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Sunday, February 17, 2019

Here is Ananias (Acts 9.10-19)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; February 17, 2019 - Acts 9:10-19

:: 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 ::
I Will Wait for You (chorus) (Getty/Townend) - call to worship
Arise, My Soul, Arise (Kevin Twit/Indelible Grace)
He Save Us to Show His Glory (Tommy Walker)
CHOIR: Lord, Here I Am (Beck)
OFFERTORY: Yes and Amen (Housefires)
God of Grace and God of Glory (CWM RHONDDA)

:: 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.

On November 2, 2003, a young man visited Good Shepherd. I spoke to him after the service and he told me that he had experienced a conversion to Christianity at home alone in his living room after reading a children’s story to his daughter. He came to our church because he looked on the Internet and we were one of the closest he could find to his house. He wanted to know what to do now. He had lots of questions… I mean LOTS of questions. And he had spent most of his late teens and 20s being pretty angry at God and hostile towards Christianity. You might think: isn’t that the kind of person a pastor longs to run into? And I’d say absolutely, yes! But it wasn’t just me; many in the church ended up engaging with him and wrestling with his questions. He had a passion and fervor for his new-found faith that shook us up in all the best ways, but also some ways we weren’t used to. He also started sharing his story with some of his friends. Some of them the Lord brought to faith as well; and some are leaders among us even now, sixteen years later. And interestingly enough – perhaps ironically – that young man shared the same name with a strikingly similar figure in our text today.

In Acts 9, leading up to today’s text, we read of another man who was hostile to Christian faith. In fact he was so hostile that he hunted Christians to persecute and kill them. Yet he also encountered Jesus in a life-changing moment and was left with lots of questions and waiting to understand what it was God wanted from him.

Today we continue our “Here I am” series, looking at Ananias, a regular man whom God sent to Saul. I want to look at the mission God gave him, what discernment looked like for him, and what God brought about through his obedience. My hope is that this will not just be another story or set of Bible trivia for you to catalogue, but that you will be listening for what God is asking you to do and that you be available and ready for that work.


This story opens like several others that we have looked at in the past few weeks. The Lord speaks to Ananias in a vision, calling his name. And Ananias answers, “Here I am, Lord.” (v.10) Before we get to the mission God has for Ananias, I want to tell you a little about him. Verse 10 says that he is a ‘disciple.’ But don’t let that mis-lead you. He is not one of the twelve disciples – they are now called the Apostles. Rather, it simply means he is a student or follower of Jesus. If I can translate that into our context, he’s a regular church-going dude. You can’t get off the hook by saying that this is a story for pastors or elders or mature Christians. This is an ordinary believer called to serve by our extraordinary God. In fact, I’ll press that even a little further. Ananias is mentioned again in Acts 22 when Saul (now named Paul) is recounting this same story from his point of view. He describes Ananias as a “man who was devout by the standard of the Law, and well-spoken of by all the Jews who lived there.” (v. 12) In other words, he was a follower of Jesus who did not draw any attention to himself. Even in the eyes of Saul the former persecutor of Christians, Ananias could pass for a regular Jewish person. You may have heard the question put before: If you were put on trial for your faith, would there be enough evidence to convict you? It seems that when it came to the new Christian faith of Ananias, there might have not been sufficient evidence.

I say all that to say that if you think God is just interested in pastors, elders, youth leaders, or certain kinds of Christians, He’s not. In fact, if you look at all at who God uses, you’ll find a lot of ordinary people. In fact, almost entirely people with questions, doubts, hang-ups, a rocky past (or present!), and more. What they have in common is that when God spoke to them, nudged them, moved them, they said, “Here I am.”

So here’s what God wanted Ananias to do: “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight.” (vv.11-12)

Hey, go down Swan’s Run until you get to Bon Rea. Then knock on door of the 2nd house on the left and ask if there is someone there you can pray for. They are expecting something like this.

I know, right? Except that I’ve seen something like it and so have many of you. God’s going to break through the walls of this 28 yr. old guy through a children’s story and send him to you and I want you to pray with him and love him with the love of Jesus.

I am struck by the reality that God often works the long game and the things He asks us to do are one faithful brick in a glorious house He is building. We may get to glimpse the whole or the shape of the whole; or we may not. But if it is God giving the mission, then it’s the right thing to do. And that’s why we are spending time on this series about hearing God’s voice or leading and responding in faith.

But is every thought, every idea, from God? How do we know? In the verses that follow, I want to look at two things going on. One is Ananias wrestling with some legitimate fear. The other is what I would describe as a discernment process. Let’s look.


First, let’s consider the fear or hesitation. Ananias answered the mission like this: “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Your saints at Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.” (vv.13-14) Our fears can be complicated. Saul WAS someone to be feared. But I have also noted that Ananias was not known for flaunting his Christian faith. He didn’t want any trouble.

But let me also frame this as discernment. Discernment is a form of listening and being available. It is faith seeking understanding. Since God doesn’t ordinarily speak in an audible voice, it is good to discern whether a nudge or leading is truly from God or not. It’s okay to talk to God some more – that is, pray! – and seek clarification and further direction. I’m not talking about stalling indefinitely, but seeking further direction and guidance. So, Ananias speaks in his dream or vision and says, “Isn’t Saul dangerous?” And the Lord does give further clarification: “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.” (vv.15-16)

Sounds consistent with scripture to me. From all the way back to Abraham, God gave His name to Israel in order to bless the nations of the world. And Jesus had modeled suffering for the sake of God’s mission. It could be that God had something to accomplish with and through Saul.

I name all that because it is a good template for us to use. God intends to use ordinary people like you and me to accomplish His will in the world. God is building a glorious house – a Kingdom in fact – brick by brick. And you and I may be asked to be part of that work. In fact I will go so far as to way that you and I ARE being asked to be part of that work. Does it sometimes involve something outside our comfort zone? Yes, it does. That is probably a good indicator that it’s from God, as most of us like our comfort zone just fine. But it is also good and healthy to discern what God is leading you to do. Is it consistent with what Scripture teaches about God and God’s Kingdom? Does it sound like Jesus? Then it probably is from the Lord.

Participating in Glory

So Ananias did what God asked and went to find Saul. And he laid hands on him and did what God asked of him. And Saul, who had been blinded days earlier when he encountered Jesus, regained his sight. He was also filled with the Holy Spirit and was baptized. Paul also mentions the healing and baptism in Acts 22 in his version of the encounter with Ananias. And Saul, soon re-named Paul, became the chief evangelist and church planter for the non-Jewish world. God’s plan was fulfilled, indeed!

Here’s the thing: We don’t always know what God is up to, but it’s more glorious than we can possibly imagine because it involves changed hearts and lives and the coming of God’s Kingdom. After worship today, we are inviting the congregation to stay and brainstorm about ways we can reach out as a church, but that must be anchored in saying ‘yes’ to what God is doing and asking of us. God is the one who changes hearts and changes lives. When God brought Paul Hamilton to this church as a young man, I could not have imagined all that God would do in his life or bring about in this church community. But God was building a glorious house of which we got to focus on one or two bricks at a time. That Paul went on to lead a number of his friends to Christ and eventually became a pastor and church planter. But our role was to answer a bunch of questions and love a person that had just been grabbed by God.

The tagline for the “Here I am” series is “listening, available, ready to go.” As we do that and say ‘yes’ to where God is leading us we get to do nothing less than participate in glory. And that is something God intends for every one of us, not just seminary-trained pastors or leaders of the church, but each and every one of you who trusts in Jesus Christ.

I want to end by asking you three similar questions. I’d challenge you to not just read them and move on, but ask them morning, noon, and night. Pray them; ponder them; let them permeate your thoughts and days. If you do, I believe God will speak to you. And while that may seem scary; it is actually glorious because you will be participating in what God is doing in the world.

Here are the three questions:

Is there someone God would have me speak to this week?
Is there somewhere God would have me go this week?
Is there something God would have me do this week?

Listen. Be available. Be ready to go.

God is building a glorious house and you and I are invited to be a part. Amen.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Here I Am Testimonies

Testimonies by: Maggie Slade, Ryan Klar, Mark Katibah; February 10, 2019

:: Sermon Audio :: 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." 

This week Pastor Robert was away on the Confirmation Retreat. In place of a sermon he asked three people to share "Here I Am" stories - times they felt like God was speaking to them or leading them and they responded "Here I am." Their stories are not only about what God said or did, but about the results of listening and making themselves available and ready for God to work.

Have you ever heard God speak to or lead you?
What was the result of saying "Here I am?"

Maggie Slade (link)

Ryan Klar - available to church members on request

Mark Katibah (link)

::: Music ::
My Lighthouse (Rend Collective)
Let Us Be Known (Armstrong, Massey, Moore, Flanigan)
CHOIR: How Great Thou Art (arr. Courtney)
Blessed Assurance (ASSURANCE)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) :: There is no manuscript this week.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Here is Samuel (1 Samuel 3.1-21)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; February 3, 2019 - 1 Samuel 3:1-21

:: 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 ::
Come Praise and Glorify (Sovereign Grace: Chester, Kauflin)
I Will Wait for You (Kauflin, Mercker, Getty, Townend)
Communion: When I Survey, Jesus Draw Me (arr. Albrect) - Susan Slade, flute; Maggie Slade, piano
Lord, Speak to Me (CANONBURY)

::: Affirmation of Faith :: from the Heidelberg Catechism (1562)

What are sacraments?  (Q. 66)
Sacraments are visible, holy signs and seals. They were instituted by God so that by our use of them he might make us understand more clearly the promise of the gospel, and seal that promise. And this is God’s gospel promise: to grant us forgiveness of sins and eternal life by grace because of Christ’s one sacrifice accomplished on the cross.
(Gen. 17:11; Rom. 4:11; Deut. 30:6; Lev. 6:25; Heb. 9:8–9, 11-24; Ezek. 20:12; 1 Sam. 17:36-37; Isa. 6:6–7)

Are both the word and the sacraments then intended to focus our faith on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as the only ground of our salvation?  (Q. 67)
Yes! In the gospel the Holy Spirit teaches us and by the holy sacraments confirms that our entire salvation rests on Christ’s one sacrifice for us on the cross. (Rom. 6:3; Gal. 3:27)

How does baptism remind and assure you that Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross benefits you personally?  (Q. 69)In this way: Christ instituted this outward washing and with it promised that, as surely as water washes away the dirt from the body, so certainly his blood and his Spirit wash away my soul’s impurity, that is, all my sins. (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3)

:: 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 I want to begin a little differently.  I want to begin with an experiment.  I want to give you a simple instruction, and have you follow it until I say stop.  Are you ready?  Here is the instruction: Listen!… [30 sec. pause]

What was that like?  Did you hear anything?  Did you hear the sounds around you - your neighbor breathing, a watch ticking, the wind blowing?  Did you hear the sounds of the building - creaking, rumbling?  Did you hear distant traffic sounds?  Maybe you heard your own thoughts:

"What's he doing?"
        "Why are we doing this?"
                "Wonder what the person next to me hears?"
                    "This is silly!"

I wonder if anyone heard God's voice.  In at least one place, the Bible describes it as a "still, small voice."  In that short amount of time, I wonder if anyone could have heard God's voice.

There are a lot of distractions - feelings like curiosity, impatience, boredom.  There are visual distractions that occupy our attention.  Today's text is about listening to God's voice in our lives.  And so, it also addresses the question: What does God want of me?

Today's sermon is also going to be a little different.  Instead of a more typical outline or structure I want to highlight ten parts of the scripture reading - just ten thoughts on what it means to listen to God.  We can count them off together.

1. "Word from the Lord was rare in those days" (v.1)

Probably the first thought that comes to mind in thinking about God speaking to us is that we've never heard God's voice out loud.  We don't see talking, burning bushes, and we don't see the heavens open and hear God's voice thunder out divine messages.  The first point of connection between us and the story of the boy Samuel is that scripture says, "In those days the word of the Lord was rare."  God was no longer in the habit of making personal appearances or parting the heavens with his voice.  If you had told the boy Samuel to listen for God's voice, he would probably have had much the same response as we would: "Sure, I'll listen; but you don't expect me to actually hear anything, do you?"

Scripture realistically described the way things were in Samuel's day, and I want to be just as realistic with you.  We talk about listening to God and people say things like, "God told me to do thus and so."  But I've never met anyone who ACTUALLY heard an audible voice.  That's not what I'm talking about.  God could certainly still communicate that way, but that's not what we are listening for.  So what should we expect to hear if we listen to God?  How are we supposed to find out what God wants us to do?  Let's continue…

2. Samuel ran to Eli and said, "Here I am; you called me." (v.5)

The boy Samuel was lying down one night and God called his name, "Samuel, Samuel."  So God did speak after all!  If only God would call our name, we'd come running, right?  Well Samuel went running… to Eli - "You called me, master?"  Eli responded, "No, no - go back to bed, Samuel."

What if God has spoken, whether audibly or in Spirit?  What would we do?  I know for myself it would be awfully easy to attribute that voice to something or someone else.  Did Heather say something?  Oh, that's just my dad’s voice in my head…. I hear it often before I make decisions.  Or that's my conscience again, speaking up out of turn.

3. He went to Eli again (and again) (vv.6,8)

The same thing happened again - twice!  God called Samuel's name, "Samuel, Samuel!"  And twice more Samuel jumped up and ran to Eli.  By the third time, he must have been thinking, "I'm just hearing things… or Eli's playing a joke on me!"  But in Samuel's favor, he did respond each time.

Our experience with God's voice is through God's Word in scripture and God's Holy Spirit.  God speaks to us with both, and each confirms the other.  But what happens when we don't recognize God speaking?  By the third or fourth or tenth time, we've learned how to "tune God out" or numb ourselves to what God is leading us to do.

In seminary, once, I went to a class in which we studied the parable of the Good Samaritan.  The professor even told us about a psychology experiment conducted on the Princeton Seminary campus a few years earlier.  In that experiment, a Princeton student dressed like a homeless person and sat outside the seminary cafeteria asking for food.  One after another future minister walked right by.  Well, within a day or so, I was driving and saw a car broken down with the middle-aged driver changing the tire.  With the lesson of the Good Samaritan within me, I stopped and asked if he needed assistance.  He was fine, but thanked me for stopping.  The next time, I didn't stop - was that "voice" I heard from God?  Did God really want me to stop and help every single time?  Eventually, I was able to keep driving without so much as a passing thought. It’s easy to tune out.

4. Samuel did not yet know the Lord (v.7)

The passage says that Samuel did not yet know the Lord.  I guess that is a reasonable excuse, though Eli soon set him straight.  It raises the question for us, though: When someone talks about seeking God's will or listening for God, do they know for whom they are listening?  Is God's voice the same thing as the conscience?  Is it a psychological construct to help us deal with conflicting emotions or psychological damage?  Is it whatever the church says it is?  All of these have been substituted for God's "voice," but scripture testifies that God has spoken and continues to speak in several ways.  God spoke through the Incarnation.  When God put on human flesh and walked the world in the person of Jesus Christ, he spoke a clear message of good news, salvation, and redemption.  Scripture testifies to that Word - in the Law of God, in the voice of the prophets, in the history of God's people, and in the teaching and history of Jesus Christ and his Church.  Finally, God sent the promised Holy Spirit to live in our hearts.  God's Spirit speaks to our spirits that same Word, lived out in Christ and written in Scripture.

So, when we hear God's voice, let us not confuse it with another.  And when we are listening for God's voice, let us make sure we are listening to the right voice.

5. "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening" (v.10)

Wisely, Eli realized what was going on - that the Lord was speaking to Samuel.  In Eli's words we receive instructions for how to listen.  Eli told Samuel to respond, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."  We are to listen for God's voice with humility and with open ears.

Already, our youth are signing up and preparing for a summer mission trip.  One of the biggest lessons we often bring back from mission experiences is the need to reduce the distractions in our lives.  We all realized that we have so much noise in our lives that we rarely had the silence or attention necessary to focus on God.

And so often, when we do buckle down to church-stuff, we are singing, preaching, praying, announcing, or fellowshipping.  All good things… but very noisy.  God may well be speaking, but who would hear?

Let us try on Eli's words for ourselves; and not just the words, but try them on as an attitude of the heart: "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."

6. "Behold, I am about to do a thing…" (v.11)

Once Samuel knows who he is listening for and once he quiets himself to hear God speak, God has a message for him.  "See, I am about to do something that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle."  In Samuel's case, God wanted him to speak God's Word to Eli concerning his family.

God has a message for each one of us.  In some form or another, God's Word to his people is consistent - love and serve me with all that you are and all that you have, and extend that love to those around you.  It may take the form Jesus used, "Follow me!"  It may sound like the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."  It may be very specific: "Forgive your wife for how she hurt you and try to show her the love of God."  "Help the older man next door… he lives alone and is lonely." “Speak up for justice and what is right in your community.”

Listen!  God has something for each of us to hear.

7. Samuel was afraid to tell Eli the vision (v.15)

God was judging Eli for being a poor father to his sons.  His two priest-sons were evil, and God rendered judgment against Eli and his descendants.  Samuel was only a boy, and God told him to speak that message to Eli.  Clearly, Samuel was hesitant and fearful. Sometimes what God wants us to hear is not easy or safe.  Sometimes our love for God demands that we confront evil or show tough love toward a child or say no in the face of great pressure.

8. "He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes" (v.18)

Eli was a man of God, even if he had fallen short in his parenting.  He knew that God's judgment was ultimately good because God was the Lord.  When Eli empowered Samuel to speak a very tough sentence against him, he proved himself a servant of God.  Love for God means following and serving God in everything.

I remember being disciplined as a child.  It was no fun from a child's perspective!  There was one age-range where switching was the form of punishment, and I got to go pick my own switch. Anyone else?  But my mother was able to communicate, even during that discipline, that she loved me and ultimately was concerned with my safety and happiness.  And somehow, I believed her and understood. 

Listening to God's Word requires the humility of a servant and the obedience of love.  Sometimes we would rather tune it out, but God's Word is always the way of life for his people.  He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes.

9. The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up (v.19)

Samuel continued to listen to God as he grew up.  He became the last judge of Israel, ushering in the age of kings, first with Saul and then with David.  Our text says that the Lord was with Samuel as he grew up.  God is near to those who listen.  And for those who listen, there is the comfort of knowing that God is near.

10. God let none of Samuel's words fail (v.19)

God's task for Samuel was to speak God's Word to the people.  God gave Samuel power for that task.  So also, God gives us power for whatever he calls us to do.  It is the same Holy Spirit that speaks God's Word to our spirit that "fires" our hearts for the task.  The Hebrews had one word that meant hear and obey.  Our word 'listen' comes closest in meaning.  When we listen with a servant's heart, we hear and obey God's Word to us, and God gives us the power to follow him.

This verse is a great encouragement to me for situations where I have tried to be faithful to God and have seen no immediate fruit.  Sometimes working with children or youth it takes years to accept the Gospel. Sometimes working with adults it takes years for the Gospel to thoroughly shape a life! If you are listening and obeying God, take heart that God will do what is good in his own eyes and in his own time.  God stood by Samuel throughout his life and he promises to stand with us as well.

What does God want of me?

You all know the Great Commandment: "And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and you shall love you neighbor as yourself."  Jesus said that this commandment captured the heart of God's desire for our lives.  It comes from the Hebrew Shema, a core teaching that they passed on from generation to generation.  The Shema begins with these words: "Hear (listen!) O Israel, the Lord your God is one!"

First, we must hear, then we must obey.  This is what it means to listen to God.  And God has something for each of us to do. 

Be sure what "voice" you are listening to. 

Be clear on what God's Word is. 

Be humble and quiet in turning to God.

Be strong and courageous - God's work is not always safe or easy.

Be encouraged, God stands with you and behind you.