ST. THEODULPH)
Postlude: Rick Bean, jazz piano

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

Today is the beginning of what the Christian Church calls “Holy Week.” With the events described in today’s text, Jesus begins a week in Jerusalem that will encompass his welcome (Sunday), his last night with his disciples (Thursday), his arrest and trial (Thurs/Fri), his crucifixion (Friday), and his resurrection (Easter Sunday).

While my focus today is on the Palm Sunday text of Jesus entering Jerusalem, it does still fall into our series about the “Things We Leave Behind (to follow Jesus).” Today we will consider the ways that we substitute false Messiah’s for Jesus, the true Messiah. Sometimes we are even well-meaning, like the disciples. Today’s text is fascinating, and sometimes confusing, not only because the support for Jesus flip-flops so suddenly and drastically, but because we realize how many (including the disciples) still didn’t really understand why and how he would save them.

Prep Work (vv. 28-34)

The text begins with what I’ll call “prep work.” Just before entering the city of Jerusalem, Jesus sends two disciples into the nearby town to get a colt on which to ride into Jerusalem. That mission was as fascinating and confusing as the rest of the day: Jesus seemed to know right where it would be, the owners questioned them when they were taking it, but seemed fine once they said “The Lord needs it,” and it was a very specific animal – a young colt (can mean young horse or donkey) which had never been ridden. In the Hebrew scriptures, a young unblemished/unused animal was used for a sacred purpose, and that seems to be the purpose here.

When the disciples got it back to Jesus, they seemed to know what to do: they threw their coats on the colt and put Jesus on it. It turns out that this was one of the well-known things the Messiah would do. It came from the prophet Zechariah, who wrote:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, humble, and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)

The stage was set! If Jesus was going to claim to be the Messiah – if he WAS the Messiah – this is how it would be announced; this was a public sign to go with all the teaching and miracles that said, “The Messiah is here.”

The Messiah We Want (vv. 35-40)

So here’s the thing: Jesus was the promised Messiah, but not the expected Messiah.  And that’s no reflection on Jesus or the promises of God; it’s a reflection on how people’s expectations can change. We often see what we are looking for, and we look for what we want to see!

We’ve talked about this more than a few times before. The Hebrew scriptures – our Old Testament – is packed full of teaching, promises, prophecies, and anticipation of the Messiah, or God’s “anointed one.” The Messiah was God keeping His covenant promises to not abandon His people and to bring them blessing. Specifically, the Messiah was God keeping His promise to King David that the kingdom and the kingly line would last. But that’s where the promise and the expectations started to diverge.

The kingdom was not ultimately David’s kingdom; it was an earthly manifestation of God’s Kingdom – God’s covenant blessing on His people. And while David was the earthly king, GOD was the Great King. And so as the earthly kings and kingdom struggled and failed and fell, it is not surprising that Israel would latch on to the scriptures full of God’s promise of a lasting King and Kingdom and a “Return of the King” as a specific anointed one God would send. And in a hard world full of empires, kings and emperors, and occupying armies like that of Rome, the expectations became increasingly political, powerful, and nationalistic.

It is clear that the people of Jesus’ day understood Jesus to have a claim to be the Messiah. And you read accounts of people wanting to make him king. Even among the disciples there was at least one ‘Zealot’ – that was the member of a political party committed to overthrow Rome by revolution. It may well be that “Simon the Zealot” joined up with the twelve disciples with the explicit hope that Jesus would rally the people for a Zealot revolution.

And what is so fascinating and confusing about Palm Sunday is that the crowd AND the disciples AND the Pharisees recognized that Jesus was making a Messianic entrance into Jerusalem. But none of them seemed to really understand what Jesus was really doing. According to the other Gospel writers, the crowd was shouting the words from Psalm 118:25-26 – “O Lord, do save (Hosanna!), we beseech You; do send prosperity! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord (i.e., the Messiah).” Though all of writers makes clear that the crowd was shouting the words of Psalm 118, Luke makes it clear that they are looking for a King, for the Messiah-King: “[Omitting ‘Hosanna’] Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord…” (v. 38)  They saw what they wanted to see. Had they quoted only a verse further in Psalm 118, they might have understood a bit more of what was coming: “The Lord is God, and He has given us light; Bind the festival sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar.” (v. 27)

The Pharisees also seemed to have the same understanding of Messiah – and that Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah – but they desperately did NOT want a confrontation with Rome. Certainly that’s what they used with the Jewish High Council and then with the Roman Governor and King Herod to get Jesus arrested and executed. “He’s claiming to be the ‘King of the Jews’ – and Rome won’t stand for that!”

Even the disciples didn’t seem to understand. They struggled so with his death, even when he told them outright what was going to happen. In fact, even AFTER the crucifixion and resurrection and just before the day of Pentecost, they still asked: “Okay Lord, is NOW the time you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)

So if Jesus wasn’t there to restore the earthly kingdom to Israel and lead a revolt against Rome and Caesar, what did it mean for him to be the Messiah?

Weeping Messiah (vv. 41-44)

We get a glimpse in verses 41-44. As Jerusalem came into view, he didn’t whip the crowd into a frenzy or call for arms; he began to weep and said, “If (only) you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes.” Jesus is keenly aware of two things: 1) that shalom (the peace or prosperity of Psalm 118 and God’s covenant) are not going to be achieved through fighting Rome; and 2) the people all around him – his people, God’s people – are completely blinded to what God is doing through him. They are chanting the right words to the right Messiah for the completely wrong reason.

And Jesus weeps because he sees what that blindness will cost. His people will suffer still further and they “did not recognize the time of your visitation.” (v. 44)

And yet even then there is grace. Jesus speaks words of forgiveness for his captors, who “know not what they do.” He forgives a thief hanging on the cross next to him. He returns to commission and anoint his followers to minister first to Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria, and then to the whole world. That’s the good news – that even when we destroy the life boat God has sent us, God is not done or defeated. But oh what sorrow and suffering we can inflict on ourselves in our blindness and mis-directed zeal!

Right Worship

This relates to our topic from a few weeks ago about ‘religion.’ For whatever reason, human beings know how to worship. Well, we know the reason; we were created in God’s image and God made us for worship! But sin – our willfulness and disobedience – warps that good and godly impulse. So we worship wrong things. That’s what the first commandment warns against. We will worship, to be sure, but we will worship trees and stars and the zodiac and crystals. We will worship rules and rituals and words and behaviors as if there is a magic formula for God. And even when we have the truth spoken to us, living among us, walking and talking and healing us; we’ll squint and squeeze and make him into something other than who and what he is; and we’ll worship that.

It’s not a 1st century problem. It’s a human problem. That’s probably why it’s the first commandment, AND the second! “No other gods” (#1) and “Do not make, worship, or serve an idol” (#2). It’s something we still struggle with and something we need to leave behind to follow Jesus well.

There is so much right about Palm Sunday: Jesus is in view; most recognize his claim to be unique and special; people are even shouting “Save us!” But what salvation? What savior? Many then wanted freedom from Rome – political and economic salvation or rescue. But Jesus said he had greater news – the advent of the Kingdom of God in our midst. Some wanted physical healing – hearing that Jesus could do that sort of thing. But Jesus said he had a greater gift – forgiveness of sin.

What about you? “Hosanna – save us!” is the right thing to say. What saving do you want? In this election season, it is easy to resonate with wanting political and economic rescue. It’s also easy to resonate with wanting prayers answered – for healing, health, security, happiness, and more. But Jesus had greater news; Jesus had greater power. Your Messiah is too small!

Who is your Lord and Savior? Is it the right politician being elected in November? Or the right new 9th Supreme Court Justice? Is it somehow getting enough money to pay the bills? Is it the right relationship or job or accolade? All those things are important. Probably none of us would admit or use “Lord and Savior” language for any of those things. But our behavior sometimes gives us away. We are waving palm branches and throwing our coats down and we miss the time of visitation.

It’s already been a part of this service as we welcome new members into the church, just as it is at every baptism and confirmation.

Who is my Lord and Savior? Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior… Who is he? What has he said? What has he done? And where is he leading you and me next?

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Leaving Our Culture (Luke 7.1-10)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; March 13, 2016
Text: Luke 7:1-10

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

:: Scripture and Music ::
Call to Worship: Piano Meditations, Rick Bean, jazz piano
Hymn of Praise: Holy, Holy, Holy (NICEA)
Song of Praise: Revelation Song (Riddle)
Offering of Music: Have a Little Faith (Jim Terrell)
Responding in Music: Mercy (Boersma/Courtney)
Hymn of Sending: I Surrender All (SURRENDER)
Postlude: Prelude and Fugue in F Major - Royallen Wiley, organ (J.S. Bach) 

:: 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 our series entitled, “Things we leave behind (to follow Jesus).” Today we are going to look at the role culture and belonging play – sometimes a help, sometimes a hindrance, just as we saw last week with religion or rules.

The reason I cast this story in those terms is because it revolves around an outsider culturally – a non-Jew who nonetheless caused Jesus to marvel because of his faith and understanding. As last week, we will consider where we may have cultural blinders on that actually get in the way of seeing, hearing, and following Jesus.

A Man of Influence

We talked about tax collectors a few weeks ago. They were Jewish traitors and cronies of the Romans, extorting taxes and more from their own people with the Roman soldiers as the strong arm to back them up. The real problem, however, was the Roman Empire. Gone were the days when King David ruled Israel as a local and regional power. Those days were LONG gone. Empire after empire had ruled in the Promised Land; and in Jesus day it was the Romans. Caesar in Rome was so powerful that he ruled pretty much the known earth. His armies were nearly invincible and Israel was subject to Roman taxes, governance, laws, and soldiers.

The Romans tolerated local religion as long as the citizens recognized Caesar as “Lord” through taxes, law-keeping, and peace. But the thought of a Roman centurion, a commander of a regiment (traditionally 100 soldiers) somehow sharing the Jewish faith or being interested in the religion or God of Israel was laughable.

Except it happened. This one centurion had a slave who was dying and he sent a message through the Jewish elders asking for Jesus to come “save the life of his slave.” Now presumably these ‘elders’ overlapped a bit with the religious leaders who often gave Jesus such grief. But this was different! This was a Roman Centurion asking for their help. So they came to Jesus and earnestly implored Him for help. They said, “He is worthy for you to grant this to him; for he loves our nation and it was he who built us our synagogue.” (v. 5) It is thought, by that statement, that this Centurion was indeed a “God-fearer” – a non-Jewish person interested in the God of Israel, who had evidently helped support the building of the synagogue there in Capernaum. In some ways, these details seem superfluous, because the man goes on to demonstrate his faith; but they do add interesting context and background.

So this outsider also knew enough to ask for Jesus of Nazareth. He knew enough to know that this Jesus was healing people and seemed to have the power of God. And he believed Jesus could help him.

The Faith of an Outsider

And so Jesus starts on his way with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him with an interesting message: “Lord, do not trouble yourself further, for I am not worthy for you to come under my roof; for this reason I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you…” (vv. 6-7). We learn more about the centurion; he does not command Jesus, but seeks him in humility and with utmost respect!

But then this significant statement: “…but just say the word and my servant will be healed.” (v. 7) Sight unseen, from a distance, he believed that Jesus could heal his servant. And how did he come by this faith? Because he understood human power and authority, he could acknowledge and recognize spiritual power and authority: “For I also am a man placed under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.” (v. 8) Not only did he not presume to command Jesus, but he recognized his spiritual power and authority over sickness and death.

And when Jesus heard THAT; he marveled at him. Jesus is the one amazing other people. How often do you hear of Jesus being amazed? This outsider, this non-Jew, this Roman, this soldier… amazed him. Jesus turned to the crowd following Him and said, “Not even in Israel have I found such great faith.” And almost as an afterthought, the narrator tells us the slave was healed. That ends up not being the point. The point is that an outsider recognized, through his own experience of the way things worked, that Jesus had the authority and power of God; and he trusted Jesus to heal his servant.

Leaving Our Culture: what makes a Christ-follower

So, cool story; a Roman centurion amazes Jesus. What does that have to do with me?

Last week we talked about religion… the system of rules and behavior, often good for us, that nonetheless can get in the way of us seeing, hearing, and truly following God.

In a similar way, our culture can also get in the way of trusting and following God. By “leaving our culture” I don’t mean packing up and moving to Antarctica or some remote or ‘pure’ place. What I mean is that, like God’s people in scripture, we seem to default to ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ language and perspectives and views. It’s easy to think that we’ve got a corner on God’s will and way and that people must conform to our way of things to be ‘in’ with God.

We here are predominantly southern, Presbyterian, well-off, educated, white, comfortable, Bible-belt, American Christians. It’s easy to tack on to that political perspectives, musical tastes, or any other host of cultural distinctives. But God’s a bit bigger than all that. Well, WAY bigger than all that.

What do I mean by “leaving our culture?” Well, I don’t mean moving to Antarctica. What I do mean is holding loosely to all those cultural distinctives, realizing that they are not equivalent to God’s will or preference or design. And sometimes, following God means letting go of musical preference, or political allegiance, or thinking Presbyterians have it all figured out, or [fill in the blank.]

The definition of being a Christ-follower isn’t:
  • “being American”
  • “being a Democrat”
  • “being a Republican”
  • “someone who sings traditional hymns”
  • “someone who sings praise music”
  • “someone who looks and thinks like me”
You can find Christ-followers in the strangest places. Sometimes, they are the last person you’d expect… like a Roman centurion in a sea-side Jewish town.

What defines a Christ-follower is:
  • someone who recognizes the power and authority of Jesus Christ…
  • someone who trusts God as Sovereign over all nations and cultures and peoples…
  • someone whose first allegiance is Jesus Christ, revealed in scripture and history as Savior and Lord
Do you know that Jesus? What would he have you do? Where would he have you go? What would he have you leave behind?

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Leaving Our Religion (Luke 6.1-11)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; March 6, 2016 
Text: Luke 6:1-11

:: 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 ::
Call to Worship: Piano Meditations, Rick Bean, jazz piano
Hymn of Praise: Arise, My Soul, Arise (Indelible Grace)
Hymn of Response: There is a Balm in Gilead (BALM IN GILEAD)
Offering of Music: Lamb of God (Paris; arr. Larson)
Communion Music: Rick Bean, jazz piano
Hymn of Sending: Wonderful, Merciful Savior (Wyse)
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 on following Jesus, called “The Things We Leave Behind.” And today’s sermon has the somewhat provocative title, “Leaving Our Religion.” By that I certainly won’t encourage you to give up church; but we will look at the tension between Jesus and the religious folks of his day. And we may find that there are aspects of our religious practice that are also at odds with Jesus’ teaching and who he revealed himself to be.

There are two separate, but related, stories in today’s text and we’ll look at each of them. The point of conflict in both was over Jesus “doing work” on the Sabbath.  We will look at the religious critique of his actions and at his response and explanation before considering where these texts may challenge us.

Picking Grain on the Sabbath (vv. 1-5)

So one Sabbath Jesus and his disciples were passing through some grain fields and the disciples were picking heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands, and eating them. And the Pharisees – the religious experts in the Jewish Law – came after Jesus for it: “Why do you do what is not lawful?” Now that’s a long way removed from us; it may not be clear what the problem was.  Was it stealing? Was it eating on the Sabbath? Or was picking the grain considered working?

The Pharisees represented one very influential branch of Judaism in Jesus’ day. They were known for their study of the Law, the Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy), and their strict and literal interpretation of that Law. For them, plucking grain was considered work and a violation of God’s Sabbath commandment and laws. And they blamed Jesus, though it was his disciples who did this thing, because as a teacher, a Rabbi was responsible for what his student-disciples did and said.

You probably figured that much out from the context. But where it gets really interesting for me is in Jesus’ response, in what he didn’t say and what he did say. He could have out-Lawed them. The Jewish Law actually says in Deuteronomy 23:25 that it is permitted to pick and eat grain by hand when passing through a neighbor’s field.

25 “When you enter your neighbor’s standing grain, then you may pluck the heads with your hand, but you shall not wield a sickle in your neighbor’s standing grain.

It is only work and a violation of the Law if you use a sickle, that is, to harvest the grain (and perhaps also then be stealing). But interestingly, Jesus didn’t counter with that response. Instead, he referenced a story about King David actually breaking the Mosaic Law by eating the consecrated bread (1 Samuel 21:6), which is reserved for the priests (Leviticus 24:5-9). The Pharisees couldn’t really argue with King David in that instance. But Jesus went even further, making an explicit connection between himself and his actions and those of David. By doing this, he was claiming Messianic and Kingly authority, even over the Sabbath. And he does on to say that explicitly, in case anyone was missing the point: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (v. 5)

Jesus “went big” in responding to the Pharisees. It is interesting that even their arguments and critiques were too small. He could have argued the finer points of Mosaic Law, but responded as if to say, “You think the problem is that I’ve broken the Law; the Law actually exists to point to me!”

If our religion causes us to take our eyes off of Christ, we’ve missed the point as well.

Doing Good on the Sabbath (vv. 6-11)

Let’s go on to the next Sabbath story, in verses 6-11. On another Sabbath, Jesus entered the synagogue to teach and saw a man with a withered right hand. “Withered” means that it was paralyzed or atrophied from not being able to use it. We are told explicitly that the scribes and Pharisees were “watching him closely to see if he healed on the Sabbath, so that they might find reason to accuse him.” (v. 7) Interestingly, they were prepared to see him heal… he had already been healing people, but it’s not like working or picking grain. You’d think that seeing someone healed might shut you up about the particular rules of a day or place, but apparently not.

The timing is interesting here as well. Jesus called to the man with the withered hand, “Get up and come forward!” (v. 8) And the man did. But Jesus then paused, before healing to ask the scribes and Pharisees a question. Knowing as we do that they react to the healing with rage, it is like Jesus took time to engage them before they reacted, though it did not seem to do any good. He asked them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to destroy it?” (v. 9) The Law did say that one could save another’s life on the Sabbath, but this was not that situation. And there is no record of a response from them to his question. We simply read that he looks around – he (and we) hear no answer to his question – then he tells the man to stretch out his hand and it was healed. The religious leaders are “filled with rage, and discussed together what they might do to Jesus.” (v. 11)

Again, Jesus jumped clear over arguing points of the Law. He asked the question, but then demonstrated the power of God to heal. Again, his power and authority exceeds that of the Law. He has demonstrated that that Law exists to point to him. As he taught on the Sermon on the Mount, he didn’t come to do away with it, but to complete it, to fulfill it. And so on the Sabbath, he does good, he brings life.

Rules Have a Place

Please hear me clearly: I am not advocating throwing out the rules, nor do I think Jesus was. Rules have a place, whether the rules of the road or the family or those found in the Bible. But they are not the point of scripture.

Let me try to illustrate:

It is very important that drivers learn the rules of the road as well as good safety practices. One of the most important is to buckle up. But if you’ve buckled up, checked your mirrors, adjusted your seat, and determined to only drive the speed limit, have you driven? And are there times and circumstances some people or authorities have to exceed the speed limit? I think about Megan driving for Medic. Or needing to drive even though you’ve left your license at home. There are good reasons for the rules, but driving is more than the rules and there are times when the rules must be set aside.

I have mentioned before that I grew up in a community where some Christians observed very strict rules about music, attire, and more. I understand that there were reasons for some of those rules, some derived and added onto scripture as a well-intentioned effort to live pure and holy lives. But again, one should not confuse the rules with the reason for the rules. Not listening to rock music doesn’t make one a Christian and listening to rock music can’t take away one’s salvation. Yet, I had friends who heard both things growing up. I believe that’s what the Pharisees had done with God’s Law.

God’s Law was given for blessing, to keep God’s people safe and remind them of God’s presence and blessing. But the Pharisees got so fixated on the rules and laws that they missed the power and presence of God even when it was in their very midst!

Now, to get to meddlin’… it’s easy to point fingers at Pharisees and legalistic fundamentalists. But I think we’ve all got this religion problem to some extent. It’s hard to keep our focus on a God who is Spirit, invisible to our eyes and beyond our understanding. It’s much easier to reduce faith to some rules. Like what, Robert?

Well, like what we wear in church or out of church. A good Christian girl wouldn’t wear THAT, right? Or tattoos or piercings or any number of other appearance-related judgments.

Or our politics. For good or ill, I have a wide swath of friends on Facebook. And AT LEAST once daily I read that real Christians can’t be Republicans… or Democrats… or vote for this one or that one. Really? Even a theologically-rich descriptor like “evangelical” is now used to describe a certain voting block and set of political views. Really? It means “bearer of the Good News of Jesus Christ” but we’ve turned into a certain list of rules.

Or let me flip it around… is it possible that any of us congratulate ourselves on our church attendance or giving or fancy Bible or niceness or ability to avoid public, visible ‘sins’ – and here’s the important thing – and MISS the power and presence of God in our midst?

Again, the various rules and behaviors and standards and expectations are mostly well-intentioned and mostly harmless, until we swap them for the power and presence of God among us. And THAT – God with us, Immanuel, Lord, King, Teacher, Friend, Savior – that is what God wants for us. Jesus didn’t die on the cross to leave us a to-do list. God didn’t walk among us so that we’d get bogged down in rule-keeping. God came among us in Jesus Christ to call us after Himself, after a PERSON, in and after the power and presence of God on earth. So it may well be that there are parts of our “religion” getting in the way of following after Jesus. Leave them behind; set them aside. Or at the very least, put them in perspective.

God’s Word and God’s Laws point to Jesus. The miracles and teaching of Jesus point to what God is doing among us. Our worship is intended not to satisfy preferences or create an experience, but to point to Jesus. That’s what it’s about; it’s about a who, a person, Jesus Christ.

My prayer is that God will reset our vision, our priorities, our understanding so that we can lay aside every encumbrance, every entanglement, and run the race God has called us to in and through Jesus Christ. May God give us ears to hear and hearts to follow! Amen.