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Sunday, April 30, 2017


What Does it Mean to be Blessed? (Lent/Easter 2017)
Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church
March 5 - April 30, 2017

In this series we look at the meaning of "blessing" in Jesus teaching and life.

So What Does it Mean to be Blessed? (Psalm 1, Joshua 1)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; April 30, 2017 - Psalm 1; Joshua 1:1,7-9

:: 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 ::
Singing Together: Every Promise of Your Word (Getty/Townend)
Singing Together: Ancient Words (DeShazo)
Offering of Music: Bobby White, piano
Hymn of Sending: How Firm a Foundation (FOUNDATION)

:: 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 come to the end of a series by the same name as this sermon: “What Does it Mean to be Blessed?” We have looked at Jesus’ own teaching , as well as some other scripture, to try to understand this term which gets used in so many ways in the church and our culture.

Today I’d like to walk us back through what we’ve learned, then end with a brief look at the two passages you heard read today from Psalm 1 and Joshua 1. My hope is not just that you would better understand blessing, but that you would also BE blessed as you draw near to God’s will and Word in your own life.

Blessings and Woes (Luke 6:20-26)

Blessed are the poor (v.20) – Jesus warns against settling for any comfort in life that is less than God’s own hope, healing, and true comfort. Blessing is to be found in God alone, not in the stuff of this earth.

Blessed are those who hunger now (v. 21a)
– Jesus speaks of what ultimately feeds or satisfies us, warning again against settling for the immediate, temporary, or mundane. As he taught in John 6, Jesus is the Bread of Life – the source and sustenance for our lasting and true satisfaction.

Blessed are you who weep now (v. 21b)
– Jesus speaks of sorrow over the brokenness of this world and the joy that God will set things right. It is this perspective, even in sorrow, that is the source of true joy, the present experience of our future hope.

Blessed are you who are hated… for the sake of the Son of Man (v. 22)
– Jesus speaks of true rewards, not as a prize given to us for our service to God, but as the blessing of trusting and following Him. The relationship with God through Christ is itself the true reward or blessing.

Action Steps (Luke 6:27-38)

Jesus moved from those blessings and woes to three pretty direct action steps. In a series of varied and repeated teachings and illustrations, he said that blessing is found in doing three things: LOVING, DOING GOOD, and GIVING FREELY. But he goes way beyond the ordinary expectation of what these mean by challenging us to love, do good, and give freely to those who have not treated us well, even enemies. Our example is God Himself, who has lavished us with these things even though we didn’t deserve it and have been, at times, enemies of God.

Jesus teaches that blessing is not a one-way gift from God to us, but is a lived reflection of God’s intent toward us. If we want to experience blessing, then we live as Christ has lived and love as God has loved.

Jesus, Our Example (Holy Week events)

We saw several examples of Jesus as our example of blessing over the course of Holy Week…

Palm Sunday (Mark 11)
– Jesus was BLESSED, the one who came in the name of the Lord. That wasn’t just something the crowd shouted or a prophecy fulfilled, it described Jesus and describes blessing for us. Jesus was blessed because he was perfectly aligned with God’s will. That’s where blessing is rooted, not in our will or wishes. That is perhaps most simply and powerfully captured in his prayer, “Thy will be done.”

Maundy Thursday (John 13)
– In that simple act of footwashing, Jesus demonstrated what it means to love. Remember the action steps? Loving beyond ordinary expectation is one of them. Jesus commanded his followers to love others like he loved them. It was (and is) a welcoming, generous, humble love. It extends the love of God to others. That is blessed.

Easter Sunday (Acts 13)
– The resurrection account in Acts 13 read like a news report. In the course of that report, it is explained in Jewish-historical terms and also in relational terms. Part of the historical explanation named the resurrection as the “holy and sure blessings” of David because it made good on God’s promise to His people through David. The report went on to describe forgiveness and freedom as two specific blessings that we can enjoy because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Resurrection Appearances (John 20)
– Last Sunday we looked at Jesus’ appearance to the disciples after the resurrection. Thomas missed it and did not believe. We looked at some of the unhealthy fruit of his unbelief: doubt, demands, and isolation. But we also saw the healthy fruit of belief, which may still include doubt, but leads to love, salvation, and worship.

Rooted in God’s Word (Joshua 1, Psalm 1)

Today you heard part of the introduction to the book of Joshua. He was the leader God chose after the great leader Moses died. In charging Joshua for that task, God told him not only to be “strong and very courageous,” but also to be very careful to obey the scripture. And God told him not just to obey it, but to “meditate on it day and night.” (v. 8) In so doing, God said, Joshua would experience blessing.

Here in Joshua, then, as well as again and again over these past weeks, we have seen that blessing is rooted in God’s will and Word. Last week we talked a bit about Psalm 1, but I was drawn back to it this week to look a little more specifically at how we can root our lives in this way. People often ask me, “How can I know God’s will? How can I be ‘rooted’ in God’s Word?”

The picture described in Psalm 1 is such an easy one to picture. It is a tree planted next to a stream of water. (v. 3) For that tree it doesn’t matter if the weather changes or if drought comes. The tree is rooted and those roots reach the life-giving water nearby. That allows the tree to bear fruit in season and not to weaken or wither or fade away.

Just like that healthy, fruit-bearing tree planted near life-giving water, spiritual health and blessing comes from our being rooted in and nourished by God’s Word in scripture. And the Psalmist gives us two specific non-metaphorical descriptions of how to relate to scripture in that way: study and delight.

Study and Delight (Psalm 1)

By STUDY, I don’t mean cramming the night before a test. That’s not how we are to relate to scripture. The Psalm describes the blessed person as one who meditates in God’s Law day and night. I mean the kind of study that keeps returning again and again for more knowledge – and not just head-knowledge, but the kind of knowledge that is life-changing and life-giving. To ‘meditate’ on scripture is to read it and learn it and ponder it and test it and live it. That kind of study only starts in a Sunday school class, Bible study, or quiet time. It continues throughout the day and the week until it becomes part of who we are. And that kind of relationship with scripture is closely related to the other description given here.

To DELIGHT in God’s Word is to be captivated by it. It becomes something we enjoy and look forward to, not a burdensome chore or obligation. I realize there is not a delight switch that can make you love the Bible like some of us love ice cream. But that’s where the study comes in. It is very rare for someone to delight in something they only relate to casually and don’t spend much time with. It may be that studying the Bible starts as a decision and a commitment; but precisely because it is full of life and hope I think it will turn to delight. And if you can experience just a little delight, it makes it all the easier to then study and meditate on scripture.

Our desire in offering opportunities for study at Good Shepherd is not to put one more spiritual obligation on you, but to offer a place where you can, with others, experience both the study and the delight that is described in Psalm 1.

So What Does it Mean to be Blessed?

So do you want to be blessed? It doesn’t mean trouble will go away. It doesn’t mean you will get rich or famous or get well. What it means is trying to figure out what God is up to – what God would want – and aligning your choices, desires, decisions, and life with Him. The very practical way to figure out how to do that is to root yourself in God’s Word, in scripture. That’s where God reveals what He’s up to and what He wants. Study it; delight in it. Or at least study it until you can delight in it!

There will be times when you won’t want to hear what God has to say. Many of us have had that experience when we are headed in the wrong direction and a parent, teacher, or friend calls us on it. It’s hard to delight at that stage. But surely we know the wrong direction is not #blessed. God loves you perfectly and His Word and will are always worth heeding, even if it’s hard to delight in the moment. But it is the way to come to know and experience real blessing, which is what God desires for you and for me. Amen.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Those Who Did Not See (John 20.19-29)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; April 23, 2017 - John 20:19-29, 1 Peter 1:3-9

:: 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 ::
Singing Together: Worship Christ the Risen King (REGENT SQUARE)
Singing Together: Great are You, Lord (Ingram, Jordan, Leonard)
Offering of Music: It is Well (DiMarco, Spafford, Bliss)
Hymn of Sending: Breathe on Me, Breath of God (TRENTHAM)

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

Last Sunday we celebrated with Christians all over the world that God raised Jesus from the dead. Today is for those who struggle with doubts. Today we hear the story of Thomas the disciple, so-called “doubting Thomas.” Our own doubts may range far and wide from intellectual to emotional to reacting to struggle and the “why?” questions; but I believe there is something important and universal in this story.  It touches on needing and wanting answers and the intersections of faith and doubt and belief.

Is Jesus Risen? (v. 25)

This particular story began on Easter Sunday night.  Jesus appeared to the disciples, who were locked away in fear and hiding.  He appeared just as the angel said and just as Mary told them when she ran from the empty tomb to find them.  And Jesus came to them with the greeting of peace.  He showed them his hands and side, then again spoke words of peace.  He then told them he had work for them to do, and he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  It was a powerful encounter, for everyone who was there.

But one disciple wasn’t there.  Thomas was not with them when this happened, and he couldn’t believe that the others had seen Jesus.  Who can blame him?  The story was just too fantastic!  And after headstrong Peter, isn’t Thomas the disciple many of us identify with most?  He declared, “Unless I see the nail prints in his hands and put my finger in them, and unless I put my hand into the wound in his side, I will not believe.” Did you hear that last part?  I will not believe.  That’s the issue here – not doubt, but unbelief.  That is a critical distinction!  To skip to the punch line, doubt is not the opposite of faith; unbelief is the opposite of faith.  Let’s consider that in more detail.

Unbelief and its ‘Fruits’ (v. 27)

I don’t really know the state of Thomas’ soul in those days after Easter Sunday.  We know he was a disciple… that he had chosen to follow Jesus.  And then, we hear him speak twice in the biblical account before this scene.  When Jesus and the disciples were headed to Bethany after Lazarus had died, Thomas said, “Let us go then, that we might die with him.”  He was anticipating more conflict with the religious authorities like what they had just left behind in Jerusalem.  The other occasion for Thomas to speak is recorded in John 14, when Jesus is talking about going away to the Father and preparing a home for them there.  Thomas says, “What are you talking about?  We don’t know where you are going!”  It may be, then, that Thomas never really understood who Jesus was.  He may have been following him simply as a great teacher or as a revolutionary. 

And so, with regard to the great promise of a Messiah – a deliverer who would rescue God’s people – it seems that Thomas may not have experienced a life-changing encounter with the Son of God, though he had followed him for three years. And if there is doubt on this issue, consider Jesus’ words to Thomas in verse 27.  He tells Thomas to touch his wounds, and then speaks strongly to him, “Do not be unbelieving, but believing (or faithful).”  Jesus recognized that his fundamental problem was not proof, but belief.  Does it seem strange that someone could be a disciple of Jesus for three years and not have that crucial faith or belief in him as the Son of God?

It is no stranger than attending church for years and not ever having experienced a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  In fact, tragically, it happens all the time. So, I have two questions.  First, how can we recognize if our own life is rooted in God’s salvation in Christ?  Secondly, how can unbelief become faith – that is, if we do not know God in a saving way, how can we come to know Him in that way?

The way to evaluate our own faith is to examine our ‘fruit.’  Consider Thomas, as described in our passage.  The DOUBT that we often focus on when we read this passage is really just one fruit of his basic unbelief.  How indeed, could he imagine Jesus to be alive if he never understood who Jesus was or what Jesus was talking about when he spoke of leaving them and preparing a place for them in Heaven.  And Thomas’ doubt led him to make DEMANDS.  “Unless… unless…” (v. 25) he said.  Thomas was quite specific and detailed about what he required of a risen Jesus.  And his unbelief also resulted in ISOLATION from the other disciples.  Perhaps his unbelief was why he wasn’t with them when Jesus first came.  Certainly, his negative response to their joyous shouts of “We have seen the Lord!” would have put some kind of barrier between himself and them.  Basically, to the combined testimony of 10 disciples and the women at the tomb, Thomas replied, “I don’t believe you!” If the unbelieving heart is allowed to run unchecked, it will manifest in a person as doubt and demands, and often will result in or lead to self-imposed isolation from those who do trust in God.

Faith and its ‘Fruits’ (1 Peter 1:8-9)

A life of faith is also known by its ‘fruit.’  Please note that faithful and believing people are not perfect; far from it! They also struggle with doubt, but our doubts should spur us towards seeking and understanding, saying, “I want to find out more.”  But notice, too, that the fruit of a believing heart isn’t certainty or lack of doubt, but other qualities and characteristics.  For example, Psalm 1 tells us that faith and belief are rooted in the Law of the Lord, or the Word of God – the Bible.  And 1 Peter describes a number of ‘fruits’ of the faithful or believing heart:

…and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:8-9)

The faithful heart LOVES God – even though we may not have seen God with our own eyes.  Faith and trust grow, are nurtured, and are refined into something precious and strong because we love God through worship and praise.  The faithful heart expresses itself through BELIEF in Jesus Christ.  We trust in God’s promises and in Jesus as the one sent by God.  And though we do not see Him now, faith results in active belief.  The faithful heart is characterized by and produces inexpressible JOY because of the presence of God in the human life.  We are literally, filled with the glory of God – with God’s Holy Spirit, which produces joy in us, even in the face of sorrow and suffering.  And Peter tells us that the outcome of such a faith and believing heart is the SALVATION of the soul. 

Finally, and most importantly, the chief fruit of a faithful heart is WORSHIP.  We see this back in the passage with Thomas and Jesus.  Worship is the combination of the other fruit as well – it is love expressed, belief demonstrated, joy experienced, and salvation celebrated.  And in the moment that Jesus appeared to Thomas, something happened.  Though Jesus offered to meet his demands for proof, Thomas’ doubts and demands were dropped, and his isolation ended immediately.  He was transformed on the spot, because he did not respond by taking Jesus up on the offer to touch the wounds.  He did not rush over to examine Jesus’ scars, hands, and side.  He simply exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”  Jesus confirmed that this happened by saying, “Because you have seen me, have you believed?”  Thomas took one look at Jesus, perhaps simply recognizing him, and declared one of the most simple and complete sentences of worship in the New Testament.  Jesus was “my Lord” – leader, ruler, king, master, the one Thomas would serve and follow, and it was personal and specific to him.  And Jesus was “my God” – not just teacher/Rabbi, but GOD, personal and specific to him.

A Changed Life

The believing heart and the unbelieving heart face the same life conditions, the same struggles, the same questions, and even the same doubts.  Both have parents die; both get cancer; both wonder why bad things happen to good people; both wonder why the evil sometimes prosper.  Both the believing heart and the unbelieving heart are born into the same world.  But their roots, their support, their nourishment, and their hope are entirely different.

Faith is rooted in trust and love.  If I love and trust someone (including God), I will take my doubt and seek understanding.  If I do not believe in someone (including God), my doubts will turn into demands and will eventually cut me off and isolate me even more.

Faith is rooted in the Word and promises of God.  If I don’t understand something, if I struggle, if I am discouraged, but am rooted in God’s Word, I will seek out God’s promise to me and trust in Him, even in times of shadow and darkness – especially in those times.  If I am rooted in unbelief, I dangle helplessly, battered by all that life throws at me.

So maybe we can tell the difference.  Maybe we can see areas in our own life – little plantings in our life that are unbelieving rather than faithful.  Or maybe some have realized that more than an area of life needs to be transformed – the whole tree needs to change!  We may have an idea now how to identify our “roots and fruits” – our life and core commitment.  But how can we change?  What happened to Thomas and how can it happen to me – either in whole or in areas where I still cling to unbelief?  What can I tell my friend or my parent or my child who struggles so with doubts or demands of God? How does unbelief become faith? 

God promises that if we earnestly seek Him, He will be found! (Proverbs 8:17) And Jesus invites, “If anyone is thirsty, come to me and drink!” (John 7:37) When we encounter God, the realization of just who God is – HOLY – causes us to realize just how big is the gulf between us and God.  This realization is CONVICTION – being ‘pierced through to the core’ by the realization that things are not right between me and God, and that will be the end of me.  Often, along with conviction, CONFESSION means naming or presenting myself to God.  From that condition of realizing and confessing that I am undone, REPENTANCE means desiring to change or be changed.  God offers FORGIVENESS and CLEANSING from sin and disobedience through his Son, Jesus Christ.  And then God CALLS us to follow and serve Him. 

This is the change God desires, requires, and accomplishes for all who would be in right relationship with Him.  The process of conviction, confession, and repentance is the process of having our ‘tree’ cut down.  It means being leveled before God, realizing that apart from God’s help, we are undone.  And God is the One who makes us new. It is death and resurrection!  Through Jesus Christ, God re-plants us and causes new growth in our lives. 

Whether in all of life or in little holdover areas we all have, do you desire to be faithful rather than unbelieving?  Do you want your heart to be governed by love, belief, joy, salvation, and worship, rather than by doubt, demands, and isolation? If you do, I would invite you to take a concrete step of asking God for help, joining me in your heart as I pray this prayer:

Holy God, help me to see and understand who you are.  Help me to see and understand exactly who I am.  Help me to see and understand the great separation between us.  God, save me, for I am lost without you!  God, thank you for the way you have made through Jesus.  Help me to trust him and follow him; Help me to believe him and serve him; and help me to grow in faith and love of you.  Thank you for loving me; thank you for forgiving me; thank you for making me clean and right, my Lord and my God.  Amen.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Holy and Sure Blessings (Acts 13.29-41) - EASTER SUNDAY

Sermon by: Robert Austell; April 16, 2017 (Easter Sunday); Acts 13:29-41

:: 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 ::
Singing Together: Christ the Lord is Risen Today (EASTER HYMN)
Singing Together: In Christ Alone (Getty/Townend)
The Word in Music: (Choir) Easter Alleluia Canon (Mozart, Liebergen)
Song of Response: Mighty to Save (Morgan, Fielding)
Hymn of Sending: Behold Our God (Sovereign Grace, Baird, Altrogge)
Postlude: (Organ/Piano) Because He Lives 

:: 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 will give you… holy and sure blessings.” Thus God spoke through the prophet Isaiah (55:3), and the Book of Acts links that declaration to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ which we celebrate this morning. We have been talking about blessing for a number of weeks, seeing that it is not a reward God heaps upon the lucky or the faithful, but is the experience of being a part of what God is doing.

Looking for references to God’s blessing led me to some different places over the last few weeks and today is no exception. This is the first time I’ve gone to the Book of Acts to talk about Easter Resurrection, but it’s there in chapter 13, a quick recap of what happened this Easter weekend, and then an explanation of what it means. So I invite you to listen up and maybe hear something you haven’t heard before in this account of the death and Resurrection of Jesus.

The News: Resurrection! (vv. 29-31)

The big news is Resurrection and it’s described right there in the first three verses of our text. We will take up what it means in a moment, but here is the report of the news, according to Luke the Physician, who investigated, interviewed, and wrote the books of Luke and Acts with the intent of making an orderly account of all that happened. (Luke 1:1-4)

“When they had carried out all that was written concerning Him…” (v. 29)
– That refers to the many things that happened to Jesus that were written about in the Hebrew scriptures, our Old Testament. He would suffer, he would serve, he would be beaten and whipped, he would ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, he would heal, he would announce the Kingdom of God. Jesus did all those things in his life and ministry, and once he had given up his life, “they took Him down from the cross and laid Him in a tomb.” That’s a super-short summary of his life and death, but if you want the details, you can read it all in the Gospels, the eye-witness accounts from his followers.

“But God raised him from the dead” (v. 30) – It’s frustratingly short, but not even the Gospels tell us how that happened, just that it happened. The Gospels include the reactions of the women, the disciples, and that sort of thing, but we don’t get the answers to our questions like “How did that work?” and “Did his body recompose?” Elsewhere we are told that he was changed somewhat, so it was more than just resuscitation, like might happen after someone has drowned. He was three days dead and God raised him. It’s supposed to be supernatural, beyond our experience or understanding, divine mystery.

“For many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, the very ones who are now his witnesses to the people.” (v. 31) – This is an important part of the Resurrection news. It’s not just myth and fable because in the days that followed people saw Jesus of Nazareth. You might even attribute it to a vision or hallucination if only one or two saw him at the empty tomb, but he appeared to different people and groups over the course of many days. He spoke, he touched, he ate, he visited. And those who saw him became witnesses – eye-witnesses – of the Resurrection news.

The Promise (vv. 32-37)

But what does the Resurrection mean? Why is it such a big deal? Luke turns to that question next, starting with some long-standing history and hopes of the Jewish people. Luke speaks of the “good news of the promise made to the fathers” (v. 32) and says that “God has fulfilled this promise to our children.” (v. 33) He then quotes from the Hebrew scripture, the Old Testament, from Psalms and Isaiah, to name the promise. God promised his people another like the great King David, born of God as a son, inheritor of David’s blessing and birthright, and proof against death and decay. This was the Messiah that God’s people waited for in faith for a thousand years. And Luke claims all that for Jesus, that he is the promised Messiah, the Son of God, the heir to King David. These are the “holy and sure blessings” of David. But Jesus is more than and greater than David, the greatest of all Jewish kings, he says, because David died and his body decayed; but Jesus was raised from the dead.

Luke says that the Resurrection is a big deal because it proves that Jesus was the expected Messiah. Well that has a lot of significance if you are Jewish, but it may still leave most of us asking, “So what?” What does that have to do with me, Jewish or not, in 2017 in the United States of America? And what does all that faith, hope, and promise stuff have to do with my life full of deadlines, internet, science, politics, and modern sensibilities.

Luke says there are two results of the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, these “holy and sure blessings” of the Promised Messiah of God: FORGIVENESS and FREEDOM.

Forgiveness and Freedom (vv. 38-39)

“Therefore let it be known to you… that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you…” (v. 38) – You don’t have to be Jewish or even Christian to understand FORGIVENESS. It is that undeserved act offered by one toward another out of mercy or love. Maybe you hurt my feelings by a casual comment, or maybe something worse. You may or may not come to say “I’m sorry,” but regardless, I do not owe you forgiveness, but it is my choice to offer it. The old way was “an eye for an eye” – you hurt me and I have the right to hurt you back in equal measure. That kind of justice has been around in many cultures since ancient times. But Jesus taught something different: forgiveness of the other as one part of his broader teaching to love one’s neighbor. The forgiveness described here is an even greater kind. It is forgiveness of sins proclaimed to you. Sin is a certain kind of rift, specifically between us and God. Yes, it’s a spiritual term. It describes any number of ways we have wronged God or the humanity or creation God loves. Sin may be defiance or dismissal of God; it may be through the way we treat others. But here’s the result of Jesus’ life, suffering, and death: God knows you and forgives you. It’s undeserved; you don’t earn it through good deeds. Like our own forgiveness of others, it’s out of mercy and love.

“…and through Him everyone who believes is freed from all things from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses.” (v. 39) – Forgiveness from God is the result of Jesus life, suffering, and death; the result of the Resurrection is FREEDOM. Here it says “freed from all things from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses.” The Law of Moses is the system of right behavior prescribed in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. It includes the Ten Commandments and many other rules and regulations. Hear this: the commandments are good. It is good not to kill, not to covet, not to lie. To the extent that you or I heed and follow them, we are better off than not following. The key there is “to the extent.” None of us can keep them all the time. And so the net result of those commandments is the sure and certain knowledge that we fail and fall short. Maybe you already knew that? You might think that’s obvious to everyone, but I think many of us go to great lengths to avoid that truth. We are “good enough” or “better than that guy.” But whether we own up to it or not, there is a weight – a captivity – that comes with being human. And the claim is that somehow you can be free from that weight and captivity because of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Let me press in and try to make this personal. Can you think of a place in your life where you have messed up? I trust you are all with me so far.   And don’t worry, you will not have to whisper this to the person next to you or write it on a card. But whether it’s the Law of Moses or the law of the land or just the unspoken law of what is right and wrong between you and another person, you’ve messed up; we’ve all messed up. Has that mistake had consequences? Or, perhaps worse yet, you are waiting for the consequences to fall on you like a hammer. Have you experienced what I mean by a weight or feeling captive to that mistake? I think our two human responses to that kind of situation is 1) we want to get away with it; or 2) we want to pay in full so we can be free. Both of those have problems. Getting away with something may sound appealing, but it doesn’t truly remove the hammer, because we know we might be found out. And then there is our conscience, which often won’t let it go. Paying in full is sometimes appealing, too, except there are something we can’t pay in full, particularly under the “eye for an eye” scenario. If I’ve hurt you deeply, is full payment for you to hurt be back? Worse yet, we try to combine the two, keeping our mess a secret but trying to make ourselves suffer until the sin is atoned. That version is particularly damaging as it causes further hurt to ourselves and doesn’t actually solve the problem. To truly get unstuck and out from under requires forgiveness which leads to freedom. Not freedom like I’m off the hook, but the freedom that comes from a new start, granted through forgiveness.

Now, I realize, what comes to mind for most of us when I ask about messing up is something related to another person or situation. But I would suggest that underneath that is messing up toward God. And if you can truly recognize that and accept God’s forgiveness and freedom, it will open you up to the opportunity for human forgiveness and freedom. And if you’ve heard anything from the blessing series, you realize that one of the key ways to find God’s blessing is to extend it to others. You may find that the first step towards human reconciliation is offering forgiveness and freedom to someone else who has messed up.

A Final Word: Take Heed (vv. 40-41)

This text in Acts ends in an interesting place. After all the news and context and results of the Resurrection, v. 40 reads, “Therefore take heed, so that the thing spoken of in the Prophets may not come upon you.” What is that thing? It is in v. 41 – that someone hear this news described and dismiss it and perish, missing out on the great gift of life through forgiveness and freedom.

I have described it to you. May God grant you ears to hear that you might be forgiven and set free. Amen.

Do the Things You Know (John 13.5-17,33-35)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; April 13, 2017 (Maundy Thursday); John 13:5-17,33-35) 

:: 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: How Deep the Father's Love (Townend)
Song of Preparation: Behold the Lamb (vv. 1-3) (Getty, Townend)
Song of Response: Here is Love (Lowry, Ross)
Song of Commitment: Step by Step (Beaker, Mullins)
The Word in Music: (Choir) Wait with Me (Johnson)
Confessional Hymn: Ah, Holy Jesus (HERLIEBSTER JESU)

:: 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.
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.”
This passage is the basis of the Maundy Thursday service. The word ‘Maundy’ comes from the Latin for ‘command’ or ‘commandment’ and it is in THIS story, on Thursday night before his arrest and crucifixion, that Jesus says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.” (v.34) That’s the ‘Maundy’ part – that you love one another. Jesus doesn’t leave us wondering what he means by “love one another.” He says that it is “even as I have loved you.” This is how people will know you belong to me, and if you belong to me, this is what you need to do – your new commandment, your ‘Maundy,’ your mandate – love others like I love you.
Jesus had also just given an example to help his disciples, and us, understand. The chapter opens by saying that Jesus loved his disciples to the end, then shares the story of the foot-washing. It was surprising, even shocking. It was the act of a host or a servant, not a revered Teacher (much less Messiah!). But that was just what Jesus wanted to demonstrate. When we look at all four Gospels and piece together the events of that night, it appears that the disciples had been arguing about which of them was most important, which was “the greatest.” And then Jesus sets an example for them. And it’s an example that he will make clear is his Maundy expectation, his new command of love.

This is what love looks like: it welcomes the dirty, soiled traveler, and offers the hospitality necessary to bring them into your home. It is not for others, or lesser, or hirelings, to do, but is an act of love that shows the heart of Jesus.  Jesus asks, “Do you know what I have done to you?” He has acted out a living sermon; he has acted out his new commandment; he has set an example: love one another as I love you.

We have been talking for the past six weeks about blessing, asking “What does it mean to be blessed?” We have seen that blessing is rooted in the will and purpose of God. It is explained in God’s Word and extended to us from God. One way we experience God’s blessing is by obeying God’s Will through His Word. And that’s just what Jesus says here in verse 17: “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

If you have known the love of God through Jesus and you extend that love, that service, that hospitality, that welcome to others, you are blessed. Just to be clear, you won’t be rewarded with a gold star or three guaranteed answered prayers; that IS the blessing. You are loving as Christ loves; that is the blessing. And that extends God’s blessing to others. That’s God’s best for you and for others; that’s what God desires; that’s what Christ commands.

Do the things you know – with God’s help, to be sure – but love as Christ loves. In so doing, you are blessed. Amen.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Blessed is He Who Comes in the Name of the Lord (Mark 11.1-11, Psalm 118)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; April 9, 2017 (Palm Sunday); Mark 11:1-11; Psalm 118 

:: 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 ::

Singing Together: All Glory, Laud, and Honor (chorus and arr. Austell)
Singing Together: Hosanna - Praise is Rising (Baloche)
The Word in Music: Hosanna to the King (Courtney)
Hymn of Sending: Great are You, Lord (Ingram, Jordon, Leonard)

:: 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 Palm Sunday, which marks the beginning of Holy Week, in which we remember the last week of Jesus’ earthly life, including the Last Supper on Thursday night, his crucifixion on Friday, and his resurrection on Easter Sunday. I am also continuing in our series asking, “What it means to be blessed?” because right there in the middle of the Palm Sunday story, right after “HOSANNA!” is this statement: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord; Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David.” (vv. 9-10)

So, though we have left the Beatitudes in Luke, it would appear there is something here to learn about blessing and being blessed.

Prep Work (vv. 1-7)

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, people 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. 8-10)

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, even as our concept of ‘blessing’ sometimes diverges from God’s definition of blessing.

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, Mark’s account makes it clear that they are looking for a King, for the Messiah-King: “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” (v. 10) They saw what they wanted to see.

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?

Had the crowd shouted and sung 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) Jesus didn’t come to be an earthly king, but to be the Light of the World and the perfect Sacrifice for the sin of the world.

In fact, I think our whole tension around blessing is summed up in the two phrases shouted that day: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” and “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David.” (Mark 11:9-10)

What Does it Mean to be Blessed?

I realize that anyone can claim to come in the name of the Lord, but if we recognize that Jesus truly and legitimately came in the name and with the authority of the Lord, we recognize that he was blessed precisely because he was perfectly aligned with God’s will. That’s where blessing is rooted, not in our will or wishes.

In contrast, we see the well-intentioned and earnest definition of blessing offered by the crowd: “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David.” But that was their definition and expectation and did not line up, at least not as they understood king and kingdom, with what God was actually doing.

That’s the key! When we talk about being blessed and when we ask, “What does it mean to be blessed?” we need to be rooted in God’s will and purpose, not our own wants and desires. God invites us to let those be known, but understanding blessing is understanding saying to God, “Thy will be done” – even when it’s different from our will. Most essentially, blessing is participating in God’s will and purpose, whatever that is. The events of Palm Sunday bring that distinction to the fore. What if the one who comes in the name of the Lord looks different than I expect? What if the way God saves or helps or heals or ‘blesses’ looks different than my expectation or prayer? Then it’s still BLESSED, because blessing is not rooted in me, my need, or my expectation; it is rooted in God’s will and purpose and action. To the extent that you and I can align with that, participate in it, and live with it, we will be blessed. That’s a change from the way blessing is often described or understood, but it is consistently the way Jesus and the writers of scripture use the word. (It is also not an invitation to passively say “whatever will be will be… #blessed”; rather, to seek to obey and seek God’s revealed Word and Will.)

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 blessing do you want? In our tense political context, 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 has greater news; Jesus has greater power.

Who is your Lord and Savior? Is it the right politician being in office? Or the right new 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 a part of every service where we welcome new members into the church, every time there is baptism or 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? Amen.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Love and Prayer in the Mud (Luke 6.27-38)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; April 2, 2017; Luke 6:27-38

:: 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 ::

Singing Together: Love Divine, All Loves Excelling (BEECHER)
Singing Together: All I Have is Christ (Kauflin, Sovereign Grace)
Offering of Music: I Believe This is Jesus (arr. McGlohon)
Hymn of Sending: Here is Love (Lowry, Redman)

:: 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 in the same chapter (Luke 6) that we’ve been in for several weeks as we ask the question, “What does it mean to be blessed?” But today we move beyond the pairs of “Blessed are you if this… and woe to you if that…” to a different style of teaching by Jesus. He is still talking blessing though, but is remarkably directive (for him). So much of the time Jesus is asking questions or telling parables; but in today’s text he outright says DO THIS…. actually he says to do several things. But it is still in the context of blessing. Interestingly, we tend to think of blessing as something we receive, but Jesus links it here with a way of living in the world. Finally, another way to understand the more extended teaching today is that he is elaborating on what we looked at last week. I included last week’s blessing and woe in today’s readings:

Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man.

As he continues in today’s text, Jesus turns to our side of that equation. How are we to respond and what are we to do when that particular “blessing” comes our way? What does it mean to engage and experience God’s blessing in that instance? Jesus tells us very directly: in return we are to LOVE, DO GOOD, and GIVE FREELY. He will circle through each response three times (as will we), but it is clear that the blessing comes through responding as Jesus would respond, showing the grace that God has shown. If you want specific instruction on how to be blessed, Jesus offers it here, giving much the same message that Jeremiah gave the Jewish exiles some 1000 years earlier: seek the blessing of your enemies and you will come to experience God’s blessing yourself.

Love, Do Good, Give Freely – the instructions (vv. 27-31)

I want to call the first pass through the triple command “the instructions.” Not only is Jesus simply directive here, he begins with “But I say to you who hear.” It’s the kind of thing parents might say to children: “Please turn your listening ears on!” And remember the context: Jesus has just said blessed are those who are hated, ostracized, insulted, and scorned for the sake of the Son of Man (Jesus). We saw last week that “for the sake of Jesus” includes what we say and do. In fact we ended up with the challenge from Colossians: “whatever you do, do it heartily as for the Lord.” So now Jesus is going to give some examples of what that looks like, particularly in the context of the kind of trouble those who serve him might face.

Each of the instructions is more than challenging, perhaps even shocking.

Love your enemies – These may be the very ones who hated, hurt, and came against you. It’s the last thing we’d want to do. I get that. I think Jesus understood that, too – completely understood. I think there are also qualifiers on this. This is not a universal teaching, for example, on how to treat an enemy in war or if someone is attacking your family. A fair starting point is the context already given: serving Christ. Jesus has already said that following him will make enemies of some people. What sense does it make, then, to stop following Christ when they stir up trouble. That would just serve their cause; if I trouble you for serving Jesus and your response is to stop serving Jesus and declare me YOUR enemy, then I’ve already succeeded. It is also important to define or qualify the meaning of ‘love’ here. It doesn’t (necessarily) mean giving an enemy a big ole’ hug. It is emulating what Jesus might do. For Jesus, love was sometimes forgiving, sometimes confrontational, always concerned for the truth and the well-being of the other. Love can be pretty tough when necessary; and sometimes that’s the right way to express love. But the point is the well-being, even the BLESSING, of others, even those we find unlovable or worse.

Do good to those who hate you
– Similarly, Jesus tells us to do good to those who hate us. In fact, he offers several actions, keyed in large part to the trouble we were told to expect in v. 22 for following him. So, Jesus tells us to “do good to those who hate you,” “bless those who curse you,” and “pray for those who mistreat you.” All are, in some ways, similar to the challenge presented to us to love our enemies, but Jesus fleshes out for us some of the range of what that might look like. It can involve doing good or praying for the other. “Blessing” gets at the heart of it: we are to seek God’s best for the other first. This is going to be the common theme throughout the text today.

Give freely to the thief – Finally, Jesus speaks of lending, even to those who have ‘taken’ from us. I’ve expressed this a little more loosely as “giving freely” even when someone has not been as generous. This might be where the rubber hits the road for us. So and so was not generous to me; in fact, he took advantage of me… stole from me. But Jesus says to be generous. Give them another chance. Don’t give them just as good (or bad!) as they gave you. Do better than that; be generous and open-handed. I can’t help but think of the old stories of the Hatfield and McCoy feuds, or the old gangs of New York. There is just a perpetual cycle of revenge and payback and it never ends. But as he did when he entered the world, Jesus offers a way to break that pattern. Love; do good; give freely.

Love, Do Good, Give Freely – the surprise (vv. 32-34)

Then he repeats the three commands in a different kind of format. This sounds more like Jesus; there’s a question with each one, and something to make you think. And he turns our expectations on their heads. I call this “the surprise.”

Each statement follows a similar pattern: if you do these things for those who don’t do them to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that much.

If you love those who love you… if you do good to those who do good to you… if you lend/give to those from whom you expect to receive… what credit is that to you? Even sinners do those things.

Break the pattern of this world, says Jesus. Don’t measure your actions, thoughts, and feelings by those of other human beings. He hasn’t gotten there yet, but we already sense it coming: measure your actions, thoughts, and feelings by those you have received from God through Jesus. As you love God, you will find yourselves loving others. This is a practical outworking of that Great Commandment. It is an outworking of God’s great covenant promise: I will bless you that you might be a blessing in the world to others.

It’s a surprise because we are not used to thinking that way. We are used to “me first” and “what’s in it for me” and “that’s not fair!” But those were all the things Jesus set aside to come live and teach and make a home among us. And he says that blessing is not a one-way gift from God to you; it is a lived reflection of God’s intent toward us.

Love, Do Good, Give Freely – the example (vv. 35-38)

Finally, he restates the three commands one last time, most concisely: “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend (give), expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great…” (v. 35) We looked last week at ‘reward,’ not some kind of extra bonus in heaven or on earth, but salvation itself. He says it here: you will be sons (that is, inheritors) of the Most High, not because God rewards good behavior, but because God’s salvation is the very blessing being described here. I compared it to Jeremiah early on in the sermon: he told God’s people, who were so desperate for God’s blessing, “Seek the shalom-blessing of the city and in their peace you will know peace.” As we participate in God’s family, in following Christ, we realize the blessing that we already have in him.

From there Jesus moves to the thing we were anticipating. He provides the example for our love, doing good, and giving freely. It is God, Himself.

“For God, Himself, is kind to ungrateful and evil men.” (v. 35)
“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (v. 36)

Then he makes another move to say that “by our standard of measure it will be measured to us.” (v. 38) So whether kindness, mercy, judging, condemning, pardoning, or giving, our pattern is set by God. And our measure is set by God. Again, this all began with Jesus saying “Blessed are you” if you run into trouble on my account and “Woe to you” if you merely live for the approval of others. All this is set in that context.

Pressed Down, Shaken Together, Running Over (v. 38)

Rather than dodging trouble by denying Christ with our words or actions, Jesus is teaching us how to lean into our faith and honor him in the midst of that trouble. Said again in Jeremiah’s words, go the extra mile to bless those who are against you and you will experience the blessing that you yourself seek as you see them encounter God.

The final image of a “good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over” (v. 38) is a picture of God’s generosity. It is not trying to skimp you on what I give to you, but giving you a good portion (whether of wheat or forgiveness); I’m going to make sure as much grain gets into the measure as possible, shaking and packing it down. And even then I’m not going to stop, but let it flow over the top. That’s how God has loved, done good, and given freely to us. And it’s the example Jesus gives us for how we are to live in relation to others, even those towards whom it is the hardest to do so.

May you know that blessing; may you be that kind of blessing. Amen.