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Sunday, December 31, 2017


Advent with Jesus' Relatives (Advent 2017)
Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church
December 03-31, 2017

      Seeking Salvation (Magi) (Matthew 2.1-12)

      Sermon by: Robert Austell; December 31, 2017 - Matthew 2:1-12

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

      ::: Scripture and Music ::
      We Three Kings (KINGS OF ORIENT)
      Revelation Song (Jenny Riddle)
      Go Tell It on the Mountain (GO TELL IT)

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

      It’s the last day of 2017 and we have a new year ahead of us. While I didn’t go into this passage looking for a connection with previous sermons, I saw a number of connections with what we talked about during December:

      Is God trying to get your attention and what is God trying to say to you?

      What does God desire to do in your life for His glory?

      What is God doing in the world in and around you and how can you participate in that?
      What we see in these Magi are people who diligently asked those kinds of questions. We see what happens when we listen carefully for God’s voice and look for what God is doing in and around us. The Magi provide for us a wonderful example of what it looks like to listen and attend to God. While there are many New Year’s resolutions we might make, I can think of no better commitment to renew and revisit than our commitment to make God a priority – THE priority – in our lives.

      So as we look at this passage, note the connection to previous weeks; but also consider the place of God in your life as we look ahead to a new year.

      Paying Attention

      I believe God is ALWAYS trying to get our attention and ALWAYS having something to say to us. The underlying question or issue is really whether we are willing to pay attention to God – to hear what He has to say.

      Now the interesting thing about the Magi – one interesting thing – is that as far as I can tell they were not particularly people of faith in the one God. They were likely court advisors to Mesopotamian kings, certainly wise and educated men who advised their ruler in all kinds of matters. So they were also foreign; meaning, they weren’t Jewish. They did take note of the world around them and particularly the sky above them, and they attributed meaning to things like the appearance and location of stars and constellations. To call them astrologers would be a little misleading because today’s horoscopes are a far cry from their studies. Nonetheless, they attributed meaning to what they saw and studied, and were particularly interested, as court advisors, to what they took to be the sign of a new king’s birth. So they set off, bearing gifts, to greet the new king.

      The Magi set an inspiring example of people who were interested in the world they lived in and even in what God might be doing around them. Even without the explicit truth of Scripture they were inquisitive and observant enough that that they found answers to those same three questions: What is God saying? What is God doing? How can I be a part of that?

      Ironically enough, the fact that they were looking for a “King of the Jews” led to both trouble and help. They raised the dangerous interest of King Herod, who didn’t want any competition to the throne. But they also encountered the Scriptures and the promise of a Messiah to the Jewish people. There is no better combination to find God than one who seeks Him who encounters the Scriptures which speak so explicitly of who God is and what God is doing in the world. Unfortunately and tragically, the world is full of seekers who do not turn to the Scripture and the church is full of the Scripture and those who no longer seek God or pay attention to this treasure they have!

      Worshiping God

      The middle verses are taken up with Herod’s plot to use the Magi to find the child. We will not focus there today, but move on to the final few verses to look further at the Magi and their seeking out the Child who would be king.

      The text says (several times) that the Magi came, seeking the newborn king, in order to worship him. Now you may remember that one of the main worship concepts in the Bible is literally “bowing down” or more figuratively “yielding” to God. That vocabulary is used several times in this passage, in verses 2, 8, and 11. I believe there is a progression of worship in this passage.

      In verse two, the Magi were likely seeking a newborn king, with presents to bring, to literally bow down and recognize earthly kingliness as envoys from another earthly ruler (or rulers). In other words, as representatives of their own king(s), they came to welcome a new king into the world. To do so was good politics and perhaps also seen as good luck. Their original intent was not what we think of as ‘worship’ so much as literally bowing down to acknowledge a new king.

      In verse eight, Herod asks them to report the location back to him so that he, too, may go and “worship” the Child. It is likely that Herod, knowledgeable of the Jewish scriptures and the prophecies his own advisors have just quoted to him, is using the word in both the literal “bowing down” and the more spiritual sense… except he is trying to deceive the Magi. He actually is an enemy of God and desires to locate and kill the Messiah, who would pose a threat to his own rule. It is that fear and evil that leads him to kill all the male children in Bethlehem.

      In verse eleven, the Magi find the child with Mary. It is at this point that they planned to bow down and offer presents to a new king. But it is at this point that the use of the word “worship” seems to match what we would think of as worship. While Mary and the baby were no longer in a stable, the Magi surely recognize that this is no king’s palace. And they have heard some of the prophecies and Scripture about the Jewish Messiah at this point. And there are some extra words in verse eleven which describe their worship. They didn’t simply “bow down” as had been planned; rather, they “fell to the ground (i.e. face down) and worshiped (bowed down).” While it is not clear how much they understood prior to this point, it is clear that they realize they are in the presence of God and they offer true and humble spiritual worship.

      Beyond this, they no longer are offering good will offerings between earthly rulers, but present their gifts as part of their worship. Sharp students of scripture will make a connection between these gifts and prophecies like Isaiah 60, which opens with “Arise, shine; for your light has come...” and verse six of that chapter, which says, “…they will bring gold and frankincense, and will bear good news of the praises of the Lord.”

      Again these Magi serve as a convicting and inspiring example for us. Their worship is neither casual nor ritual. It is face-down, all-out, humility and awe at being in the presence of God. And their offerings, originally planned as “what you do for a new king” are now offered as part of that worship response to God, precious treasures in honor of the one they worship.

      I wonder if we take such an understanding of God away from the Christmas birth story. Certainly we get sweet little baby Jesus in a manger. We can be inspired by angel choirs singing praises to God. But do we have any inkling of the kind of power and presence that would drive the chief advisors of foreign kings to their faces in the dirt? Do we tremble in awe? Do we offer God our very best in terms of treasure and time and abilities?

      Paying Attention to God: Next Steps

      I want to mention one last part to this story, tucked into verse twelve. The Magi were confronted with deception and lies, described in verses 7-8. It is not clear until verse 12 that they were not deceived. There we read that they were “warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod.” What jumps out to me is that these men, who began this story as those tuned in to the world around them, but not necessarily to the God of Scripture, now are tuned in to God. And in being so tuned they are discerning what God wants them to do and they are discerning between truth and deception.

      They began the story as seekers, perhaps not realizing in full who or what they would find. Encountering the Scriptures and the Christ child, they began to worship God and tune in to what He was doing in and around them.

      This is what God desires for each of us. God IS trying to get your attention; God IS speaking to you. God DOES desire to do something in your life and IS doing something in the world around you. How do you tune in to that?

      You look – you listen – you pay attention to God. You study the Scripture and respond to it, engaging in worship from the heart, not just going through the motions. You offer yourself to God – heart, soul, mind, and strength. You tune in, not just at Christmastime, not just as a New Year’s resolution, but day after day and week after week. Astronomers don’t just look up at the stars once every so often; they track movement and position and changes night after night, moment by moment. So it is with paying attention to God. God’s not going to disappear if you look away, but you will miss out on what God is doing around you and what God desires to do in your life, and may be deceived by evil and lies.

      Pay attention; offer God that at least. Offer God what you treasure and yield yourself to him in worship. The Magi were also called wise. For those with ears to hear… Amen.

      Sunday, December 24, 2017

      Born for This (John 18.37, 1.14, 3.16)

      Christmas Eve Candlelighting Service
      Sermon by: Robert Austell; December 24 (pm), 2017 - John 18:37, 1:14, 3:16

      :: 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 ::
      What Child is This (arr. Austell, Hutton)
      O Come, All Ye Faithful (ADESTE FIDELIS)
      Love Has Come (BRING A TORCH)
      While Shepherds Watched (Peterson)
      Welcome to Our World (Rice)
      Silent Night (STILLE NACHT)
      Joy to the World (ANTIOCH, arr. Austell)

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

      You have heard the Christmas story this evening, through Word and music.  I’d like to offer a brief meditation on WHY Jesus was born, using his own explanation, given as a grown man.  The setting for that explanation is a little strange, given our focus on the birth of a baby to Mary and Joseph, but I hope you’ll see the connections.

      Born to Die (John 18:37)

      I want to use three verses, all found in the Gospel of John.  The first is John 18:37, and the setting is Jesus standing on trial for his life before Pontius Pilate.  It is the night of his arrest and he will be crucified in the morning.  Jesus’ accusers have brought him to Pilate, saying that he was claiming to be “King of the Jews” – surely, an offense to the representative of Rome in the area.  Why do I choose this verse?  Listen…

      Therefore Pilate said to [Jesus], “So you are a king?”  Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king.  For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.”

      Did you hear that?  On the eve of his death, Jesus very explicitly said, “This is why I was born… this is why I came into the world.”  It was for THIS moment as well as all that led up to it.  Jesus was born to die, born for the testimony his death would provide and crucified for the truth he proclaimed throughout his earthly ministry.

      Back in the beginning of John’s Gospel, this same word – TRUTH – is used to describe Jesus.  It would characterize his time on earth, from birth to death to life.

      Born to Testify (John 1:14)

      Look at John 1:14.  This is back among the birth narratives, though John’s explanation is more on the theological than the narrative end of things.  Listen…

      And the Word 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.

      That word – TRUTH – shows up many times (26x) in John’s Gospel.  Later, Jesus says he is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).  But right here at the beginning, we are told that this one who is God with skin on, God come to live with and be with us, is full of truth.  So no wonder that he says at the end of his earthly ministry that he was born to testify to the truth; he has lived it, spoken it, acted it, and sung it with the very fabric of his being.  Not only that, he was born to manifest God’s glory, grace, and truth – to show us God the Father living in and among the stuff of this world.

      Though we don’t tend to do this at Christmastime, it is easy to make Jesus all about his death.  We leave off his life and we leave off his resurrection.  And it is true that he was born to die.  But he was also born to testify, and not just through words, but through his very life.  That’s what it means that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  And his testimony, his witness, his story was all about the glory, grace, and truth of God, to show us God the Father.

      Born that We Might Have Life (John 3:16)

      Finally, the phrase “only begotten” points to one more verse from John… perhaps the best known scripture reference in the Bible.  It is John 3:16.  Listen…

      For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

      It, too, answers the question, “Why was Jesus born?”  He was born to die FOR YOU; he was born to show God TO YOU; and he was born that we might have life.  And this famous verse also adds that all this was out of God’s love for the world, a love that is described throughout these pages of scripture.  God loves you and God has come after you in loving pursuit of life WITH YOU.

      And that brings us back full circle to Jesus’ response to Pilate in John 18:37.  After Jesus explained why he was born – to testify to the truth – he added, “Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.”  Jesus was born to die FOR YOU, born to show God TO YOU, and born to live life WITH YOU.  But all of this is wasted on us unless you and I listen.  That’s how we hear his voice, see the Father, and experience life with him… listen and believe and follow.

      Born for This

      It’s easy to hear the Christmas story and leave off thinking of a little baby, lying still or gently cooing in the manger or in his mother’s arms.  But Jesus was born for much more.  miss that story; don’t miss that purpose; don’t miss God’s greatest, loving gesture toward you and for you.  Listen, believe, and come follow him.

      And come back.  Every week we hear God’s words to us and consider what it means to listen, believe, and follow Jesus.  I hope you’ll come be a part of that with us.  Amen.

      Comparing Cousins - John (Luke 1.57-80)

      Sermon by: Robert Austell; December 24 (am), 2017 - Luke 1:57-80

      :: 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 ::
      Prepare the Way (Evans, Nuzum)
      Of the Father's Love/Love Shines (arr. Austell)
      CHOIR: People, Look East (arr. Helvey)
      Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (MENDELSSOHN)

      :: 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.

      This advent we have been looking at the stories of Jesus’ relatives leading up to his birth. We first looked at his aunt and uncle, Zacharias and Elizabeth, at their silence and solitude in preparation for their own miracle baby. Then we looked at Elizabeth’s joyful amazement at seeing Mary, also pregnant with a promised child. Then last week we looked at Mary, the mother of Jesus, at her joy and worship of God at this miraculous news and reality. Her response was no easy happy thing, but a deep and mature response of faithful obedience toward God who had set her apart to bear the anointed Messiah into the world.

      In application we have been challenged to open our eyes, ears, and hearts to what God is doing around US. We’ve been challenged to be still in this busy season in order to become more aware of God at work. We’ve been challenged to submit our own plans and wills to God.

      Today we hear more about the family of Zacharias and Elizabeth and the child God gave to them. He would be Jesus’ cousin and would be named John. He would grow up to be the last of the great Hebrew prophets in the mold of Elijah. And he would call his people back to God, to receive the Messiah and believe God’s salvation. I’m going to divide today’s text into three sections relative to the action in it: past, present, and future.

      Past (vv. 57-66)

      As the text picks up in v. 57, it is time for Elizabeth to give birth. The baby is born healthy and parents, neighbors, and relatives are overjoyed at the gift of life to this couple who had not been able to have children. As was the custom, they took the child to be circumcised on the eighth day. It was at that time they would name the child. Zacharias was still unable to speak, still muted from his encounter with the angel when he first got the news that they would have a child. So Elizabeth answers and says, “He will be called John.” And they questioned her. It was not a family name; it was out of the ordinary. And they questioned dad, “Is she right?” And Zacharias didn’t just nod or give a thumbs up; he asked for a tablet and wrote it out: “His name is John.” And we read: “they were all astonished.” (v. 63)

      There was something really unusual going on. Actually, there was a whole pile of unusual. That this couple had become pregnant and had a baby was miraculous to begin with. But then there was Zacharias, suddenly unable to speak since the news broke. And Elizabeth had been holed up in her own solitude. But now… “John.” That’s so human, right; we see and hear amazing stuff, but then it’s something relatively ordinary that pushes us over the edge of what we can take in. God has been so good to you, Zach and Liz – what a gift to have this child. We’re sorry about whatever has happened to Zach, but what’s that, what do you want to name the baby? Belvedere Buloxi Wifi Jones? What in the world? Hey dad, has your wife gone crazy? No… what? You, too?

      Here’s what I see going on here: Zacharias and Elizabeth were being obedient to the Lord and the message and sign they received from the angel. God had spoken and acted, and they had heard. And their obedience led them out of the ordinary; it was going to stand out a bit. But after tuning in to God these nine months, after seeing what God was doing with Mary and Joseph, after hearing from an angel… they were following what God said to do, whether the friends and relatives thought it was a weird name or not.

      And here’s what followed that obedience: Zacharias’ tongue was loosened. In his act of obedience, God acted further to confirm that obedience. And immediately he “began to speak in praise of God.” (v. 64) And did you hear the reaction to THAT? “Fear came on all those living around them; and all these matters were being talked about in all the hill country of Judea.” (v. 65) Everyone started paying attention, wondering who the child would become and what the Lord would do in his life.

      We don’t always understand obedience; it is not always clear what God will do with that obedience. But if we listen and follow God truly, God will use our obedience. And in this case, God not only would use John in the future, but God’s Holy Spirit spoke through Zacharias in that present moment.

      Present (vv. 67-75)

      Zacharias and Elizabeth heeded the past words of God through the angel and chose to obey in the present moment in the naming of John and in giving glory to God. And what happened next was God acting in a public way. The Holy Spirit filled Zacharias and he prophesied. That means he spoke God’s Word to a particular audience, somewhat akin to preaching. He declared:

      Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
      For He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people,
      And has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David His servant
      – As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old –
      Salvation from our enemies,
      And from the hand of all who hate us;
      To show mercy toward our fathers,
      And to remember His holy covenant,
      The oath which He swore to Abraham our father,
      To grant us that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies,
      Might serve Him without fear,
      In holiness and righteousness before Him all our days. (vv.68-75)

      “This is what God is doing,” the Spirit said through Zacharias. There was no need for this extra message: John would grow up to be a great prophet announcing the coming of the Messiah. And miracle babies and angel messages were abounding. But this was God’s story, and God’s Spirit inspired Zacharias to speak this short sermon to bridge together what had happened in the PAST with God and His people and what was happening for Zacharias and God’s people in the PRESENT. Zacharias announced salvation, rescue, and mercy – all rooted in God’s faithfulness to His promises. His words also bridged into the FUTURE as he spoke words of blessing over his son, John.

      Future (vv. 76-80)

      Still filled with the Holy Spirit, Zacharias turns to his son and speaks these words:

      And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
      For you will go on before the Lord to prepare His ways;
      To give to His people the knowledge of salvation
      By the forgiveness of their sins,
      Because of the tender mercy of our God,
      With which the Sunrise from on high will visit us,
      To shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,
      To guide our feet into the way of peace. (vv. 76-79)

      From there the Gospel-writer narrator tells us that the child grew up to become strong in spirit until he began his public ministry to Israel as John the Baptist (Baptizer). (v. 80) What God was about to do was send His Son into the world. And God would use John to call people back to Himself and to point them towards salvation in Jesus. John was to “prepare the way” and he grew up to do that with everything he had.

      Christmas Eve

      For us John has lived, preached, and died. And Jesus has been born, has lived, has died, and has been raised. But what we do each year during Advent is live through it again, like watching a play or a movie for a second or third time. We know how the story turns out, but it’s meaningful to walk through it again and again… particularly this story.

      As we look back over our Advent with Jesus’ relatives, there are a number of faithful examples set for us:

      Zacharias and Elizabeth teach us to LISTEN through silence and stillness.
      Elizabeth and Mary teach us to RECOGNIZE God at work (and worship!)
      Mary and Zacharias teach us to REMEMBER what God has done.
      Zacharias, Elizabeth, and Mary all teach us to OBEY God’s Word and will.

      So from the vantage point of Christmas Eve, we are with Zacharias and Elizabeth and John. We are with Mary and Joseph. We have heard stories of God’s faithfulness in the past and we may have even had our own experiences of God’s goodness in our own past. And we gather in faith and in hope in the present, to ANTICIPATE that God will show up and touch us… speak to us in a meaningful way. I believe even more is happening this morning, akin to what happened with Zacharias and those gathered around him. I believe God IS here, presently and powerfully. I believe that God’s Spirit IS speaking through the Word of scripture and through our hearing and receiving of it. And as we prepare to hear the Christmas news again, we trust in the same future that Zacharias, Elizabeth, and God’s people did all those years ago: that God will rescue us from sin, save us for something more, win us and woo us back home, and bring us into His arms at the last. And as it was then it is now and ever will be: through Jesus Christ, Son of God, Light in the darkness, Sunrise from on high, and Savior for the world. Amen.

      Sunday, December 17, 2017

      Mother's Song - Mary (Luke 1.46-56)

      Sermon by: Robert Austell; December 17, 2017 - Luke 1:46-56

      :: 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 ::
      What Child is This? (GREENSLEEVES)
      Choir Cantata - "A Candlelight Christmas" (Harlan, Purifoy)
      O Come, O Come Emmanuel (VENI EMMANUEL)
      Simeon's Song (Rick Bean)

      :: 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 looking at another well-known passage in the first chapter of Luke. It is called the Magnificat, from the first word in the Latin version which means “it praises.” This song or prayer of Mary’s took place in response to seeing her pregnant relative, Elizabeth. Having trusted the angel, whose message we considered the past two weeks, Mary believes God’s Word to her and Elizabeth declares her blessed for doing so. We see Mary’s faith manifest as worship and as joy.

      Worship and Joy

      Mary’s song begins with worship and joy: “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.” Exalt is a worship word meaning praise or lift up as worthy. Mary’s faith and obedience didn’t result in insecurity and doubt, but in soul-worship or heart-felt praise of God. This isn’t just going through the motions as a religious exercise, but a spontaneous and authentic expression of love for God. And it’s not just worship – lifting God up as worthy; it is also joy-filled, as Mary rejoices in her spirit over God’s salvation.

      In past weeks I’ve asked whether God is trying to get your attention, speak to you, or do something in your life. My goal is not to get you to do something for me or the church, but to grow in knowledge and love of God… to tune in to God in your life. Not only is that one good definition of worship, it also results in deep joy and real satisfaction, the kind we find ourselves pursuing without knowing it and the kind Mary demonstrates in her song.

      It is worth noting that Mary does not focus for long on what God has done for her, but is drawn to the way God is faithful in all generations. This is the difference between thinking about or praying to a Santa Claus Jesus and tuning in to a saving God who is at work in the world. God isn’t about me; I need to be about God!

      Highs and Lows

      Most of Mary’s song is spent describing what God has done. What jumps out at me are the “highs and lows” – that is, the language of exaltation and humility. I counted as many as twelve words or phrases that speak to position or perspective. God “has regard for the humble”; God has “scattered the proud”; and so on.

      What emerges is this picture: God is high and exalted and worthy of our respect and worship. That’s who God is! Mary sets an example for us of how God is to be honored and adored. And not only does Mary lift God up in worship, she declares God’s mighty deeds. She sings of what God has done and will do. God’s justice and salvation will accomplish two things: exaltation of the humble and humbling of the exalted.

      God will raise up those who are humble and turn to him in need. Mary begins by describing how God “had regard” for her own situation – the “humble state of His bondslave” (v. 48). She is marveling that God would choose someone so young and lowly as herself to give birth to the Messiah. But she moves past this “great thing” God has done for her to praise God for His faithfulness over the generations. God’s mighty deeds include mercy and compassion for “those who fear Him (v. 50)… those who were humble (v. 52)… the hungry (v. 53)… Israel His servant (v. 54).”

      And yet God has justice for those who put themselves in His place to take advantage of others – the proud, the unjust rulers, the selfish rich. God will scatter those proud, bring down those rulers, and send away those rich empty-handed. This is a declaration of God’s judgment and justice, to be accomplished provisionally on earth and finally in Heaven.

      Another way of tying all this together is to say that Mary’s song describes God as high and exalted, and us as His creatures. Both in God raising up the lowly and in God humbling the so-called mighty, God will be shown to be both merciful King and faithful God.

      The Faithfulness of God

      Finally, this song – the Magnificat – is not primarily about celebrating what God is doing for Mary. Rather, it starts out of amazement at God’s miracle and moves to Mary marveling at God’s faithfulness in human history, coming to an amazing and miraculous point in her own generation and life.

      Mary punctuates and concludes her song with reminders of God’s faithfulness. (In v. 50) She quotes Psalm 104 about God’s faithfulness from generation to generation… a phrase that will also figure prominently in the Pentecost outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Then (vv. 54-55) she remembers God’s covenant promise to Abraham, and acknowledges God’s faithfulness in fulfilling those promises through the birth of the Messiah.

      Realize that Mary wasn’t living in a vacuum, but was of a generation of Jewish people who had grown up believing in and waiting for God to act. Particularly under the degree of persecution and struggle experienced within the Roman occupation of their country, the longing for the Messiah was keen indeed. Mary seemed to naturally and faithfully make the move from “What is God doing in me?” to “What is God doing around me?” And that’s the question I want to leave with you as we try to understand and apply these stories to our own lives.

      What is God Doing around Me?

      Mary recognized that God was trying to get her attention, was speaking to her, and did desire to do something in her life. But, accepting all that and putting herself in God’s hands, she realized that what God was doing was bigger than her life. Her focus shifted to what God was doing around her and how she could be a part and serve Him. That’s the invitation for us today: to be a part of what God is doing.

      This is one way to understand the significance of Christmas: it is God’s premiere demonstration of “doing in the world.” With the birth of Jesus, God was not only fulfilling generations of promise, but definitively demonstrating that He is God with us and for us, a sovereign Creator with a deep love and interest in those He created.

      The question, “What is God doing around you” is rooted in the Christmas demonstration that God is indeed at work in and for the world. How can you be a part of what God is doing around you and serve Him in and through your own life? That is a worthy Christmas question! Amen.

      Sunday, December 10, 2017

      Amazed Aunt (Elizabeth) (Luke 1.39-45)

      Sermon by: Robert Austell; December 10, 2017 - Luke 1:39-45; Psalm 139:13-16

      :: 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 ::
      My Soul Cries Out (aka Canticle of the Turning) (Cooney)
      Holy Spirit (Townend/Gettys)
      Go Tell it On the Mountain [children's choir] (arr. Austell)
      Canon in D [Maddie Buchmann, piano] (Pachelbel)
      Joy to the World [arr. Austell]

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

      Today is the second Sunday of Advent, this “season” in church life when we prepare for and anticipate the celebration of Christ’s coming. We are spending this Advent season with the relatives of Jesus, who themselves were anticipating his birth.

      Last week we looked at Zacharias and Elizabeth, Jesus’ uncle and aunt. Zacharias received a message from God through the angel-messenger Gabriel. He and Elizabeth, old and unable to have children, were going to have a baby who would be a great and Spirit-anointed prophet like Elijah, raised up to call God’s people back to Himself. As a sign that God was at work, Zacharias was caused to be mute, unable to speak until the baby was born. We looked last week at how he spent the time of waiting for the birth in silence and Elizabeth spent it (by choice) in solitude. And we talked about the spiritual benefits to us of setting aside time to be silent and alone before God. In fact, this past Wednesday night at our twice-a-month dinner church, we re-read part of that passage and some at the tables took a vow of silence during our dinner to experience some of the benefits of silence and listening. Several reported that when they knew they wouldn’t be speaking or about to speak, it freed up their minds to listen more attentively to those around them, and perhaps to God as well.

      This week we jump forward in Luke 1 to a visit between Mary, who would be the mother of Jesus, and the same Elizabeth. Both are now pregnant with miracle babies and we will look at the story of them seeing each other, each pregnant for the first time. What I’d like to focus on is what happens when the Holy Spirit, God’s Spirit shows up.

      Moved by the Spirit (vv.39-41)

      The passage picks up with Mary going “in a hurry” to visit Elizabeth in the hill country. She had received her own news of a miraculous birth (we’ll revisit that on Christmas Eve) and went to visit her older relative. The part I want to highlight here is what happened when Elizabeth heard her voice. The baby kicked inside Elizabeth’s womb (literally “leaped”) and we read that “Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” (v. 41) Now babies will kick in response to voices or noises, but the implication here is that something more was going on. I think it is no accident of storytelling or in what happened that the two things happen together. The baby kicks and the Holy Spirit fills Elizabeth. In more modern terms we might say that she (and her baby) were “moved by the Spirit.”

      That God would already be involved with the forming of his future prophet John in utero is so vividly spoken to by Psalm 139: “For you formed my inward parts; you wove me in my mother’s womb. I will give thanks to you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Indeed as the Psalm says that “in your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them” (v. 16), the angel-messenger had already told Zacharias and Elizabeth that their baby would become a great and anointed prophet of Israel. And he would, indeed, grow up as John the Baptist to prepare God’s people for the coming of the Messiah, who would be Mary’s child, Jesus.

      Joining with the Spirit (vv. 42-45)

      I also want to highlight what happened next after Elizabeth was moved by the Spirit. She JOINED WITH the Spirit in response. She could have just held her stomach and said, “Oh, the baby kicked.” But there was more going on and she was tuned in to it. Rather, she CRIED OUT WITH A LOUD VOICE, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (v. 42) Indeed, this was some of the same Spirit and message John the Baptist would one day have as an adult. It’s like Elizabeth got a dose of it herself in that moment. Mary was newly pregnant and we have no indication that she had yet shared the nature of her own miracle baby with Elizabeth. Rather, moved by and tuned into God’s Spirit, Elizabeth not only declares blessing on Mary and her baby, but then asks, “How has it happened to me that the mother of my Lord would come to me?” I can think of no other explanation for her question than that she recognizes the nature of Mary’s pregnancy and the identity of Mary’s unborn child. He will be “Lord.” She explains that her baby didn’t just kick, but leaped “for joy” and she blesses Mary for believing what the Lord has spoken to Mary.

      Earlier in Luke 1, when Mary gets her angel-message, she is told about Elizabeth’s miraculous birth, but we are not told that Elizabeth had heard about Mary. Buy even if Mary had sent word of the message given to her, Elizabeth is no less responding to and joining with the Holy Spirit in affirming Mary and her baby and God’s power at work. What I want you to hear is that both these women heard God’s message, were moved by the Spirit, and joined their hearts and lives to what God was doing.

      When the Spirit Moves

      Last week I affirmed that God is speaking and acting all the time. We looked at the examples of Zacharias and Elizabeth for how silence and solitude can help us hear and see God at work. This week’s story builds on that. Elizabeth has been tuned-in, listening to God’s message through the angel and waiting responsively and obediently for what would come next. When Mary came and the Holy Spirit moved, Elizabeth was responsive and ready. She joined in the joy of the moment (along with her baby!) and gave witness to what God was doing and was about to do.

      So last week I challenged YOU to carve out some time for silence and solitude in this busy season. Today we are challenged about WHAT THEN? What if you actually hear or see God at work? Have you ever been moved by the Spirit? Have you ever seen or heard something and realized, “God is here; God is at work?” Elizabeth’s example is precisely this: don’t write it off as indigestion, funny circumstance, or strange coincidence; rather, JOIN IN. What is God saying? What is God doing? If you are listening and waiting and God stirs you; JOIN IN! It reminds me of this familiar question: God, what are you doing and how can I be a part?

      Are you unsure whether it’s God speaking, acting, and moving? Is that little voice you hear just your own… or a parent’s… or a negative voice? Here’s how you know – check it against God’s message in scripture. God is not in the habit of contradicting Himself. Without belaboring it, that’s what Elizabeth did. She weighed what she was experiencing, feeling, and witnessing against the very clear message she had received about her baby and his purpose. In our case, we have this Bible, which God has inspired and spoken. What is God doing and stirring in you? Is it of God? Read this and see if it sounds like God. Read this and see if it’s the kind of thing God IS in the habit of doing… welcoming, forgiving, healing, restoring, reconciling, helping, saving. Still not sure? Check with some trusted, mature believers. Or come talk with me – that’s what I’m here for! And that’s how discerning God’s will works. I often go to the elders of the church when I am discerning something. Or I go to trusted pastor friends or mentors in faith.

      Taken together, last week’s text and this one offer us a powerful challenge: God speaks and acts all the time. Set aside time and space to be still and listen that you might join in what God is doing. And take a cue from baby John, still in his mother’s womb: doing so brings great joy! Amen.

      Sunday, December 3, 2017

      Speechless Uncle, Zacharias (Luke 1.5-25)

      Sermon by: Robert Austell; December 3, 2017 - Luke 1:5-25

      :: Testimony :: Gwen Ingram

      :: 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 ::
      Prepare the Way (Evans/Nuzum)
      He Knows Just How Much We Can Bear (arr. Phyllis Hall) - Gwen Ingram and Bobby White
      Prepare the Way (Harlan) - CHOIR
      Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus (STUTTGART)

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

      Today is the first Sunday in Advent and the first sermon in a series called “Advent with Jesus’ Relatives.” Advent is meant to be a time in which we prepare both for Christmas and for Jesus’ return. Today I’d like to start on a very practical note and talk about the importance of silence and solitude to having a meaningful Christmas.

      I think for many or most of us, this can be one of the most hectic times of the year. Kids are in special programs at school and at church. There are Christmas parties of all kinds – with the office, neighbors, friends and family. There is shopping to be done and many folks travel. Even here at church we have some of our biggest services, programs, and missions of the year. We are trying to focus on the birth of Christ and on helping those in need, but it’s also more to do, go to, and be a part of.

      All of that has its place and certainly focusing on Jesus’ birth and the real meaning of Christmas is a vital part of a meaningful Christmas. But today, I want to look at a very special biblical text that may challenge us to try something a little different this year.

      Today’s text is the story of a miracle pregnancy – not Mary’s, but that of her cousin, Elizabeth. There are several points we could focus on, but I’m going to focus on just two that are kind of tucked away in the details.

      Miraculous News (vv.5-17)

      Zacharias and Elizabeth were in a busy time of year. Zacharias was a priest and, as was the custom, rotated through various duties at the Temple. At this particular time, he was schedule to offer the incense offering inside the Temple. This high honor typically only happened to a particular priest once or twice in a lifetime. It was the closest an ordinary priest (i.e., not High Priest) would come to the presence of the Lord in the Holy of Holies. The people would have been at worship in the Temple courtyards while this offering was going on.

      It was there that Zacharias had a vision of an angel, who came with news from the Lord. This wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened, but I guess you never think God’s going to send you a hotline. Zacharias and his wife, Elizabeth, were going to have a baby. Like Sarah and Abraham before them, Zacharias and Elizabeth were past child-bearing age and Elizabeth had been unable to conceive when they were younger. She was barren, an emotional and challenging thing in any place and time, but particularly so in a culture where children and family were so very important. In fact, having many children was part of the covenant with Abraham and his descendants and to be barren was especially difficult for a couple who were heirs of that promise.

      And like Abraham and Sarah before him, Zacharias fearfully recognized the angel for who he was, but found the message laughable. And this was no hazy promise of one day having a child. This was a full-on vision and promise, with details including the baby’s name, calling, and future. He was to be called John, be raised under strict guidelines, and promised to be a prophet like Elijah. And Zacharias asked the question any of us probably would have asked, “How can this be?” (Or, we might add, “Are you sure you’ve got the right guy?”)

      Now here’s where a miraculous story gets even more interesting. Because Zacharias asked how he would know this for certain, the angel (Gabriel) told him he would be unable to speak until the baby was born. Gabriel attributes this action to Zacharias’ unbelief, but the muteness is not a punishment, but a SIGN that God was at work. I want to spend the rest of our time pondering the meaning and usefulness of that sign, and then a corresponding decision made by Zacharias’ wife, Elizabeth.

      Silence (vv.18-23)

      Zacharias asked for a sign. He said, “How will I know this for certain?” As if an angel appearing with a word from God wasn’t enough… and the answer he got was silence. Now here’s one question: was being struck dumb the sign? Or did being silent allow him the quiet and reflection to recognize God at work?

      In the case of Zacharias, I think being made mute was itself the sign; but I think it also afforded him the opportunity to really ponder God’s word to him through the angel. It probably slowed him down and gave him lots more opportunity to listen since that was all he could do.

      I think of Gwen, who has shared her testimony this morning. She gave testimony not only to God’s power, but also to what one can learn and see of God when we are restricted by silence and human frailty.

      Has God provided opportunity for you to really listen to him? Or maybe it’s not something God has caused, but nonetheless invites you to make use of… a head cold, some time off between jobs, a broken down car. The point here isn’t so much the sign as taking time to listen to God. I’m not asking, “Is God trying to get your attention?” I’m asking, “Do you need to give God your attention?” And the answer to that is always YES.

      Zacharias needed to listen and give attention to God because God had spoken and God was acting, and those things are true for us as well. Here’s the thing: God is at work all the time! I think we just move to fast and are too distracted to see. Thank you, Gwen, for sharing what you’ve seen! Are WE paying attention?

      Solitude (vv.24-25)

      There is a second example of someone paying attention to God. At least that’s what I understand to be going on. Look at verse 24. After Elizabeth became pregnant she “kept herself in seclusion for five months.” Now, our minds might be quick to think that a pregnant woman in seclusion means shame or embarrassment, but look at Elizabeth’s reasoning in verse 25. She is anything but shamed: “This is the way the Lord has dealt with me in the days when he looked with favor upon me, to take away my disgrace among men.” Her barrenness was shame to her; her pregnancy was the Lord’s blessing.

      Whereas Zacharias’ voice was taken from him as a sign and so that he could ponder the promise of the Lord, I believe Elizabeth made a conscious choice to be still and wait on the Lord. She withdrew to receive the favor and blessing the Lord had promised to her. Certainly the pregnancy also served as a very real and tangible sign to her of the Lord’s promise. Needing no additional sign, her solitude afforded her the opportunity to really ponder what the Lord was doing and was going to do through this miraculous birth.

      Making Time to Listen to God

      This silence and solitude is a secondary part of this story. Certainly first was the miraculous action of God in sending a new (and the last) prophet before the Messiah. This is all part of the larger narrative of the Messiah – promised, announced, and arrived in Jesus of Nazareth.

      But don’t miss this secondary lesson as we look forward to Christmas – the celebration of the arrival of Jesus into the world. Whether silence and solitude has been your active choice or not, make time this Christmas season to pay attention to God. Pace yourself; prioritize; and if you have to, just say ‘no’ in order to have some moments of quiet reflection, listening for what God is saying and doing in your life and in the lives of those around you.

      As important as the once-in-a-lifetime offering in the Temple was, God was doing something even more important with Zacharias and Elizabeth.

      As important as Christmas parties, decorating, shopping, and travel are, don’t miss what God is doing – it just might involve you.

      I would even extend this challenge to our many church events. Surely, we are trying to point people – including each of you – to what God is saying and doing. But you don’t have to do it all!

      I can’t think of any more important thing each of us could do this Christmas season than to seriously make some space in our life for silence and solitude before the Lord. It may be in the quiet of communion in just a few moments. It may be taking the family on a drive to the mountains to get the tree and taking some time to read the Christmas story to your kids. It may be in the car in the parking lot at the mall, taking 5 minutes to pray before jumping into the fray. You don’t have to follow these suggestions to the letter – mix and match; be creative. But give God some time and space and I don’t think you will regret one minute of it.

      Zacharias and Elizabeth were privileged to bear and raise the last great prophet who announced the arrival of God into the world. Their preparation and contemplation of that blessing and honor came through paying attention to what God was saying and doing.

      One of the things I speak frequently about and am convicted of is that God is still speaking and acting. And I believe that God is inviting each person who trusts in Him to participate in what He is doing. Our paying attention to God this Christmas season not only prepares us for a real and meaningful experience of Christmas, but also for serving God in the way God has called us. And all who find that promise of God find a real gift indeed! Amen.