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Sunday, October 6, 2019

The Art of Neighboring 1 (Luke 10.25-37)


Sermon by: Robert Austell; October 6, 2019 - Luke 10:25-37

:: 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)
You Have Shown Us (Baloche)
Lord, Whose Love through Humble Service (BEACH SPRING)

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

We continue today in our series called “Life in Jesus’ Name.” And one of the things Jesus talked often was being a good neighbor. So, when I heard that about 100 churches in Charlotte were taking part in a city-wide sermon series called “The Art of Neighboring” I thought that would be a perfect fit for our own series. So for three weeks we are going to be talking about being a good neighbor along with 100 other churches. We’ll all be looking at the same scriptures and stories. And today the primary passage is one of the more well-known parables of Jesus, often called “The Good Samaritan.” Jesus shared this story to answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” And that’s what we want to look at today.

Context (vv.25-29)

This parable wasn’t told in a vacuum. There is a very definite context to it, so I want to remind you of that. A lawyer – which was an expert in the Jewish Law, the Torah – came to “put Jesus to the test.” All that’s important: this wasn’t a casual teaching moment, but Jesus being tested in his knowledge and interpretation of the Torah. The question? “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (v.25)

In good Rabbinic fashion, Jesus asked a question back: “What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?” (v.26) This questioning not only established Jesus as the teacher and the lawyer as the student, it also made the lawyer put his cards on the table. It became a test for the lawyer instead of for Jesus!

And the man was an expert – he pulled from two different parts of the Torah to give a commendable answer. He quoted the Shema “Hear, O Israel!” in Deuteronomy 6, with its command to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength. And he drew from a commandment from Leviticus 19:18 warning against vengeance, ending with “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And putting these two together was an excellent summary of the Law. In fact, this might have shown up someone other than Jesus. What could Jesus possibly add to this combining of different parts of the Torah? Would Jesus have to acknowledge the man’s mastery and give up some of the Rabbinic authority he had just claimed?

No, Jesus continued in the role of teacher, commending the man’s answer, but then telling him to DO it in order to live. Now this was a teacher who really understood the Law. It wasn’t just for quoting; it was for living! And the lawyer was left a bit speechless. Next we read that he was “wishing to justify himself.” And isn’t this where we sometimes find ourselves as well? It’s one thing to talk church and talk faith; it’s another whole thing to live it out. Easier just to keep discovering new questions to chase down! And that’s what he did. He asked Jesus the question that sets up the parable: “And who is my neighbor?” (v.29)

A Story With a Twist (vv.30-35)

I’ve talked before about parables. They are a special story-form that Jesus used often. We often want to read them as allegory, which is a more recent story-form where every single thing in the story lines up with something or some point to be made. But a parable usually had ONE main point and it was usually delivered on an unsuspecting audience like the punch line to a joke. And the more the audience doesn’t see it coming, the better the punch.

You probably know the twist in this story. There is a man robbed and beaten on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. And people start to pass him. Don’t forget the question that prompted the story: Who is my neighbor? A priest comes down the road; surely he will do what God’s Law requires. But he passes by on the other side. Then a Levite comes down the road. Realize that these are not just religious people who we might expect to do good. These are experts in the Law, just like the lawyer. And Jesus’ response to the lawyer was “DO THIS and live.” Neither of the experts in the story DO the Law.

And here comes the twist. A Samaritan man comes down the road and sees the beaten man and stops to help. Now you know this, but I’ve made this character swap before: the man beaten on the side of the road wasn’t the Samaritan; the man who stopped to help was the Samaritan. It would have been a strong enough story to tell of two religious Jews who passed by a Samaritan, with a third who stopped to help. But that’s not the story. The Samaritan was the one who DID God’s Law. The Samaritan was the one who loved his neighbor.

Jesus story busts apart our understanding of neighbor. For most of us, neighborhoods are marked by similarity. Rich or poor, black or white, urban or suburban, it is far more common to find neighborhoods marked by sameness than neighborhoods marked by the diversity that is our nation, much less our world. But that’s the power of Jesus’ parable. The Samaritan was a different race than the others in the story and in the audience. The Samaritan was a different religion than the others in the story and in the audience. And yet the Samaritan proved to be the true neighbor in the story. And in that sense, was the one doing God’s will – because, remember, this story is fleshing out in actionable terms what the Greatest Commandment looks like, what God’s will looks like for human beings.

So here’s the real twist to this story: it’s not just that we need to stretch our understanding of neighbor and do a better job of living what we believe. That is true! But this story suggests that we have something to learn from people who are not like us… and THEN need to do a better job of living what we believe. The Samaritan is not in focus as our mission, but as our teacher. The Samaritan shows us what mercy looks like!

The Art of Neighboring: showing mercy (vv.36-37)

And that’s the bottom line of Jesus’ parable. The twist was the surprising actor in the story – a Samaritan. But the teaching was doing mercy – not just knowing the Greatest Commandment, but DOING the Greatest Commandment. And the punch for Jesus’ audience was that if a non-Jew (in fact, someone despised by the Jews) could keep God’s Word, then surely one who loved God and God’s Word could keep it. The message to the lawyer was: knowledge does not equal faithfulness. Check yourself; check your actions!

And indeed, that’s the message here for us. We talk quite a bit about being a neighbor. We rightly understand ourselves to be a neighborhood church. But do we DO neighboring? Do we show mercy as God would define it? Do we see the community and world around us with the eyes of God, seeking to serve rather than be served.

I want to show a 60 sec. video clip from the CROP Walk. It’s called “Who is your neighbor?”  [youtu.be/FGycqm6WTqg]

The CROP Walk is one way to show mercy to neighbors near and far. It’s action – walking or supporting a walker. And it goes to help hungry neighbors in Charlotte and throughout the nation and world. I hope you will check in with Leslie in the welcome area.

But the CROP Walk is just one example of showing mercy. As the video showed: your neighbors live on your street, they live in our city, they live in other places. And Jesus said being a neighbor to them is showing mercy. How do we do that? I want to suggest three ways to get started.
  1. Link: who are they? where do they live? if possible, meet so they know you and you know them; then you are LINKED
  2. Listen: what’s their story? what are their hopes, dreams, and needs?
  3. Love: mercy is love in action; are there any ways to show mercy, to show love? a ride, a contact, a smile, a prayer?
May God open eyes and doors and hearts that we might do those things we read about, sing about, pray about, and believe! With God’s help, Amen.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Hanging with the Wrong Crowd (Mark 2.13-17, Luke 18.9-14)


Sermon by: Robert Austell; September 29, 2019 - Mark 2:13-17; Luke 18:9-14

:: 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 ::
Come Ye Sinners (Indelible Grace)
Depth of Mercy (Kauflin/Sovereign Grace)
CHOIR: I Need Thee Every Hour (arr. Shepperd)
Jesus, What a Friend for Sinners (GALILEE)

:: 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.

A few weeks ago we had the most significant connection with our neighbors that I can remember in the last 10 years of being a church together. Do you know what I’m talking about? Anyone?  [the Yard Sale]  Yes, the Yard Sale. And the crazy thing is that we didn’t really know that would happen. On the surface, it was a fund-raiser. We certainly wanted to do it well, do it right – be a good witness TO our neighbors and the community in the way we went about it. We made sure to reach out to neighbors immediately next to the church to let them know it would be going on. We reached out to the people across Swan’s Run and said we would put up signs to keep people from parking in their yards or driveways. We hoped a few neighbors might take us up on selling their own stuff in the parking lot. Mark did a great job organizing and delegating all those tasks. And the morning of, he prayed with all of us volunteering that we would “be the face of Christ.” But to use language from last week’s sermon, I think he’d be the first to tell you that it turned into more than we could ask or think. And so, far more than being a successful fund-raiser, we had a number of significant connections with our neighbors. Mark shared some of the stories of those neighbor encounters last week in worship and there will be some more in the newsletter that comes out tomorrow.

Jesus talked a LOT about neighbors and being a good neighbor. In fact, I often describe us as a “neighborhood church.” But it’s hard to maintain that outward focus. It’s easy to turn inward and lose sight of our mission and calling to the world. Today I want to lift up two reasons for that. And they are two reasons Jesus spoke and acted to overcome. We are continuing in our series called “Life in Jesus’ Name.” And if we are serious about following him – holding fast to his teaching and example – then we’ll take on those two challenges to our mission and try to overcome them with God’s help.

Look at the Mess! (Mark 2)

Here’s the first challenge: faithful ministry and mission is messy. Yep; messy, loud, unexpected, full of new people, strange people, different looks and hues and backgrounds. And for a variety of reasons, for most of us, that is uncomfortable. Consider our first text this morning…

Jesus was in Capernaum – his home! – and was walking by the seashore. He had already called several fishermen to follow him. And he passed by the tax booth and saw Levi the tax collector. And as he had with the fishermen, he said, “Follow me!” And Levi got up and followed him. And this is when things started getting messy.

You may have heard about tax collectors in the first century A.D., or maybe not.  The short story is that they were all crooks, or at least viewed that way.  And they were universally hated by the common people.  To start with, no one really likes paying taxes, and the Roman taxes were high.  And if you didn’t pay, a Roman soldier could come back and just take what he wanted.  It was closer to collections by the mob than to what we know of taxes. And it was Jewish people literally working for “the man” and taxing their fellow Jews.  But the real problem – and abuse – was that with the power of the army behind them, tax collectors were allowed and encouraged to add whatever amount over and above the Roman tax for their own personal use.  It was completely arbitrary, abusive, and universally practiced in the Empire.  It was also one of the most lucrative professions a person could have in the Roman Empire.

Knowing that much should tell you what a miracle it was for Levi to walk away from his tax booth and follow Jesus.  The fishermen walked away from their boats and nets, and their livelihood, such as it was.  Levi walked away from relative wealth and into a whole new life.  Such was the power of Jesus to call people to follow him.

But there was more “mess” to come. Apparently Levi was so excited about Jesus that he wanted to tell all his friends… his tax collector friends… about Jesus and introduce them.  So in the very next verse after Levi follows Jesus, we read that Jesus is at Levi’s house at a dinner party packed with tax collectors and other “sinners”.  Many of them had been following Jesus and they all gathered into Levi’s house to eat and talk with Jesus.

And the scribes and Pharisees – the religious people – went crazy!  These tax collectors were the unholiest, dirtiest, most unacceptable people they could imagine.  The only thing worse were lepers, and of course, Jesus went around touching and healing them, too!

Jesus responded to their criticisms and questions with this (v. 17):

It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.

Let that sink in.  You know the idea of it, but let it sink all the way in.  Jesus is like a doctor; the church is like a hospital.  That implies a mission and a ministry that we often lose sight of.  We are here as a church for sinners, for all who need to be restored to right relationship with God and forgiven of sin.

If we are doing ministry and mission right, this place will look more like a hospital emergency room or a raucous dinner party for the wrong kind of people or people climbing in through the roof than what we are used to thinking of as church. That’s the kind of mess Jesus attracted. That’s what holding fast to Jesus’ name will look like.

Accurate Self-Diagnosis (Luke 18)

Here’s the second challenge to our mission: it’s an inaccurate understanding of our own situation.

The sad irony lost on the scribes and Pharisees was that if they had recognized that they were sinners in need of God’s mercy, they would have realized that Jesus came for them as well!  But part of their practice of religion was a system by which they strived to be holy and righteous – and that naturally implied comparisons with those who did not strive for these things.  Jesus’ words were genius – simultaneously telling them that those who were truly “healthy” didn’t need him (so if that’s what they thought, then leave him alone!) and yet inviting them to come to him if they could see their own sin.

Remember the parable from our second reading this morning?  While the loudly praying Pharisee did not, perhaps, engage in blatant and public sin, he demonstrated numerous sins of pride, judgment, and failed to recognize his need of God’s mercy.  On the other hand, the tax collector, surely guilty of blatant public sin, demonstrated true sorrow, repentance, humility, and was crying out to God for mercy.  Who would God help and who, ultimately, would know God?  … For once Jesus answers the question. The sinner who humbled himself went home justified before God.

Perhaps the most helpful thing to prepare us for the messiness of following Jesus is an accurate understanding of our own spiritual condition. We are as desperately in need of God’s love, help, and intervention as the messiest person we’ll ever encounter “out there.” Let me say that again: You and I are as desperately in need of God’s love, help, and intervention as the messiest person we’ll ever encounter “out there.” If we can come to terms with that challenge to following and serving Jesus, then the other one becomes much easier. If I can come to terms with how much of a mess I am and God’s expansive generosity in inviting and welcoming me into His house and presence, then I can hardly take issue with the tax collectors and lepers of the world. Because I am a tax collector and I am a leper.

Crazy Banquet

So what does that look like for us? I already have one answer for you; the Yard Sale. We thought it was one thing. And I believe because we were open to God’s presence and direction, we experienced a bit of the glorious mess of life in Jesus’ name. It wasn’t mess in the sense of not getting thing hauled away or running out of labels. It was mess in the sense of meeting tens, perhaps hundreds, of people we didn’t know, of relating to them with kindness and hospitality, and experiencing many meaningful conversations and comments like “we’d like to meet again.”

We have a number of neighbor events coming up. We will be having a BBQ, a kids movie night, a jazz concert, the Christmas Shoppe, and of course we continue to engage neighbors through the preschool and at OP Elementary. We host numerous girl scout troops, neighborhood association meetings, youth baseball and senior softball. We have a book club, walking group, game night, and many other events. But here’s where the Yard Sale opened my eyes. On the surface these events all have a stated purpose. Some are to raise funds, some are to have fun, some are to serve the community. But what if we asked at every event, in every ministry, with each encounter, “How can I be a good neighbor?” What if we looked for opportunities to invite, welcome, serve, and connect? I believe that is our mission. I believe that is what Jesus did and what Jesus would do. We caught a glimpse of the relational and Kingdom possibilities at the yard sale.

There are obstacles; there are challenges. Chief among them are fear of mess, fear of change and the misdiagnosis that what we have “in here” is somehow not for everyone “out there.” But I also believe we have the faith and the desire to follow Jesus and overcome those challenges. And I believe that’s where God is leading us. We have all kinds of opportunities this Fall. And these opportunities don’t cost you money or skill or talent. We do need people to do certain tasks and you may not be able to volunteer for those things. But you can pray for open hearts to welcome our neighbors, welcome the stranger, welcome the messy person. And it begins with the prayer from Luke 18, “Lord, be merciful to me, the sinner.” May God give us a clear understanding of ourselves, both our sin and His expansive mercy and love. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Forgiven and Healed (Mark 2.1-13)

 
Sermon by: Robert Austell; September 22, 2019 - Mark 2:1-13

:: 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." 



::: Music ::
Mighty to Save (Morgan, Fielding)
Wonderful, Merciful Savior (Rodgers, Wyse)
CHOIR: Out of the Depths (Frost)
OFFERTORY: Oh How He Loves You and Me, pno/organ
Have Thine Own Way (ADELAIDE)

:: 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.

What’s the biggest thing you can imagine that God could do for you? Ponder that while I re-read the verse Zach ended up with in the children’s message.

Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. (Ephesians 3:20-21)

I pride myself on having a pretty good imagination, so this verse has always caught my attention. God is able to do more than I ask or think. And I believe that’s just what was going on in today’s story. Jesus claimed to have God-sized power and I want to look with you at that.

We are continuing in a series entitled “Life in Jesus’ Name” in which we are taking seriously Jesus’ admonition to “hold fast to my name.” In order to do that, we are looking at what Jesus said and did. Today’s text is especially significant because he did both: he did something extraordinary and then he taught and demonstrated the significance of it. Let’s look and pay close attention so we’ll know what we are holding fast to!

Access to Jesus (vv.1-5)


So the story opens. Now I need to say something that I feel like I say pretty frequently. There’s something here I never noticed before. I say that because I hope it’s encouraging to you that if I keep noticing new things every time I look at a Bible story, then there are still things for you to learn as well. That’s why I still go to Sunday school. That’s why I keep reading and studying the same stories over and over. There’s always more to discover!

So what is it this time? It’s in the first verse. Jesus had come back to Capernaum and it was heard that HE WAS AT HOME. Did you know that? He had a house in Capernaum! Now some scholars think it was Peter’s house and Jesus was just staying there. Others think it was his. Either way, I always picture Jesus wandering around with the band of disciples, maybe staying for a short time with friends like Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. But this says “he was at home.” Any deep spiritual meaning to that? I don’t think so. But it is new information to me! Jesus had a home in Capernaum and was rooted, at least for a time, in that community. He had neighbors. He interacted on the waterfront. He went to the synagogue. He had a home and people knew where it was.

And crowds came to hear him. They filled the house to overflowing! The word had gotten out that Jesus was healing people. But interestingly on this particular occasion the text says that the house was filled to overflowing and Jesu was “speaking the word to them.” (v.2) Another new thing for me – I always assumed it was for healing but it doesn’t say that. In fact, I checked this story in Matthew and Luke as well. In each Jesus is TEACHING and they just try to get their friend near to Jesus. ) And four men made an opening in the roof in order that a fifth man who could not walk might be lowered down near Jesus. 

And here’s the verse on which this whole story hinges: “And Jesus, seeing their faith, said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’” (v.5) There are two important things in that verse. One is a definition of faith. Faith is trusting, believing, acting; it is visible to Jesus and he notices it. And it is some way connected to what he does next. He could have just kept teaching. He could have healed the man, which is perhaps what many assumed he would do. But he says, “Your sins are forgiven.”

Have you ever given someone a present and they open it excitedly and have that awkward pause and then say “thank you,” but it’s clear they don’t know what it is they are looking at? That’s what I imagine here: not a wild, exuberant thank you for the forgiveness of sin; but a puzzled look as to what exactly this ‘gift’ is.

Sins Forgiven? (vv.6-9)


Here is where we, fortunately, have some religious leaders to ask the awkward questions for us. Now normally scribes and Pharisees are cast as the bad guys, and generally (as here) they are not pleased with Jesus and what he is teaching. But they are actually on to something really important here. While the four men, the one paralyzed man, and the others packed in the house may have been surprised and confused by Jesus’ response to the situation, the scribes were right on target. “Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming; who can forgive sins but God alone?” (vv.6-7)

YES! That’s exactly the import of what is going on here. Let me say this once and we’ll circle back a few more times. Jesus was revealing himself here, not as a great teacher or even some kind of healer; but as GOD. Who indeed can forgive sin? Jesus realizes what is on their mind and presses in with this question: “Which is easier to say… ‘Your sins are forgiven’; or to say, ‘Get up, and pick up your pallet and walk.’?” (v.9)

And here’s where I want to pause and ask you to really ponder that question. And the point isn’t the words; it’s which is the greater act. Which is the greater gift?

I’ll be honest: most days I’d ask for the healing. There are things with my physical body that aren’t the way I would like. I really struggle with vision… I haven’t seen clearly in about 15 years and I’ve tried just about every solution out there. I know some of you deal with things far more challenging. “Forgive us our sins” most days is just a line in a prayer… if I’m being honest.

But the scribes had it right. If we really grasped what “your sins are forgiven” means, we’d give anything to get it. It’s the “pearl of great price” – a story Jesus told about a man who sold everything he had in order to buy this one pearl that was the Kingdom of Heaven. I’ve heard more than one person describe something they lost or gave up when they came to trust God, and they say “it was worth it.” “Your sins are forgiven” is being made right with God. It is being made whole and complete. It is something we cannot do for ourselves. It is well worth trading everything to buy, except we can’t buy it or trade for it. It is the gift of God. The scribes had it right; they just could not imagine this man from Nazareth in any way being empowered to give what he offered. But their shock is a testimony and reminder to us of what is of greatest value.

Sign of More (vv.10-13)


And this is when the healing happens – and Jesus explains why he heals the man. It’s in v.10… “so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” The healing was a sign of the authority and power had to forgive sin, to restore fellowship and rightness with God.

Doesn’t Jesus care about our physical bodies? Yes, of course! What he did here does not diminish his compassion or healing in any way. If it feels like it does, it’s because we struggle to grasp “your sins are forgiven.”

Should we pray for healing? Yes, I believe we should. But we should pray even more for healing of the soul. I think about this all the time with my children. They have the normal stresses and challenges of people their age. We often pray for this or that test, for their relationships, for their emotional well-being, for friends, for safe travel. By all means, pray for it all! But the thing I pray for the most is that they will know God. They will know and accept and receive God’s “your sins are forgiven.” I pray that even if they sometimes look at that and give me a “what exactly is this?” look.

This story is interesting to us, but I think for the wrong reasons. We are fascinated by the persistence and ingenuity of the friends who came through the roof. We love to read of Jesus healing people because we hope that God might still do something like that today. We see Jesus not frustrated by the scribes, but doing some kind of slam dunk on their complaints. But we read right past the main thing, the biggest thing, and the thing that God does offer to us through Jesus: “Your sins are forgiven.”

I began with two verses from Ephesians. I want to end by reading them again with a little bit more of the context. It is a prayer from the Apostle Paul. I hear in it a vision for what “your sins are forgiven” means and a desire for those to whom he writes to know the full measure of that gift of God.

14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, 16 that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. 20 Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, 21 to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:14-21)

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Cleansed and Welcomed (Mark 1.40-45)


Sermon by: Robert Austell; September 15, 2019 - Mark 1:40-45

:: 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 ::
CHOIR: Make His Praise Glorious (arr. Larson)
Prepare the Way
Great Are You, Lord
There's a Wideness in God's Mercy (BEECHER)

:: 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’d like to introduce a new series today: “Life in Jesus’ Name.” Back in August when we were going through the letters to the church in Revelation, we looked at the letter to the church in Philadelphia. The charge to that church was to hold fast to God’s Word and to Jesus’ name. That was the Sunday I asked everyone to write down one verse of scripture that was significant to them. I also talked about what it would mean to hold fast to Jesus’ name, or to live “Life in Jesus’ Name.” It means that we live in obedience and service to God through Jesus. We do what Jesus would have us do. He taught a lot about loving neighbor, helping the least, and living as citizens of the Kingdom of God. That’s what we are going to focus on this Fall as we look at a number of scenes from Jesus’ life and ministry in the Gospels. We’ll hear a lot about neighbors and about the Kingdom of God. And the question will be, “How can I live life in Jesus’ name?”

We’ve also looked at how Jesus announced his ministry by reading from the scroll of Isaiah in his hometown. You heard that passage as the Call to Worship today. I also want to put up a similar passage from the Gospel of Matthew because it frames what Jesus was about in his earthly ministry. It was his response when John the Baptist sent his followers to ask Jesus if he was indeed the Messiah. We’ll keep referring back to this during this series:

Go and report what you hear and see:
the Blind receive sight and the lame walk,
the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear
the dead are raised up and the poor
have the Gospel preached to them
Blessed are they who do not
stumble over (take offense at) me. 
~Matthew 11:4-6


Today we begin with a story from the Gospel of Mark of Jesus doing one of those very things. A person with leprosy comes to Jesus for healing and Jesus heals him. That seems very Jesus-y, right? And there’s also a strange part about keeping it a secret. At first pass most of us probably think, “I don’t have leprosy and I can’t heal people that do, so how am I supposed to live like Jesus here?” We’ll unpack all that a bit today and see what it has to do with us. But first, let me tell you about my dog, Buddy.

Buddy

Some of you have met my dog, Buddy. If you haven’t, he’s a breed called a Spitz (sometimes also “American Eskimo Dog”). And the first thing you’ll notice is that he has really thick, white, fluffy fur. Children LOVE to pet him because he’s so soft and fluffy. People have variously compared him to a sheep, a polar bear, or the figurative “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Here’s a picture of him lying down and one of him facing the camera.

One day I was home alone and it had rained and Buddy had gone out in the backyard for a long play. I had tried to get him to come in when the rain started, but sometimes he just needs some outdoor time. Well finally I heard his scratch at the back door to come back in and I opened the door to let him in. He was ready, really ready, to come in. And this is what I saw…

Now, that is not a picture of our Buddy because the first thing I did was not pull out a camera, but run for his collar and a towel. But that’s pretty much what he looked like. He had found some mud and done what looked like a couple or dozen barrel rolls in the mud. And as much as I was horrified, I knew there was only one thing that could come next. Normally he actually keeps himself amazing clean. But this was no ordinary situation. This was beyond what he could do for himself. I would have to clean him up. He is my dog and I am his human. So we had a little heart to heart which I know he didn’t understand, and I got to it.

Unclean

Let me tell you a little bit about leprosy. It’s a disease that’s been around a long time and still exists today. In fact, I’ve met some people with leprosy on some of the international mission trips I’ve done as a teenager and then later as a youth director and pastor. It is a disease that cause you to lose the feeling in your extremities, which means that cuts and scrapes in those places often go un-detected and get infected. That’s what we know now. In ancient times it just looked like people’s fingers and toes, nose and ears, would get really infected and, well, gross. And the way to deal with it back then (and unfortunately in many poorer countries today) is isolation and banishment away from everyone else. The culture of the time as well as the Hebrew scripture described leprosy as a form of being unclean, to be avoided and shunned.

And in the passage for today, a man with leprosy came up to Jesus and beseeched him, pleaded with him, and said, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Not “you can heal me,” but “you can make me clean.” The expected response from any healthy person would have been to shout the man away and withdraw to a safe distance. But Jesus interacted with him and, moved with compassion, healed him. Don’t miss Jesus’ motivation… compassion. His heart went out to the man, who had probably lived for years away from family, friends, and loved ones. And note the method of healing. Jesus could have healed with a word, but he chose to TOUCH the man as he made him well. The many probably had not touched or been touched for years and years. And Jesus crossed the cultural chasm to invite him into community as well as wholeness. It is a remarkable exchange!

Let’s look at what ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ mean in this context. It doesn’t have to do with having had a bath or not, though it may have been common to think of people ravaged by leprosy as dirty or not hygienic. But in Scripture, the status of being ‘unclean’ was more of a ritual status. What do I mean? I mean that so many of the religious laws and rules in the Old Testament were there not as a measure of people’s goodness, but as a teaching tool for a greater spiritual reality. It’s not unlike baptism; that’s a ritual. When we baptize a person in church we aren’t washing the dirt of their body; we are symbolizing being washed CLEAN from sin. Do you hear the word – clean! That means that apart from the grace of God, the thing we are symbolizing in baptism, we are NOT CLEAN.

That’s why Jesus not only healed the man’s physical issues, but also sent him to the priest as a sign of being ritually or spiritually clean. The text also says it is “as a testimony to them.” I’m not sure who ‘them’ is – it could be the Law of Moses or the priests, but I think it’s the public, as a visual and ritual picture of God’s grace. It’s almost like Jesus sent him to be baptized after their encounter. (It was just slightly different, but the same kind of idea.) In addition, though the man was immediately healed and clean, his going to the priest was an act of obedient response; it demonstrated his faith and trust in Jesus. Again, there is power in ritual. Two people are legally and truly married when they sign the wedding license obtained at the courthouse. But we find it meaningful to ritualize that important act in a setting of worship, before God, family, and community. Walking down the aisle, clasping hands, exchanging vows and rings… it all ritualizes reality, physically acting out aspects of commitment and marriage that are more accurately described as spiritual realities. And so, the man went to see the priest to act out the reality of his spiritual cleansing.

Now if all this sounds unusual and you are thinking it’s a lot to get out of a straightforward story of healing, consider Isaiah’s language in two places. When confronted with the holy presence of God in a vision in Isaiah 6, his response was to fall down and say “Woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips.” He wasn’t talking about a physical smudge. He was describing his heart and his motivation. Later in chapter 64, Isaiah muses about himself and his people:

“And shall we be saved?
For all of us have become like one who is unclean,
And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment;
And all of us wither like a leaf,
And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”
~Isaiah 64:5b-6


This was the same Isaiah from whose scroll Jesus read. Jesus came to save and to make us spiritually clean because we are God’s people and He is our God and God has compassion on us.

Now I don’t want to distract us from the main thing going on in this story, so I am not going to spend a lot of time on the next part. But it is unusual enough that I don’t want to ignore it. Did you wonder why Jesus told the man not to tell anyone? This isn’t the only time Jesus did this. In fact, some scholars refer to this kind of thing as the” Messianic secret.” Jesus did understand himself to be the Messiah, but at times he seemed to want to keep that under wraps. Maybe another time we can really dig into this, but the short answer is ‘timing.’ There was such a popular expectation and interpretation of what the Messiah would do, that Jesus seemed to be mindful of not having his purpose co-opted. Indeed, on several occasions we read that a crowd swept him up to make him king by force (read, armed conflict against the Romans), but he would slip away. This encounter with the leper, which comes very early in his ministry, shows him to be very careful to let God’s plan for him unfold at the right pace and in the right way. It is fascinating topic, to be sure; but for this morning, it gets us off the main focus of the passage, so I’m going to move on.

Application

So, I’ve shared a parable of sorts in my cleaning of Muddy the dog, restoring him to his true identity as Buddy. We’ve looked at the encounter between Jesus and a man who was unclean, but more so in regards to his spiritual standing before God than his physical malady. Nonetheless, Jesus made him clean in both senses, confirming in physical reality what was going on spiritually. So again, I’ll ask what this story of Jesus healing a leper has to do with you and me.

And I’d like to end and make application by asking several questions that I hope you will ponder, not just in these moments, but throughout this week. Jesus does forgive our sin once and for all, but like Buddy, I keep rolling around in the mess of this world. So consider these questions:

Where are you unclean?

What does it mean for you to acknowledge this to God?

What does it mean that Jesus will (and has) pronounced you clean and whole before God?

And a final outward-facing question:

How does this affect your view of others?
(those who look a ‘mess’ as well as those who have sinned against you?)


May God give us ears to hear and hearts to seek and follow Jesus. Amen!

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Stored Up for Good (Psalm 119.9-16)


Sermon by: Robert Austell; September 8, 2019 - Psalm 119:9-16

:: Sermon Audio :: audio not available this week

::: Music ::
Every Promise of Your Word (Gettys)
Thy Word (Grant, Smith)/How Firm a Foundation (arr. VanderHeide)
CHOIR: The Word of God (Mock, Nichols)
O Word of God Incarnate (MUNICH)


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

Today is our “Rally Day!” We are kicking of a new season of classes and programs to help you grow in your Christian faith and knowledge. We do this every year and I appreciate the opportunity to start fresh with new commitments to growing in God’s Word. I have been in church all my life and have studied the Bible in college and seminary and I always learn something new in every class or gathering. God’s Word is living like that, always engaging us freshly if we come to it with open ears, hearts, and mind.

Today we are going to look at one part of Psalm 119, which is the longest Psalm and one entirely devoted to the goodness and importance of God’s Word in scripture. It’s divided into groups of eight verses according to the Hebrew alphabet and we are going to be in the second section, marked by the letter Bet, which corresponds to our letter ‘B’. In fact, every line in this second stanza of eight verses starts with the letter Bet/B. But that’s just to help young Jewish readers memorize it. What’s important is the content. And the heart of this B-stanza is that storing up God’s Word helps keep us on the right path; it helps keep us from sinning. As the hymn says, we are prone to wander; but God’s Word is a guiding light that keeps our way true.

So that is a fitting theme as we celebrate a “Rally Day” and re-commit to a year of studying and growing in God’s Word. It is not just for the sake of knowledge, but to help us live right and experience the blessing of following Jesus and obeying God.

Staying on Track (vv.9-12)

I’m going to divide our text into two parts and call the first part, vv. 9-12, “Staying on Track.” The focus of this stanza is here… that if we store up God’s Word it will keep us on the right path. Each verse offers slightly different language for this.

Obey (v.9) – “How can a young person keep their way pure? By keeping it according to your word.” Verse 9 asks and answers a question about living in God’s Will. The way is the choices we make and the actions we take. And keeping it according to God’s Word is obedience. I am faced with a choice to lie or tell the truth about another person and God’s Word says not to bear false witness. So I choose to tell the truth. That’s setting my feet on God’s path. That is living according to God’s Word. Sure there are situations where it is hard to figure out how to apply God’s word for that situation. But in the great majority of situations, when I stray from the path, it’s not for that reason, but because I’ve chosen to set aside what I know to be God’s best. How do we stay on track in life? We obey God’s Word in scripture!

Seek (v.10) – “With all my heart I have sought you; do not let me wander from your commandments.” Verse 10 describes the active choice behind that obedience: seeking God through His Word. If I’m trying to get by with something I will most likely not be seeking God. Obedience isn’t accidental; it comes from seeking God and His will. Seeking God’s Word and will means taking time to study and read and digest and act. It’s a conscious commitment.

Treasure (v.11) – “Your word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against you.” If seeking is behind obedience, then verse 11 describes what is behind seeking. We only seek that which we value, that which we treasure. We seek something because we think it is worth seeking. If we believe and can ascribe this kind of value to God’s Word and will, the seeking and the obedience will follow.

Love (v.12) – “Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes.” And behind treasuring God’s word is worship and relationship. In a word, it’s love (of God). To call God blessed (and mean it) is to believe that God is God. It is this faith and love that forms us into people that treasure, seek, and obey God’s will and Word.

Is the order backwards then? Must we come to believe and love God before we can treasure, seek, and obey His Word? I don’t think so. It’s like asking if one must be in shape in order to work out. It works both ways. Working out gets you in shape. Being in shape allows for a greater workout. Choosing obedience to God’s Word does flow out of love, treasuring, and seeking God. But it also forms those things in us. Think of it as a spiral with each part strengthening the others. Jump in anywhere!

Approaching Scripture (vv.13-16)

The first four verses are about staying on track through a cultivated love of God and the Word. The next four verses (vv. 13-16) offer four ways to cultivate that love.

Share (v.13) – “With my lips I have told of all the ordinances of your mouth.” Verse 13 describes the Psalmist sharing the word. We talk about what we love; we talk about what we believe. Sharing God’s Word with others helps deepen and cultivate our trust in and love for God’s Word.

Rejoice (v.14) – “I have rejoiced in the way of your testimonies, as much as in all riches.” Tied to the idea of treasuring in v. 11, this verse describes rejoicing (celebrating, finding joy) in God’s Word in the same kind of way we might with wealth. God’s Word is even more to be treasured!

Meditate (v.15) – “I will meditate on your precepts and regard your ways.” I don’t know what you think of when you hear the word ‘meditate’, but here it means to ponder, to dwell on the teaching of scripture. I sometimes like to read a verse or two out loud, then write it out by hand, the slowly pray through it to try to understand all the shades of meaning and intent behind the words. Sometimes there are songs that will help you remember scripture. Really anything that helps you recall and ‘hear’ scripture throughout the day is a great example of meditating. The use of ‘regard’ in the second part of the verse is also a helpful word. When you regard something, you notice and give focused attention to it. The opposite of regard is ignore or dismiss. This verse describes an intentional focus on and attentiveness to scripture.

Delight (v.16) – “I shall delight in your statutes, I shall not forget your word.” This verse not only returns to the idea of finding joy in God’s Word, but also REMEMBERING it. Whether that’s scripture memory or learning songs or taking time throughout the day to recall what you might have read in the morning, this is a good reminder of how to cultivate love for something that is important to you.

Some Practical Steps

So this stanza from Psalm 119 reminds us of the importance of God’s Word, particularly for guiding and directing our lives. It offers some ways to cultivate love for and obedience to that Word. Let me offer five specific Good Shepherd ways you can do this.

Sunday School – It is Rally Day, after all! Sunday school is a wonderful and convenient way to study God’s Word in more depth than you get in a worship service. In fact, the worship service isn’t really designed to teach you God’s Word. It’s main focus is on worship of God, though we do orient all of the service around God’s Word. But Sunday school is the same time and the same building. And we have wonderful teachers. It’s a perfect time to study God’s Word with some of the church family. For adults we try to offer one biblical study class and one topical application class. For youth and children we offer age-appropriate classes and try to import the core teachings as well as a love for scripture.

Bible Study – In some ways Bible study is very similar to Sunday school. But it happens throughout the week in a variety of contexts and formats. We have women’s and men’s studies taught by GSPC leaders as well as some where we plug into larger community studies. One of the benefits of Bible study is the opportunity often to go even more in-depth than Sunday school, often with some daily reading, praying, or reflection. Much like exercise, study of the Bible is best done throughout the week, not just in once a week doses. And unlike exercise, our spirits don’t become weaker with age, but can continue learning and responding to God’s Word throughout our lives! Some Bible studies are more like a classroom and some are more discussion-based. Some are very relational and small; others are larger with break-out groups. If you’d like to know more about the options available through Good Shepherd, please talk to me or to Cindy Dolinger, who is our Christian Education elder. All of our studies are getting started in the next week or two, so this is a perfect time to commit to one!

Dinner Church
– Dinner Church is something we do every 1st and 3rd Wednesday of the month here in the Expansion Area. We sit at inter-generational tables of eight. Dinner is potluck (but keep it simple and easy!) and we have a simple order of worship that we follow each time. It centers around one verse of scripture and is joined with conversation and visiting and some simple prayers we read together. It reminds me of the idealized picture of a “family dinner” that so few of us are able to experience any more. But it’s church family! Young and old share about their week, we enjoy time together, and we leave with the name of someone at the table to pray for until we meet again. It is from 6-7pm and is such a special time together!

Personal Devotion – All of these methods of storing up God’s word are communal – they involve others. And that’s a good thing. We find encouragement by interacting with others. We also often learn more and correct our own errors or weird interpretations by studying with others and with a trusted teacher or author. But it’s also important to study God’s Word individually. There is no one format for this, but many people find it helpful to set aside a time each morning or evening to read a passage, reflect on it, and pray. There are an infinite number of variations on that, but that’s a good basic pattern to follow. I’d encourage reading in paragraphs or in the sections that are often bounded with headers in the Bible. Doing that provides context which helps guard against mis-reading a single verse. But it also is short. Meditate on the passage. Ponder the words; ponder the intent; ponder the application. It’s not unlike what I’ve done this morning. It would have taken you all of 30 seconds to read these eight verses. But you could have come up with something similar by taking time to consider each verse for a moment. I also like to pray scripture. After I’ve read and pondered, I like to pray using the words before me. So, for example, I might pray verse 9: “Lord, I want to keep my way pure. Help me live and make decisions according to your Word.” Or can take the form of confessional prayer. In verse 10, “Lord, I have NOT sought you with all my heart. Help me do that! Don’t let me wander. Remind me of your commandments.” See what I mean?

This Psalm says that God’s Word keeps us in line with and in tune with God’s path – God’s will and way for us. The Psalm also models some ways to cultivate regard for God’s Word. As we start a new season together as Church, I invite and challenge you to choose a Sunday school class, sign up for a Bible study, try out Dinner Church, commit to personal devotion. It may sound like a lot; but it quickly becomes a treasured part of the rhythm of life, like exercise or stopping for morning Starbucks or watching your favorite TV show… and infinitely more valuable and life-giving than any of those things!

God invites you to store up His Word and to store it up for His good purpose in your life. Amen!

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

==LETTERS TO THE CHURCH (SUMMER 2019) SERIES INDEX==

"Letters to the Church, Letters to You and Me"
(Summer 2019) Series Index

Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church
June 02 - September 01, 2019

A look a the letters to the church (letters to us!) in Revelation and then a few more texts from Revelation to round out the series. Also called "Letters from Jesus."

Sunday, September 1, 2019

All Things New (Revelation 21-22, Luke 4)


Sermon by: Robert Austell; September 1, 2019 - Revelation 21:1-7, 22 (sel vv); Luke 4:14-21

:: 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 ::
Holy, Holy, Holy (NICAEA)
It is Well (DiMarco)
Soon and Very Soon (Crouch)

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

We’ve spent all summer in Revelation reading letters from Jesus to the Church – letters to you and me! Today we are in the final two chapters of Revelation, the literal end of the book! I do want to take a moment to talk about the wonderful and vivid imagery and the promises of God. But I also want to look with you at the way Jesus brought that Heavenly future down to earth in his own ministry. Because of that, these promises and this hope are also something we can experience for ourselves today – not completely and eternally yet, but tangibly and powerfully.

New Heaven, New Earth (Rev 21-22)

Revelation 21 and 22 are some of the most beautiful, hopeful, and encouraging chapters of scripture. They describe with vivid imagery how God will make all things right and all things new. God will come among us once and for all. It is an intentional overlap of the beginning of the story when God created the beautiful Garden of Eden and walked among it with the human beings He made. Let’s consider some of the imagery in chapter 21. There is so much that I’ll just touch briefly on each phrase.

New Heaven and New Earth (v.1) – One of the themes in these two chapters is that the old will go away and the new will come. That applies to sin and the curse and it applies to creation itself. Everything will be made new and that theme will be repeated throughout the chapters. One of the notable things in this first phrase cuts against the childhood notion that Heaven is “away out there” somewhere and there will no longer be a ‘here’. This say, rather, that God will re-make this world and be present with us, joining Heaven and Earth in something new. That’s completely mind-boggling, to be sure, but it’s not without precedent, for the first creation in the Garden of Eden was something unlike what we know now. It was all good, sin had not yet entered the world, and God walked with our first parents. This is an intentional bookend to that. As God first created, so will He re-create. And it will be good, and tangible, and God will be with us and we with Him.

The Holy City, New Jerusalem (v.2) – The earthly city of Jerusalem has always been a symbol of God’s blessing and God’s presence. It’s like a microcosm of Earth. God chose a people and revealed Himself in a special way to them. God blessed their King and their Kingdom and this holy city in the middle of a Promised Land. And like Eden, it was tarnished by sin and disobedience and it was lost (and regained and lost and regained). To speak of a “New Jerusalem” is to press in on the “New Earth” to say that not only will the world be re-created, but God’s promises and intent for humanity, provisionally demonstrated in the Old Jerusalem, will not disappear, but be re-created as well.

God With Us (vv.3-4) – In the next few verses we read that the “tabernacle of God is among men… and He will dwell among them and they shall be His people.” This is not new news. This was the promise to Adam, to Abraham, and to the world through Jesus. Jesus was the great embodied promise of “God with us.” He was with us for a while to accomplish redemption. Through him we will forever be joined to God, WITH God and God WITH us. And this isn’t abstract theology; I appreciate the specific and vivid language of verse 4: “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” We read that verse at funerals in hope, to lay claim to God’s power in the face of the tears, pain, and death we know in this world. God will be with us and all will be well.

Making All Things New (v.5) – Pressing in on the theme, we read in v. 5 that God is “making all things new.” This is God’s great healing act; this is re-creation; this is God’s shalom (peace, blessing, wholeness). In this verse and then later in the next chapter God declares, “These words are faithful and true.” This is a promise of God; you can count on these things. This is True with a capital ‘T’.

Spring of the Water of Life (v.6) – There will be more about the water of life in chapter 22, but here we get a vivid picture of God’s grace. God will give those who are thirsty from the spring of the water of life without cost. We don’t – we can’t – earn or deserve that drink. God offers it in compassion, in love, and without condition. Again, it reminds me of the Garden of Eden where humanity had everything it needed from a good and gracious God.

Children of God (v.7)
– Finally, in verse 7 we read that the one who overcomes – that’s the language from the letters of Jesus we’ve been looking at this summer for those who repent and trust Jesus – the one who overcomes will inherit these things and be named as children of God. Specifically here ‘son’ as the one who inherits everything from the Father, but extended in Christ to male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free.

Now you may ask yourself (I asked myself)… if this is so similar to the Garden of Eden, what is keeping humanity from just messing it up all over again. And I would say – JESUS. The difference in this re-creation Is that Jesus is in the center of it all as the God-Man who bore and continues to bear the scars of humanity’s great sin-failure. The New Heavens and New Earth aren’t a shiny, glossed-over version of the world. It’s not the Pearly Gates and harps and all that. It is a reality that bears the scars of it’s sin and salvation. Scars show that a healing has taken place. You might be cut open, but when the cut heals and the skin comes together, the scar declares healing has happened. The presence of Jesus is why this new thing is not like the old thing. He is the living reminder of just how good God is and his faithfulness anchors us there with God.

There is more imagery in chapter 22:

Water of Life (v.1) – This imagery is even more reminiscent of Eden. There is a river of the water of life. In Genesis there were four rivers. We just read that God gives this water to all who thirst. It is for drinking and it is the gift of God.

Tree of Life (v.2) – There is a tree of life – somehow on either side of the river. This is a tree of eating, described as the “healing of the nations.” Its fruit is also for consumption, as a reminder of God’s great salvation of the world through Christ.

No Curse, No Night; in God’s Presence (vv.3-5) – And so there will no longer be a curse; it has been lifted. There will be no night because of the presence of God… a literal reversal beyond Eden to the first Creation itself when God separated day and night. Now, this is probably a good point to say that this is a) poetic imagery and b) a vision John is having. I think the focus is on the significance of the presence of God rather than the physics of where and whether the yellow star that is our sun will be present or necessary or not. I don’t know. I don’t think that is why these words were written.

Inviting God (vv.12-20) – Finally, in the remaining verses of chapter 22 Jesus promises to come and he invites us to draw near. Both are there at the very end: “Let the one who is thirsty… who wishes… take the water of life without cost.” (v.17) And we say, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.” (v.20)

There is much more that could be said. What does ‘quickly’ mean? Is 2,000 years since Jesus slow or quick? It sure seems slow to us. But scripture says for God a thousand years is as a day. Certainly we can lay hold of the human desire for Jesus to come soon. We can live prepared. We can live in hope.

But there is more. There is more pressing all that reality into our lives than “living with hope.” And I don’t discount living with hope. That’s an important thing and it makes a difference in life. But I want to turn to Luke 4 to talk about some other ways the New Heavens and New Earth connect to our present reality.

Here, Near, Coming Soon (Luke 4)

Luke 4 is an important passage in the life of Jesus. Essentially, it records his public claim to being the Messiah in his hometown. He would have grown up there going to the synagogue. He went on a Sabbath and read from the scroll of Isaiah when it was handed to him. And he read a powerful text from Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
Because He anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind
To set free those who are oppressed,
To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord. (vv.18-19)


For Isaiah, the “favorable year of the Lord” was when God was going to restore Israel’s blessing, to make things right, to heal and make whole.  (Does that sound familiar at all?)  And Jesus, after reading that passage, said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (v.21)

In his ministry Jesus would do these very things. He healed the blind, he declared forgiveness to those captive to sin, he released those oppressed by spirits or social stigma. He declared the coming of the Kingdom of God, a.k.a. the favorable year of the Lord.

So here’s where those dots connect. That Kingdom of God, the favorable year of the Lord, is the same Kingdom described in Revelation! Didn’t you notice the overlap in wording? …the blind will see, the oppressed will know freedom… God will wipe every tear from their eye.

So how does that work? You have Creation, you have Isaiah around 600 B.C., you have Jesus in A.D. 30, you have us now in A.D. 2019, and you have the scenes in Revelation in some unknown future. Let’s look to Jesus. We just read that he considered Isaiah’s words to be fulfilled. We know that he announced the Kingdom of God again and again in his teaching. When pressed by the Pharisees about when the Kingdom was coming he answered, “Behold, the Kingdom of God is in your midst.” (Luke 17:21) Other times he said the Kingdom was ‘near’ or ‘at hand’ (Luke 10:9). Yet when he taught the disciples to pray, he taught them to pray, “Your Kingdom come.” His parables may help explain: the Kingdom is like a seed which has been planted (it’s here, it’s at hand, it’s in our midst), but it will grow into a mighty plant or tree (not yet fully grown). It seems that we are in an in-between time… Jesus announced the arrival of the Kingdom of God, but there is more yet to come. There will be a New Heaven and a New Earth. In Christ God came among us for a time, but in eternity God will make His home with us forever.

The point is that we have already tasted and we are tasting now a bit of what this Revelation-future is like. We don’t live without hope or experience of God; indeed we pray for and hope that in this in-between time that God may wipe a tear or two. We pray and believe that God does sometimes heal and always holds us. In Christ we can experience the forgiveness of sin and, as far as that goes, the lifting of the curse, though it remains for a while all around us (and we sin again). But it’s available to us now. That’s what Jesus was announcing at his home town synagogue. That’s what Jesus taught during his lifetime and accomplished with his death and resurrection. Jesus has already brought God among us. Revelation describes the completion of what God initiated in Jesus and envisioned all the way back at Creation.

So this is Good News: God is with us in Christ. The Kingdom of God is at hand. We don’t know how long it will be until those final scenes, but we can now the presence and blessing and shalom of God today, because of Jesus Christ. So I’d speak the words of Jesus to you: “Let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost.” 

Come, Lord Jesus! Amen.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Heavenly Worship Service (Revelation 7.9-17)


Sermon by: Robert Austell; August 25, 2019 - Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 23:1-3a

:: 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 ::
Wonderful, Merciful Savior (Rodgers, Wise)
Be Unto Your Name (DeShazo, Sadler)
OFFERTORY: Is He Worthy? (Peterson)
O For a Thousand Tongues (AZMON)

:: 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’s a lot going on in Revelation, but one of my favorite parts of it is the worship. Some six times in John’s vision he sees and hears the worship before the throne of God in Heaven. Now technically, only two of these passages are explicitly sung (chs. 5, 15). Others are spoken and still others shouted. But they are all formatted like poetry or lyrics. And across the six examples of worship the themes are overlapping. They speak and sing of God’s salvation, they offer praise to God, and they express the holiness and worthiness of God and Jesus, the Lamb.

I want to look with you at the worship in Revelation 7 today. It’s like a complete worship service, beginning with a shout of praise, then with a face-to-the-ground prayer, then with a time of teaching and explanation (not unlike a sermon). It seems to me that studying and participating in the worship of Heaven would be a good thing to do. So I want to walk us through that and then invite us to make it our own at the end.

Now I do want to follow the forms actually listed (shout, pray, teach); but I think what’s more important is the content of each form. So it is true that this scene of Heavenly worship starts with a shout, moves to prayer, and then has a time of teaching. But throughout the main point will be the content. In other words, the point is not that we re-format our own worship to shout, pray, teach. The point is to understand what is at the heart of Heavenly worship as a clue and cue to what should guide our own worship.

Starts with a Shout (vv.9-10)

This scene of Heavenly worship begins with a shout. That’s in verse 10, which was translated as “they cry out with a loud voice, saying…”. The word translated “cry out” just as often is translated as scream our shout, especially when “with a loud voice” is explicitly added. Let’s look at who was doing the shoutin’ and what they were shoutin’ about!

It’s a “great multitude.” And it’s not just big numbers like at a SEC football game, it’s too many to count. And it’s not just a crowd that looks like me or you, but one “from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues.” It is a crowd drawn from all of humanity in all its rich array of colors and languages and cultures. I don’t think I can stress that enough as a biblical theme. It’s throughout the Old Testament covenant as the purpose for blessing Israel. It’s throughout the ministry of Jesus and teachings of Paul; that God so loved the whole world and there is no distinction to be made between Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free. And this is the trajectory of all that: an uncountable multitude shouting praise in the presence of God in Heaven.

And what were they (will they be) shouting” They cry out, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” (v.10) I think of the crowds scream for their team before a huge football game. Or I think of the deafening sound of a crowd at a rock concert. The sound is enormous, but it’s focused on a person or a team. It’s directed praise. And that’s what is going on here. God the King and Jesus the Lamb have SAVED this crowd from sin and death. Salvation belongs to God and this huge crowd is shouting out that truth in celebration, enthusiasm, and victory.

Humble Prayer (vv.11-12)

And as pictured in verses 11-12 that follow, there is a smaller group simultaneously on their faces before the throne of God. This group is made of angels – ALL the angels – and the human elders and the four living creatures described elsewhere in Revelation. These beings and these people were seemingly in the midst of all that, yet face down in prayer and praise and worship.

They were saying something different: “Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen.” I love the overflowing nature of that. I love the string of attributes that seem to just go on and on. “Amen” is “truly!” or “let it be so!” as if to affirm the shouts of praise from the surrounding multitude. But this group prostrate around the throne is offering more specific praise and the truth of it drives them to their knees and to the ground in humility. This is God! God is worthy! The Lamb is worthy!

Teaching Time (vv.13-17)

In vv. 13-17 there is a dialogue that I can only describe as a teaching moment. One of the elders asks what must be a rhetorical question because he goes on to answer his own question. He asks John (in the vision): “Who are these people with the white robes? What’s their story?” John says, “You know.” (i.e. “You tell me!”)

And the elder answers and packs an amazing amount of teaching into a relatively short response.

Who are they? They are the ones who have come out of the great tribulation, a horrible time of persecution for the sake of Christ. But for their endurance and faithfulness Christ has washed their robes (presumably stained with their own blood and suffering) and made them white in his own blood. Jesus has delivered them finally into a place of peace, wholeness, and rightness.

Why are they there? It is because of their faithful obedience and suffering. It is for this reason the elder says that they are close in the presence of God, serving Him day and night. (I should note that this is not some kind of extra burden, but an extra HONOR, to serve God in this way.) And in that nearness, God “spreads his tabernacle” – that is, His protection and presence – over them. Those who suffered most are comforted and protected most in the presence of God.

What is their future? Remembering that this vision of the future was written to comfort those suffering in the present, the elder describes what God’s tabernacle – His comfort and protection – will mean for those who suffer for the sake of Christ: “They will hunger no longer, nor thirst anymore; nor will the sun beat down on them, nor any heat.” And then here is another image to go with the “tabernacle” God has spread over them: “the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd.” As written long before John’s time, in the 23rd Psalm, the Good Shepherd will “guide them to springs of the water of life” and, further, will “wipe every tear from their eyes.”

Joining In the Theme

This vision of Heavenly worship was given to encourage those who suffered for the sake of Jesus – in John’s day and in the days that would follow. In a nutshell, this particular scene was to remind them of the huge news of God’s salvation (shout), that God is so ultimately worthy (prayer), and that God Himself is our future hope, even in the difficult present.

Now that seems like a theme we could join into. On this day you may connect more with one piece of that than another, and that is fine. Perhaps you need to be reminded of God’s big movement to save: “God so loved the world!” Maybe the world seems desperately out of control and anything but trusting in God. God’s story is not of people trusting so well in Him, but in His ultimate faithfulness to love and pursue humanity – the world He made and loves. God’s faithfulness and power are such that one day all the world will know and people from every tribe and tongue will gather to shout praise, no longer separated by skin color, language, culture, position, or any other thing that keeps us apart now.

Maybe you need a fresh reminder of who God is and what God is like. Maybe that string of descriptors would give you a fresh picture of God  - to whom belong blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honor, power, and might. Maybe like the angels, humans, and heavenly creatures you need to simply come before God and quietly pray.

Or maybe you can identify with the theme of suffering. The specific context of Revelation is the suffering of people for their faithful obedience to Christ, so suffering the loss of WiFi doesn’t measure up. But we do know the deep suffering of sin, sickness, and death. We know wars and conflict and betrayal. And we have heard the invitation of Christ to fix our eyes on him to make our way through this life. While the white robes of the martyrs may not fit our situation, the reminder of a Good Shepherd should comfort each of us. Jesus Christ is the one who leads us to living water, who walks with us in the dark night, who guards and keeps us to bring us into the presence of God.

As other-worldly as Revelation can seem, this scene of Heavenly worship is not so far-removed from our own lives and our own worship. We, too, can shout praise over God’s salvation, bow in humble prayer to our extraordinary Heavenly Father, and trust hopefully in the protection and care of our Good Shepherd. If you are careening through these days in fear, in distress, disconnected, and discouraged, read and re-read this passage this week to re-focus you on who God is and what God has done. Re-read Psalm 23 and pray to the one who is our Good Shepherd. And I believe you will find encouragement for the days ahead. Amen.