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Sunday, August 27, 2017

PRAISE! (Psalm 148,150, Luke 19)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; August 27, 2017 - Psalm 148,150; Luke 19:37-40

:: 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 Praise (Hezekiah Walker, John David Bratton)
Singing Together: Great Are You, Lord (Ingram, Jordan, Leonard)
Offering of Music, Men's Choir: Praise the Lord! (Rick Bean)
Song of Praise: All Creatures of Our God and King (v.1) (LASST UNS ERFREUEN)
Hymn of Sending: Holy, HOly, Holy (NICAEA)
:: 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.

Did you ever sing the song, “Hallelu,” when you were a kid? It’s the first song I teach the preschoolers every year. Partly it’s because the words are so simple. Will you sing it with me if you know it?

    Hallelu, hallelu, hallelu, halleluia; praise ye the Lord. 
    Hallelu, hallelu, hallelu, halleluia; praise ye the Lord. 
    Praise ye the Lord; Halleluia! Praise ye the Lord; Halleluia! 
    Praise ye the Lord; Halleluia! Praise ye the Lord!

That is essentially Psalm 148 and Psalm 150. The word ‘hallelu’ is Hebrew for ‘praise ye’. It’s a command, and imperative: (you) praise. ‘Hallelu-yah’ puts the short version of the Lord’s holy name (Yahweh) onto the end, so: (you) praise the Lord! If you look at Psalm 148 in Hebrew you see something like this (I’m leaving out some of the articles and prepositions):

    Hallelu Yah (the LORD)
    Hallelu the YHWH min ha samayim (the LORD from the heavens)
    Hallelu hu beha meromim (Him in the heights)
    Hallelu hu kal we malakay (Him, all His angels)

And it goes on, ‘hallelu’ him all His hosts; ‘hallelu’ him, sun and moon. Psalm 150 is the same: ‘hallelu yah’ then ‘hallelu’ God in His sanctuary; ‘hallelu’ Him in His mighty expanse and so forth.

Today, looking at these two Psalms at the end of the Book of Psalms, we see that the theme of PRAISE is the grand conclusion of the collection of 150 songs of Israel. We will also look at a fascinating passage from the New Testament, in which Jesus speaks of stones crying out in praise of God. Today we will talk about what it means to praise God and see that it is one of the most important activities in which we can participate.

Praise: When, Where, and Why (Psalms 148,150)

We opened the service with portions of Psalm 148, which surveys the wide swath of creatures and beings engaged in and exhorted to praise God. These include angels, heavenly hosts, sun, moon, stars, heavens, waters, kings of the earth, princes and rulers, young men and women, old men and children, and more!

Psalm 150 is also all about praise, but takes a different tack, calling for praise in the sanctuary, in the mighty expanse, and with a range of instruments: trumpet, harp, lyre, timbrel, stringed instruments, pipe, cymbals, and more cymbals! There is dancing, too! We are invited to praise God for His mighty deeds and according to His excellent greatness – for Who He is and for what He’s done. And finally, as the last word of Psalm 150 and of all the collection of Psalms, we hear this encompassing charge: Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord! (v. 6)

There’s not much room for confusion there – praise is the activity of all things in all places, for God is worthy. But what exactly IS praise?

What is Praise?

We know what it is to praise another person: “Hey, great game!” or “You look good today!” It’s a kind of compliment or acknowledgment of a positive action or attribute.

When we think about God it is easy to merge together things like thanks, love, and praise. Right? If we say, “I love you, Lord,” that is praise, right?

Psalm 150 provides a great definition of praise in verse 2 when it says, “Praise Him for His mighty deeds; praise Him according to His excellent greatness.” I summarize that as “for Who God is and for what He has done.” But we often imagine that as a private activity (like in the slide of the man, arms raised, at the sunset). But there is another component of praise that is important to note. Generally, praise is PUBLIC. Just look back at both those Psalms: praise is enjoined in all places, by all things, by all people, with every means possible. While private praise may be possible, it seems evident that the point of praise is that it be heard and witnessed and public.

For that reason, I want to suggest an easy mnemonic to remember what praise is: pull out the first letter and think of it as P-raise… the P is for ‘public’ and RAISE is what we do with the Lord’s name. We raise or lift up God’s name in a public way. That’s praise! That’s where worship and mission meet, for if we are loving and serving God, we will share God’s heart for the world and desire for the world to hear and know that the Lord is God. Our words and actions become a public raising of God’s name: PRAISE.

Can Stones Really Praise? (Luke 19)

I searched in the New Testament to find an example of the word ‘praise’ being used and found the passage from Luke 19. It is the account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday. He was welcomed as the expected Messiah and Luke tells us that “the whole crowd of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice.” (v. 37) Those folks who shouted, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord” were publicly raising up God’s name and works for all to hear.

But here’s the part I want to focus on, because (for one) I’ve never spoken directly about this and it adds so much to the concept of praise. After the Pharisees tried to hush the disciples, Jesus responded to them, “I tell you, if these [disciples] become silent, the stones will cry out!” I’ve always loved that imagery, but never quite known what to do with it, other than kind of shame humanity into praise, like “you don’t want to make the rocks have to do your job, do you?”

But here’s what scripture says, in Psalm 148 (and elsewhere): God’s very creation engages in praise. That’s why the sun, moon, stars, and seas can praise Him. It’s because praise publicly raises up the character or work of God and what does that more publicly than God’s glorious creation. Think about the eclipse last week. What an amazing event, with the small moon at just the right distance from the earth to block out the ginormous sun. More than a few believing friends marveled at God’s power and design when they saw the eclipse. More than a few folks who don’t identify with a particular faith were moved deeply and spiritually by seeing it. Even a few agnostic or questioning folks marveled at the precision and specificity required for such an event to occur as it does. And that’s just one thing. Whether you explore the immensity of the universe or the tiny, tiny intricacies of cells, DNA, or sub-atomic particles; it is simply amazing. And sure, some people simply cannot or will not see God behind those wonders. But that’s not Jesus’ point: he claims, with Psalm 148, that the stones and very creation itself are publicly raising up God’s character and work.

An Essential Activity

So here’s why praise is so vital for us. It’s not because God needs the affirmation. That’s warping the definition of praise because that’s what WE so often get out of being praised. Instead, praise is where we engage with who God is and what God is doing, and that is our reason for being here. Praise then is more than singing ‘hallelu’ to God (privately or publicly); praise is living out our faith PUBLICLY – that is, in the community and in the world. Jesus said, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works… and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) Praise is not a private me-and-Jesus moment, but following Jesus who left Heaven to enter into this world. The public nature of raising God up is not for the sake of you or I being seen, but in bringing glory to God. Praise asks what God is doing in the world He loves and joins in. It is as much or more what we do out there as what we do in here.

The stones crying out are not your backup singers; they are a reminder that God’s creation already publicly declares who God is. Our invitation is to join in, not turn away. It is the same invitation God gives every human and praise is our response to that gracious invitation. Amen.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

If Not for God (Psalm 124, Ephesians 6.10-18a)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; August 20, 2017 - Psalm 124; Ephesians 6:10-18a

:: 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: Your Name (Baloche, Packiam)
Singing Together: I Have a Shelter (Cook, Kauflin)
The Word in Music, Dawn Anthony-vocalist: If the Lord Had Not Been on Our Side (Dourox)
Offering of Music, Dawn Anthony-vocalist: Lamb of God (Twila Paris)
Hymn of Sending: Be Still My Soul (FINLANDIA)
:: 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 (this is one of those). Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.

We are continuing in our summer series, entitled “Psalm +1.”  Each week we are looking at one of the Psalms, from the songbook of God’s people; and we are pairing it with a text from the New Testament which connects or opens up the Psalm to the Good News of Jesus Christ. This week we are looking at Psalm 124, one of the Psalms called a “Psalm of Ascent,” to be sung on the walk up to the Temple in Jerusalem. In this particular song, the Lord is being praised as Deliverer, with the imagery bringing to mind the Exodus, when God delivered His people from slavery in Egypt. The New Testament passage we will look at is Ephesians 6, which is the description of the “Armor of God” – the spiritual resources God has provided His people to withstand wickedness and evil in the present day.

This year and last week we talked about the concept of blessing – whether our act of blessing God or God’s act of blessing us. We talked about the place of blessing being a place of aligning with God’s Will and Word. As I re-read today’s texts, chosen back in May, the language of slavery, rising up, anger, and rage speak powerfully into our modern context, as does language of deliverance and help. The Psalm and the Ephesians text also make clear that help is in the name of the Lord, but that does not absolve humanity – and US – from participating in what God is doing. And that brings me back to blessing – precisely what we have the opportunity and responsibility to do is to align ourselves with what God is doing. So, let’s look together at these texts and listen for what the Holy Spirit would say to us.

Singing the Exodus (Psalm 124)

Exodus has been called the “Gospel” of the Hebrew scriptures. Exodus tells the story of God delivering His people from 400 years of slavery in Egypt. To do so, God raises up Moses, an unlikely front man for a number of reasons. He is older, he stutters, and he has run away from Egypt for murdering an Egyptian. And yet… God calls him, equips him, and sends him to confront the ruler of Egypt and say on behalf of the Lord, “Let my people go.” After no less than ten plagues – miraculous signs of God’s power – and much back and forth and changing of Pharaoh’s mind, he finally relents and the Hebrew people flee in the night. Even then, Pharaoh changes his mind and sends the army after them to bring them back (or kill them) and God parts the waters of the Red Sea to allow the Hebrew people to escape, while causing the Egyptian army to enact judgment on the Egyptians. It is the core story of God’s power and deliverance in the Hebrew scriptures and is still remembered every Passover.

Psalm 124 appears to be a song reflecting on that that deliverance. Verses 2b-7 describe with various images, some metaphor and some frighteningly literal (when you think about the Red Sea):

    Men rose up against us…
they would have swallowed us alive
when their anger was kindled against us (v.2b-3)
    Waters would have engulfed us,
the stream would have swept over our soul,
the raging waters would have swept over our soul. (v.4-5a)

The deliverance is pictured in imagery of wild animals escaping death and the snare:

    [The Lord] has not given us to be torn by their teeth (v.6b)
    Our soul has escaped as a bird out of the snare of the trapper (v.7a)
    The snare is broken and we have escaped (v.7b)

And then bracketing all that is the refrain that points to the Lord as the source of deliverance:
    Had it not been the Lord who was on our side…
    [Let Israel now say] – as if to say, “Let’s all sing this one together!”
    Had it not been the Lord who was on our side… (v.1-2)
    Our help is in the name of the Lord
        who made heaven and earth. (v.8)

One of the ways people remember is to put history to song. It was important to not forget slavery, the danger of escape, and the miraculous deliverance of the Lord.  One of the reasons we opened the service with another Psalm is that Psalm 121 expands on “our help is in the name of the Lord” – it asks and answers “From where shall my help come?” (v.1) Those who trust in the Lord are wise to remember and to hope in God for help in every age and every situation.

But does God still do “Red Sea” miracles? I certainly believe He can, but I also read in the New Testament that Jesus was like a 2nd Moses, not only setting people free from sickness and bondage in his earthly ministry, but this time coming to deliver those enslaved by sin, through an even more deadly trial – that of the cross. After that more complete deliverance, we see God’s help extended in a different way.

Spiritual Resources (Ephesians 6)

In the generations after Jesus’ death and resurrection, there was still plenty of suffering, injustice, and conflict. Christians were among those heavily persecuted and killed in those first generations. The Apostle Paul traveled, ministered, and wrote to these early Christians, encouraging them in their faith and in their coming together as the community of faith. In the end of his letter to the Ephesians, Paul offers the help that comes from God through Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet, even facing extreme earthly trials, Paul begins this section by saying this:

“Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (v. 12)

This is not to say that a hate-filled man driving a car into a group of people isn’t deadly, evil, or worth resisting. It is rather a reminder that there is a deeper war being waged for men and women’s souls, that the answers to such evils will be more than better information, better security, or better laws. Those things may all be helpful, if rooted in justice and truth; but those who can say “our help is in the name of the Lord” have access to an extraordinary, a supernatural, a God-empowered set of resources. I’d like to look at those briefly with you now.

First, Paul urges us to prepare for what we face in this world. We are to BE STRONG, not in ourselves and our own strength, but in the Lord and the strength of His might. (v.10) We are to PUT ON (v.11) and TAKE UP (v.13) the full armor of God. It’s like getting dressed for the day and then getting on with the day. Only then can we “resist in the evil day… and stand firm.” (v.13)

Then, fully prepared, we engage the world. What does that look like – are we archers, cavalry, raiders, or what? It turns out that we are simply to get out in the world and go about the mission and ministry to which God has called us… sharing the Gospel, loving our neighbor, serving God through all that we have and are. In doing so, we STAND FIRM (v.14). Remembering that the schemes of Satan are lies, temptation, and earthly power, the spiritual armor offers us a full range of spiritual resources. Note that it is described as already having been put on!

We are girded with the TRUTH of God to combat the lies of Satan, which surround us at every turn. We are covered in the RIGHTEOUSNESS of Christ, combatting sin and the temptation to sin, calling us to holiness, and covering us with gracious forgiveness when we fail and fall.  And though Satan’s earthly power might seem daunting, we are prepared and shielded by the very power of God in the GOSPEL to which we hold by faith. The spiritual armor of God is a metaphor which points to the spiritual realities of the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ, which we put on and take up by FAITH. The helmet and sword are special parts of the full armor. The helmet represents our SALVATION, as if to say Satan can’t have our neck! He can scare us, immobilize us, and even wound us, but cannot steal us away from God. The sword is the WORD OF GOD, able to both defend and repel Satan’s lies and power. Scripture tells us, “Resist the devil and he will flee.” We must be careful here, because people have twisted God’s Word to use against other people. We must always ensure that we use God’s Word truly, not out of context or falsely.

Finally, Paul offers two final challenges that, interestingly, move out of the metaphor of “spiritual battle” and into the specifics of the challenges he is facing – imprisonment and opposition because of the Gospel. Paul urges us to PRAY at all times (v.18) and BE ON THE ALERT (v.18). If you are wondering how you “put on” metaphorical, spiritual armor, these last two give some direction: talk to God and keep your eyes open to what God (and Satan) are doing. The armor is just spiritual realities that come with trusting and following Jesus. Prayer and open eyes of faith are how you put it on and take it up!

Today and Tomorrow

And that is a good place to jump into the realities of the day. There is so much that could be said. Let me offer this as a starting point for myself and for us here today, with hopes that a conversation continues, that we commit to seeking the Lord’s help, that we “put on and take up” not our own desires, but God’s; that we pray and open our eyes.

The events in Charlottesville have our attention right now. It is relatively easy to look at the self-proclaimed Nazi’s and white supremacists or the man who drove his car into the crowd and say, “That’s wrong; that’s evil; that’s not me.” I also know it can be easy for some to critique the counter-protestors. What I want to focus on this morning, however, is you and me, and I’ll start with me.

I believe our great challenge is not a few or even many white supremacists, but a culture of racial inequality. Let me illustrate from my own life. I was raised to be “color blind.” I was taught that was the opposite of ‘racist.’ I was also taught, whether explicitly or not, that achieving such color-blindness (particularly internally) was the goal. And that viewpoint is reinforced when folks like the neo-Nazi’s and white nationalists are so clear in their hatred of others. But my attempt to be color-blind actually left me culture-blind! I had a huge blind spot for most of my life. It is one I am still trying to see around and I am trying to listen, read, pay attention, and see what I can’t see. I believe my blind spot was reinforced by the perceived ideal of being “color blind.” Really what all that had to do with was being prejudiced, or pre-judging someone based on the color of their skin. What I have come to see as my eyes are opened is that we are all swimming in waters saturated with racism.

What does that mean? It means that a person of color has a very different experience than I do of seeking housing, getting an education, being listened to, getting a loan, getting medical attention, what happens at a traffic stop, and 100 other every day experiences. One of the most mind-boggling, humbling, discouraging, eye-opening moments in my life was sitting in a workshop with 50 white pastors and 50 black pastors and hearing near unanimous testimony of being pulled over, suspected, doubted, questioned, and worse by my black colleagues who are pastors, many with advanced degrees, respectful, humble men and women. It opened my eyes. Observing the surveys, dialogs, priorities, and passion in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system and the various responses about how and where to draw school district lines… it has opened my eyes. Being blessed to be a part of a presbytery, a collection of Presbyterian churches rich in racial diversity and realizing even there the vast differences in pastoral salary, transition, and other factors. It has opened my eyes. We swim in water full of inequity and inequality and experience it so radically differently just because of the color of our skin. There is so much more to say, so much more to do. But, for today…

Two questions: 1) What does this have to do with the Bible and with our faith? and 2) What can we do?

First, it has everything to do with the Bible and with our faith. From the beginnings in Genesis to the endings in Revelation, God’s vision for humanity is for the nations and races of the world is that they know Him, be gathered in to Him, and reflect the glory of being made in the image of God. Divisions of race, language, and culture are first manifest at the Tower of Babel and are the result of human sin. Human sin – not God’s will, but turning away from God and toward human self-rule and self-supremacy. But God comes to Abraham with a plan and a promise to reach and bless all the nations of the world. That covenant lies at the heart of God’s dealings with Israel and unfolds in the coming of Jesus, who announces the Kingdom of God and dies for all the world. At Pentecost, God pours out His Spirit in a vivid demonstration of calling together the nations under Christ. The Apostle Paul is called and sent to the nations and to the world, preaching a Gospel where there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free. The final picture of eternity in Revelation has people from every tribe, tongue, and nation gathered around the throne of God. That is God’s design for humanity; not one race or one people, but the nations of the world gathered in holy worship.

Secondly, there are many ways for the church to respond to the inequity and inequality found in our culture and society. But I believe the FIRST STEP for many of us is to seek to see beyond our blind spots. There is more after that, but we cannot engage what we cannot see. So, I’d offer a tangible, doable first step toward where I believe God is leading us. I have mentioned the book, Waking Up White. It has been a useful tool in opening my eyes to my own blind spots. I’d like to invite you to read it and discuss it with each other. My hope is that you see it not as a chore, but as an opportunity God is offering you. There is a sign-up sheet in the welcome area where you can indicate your interest, along with a preferred time of daytime, evening, or weekend. If none of those work, I am open to exploring an online option, though I think face to face is better. I would encourage you to read and discuss the book in a group and not on your own, but if you need to read it on your own first, I would not discourage that either. If you do, would you at least let me know? I am glad to provide a copy of the book if you cannot afford one and will have several copies for the church library. There’s more to understand and do beyond that, but I think that particular book will offer us some common language and information to move forward together and I’d strongly encourage you to make time and space in your life this fall to read it with me.

God has been pressing on me for several years in this area and I’ve been fortunate to have some experiences and training in the past year that have open my eyes and equipped me in a way that I was not prepared two years ago. May God lead us and join us and bless us as we respond to this Word. Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made Heaven and earth. Amen.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Bless the Lord (Psalm 103, Matthew 7.7-11)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; August 13, 2017 - Psalm 103; Matthew 7:7-11

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

:: Scripture and Music ::
Singing Together: Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven (LAUDA ANIMA)
Singing Together: Everlasting God (Brenton Brown)
The Word in Music: Canon of Praise, choir (arr. Hopson)
Offering of Music/Song of Praise: Bless His Holy Name (Andre Crouch)
Song of Sending: Here and Now (Kirkland)
:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) ::
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks  the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.

We began today's service acknowledging the tragic events in Charlottesville. I noted that I was not changing the sermon - focused on blessing the Lord, it is all about aligning our heart, mind, and soul with God's Will and Word, which is at cross-purposes with racism and white nationalism. I invited the congregation (and will publicize opportunities) to join a book study with me or others of "Waking Up White" - a book that has greatly helped me see my own racial "blind spots." We also spent time in prayer for the racial issues behind Charlottesville (and our country), and ended the service with a wonderful song ("Here and Now") which invites us, as the church, to be the bearers of mercy, justice, and hope. If you are reading this, I invite you to enter into a season of prayer and self-examination with me around the racial realities and waters in which we all live in this country. ~Robert

We are continuing our summer series, “Psalm+1.” Today we look at Psalm 103, which challenges us and models for us how to “bless the Lord.” We will also look at a short teaching of Jesus from Matthew which further illustrates one portion of the Psalm.

Earlier this year we talked about blessing. When talking about God blessing us or our being blessed, scripture defines it as what happens when we are aligned with God’s Will and Word. That is the best place to be! So blessing is not what we want, but what God wants.

We’ll work through this Psalm in order. It has several sections which are arranged in a classic poetic structure like an hour glass:

Bless the Lord, O My Soul! (theme)
What the Lord has Done
What the Lord is Like
What We are Like
What the Lord is Like
What the Lord has Done
Bless the Lord, O My Soul (revisited)

Bless the Lord, O My Soul (vv. 1-2)

The Psalm begins with the words, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name.” (v. 1)  The idea of blessing can be confusing because it is sometimes used to describe something God gives or does to us; and sometimes it is something we say or do to God. But the two are very much entwined, since they both happen together. Maybe this illustration will be helpful: in most places where there is a gas line, there is a small lever that opens and closes the gas line. If that lever is perpendicular to the gas line, no gas flows. If it is lined up with the gas line, the gas flows. When you “turn on the gas” you line up the lever and it “turns on the gas” so your stove or fireplace will light. “Bless the Lord” is like lining up your heart, soul, and life with the gas line. The “Lord’s blessings” are the flowing of God’s presence into and through your life. Got it? Now let’s light the fire! 

In this Psalm, blessing God is the posture we take towards God to line up with Him, where we will also then be recipients of God’s blessing. So verse one is the challenge to line up with God: to bless the Lord. Verse two reminds us to “forget none of His benefits.” That’s what happens when we are lined up – the blessing, the power, the benefits flow.

Having said that, more than once I’ve gone to light the fire or stove, or the pilot light, and I’ve forgotten to turn on the main switch to the gas line. It is crucial to remember that the gas comes from outside (ourselves) and how we can access it. Likewise, we do forget and we do take our eyes off of God as the source of what we need. The Psalm goes on to walk us through several important ‘remembrances’ that help us keep the sequence straight.

What the Lord Has Done (vv. 3-7)

Verses 3-7 are packed full of words describing what the Lord has done. Let me just read them off. The Lord PARDONS, HEALS, REDEEMS, CROWNS, SATISFIES, PERFORMS, and REVEALS (makes Himself known). Remember those ‘benefits’ from verse two that we are supposed remember? There’s an overflow of benefits. And it’s worth slowing down to hear the full sentence for each of those verbs; the Lord…

    Pardons all your iniquities (sins) (v. 3)
    Heals all your diseases (v. 3)
    Redeems your life from the pit (v. 4)
    Crowns you with lovingkindness and compassion (v. 4)
    Satisfies your years with good things (v. 5)
    Performs righteous deeds and judgments (v. 6)
    Made known His ways and acts (v. 7)

Wait a minute, wait a minute. That’s a great list, but there are a few that raise some questions for me. Does God heal all disease? That seems clearly to not be the case. And “satisfies your years with good things” – does THAT always happen? And let’s not go with the answer that says to the degree that you trust God these things happen. Besides our own experience of suffering, scripture itself makes clear that disease is not always the fault of the individual (though sometimes it might be a consequence). And there are plenty of folks in scripture who also struggle throughout their years, particularly in old age. So what could those phrases mean?

I think rather than being a list of promises, like a contract, these are meant to serve as a reminder that WHEN sin is forgiven, or healing comes, or rescue, or good things, or justice; God is the source of those things. God doesn’t promise us all good things all the time in this life; but we do know some measure of God’s goodness. So rather than reading “God will heal every disease” this reminds us that if you found healing, praise God for it. Some scholars see “heals all diseases” as a parallel with “pardons all your iniquities” and a way of talking about that which weakens or sickens us before God. So, not a physical meaning so much as spiritual pardon and healing.   

What the Lord is Like (vv. 8-14)

From there, the Psalm moves slightly into a series of verses that describe what the Lord is like. We’ve moved from the works of God to the character of God. In this case, verse eight has all the descriptive words – the Lord is COMPASSIONATE and GRACIOUS, SLOW TO ANGER and ABOUNDING IN LOVINGKINDNESS. IN the verses that follow, each of those descriptive words is explored and illustrated in more depth.

In v. 9, God will not always strive with us, nor keep His anger forever. (SLOW TO ANGER)  In v. 10, God has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.  (GRACIOUS) In v. 11, God’s lovingkindness is “high as the heavens” (ABOUNDING LOVE) In v. 12, He has removed our transgressions as far as the east is from the west. (GRACIOUS) In v. 13, the Lord has compassion on us that is like a father’s compassion on his children. (COMPASSIONATE)

It is that verse that brought to mind the passage from Matthew 7. There Jesus is teaching about God’s character and says: You know how fathers won’t give their children rocks if they ask for bread? or a snake instead of a fish? Well if human father’s love their children like that, think HOW MUCH MORE your Heavenly Father loves and cares for you. That teaching is in the context of: ask, seek, and knock; and you will find God. That’s another way of describing blessing. If you seek to align your heart, soul, and life with God; God will not hide, but will show up. That’s two-way blessing.

In the last part of that “what the Lord is like” section, we read that God KNOWS us and is mindful that we are ‘dust’ – we are fragile and mortal. (v. 14) That leads into the short center section that describes what we are like.

What we are Like (vv. 15-16)

These middle verses are brief, perhaps to illustrate the point of what they say – human life is lovely, but is brief. As the grass or flowers are to us (quickly fading and forgotten), so are our lives in the expanse of time and history. That’s not meant to be discouraging, but to simply remind us of our limitation and, I think, to point us back towards an eternal God who endures.

And like that - fleeting like humanity – the Psalm is back to God. The next section simply re-visits the two sections we’ve already seen, this time in reverse order.

The Lord, Revisited (vv. 17-19)

First, two verses about what the Lord is like: his LOVINGKINDNESS (mentioned previously in v. 8) is everlasting and enduring, a clear contrast with the fleeting nature of human life. And then God’s RIGHTEOUSNESS (mentioned previously in v. 6) – here, too, set in contrast to our short lives as something that will pass on to children, grandchildren, and successive generations. We may live and die, but our children and grandchildren can know the same God that we knew and worshiped.

Then, v. 19 returns to the action verbs describing what the Lord has done: He has ESTABLISHED His throne and, as King, He RULES over all.

We add those character traits and deeds to those accumulated in the early part of the Psalm. And then we return to a final section of blessing, revisiting the original theme from v. 1.

Blessing Revisited (vv. 20-22)

Whereas the Lord’s character and deeds were somewhat compressed in the reprise, the theme of blessing is expanded at the end. Now all of Heaven is called into the action of praise, of aligning with the Lord’s Will and Word. The ANGELS (v. 20) bless the Lord through their obedience to the voice of God’s Word. The HOSTS (v. 21) of Heaven bless the Lord by serving God, doing His will.  Even God’s own WORKS (v. 22a ) bless His name – that’s yet a new version of blessing – not only can God bless us and can we bless God; God can bless Himself! This reinforces the definition of blessing – God’s works bless His name because they demonstrate God’s consistency with Himself – His Will and Word lines up with His Work. He walks His talk!

And then we end where we began: “Bless the Lord, O my soul!” (v. 22b) Remember what God has done, what God is like, and what we are like. Seek, ask, and knock, that we might align our lives – heart, soul, mind, and strength – with the Will and Word of God. When the gas line is on and not blocked, the flame can light. That’s God’s desire and invitation for each of us. Amen.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Limitations of Idols (Psalm 115, John 1,17)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; August 6, 2017 - Psalm 115; John 17:1-5

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:: Scripture and Music ::
Singing Together: Come Praise and Glorify (Chester, Kauflin)
Singing Together: Mighty to Save (Morgan, Fielding)
Invitation to Communion: We Will Feast in the House of Zion (McCracken, Moore)
Hymn of Sending: To God Be the Glory

:: Youth Mission Testimonies ::

Elizabeth Austell
Maggie Slade
:: 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 look at another Psalm in our Psalm+1 series, along with a New Testament passage which connects that Psalm to Jesus Christ. Psalm 115 contrasts the idols of the surrounding culture with the one true God of Israel. Though the particular idols have changed, we are in many ways still surrounded by idols and faced with trusting those false gods or the one true God. Today I want to specifically look with you at several limitations of idols as described in Psalm 115, then we will see the contrasting power and truth of the one true God, all the more demonstrated and made known to us through Jesus.

Limitation #1: the gods we make are all about us (vv. 1-3)

The Psalm begins pointing away from ourselves: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Your name give glory.” (v.1) What a counter-cultural perspective, not just then, but for today as well: it’s not all about me! What’s the point of Christianity? of religious faith? Is it to secure a better life for me and mine? Is it wish-fulfillment? With this opening, the Psalmist sets up the first limitation of false or man-made gods. We tend to create or be drawn to gods that are all about us. That’s why even within the Christian faith the prosperity theology runs so strong.

The Psalmist quotes the teasing of the surrounding culture: “Where, now, is their God?” What has your God done for you lately? Where is this invisible God of yours? The Psalmist’s response: “our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.” (v. 3)

That might even rub you a little the wrong way. But think about it… do you really want a god so small that it lives on your mantle or in your checking account or on your wish list? If God is really GOD – maker of Heaven and earth, we follow Him, not the other way around. We go bask in the sun; we don’t ring it up and tell it we are ready for it to shine. While it may initially feel distancing, a true God cannot be all about what I want and what I need.

If we make gods in our image or according to our needs, then really we are posing as creators and gods ourselves.

Limitation #2: the gods we make are only as strong as you are (vv. 4-8)

Related to that limitation is another: the gods we make are only as strong as we are. Do we really want to call such a thing ‘god’? The Psalmist plays with this a bit. Yes, you can see and touch such gods: they are “silver and gold, the work of man’s hands.” (v. 4) But even though they look familiar and present, they are not alive; they cannot speak, see, hear, smell, feel, walk, or make a sound. (vv. 5-7)

Are you picturing a tiny golden statue as an idol? That was certainly one version. But isn’t “silver and gold” – not in statue form – one of our common false gods as well? In money we trust (ironic, since it says “in God we trust” right on it!). If we don’t have it, it’s the thing we think will save us. If we do have it, we think just a little more will secure us against the uncertainties of the future.

Or what else do we make into false gods? The right relationship… the right neighborhood… the right friends… a strong military… a good security system… good health? Those things, which are desirable and often good, are still only as strong as we or our circumstances are. They cannot bear the mantle of divinity; they cannot be God though we sometimes serve and pursue them as if they were.

The gods we make are only as strong as we are, which in the face of this world and darkness and death is not very strong at all.

Limitation #3: idols cannot help or protect us (vv. 9-11)

Building on the second limitation, the Psalmist points out a third: if false gods are all about us and subject to our human limitations, then they cannot truly help or protect us. The Psalmist doesn’t say this outright, but uses the contrast with the God of Israel to make the point. It is only the God who made us, the Heavens and the earth, who does whatever He pleases, who has the power to help and protect us.

So the Psalmist makes the appeal to trust the Lord as help and shield. Over and over he says it:

“O Israel, trust in the Lord; He is their help and their shield.” (v. 9)
“O house of Aaron, trust in the Lord; He is their help and their shield.” (v. 10)
“You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord; He is their help and their shield.” (v. 11)

It is only such a powerful and self-determining God who CAN help and protect us. A man-made god – a false god, an idol – cannot do such a thing.

Limitation #4: man-made gods are not capable of originating blessing (vv. 12-18)

And here’s the hope: God is powerful and self-determining, but He has also “been mindful of us; He WILL bless us… Israel… Aaron… those who fear the Lord, the small together with the great.” (vv. 12-13) God has been compassionate in the past, so our hope is that He will be so again.

The fourth limitation of an idol is that they are not capable of originating blessing. They are neither living nor God. They are just our meager creations and subject to our limitations.

And so the Psalm ends where it begins, pointing away from US and giving glory and praise to God, thanks for a powerful, self-determining God who chooses to reveal Himself to and bless humanity.

The Great Contrast: Jesus, the Glory of God Revealed (John 17)

I chose the John 17 passage which we heard as the Call to Worship because it makes a connection with the first verse of the Psalm. The Psalm begins with “Not to us, but to Your name give glory.” That word ‘glory’ is the same word used in the Gospel of John to describe Jesus.

In chapter one of John, John writes that Jesus was in the beginning with God. “All things came into being through Him… in Him was life… Light [which] shines in the darkness.” (John 1:1-4)  John goes on to say that the Word [Jesus] “became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (v. 14) Later, in John 17, Jesus is praying and all throughout that prayer is the idea of ‘glory’ ending with “glorify me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.” (John 17:1-5) Jesus showed us the glory of God, the face of God through his work and words and existence.

What does all that have to do with idols and Psalm 115? Jesus serves as a vivid contrast to the idols and the limitations of idols described in the Psalm.

Limitation #1: idols are all about us
     ==> Jesus was there in the beginning and all things came into being through Him

Limitation #2: idols are not alive and are only as strong as we are
     ==> Not only was Jesus alive, but in Him was LIFE. He was Light to shine in the darkness.

Limitation #3: idols cannot help or protect us
     ==> Jesus made a home among us to bring the very glory and presence of God into our lives; in terms of help, his name means ‘rescue’ which is what he accomplished on the cross and through his resurrection

Limitation #4: man-made gods are not capable of originating blessing
     ==> Jesus is precisely God originating blessing when we could not help ourselves; truly originating – from the beginning of creation itself.