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Sunday, September 25, 2016

Pastures of Plenty (Psalm 23.1b-2a)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; September 25, 2016
Text: Psalm 23:1b-2a; Ezekiel 34:11-15

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

:: Scripture and Music ::
Hymn of Praise: Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah (CWM RONDDA)
Song of Praise: 10,000 Reasons/Bless the Lord (Redman)
Offering of Music: All Good Gifts (Schwartz/Leavitt)
Our Song of Praise: The Doxology
Song of Praise: Psalm 23 (Townend)
Postlude: Rick Bean, jazz piano

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

Today we continue in the second of seven weeks in Psalm 23. Last week, we looked at the image of God as Shepherd and talked about some of the characteristics of a shepherd as a provider, protector, and guide. Today we will focus specifically on two phrases: “I shall not want” and “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” On the surface, both are about provision, but we will see that protection and guidance are still operative.

We also come to this text in the context of a week of protests in Charlotte. These were prompted by the death of Keith Lamont Scott, but as I listen carefully, run far deeper into perceptions, experiences, and history of racial inequality – lack of safety, protection, basic provision, and a way forward. And if I’m being honest, even before this week, those were also the questions I brought to this text: how can it say “I shall not want (lack)” and talk about green pastures. Even in my relatively prosperous life, I have had times of lack and been in situations that seem like anything but green pastures. So, let’s start with this Word to us individually and see where that leads us as we contemplate the challenges our community faces.

What Do I Want? (v. 1b)

Though we are using a modern translation, there are still some old-fashioned words and phrases and this first one is one of them. “I shall not want” does not speak of desire, but of lack. The sense of it is that because the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not lack or “be in want” of something. It’s kind of open-ended, isn’t it? But it’s precisely the verses that follow that help define and explain the provision that our Shepherd makes for us. In sheep-terms, what follows in vv. 2-4 are food, water, rest, safety, restoration, guidance, protection, and comfort. We will spend more time on each of those in the weeks to come, but as we ask what it means to “not lack” under the Shepherd’s provision, we see that it is the basic necessities to live and thrive. And this is, of course, where we start to run into the limits of a metaphor or poetic image. What more could a sheep need? It’s not like they need a better job or nicer car or meaningful relationship.

The other question that arises also comes when we move out of the metaphor into application. Does this mean that God will provide human necessities like food, water, shelter, and clothing? Certainly there are people, and even people of faith, who do not have those things. But even IN the metaphor, the provisions move from the physical to the spiritual. The Shepherd of the sheep is “restoring souls” and guiding in “paths of righteousness.” Those are not sheep-things, but spiritual needs. So that’s a pointer, at least, that God’s provision has a spiritual dynamic, that God provides what is necessary to us spiritually to survive and thrive.

Does that mean God is not concerned with the earthly, material, and physical well-being of people? No, I don’t think we get to write this off as purely spiritual; it is a both-and, with some other factors to consider as well.

Pastures of Plenty (v. 2a)

Let’s look at the first specific example of provision: “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” (v. 2a) I’ve already noted that my own experience is not one of day after day of “green pastures.” I bet yours isn’t either. Let’s stick with the metaphor for a moment and consider several things. First, it’s a JOURNEY: sheep and shepherds don’t just park in pastures of plenty, never to leave again. They are nomadic; they wander. The shepherd leads and the sheep follow. They wander through rock and dry ground and brown, withered grass to get to green pastures. So, among other things, we can note that even this metaphor does not promise us day after day of blissful, green pastures. It reminds us that the Shepherd leads His sheep toward what they need. To step out of biblical metaphor and into biblical history, I think of God’s promise to Abraham to lead him to a land God would show him. This is later referred to as the “Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (i.e. a “green pasture” if ever there was one!). Have you considered that path, that journey, from Abraham to the Promised Land. It involved quite a bit of time, wandering off, wandering around, and more. Yet God continued to lead them and call them back to that path and that place.

SECOND, the Shepherd truly LEADS the sheep. Do you notice the word ‘makes.’ It’s not that God over-rides our human will (or body-slams the sheep down at the pasture); rather it is that God makes the way for us to lie down in that safe place of provision. But we must follow; we must listen. Often we do not want to go in the same direction as God’s best. Part of a shepherd’s job is to keep the sheep together, safe, and headed in the right direction. Sheep wander off; sheep get lost; sheep get in trouble. We wander off; we get lost; we turn away. If you remember the same historical example of God’s people getting from Abraham to the Promised Land, they wandered in the wilderness, which was a product of their disobedience. They did not follow their Shepherd.

THIRD, let’s step out of the metaphor altogether. Is this verse a literal reference to food? No, it is surely more than that, though God is not indifferent to human hunger and need. I referenced John 6 last week and will again. There Jesus was teaching a large crowd and the disciples realized the crowd had not eaten and was far from food. Jesus performed a miracle to multiply one boy’s bread and fish to feed the crowd. But shortly after that, he taught the same crowd that earthly food would only satisfy their hunger for a time, then they would be hungry again. But God had “bread from heaven” that would satisfy them eternally. They thought he meant manna, like in the Exodus journey to the Promised Land. But he went on to say that HE was the Bread from Heaven, the Bread of Life, the spiritual nourishment and provision of God the Father. What does it mean for God the Shepherd to make us lie down in green pastures? It must mean at least that he has shown us the way to that ultimate food and spiritual nourishment, the very Bread of Life, Jesus. And like sheep, like God’s people of old, we still turn away, wander off, or outright don’t listen to our Shepherd.

The Lord is MY Shepherd (v. 1a)

The two phrases we have looked at today describe God as a provider, a protector, and a guide. We’ve stepped out of the metaphor to see that God’s provision for us does not ignore our physical and immediate needs, but is bigger than that, providing ultimately the spiritual resources that we do not have on our own. And experiencing that provision is not necessarily an immediate or constant thing, but a journey in which it is essential that we listen for, listen to, and follow God’s voice. He hear that voice – God’s Words – in Scripture, through God’s Spirit, and in the person of God’s Son, Jesus.

So recognizing that even Jesus noted that earthly needs would have to be satisfied again and again, but spiritual needs have been provided once and for all; there still remain two key questions to ask if you – or if we – are not experiencing the provision, protection, and guidance we might expect from God:
  1. Am I listening to my Shepherd’s voice or have I wandered or turned away from God’s will for me?
  2. Am I (or we) on the journey, not yet to where God would have me (or us) be?
The first question is one primarily to ask of one’s self, not to ask (or answer!) for another person unless invited in trusting, accountable relationship.

The second question is the one that burns in my heart and spirit after the events in Charlotte this past week. It seems clear to me that our community and the races that make it up are not yet to where God would have us be. And God has not been silent on matters of inequity and injustice. And perhaps you question whether there is racial inequity and injustice; I think it only take a little bit of compassionate listening to recognize that there is. There is a lot of other complexity on top of it, but bottom-line, people are treated differently in our culture based on skin color. Some positively so; some negatively so. As just one example, any number of parents of bi-racial children will tell you that if they have a darker-skinned child and a lighter-skinned child, their experiences – even with the same parents, same upbringing, same resources at home – are often dramatically different. At any rate, if that’s the point at which you struggle to understand, let’s talk. I can point you in some helpful directions.

My point is that God has not been silent. God’s Law spoke clearly to matters of economic and racial injustice. God’s prophets spoke strongly to economic, social, and political injustice and suffering. Jesus began his ministry by announcing the arrival of God’s Kingdom, marked by good news for the poor, release to the captives, sight for the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and the arrival of God’s blessing. (Luke 4:18-19) Over and over in his ministry, he announced the coming of God’s Kingdom, but then also indicated it was not yet fully realized on earth. The Apostle Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles fleshed out the old covenant promise to Abraham (Abraham again!), that God would use His people to bless all the nations – that is the ethnic groups – of the world. Likewise, God would use His people, the Church, to embody the ethics and values of the Kingdom. We are to be part of the journey towards God’s blessing on the nations (ethnos) of the world and of our country and community. And that’s not because it’s simply one of many rules for Christians. It’s because that’s the work and the path on which our Shepherd is leading His people.

So it is not enough to breathe a sigh of relief that the uptown protests were 20 minutes from where most of us live or didn’t stir our immediate needs or concerns. Some of God’s flock are hurting, crying out and acting out that they do not feel safe and do not feel heard. What will your response be? What will ours be as a church? At the very least, I urge you to listen carefully… more listening, less commentary. But perhaps God is leading you to do more. I am convinced God is doing more, because I believe He is the Good Shepherd and is on the move. And the Lord is my Shepherd.

God is pressing those questions on to my heart, as I imagine He is for a number of you. If you are looking for next steps or want stories to read or people to talk to, communicate that back to me and I’ll try to point you towards opportunities. I believe that’s where our Shepherd is leading us. Amen.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Lord is My Shepherd (Psalm 23.1a)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; September 18, 2016
Text: Psalm 23; Ezekiel 34:11-15

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

:: Scripture and Music ::
Song of Praise: Your Grace is Enough (Maher)
Song of Praise: Psalm 23 (Townend)
Offering of Music: The King of Love My Shepherd Is (Beck)
Our Song of Praise: The Doxology
Hymn of Sending: He Leadeth Me (HE LEADETH ME)
Postlude: Rick Bean, jazz piano

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

Today we are beginning a series on the 23rd Psalm. It is well known to many and often heard or recited at funerals or the graveside. But it’s comforting imagery and promises are far broader. In this Psalm, God is portrayed as a Good Shepherd who provides, protects, leads, and feeds us. Part way through the Psalm the imagery shifts to that of a Good Host, with God as Host setting a table of provision, protection, and blessing for us. There is so much in this Psalm that I want to move through it slowly and soak in each image and phrase to help us understand better who God is and just how expansive His care for us is. Today we will look at the image of a Good Shepherd, which we will unpack further over the next few weeks. I hope you will find encouragement here, both in life and in faith.

The image of a shepherd is culturally far from the experience of most of us. But once we are reminded of the character and role of a good shepherd, I think we will quickly find meaningful connections. I think we can all figure out that a shepherd took care of sheep, but let’s break out some of what that meant. A shepherd provided, protected, and led the flock. So also God provides, protects, and leads us if we belong to Him.


The passage we heard as the call to worship also describes God as Shepherd. It is just one of many places in scripture to do so. In that passage from Ezekiel we read that God says to Israel three times (and I’ve mentioned before how the Hebrew people used repetition to emphasize things):
  • I will feed them in a good pasture and their grazing ground will be on the mountain heights of Israel. (v. 14a)
  • There they will lie down on good grazing ground and feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. (v. 14b)
  • I will feed my flock and I will lead them to rest. (v. 15)
In Genesis, when God provided a ram for sacrifice in place of Isaac, Abraham named the place Jehovah-Jireh, which means “the Lord will provide.”

In Exodus I think of the stories of God’s people wandering in the wilderness and God providing water to drink and manna to eat.

I think of the story of Naomi and Ruth, widowed and returned home with no family, food, or money and God providing all three through the kindness of Boaz and God’s laws about the kinsman-redeemer.

I think of Jesus teaching his disciples to pray and give thanks for daily bread, providing bread and fish for a crowd from a boy’s small lunch, then going much further in telling the crowd that he was himself the Bread of Life (John 6), a greater miracle than the manna was in Moses’ day.

Going back to the Ezekiel passage, I appreciate that provision is described not only in terms of food (and water), but also rest. There are only a few basic human needs, but water, food, and sleep/rest are among the most essential. The only other one I can think of at that level is air. Without those things, we die.

When we say, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” we are acknowledging that God is our provider. Said another way, it means that we look to God as the source of our most essential needs. Beyond our immediate physical needs, it is also true that God is the source and provider of our most essential spiritual needs.


A good shepherd is also a protector. When the young shepherd, David, was preparing to fight Goliath, King Saul questioned whether he had any ability to fight such a warrior. David replied that when he was tending his father’s sheep and a lion or bear came to take a lamb form the flock, David went out after him and fought the lion and bear in order to save the lamb. (1 Samuel 17:33-36) So it would be with Goliath. So it is with the Good Shepherd, defending his flock from enemies and the evil one.

In Psalm 23, the sheep can lie down in green pastures because the Good Shepherd is guarding and protecting them. Even in the face of death, there is no fear because the Good Shepherd is there, with rod and staff to protect and defend.

I think of John 17, when Jesus was praying just before his arrest and crucifixion. He prayed for his disciples, that God would not take them out of the world nor allow them to become “of the world”; he prayed that God would go with them INTO the world and protect them from the evil one.

When we say, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” we acknowledge that God is provider and protector. It does not mean that God makes us bullet-proof. Christians are still hurt, robbed, attacked, and more. But God is with us and guards us against the evil one. And it is appropriate to pray and ask for God’s help and protection.

Guide (and finder of lost sheep!)

A good shepherd is also a guide to the sheep. It is the Good Shepherd who LEADS the sheep to food, water, and rest. It’s not just provision and protection where they are, but leading them to the places of provision and safety.

Throughout the Bible God leads His people. When they were delivered from slavery in Egypt, God led them through the wilderness with a cloud by day and fire by night. God also led them through His holy Word.

When Jesus began calling his first disciples, he said, “Come, follow me.” The very life of a Christian or follower of Christ is one of following Christ where he leads us.

But the Shepherd’s guidance goes beyond leading us. It includes FINDING us when we are lost. Jesus told a memorable parable of the Good Shepherd going to look for one lost sheep and leaving the 99 safely behind. That is one of the most compelling parts of the biblical story to me – that God doesn’t just take care of the faithful (as if any of us are perfectly faithful!); but God goes looking for the lost. Jesus told more than a few parables about this, about God seeking and finding, looking for the lost to bring them home.

That is one of the chief functions of a shepherd, because sheep are prone to wandering and prone to entanglement. But the Shepherd keeps an eye out for the flock and goes to rescue and deliver the lost. That’s salvation language; that’s what God has done with us. He’s come after us to find us, rescue us, and bring us home.

So when we say, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” we acknowledge God as interested, active, seeking, and finding God. We acknowledge that God has found us and will come after us. We also acknowledge that God is the one we follow; He is our guide and part of belonging to Him is following Him with our lives.

The Lord is My Shepherd

In the coming weeks we will dig into these qualities of the Good Shepherd and also look at the imagery of God as welcoming Host. But for today, it is plenty to acknowledge with Psalm 23 that “The Lord is my Shepherd” and that in saying that we recognize that God is provider, protector, and guide.

I wonder how that image – that reality – intersects with your life and the stuff you are facing. What are your lions? What are your giants? What are your brambles or lost places? What would it mean for you for God to provide? protect? find you and lead you home? Do you need to be restored? Do you need to find a place of quiet rest?

Psalm 23 reminds us that God is the source of those things. Would you join your hearts to mine as I pray and ask God to meet us, find us, guard us, and provide for us?

Monday, September 12, 2016


"Lessons from Philemon" (2016)
Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church
August 07 - September 11, 2016

A four-week series on Paul's letter to Philemon about receiving back his former slave (Onesimus) as a brother in Christ.
Other Misc.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

When God Breathes (2 Timothy 3.1-17)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; September 11, 2016
Text: 2 Timothy 3:1-5,13-17; Psalm 119:105-112

:: 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 ::
Choral Call to Worship: What Brings Us Together (Althouse)
Hymn of Praise: How Firm a Foundation (FOUNDATION)
Song of Praise: Thy Word (Grant/Smith)
Offering of Music: We Are Listening (Steven Curtis Chapman)
Our Song of Praise: The Doxology
Hymn of Sending: Lord, Speak to Me/Help Me Hear (CANNONBURY, ref. and arr. Austell)
Postlude: Piano Meditation #1 - Elizabeth Austell, piano (W. Austell)

:: 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.
“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man or woman of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”    ~2 Timothy 3:16-17
Today, as we come to the beginning of our Fall classes, I hope that it is a beginning of a new season of study and growth through God’s Word. Today we come to that verse that says that Scripture is inspired or “God-breathed.” It is that, indeed; but rather than have a theology class on the origin and development of the Bible (which I’m glad to have any time!); this verse falls in a context that is more like giving a critical operations and strategy manual to a desperate army officer in time of war. Let’s turn to 2 Timothy 3 and look at the context for this important verse about God’s Word.

Difficult Times (vv. 1-5,12-13)

The verses we heard this morning were written by the Apostle Paul.  He was writing to a young friend of his named Timothy.  Timothy was a student or disciple of Paul.  He was younger in the faith, a non-Jewish “Godfearer,” and an eager follower of Jesus Christ.

In this personal letter to Timothy, Paul is trying to encourage him in life, faith, and ministry.  He comes to chapter three in this second letter to Timothy and writes something that should grab our attention, because it is like Paul is living and walking among us in 2016:

Realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come.  For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power.

Whether we are in the “last days” or not, whatever Paul has to say to Timothy will be applicable, for Paul has described our “days” with startling accuracy.  That last one is the most heart-wrenching of all.  People will claim to be religious, but miss the heart of true religion – the power of knowing and being loved by the True God.

Paul warns: Avoid such as these. But there must be more we can do to survive our lives in these difficult times.  Certainly, avoid evil.  But Paul follows up with more… much more!

First, though, he paints an even more disturbing picture in verses 12-13.  Not only must we live in such a difficult world as described in the opening verses, but if we follow God, Paul says we will be persecuted.  People will actively oppose us and try to hurt us!  And in v. 13, Paul writes, “But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.”  What help is there for us if we are going to follow God in this world?

Paul’s answer to Timothy, and to us, is SCRIPTURE – God’s Word, the Bible. It’s more than an answer; Paul says that it is the key to being prepared and equipped for living well and following God in such a world as this.

God’s Breath Upon Us

Paul refers to scripture twice.  First, in v. 15 he calls it “sacred writings” – the scripture that Timothy read as a child.  Living before the New Testament had been collected as such (he’s writing part of it right here!), Paul is referring to the Hebrew Scriptures – the Law, the Prophets, and the Wisdom writings.

Second, in v. 16, Paul writes, “All scripture is inspired by God…”  He writes that God breathed Himself into and through the scriptures.  We understand this to be God’s Holy Spirit, described often in the Bible as “the breath of God.”  The scriptures – this Bible – is more than great human writing… it is God’s gift to us, a revealing of Himself, written by and through human beings under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  These are the very words of God!

When we ask what help we have in the face of evil, suffering, deception, and even persecution, Paul’s answer is more than a book.  It is help FROM GOD – God’s own words and direction for our lives.  Scripture is God’s breath upon us, saying, “I am here; I am your help and your salvation.  Come, follow me.”

Paul tells us that God’s Word does several things when we read and follow it.  First, and certainly most importantly, it imparts the “wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.” (v. 15)  This was how God worked in Timothy’s life to lead him to Jesus Christ.  Timothy had read these scriptures as a child, and they pointed him to Jesus Christ (even with just the Hebrew Scriptures!).

Why is hearing, reading, and responding to the Bible so important?  It is important because it bears witness to who God is and what He has done in history, especially through Jesus Christ.  It tells people what they need to know to come to Jesus with faith, understanding, and belief, in order to follow him.

That’s why our worship is organized around God’s Word.  We read it, we pray as it teaches us, we hear it proclaimed in sermon and song.  And we teach it to our children, that they might come to faith in Jesus Christ.  It is the Good News about what God has done in Jesus Christ.  It is at the center of our faith and it is the forward banner of our testimony to the world, that all might believe.

All that is of supreme importance!  But, once we have trusted in Jesus Christ, is there really a need to keep our heads buried in the Bible?  Once we are “saved,” isn’t that enough?

I think the context Paul has already described – our context in a difficult and disappointing world – should send us running back to the Bible!  For, though salvation would be enough, scripture also gives us tools – means for facing and living in this challenging world of ours.

Four Uses

Paul lists four more uses of scripture in our lives – scripture is profitable (useful)…

    …for teaching
    …for reproof
    …for correction
    …for training in righteousness

Now all those things overlap a bit.  It may be that reproof, correction, and training all describe the teaching of scripture.  Or, it may be a progression, becoming more and more personal in the effect scripture can have in our life.  The point is that God’s Word, this inspired scripture, is given to us to be used.  And the use – the benefit – it has for us is that it teaches us what we need to live as God’s people – to BE – in this world.  It does so by teaching us what we would not know on our own.  In the Bible God is revealing Himself in specific ways, ways that cannot be intuited from beautiful sunsets, an infinite universe, or the intricacy of a flower.  And scripture challenges us.  It “reproves” or rebukes us in areas where we disobey God and act against His will.  It “corrects” us, not just issuing rebuke, but doing so with the goal of straightening out our path – teaching us the right way to go so that we may indeed go that way.  And scripture “trains us” – teaches us in a life-changing way… a habit-changing way… a transforming way.  That’s what righteousness is… the goal of the teaching, reproof, correction, and training.  It is God’s will and God’s way for our life.

Paul says that when we have submitted to the teaching, reproof, correction, and training of scripture, the result is that we are “adequate, equipped for every good work.”  We will have what we need to face the selfishness, deception, malice, and evil of the world.  It’s not super-power, like Superman or Spiderman, but it is adequate equipment to be God’s men and women.  It is the courage and freedom to speak the truth in the face of deception.  It is the purity to reject temptations of money, sex, or power.  It is the endurance and perseverance to live with hope through suffering or persecution.  It is the sure knowledge that God goes with us, before us and behind us, leading us on His path and in His will.

School on Sunday?!

Do we want our children to be saved?  Do we want them to know God by trusting in and following Jesus Christ?  Then certainly we want them to grow up with the sacred scriptures that give the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith.  We also want adults to come to a saving knowledge of God in Jesus Christ.  So, we continue to stand on and proclaim God’s Word boldly as a church.

What about this Sunday school, though?  Do I really need to bring my kids for one more hour of instruction when they already do so much in a week?  I’d say yes, that one hour of teaching, reproof, correction, and training in God’s Word – which is the goal of Sunday school – is one of the most critical things a child will do in any given week.

But I’d go even further, because most people feel some unspoken urge to get their kids to church.  I’d say that Sunday school is just as critical for teenagers and for adults.  The teaching, reproof, correction, and training in God’s Word that you get in Sunday school equips you in critical ways to face and live through all the many things you will face Monday-Saturday.  Are you going to lose your job this week?  Is your best friend going to lie to you?  Will someone steal from you?  Will your body fail? 

Worship is primarily where we give to God – we worship God in Spirit and Truth, offering ourselves in response to who He is and His Word to us. Sunday school is where God gives to us… riches out of His Word.  It is where you will get the equipment you need to not only live life, but live it well as God would have you live.

Let me end with three challenges:
  1. Commit to coming to Sunday school each week – you and your whole family.  It will transform your faith and your life.
  2. Commit to personal study of God’s Word – reading it, pondering it, wrestling with it, and living it.  There are women’s Bible studies on Monday and Tuesday nights and Tuesday mornings as well, organized to help you study daily. If there are men who are looking for group study, get in touch with me and I will match you up with a partner or group for study. A great starting place is Sunday morning Sunday school!
  3. Find a community group that interests you. They are not Bible studies, per se, but they provide an opportunity for sharing interests and experiences from daily life in a context of Christian fellowship and faith.
I won’t give you a 30-day guarantee like on TV, because I think these are things we need to be doing out of obedience, even if we don’t “feel the blessing” right away.  But, having said that, I am confident that you will experience life-changing transformation by committing to the study of God’s Word on a regular basis.

And if our greater calling is not to just come to church but to BE the church in the world, this study of God’s Word, tuned for those called to live and be in this world, is of critical value in our preparation and work.

May God give us ears to hear and hearts to follow.  Amen.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Water Into Wine (John 2.1-12)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; September 4, 2016
Text: John 12:1-12; Isaiah 29:13-14a; Mark 7:1-7

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

:: Scripture and Music ::
Song of Praise: Hosanna/Praise is Rising (Brown, Baloche)
Song of Praise: In Christ Alone (Getty, Townend)
Offering of Music: There is a Fountain Filled with Blood (Red Mountain Music)
Hymn of Sending: Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken (AUSTRIAN HYMN)

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

I’d like to share a few stories with you… about people I have known – and perhaps people whose situations you can relate to.

I have a friend from high school who was active in her youth group and eager to know and serve God. When she went to college, she became less interested in spiritual things, and God took a back seat in her life. Nearing graduation, she started describing the pressure to marry and establish a career and eventually a family. She found a popular and reasonably successful guy, and eventually they married. It was the kind of marriage you read about or see on TV – a beautiful wedding, two happy and successful people, a nice home and good families. After a while, though, the marriage just seemed to run out of energy. There were no obvious problems, but there just didn’t seem to be any great reason to stay together or way to improve upon what they had. I remember talking to my friend at a point of real confusion, where she said, “This is what I imagined for my life, but it’s just not as fulfilling as I had hoped it would be. Surely there’s something more or better for me and for us.”

I have another friend that I worked with a number of years ago, who just had a tragic and painful life. One of her parents had died suddenly when she was young, she was in a series of bad relationships, and she struggled with depression. Eventually, doctors diagnosed her with bi-polar disorder. She spent time in the hospital for it; she tried one drug after another to manage it, and several times nearly came to the end of her life. Part of what was so crushing was that the best doctors and drugs continued to fail her – sometimes there were moments of reprieve, other times they seemed to make matters worse. I remember her saying to me, “I just don’t know how much longer I keep doing this.”

There was one more friend who I knew from a men’s Bible study at my previous church. He retired and promptly had a heart attack, followed by a series of strokes and other health problems. I remember him commenting that retirement seemed to be bad for his health. He also said that it was not turning out like he had imagined. He experienced a great deal of frustration over his failing body and dreams that failed to materialize.

And finally, I have one more story. There was once a wedding where people from all over the town showed up to celebrate. In fact, the party was to last several days – and the food and drink flowed freely. It was the bride and groom’s moment in the spotlight, and the family and friends wanted everything to be storybook perfect. Imagine the horror of the servers and the host when the drink ran out. It would ruin everything – one certainly couldn’t maintain a multi-day party without anything to drink. Had no one intervened, parents, family, friends, and the bride and groom would have been utterly disappointed and embarrassed. They were celebrating the best they knew how, but it was not enough – the best party in the world was about to come crashing down around them.

Jesus, Life of the Party

Jesus – if you ask people to describe him, likely they would not use the phrase “life of the party.” It’s no put down of Jesus – it’s just not a phrase we associate with him. We don’t think of him as a partygoer… sure, later he would eat with disreputable people, but still, he was not a partier. And it’s not like he had already been doing miracles left and right. In fact, he hadn’t done any that we know of. The Bible just says that his mother told him about the problem, then instructed the servants to obey him, even after he questioned getting involved.

I’m not sure what caused Jesus to act that day – he seemed to say it was not the right time to act, but then he did anyway. I do know that what he did was amazing and significant in the most meaningful ways.

Jesus did a miracle. It doesn’t read as a real flashy one, but it was one. He told the servants to fill some large stone pots with water. When he then told the headwaiter to taste it, it had become the best of wines.

With flashier miracles to come, I think we often skip right through this one, only pausing long enough to note that it was Jesus’ first miracle – kind of like he was warming up. But don’t miss the great significance of this miracle! The wedding celebration of two Jewish people in those days was a larger affair than we can imagine. The party lasted for up to seven days, and running out of wine would have been a horrible embarrassment and disappointment. In some ways, more than even the party was at stake! Such embarrassment would probably put huge stress between the bride and groom’s families, and potentially between the bride and groom.

And Jesus didn’t just order some wine or make enough to get by. He made 180 gallons of fine wine! He didn’t just rescue the party from potential disaster; he brought LIFE – even NEW LIFE to the party.

A Living Parable

I like to think of Jesus’ miracles as “living parables.” The parables were stories he told with a central spiritual point, and I don’t think Jesus performed his healings and other miracles in a vacuum. They also had a spiritual point, and often he would connect teaching with a miracle, like his teaching on the bread of life following the feeding of the 5000. Jesus didn’t stop and teach those at the wedding party, but his miracle conveys significant spiritual truth that we need to hear and apply in our own lives.

In symbolic terms, Jesus’ miracle at the wedding party is notable for several reasons. Later, he would make the connection between his crucifixion, the shedding of his blood, and the wine poured out in what came to be called the Lord’s Supper. It is significant that Jesus created wine in jars used for ceremonial religious washing. Later, his blood would be poured out as the new way for us to truly be “clean” before God.

Jesus not only made a way for us to be clean before God, but also to have new life. Without the death and resurrection of Jesus, we would be trapped in sin and death, hoping only in what temporary and partial respite this world has to offer. When Jesus offered his life on the cross to defeat sin and death, he made it possible for us to be clean – to be right – with God, and also for us to know NEW LIFE.

That’s what Jesus brought to that wedding party – new life. And that’s what he offers those who trust in him. His miracle was a living demonstration, with common water and wine, of the ultimate miracle of salvation. (As a significant side note, we repeat this “demonstration” in our sacraments, at the Lord’s Table and in Baptism where wine, bread, and water once again testify to God’s salvation in Christ.) He didn’t just save the party, he demonstrated God’s intent to save fallen humanity once and for all. That was the greater gift, for a while ‘hidden’ because it was “not yet His time,” but nonetheless visibly and publicly demonstrated and remembered.

Let’s return then to my original stories and friends with the assertion that Jesus brings new life not only to wedding parties in 1st century Palestine, but also in the lives of 21st century people.

Jesus, Life of our Lives

The obvious first question is this: Does Jesus promise a “miracle” cure for the situations of life? Is all my friends need to believe in Jesus and suddenly they will have a great marriage, a cure for depression, and post-retirement health and happiness?

Of course it’s not that simplistic – to suggest that would be a fake kind of Christianity that just doesn’t match reality. And actually, all three of my friends already were Christians. That’s the reality of life – Christians suffer and sicken just like non-Christian people.

So what difference does Jesus Christ make in this life? How is he the “life of the party” in our lives, particularly when our so-called “party” is suddenly about to turn ugly?

The answer to these questions relates to HOPE. What brought all three of my friends to a point of real frustration and near-despair was finding their hopes dashed. And the good news from God’s Word is this: when we put our hope in God, he will not fail us. That is not to say we will not die, grow sick, or suffer pain. It is to say that hoping in God creates a quality of life altogether different from hoping in the things of this world. It is also to say that putting our hope in something only of this world cannot offer us ultimate hope, comfort, or happiness.

That is where I believe my three friends, myself, and many of us miss the mark. We trust in God or want to trust in God, but are such people of our culture and our world. And we buy the promises and the hope offered by this world… whether it be an idealized view of the “perfect family” and the white picket fence, or a pain-free and sorrow-free life, or that magical retirement that many of us work our entire lives to reach. And the list of worldly promises goes on and on and on.

God addressed the issue early on with his people, commanding that we neither create nor have any other Gods than him alone. God spoke to something more lasting and significant than his people’s lip-service and religiosity:

…this people draw near with their words and honor me with their lip-service, but they remove their hearts from me and their reverence for me consists of tradition learned by rote; therefore behold, I will once again deal marvelously with this people, wondrously marvelous. (Isaiah 29:13-14)

And Jesus quotes that same passage later in a run-in with the Pharisees. (Mark 7) That’s where we are falling short of God’s best for us – we are trusting in the wrong things. Certainly, God intends for us to want good relationships, to seek medical treatment, and to enjoy the fruits of our labors. But what God wants first from us is our true worship and our love.

Let me say that a different way, lest there be confusion: Jesus didn’t come to increase our wealth, deliver us from struggle, or give us a charmed life. He doesn’t intentionally NOT answer prayer or ignore our needs; but what he did at that wedding and what he has done in the world and eternity is much more significant, wondrously marvelously more. He has made it possible to have Life with God.

That’s why Jesus is so accurately depicted as the Life of the party – life with a big ‘L’. It is because he is the way, the truth, and THE LIFE. Trusting in God through Jesus Christ is the way in which we can know God, know God’s desires for our lives, and know God’s best for our lives.

As we continue to come and see Jesus Christ, we will continue to be drawn deeper into a relationship with God the Father, and know the hope and healing of God’s Spirit – his presence – in our lives.

More Than We Can Ask or Imagine

I want to conclude by reading another portion of God’s Word. This comes from Ephesians 3:14-21. It is a declaration of praise and a prayer about the sheer magnitude of God’s grace to us in Christ, a kind of spiritual parallel to the amazement of that head steward when he realized he suddenly had 180 gallons of the finest wine.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.