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Sunday, February 25, 2018

Focused Freedom (1 Corinthians 9.19-27)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; February 25, 2018 - 1 Corinthians9:19-27

:: 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 ::
Lord, Thy Church on Earth is Seeking (AUSTRIAN HYMN)
One Pure and Holy Passion (Altrogge)
SOLO: O God of Boundless Mercy (Keys/Townend); Eric V, soloist
Guide My Feet (While I Run This Race) (spiritual)

:: 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.

There were some additions in the audio version not included in the manuscript below.

Today we continue our Lenten series on “Freedom in Christ,” building on the previous teaching on truth and grace. Last week, today, and next week we are looking at consecutive chapters in 1 Corinthians 9-11 which touch on these themes. The particular matter at hand there concerns the freedom of Christians in Corinth to eat meat sacrificed to idols or false gods. But there is a tension between the freedom to do so (since those gods aren’t real) and being mindful of others for whom that freedom might be confusing or misleading. While we are not struggling with that particular application of meat and idols, there is plenty to consider in terms of how our freedom in Christ intersects with the command to love God and neighbor. We touched on that last week and we’ll continue that theme today.

Ministry and Mission Strategy (vv.19-22)

Paul says some pretty provocative things in the first half of our text. He gives examples of becoming “as a Jew” to reach Jewish people, becoming “as under the Law” for those under the Law and “as without Law” to those without, and so forth. He repeats the example from last week and the previous chapter of becoming weak for those who are weak – he’s talking about those without the spiritual maturity or knowledge to understand the freedom to eat the meat sacrificed to idols. And he sums all this up with two statements: he has made himself a “slave to all” (v. 19) and “all things to all men.” (v. 22) And he’s done this to “win more” and “save some” for Christ.

He basically is sharing his ministry and mission strategy. His freedom in Christ isn’t simply a blessing for himself, but is part of his service to Christ as he shares the Good News in word and deed to those he comes in contact with. Think of that freedom in Christ as a bag of money or a plate of cookies. It’s a gift from God to him in Christ, but it is not intended to be hoarded or kept to himself, but to be shared with all. And Paul is not just sharing that gift with folks who look like him, think like him, or live near him; but he is going high and low, far and wide, to share the goodness of God.

We understand this in some contexts, like teaching, where we adapt teaching styles and delivery for the wide range of learning styles and abilities. What Paul is talking about is not so different from that. He’s not changing the content of Christ, but speaking to and approaching people in a way they can hear and receive.

So don’t miss the purpose: to reach or win more to Jesus. But it raises questions, right? Is he saying we should do this by any means necessary? Isn’t that what gave us the Crusades? Well he’s NOT saying that. In fact, he qualifies his example right in the middle of it. When he is talking about reaching those under the Law and those without the Law, he notes that even in using the approach of not being under the Law he is not actually without God’s Law. He is still under the “law of Christ.” He is distinguishing between the Old Covenant laws and Jesus command to love and serve. And he is saying that his mission strategy isn’t “anything goes,” but is actually his obedience to Christ and bounded and directed by Christ.

So, he might speak to a Jew using terms and culture and language they understand. He might talk about the Mosaic Law and how it points to God’s righteousness and the Messiah. When he speaks to Greeks, as he did on Mars Hill in Athens, he might speak of their many gods and their statue to the ‘unknown god’ as a pointer to a God they are yearning for who has revealed Himself through the person Jesus of Nazareth. He is instructing the Corinthian Christians to be mindful of who sees them enjoying their freedom from the kosher food laws. And in the next chapter which we will look at next week, he does make a distinction based on the proximity and use of the meat sold in the pagan markets. Paul does have boundaries and guidelines. But what he is trying to get across is the radical “other focus” of serving Jesus Christ. It’s not about self, but about God and others.

Training, Focus, and the Goal (vv.23-27)

So in the second half of today’s text Paul moves into what could seem like an unrelated topic. He uses some sports analogies to talk about the discipline of following Christ. But the bridge between the two sections is there in verse 23: “I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.” And when he says “I do all things” he is referring to all THESE things that he has just described. He reaches out to Jews and Greeks and those under the Law and those not under the Law… for the sake of the gospel and so that he can participate in what God is doing, which is reaching all those groups – the whole world – with His love and mercy.

So the discipline he describes in what follows also bounds and qualifies the “all things to all people” statement that preceded. Paul is saying, “Here’s my ministry and mission strategy… it may sound haphazard and loose, but there is great intention and focus behind it. It’s like this…”

It’s like preparing for and running a race, or the Olympic games, or a boxing match. Listen to the qualities Paul lifts up, knowing that these are the qualities with which he tries to win more, reach more, and save some to Christ.

Self-Control (v. 25)
– In verse 25 Paul lists self-control. In terms of Olympic games or a race self-control might mean regular, intentional training. Running the distance, preparing for hills or weather. It means watching food and weight, trying to stay healthy. All that has application for our spiritual lives. And remember that Paul isn’t describing salvation, but participating in the ministry and mission of Christ. So when we serve and follow Jesus, through worship, study, service, and giving, these actions strengthen spiritual muscles and train spiritual “muscle memory” so that those actions and ways of thinking become patterns and habits and ingrained within us. Yes, we are free from a list of rules, but if our attention to God and serving Christ is haphazard and doesn’t touch all of life, we are more likely to get ‘winded,’ get lost, quit the race, or any other number of parallels you can draw. Do note what is tucked in at the end of verse 25: there is not just one prize in the spiritual race. Paul clarifies, “we aren’t running for a wreath that fades, but for one that is imperishable.” Our prize is not a medal (or wreath), but sharing in the work of Christ in the world.

Focus (v. 26)
– Next, Paul offers two examples of what NOT to do. I’d simplify his two statements to say “I don’t run aimlessly” and “I don’t box pointlessly” but he says a bit more than that because he says “I do run” and “I do box” – but he does so with purpose and without wasting his time or developing bad habits. Again, an analogy for the spiritual life. Let’s take worship, for example; it is good to come on Sundays! If you skip it, you definitely miss it. But sitting inert in the sanctuary can be like running without aim. Are you focused? Are you engaged? Do you prepare for this time? The same can be said for serving or loving or giving – when we follow Christ do we do it with FOCUS to make the most of it?

Discipline (v. 27)
– Having said what he avoids, Paul then makes the positive case, “I do train with discipline.” He disciplines his body and makes it his slave. Paul uses the same language here that he used back in verse 19 (a “slave to all”) to describe his obedience and service to Christ towards others. The aim and the point of his spiritual ‘boxing’ is to serve Jesus Christ by sharing him with others.

Don’t be Disqualified (v. 27b)
– Paul doesn’t want to fail; he doesn’t want to be disqualified, particularly because of his calling to preach and lead others. He doesn’t want to cause someone who needs Christ to stumble and fall by his own lack of discipline. What Paul challenges us to commit to with these sports analogies is following and serving Jesus Christ with full focus, discipline, and commitment. That’s not because those are the rules, but because that’s the best way to serve and follow Christ effectively.

Focused Freedom

So let me pull all that together a bit more concisely. Here’s what has preceded that we’ve talked about over the last few months:

TRUTH: We are helpless and hopeless and need God’s rescue.
GRACE: In love and mercy, God has offered us that rescue in Christ.
FREEDOM: We are therefore free from sin and death and free to live in relationship with God.

What Paul is describing in these several chapters in 1 Corinthians (8-10) is what “free to live in relationship with God” looks like. After God’s own heart for the world, we are invited into a radical love for others, one that gives significant focus to our freedom and life. It is a deception that freedom means “doing whatever I want” because I don’t consistently want the best for myself or others. But God does! So true freedom comes from following Jesus in a relationship with God. That leads us to places and blessings that we can’t even imagine. With eyes fixed on God and through Him on others, we will know true freedom and blessing. That’s what I would call focused freedom and it is part of God’s overflowing blessing and plan for our lives.

Where would God focus your freedom in Christ?

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Love Lifts Up (1 Corinthians 8.1-13)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; February 18, 2018 - 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

:: 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 ::
CHOIR: Come, Bless the Lord (English)
For the Beauty of the Earth (DIX)
Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us with Your Love (Colvin, Ghanian folk melody)
Holy Spirit (Getty/Townend)

:: 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 A.D. 55 and the temples to the Greek gods are thriving in the cosmopolitan city of Corinth. And attached to many of those Temples are markets where meat sacrificed to those gods is then served and consumed. Some Christians confidently ate and enjoyed meat from those markets. They were full up with the knowledge that there is only one true God. They were full up with the knowledge that salvation and reconciliation with God is through the sacrifice of Christ, not the blood of animals. Perhaps they had even heard that God told Peter that Christians were free from the old kosher food laws, now fulfilled in Christ. There were no such thing as other gods and there was nothing spiritually or morally good or bad about that meat; it could be enjoyed freely and confidently. Except Paul recognized a problem. There were new believers, young believers – and there were perhaps those interested in Christ from Judaism or paganism – who did not yet understand all those things. And when they saw Christians eating meat from those pagan markets it was confusing. Did they actually worship those other gods? Did they believe in those gods? Were they breaking God’s kosher commandments?

Paul walks through the very fine distinction between knowledge focused on self and knowledge focused on others. He writes in verse 2 that without that knowledge of the needs and situation of others (and concern for it), knowledge is limited and arrogant. Knowledge of the needs and situation of others combined with love edifies – it builds something. The example Paul gives around meat and idols is pretty foreign to us, so I want to consider some more modern examples of what he states at the end of the first verse. Paul writes, “Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies.” I want to expand that in context to say: Knowledge without love is arrogant; knowledge with love edifies (builds up).

Southern Christianity

It may seem strange to start with a discussion of Southern Christianity, but that provides the most immediate parallel illustration to this passage. I grew up in the 80s in Greenville, South Carolina. At that point we still had “blue laws” – a kind of remnant of Old Testament commandments that had woven themselves into local culture and law. Gas stations could not be open on Sunday. Liquor stores could not be open. Movie theaters were open on Sunday afternoon, but my parents highly discouraged participating in commercial activity on Sunday. We were also home to Bob Jones University and several parallel offshoots or feeder schools. I had friends who, as Christians, were not allowed to dance, listen to rock music, own secular music, or any other number of ‘wordly’ things.

Other Christians did all those things, either enlightened by a modern culture that just kind of thought such religious excesses were ridiculous, or legitimately ‘free’ of such rules and regulations by an understanding of the grace of God and the particular saving work of Christ rather than the works of religious human beings. Paul would be the first to say that a Christian was indeed free to buy gas, listen to rock music, or dance freely. But his follow-up concern, as stated in today’s text, would have been two-fold for 1980s South Carolinian Christians.

First Paul would say that in exercising freedom in Christ, we must be mindful of encouraging another Christian to do something they believe to be sinful or illicit without providing the proper teaching or rationale for that freedom. Even if the act is not sinful, choosing to do what you think is sinful is damaging to soul and spirit. Said another way, the end does not justify the means. People should be encouraged to make right choices, not just have right outcomes.

Secondly, Paul would say that in exercising freedom in Christ, we must be wary of sending the wrong or a confusing message to someone watching who is not of faith. If a Greek onlooker saw a Christian eating meat at the market of Aphrodite, it would be logical to assume the Christian either believed in Aphrodite or wanted to offer her worship. To 1980s Robert, I think Paul would have said: be free in Christ, but do be mindful of who is watching you and what message your actions send to them.

A great modern example of this is Chick-Fil-A. The founder, Truett Cathy, determined that his stores would not be open on Sunday so that employees could have at least one day a week to rest and be with families. And that vision was born out of his Christian faith. To this day Chick-Fil-A observes this practice though it is now thoroughly counter-cultural.

But in an even more notable demonstration of today’s text, did you hear what happened just a few months ago when all the power went out in the Atlanta airport? Chick-Fil-A saw the need, saw others struggling and needing help, and they OPENED on Sunday. Now skeptics may describe that as a clever marketing ploy, but I think it was an authentic understanding and demonstration of Paul’s point of knowledge and love coming together to lift up others.

And really, that is Paul’s bottom line here: think of others first; put others first. That is the essence of love. And if you really have knowledge… if you know Jesus at all, you know that to be His intent for us.

Three Audiences

Moving forward to today and daily life, I can think of three audiences we need to have in mind as we live out our faith. The first is other people who are not believers. Paul teaches elsewhere that the message about Jesus – the message of the cross – is foolishness to those without faith. So all the more we need to be mindful of our words and behavior and the message they send. Interestingly enough, I think we probably get in more trouble witness-wise for our immature words and actions then we do for biblically-informed words and actions. But either way, Paul reminds us: the world is watching.

Secondly, we need to have in mind believers who are less spiritually mature. They may well be looking up to us for how to trust God and live in the world. I don’t want that to be a paralyzing burden – freezing up and saying or doing nothing doesn’t serve others well either. And I’d include children in this category. So often they are watching and taking mental notes. And we surely don’t want to lead them astray, even unintentionally.

Thirdly, ourselves! We need to recognize that we may simply not know as much as we think we know. And that’s one of the significant reasons Paul gives us to NOTICE and LOVE others. In doing so we may realize that our knowledge was lacking.

Love God. Love Others.

When it comes down to the heart of the message here, it is simply an application of the Great Commandment. When asked what was the greatest of the commandments, Jesus acknowledged that it was to love God with all we are and all we’ve got, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Paul says that knowledge of God is great. Spiritual maturity is great. But love is greater than knowledge. The truly wise and godly person has not harnessed knowledge for personal gain or even personal freedom, but for the sake of others. Whether God has granted you mental, physical, or emotional strength, or financial resources, or health, or stability, or any other number of blessings, love of God leads us to love of others, which harnesses all those blessings to say, “How can I bless you? How can I not cause you to stumble? How can I help you see and follow God? How can I bring blessing and grace into your life?”

Later in 1 Corinthians, in chapter 13 – the famous “love chapter” – Paul writes, “If I… know all mysteries and all knowledge… but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:2) But if you do know Jesus, you DO have love. And love edifies; love builds up. Love blesses and gives. In fact, let me go back to Paul and 1 Corinthians 13:

Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. (vv. 4-8a)

I don’t know that we pursue knowledge – certainly not spiritual knowledge – in the say Paul describes in today’s text. But we do have a concept of a “strong Christian” or a “mature believer” or a “good Christian” that is part of our cultural Christianity. Paul’s message: if your faith isn’t focused first on God, then others, you’ve missed something critical. Love lifts up. Christianity lifts up. Mature faith lifts up. Who has God put in your path and in your life for you to edify and love? And will you?

Monday, February 12, 2018


The Blessing of Grace (Winter 2018)
Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church
January 7 - February 11, 2018

      Sunday, February 11, 2018

      Generous Grace (Ephesians 4.25-32)

      Sermon by: Robert Austell; February 11, 2018 - Ephesians 4:25-32

      :: 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 ::
      O the Deep, Deep Love (public domain)
      Choir: All is Gift, All is Grace (Haugen)
      I Need You to Survive (Hezekiah Walker)
      Flute/Piano: Hark, the Voice of Jesus Calling/Give Thanks
      The Gift of Love (O WALY WALY)

      :: 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.

      Several months ago I picked all these scripture passages to talk about God’s grace. In these recent weeks we have looked at God’s mercy and grace toward us, the grace of our access to God through Jesus, and today we look at how we show grace to one another after the example of Jesus. In short, our words and actions are living demonstrations of God’s grace to extend to each other.

      In Ephesians, Paul has been teaching about the new identity we have in Jesus Christ. Yet he recognizes that in our immaturity we often continue to dredge up old actions and words that do not reflect our identity in Christ. In Ephesians 4:15 Paul rather famously writes, “Grow up!” So here, later in that same chapter, Paul proceeds to give a series of contrasts, describing what spiritual maturity looks like in everyday life. And I was drawn to this particular passage because I see grace as the defining characteristic of that maturity.

      Paul offers five contrasts along with a grace-based reason for making the change.

      From Lies to Speaking Truth (v. 25)

      The first contrast Paul lists is speaking truth rather than lies. Look at the reasons Paul gives for this. First, he uses the word neighbor, bringing to mind Jesus’ summary of the Greatest Commandment, “Love the Lord your God (with all you are and all you have) and love your neighbor as yourself.” Why (and this is not the only reason) should we speak truthfully? It is because speaking truth is linked to our neighbors. Who is my neighbor? Jesus spent significant time answering that question. It is each person with whom I speak, because with each one I have the opportunity to show the love of God. Paul not only focuses outwardly, but also inwardly, reminding us that we are “members of one another.” We are to speak truth to one another because of the bonds of being the Body of Christ. While it is critical for the health of the body for you to be here and be part of this body, we now see that it is also critical for you to be a healthy part of the body. I need my liver to survive, but I also need a liver that isn’t poisoning my body. So, even as we need each one of you for this church body to survive and thrive, we also need you to speak truth to one another.

      Is it as simple as “the truth is always right” and “lies are always wrong?” I think so, almost. I do know that truth can be wielded to hurt, so I would remind you of Paul’s words from earlier in this chapter, words we looked at last week. We are to speak the truth in love, for the sake of building up one another. Really, that is the context for all of what we are looking at today. These attitudes and behaviors are not isolated and abstract, but to be used inside and outside the body of Christ for the health and growth of the Body.

      From Sinful Anger to Self-Control (vv.26-27)

      A second contrast is self-control and trust in God for nursing anger. Interestingly, Paul writes (and quotes Psalm 4:4), “Be angry.” It is okay, or at least expected, that we get angry! But Paul immediately qualifies that with, “but do not sin.” I searched the whole Bible for “anger” and the only examples I could find where it was not sin were when God or someone speaking for God, like a prophet, faces unrighteousness, injustice, or sin. I also found instruction for us, like Psalm 37:7-8, which says that we should trust in the Lord rather than let our anger consume us. And James 1:19-20 is very clear, “Let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” Indeed, God achieves the righteousness of God! We participate in that righteousness through trust, obedience, and worship rather than through anger.

      What all that points to is that it is a human emotion to be angry, but it is an emotion with little productive outcome. So Paul, perhaps intuitively knowing what psychologists would later discover, would say, “Don’t pretend like you’re not angry; don’t just stuff it down and bury it.” We know that doesn’t work. But also, don’t nurse the anger. Throughout the Old Testament, the word for anger is always associated with burning. Don’t stoke the fire. Rather, let it signal our need to trust in God and go to God in prayer.

      For those who need practical guidelines, Paul says, “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” This isn’t a super-technical or legalistic guideline. If you get angry at 5:30 p.m., you don’t have less than an hour to resolve it. And if you get angry at 8:00 p.m., it doesn’t mean that you have 23 hours to nurse it. His point is, you’re going to get angry at stuff. Be honest about that, then release it to God and with God’s help as quickly as you can. Otherwise, he warns, you will give the devil an opportunity. And if you have any experience with anger, you know the truth of that warning. That’s where the sin enters in, when we hold on to anger and nurse it and allow it to grow more destructive.

      From Stealing to Productive Labor (v. 28)

      A third contrast is working and what Paul calls “stealing.” This is simply an appeal to one of the first purposes God created for humanity. We’ve talked before about how work is one form of serving or worshiping God and was established in Geneses 2-3 when God put Adam to work cultivating and keeping the Garden of Eden. We were made to work! We sometimes think that is part of the curse given to Adam and Eve after they sinned, but the curse was that work would be extra difficult because of the Fall. But work itself is part of God’s perfect design in Creation and is part of our faithful life before God! Paul doesn’t go into all that, but it underlies his theology. Here, in verse 28, he simply says that we must each seek to live fruitful and productive lives. The point is not just so we will have enough for ourselves, but so that we will have something to share with one who has need. What a practical application of the Great Commandment. Our love of God compels us to work, because God has designed us to do so. But like Jesus did, Paul links love of God inextricably with love of neighbor so that even our work is explained in terms of thinking of and caring for others!

      From Harmful to Helpful Words (v.29)

      A fourth contrast is helpful words and harmful words. This exchange is similar to truth and falsehood, but covers a wider range of situations. We can help and hurt each other apart from truth or falsehood. Or perhaps this is where the in love part to speaking truth in love fits in best. The translation “unwholesome” is helpful. Jokes, stories, gossip, innuendo, and other destructive talk comes to mind. Paul elaborates in two ways: our words should build up (edify) and they should offer grace to the hearer. Remember, grace is a free gift. It reflects God’s great gift of life and it is not given for what will be received in return. So often, we reserve our so-called “kind words” in order to manipulate or get something out of a situation. We can be pretty stingy with unsolicited and no-strings attached words that build up others. I’m not talking about flattery; that seeks something in return. I’m talking about encouragement, comfort, and even exhortation or rebuke, when necessary. This is the essence of speaking truth in love. We must look out for the health and well-being of one another, and often our words are the front-lines of that mission.

      From Bitterness to Love (vv. 30-32)

      A fifth contrast is bitterness and love. In verses 30-32, Paul writes that holding on to the old and destructive patterns “grieves the Holy Spirit.” Paul goes on to list bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice, and says, “Put them away!” In their place, we are to “be kind to one another, tender-hearted, [and] forgiving each other.” Now, we probably could have figured out that God was against slander, malice, and the like, and for kindness and forgiveness. But note Paul’s reason in verse 32. We are to do unto others as has been done to us. We have known God’s kindness and forgiveness. Jesus told several parables about those who had been forgiven, but then did not extend that grace to others. The reason we can put on this new way of life, in general, is because it has been modeled and extended to us in Jesus.

      I Need You to Survive

      Why is Paul going through all these contrasts and urging us to lay aside the old identity and way of life to put on the new? Remember where we started. God has called this group of people together to be the Church here. We are His body and each one of you is necessary for us to survive, thrive, and grow into the mature and healthy body God intends for us. The first thing each of us must understand is that we need each other here to be whole.

      But what Paul has taken up in today’s text is that it is not enough just to show up or even show up a lot. We must also live into the identity God has given us in Jesus Christ. So, again, that means trying to understand your role and purpose in Christ’s Body here. It is the very least and minimal application for you to hear me saying, “Don’t fade away; stick around; we want you here.” Please do hear that! We need you to survive.

      But hear God’s Word to you today. This Body needs people who have put on truth and love and who want to work for God and help others, not only within these church walls, but beyond them. God uses writers, thinkers, doers, and goers. God also uses doubters, questioners, strugglers, and stragglers. (I can show you those in the Bible!)

      In a moment we are going to sing a song for our time of confession and our response to the Word. It’s a different kind of song. I first heard it at a community Thanksgiving service at Matthews-Murkland. We sang “I need you… you need me… I need you to survive.” It was particularly powerful in that context where we all realized how segregated our churches were and are to sing that with and to each other. I continue to be challenged to embody that song in my own life and ministry. I remember after that wanting to sing the song here and realizing it was different from just about every other hymn and song we sing because it is not addressed to God but to each other. I remember asking myself if that was the right song to sing in the context of worship. And then I realized that the song is a paraphrase… and more than that, a confession and application of this scripture passage. We very much need to sing it in the context of worship, before God, and claiming our identity in Christ as we reflect God’s grace towards us in our words and actions towards each other. I’m going to invite the worship team to come up and lead us in it and invite you to make it your own song of confession. Amen.

      Sunday, February 4, 2018

      Confident Grace (Hebrews 4.12-16)

      Sermon by: Robert Austell; February 4, 2018 - Hebrews 4:12-16

      :: 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 ::
      Our Confidence is in the Lord (Richards)
      Before the Throne of God Above/Have Mercy (Sovereign Grace/Cook; Barnard)
      Choir: O Love (Hagenberg)
      And Can it Be (SAGINA)

      :: 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 would be interesting to survey 100 people and ask about their feelings toward God. I’m sure the responses would be all over the map, even among those who call themselves Christians. I wonder how many would say they feel confident toward God. Today, as we continue in our series on grace, we will look at that strong declaration in our text from Hebrews 4:16 that says “Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace.”

      Prologue: Judgment (vv.12-13)

      Originally I was just going to look at verses 14-16 with you, but verse 14 starts with the word ‘therefore’ and I was taught that when you see a ‘therefore’ you should always ask what it is there for. And that involves looking at what comes before. So, let’s back up to verses 12-13 and see what is going on to produce not only one ‘therefore’ in verse 14, but another one in verse 16.

      If had had to summarize verses 12-13 I would say they are about judgment. We read three things about the Word of God and one about God Himself. First, the Word of God is “living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword.” (v. 12) The metaphor is vivid already – can you picture a sword on the table, sharp on both edges. It is not simply a blunt tool requiring a user’s hand, but something keen and sharp and dangerous (or powerful) on its own. But before you let that metaphor potentially wrong directions, the metaphor is fine-tuned: that living, active, sharper-than-a-sword Word is also “piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow.” (v. 12) It’s power is focused. It’s not a dangerous weapon lying around on a table, but a powerful and purposed thing that can penetrate to the deepest parts of who we are, where soul and spirit and body meet (things which Jewish readers understood to be a unified whole). In other words, God’s Word is so sharp and powerful, it can reach us in the deepest part of who we are. That is explained further in the third statement: it is “able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (v. 12) You can mask intentions and emotions, you can act one way on the outside and hold secrets on the inside, but not from God’s Word.

      And coming out of the metaphor of a sharp, purposed sword, that’s just what we read in v. 13: “And there is no creature hidden from His sign, but all things are open and laid bare [to God].”  If we went back even further into the preceding chapter we’d read about God’s people in Moses’ time, who said they trusted God with their lips, but whose complaints and taking matters into their own hands betrayed that commitment. The message is that God sees and knows us completely – even we, especially we, who profess His name.

      Now that’s a bit terrifying, right? This was supposed to be about confidence in coming before God, not being known and judged down to the core of my innermost self! Well as I said last week, we cannot know the depth of God’s grace if we don’t know the depth of our own sin. It’s like the young child who has a splinter or cut who has it covered up and doesn’t want to look at it or have it looked at. That doesn’t make it go away! In fact, it has to be uncovered in order to be cleaned and healed. So it is with God’s grace.

      Confession (vv.14-15)

      So verse 14: THEREFORE. If all that is true – that God sees and knows us completely, then something follows. Our translation puts the explanation first, then the something. I’ll flip that around so you won’t miss it. God knows us completely, THEREFORE “let us hold fast our confession.” Confession is a translation of a very interesting word: homologia. It literally means “one word” or “the same word.” It was used in a courtroom kind of setting to describe something like our phrase “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” In other words, don’t say one thing and mean another: speak the same word, with consistency, with integrity. And in this biblical setting and context it also takes on the meaning of words that line up with actions. It is the contrast to the ancient Israelites in Hebrews 3 who followed Moses out of Egypt but then complained, rebelled, and turned this way and that from following God. Instead, hold fast to our confession. Let what we say and do line up with what we say we believe.

      If only it were that easy, right? But on either side of that command are two reasons we CAN hope to hold fast our confession. One is “since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God.” (v.14) Scholars think that “Jesus the Son of God” was actually part of an early confession and used intentionally here. It’s like me saying after we recite the Creed, “Did you hear what we just said? It’s true!” And that truth is that we have heavenly help. The ancient Israelites weren’t going to be delivered to the Promised Land by just trying harder, but by trusting in God’s deliverance. And so it is here: “Let us hold fast our confession because Jesus (God Himself!) has moved heaven and earth to come rescue us as our great high priest.”

      And then there’s more in verse 15: “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” Our heavenly help is not going to arrive only to see us and turn away in disgust. Rather, Jesus has entered fully into human experience so that we can be saved. As it turns out, what we hold fast to isn’t our own strength. Our confession is precisely that Jesus is the Son of God, the great high priest who knows us and rescues us still. And THAT is where the confidence enters in. 

      Confidence (v.16)

      There is another THEREFORE. Because in Christ, the living Word and God enfleshed, has seen us and known us and judged us and come on for us anyway, “Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (v. 16) Our confidence in coming before God is clearly in no way because of something we have done, but because Jesus brings us. Our confidence to stand before God who knows us completely is precisely because Jesus is the same God-who-knows-us-completely who has already demonstrated that he wants us. Our confidence to draw near the throne of grace is because one who sits on the throne of grace has already drawn near to us, in fact moving heaven and earth to come invite us before that throne so that we might receive His loving gifts of mercy and grace. 

      [At this point in the service, I did an unscripted demonstration that was inspired by the children's sermon. I asked one of the children to come up and close his eyes, then asked him if he could find hymn #122, which one of the members out in the congregation would have open for him. He said "no way," but then I told him that I would walk with him and guide him. This was just what Jesus had done in coming among us to take us where we could not go on our own. You can hear this explained on the sermon audio.]

      God knows you through and through – no thoughts or secrets hid – and has moved heaven and earth to say, “Come receive my mercy and grace.” If you can believe that, what would that mean? Can you risk pulling your hands off the splinters and cuts and hurts? Can you trust God to lead where you cannot see? It reminds me of what we heard two weeks ago: that in my weakness God’s power is shown to be strong. God’s grace is sufficient for me. And God’s grace is sufficient for you. Amen.