01-10-21 MAKE GOD WELL PLEASED WITH YOU

                       
                   Genesis 3: 1-7; Zephaniah 3:14-17; Mark 1: 4-11

As musical countdowns, self-assessments, and poetry ended one year and started another, I became aware of how much of life is expressed through regret and how much is felt through shame. I was reminded how words matter. Regrets have been expressed in songs by the Beatles like John’s “I’m a Loser,” and Paul’s “Yesterday;” in Elton John’s classic, “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word; in Brenda Lee’s “I’m sorry” where she sang: “I’m sorry, so sorry, that I was such a fool; I didn’t know love could be so cruel. You tell me mistakes are a part of being young, but that don’t make right the wrong that’s been done.” Adele, Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift and countless others have sung songs of regret. They’ve been recorded through the ages. Regret motivates the soul to strum the strings of one’s heart. And at a time like this, early in a new year, it causes hearts to bare the anguish of one’s pain, either by dealing with it in confession or counseling, or by trying to bury it in the year before, with a gravestone freshly placed on top that says 2020. The trouble is, those issues won’t stay buried; they rise up in addictive behaviors: in too much drink, too much food, too much work, too much screen time, too many drugs or too many violent reactions instead of measured ones. Those are manifestations of unresolved issues. Writer Brene Brown has captured the struggle of the human spirit in her works like “I Thought it was Just Me, But it isn’t-Telling the Truth about Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power;” in her 12 session curriculum on “Shame-Resilience;” and in “The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think you’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You are.” I have felt shame since an early age. Perhaps that’s captured in the original stories of the human race in Genesis, chapter 3. When visiting my grandparents one summer, I hit my sister and my grandmother said to me, “Oh Jeffrey! Aren’t you ashamed for doing that?” I was ashamed that day, and I apologized, but my grandmother’s words have played in my head regularly, even though I was a boy when that happened. Do you too find yourself having words of shame or regret play in your head? Do your needs to avoid fears and failures guide many of your life choices? Not all of those voices are bad. Such persons are bestowed with moral compasses; they honor boundaries well, though they can barely tolerate boundary-breakers. Such persons can be very loyal, though they can be exceptionally unforgiving on betrayers. The world has plenty of those persons, while there are others who seem to throw caution to the wind, drinking in the marrow of life with daily abandon. All members of our human race, we believe, had their creation in a Garden: on the breath of God who spoke us into existence. In reading the Bible from beginning to end, it seems to me that God learned over the ages and adapted different holy ways to deal with the human race. For example, at the time when the first man and first woman discovered they were naked, they clothed themselves with fig leaves. That was the beginning of shame. And God scolded. Rule makers have tried to reign in human sinfulness since that time in the books of the Torah as God’s people turned to false gods. The consequence, God decided, was the exile of the Jews from their land. Ever since the serpent tempted the first humans into doing the one thing God said not to do, I imagine, as Don McLean said in his song “American Pie,” that “Satan’s laughing with delight.” We’ve lived through Puritanical struggles over decency. Is there too much shame and too many people feeling repressed? Or by contrast, is there too little shame, as we witness hedonists and anarchists and autocrats in our country embracing sins? Is shame rooted in the continued whispering of the serpent in our ears like the serpent did in Genesis 3? If so, why has the church, in the name of our Savior amplified people’s feelings of shame over the years?
Starting with the Genesis story in chapter 3, choice was freely giving to humans—that is, moral freewill—something not bestowed on other creatures in God’s creation. It was both a blessing and a curse. There was just one tree from which God asked for the humans not to eat—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. There was a lot of finger-pointing in that story- did they eat of that fruit because of the woman, or the serpent, or the man? The blame game of the human race began and continues even now, as grown people still refuse to take responsibility for their actions. Over the years in the Old Testament, God made covenants with the chosen people; covenants with Abraham, and Moses, and others. But covenants were made, and they were broken. That produced guilt and shame. Then covenants were revised, and words of sorrow and forgiveness were offered. God watched, and God dealt with the fickle chosen people. At one point, the Northern Kingdom of Israel had so betrayed God that, in their moral weakness, an aggressive country called Assyria was allowed to invade and take over. Later, even the Southern Kingdom of Judah became compromised, not listening to words of doom from prophets like Zephaniah. Long before Zephaniah described God’s joy, he described God’s displeasure, declaring God would “Utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth.” [1:1] “Come together and hold assembly, O shameless nation,” Zephaniah roared, “before you are driven away like the drifting chaff.” [2:1] There were few feelings of shame and guilt. But then Zephaniah described the Day of the Lord, and a day of change, declaring: “I will change the speech of the peoples to pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord.” [3:9] And finally, finally, the people were invited to sing and shout to God! It was a new day! Jerusalem was described as “God’s daughter.” An absolution was declared, as what people get from a priest in a confessional. These glorious words were declared: The Lord “will rejoice over you with gladness; he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival!” [ 3:17] What a stark contrast: do things that we know that are wrong and face psychological, theological, and physical consequences. Or, apologize for those past choices and do what is right in the eyes of the Lord; then there is forgiveness and joy! As I, and probably you, have loved to hear words of approval from parents or grandparents, we long to hear words of approval from our Creator! Judah had felt the corrections from wrong choices, and then the blessings from right choices! What a difference between the two!
Finally, in the New Testament, we find God carrying on some possible learned behavior: instead of instituting covenants that could easily be broken, ones that were hard to hold up, the Lord gave us one who would be called “Son of God,” and gave him to the world. God made a glad announcement, surrounded by those who had gathered at the Jordan River to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. It was a rite of purification; it was a sign of new beginnings. What a perfect event to remember today! So with all of those people coming to John, Jesus too asked John to baptize him. Many theologians have concluded that he did that as an example rather than a need to have sins forgiven. But it’s also true that it was finally time to start his ministry, the one his Heavenly Father had planned for him. As Jesus was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens open, and the Spirit descended on him like a dove. At the same time, a voice came from heaven, presumed to be from his Heavenly Father: “You are my Son. I love you. With you, I am well pleased.” What a jubilant day for God! What an announcement! Perhaps you have not heard such words from a parent or grandparent. Today, imagine God saying those words to you, as you repent of actions done or words said in the past. As you are starting this year, turn the page in your book of life! This could be a year of new beginnings; of new devotion to God and others; of a willingness to humbly admit sins, turning away from hurtful actions or words. This is our time! I invite you to join me in tuning out the old shame voices, and tuning in to words from our God, from our Savior, and from our Bibles. They are the lamp unto our feet, and the light unto our path.
Jeffrey A. Sumner January 10, 2021

01-03-21 BE CHILDREN OF LIGHT, NOT DARKNESS


John 1: 1-14

On Christmas Eve I heard the magnificent solo “O Holy Night:” “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.” And as I opened the paper on Christmas Day, a lone heading wished the world a Merry Christmas, then the news stories appeared: Covid fatigued nurses, an uplifting series of stories called “Food Brings Hope” politics, weather, and then a special editorial about seeing the Christmas Star- the convergence of Jupiter and Saturn. It was too cloudy on the Winter Solstice for us to see it, but the day after, we got a wonderful picture with a camera phone. A beam of light in the darkness. A thrill of hope. Still Christmas celebrations were very different this year. Does the annual celebration of the birth of Christ still have the power to change the world? The birthday is behind us, but the celebration continues. Centuries ago, the light shone in the darkness as magi came from the east, following a star. People have borne witness to that light for ages. If we fail to do that, the power of the light will dim in the world. In the hymn “Here I am, Lord,” that we will sing today, the Lord tries to decide, “Whom shall I send?” The Lord mulled over that question when prophets were sent, when his Son was sent, and when other witnesses through the ages were sent to places in the dark. “Who will bear my light to them? Whom shall I send?’ The congregation sings what is hoped to be a personal answer: “Here I am Lord.” We, like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John among others, are called to bear witness to his light. Jesus is the light.

I’ve had pairs of Mormons and pairs of Jehovah’s Witnesses on my doorstep before, wanting to witness to their faith. I have found it fruitless to debate them; I did it once for 2 hours and neither of us would budge on our beliefs. Still, I appreciated the passion with which they witnessed to their faith.

In the last half of the first century, passionate people decided to write down the story of Jesus’ birth and the events surrounding it. One such person wrote the Gospel According to Matthew. He did quite a service to Christianity. He told the story of the birth, teachings, crucifixion, death, and resurrection of this man he called “Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham. (Verse 1.) Matthew told the story of the maggoi (Greek) that came from the east to Jerusalem to inquire about the one to be born King of the Jews. They practiced the dual art of astronomy and astrology and saw in the stars that a king was to be born in Juduh. They came quite a distance to follow a light. Mark told his readers why he believed that Jesus was the Son of God. Luke told an account of Jesus events that the others did not choose to include. Finally, John taught his readers who Jesus was: he spoke in ways that were stratospherically higher than the others, having Jesus say things that the Pharisee Nicodemus even had trouble believing like, “You must be born again.” One commentator put it this way: “John takes us behind the scenes of Jesus’ earthly ministry, letting us see the eternal origins and divine nature of the Man who was more than man. He was eternally present with God, and active in creating the world, the source of the moral and spiritual nature of man.” [THE NEW OXFORD ANNOTATED BIBLE, 1973, p. 1286.] Jesus was more than a prophet, or a child born in a manger. Jesus was God in the flesh, says John. What a bold, radical, and earthshaking claim. Yet John staked his reputation on that stand. John the Baptist lost his life paving the way for the one “whose sandal he was not worthy to untie.”

Thankfully God found another faithful man, John, who told us in the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God; and the Word WAS GOD. He went on, saying there was a man sent to bear witness to the light, John called “The Baptizer.” John witnessed to Christ as the light. But you can too, and so can I. God is looking for new choices of persons to tell the story of Christ and carry his light in the New Year. “Hmmmmm.” God muses, looking carefully into each of our hearts. “Whom shall I sent?” Perhaps, this year, it is you, or someone you know.

Let us pray: Dear Lord Jesus: you invite us to your table, but you also call us, don’t you? You call us to be the church; to share your light; to do what you would do Drive us to be bold in our witness, whether by our actions, our words, or a pairing of them both, in this new year. In your name we pray. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner January 3, 2021

12-27-20 THE HOLY FAMILY TRAVELS AGAIN


Matthew 2: 13-23

This year the United States had a Census taken. By many standards it was not totally accurate—no census really is—because in our day, some people live in the woods, some wouldn’t answer their door to a stranger, and some just refused to cooperate because they don’t trust our government. Up until this census, it was estimated that 330 million people lived in this country [Census, July 23, 2020]
Out of that number, in September of this year there were reports of 200,000 deaths due to Covid-19 in some form. That number has grown now to over 323,000. The Tampa Bay Times, in their December 14th issue, posted the following statistics:
The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 caused the deaths of 8,000 people: a staggering number. Next, there were 2,977 deaths attributed to the 9/11 attacks. And then we come to Thursday, December 10th—according to the report. 2,937 people died due to contracting Covid-19. By contrast, there were 2,403 persons who died from the Pearl Harbor attack. Losing any lives are tragic. But losing this many lives is catastrophic. When we passed 300,000 deaths last week, the Washington National Cathedral tolled their bell 300 times once for every thousand lives lost. It is one significant event as many national leaders seemed to ignore or not address this growing list of deaths. But frontline workers know all about them, as refrigerator trucks back up to hospital loading docks to address the growing number of deaths. We pray for those with Covid-19, exhausted frontline workers, and those effected with Covid every Wednesday night in our prayer group. Still, the numbers rise. But who wants to talk about such things in this week after Christmas? You’re right; but if the church does not prophetically point out the catastrophe that has engulfed us, who will? Doctors and nurses have pleaded with the public: wear a mask, keep social distance, and wash hands. Our government leaders have endorsed vaccines, but some have been quite silent about the outrage of these deaths. So let’s turn to the Bible for our comfort, our guidance, and our information. Why not go to one of the Gospels, where we get the good news about Jesus Christ? Yes, let’s step away from the misery and even the punitive ways of some in our day. Let’s go to two of the Gospels- the only ones that talk about the birth of Jesus.
First, we turn to Luke. Luke lets us know in chapter one that angels were busy! An angel had spoken to Zechariah about the birth of John, later known as the Baptist, and an angel had spoken to Mary about the birth of Jesus. Angels were speaking, and angels were watching! They still are. We found a girl agreeing to the unprecedented news described by the Angel Gabriel, and Mary stayed by Joseph’s side. Next, we learned in Matthew’s Gospel that an angel also came to Joseph in a dream, encouraging him to take Mary as his wife because she was carrying a child to be called Son of God. Astoundingly, when Joseph awoke from his dream, the Bible says Joseph decided he would stay with Mary. Going back to Luke’s gospel, we read that the Emperor Caesar Augustus called for a census, just as we had a census. But there was a hitch: The Romans were not going to houses in every district to count taxpayers; natives of districts needed to return to their hometown to be counted, and to bring any members of his family. Mary was betrothed to Joseph, so Mary needed to come on his travel, even though she was clearly, “great with child.” They made their difficult journey to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem. It is assumed that Mary made the trip on an animal and Joseph walked along with her, though we don’t know that for sure. I only tell you because traveling in Mary’s condition was both inconvenient and uncomfortable. Once in Bethlehem, they might have liked to stay and rest.

But, as I described two weeks ago, Herod was a paranoid and maniacal king. He was always afraid that one of his wives, or one of his sons, would try to overthrow him. So he had them killed. Really. That’s the kind of man he was. When Herod heard from the wisemen that they had traveled far and brought gifts for the newborn king of the Jews, Herod’s paranoia bristled. So with sinister intentions in Matthew 2:2, he told the officials in his court: “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” But he had no intention of really doing that. Our text today picks up that story. Herod, believing that he might have been betrayed by the wisemen, took matters into his own hands. In his headquarters, he was, as the Bible puts it, “In a furious rage.” Psychologists have told me that people in a furious rage become clinically insane. Clinically insane. They do things that are very destructive and almost always regretful. We have seen that in our own day and in history. And it is recorded in our Bibles. According to Matthew chapter 2, here is what this furious King did: “He killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or younger.” It was a dreadful decree. Historians and artists have depicted it as “the slaughter of the Innocents.” And indeed it was. How many children were killed by Herod? It is hard to say exactly. Bethlehem was a little town, but his orders were to be carried out through the region. There could have been around 20 children killed by some estimates. 20 children! One child is too many to die, right? But through September of this year, 100 children died of the Coronavirus in the U.S. And we never hear about it. I had to research that number. Yet historians and artists have kept alive the atrocity of the Slaughter of the innocents for 2000 years. Hospital workers cherish lives. Are other humans cherishing lives too? 20 children. 100 children. 300,000 individuals. And a bell tolled to remember them. Have we become numb to the travesty of so many deaths?

God had a plan for salvation that included yet another special angel. Just as Herod was planning his killing spree, an angel again appeared to Joseph in a dream—I am so glad Joseph listened to his dreams—and this angel gave a warning that would save the human race from their sins: “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until the death of Herod.” God saved the Son and his family, the Son destined to save the world, even though I imagine God weeping over the deaths of all people, then and now. Matthew described the sorrow in a lament from earlier Scripture, from Jeremiah, known as the “weeping prophet:” “Wailing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be consoled.” [2:18] In war; in pandemic; in rage, any deaths are too many. God, who gave human beings freewill so we would not be holy marionettes, may have regretted that decision since the Garden of Eden. But we are stewards of God’s world, not just of creation, but of the created ones too. God wants us to care for one another, not ignore the world or ignore the plights of people, or pets, or even plants. As the hymn written by Cecil Frances Alexander puts it: “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small; all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.” Let’s do angel’s work as we end this year and start the next: tell the good news that Jesus Christ is born! Give thanks that, when it was safe, Jesus and his family traveled back to their home country and settled in Nazareth. Keep a good heart for all creatures great and small, seeking to protect them, and when they die, remembering them. We remember our dead in locations like Arlington National Cemetery, and a New York City Memorial. Because of God’s plan, Jesus the child was saved so that he could save the souls of the ages. But mourning each death? Well, that’s on us. Let’s continue to celebrate the birth of Jesus—the Savior—and also remember all who have gone before us.

Jeffrey A. Sumner December 27, 2020

12-20-20 THE WORD TO SUBMIT


Luke 1:26-38

Beginning in the fourth century and moving through the ages, Emperor Constantine, with assistance from his mother Helena, began to mark and venerate traditional sites where holy things took place in the areas we know of Palestine and Israel. They started with a grotto where all Christian faiths believe that Jesus was born. Over it, they built what they called the Church of the Nativity. It is now a Basilica (which means the seat of a Bishop in the Roman Catholic Church) and it’s the oldest major church in the Holy Land. Christianity through the ages loved to use Latin and big words to identify special events and locations consider to be holy. So it is the Church of the Nativity. Over other such sites the church erected imposing buildings to keep the land from used for commercial reasons or claimed by other religions. So some buildings in the Holy Land are imposing, even though the events they commemorate are sometimes simple: There was a simple birth in a stable, and a huge church of the Nativity is over it. There was a gruesome death outside a city wall that the church has called the site of the Crucifixion, another big word. The church over that site is massive, and it is called the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Nearby is a site not claimed by the church, but by the British government called “The Garden Tomb.” When that government bought the land, it had a tomb on it, surrounded by a garden, and next to a stone quarry on a hillside displaying a face like a skull. Could it be Golgotha? It feels like it. But the claimed true spot is engulfed by the huge Church of the Holy Sepulcher. On the other side of Jerusalem is the Church of All Nations, also known as the Basilica of the Agony that stands over a large boulder said to be the place, next to the Garden of Gethsamane, where Jesus asked his disciples to stay awake while he went off to pray. The garden, filled with olive trees, is impressive. There is also the Church of the Transfiguration—another big church word—on the top of Mount Tabor, where tradition says Jesus invited Peter, James, and John to join him as he shone like the sun, where a voice from the clouds said: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” All of those places are significant. But off the track, in the dusty town of Nazareth, there is a modern and large “Basilica of the Annunciation.” Annunciation is another big church word that just means “The announcement.” That is the Roman Catholic site said to have been built over the home of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and where the angel Gabriel is said to have appeared to her. It put Nazareth on the map. But a few blocks away is a much smaller Orthodox Church, said to have been built over a well and a home from as early as 6 B.C.E. Here, the Orthodox Christians say, is the simply home in which the angel Gabriel brought his amazing announcement to Mary. Which is the true place? That’s up for debate. What is not up for debate is how an extraordinary meeting between an angel named Gabriel, and a young innocent girl named Mary, changed the world. Today we are going to look at the events around the announcement, that the church calls, “The Annunciation.”
Author of The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris wrote this:
Annunciation means “the announcement.” It would not be a scary word at all, except that as one of the Christian mysteries, it is part of a language of story, poetry, image, and symbol that the Christian tradition has employed for centuries to convey the central tenets of the faith. The Annunciation, Incarnation, Transfiguration, Resurrection. A Dominican friend defines the mysteries simply as “Events in the life of Christ celebrated as stories in the gospels and meant to be lived by believers.” But modern believers tend to trust in therapy more than in mystery [creating calls to worship that say something like] “Use this hour, Lord, to get our perspectives straight again” rather than express awe …fear, and trembling, as we come into the presence of God, crying “Holy, Holy, Holy.” [Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, Farmington, PA, Plough Publishing House 2001, p. 44-45.]
Today, we visit mystery. We visit the simple home of a girl who had been chosen by the Creator of the World, selected; set apart. How do we know she was set apart? Because God’s messenger, upon seeing her, gave her a new name. Do you remember it? First, he said a word like “Greetings,” or “Hail;” then he bestowed on her this title: “O Favored One.” It takes my breath away to hear that again. A girl, going about her daily chores, got “a visit.” The church might call that “The Visitation.” And in that visit, there is something of a naming ceremony: “Favored one.” Later at the Jordan River and on top of a mountain, Jesus himself heard such an announcement, shared in front of trusted disciples: A voice from the clouds declared: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” How long must a son wait to hear words like that from his father? I spoke to a man who was over eighty years old last year, whose father had died ages ago. He teared up as I offered my own words of affirmation to him. Then he said: “All my life I waited to hear words like that from my father. They never came.” What a blessing we can offer others if we can lift them up with special words! Mary got a new name and, an extraordinary visit! Those words sound like poetry in our Bibles, but they are powerfully descriptive: “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man who name was Joseph, of the House of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.” And so, Heaven’s holy plan unfolded. A named angel—Gabriel—is sent not just to earth; not just to Galilee of all the backwater regions, but to the most backwater village of them all—Nazareth. And there, the angel had to find a certain girl, who was already engaged to a man named Joseph. In such a small town, she would not have been hard to find, especially since God had his eye on her as his chosen handmaiden. Joel B. Green, a Dean from Asbury Theological Seminary enlightens us: “Betrothal (NRSV engaged) was a legal promise that served as a precursor to marriage. In Roman law, minimum age of marriage for girls was 10, and Jewish practices were similar. Marriage generally took place before a girl reached 12 and a half. As a virgin, Mary would have been a young girl of marriageable age (i.e. about 12 or 13) ….” [New Interpreter’s Bible Study Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003. P.1853.] It took the eyes of God to find a girl with the heart that Mary had, just as God passed over all the other sons of Jesse in First Samuel 16. Instead, God chose David, the youngest, because God knew his heart. God knows the heart of those who are chosen. Here, Gabriel continued with the message he was giving. He could see, according to verse 29, that Mary was anxious about what was happening. He tried to soothe her, as angels would also do for shepherds in Bethlehem. “Fear not” Gabriel said or in plain English, “Do not be afraid.” Then he continued: “You have found favor with God.” “What an announcement!” Mary must have been taken aback! “Is there more for me to hear than that?” perhaps she thought. Indeed, there was. She was told she would conceive (even though she’d had no physical relations with anyone) and bear a Son (even the gender was already announced before conception!) and she was instructed to call his name “Jesus.” (Normally the name would have been chosen by the parents after the birth of their child. Sons were often named for their fathers. This was most unusual!) Then, to add to the extraordinary event, she was told about the qualities that her baby would have. Gabriel said: “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” Mary, of course, wonders how this could take place. The angel tells her the extraordinary way that the child she will carry will be connected with her by the Holy Spirit, and he will therefore be called “Son of God.” That’s really all Mary needed to hear from the angel. No more questions. So she said these words:
“Let it be with me according to your word.”

Kimberly Bracken Long when she was on the faculty of Columbia Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, made this observation:
In Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting The Annunciation, (1898) there is no mistaking that this messenger who Luke identifies as Gabriel is a holy being. The angel is represented as a bright column of light appearing before Mary as she sits on her pallet. This is no being that she—or we—have seen before, but a radiance beyond human experience or understanding. The holy being bursts into the earthy realm, into a particular time and place (vs.26) sent by God to a particular person in a particular community. Already we see that we cannot anticipate the ways that God will break into human history—into our history! Even this announcement of the long-awaited birth, of the Messiah, makes clear that we do not create our own salvation, nor do we have the capacity to imagine the ways of God. [Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008, p. 93]

     The message of Mary this week is not revolutionary as we named it last week. Last week we were encouraged to stand up for those who are downtrodden, and the work for justice. This week, this encounter makes us feel the divine mystery—the Divinum Mysterium to use the Latin church language. Who could have guessed who God had chosen? How could the divine will of the Lord be anticipated, or figured out?  The Bible points again today to  the surprising will and surprising choices God makes. We love that God chose Moses who felt inadequate; that God chose David who seemed too young; and that God chose Mary, who seemed too innocent to become what some would call her, “The Queen of the Universe.”  God did not go to the households of priests in Jerusalem to find the right handmaiden. He went to Nazareth, where no giant Basilica of the Annunciation stood. Over the years we have venerated Mary, and appropriately so. But God chooses whom God chooses, because God’s name is “I AM WHO I AM.” Imagine; who might God be calling this week to do an extraordinary task? You? A family member? A friend? 

Being a family of Florida Gators, I’ve heard the story of one of Florida’s finest quarterbacks: Tim Tebow. His father was a Christian missionary to the Philippines and he and his wife Pam had four children. When Pam found she was expected a fifth child, a son, the doctors in the remote village where they were ministering believed her placenta had dried up and that it could become a source of infection, risking her life.  They didn’t think the baby would survive, and they recommended terminating the pregnancy. But Bob Tebow, the father, prayed to God saying (and I'm paraphrasing) "If you want me to have another Christian witness in this family, Lord, then let this son, who we are naming Timothy, be born safely and grow strong." The result: the excellent athlete, and the excellent Christian witness we have today: Tim Tebow. Tim's Facebook page this week had this message: "I'm grateful for my highs because they've given me a platform.... But I'm genuinely grateful for the lows as I learned so much through them and they gave me a testimony." This year, as many of us are dragging through darkness, perhaps we will have a low experience from which we can draw strength and testimony too? Who might God be calling to do something extraordinary in the bleak midwinter we are facing?

Sometimes God does not send a messenger in a beam of light. Sometimes God speaks to us in a still, small voice as he did with Elijah. And what was God’s surprise location for the birth of the Son of God? In a fine hospital with the best of care like our elected officials in Washington D.C.? No. Jesus did not ever get a proper bed. No one expected the Messiah to be born in a place “rude and bare” as the Christmas song described it. And yet he was the greatest gift of all. Our unexpected God. What might the Lord be planning now to change the malaise of this world? Who now might feel the brush of angel’s wings? Our unexpected God still choses humans and angels to work heaven’s holy purpose out.
Let us pray:
Holy God: who will you choose to carry out your purpose in this year and the next? Help us to be aware that you choose ordinary people who have extraordinary hearts, ones who have already prepare him room. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner December 20, 2020

12-13-20 THE WORD TO MAGNIFY


Luke 1: 46-55
This year in our gospel readings we turn to the words that made Mary, the Mother of Jesus, a revolutionary. Next week, as we get closer to the blessed event, we will visit Mary, the innocent young woman visited by an angel. In an issue of Christianity Today, a man named Scot McKnight offers these insights on Mary:
There are two Marys. One wears a Carolina blue robe, exudes piety from a somber face, often holds her baby son in her arms, and barely makes eye contact with us. This is the familiar Blessed Virgin Mary, and she leads us to a Christmas celebration of quiet reflection.
Another Mary—the Blessed Valorous Mary—wears ordinary clothing and exudes hope from a confident face. This Mary utters poetry fit for a political rally, goes toe-to-toe with Herod the Great, musters her motherliness to reprimand her Messiah-son for dallying at the temple, followers her faith to ask him to address a flagging wine supply at a wedding, and finds the feistiness to take her children to Capernaum to rescue Jesus from death threats. This Mary followed Jesus all the way to the Cross—not just a mother, but as a disciple, even after his closest followers deserted him. She leads us to a Christmas marked by a yearning for justice and the courage to fight for it. Like other women of her time, she may have worn a robe and a veil, but I suspect her sleaves were rolled up and her veil askew more often than not. [Christianity Today, November 28, 2006]
So we have the next-week Mary—remembered in statuary, in stained glass, in hushed tones; and we have the this week Mary—whose words were revolutionary when they were proclaimed, and they are revolutionary now. Many people revere Mother Teresa, but she was not a quiet, reverent woman working in Calcutta, India. She, like today’s revolutionary Mary, had her sleeves rolled up and her veil a little askew. And though she was less than 5 feet tall, she spoke like a sergeant in God’s army. When my friend, the Rev Susan McCaffrey, went to Calcutta when Mother Teresa was there, “Mother Teresa asked gruffly: “What do you want?” O Mother,” Susan said, “I so admire you.” “I don’t need admirers” Mother Teresa replied, “I need workers! Roll up your sleeves!” She called for workers, not for admirers. She condemned the rich who did nothing to help. She personally helped the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick in Calcutta, a city wracked with disease, and stench, and death. This is where she brought her heart for Christ, and this is where Mary, the mother of Jesus, the one who offered words of revolution, would likely have worked with her, sleeves rolled up. What good are powerful words if they remain in stained glass? Today mother Mary is also calling for workers, not admirers.
Revolutions start from cauldrons of anger and social injustice. 1968 was such a year in America. Years from now, might we look back on 2020 and name it as revolutionary too? Mary spoke her revolutionary words around 5 BCE. The Romans were crushing the life and the money out of the Jews, and they had a paranoid and insecure tyrant—self named Herod the Great—who was carrying out the Romans’ orders. If the Jews wanted freedom, he would oppress them, while he lived in a Royal Palace in Jerusalem, a hillside home in the Judean wilderness that he named the Herodian, and a summer getaway at the top of a majestic mountain called Masada. Herod had it all—everything except trust in those around him, even his family members. He decreed that cruel actions should be carried out regularly, so Jews—his own people—both feared him and hated him. At one point in the gospel of Matthew, the paranoid man ordered what both the storied pictures and the Scripture text paint as horrific. Known as the Slaughter of the Innocents, Herod ordered the murder of all children in and around the little town of Bethlehem, hoping that no child could grow up to become King. That is the kind of event that Mary saw in her vision and that she announced in what we call the Magnificat. She took a magnifying glass to history and zeroed in on the events that took people’s lives, or took people’s dignity, or both. Although to this day the world has told and retold the sorrow of the slaughter of the innocents, in actuality many more deaths than that have been carried out under the command of Presidents and Kings and Dictators over the years against children, against women, against people of poverty, against people of color and more. There have been slaughters of innocents even in 2020. And Mary, taking a magnifying glass to a timeline of earth, has helped shine a light on all of their darknesses. Is that overstating the power of the revolutionary words of Mary? Part of the world enshrines her in Cathedrals, while another part is inspired by her fire. The Mary we hear in these timeless words of proclamation might have had the nerve, and the voice, and the passion of Greta Thunberg, a young Swedish environmental activist who gained notice for her youth (she is now just 17) and her straightforward manner of speaking in public and in assemblies. Some admire her; some scorn her; but she brings a revolutionary spirit that the Mary we are visiting today proclaimed. Just for context, most scholars would say when an angel visited Mary, she was even younger than Greta! What an amazing girl Mary was, filled with God’s Holy Spirit! You’ve heard people filled with the Spirit, haven’t you? They surprise listeners with their incisive comments, and they motivate bystanders to become activists, or at least to be involved. Mary was changed after the angel Gabriel visited her. We’ll hear about that visit next week. But today, as we have young Mary, now expecting a child in a most extraordinary way, she was sent away from her hometown, perhaps to protect her from criticism. She was sent to visit her cousin Elizabeth who was also expecting a child, though she believed she was beyond child-bearing years. They rejoiced in each other’s company, and, in fact, their babies in their wombs leapt at the sound of their voices!
Today Mary’s powerful words are first meant to comfort and bring hope to those having trouble finding enough food; or enough money; or enough PPE to protect themselves. Hers is a call to action to help them! Women and men who have heard Mary’s cry today are addressing care inadequacies. They are pointing to people of means who have sequestered themselves in halls of power and in their residences behind walls and fences. Mary calls for social walls to come down! The divide of wealth in the first century Judah is still evident in 21st century America. In Judah, Mary found her backbone and her voice, and her words became the platform on which social justice changes could be made then and now. We can hear again the roaring cries of prophets who warned that going down the path of denial would never make our world become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ. Mary is not just to be adored by the faithful; she is the one who is calling for revolution; for action; for better laws and better working conditions; for people with means and power to bring hope to those with neither. Read her words in Luke chapter 1 again. That is what our Lord Jesus would call us to do! Jesus had a mission with his Heavenly Father, but he also had a mission inspired by his mother! This is what prophets and many preachers through the ages have called us to do: to work for social justice. That is what people like Mother Teresa did with her life. This; this is mother Mary; the mama bear Mary, caring for the human race; taking on the work of the special child she was carrying. We can honor her best by not just adoring her, but by joining the movement she announced that fateful day. We can roll up our sleeves, speak up against injustice, and work to change what we can change. The 21st century and the first century. In terms of the rich and the poor, our ages are sadly similar.
Jeffrey A. Sumner December 13, 2020

12-06-20 THE WORD TO PREPARE

Isaiah 40: 1-5; Mark 1: 1-8

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Charles Dickens began his famous book A Tale of Two Cities with those words. They could have described Jerusalem in Isaiah’s day or Washington D.C. in our day. Since the election, some are relieved, and some are riled up. We still live in a time of unrest. Ages ago there were also activities of unrest. Best and worst of times.

Somewhere between 700 and 500 BCE, many scholars believe that the first 39 chapters of Isaiah were written. They include countless words of warning before the Babylonian exile for the people of Israel. People had turned from God and weakened God’s trust in them. Corruption and disruption were apparent. Chapter 40 of the book of Isaiah offered a new deal, or if you will, a new covenant. It was prophesied that the best of times was to come. Thus, we begin to hear the prophesies about Christ in the Advent season. Many of this month’s themes come from Isaiah.

Dr. E. John Hamlin was a Presbyterian missionary to Thailand who I met. He wrote a commentary on Isaiah 40-66 called Comfort My People. In it he wrote what it must have been like to be
Israelites in Babylon:
The tiny Israelite minority in Babylonia faced temptations to despair, idolatry, and narrow nationalism in a world which held no security for them. They had to reconstruct their faith for a changed world. That had to think anew about who they were, who God was, and what they should do. God sent prophets to help them.” (Hmm- despair; nationalism? These words could speak to us in our day too.) Hamlin continues to say: “Christians today also live in a time of crisis, and of deep changes which are taking place every day in society, political life, village life, and personal life. Many are suffering great hardship. All face temptations as the Israelite exiles did in Babylonia. A reconstruction of traditional faith is necessary now, as it was then. We need to ask who we are, who God is, and what we must do. Isaiah 40-66 can help us if we listen carefully to the message….” [Hamlin, Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1980, p.2)

The message of Isaiah 40 in verses one through five is so timeless and so relevant, that its message is still offered in word and song across America and the world. It was a message for Israel. But it is also a message for us today. It breaks into two imperatives and one promise.

First, comfort my people. That was the proclamation—the imperative—heard from our first lesson today! We are told not to judge; we are told not to harass; we are told not to question. We are told to “comfort.” In Isaiah’s day the message was to comfort the Jews who were held captive in Babylon, not to comfort the Babylonians, or the Assyrians, or anyone else. Today that message is for Christians and for the mission of the church. For example, are our words to homeless families comforting, or confronting? Are our words to an unwed pregnant girl, not unlike Mary, comforting or confronting? Are words to people with Covid-19 comforting, or confronting? “In your head do you ask, “Were they wearing a mask? Did they avoid crowds? Were they socially distanced?” Our God’s imperative is to comfort those who are distressed; perhaps no year has been as distressing as this one. I am amazed that hospital personnel treat patients regardless of their situations in life. They just see a person who needs healing. We can join them by saying to those who feel judged or burdened that we also want them to feel whole again. Comfort one another.

Second, “prepare the way of the Lord,” John the Baptist said in Mark’s gospel. John Hamlin said in Thailand, “preparation” basically means: “When the water is high, fill your jars!”
The flood waters of life seem to rise for many of us. The way must be made clear for the coming of the King: one who will save his people. But there’s an impediment. Sins become the potholes of our souls. The rough places must be made smooth with continual repentance from sins, and reconciliation with those with whom you have nursed a grudge. This is not the time for old angers to fester; God was, and is, doing a new thing! No highways will be made straight in your life by wishful thinking, and no uneven ground will be made level by blaming others for sins that have stained your soul. It takes work to iron out differences or ask forgiveness as necessary. That makes the way clear for God! Prepare the way! Let every heart prepare him room! How are you doing with that?

Finally, if and only if the two conditions of comfort and preparation are met, all flesh—meaning meaning all people—shall see the glory of the Lord. That’s what Isaiah proclaimed, and it was captured by Handel in his magnificent work called “Messiah.” In Roger Quillen’s book Meeting Christ in Handel’s ‘Messiah,’ he wrote: “There is a wonderful legend about something that happened while Handel was composing his Messiah. In August and September of 1741, he isolated himself in one room of his London home, and in just 24 days, stopping only occasionally to eat and sleep, he wrote the entire oratorio. Once his servant came with a meal and pushed open the door, and Handel looked up, with tears streaming down his face, and confessed, ‘I did think I did see all of Heaven open before me, and the great God himself!’ The words of Scripture and the music he had written to express them merged in a rare moment of truth and beauty, and Handel was given a glimpse of something we wish we all could see: the glory of the Lord.” [Quillen, Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984, p.61]
Isaiah declared what we already know: “The grass withers, and the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass.” I started this message with a Charles Dickens quote, and I want to end with another one, from A Christmas Carol.
“Marley was dead to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner….Marley was dead as a doornail.”
A man named Michael Hoy wrote this concluding reflection on those words: “ ‘Old Marley’ was dead. His ‘old’ -ness is not simply a sign of his age, but the way he lived. He did not care for sisters and brothers in need. He did not seek to challenge the very systems that oppressed them (and us.) And now he is ‘dead as a doornail.’-and those present were only there to certify his death. We might see a lot of our own ‘oldness’ in his story. Yet in Advent, we prepare for a ‘new’ and promising story that comes to us in the child Jesus-a story where what is ‘old’ gives way to what is ‘new’ in the gifts of his life, hope, joy, and compassion. The story of his life and death and resurrection becomes our story. Even when the door of death shuts us in, the risen Jesus comes.” [God Bless us, Every One: Encountering Christ is Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol” Creative Communications for the Parish, Fencorp: Fenton, Missouri, 2019, p. 4]
Before the grass fades; before we ourselves fade in this life: comfort one another, and prepare ye the way of the Lord, by repairing the potholes in your soul.
Let us pray: Stand with us O Spirit of the Living God, as we repair the holes in our souls, created by anger, or resentment, or sins. Help teach us how to forgive. We will do the work, with your help, so that one day, when like grass, we whither, we will not fly away forgotten, but will join Jesus having made this world more like the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner December 6, 2020

11-29-20 THE WORD TO WATCH


Mark 13: 24-37

Sometimes it is difficult to feel the sense of excitement for the coming of the Lord at Advent; after all, it is a season of watching and waiting; like waiting for a child to be born. It is a season of prophets proclaiming, of angels abiding, of shepherds wondering, of a virgin consenting to an arrangement that changed the world. We cannot push the calendar faster even though children wish we can! As a child, my family believed in Jesus and they believed in Santa! My sister and I would take turns wearing out the pages of the Sears Roebuck Christmas Wish Book that showed all the new toys they carried! Our anticipation of the possibilities sometimes caused me to look through the catalogue after bedtime with a flashlight. I could hardly wait! I have to say I loved Jesus too—the candlelight service when I was allowed to hold a real candle and sing “Silent Night” with others was also special! But the gifts from Santa and others were so exciting!

In his book The Spirituality of Waiting, Henri Nouwen has written that:
Waiting is not a very popular attitude. Waiting is not something that people think about with great sympathy. In fact, most people consider waiting a waste of time. Perhaps this is because the cultural in which we live is basically saying, “Get going! Do something! Show you are able to make a difference! Don’t just sit there and wait! For many people, waiting is an awful desert between where they are and where they want to go. And people do not like such a place…. The Psalms are full of this attitude: “My soul is waiting for the Lord. I count on his word. My soul is longing for the Lord more than a watchman at daybreak.”
[Watch for the Light, Plough Publishing House, Farmington, Pennsylvania, 2001, p. 27-29.]
Now I want to tie watching to waiting. Last week we spoke of the second coming of Christ and the waiting and watching involved with that long process. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul believed Jesus would return in their lifetime. But now Jesus is telling us to watch for signs. Some might still be looking for signs of Christ, but the whole world is beginning to look for signs that Christmas is coming instead. Listen to what Franciscan priest Richard Rohr says about the contrast between those two:
The Second Coming of Christ that history is waiting for is not the same as the baby Jesus or even the historical Jesus. The historical Jesus was one man, and Christ is not his last name. The Christ includes the whole sweep of creation and history joined with him—and you too. We call this the Cosmic Christ …. The celebration of Christmas is not a sentimental waiting for a baby to be born, but much more an asking for history to be born. (see Romans 8:20-23) [Preparing for Christmas, Cincinnati, Fransiscan Media 2008, p. 7-8]

Watching and waiting were two things Jesus stressed to his disciples. When Jesus was troubled and went to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane, he asked some of the disciples to wait and stay alert while he prayed. What was the point of that? To watch for officials who might look for him, or perhaps to get them in practice for watching and waiting? I have learned that although the work of a news reporter may seem interesting, most of the time they are simply waiting, and waiting to share their information at the time of a broadcast. We wait for doctor’s visits; we wait in traffic; and when we do those things, watching is a spiritual practice. Look at others waiting with you; imagine their lives and their concerns. Today in Mark’s gospel, Jesus tells those listening to him to “watch.” “Watch for what?” some might have thought. Of course, to watch when the master of the house will return. Jesus was always teaching with stories. Before this passage, he warned about the destruction of the Temple, the event that would destroy the one thing in Jerusalem that people thought would always be there. “Don’t be so sure,” Jesus seemed to be warning. Especially in this unprecedented time, it is good to watch others as we all try to navigate the shifting sand of this pandemic. Some who have been resilient through other crises are crumbling now with anxiety or sorrow. Some are very troubled by new feelings of being so alone. Our mission: keep watching and waiting, not just for him, but also for others who Jesus would have noticed. Notice for those who are struggling financially or emotionally, for example. What would Jesus do? He would see them; he would connect with them; he would let them know of his care. That’s part of our task as we begin one of the most unusual Advent seasons in our lifetime: watching and waiting takes on new meaning as we are clearly separated.
But let’s remember too: the messages of this season, though familiar to us, were originally unexpected ones. The words of prophets like Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and Malachi seem to describe a Messiah. The presence of angels has never seemed as pronounced as it does during Advent and Christmas. The focus on shepherds is almost uniquely in those seasons. And the astounding news of a young woman approached by an angel to be the handmaid of the Lord; well, it takes one’s breath away. These are not ordinary events; they are extraordinary. So we join others, even disciples, who were told to watch; to keep their eyes open; and to wait. God always keeps us guessing about Divine engagements with the world. As a child, my sister and I knew our waiting for gifts from Santa would be over on Christmas Day. No more need to wait! With the command to watch for the coming of the Lord, we have no such end date; we don’t know how the Lord will return, or where, or when. During this season, our call to watch is renewed. We build up to the celebration of Jesus’ birth, but the call to watch does not end there. We are always on call. And yet we love to look for signs: “Is it now?” people ask. “Does it have to do with looking at figs, or at leaves, or at calendars, or at middle-eastern nations? Remember the words of Jesus:
But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates…. But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. “

Will you join me in renewing my effort to both watch and wait? Our Lord asks for our faithfulness in doing both. Thomas Carlyle, the English poet, was once bothered by a rooster that would begin to crow every morning. He talked to his neighbor, who owned the rooster, to see what might be done about it. “Does the crowing awaken you?” inquired the neighbor? “No” Carlyle replied, “I lie there in bed waiting for the rooster to crow!” The anticipation we feel, like waiting for a rooster to crow, or a dog to bark, reminds us that something will happen, we just don’t know when. It is as Mark described in verse 35: It is the role of a doorkeeper, having to stay awake, waiting on his master’s return. That was necessary at a time before there were keys; the doorkeeper was also a person’s security system. The doorkeeper dare not fall asleep, as we heard Jesus say in our study of The Chosen on Thursday nights. But we know not when the master will return; not the day; not the hour. Truthfully no one is sure what that day will look like, or even what the master will look like. So we watch; and we wait. This is disciple’s work. This is not Samuel Beckett’s play that premiered in Paris called “Waiting for Godot,” the plot of which is two men talking to each other while they wait for a man named Godot, who never arrives; end of play. No. We know when we will celebrate the birth of Jesus; we do not know when we will celebrate the return of Christ, but he will return! Watching and waiting are spiritual disciplines. Now is the time we work on those, even our Lord asked disciples to do with him, in the garden.
Jeffrey A. Sumner November 29, 2020

11-15-20 NO WARNING FOR CHRIST’S COMING


Zephaniah 1:7; 2-16; 1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11

During the week of November 3rd, I began writing this message; it was a week of waiting and wondering. Our national election had taken place, but results were not available on November 3rd; or 4th, or, 5th, or 6th. Broadcasters were stumbling through their hours, trying to fill airtime, trying to make news out of no news. Dark circles were under their eyes. They joked with one another about how much sleep they had not gotten. And yet 24-hour news kept reporting—no real news; nothing that people wanted to really hear which was: who won the elections: certainly, the presidential race, but also other races? The hours dragged by; the days dragged by; and yet there was no news. As a microcosm, that is what Paul believed as he addressed the Thessalonian Christians. They needed to stay awake and to keep alert, because the results they were hoping for were believed to be immanent: the second coming of Christ. But with every passing day, it wasn’t happening. In our election week, some turned their television sets to other programs; some went fishing; some went to school; some went outside. There were any number of things they could do safely. But what if “it” happened: the announcement? The risk was not hearing who the projected winner was. Clearly an election result is not like the return of Christ; but we can learn lessons from this week. Human nature is such that if something is not actively happening in our classrooms, or on our computer screen, or on our television, our mind can wander. Some actually have a syndrome called “Attention-deficit disorder” and they simply cannot focus for long. So while we are sitting, we start a grocery list in our mind, or think about the weekend, or change the channel, or look for cobwebs on the ceiling. Our attention simply needs constant re-booting. That’s a term I learned as we entered the computer age years ago: if your computer freezes, reboot it. If your modem is working slowly, reboot it. If your Blu-ray player is not functioning properly, reboot it. Rebooting is the secret to electronic success in this computer age! And it should be done regularly for maximum performance. Do you know that our webmaster has put all of our church modems on timers, so they will go off and come back on in the middle of every night? In a matter of speaking, they turn back on “refreshed!” Likewise, the old Christian habits of revivals—times when a church’s own preacher, or a traveling guest preacher brings challenging and sometimes frightening reminders of what can happen to backsliders—are helpful resets for the Christian life. People get lazy about their faith, people lose their focus on God over time, and their discipleship can become lackluster. In part, our minds wander like our hearts can get distracted by false gods, sports, video games, or the magnetism of other people. So we decide to move honoring God to a dusty shelf of priorities; we shuffle Jesus to the bottom of our decks; and we shift watching for the Lord to “old news,” considering such a claim as irrelevant to modern life. And that, the revivalist preachers remind us, is when the election results will be announced! That, when you are busy doing other things, is when the Lord shall descend, just when your record with your God starts to get examined! It’s like those nights when you did not get your homework done and the next day the teacher gives a pop quiz! You’re sunk! Then when Christ returns at some pop quiz time, judgments will be pronounced on your life, and you will not be ready. “I would have been ready,” you protest on the Judgment Seat, “if I had only known!” But you have been told; you were told by prophets like Zephaniah as we heard today. Even back in Israel, complacency and compromise were creating devastating results. When a nation grows weak in its honoring of God (Listen up, America,) then God may take necessary corrections to get lessons learned and to try to move the human race back on track. One of the oral examination questions for my ordination exam came from a man who asked me “Is Zephaniah a pre-exilic, or a post-exilic prophet?” What a question right? But Zephaniah was largely seen as a pre-exilic prophet, and the other prophet with a similar name—Zechariah—was a post-exilic prophet! The exile was when Babylon invaded Judah, desecrated the Temple, destroyed the cities and villages and took able bodied men, women, and children back to Babylon to work on behalf of the pagan king Nebucadnezzar, It was the consequence for a country that had taken their eyes off the prize; they had stopped honoring and worshipping the one true God alone. “What could it hurt if we prayed to someone else?” they might have thought. Or, “I’ve prayed to God for a child and have gotten no where; I’ll try praying to a different god; or to an idol, for a child.” And so they did. In so doing, the firm foundation they had, based on the 10 Commandments and the only true God, began to get crumble. It began to decay, and finally it gave way. Families were forcibly taken away, some choosing to marry foreign women and men, something unheard of by an earlier generation. For 70 years, the way of the Lord was more than compromised; it was crushed, all because people failed to re-focus their minds on what mattered, and on who mattered. Their minds grew slower, and they became more distracted. Then prophets came along to tell them to “Reboot!” although most used the words, “Repent! Turn back from your foolish ways!” Today, Zephaniah tried in vain to get them back on the right track.

Years ago, there was a program called “Scared Straight,” designed to show teenagers and 20 year olds who were getting into some trouble what it would be like if they slipped into committing felonies. They took “fieldtrips” to prisons, and they heard from prisoners who, with realistic and frightening shouting, tried to scare them straight, to convince them a life in prison was no picnic. It met with limited success. Likewise, as many revivals have been held across our nation for more than two centuries, human nature hasn’t towed the line very well to this very day! Zephaniah’s warning didn’t save Judah from being sacked. And all the preachers over the centuries have not saved the human race from ourselves. We are a sinful mess as a nation. Fortunately, we have a God who knew human nature and human weakness. So God made a new plan to save us from ourselves. God’s divinity combined with Mary’s humanity and created Jesus, who would be called “Messiah,” who would show the human race “the way, the truth, and the life.” Perfect! But he was only on earth a short time, so it is still up to prophets and preachers to point to him in the Bible, in the Cross, and in the heavens where he is seated at the right hand of Power. According to Hebrew tradition for weddings, when the Father decides the groom is ready to take his bride (which is the Church) to the room he has prepared in Heaven with his Son, the Father will send his Son to get her, and bring her lovingly to the Father’s House where they can live forever! What a plan! But when will he return? Ah, that is the question of the ages. In Jewish weddings the son never knew when his father was going to say, “The room on my house is ready; you are ready, and your bride has been warned to be ready. Then, maybe while we have been mulling over election results; or while we have been glued to our computer or to the news of our distracted world, Christ will come again. Jesus said in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 24, said: “No one knows about that day our hour; no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” File that away! Now you know it as Paul new it when he wrote to the Thessalonians. To them he wrote:
You yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do.
Once a week, we get a revival of sort: we offer the Lord’s Day worship. Make it a priority. If you cannot see our services now, then take your printed sermon, and take your prayer list when it arrives through the mail, and turn your eyes upon Jesus. Remember that the Lord is God; that we are his, and that we are the sheep of his pasture. That resets our souls. Our souls need regular resetting. Like our computers and our modems, we need regular reboots. To reboot spiritually is to physically stop the direction the world is taking us and choose true north again; choose the ways that Jesus taught his disciples. The way to stay on that path is to treat your Bible as the bestseller that it is, and to join me in my devotionals or my Bible studies, or by trusting good guidance from well-resourced annotated Bibles. Just as Philip asked the man from Ethiopia in Acts chapter 8 “Do you understand what you are reading?” And the official from Ethiopia replied, “How can I unless someone guides me?” Let church teachers guide you back onto the path of God every week. It is our revival; our renewal; our repentance from the wrong paths; our reboot! Do not let your mind get fuzzy, like a cob-webbed closet! Do not give your soul to counterfeit personalities or causes! Your soul is for your Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer! Listen to what is recorded in the Book of Revelation:
And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. (20:12)

Don’t fall asleep! Don’t let your mind wander, or if it does, call it back onto things that matter! If you remember to repent, and to reboot your life, the day of the Lord will be filled with joy for you! Prepare yourself, so that Christ’s second coming will deliver you into the arms of a loving Parent, running to greet the beloved child, and to welcome the bride of Christ into a new home. What a day of joy that will be!
Jeffrey A. Sumner November 15, 2020

11-08-20 ABOUT THOSE WHO HAVE FALLEN ASLEEP


1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18

In a time when the year has been like no other; in a time when the presidential election has been like no other, some may want to join the writers of spirituals and go to “Glory Land,” or join songwriter Albert E. Brumley in proclaiming “I’ll Fly Away.” There have always been times in history when groups of people endured terrible hardships on this earth, and they long for Heaven. But Christians have been taught by Christ that “The Kingdom of God is within you,” Luke 17: 20-21) but it will come in its fullness at Christ’s second coming. Did you know that Leo Tolstoy, the famous author of the book, Crime and Punishment, wrote Christian books too? One was, Where Love is, There is God Also; and another was appropriately titled The Kingdom of God is Within You. It was first published in Germany because it was banned in Russia. It is about our call to offer universal, unconditional love to others: something our world—and certainly our nation—need very badly. It was also Jesus’ own message: for Christians to lead the way “for the facing of this hour” by showing love toward others. It is that kind of love that can transform our world, making hearts of stone begin to beat again. But our desire may be to pull the covers over our heads, or to cloister ourselves from the onslaught of news and election analysis. Christ calls us to pray, to love one another; and to look for the next opportunity we may have to change the world, one person at a time. Yes, we have a rising pandemic; yes we have unrest; and yes some souls may be troubled. Today, with the reading of scripture and the gathering together for worship, we hope to lead you to sing, as we just sang, “It is Well with My Soul.” Next week we will hear the solo: “How Great Thou Art” that includes this verse: “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation, and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart. Then I shall bow, in humble adoration, and there proclaim, ‘my God how great Thou art.’” Today, however, we go to the passage that has reassured some and puzzled others for ages: 1 Thessalonians chapter 4. The last verse of “It is Well With My Soul” proclaims this hope: “And Lord, hast the day when my faith shall be sight; the clouds be rolled back as a scroll; the trumpet shall sound and the Lord shall descend; even so, it is well with my soul.” Today, as we have been reminded that we cannot will the Lord to hast the day of our flight to heaven, let’s explore this passage that has been at the heart of human hopes for ages.

Paul says: we do not want you to be uninformed … about those who have died so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” [vs. 13] First, your Bible might say, “those who have fallen asleep;” that actually is what this text said, but it is just a euphemism for death, just as some choose to say “passed away” instead of “died.” The translators of the NRSV chose to use the word describing what actually happened—died—to make readers sure of the reference. In society, people often allude to death without saying death, which can lead children to confusion. “If he’s asleep, then he’ll wake up!” they might conclude. Even the Apostles’ Creed, from the 4th Century, declared that Jesus “descended into Hell;” or “descended unto the dead.” One of the main reasons to say that was to declare that Jesus had really died, not just fallen into unconsciousness. The other inference was that he went to the place of suffering because of the sins of humanity, not because of his own sins. And then after three days, “he arose from the dead,” he did not just “awake from sleep.” So “died” is a word of both reality and clarity. Paul refers to that in verse 14 saying: “Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” It is much clearer to say, since we believe Jesus died and arose, so God will bring those who also died instead of those who have “fallen asleep.” It’s more clear and more reassuring. That is blessed assurance indeed. Then Paul says in verse 15: “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord: we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.” Here again we are assured that Paul is talking about being alive as we normally do: as living, breathing persons. It is not a division between people who are spiritually alive or spiritually dead. He is talking to a group of Christians in Thessalonica, in his earliest letter: he certainly assumes they are spiritually alive as they are physically alive! But the crystal-clear New Testament scholar, William Barclay, gives readers valuable insights into the reason for these reassurances. Listen:
The idea of the Second Coming had brought another problem to the people of Thessalonica. They were expecting it very soon; they fully expected to be themselves alive when it came, but they were worried about those Christians who had died. They could not be sure that those who had already died would share the glory of that day which was soon to come. Paul’s answer is that there will be one glory for those who have died and for those who survive.
[Daily Study Bible Series; The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975, pp 202-203]

So what does that mean for today? If you have a Christian loved one who has died, when Christ returns, he will take them and those who are still alive up into the clouds to join him! What a wonderful message! Let’s read more as Paul describes what he expects to happen: “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.” You can see how many hymn writers refer to this powerful description in their lyrics! The Lord will descend—come down from heaven again to earth—at a certain signal, a signal that was familiar to readers of the Old Testament and to those who attended Temple worship: Perhaps our Lord’s cry of command will be, “It is time!” But according to the Bible, only the Father knows the time when that will happen, and he will pass that time on to his Son. So the signal is given, to alert the world, and the archangel-who is a Chief Messenger-passes the word, and the trumpet-that announces the presence of God at Temple events-is blown; and then what Paul described will occur. People have asked me over the years what Paul meant by “The dead will rise first.” You know what it means now, don’t you? It means Christians who were dead and buried will rise up first, then Paul says, “And we who are alive (remember, that means physically alive) who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air.” So yes, those who have died rise first, but I don’t believe the physical bodies will come out of graves, since Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:50: “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.” So it is spiritual bodies that rise, and likely those who are alive will offer up their spiritual body to join Jesus in the clouds and be transported to heaven. The only bodily resurrection on record is that of our Lord; when the women went to anoint his body, it was gone. He later appeared back on earth in miraculous transformation.

So let me try to be clear in this case: This was a situation in time around 55 AD when Paul wrote these words. They thought Jesus would return in their lifetime. He didn’t. So does that mean our loved ones who have died, and are still in their graves or in their “returned to dust” forms, are still waiting for heaven? This calls for interpretation of what the Bible alludes to but doesn’t say:
I think that now, when we die, our physical bodies return to the ground—or to the dust from which they were created—and our spiritual bodies are drawn up to heaven. Otherwise the greatest Christians through the ages—including your loved ones and my loved ones—have not yet gone to heaven! Is that comforting news? I cannot buy that. I believe that our Lord will welcome us—in the air, or at the gates or somewhere in between—and gently walk us over to the other side. He will not accompany our broken, wrinkled, or painfully physical bodies, but our renewed spiritual selves. In spite of bumper stickers that assert: “In case of rapture, this car will be driverless,” I do not believe that God’s grand plan includes car wrecks and plane crashes. No physical corpses—or living bodies—will rise up. But you will rise, in your essence, as your spiritual self.

Finally, listen to more of what Paul says: he was really on a roll when he was writing to the Thessalonians and later the Corinthians. Here is part of his master work from 1 Corinthians 15:51 and the following:
Lo! I tell you a mystery! We shall not all sleep [remember, that means die,] but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable [imperishable means not mortal with its weaknesses and illnesses]. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable; and this mortal nature must put on immortality. .,[When that happens] “death is swallowed up in victory.”

That is what our victory in Christ is all about. Keep the faith; hold fast to hope, and in God’s time you will see your Savior Jesus! And oh, what a meeting that will be!

Let us pray: O Creator God: we are glad for the power you have given Jesus to save and deliver us. We are also glad for faithful people like Paul who explained this great mystery to the best of his ability. Now comfort us with these words, we pray, in the name of Jesus our Savior. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner November 1, 2020