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Sunday, January 13, 2019

Here is Abraham (Genesis 22.1-14)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; January 13, 2019 - Genesis 22:1-14

:: 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 ::
Blessed Be Your Name (Redman)
Be Still My Soul (FINLANDIA)
I Will Offer Up My Life (Redman)
My Faith Looks Up to Thee (OLIVET)

:: 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.

**If you would like to dig into Genesis 22 in more depth, I have put a four part sermon-study out in the welcoming area. If you are reading online you can access that study HERE.

Last week we started the “Here I Am” series with Jesus and Peter. It was an overview to how God calls us to be part of what He is doing, even when we may feel unqualified or disqualified. Jesus forgave Peter and let him know that he wanted him to be part of God’s work in the world. Today, and in each of the coming weeks, we will look at a biblical character who literally said “Here I am” to God. We’ll look at their life situation, what aspect of God’s character they were responding to, and how their story might inform our story. Our goal (and the tagline of this series) is to be listening, available, and ready to go.

Today we look at Abraham and what is, perhaps, the defining moment in his faith and life. Even more important than that defining moment, however, is God’s definitive demonstration that He will keep His promises. And that, ultimately, is what affects us the most. We may be shocked and/or encouraged by Abraham and Isaac and what they went through, but in the end, those reactions should be overshadowed by the great demonstration of God’s faithfulness in keeping His promises. Take note of the THREE times Abraham says “Here I am” in today’s text.

“Here I Am” #1: listening and ready

The text and the story open up with the first “Here I am.” God calls Abraham’s name and he responds – listening, available, ready to go – “Here I am.”

This is a hard story to start with, but I don’t want to shy away from it just because it’s hard. And really, it’s more than hard; it’s incomprehensible. We are told in verse 1 that this is a test, but God didn’t tell Abraham that.

There are many bits of background to this. God had previously told Abraham something and Abraham had doubted and made a back-up plan. God told him he and Sarah would have a child in their old age even though they had not been able to have children. But Abraham had the child, Ishmael, with Hagar because he wanted an heir. God told Abraham to go through Egypt and then through the country of King Abimelech. Rather than trust God, Abraham lied to both rulers and said Sarah was his sister instead of his wife because he was afraid. And twice God intervened to deliver him. And now God was asking an even more impossible thing.

Secondly, child sacrifice was not unknown. In fact, it was practiced by some of the surrounding people. It’s what other gods demanded. Abraham could have rationalized his action because others did this. But was the God of Abraham like other gods? God had promised Abraham children and blessing. Would God go against His word?

And finally, note that God is not just making an unfeeling demand, but knows and expresses the depth of what this sacrifice would cost a father. In the end, God the Father is the one who sacrifices His only Son and Abraham the father can truly understand what that means, some 2000 years before the cross.

Abraham, take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac… and offer him as a burnt offering (a pure sacrifice for sin). (Genesis 22)

The language is notably familiar to language used in the New Testament to describe Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross:

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? (Romans 8)

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. (John 3)

The purpose of this story is not for us to out-think God or judge God or get inside God’s head and understand such a thing. I think that’s one of the things being tested. Abraham, will you obey God in all things or just the ones you understand? Or if God is good and faithful, will you trust even when you don’t understand? I think of Peter and the disciples who heard Jesus teaching about “eating his flesh and drinking his blood” and were disgusted to follow such a teacher. But Peter rightly said, “Where else will we go… you have the words of life?” I think about young children whose parents ask them to get on a bike without training wheels or dive headfirst into a pool of water and it seeming like certain death. But either through trust or obedience, we mostly move forward.

And I will offer this one release-valve for the anxiety this passage can produce. I don’t believe God will ask you to sacrifice your child. This was a once in history event that prefigured God’s sacrifice of His only son and functioned on levels unique to Abraham and God’s covenant. But I DO believe God will ask us to do things we don’t understand. And I do believe we will face the two tests or temptations of Abraham: 1) to judge and reject God; or 2) to make our own back-up plan.

Ultimately, this story will teach Abraham and us about the faithfulness and goodness of God, and the extent of God’s sacrifice and love for the sake of the world.

“Here I Am” #2: with you

The second time Abraham says “Here I am” is not to God, but to his son, Isaac.

This second occurrence of these words teaches us about the nature of companionship. By that I mean togetherness or not being alone. Scripture describes this with various words: companionship, community, covenant. What I want you to see and hear in the story is that neither Abraham nor Isaac were alone in this trial. God identified with Abraham’s challenge as a father and Abraham fixed his faith on God the Father. Abraham likewise was present for and with Isaac in this test, even though Isaac didn’t understand everything that was happening either. Isaac fixed his faith on Abraham his father.

There is a particular phrase that highlights that.

Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go over there; and we will worship and return to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son, and he took in his hand the fire and the knife.” (vv.5-6)

The young men are left behind and Isaac has to carry the wood on which he will be sacrificed. It reminds me of Jesus carrying his cross towards his own crucifixion. And Abraham carries the fire and knife. It’s what comes next that caught my eye. Look right after that at the end of verse six:

    So the two of them walked on together.

Companionship. Community. Covenant. There was a point earlier in which Abraham wielded the knife to circumcise Isaac and bind him to the covenant. Now, in the very last moments of this test, the father walks with the son. And Abraham is more than physically present for his son. Isaac calls out to his father, saying, “My father!” (v. 7) And for the second time in the longer story, Abraham responds, “Here I am.” The first time was to answer God when He called his name. Now, when Isaac calls him, he responds, “Here I am, my son.” In the midst of an impossible trial, the father is there for and with the son.

One of the ways we live out our faith is that our “here I am” to God is mirrored in saying “here I am” to one another. That is one of the foundational purposes of church, of the gathered community of faith. We are here to walk life WITH each other because that’s how God walks life with us. Just as Jesus named the greatest commandment as love of God AND love of neighbor, our listening, being available, and being ready to go are a “here I am” to God AND a “here I am” to each other and the world around us.

“Here I am” #3: listening attentively

The third time Abraham says “here I am” is to the Angel of the Lord. And this was at the most crucial time of all because it was when everything was on the line. It was the moment of deciding whether to turn away, make a back-up plan, or carry through. And that can be the hardest time to keep listening. But Abraham neither turned away nor tuned out God, but remained fully ready, listening, and ready to go. And he heard God’s faithfulness and provision through the angel and the ram in the thicket.

Again, I don’t believe God will ask something this extreme of you because I believe this was functioning as a covenant moment for us to learn from, not re-enact. This is most especially true because in Christ God accomplished this ultimate sacrifice that we could not imagine or perform. But I do believe that God asks us to do things we don’t understand at the time. I believe we choose between making back-up plans, turning away, or tuning in. And it is the last that is hardest… listening more rather than listening less, saying even a third time to God, “Here I am, listening, available, and ready.”

What Does God Ask?

So what sorts of things might God ask of us if we are listening, available, and ready to go? And what does faithfulness look like?

When God gives us the opportunity to tell someone else about Jesus, we respond in faith saying, “Here I am - you have not given me a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power and boldness.”

When God gives us the opportunity to pray for someone, we respond in faith saying, “Here I am – you have given me your Holy Spirit to help me pray.”

When God allows us to suffer illness or grief, we respond in faith saying, “Here I am – I will praise the Lord as long as I have breath.”

When we are walking through a valley of deep darkness, we respond in faith saying, “Here I am, Lord – and I trust my Good Shepherd to walk with me, even in the dark valley.”

Faith is our choosing to participate in God’s promises by acting like the children of promise he has said we are in Christ.

Faith is not clinging to our old and worn plans for getting through a fear-filled life. Faith is trusting God’s promises for salvation, peace, joy, and blessing in Christ. Faith is saying “Here I am” when Jesus says follow me, for we believe we are beloved children whom the Father loves dearly.

Finally, don’t read Genesis 22 in fear that faith means God will ask the unthinkable of you. In the New Testament, God promises not to give us more than we can handle in His strength. Read Genesis 22 as Good News – even in the face of the unthinkable, God will not fail. God is faithful and will keep his promises to you and to your children. His promises are for salvation through Jesus Christ – his only son, the beloved son – whom God sent for us and our salvation. God’s promises are for an eternal home with God for all those who trust in Christ. God’s promise is to be with us in life and through life – even at the end of life – and to never forsake us.

And God has invited us not only to receive these promises, but to participate in them. As we respond to God, “Here I am,” God will use us to bless and teach others of His faithfulness. Our faithful response will remind us and those we meet that “The Lord will provide.” Amen.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Here I Am (John 21.15-17)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; January 6, 2019 - John 21:15-17

:: 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 ::
Come People of the Risen King (Gettys)
Depth of Mercy (Bob Kauflin)
Mighty to Save (Morgan/Fielding)
Here Am I/Take My Life (Tomlin/Giglio)

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

“I forgive you.” Have you ever heard those words spoken truly and purely? You’ve messed up, hurt someone, done something wrong. And that person has not responded with retribution or passive-aggressive payback, but has moved toward you in love and offered a second chance and a clean slate?

“And I want you to be a part of my life.” Most of us would settle for the release that comes with forgiveness. “Whew; that’s over.” But wiping the slate clean can leave one feeling alone at the bottom of a new mountain to climb. But what about when forgiveness is rooted in a desire for restoration and healing and relationship? Can you even imagine? How would you respond to that?

That’s what Jesus offered Peter in today’s text. And I chose this passage to begin a new series entitled, “Here I Am.” Over the next eight weeks or so I want to look with you at a number of situations in the Bible where people responded to God by saying “Here I Am.” And what I think we’ll see is two-fold: 1) that people offer themselves to God with the full range of human emotions… doubt, fear, enthusiasm, faith, courage, and cluelessness; and 2) people respond to different aspects of who God is… some to God’s power, some to God’s love, some to God’s presence. This is not a one-size-fits-all prescription for serving God, but one that is as varied as humanity and as rich and deep as the character of God.

My hope is that we will encounter God in each week’s text and service and that we will become listening, available, and ready to go wherever God might lead us individually and together. So let’s dig in!

Barriers to Following Jesus

Over and over again Jesus invited people to come and see, come and check out his teaching, his life, his work. Over and over again Jesus invited people to believe and to follow. By ‘follow’ I mean serving Jesus with your life: priorities, commitments, time, energy, purpose. Following is what happens when we listen, make ourselves available, and are ready to go where God leads. But whether you are hearing that invitation for the first time or you’ve heard it many times before, one of the barriers to saying “Here I Am” is that we’ve messed up. Whether we’ve said it out loud, we think, “God wouldn’t want to use me; there are other, better people He’d want to use.”

Peter had been a super-star disciple. He had clearly confessed Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” and on whose testimony Jesus declared that he would build the Church. He asked Jesus if he could come out and walk on the water to him. He tried to banish demons and heal people. He was all heart and effort and faith. He fiercely refused to let Jesus wash his feet, then volunteered for a full bath when he realized Jesus was making a point. And he’s the one who said he’d never ever desert Jesus.

And he did. In the hours of the night after Jesus had been arrested, he stayed close to see what was going on, but when he was recognized and questioned by a young girl and then others, he loudly denied knowing Jesus, finally swearing that he did not know the man. Then he ran away, not even present at the crucifixion of his Lord and friend. If you’ve ever failed someone in that way, you know how discouraging it can be and how easy to just turn away altogether. In relation to God, you may know what it is like to go back to our “old life of fishing,” doubtful that God has any useful purpose left for you.

Depth of Mercy, Depth of Love

But Jesus surprised Peter and I believe he can surprise you. Peter was with some of the other followers, perhaps also trying to figure out life after feeling like they had lost Jesus. And Jesus came to where they were. He came to where they were fishing, where they had breakfast, and he came to Peter, who probably thought he was the last person Jesus wanted to talk to.

Three times Peter had denied Jesus.

Three times Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?”

Three times Peter answered, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”

Three opportunities to counter his denials and re-affirm his love for Jesus.

Three times Jesus responded, “Take care of my flock.”

Three times, in effect, Jesus said, “I love and trust you, and I forgive you.”

It was just what Peter needed and it wasn’t a gimmick or a ritual. It was genuine forgiveness. It was genuine grace – unexpected, undeserved, and more than Peter could ask or imagine. And that was not all.

In that invitation to “take care of my flock” Jesus not only implicitly forgave Peter, but also said, “I still want you as a follower and disciple.” Jesus still had work for Peter to do. He was still saying, “Follow me.” Forgiveness didn’t just promote the fallen Peter to a second-class version of a disciple who now had to sit on the bench while other less-tarnished disciples were in on the action. Jesus forgave Peter and called him freshly into service as a disciple.

And so, in addition to the three times Jesus said, “Take care of my flock,” he goes on in the next few verses to twice say, “Follow me.” (vv. 19,22)

In a few minutes we will sing about this “depth of mercy” – that reaches beyond our expectations to forgive, heal, and call us forth.

Do You Love Me?

What I hope you hear as Good News today is that even as Jesus had not given up on Peter, neither has God given up on you. Even if you have failed and fallen, even if you have doubted and grown distant from God, even if it has been months and months or years and years, God still loves you, offers extravagant forgiveness and grace through Jesus, and says to you, “Follow me!”

I pray that God will open your ears to hear this, especially if you feel like God has given up or isn’t interested in you.

In the coming weeks we will encounter God through the eyes of different people in scripture. For some, God will be all power and might, and they fall to their knees before that power. For others, God draws near and speaks quietly and they have to listen carefully to distinguish His voice. Some will be asked to do something they don’t understand; others something they don’t want to do. In each case, we will see the importance of that posture of listening, available, ready to go.

Today, through the eyes of Peter we encounter God in Jesus Christ. He is full of love and mercy, forgiveness and a new start. More than that, God wants you to be a part of what He is doing. Today we are invited to respond to the love of God in Christ: Do you love me? Follow me.

Are you listening? Are you available? Are you ready to go?

‘Amen’ means “Yes, let it be so!”