Due to a change in the site hosting audio, we have had to replace the audio player and only audio from 2017-2019 is currently available.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Live Bread (John 6.26-69)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; October 28, 2018 - John 6:26-29; Isaiah 55:1-3a

:: 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." 

::: Music ::
He Saved Us to Show His Glory (Tommy Walker)
CHOIR: Give Me Jesus (arr. Patterson)
His Mercy is More (Boswell, Papa) - song of assurance
Break Thou the Bread of Life/Come Feed My Soul (arr., chorus Youngblood)

:: 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 part of one of the longest accounts of Jesus’ miracles and teaching in the Gospels. It is contained in John 6, which begins with a miracle of bread in the “Feeding of the 5,000.” The narrative then follows Jesus (as does the crowd) to the other side of the sea, and picks back up with Jesus teaching about miraculous bread. Read together, John 6 shows the inter-relation between Jesus’ miraculous signs, the scripture, his teaching, and who he is. Said another way, all these things point to Jesus and at the end of the day (and chapter), that is what and who we must grapple with: Jesus himself.

There are a number of ways to work through this text. But with the whole chapter being 71 verses long, I’ll simply have to pick aspect of this rich story to focus upon. I am going to lift out several verses that point to Hebrew scriptures as we work through the text. Know that what preceded all this was a miracle: the multiplying of fish and bread to feed a hungry crowd of 5,000 men, plus women and children. Know that the crowd followed Jesus, wanting to see more miraculous signs and wanting to pronounce Jesus King according to the popular understanding of Messiah at the time. And then our text picks up right where the crowd finds Jesus in Capernaum on the other side of the sea.

“Do not work for food which perishes but for that which endures” (v.27)

Jesus begins with scripture almost right off the bat, though it’s not an exact quote. He first says to the crowd, “You seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.” (v. 26) Then, he paraphrases Isaiah 55:2, which you heard as our Call to Worship:
“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live!  (Isaiah 55:1-3a)
Though his words were a paraphrase – “do not work for the food which perishes” – they would have called this familiar passage to mind as an invitation to come to God and “eat and drink” of eternal things.

Said another way, he is signaling to the crowd that what he is offering is not more literal food, as in the previous days’ feeding. If anything, the “Feeding of the 5,000” was a miraculous sign pointing to something greater. This scripture from Isaiah is a direct invitation to “incline your ear, come to me, and hear, that your soul may live!” Jesus confirms that by going on to say that this enduring food is what “the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal.” (v. 27)

The people evidently understand his point, because they respond using the language of Isaiah. If they are not to work or labor for earthly, finite things, they ask, “What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?” (v. 28) And Jesus’ response here is significant. “This is the work of God,” he says, “that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” (v. 29)

Did you get that? There are all kinds of works we might engage in. There is running after earthly stuff, whether necessary like food and water or more superficial. There is doing “good works” like helping the poor and loving one’s neighbors. But when asked outright what is godly work of the Isaiah kind – that has eternal significance for the soul – Jesus says that it is to believe in the one God has sent. And clearly he means himself, for the people then ask him for proof.

“God gave them bread out of Heaven to eat” (v.31)

They ask, “What then do you do for a sign, so that we may see, and believe you? What work do you perform?” (v. 30) Now the crowd quotes scripture about the manna in the wilderness, saying, “As it is written, ‘He gave them bread out of heaven to eat.’” (Exodus 16:4) The people were expecting a Moses-figure and so they lifted up the great sign that accompanied Moses: the provision of food through manna.

In a perfect and living example of how Jesus did not come to abolish the Law and Prophets, but complete and fulfill them, Jesus does not challenge the scripture at all, but clarifies, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.” (v. 32)

And they want it! “Lord, always give us this bread.” (v. 34) Here’s the thing: they still wanted bread. Their expectations and desires might have graduated from literal bread (like the day before) to something miraculous, but they still were missing what Jesus was saying. He wasn’t claiming to be a new Moses, with signs like the Manna verifying who he was. He was claiming to BE the Manna, the eternal and life-giving food from God in Heaven: “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me will not hunger, and he who believes in me will never thirst.” (v. 35)

This is the truly huge statement in all of this. Jesus is greater than Moses; he is greater than the miracles in Moses’ time; those just point to God’s great eternal provision of soul-food… the sending of Jesus as the “Bread of Life.”

“I AM the Bread of Life” (v.35)

There are several significant takeaways from all this. I think each of us could locate ourselves somewhere in the crowd that day. It is so easy to think about (and pray to) God in terms of “what can God do for me?” Yet Jesus moves past that to the startling invitation to consider Jesus for who he is rather than what he can do for us.

Interestingly, a human religious tendency seems to mirror that same tension, resulting in religious expression that is primarily oriented on “what can I do for God?” Yet Jesus seemingly holds out more than that to a definition of godly work not as what I can do for God but of trusting the one and the way God has reached out to us.

The one approach is a kind of “backscratch theology” – trying (subconsciously or consciously) to trade favors with God. The other – who Jesus is and what God has and is doing already – sounds like Isaiah, sounds like grace: “Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!”

Jesus says that the only way we can know God is for God to come to us. And the Good News, says Jesus, is that God has done just that. It’s another example of Jesus saying, “This is who I am; do you trust me?”

As Isaiah would say: “Incline your ear and come to him; listen, that your soul may live!” Amen.

To Whom Shall We Go? (v.68)

I included the verses from the end of this story because they are among the most significant. After Jesus has called people away from signs and secondary pursuits more and more intensely, many begin to turn away. Even his own followers and disciples start to question, “This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?” (v.60) But Peter responds, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (vv.68-69)

And that is the key question for you and me as we read and hear this text.  It is easy to make Christianity into a lot of things that it is not – from the worthwhile (but not saving) experiences of mission trips, retreats, service projects, and church attendance, to the trivial like scripture-inscribed candy, coffee mugs, and convenience store trinkets.  And in the midst of all of it – experiential, cultural, thoughtful, and trivial – Jesus insists, “Only through me; believe in me.” It’s still a claim to stumble over, still a scandal.  It has been called the “scandal of particularity” – that there are not many ways to God, but a particular one, the One sent from Heaven, the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ, the Holy One of God.

So, the text raises this question of you and me: to whom shall you go? Will you grumble, and stumble, withdraw, and not walk with him anymore?  Will you realize with Peter, stumbling block and all, that only Jesus has the words of eternal life?  Will you believe in the one God has sent?  Will you follow him?

This is the essence of the Christian faith.  Even more importantly, this is life.  Amen.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Pool Man (John 5.1-17)

Sermon by: Zach Drummond; October 21, 2018 - John5:1-17

:: 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." 

::: Music ::
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty (LOBE DEN HERREN)
O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing (AZMON)
CHOIR: Prayer for Healing (ljames)
Love Divine, All Love's Excelling (BEECHER)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) ::

My wife and I just moved here a few months ago to Charlotte. We’re originally from Atlanta, GA. This is the first time we’ve ever moved to a new state. We’ve been learning all of the many things you have to update and change when you move. The government requires you to change your driver’s license and car registration within 60 days of when you move. So back in August I drove to the DMV to get a North Carolina Driver’s license. Now, I’ve had bad experiences at the DMV before, but this was by far the worst one.

I had it all planned out: I was gonna get there a few minutes before it opened, be one of the first people in line, and make this a quick trip. I even waited until the Friday of Labor Day Weekend to go. Thinking, “Everyone will be out of town on vacation! No one will be there.” On Friday, August 31, I arrived at the DMV at 7:55 AM to this. I have a few pictures to show how many people were there that morning.

This (1) is the DMV. This (2) is the store next to the DMV. This (3) is one entrance to the grocery store next to the Family Dollar Store. And this (4) is the other entrance to the grocery store.

I later learned that apparently everyone goes to the DMV on Labor Day Weekend. That’s their busiest time of the year. At the time, I had no job. I was in the process of interviewing here at Good Shepherd. In this moment, I had a big decision to make. Do I stay and get this done now? Or leave and try again another time or try a different DMV? Regrettably, I chose to get in line. Part of me knew that I had nothing to do. Most of me held onto one single hope: That the line would move quickly. There’s no way it could take that long! I put all of my hope and trust in our government, believing they could fix my problem. They’ll get us in and out of here in no time.

Never have I been more wrong in my entire life. Our government is the slowest moving, most inefficient system on the planet. All at our expense!

Let’s look through some pictures together as we enjoy my miserable experience! After two hours of waiting, I was close to the entrance of the DMV.

Finally, after 3 hours of waiting, I made it inside. Only to discover there was another line of people inside! I had to wait in line to get a ticket and wait for my ticket to be called.

3 hours later they finally called my ticket number. After 6 dreadfully long hours of waiting at the DMV, I earned my driver’s license and my freedom to enjoy the rest of my day.

This is the longest I have ever had to wait for something at one time and it was definitely not worth the time I had to sacrifice to get my license.

The good news in all of this is that I was reminded of an important lesson in God’s kingdom: This world will inevitably let you down. I was hoping that the government would transform my reality but was sorely disappointed. If you place all of your hopes, dreams, and faith in this world, you are eventually going to be disappointed. Nothing lasts forever. No one lives forever. Everything in this world eventually fades.

What about you? Where do you place your hopes, dreams, and faith? What’s the one thing you’re hoping for in life? That one thing you’d like to change most about your life? What’s that one thing that you believe will solve all of your problems? Transform your reality and make them all go away? Because we may not realize it at the time, but all of us place our hope and trust in this world and in ourselves at many different points in our lives.

We place our hope in these things: We hope to pass Middle or High School. Then get into a good college. Make friends. Have a boyfriend or girlfriend. And graduate from college. After college we hope to get a good job. Get paid well. Eventually get a raise. One day we hope to get married. Have kids. Get a nice house. Get a nice car. Collect nice stuff. Way down the road, we hope to retire from a good job. Have grandkids. The world teaches us that these things will transform our lives, fix all our problems, and give us everlasting happiness. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

In our scripture for today, we read about a man that is just like us. He believes the world can fix his greatest problem. You see, he has been disabled for 38 years. I want you to imagine with me what this man’s life was like. He is unable to take care of himself, so he has to rely on others for help. He is unable walk, so in order to get anywhere other people have to carry him. Other people have to provide for him. Someone has to go to the grocery store for him. Someone has to cook for him. Someone has to clean for him. He is unable to work, so he begs for his needs: Money, food, water, clothes, etc.

In the morning, someone has to carry him to a good place in the city to beg. At night, someone has to bring him home. If he has no family to provide for him, then he has to get by on whatever he makes from begging. He has been doing this for 38 years. Doesn’t this sound exhausting? How do you think other people see him? Disabled. Sick. Needy. Helpless. Useless. Weak. Broken. This is how they identify and label him.

But good news: this man has actually found a cure to his disability, or so he thinks. Every day, he visits the Pool of Bethesda. Of course, someone has to carry him to the pool. In modern times, this is basically an indoor pool. But why would he visit a pool every single day? Legend says that once a day an angel would come down from heaven into the pool and stir the water. Legend also says that whoever gets into the pool first after the angel stirred the water was immediately healed from his or her disease.

This legend made the pool very popular. All of the blind, lame, and paralyzed came from miles away to the pool to be healed. They laid around the pool all day in hopes of being healed. This disabled man places all of his hopes and dreams in this pool, this legend. If I can just be first to get in the water, I will be healed. He sacrifices time he could be begging to be at this pool. Which means he is sacrificing money he could be making. But he believes that this pool can solve all of his problems.

Doesn’t this sound just like us? We have a problem or issue in our lives and we think, if I can just get this, or if I can just do this, then I’ll finally be happy. When I finally reach this place in life, I won’t have anymore problems. If I can just try harder or be stronger than I’ll finally be free. The trouble with this kind of thinking is that we aren’t dealing with the root of our issue. This disabled man might be physically sick, but all of us are spiritually sick. All of us have a heart problem. The Bible says that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Everyone has sinned against God.

And our sin is the root of our sickness and all of our issues in life: selfishness, pride, idolatry, lust, greed, gluttony, laziness, wrath, envy. These sins cause all of our problems in life. They rob us of life, literally and spiritually. Just like the disabled man, we think this world can save us. We place our hope and trust in something in this world to fix us. Often times we even think we can fix ourselves. But the truth is that our sin makes us spiritually sick, needy, helpless, useless, weak, and broken. We can’t fix ourselves and neither can this world.

But the beautiful thing is, that’s when Jesus enters the scene, in the midst of our brokenness, while we are still sinning. Jesus loves helping those in need, so naturally he visited the Pool of Bethesda, where all the sick people are. That’s where Jesus sees and learns about the man who has been disabled for 38 years. But Jesus doesn’t immediately heal the man. First, he asks him a question: Do you want to get well? Wait what? Jesus are you serious? Did you really just ask that? This man is disabled! He comes to the pool every day to seek healing! Of course he wants to get well!

We have to stop and remember: Jesus is fully God. He knows everything. He knows this man’s heart. So he already knows the answer to this question. Then why would Jesus ask the question, do you want to get well? Jesus always asks questions for our benefit. Since he already knows the answer, he is trying to reveal something to us with his question. Does this man actually want to get well? Now that I’m thinking about it, is it that hard to be the first in the pool? My strategy - Just lay right next to the pool. As soon as you see movement, roll over. I’m sure that at some point if you keep trying this tactic you will be the first one in the pool. If you really want it that bad won’t you do whatever it takes to be healed?

Look at how this man answers Jesus’ question. He blames others for his problems. There’s no one to help me into the pool. Someone always beats me to it. It sounds like he has given up. It sounds like after years of waiting and trying to find the cure, he’s tired. He placed all of his hope in the pool only to be disappointed over and over again. It sounds like his identity, how he sees himself, is wrapped up in his disability. I’ll always be disabled. I’ll never be well. I might as well accept it. Jesus asks the question so this man will search deep in his heart and see if he actually wants to be healed. To see if he still believes that he can be healed.

Jesus poses this same question to all of us: Do you want to get well? Do you want to be free of all your problems and pain? Do you actually want the cure to your sickness? Or have you given up too? Maybe you’ve been stuck in your sin or struggle for so long that you have accepted it in your life. You don’t think you can ever change. And you’ve tried to stop or overcome this a million times, but nothing has worked. You’re tired of fighting Maybe part of you doesn’t want to change. It’s your source of comfort or escape from this world. It’s all you’ve ever known - You are comfortable in it. It’s a part of who you are now, and you live with this sin or struggle. You identify and label yourself with this sin or struggle.

How does Jesus respond in the story? With mercy and compassion. Jesus heals the man with mere words. He tells the man to pick up his mat and walk. And this man, who has been disabled for 38 long years, is finally healed! What this man has been unable to do his entire life with the pool, Jesus does in an instant. It’s a miracle! Now imagine the possibilities and the potential for this man. He can walk - No need for people to carry him. He can work and provide for himself - No need to beg. He can go grocery shopping, cook, and clean - No need for other people to do that for him. He doesn’t really need anyone anymore. He can take care of himself.

Jesus has given him a whole new identity. Healed. Capable. Helpful. Useful. Strong. People will see him on an entirely different level. This man now has a choice. He can live in his new identity and create a new way of life for himself, or he can go back to his old identity and old way of life. Which do you think would be easier and more comfortable for him? Probably to go back to begging. Think about all the work he would have to do to start his new life. Find a job, work for a living, go grocery shopping, cook, and clean for himself. That sounds much harder than just begging for money every day. He may be fully healed but maybe he doesn’t want his life to change. His whole life he’s been a beggar. That’s what he’s comfortable with. That’s all he’s ever known. It’s his identity.

This is the very reason Jesus shows back up in our story. Jesus finds the man again, after he healed him, and says, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” Jesus says, I gave you everything you ever wanted! I gave you a fresh start, a clean slate, a new beginning. How could you possibly think about going back to your old way of life? You were miserable. Pick up your mat, leave your old way of life, and don’t look back. I promise that will be better.

I have good news for all of you today! Jesus offers YOU freedom, healing, and a new start! Jesus is the cure to all your problems! He is the only one that can save you from your sin and free you from your struggles. The only one who can give you that inward transformation you are so desperately seeking. He lived a perfect, sinless life here on earth and died on the cross. On the third day, he rose from the dead! He defeated sin and death for all of us! When we put our faith in Jesus, our hopes, dreams, and trust, Jesus completely transforms our lives. The old you dies and God gives you a new heart and fills you with his Spirit. He gives you a brand new identity. Healed. Capable. Helpful. Useful. Strong.

In Christ, you have the power and authority to overcome sin and death in your own life. In Christ, you become selfless, humble, generous, content, at peace, satisfied, joyful, and hopeful. No more shame, guilt, or judgment for the things you’ve done. Only forgiveness, acceptance, and love. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. He will never let you down or disappoint you. He will always be exactly what you need.

So what are you going to do with Jesus’ challenge today? Jesus speaks to all of us in this story: Get up! Take up your bed and walk! Stop sinning! Leave your old way of life behind. Don’t return to your old sinful, self-centered ways. Nothing in this world can save you, not even yourself. Only I can save you. Put your faith in me: Walk in the new life I give you. Jesus offers us a fresh start, but we have a responsibility to walk in it. You have to let your old, sinful way of life die by no longer living the way that you did. You begin to live like Jesus, moving toward righteousness, purity, and holy living.

This doesn’t mean we are going to live perfectly and never sin again. Our goal should be to sin no more, but the truth is that we will stumble and fall for the rest of our lives. Because we’re not perfect. Jesus is the means through which we overcome our sin, but we have to choose him. The point is that we are trying to change. We are continually repenting for our sin, asking for forgiveness, and choosing Jesus and holy living instead of our sin. But you have to choose for yourself. Will you put your faith, trust, hopes, and dreams in Jesus? Will you choose the unknown, more difficult, uncomfortable way that leads to life? Or will you continue to hope in the world and in yourself? And choose the easier, more comfortable way that leads to death? Do you want to be a beggar for the rest of your life, or do you want to walk again?

As we choose Christ and holy living, we invite others along our journey. Come and see the one who saved me! The one who freed me from my sin and my struggles! The one who gave me a new start and changed my life forever. This is not something we can keep to ourselves, but need to share with the whole world.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Well Woman (John 4)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; October 14, 2018 - John 4

:: 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." 

::: Music ::
Come Thou Found/We'll Feast (arr. Austell)
Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts (QUEBEC)
His Mercy is More (Boswell/Papa) - Assurance of Grace
Give Thanks - Bobby White, piano - Offertory
Let Us Be Known By Our Love (Armstrong, Masssey, Moore, Flanigan)

:: 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.

Would Jesus love THAT person? Would Jesus love me? What does it mean for Jesus to love someone?

Today’s story is going to answer all three of those questions as we continue to “Come and See” Jesus in our Fall series of checking out Jesus through his own words and actions.

Today we are looking at one of the accounts of Jesus-in-action. Several weeks ago we read the claim of John 1:14 that Jesus, full of grace and truth, reveals the glory or presence of God. In today’s story Jesus befriends someone who definitely would have been a “THAT person.” If we are willing to listen and learn, we might hear in the story how Jesus would approach THIS person (me). And Jesus approaches, not with words of judgment, but with gestures of grace, mercy, and love. Those actions open the door for him to speak words of truth and reveal something of who he is and who God is. And a life (perhaps even a village) was transformed and God was glorified.

THAT Person

I want to make sure you understand just how unusual, even unheard of, it would have been for Jesus to talk to the woman at the well. Considered from just about any perspective at the time, the woman was a real outsider, and Jesus should not have been talking to her.

There were three reasons: she was a Samaritan, she was a woman, and she was a social misfit. Samaritans and the Jews didn’t get along, they didn’t socialize, and they certainly didn’t find any common ground around religion. As is mentioned in the passage, each had a different central holy spot – a different temple and holy city. In many ways, theirs were competing religions, though each looked forward to God’s Messiah or Anointed One.

Second, it was also (as it is today) very unusual for men to speak to women in public as Jesus did at the well. Jesus broke that social taboo often, so the disciples were probably used to it. But the Samaritan people of the town or any others who heard or saw the encounter would have been shocked at Jesus’ actions.

Third, the woman had been married many times and was currently living with someone to whom she wasn’t married. That would have been plenty of reason for the others in town to exclude and cast her out of the respected social circles. The very fact of her coming for water in the heat of the day speaks volumes to her exclusion from her own community. She was avoiding them and they likely encouraged that.

I’d ask you to begin to consider who might fit this description in your own spheres of living. Who comes to mind as being on the outside of whatever groups you are a part of?

What Did Jesus Do?

If you read much of Jesus story, it is clear that he was and is interested in the lost and least, even if they are sinners, even if they are “the enemy.” He continues to demonstrate this interest in this story. I’d like to highlight HOW Jesus went about relating to this woman. He lives up to the John 1:14 description, embodying grace and truth and revealing the glory and presence of God. But he does so in a very significant and thoughtful way, and that’s what I’d like to explore with you in greater detail.

Jesus is hot and thirsty and goes to a well to get some water. There he sees this Samaritan woman, a woman he recognizes as living with moral compromise either by supernatural means or by keen observation. He bears the message of His Father about a coming Kingdom of purity, righteousness, and glory. What to say? What to do?

Does he proclaim the Law of God, challenging the poor religious and cultural decisions of her Samaritan fore-fathers, who disobeyed God’s word and compromised their faith and culture?

Does he issue a call to repentance, challenging her to give up living with a man to whom she is not married?

Does he avoid her as a foreign, sinful, woman – as any of the religious types of his day would have done?

Does he simply speak the truth as he does elsewhere, and announce the Kingdom, perhaps do a miracle, and move on?

This is the question of the day: when it comes to witnessing to God’s glory and presence to a real outsider, and doing so with grace and truth, how does Jesus do it?

In a sentence, he approaches with grace, which opens the door to speaking the truth, and it leads to personal transformation and ministry.

Let me say that again, because it is a pattern well worth learning and living:

Jesus approaches with grace, which opens the door to speaking the truth, and it leads to personal transformation and ministry.

Now let me break that down.

Grace ==> Truth

Jesus approaches with grace. Jesus did not let race, creed, or even lifestyle keep him from approaching with grace. Though he came out of a religion of holy separation, his was a fulfilling of the covenant promise to Abraham that God’s people were blessed to be a blessing. So he went all the way to where the woman was, spoke to her, and asked her for a drink of water from the well. He asked for her help! Can you imagine? He who had all the power of God and all the truth of God… he asked this outsider for something. Given her social status, it probably validated her humanity more than anything she had heard or experienced in years and years. You are a real person, worthy of conversation! And she was shocked. In some ways, just having the conversation was grace, it was so unexpected. But look at what Jesus says in verse 10: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” That word GIFT signals grace. That “living water” isn’t conditioned on her race or gender or behavior, but on God’s grace. And it hers for the asking!

Listen carefully: what Jesus is offering is at the heart of salvation by grace through faith. We do not EARN God’s grace or salvation; God offers it freely as a gift to all who ask and receive. Everything in us wants to earn it, but that’s just not the Gospel of Christ. (And a good thing, if you realize how pure God’s holiness and righteousness are!) So Jesus says to this outsider, “If you knew who I am, you’d not have focused on earthly things, but heavenly things.” And just like that, because Jesus treated her as a real person worth saving and with experiencing “life,” she began to ask about matters of truth.

That experience of grace opened a door to speaking the truth. If there is one new nugget of information for us in this story, I think that’s it. Christians use words like grace and truth often, but we don’t really understand grace. We want to parcel it out as people understand and live out truth. If you believe these six things you can join a church; if you get the major sins licked, you can enter the outer circle; and if you really get spit and polished, you can come into the inner circle; and those are the chosen few. And grace is nowhere to be found. We keep singing about it and talking about it and preaching about it, but it’s a concept, not a reality.

And the real tragedy is that when we wield truth in that manner, we often lock grace up and throw away the key, for people either turn away from an impossible standard or begin to pursue it as the means to salvation and never “get there.” Instead, Jesus models for us a relationship between truth and grace that is not only effective, but life-giving. And it neither waters down truth nor locks away grace. Note there is no simple formula: grace is not a free pass, nor is the truth spoken in judgment; rather, both work together as a means to reveal the Father.

So Jesus crosses “outside” to speak with the Samaritan woman outcast. And he offers the free gift of God’s living water (a metaphor for salvation, meaning, and eternal life). She responds with truth questions: What is this water? Who ARE you?

Jesus answers with truth about God and himself (not yet about her): he says more about the living water and what it is, using more biblical imagery and explicit mention of eternal life. Still thinking literally, she asks for the water. And at this point of her expressing interest in spiritual truth, he speaks of her personal life and relationships. Interestingly, he doesn’t judge her situation here, but affirms what little she shared and goes beyond that to see her so clearly that she perceives he is (at least) a prophet.

So in addition to the questions of “What is this water?” and “Who are you?” now the question is raised, “Who is she?” His perceptive truth statements about her life (interestingly, devoid of judgment) lead her to an extended conversation about worship, but one that ultimately leads to Jesus identifying himself as the Messiah, whom she is also awaiting.

In fact, all the interaction, both grace and truth, were driving towards this – Jesus revealing Himself as God’s Anointed One, and inviting her faith response to that revelation. Along the way, Jesus identified the grace-gift of salvation and several truth statements about that salvation, himself, and her own life.

Now this is not intended to be a road map or checklist for evangelism. But it does show in broad strokes the power of grace to connect with someone at the deepest level and to create opportunities to explore truth together. It also elevates truth about God and His salvation to a first priority. Let’s look at what happened next.

Transformation ==> Ministry

Look at the transformation that occurred! It was miraculous, particularly when you consider her likely reputation in town. The woman left her waterpot and went into the city with the news. She who had been avoiding all contact with townspeople by coming to the well in the heat of the day now went into town and sought out men of the town to tell about Jesus. She forgot her original purpose (water) and the rejection and embarrassment she would surely encounter.

So finally, note the ministry that came out of the transformation! It is staggering, not just in its scope, but when you consider the woman at the heart of it. Her transformation and witness were so compelling that the townspeople followed her back out to see Jesus. Look at who God used to reach a town of Samaritans… one who was most outcast among them. Not only was she transformed, but she brought others to Jesus. And lest we wonder whether the truth of her life and sin might be obscured, listen to what she said: “Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; could this be the Christ?” (v. 29) No longer was she hiding her sin from the town, but admitting it in the light of the one who knew all of it and still chose to love her unexpectedly and without condition.

That is the power of grace to unlock truth and bring glory to God.


Let’s return to the question of whether there is someone like the woman at the well that you know. Is there a person who is thoroughly an “outsider” to you and your group of friends?

What would it look like for you to go to that person, not with the list of reasons why they are that way, but with the unexpected love of God? What would it look like to suspend judgment about their apparent sins and simply relate in a transparent and Jesus-like way? I’m not saying their sin isn’t important or that they won’t have to wrestle with it. But in most cases, judgment (spoken or unspoken) is not the entry point for the Gospel with those who do not know God.

One final caution I’d mention: though this all happens in a single encounter with Jesus and the woman at the well, my experience is that it doesn’t often happen that way. Be patient. For now, see if you can find someone to love unexpectedly, expecting nothing in return; and see what happens. Amen.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Night Visitor (John 3.1-21)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; October 7, 2018 - John 3

:: 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." 

::: Music ::
To God Be the Glory
CHOIR: God So Loved the World
OFFERTORY (worship team): Let Us Be Known by Our Love
Here is Love (Lowry, Rees)

:: 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.

Who is Jesus and what does it mean to be a Christian? Those are not the kind of questions that are easy to ask, in OR out of church. If you ask it out in public, like to your server in the middle of lunch, or to the kid sitting next to you in geometry, you are likely to get a look. Or at least that’s what we expect. And, ironically, I think a lot of folks would be hesitant to ask at church because we have this kind of cultural expectation that people at church have it together and have it figured out. Ha! My first response is, “Welcome to Good Shepherd!” We don’t have it together and we haven’t figured everything out. So ask away! In fact, if you ever come to one of our Sunday morning classes or Bible studies or Wings Night or any other gathering, I hope that will be clear.

But even if you don’t believe me, this morning’s reading is just the thing. It’s the story of a man – a prominent religious leader, of all people! – who sneaks to see Jesus at night, when people won’t see him; and he asks those very questions. And we get to listen in. We get to read and hear this very open conversation back and forth between Jesus and Nicodemus (I’ll call him ‘Nick’ for short). So let me describe the conversation to you and then we’ll ponder what that might mean for us today.

Question #1: Who is Jesus?

Nick actually didn’t ask this question outright. But it was the underlying question. Basically, the story was getting out about Jesus. He is credited with some crazy-sounding stuff… people’s lives changed, miracle stories, claims to divinity. What’s it all about and is he for real? There must be a good explanation to all this – some good morals or life-lessons or something to learn from Jesus. But nothing more than that, right?

That was basically how Nick led off: “Everyone knows you are a teacher, even a GODLY teacher. God is with you, that’s clear.” There was no question, but throw in all the context and you have an interesting situation. If everyone really knows it and that’s all it is, why is Nick sneaking around at night? What else could be the explanation? Is Jesus something MORE than a godly teacher? What could that ‘more’ even be?

And Jesus doesn’t give any kind of direct-sounding answer to that setup. He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Well I guess that’s a kind of answer. It’s basically saying, “Unless this ‘born again’ thing happens, you really can’t judge who or what is of God.”

So the follow-up is obvious, right? What is “born again?”

Question #2: Can I get a practical answer?

That’s exactly what Nick asks, except he shies away from the spiritual explanation that might be evident to us when we hear “born again.” But imagine if you were hearing it for the first time. What if Jesus had said to you, “Well, you’ll never understand unless you ‘butterfly’.”

Now Nick wasn’t slow; it just wasn’t apparent where Jesus was going. “Butterfly?” you ask. “Do I need to flap my wings? Get some color in my life? Take up swimming?”

“Jesus, are you comparing me to a bug?” I think Nick latched on to the more familiar of the two things Jesus said when he responded. He mentioned birth and he mentioned the Kingdom of God. And religious leader or not, he understood birth. “So is an old man born again? How exactly does that work?”

Said another way, I hear Nick just asking for a practical answer that he can use. He came to check out Jesus and see what he was about, and now he’s getting birth and the Kingdom of God.

I feel his frustration. How many times have you gone to church, talked to a Christian, read a bit of the Bible, or otherwise been looking for a practical answer to something and gotten what sounds like spiritual mumbo-jumbo in response.

Should I go back to school and finish my degree? – “Trust in the Lord and lean not on your own understanding.”

Should I break up with my boyfriend or girlfriend? – “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!”

How much easier would it be if God would dispense advice like a Magic 8 Ball? Or like “Dear Abby” in the paper? "Dear Confused in Charlotte...". All Nick wanted to do was confirm that Jesus was a legitimate teacher and in two sentences he’s headed towards the deep end.

Question #3: What do you mean?

Jesus doesn’t miss a beat: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.” He goes on to say that there is physical birth (of the flesh) and there is spiritual birth (water and the Spirit). He continues, “Don’t be amazed (or confused); I’m talking about spiritual stuff here… Spirit of God stuff.”

He elaborates a bit further about the Spirit of God. It’s like the wind – you understand that, right? You can’t see it, but you can tell when it is blowing; you hear and see the effect of it in the world around you. It’s like that with the Spirit of God, blowing through the lives of people.

“So that’s what I mean,” says Jesus. “Being born again is something God’s Spirit does in you by its own initiative and it allows you to catch a glimpse of what God is doing in the world.”

Then Nick says, “How can these things be?” Or my paraphrase, “Come on, really?”

And Jesus doesn’t let that response go. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus is a “teacher of Israel” – and Jesus names him as such and asks if he really doesn’t understand these things. And then Jesus asks this piercing question: “If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (v. 12)

Human brains can’t really understand God directly. We do much better with analogies and comparisons and the indirect experience of God’s Spirit, like the wind blowing through a tree. God has given us examples and experiences to help us, not primarily to UNDERSTAND so much as to BELIEVE.

At this point Jesus reminds Nick of a famous story (at the time). It was in the history books of the Jewish people, as well as their collective memory. It was the time when Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. It’s in Numbers 21:1-9 if you want to look it up later. Basically in that story from their history, the people had been disobedient and were complaining bitterly that they were better off without God. And God sent poisonous snakes among them. Many began to get sick and die from snakebites and Moses prayed for God to intervene and show mercy. So God instructed Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole and lift it up high among the people. And anyone that would come look on it in faith would live. It’s a strange story, to be sure.

But Jesus tells Nick that God is going to do something just like that: lift the “Son of Man” up high so that all who BELIEVE will live.
And then we arrive at the most famous verse in the Bible. Before I get to that, let me summarize what all has happened.

Trust vs Understanding

Someone came under cover (of darkness) to check Jesus out and try to understand better who he was. The long and short of the conversation was that Jesus is not so much to be understood as to be believed. It turns out that when one believes, God does a kind of spiritual eye-opening maneuver that gives us understanding; but that’s the order in which that works, not the other way around.

That goes against the way we expect, right? If we want to know something, we study up or go to school or ask questions. And I don’t fault Nick for doing that. In fact, it’s what I would have done. But Jesus responded, not by saying, “Learn about me,” but by saying, “Trust me.” That’s the difference between understanding God and believing God.

And that’s the context for the next verse, which broadens out far beyond the individual conversation between Jesus and Nick, to encompass the entire world.

“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.”

Ever since my children were babies I have told them that I love them. Did they understand how and why and to what extent? Not at first; and only in part, even now. But have they come to believe it? I sure hope so.

God loves you. God loves me. Do I understand that? Only in part, and probably only the tiniest part. But do I believe it? Yes; and that is what has led me to trust that declaration in John 3:16. I believe God loves me and has given extravagantly out of that love; and that has and does save my life.

Belief goes on to shape behavior. Jesus circles back to Nick, challenging him in those final verses that the one who believes lives life out in the open, in the light. Interestingly enough we do run into Nicodemus again later where he defends Jesus' legal rights publicly (John 7:50) and then asks permission of Pilate to take Jesus’ body after the crucifixion (John 19:39). It seems as if he may have come to believe and be “born again.”

Come and See

So for each of you here today, wherever you are here with faith or doubts or questions or some answers, what can we take away from this encounter?

For one, it’s okay to ask questions. I sure don’t understand everything about God, so you should fit right in!

Jesus prioritized believing over understanding anyway. We might say that we can’t believe until we understand, but he seemed to be saying something different… that belief has more to do with trust than with intellectual knowledge and that trust actually opens up understanding in a way that won’t happen otherwise. That itself is a head-scratcher except that I’ve experienced it with my own children… the ability to trust and learn to love without understanding all the details.

And finally and related to that personal experience, I hope you heard in all this God’s declaration of love for you. How do you respond to that? What do you do with that? If what Jesus is saying is true, then responding to and trusting that love will open up doors you may not even know you had.

It’s something to ponder. It might just be everything… if Jesus is who he claimed to be.

One thing I know about this place; we’d love to ponder those things along with you. Amen.