07-07-19 Youth Mission Sunday

3 of our Graduated Seniors gave our sermon this year …

Jordan Alves

Mac

As some of you may already know. Our youth group this past week was in Memphis Tennessee with the Memphis Youth Mission working around the city. To say that this was the furthest from a stereotypical mission would be an understatement. When you think of a mission trip what comes to your mind? (Pause) “hard labor, giving food to the homeless, or working at a soup kitchen.” Its for a good reason. It’s what’s commonly done during mission trips. And for the most part had been done during the previous ones to Asheville and Raleigh I went on. By no means are these forms of mission work bad, but highlighting the nature of them it makes it more apparent how different this years mission trip was. For starters Memphis is a minority majority city which meant a race that is a minority in America, that being African Americans, was the majority in Memphis. This unfortunately, combined with the fact that Memphis has been crippled by loss of industry and the 1800s yellow fever plague left the city with a large amount of poverty expressing itself in small pockets all over the city. And what truly separated this mission trip from prior ones was of course, the actual mission work done. One of our youth leaders Vance Stiles said many of the locations would be striving for was to solve the causes not just treat the symptoms. I wasnt fully able to grasp at that goal until our second day where we visited the HUB hospitality center. There we met Mac, an African American in his late twenties to his early thirties who was one of the main workers there. After a few jokes were cracked he gave us a tour of the entire facility and talked about what work they do at the HUB. It slowly started to become more apparent. The only real handout the Hub had was free coffee. They were mainly focused of providing services such as counseling, lawyer set ups, phone use, iPad and internet use, and other services that helped the homeless get back on their feet. The HUB would also connect people with other shelters, soup kitchens, and more depending on their needs as well as hosting a Work Local lottery program that allowed those picked to work different labor jobs for $50 a day as long as they had some form of ID. Alongside that, the HUB provided temporary HUB IDs that would provide some identification in case they were caught on the streets by police as well as receive and hold onto any important documents mailed to the HUB for those that needed it. The final part of the tour was where the idea of “fixing the causes not treating the symptoms” became most clear. Mac went on a bit of a tangent about what the HUB aims to accomplish and what it doesnt. Mac explained “when you are just handing out peanut butter and jellies on the street, all you really accomplish is feeling better about yourself”. He knew that although a lot of organizations in Memphis and in the world were doing good work, they were not making much progress towards solving the problem. The HUB was the opposite. People like Mac focus on doing what to others seems like the impossible, solving homelessness instead of just putting a bandaid on it. My time at the HUB and what I learned there stuck with me for the rest of the week as I thought about the ways we often simply “put a bandaid” on problems we have or see instead of really trying to fix them. Ending homelessness may seem impossible to many but to people like Mac, it’s their daily job. Ending homelessness may appear as an insurmountable goal, but that is all the more reason to strive for it. And that’s exactly why it was written in Matthew 19:26 “with God all things are possible”.
Im sure mac is fully aware of what is capable through God and now My hope is that you can all think of an issue you might have or an issue you see in your community and work towards solving it at its roots. Thank you.

Caylee Coleman

Good morning. As said earlier by Jordan, this year’s mission trip was to Memphis, Tennessee. Instead of painting you a detailed day by day depiction of what we did, I have decided to tell you what the word Memphis means to me. As we all know Memphis starts with an “m”. That first M stands for Myfa, which commonly gets mistaken for Mifa. Myfa stands for Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association. Their mission is to support the independence of vulnerable seniors and families in crisis through high-impact programs. Those programs can range anywhere from finding someone a bed in a pinch until a permanent one is found to one freshly cooked meal sent to your doorstep. Each meal is completed with a marinated chicken breast, steamed broccoli, mashed potatoes, one piece of whole wheat bread, and a single 2% milk. The group and I took route 28 on that Monday morning to drop off those exact meals. That is where we learned not only how grateful people were for their hot meals, but also little tidbits here and there. People genuinely were eager to share these things with us because it was important to talk, even if the talk was in fact nonsense. The first of the two examples would be a lady who walked with a crutch instead of a cane, she happily invited us into her home which smelled sweet. She proclaimed happily to those who brought in her meal in, that her home was from the 1920’s and that as much as she could keep original, she did. Or that another man had stopped us on his porch to tell us that someone was trying to buy out the world’s largest bass pro shop, which if you hadn’t know is actually in Memphis, and in buying out the shop they’d in turn make it a casino for gambling and other shenanigans as he put it.
The E stands for everyone loves coffee. Mrs. Denise would wake up and brew her iced coffee before she could even function, The Manna House would have already brewed barrels of the brown liquid and Hospitality Hub, who mind you has their OWN brand of coffee, would have already had it posted up by the front door. After this week I am thoroughly convinced that Memphis’s backbone IS coffee. However, the most impressive thing about the stuff is when these people get their hands on it, the mood in the entire community changes. This week id like to share a Prayer I heard about coffee with all of you.
C: “ Lord may you bless the coffee “
A: “And may you make it hot”
C: “Lord may you bless the sugar”
A: “And make it sweet”
C: “And lord may you bless the creamer”
A: “And may you let the sweetness take away the bitterness of the world”
The second M stands for the Manna House. The prayer we just said could be heard the Tuesday morning as we stood hand and hand on the side of the brightly colored house; Other chants hung in the air as the poor and the homeless pilled in to congregate in the back heard such as “don’t be a dope, get your socks and soap” I’d like to take a moment to explain that chant, Tuesdays are socks and soap days. Which means if asked you could receive a pair of fresh, clean socks and a bar of soap. Manna’s mission is so simple that is actually so beautiful. Manna’s mission is Hospitality. Hospitality includes basic services such as clothing, hygiene items, showers and serving coffee or other beverages. I am sorry to keep raving on about Manna House, but the place is painted head to toe and it feels like a home.
P stands for the power of prayer. Wednesday morning our group of 15, that is including out group leaders Edward and Vance, pilled into the small Episcopel church on a busy road. Those on their way to work, those off the streets, and the regulars also pilled in. There is a beautiful stained glass of sister Constantine in the back of the church. If you don’t know who she is, which I seriously doubt you would know, here is a brief history lesson. Memphis had 2 different outbreaks of the yellow fever, during the second outbreak sister Constantine returned to Memphis while on a pilgrimage to help those in need in spite of her own health. When she returned, she put forth all of her efforts and prayed to help as many people as she could, that is until she had in fact died from yellow fever 7 months before the outbreak had ended. Now ill bring you back to that day. The sermon was focused on two things, the first being to not forget the stranger, and the other is to remember the better angle. To which was a silent nod to sister Constantine and all her efforts during the Yellow fever. I think that she is a figure that we should all try to be like and remember.
H is for none other than HOT. I could lie to you all and say that the weather was perfect, cool crisp air every day but that would be a lie, and we all know that Presbyterians DON’T lie. The air was hot and muggy, your skin would feel slick and yet sticky, but the funny part is that the locals would complain, forgetting that on the 4th of July in Florida, there was a heat index of 110 degrees. It was hot, but we were glad to be there.
I is for independence. Depending on whether or not you were awake enough for the first sermon you may or may not have heard him speak on the independence of homeless people. Did you know that finding a home isn’t the problem, but keeping them in is? Some prefer street life over breaking the poverty cycle. The reason why is than once someone is placed in a home rules are set up to try and reestablish those people in society. The problem with that is, well one rule. At night guests are not permitted to stay. That being said people become lonely and prefer street life because they’ll always have company. Loneliness is the ultimate corruption of independence.
Lastly id like to leave you with S, Someone PLEASE tip the band. You may have noticed our manager on stage. If you are still confused, I am talking about the 5-gallon bucket labeled tips. Wednesday afternoon our group strolled down the famous Belle street. Music flooded the air as a band played “Shake your body down to the ground” by the Jacksons, however they didn’t sing the intended lyrics. “$5s, $10s, $20s tip the band. Someone PLEASE tip the band” This bucket will be used in our offertory today, so you will see it around later on.
And that spell Memphis. However, I have some other points id like to leave you all with just because they didn’t fit into the word Memphis. The first is that because we were such a small group, we often held hands when joining in prayer, I have never squeezed hands when saying amen but I’m almost certain that because of Vance, our group leader, my whole group squeezes when saying amen. The second is if anything I said up here confused you or you have more question about what I’ve said, to please ask any of us we would be happy to tell you more about our trip and what we did, and the third and last thing is the passage I found one late night when I was goofing around flipping through the bible. I thought id share it with everyone this morning just because I thought it was so fitting for the trip, I also implore everyone to join hands much like we did this trip and pray with me after, feel free to squeeze. Isiah Chapter 32 lines 16-18 “The lords justice will dwell in the desert, his righteousness live in the fertile field. The fruit of that righteousness will be peace; its effects will be quietness and confidence forever. My people will live in peaceful dwelling places, in secure homes, and in undisturbed places of rest”
God may you relate that passage to everyone here today and those who need peace most in their lives in Memphis. May you watch over each one of us and love all your children with the upmost affection. In your holy name we pray, Amen.

Sam Bookhardt

This year, as I’m sure you’ve heard, our youth group went to Memphis Tennessee for our, and my last, mission trip. I have been on 6 out of the 7 mission trips since my 6th grade year and all of them in different states so I mean it when I say this one was particularly special. Our group participated in numerous different activities around the city as we sought to serve the community, learn about its history, and discover how god is present in both Memphis, and us. The theme that the organization we were with focused on this past week was bringing the worlds of abundance and scarcity together. As we learned, this is best achieved through the act of being generous. However, generosity never comes without sacrifice and I had the opportunity to learn more about this sacrifice through the many different locations I visited this week in Memphis. Now let me give you a little background on Memphis for anyone who has never had the chance to visit. Memphis used to be a trade and industry center due to its strategic location along the Mississippi River, and also hosted a large African American population following the civil war. The thing that stood out to me most about Memphis however was how diverse the city was in its lower and higher income areas. Often, I’ve found that major cities have obvious areas where you can delineate between the higher and lower income parts of the city as was the case with Raleigh which our group visited last year. This was not evident in Memphis as you could walk 2 blocks in downtown from a major tourist area and find an entire skyscraper that had been abandoned or someone on the streets panhandling for change. There was scarcity all over Memphis but fortunately enough, there were those willing to sacrifice what they had to share their abundance. The first place I visited in Memphis was the Manna House. The Manna House provided showers, clean clothes, hygiene products, and coffee in the mornings for those in need. During my time at the Manna House I helped in the back where I would get hygiene products and clothes as requested by those who stopped by. The House is run entirely by volunteers who donate their time and resources everyday to serve those in need. Later in the week we participated in a church service at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral and following the service, helped to serve breakfast to the homeless and low-income community of Memphis. This time, the church sacrificed its resources to provide a necessity for those who have less. The theme of those with abundance sharing their time and service with those living lives of scarcity was a recurring them at a majority of the sites I visited this week. This theme is not new to me from the many past mission trips I have been on. But what I did discover this week was one of the ways God ties into the theme of generosity. During our evening program with Memphis Youth Mission we read a passage from Matthew about the laborers in the vineyard. In this passage a landowner hires people to work in his vineyard at different times throughout the day and in the evening pays all of the the same 1 day wage, upsetting those who had been working since morning and felt they deserve more than those who started working in the late afternoon. The landowner responds to their complaints saying “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” At the beginning of the passage Jesus claims that the Kingdom of Heaven is just like this parable. When I first read this passage I had thought it somewhat unfair that those working longer had earned the same amount as those who had hardly worked long at all. Yet as I thought more about it I realized that this passage was not about the unfairness of the situation but the generosity of God. God, like the landowner, did not care when the people came to him, but rewarded them all equally. Whether you are someone who has served as a faithful Christian all your life or someone who found God late in life, he accepted you into his kingdom regardless. This was often the case in the sites I visited this week. At the Manna House, all those who showed up that morning would pray before getting coffee and showers. At St. Mary’s, those getting breakfast would attend the morning worship service before they got their food. And sure there were some who showed up only for the food or the opportunity to get a shower. But, most of the time, the people using the services at the Manna House, and at St. Mary’s, the ones who lived lives of scarcity, the ones who relied on those around them with more, to share their abundance. They were the ones who had found God, who have seen his generosity in him and in others. Despite the world constantly being against them, these people had found God and worshiped him as deeply as a lifelong devoted Christian. The way I saw God integrated into this community despite the poverty found all over Memphis is what made my last mission trip stand out to me from all the rest. So now I ask all of you, when have you seen or received generosity? In what ways can you sacrifice your abundance and be generous towards others? And how has God been generous in your life?

06-30-19 FOR FREEDOM


Galatians 5: 1; 13-23

The Apostle Paul was not the last one who commented on the idea of freedom.
Other famous people have said the following:
Author Ayn Rand in The Fountainhead wrote: “Freedom: to ask nothing. To expect nothing. To depend on nothing.
President Franklin Roosevelt said, “In the truest, sense, freedom cannot be bestowed, it must be achieved.”
Author William Faulkner wrote: “We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it.”
Philosopher Kahlil Gibran wrote “Life without liberty is like a body without spirit.”
And finally, these poignant words from a man who was in prison for years—Nelson Mandela. He wrote: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

This week we think about freedom as we celebrate a time in America known as Independence Day. The colonists were looking to be free from the tyranny of kings and queens in a way similar to Jews wanting freedom from the Caesars in the first century B.C.E. and C.E. What we learn, however, is that just as a disciplined imagination—not a free-wheeling all over the place imagination— helped us bear fruit in the study of the book of Revelation during May, so Christian freedom should not make us feel free to annihilate others or run rough-shod over their rights. Even as far back as the book of Deuteronomy, guiding words have been there for all to consider: The Lord God said: “I call heaven and earth as witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death; blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, so that you and your descendants may live ….[30:19] So the gift of life includes remembering how precious it is. And the gift of freedom perhaps should include guidelines from God and from people like the Apostle Paul. American leaders would do well not to stray from principles of responsibility regarding freedom.

Back in 1941, when our nation and Japan were at war in part because Japan didn’t honor the lives and property of Americans as they dropped bombs on the naval fleet in Pearl Harbor, Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr’s Gifford Lectures given at Edinburgh University were published as a large volume, The Nature and Destiny of Man. In it, this Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Seminary in New York wrote profound words that influenced the rest of the 20th century and beyond. Listen to what he said about freedom:
The essence of man is his freedom. Sin is committed in that freedom. Sin can therefore not be attributed to a defect in his essence. It can only be understood as a self-contradiction, made possible by the fact of his freedom, but not following necessarily from it. [Charles Scribner’s and Sons, New York: 1964, p.17

Now let’s examine what the Apostle Paul said about it in his Letter to the Galatians. “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit to the yoke of slavery.” [5:1] Those words have doubtless been a rallying cry for colonists and immigrants who escaped the tyranny of slavery and oppression in their own countries. Many came to our shores—most of them your forebears and my forebears—seeking the freedom to establish their own laws and claim a piece of a piece of the world where they could live freely. People were, and still are, hungry for that kind of freedom! But as we learned, freedom comes with responsibility. Dr. Charles Cousar, in his commentary of Galatians, wrote:
The language of slavery and freedom undoubtedly suggests itself to the New Testament writers as an apt description of God’s Word in Christ because of the history of the Jewish people. Israel became a nation by God’s liberation of her from the bondage of Pharaoh and his leading her to a new land…. “Christ has set us free” means that God’s decisive salvation has been accomplished and a complete change of allegiances has been effected.(sic) No longer bound to task-masters like sin, the law, and death, Christians are set in the service of God…” [Interpretation: Galatians; Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982, p.106, 107.]

Cousar goes on to say some activities we usually think of as freedom. He says at a ballot box we are supposed to be free to choose a candidate who we wish to elect. People of faith also choose their religion and what commitments they’ll make to honor its deity. And, he says, it is also good that we are free to choose our partners in marriage and do not have them chosen by our parents (although some parents wish they had chosen the partner for their child!) Freedom can also bring emotional and physical peace, a gift that is appreciated by those who find it. Freedom is a precious gift to be used not only for one’s own peace, but also to assist others in finding peace and justice.

Let’s look exactly at what Paul says: “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.” [5:13]
Paul then sets up a dichotomy that others have affirmed in their human existence. Even before American psychologist Abraham Maslow diagramed a human being’s Hierarchy of Need—with physiological needs as most important for survival, then safety, then a sense of belonging and love, then the feeling of self-esteem, and finally the most evolved persons reaching a level of self-actualization, showing full potential and creativity. Paul in the Bible described the human lower levels as “carnal.” As he says, “What the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit.” [5:16] Those who stay in the flesh—in the lower levels of actualization—do things that are included in this alarming list, refreshingly re-translated by Eugene Peterson in The Message: This is what the flesh desires:
Loveless cheap sex, a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cut-throat competition, all consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.

Does that list describe the way we act even today? In some way I think it does!
Part of our problems today are caused by our carnal desires; those of the flesh. When we do that, the results do not honor God.
But there is another list, says Paul. A way to live in freedom and to honor God! It is traditionally called “The Fruit of the Spirit.” People who truly honor God, who truly follow Jesus, can be identified not with their membership card, but with these qualities: “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness,
and self control.” [Galatians 5:22]

What a different list that is! If you want to exercise your freedom, you can do so exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit! That’s the way to let freedom ring! That’s the way to let Christ’s light shine! The way of darkness is the way of the flesh; turn away from it and fight those constant temptations!

Commentators have called Paul’s letter to the Galatians the Magna Carta of Christian Liberty. What a perfect week to think about liberty and freedom.
May God shed his grace on our land, and on each one of us.

Jeffrey A. Sumner `June 28, 2019

06-23-19 POWERFUL BIBLE STORIES

POWERFUL BIBLE STORIES
Daniel 6: 1-16; Luke 10: 29-37

What a week, with our daily presentations for Vacation Bible School “To Mars and Beyond!” Our drama team presented five great Bible stories, and then Mary Ann and I had 20 more hours a day with two of our four grandsons. We had an exhausting week.
Let me ask you a question: have any of you of any age attended a Bible School other than ours? I did when I was young; and I did not enjoy it! So when God called me to ministry I declared that we would make Vacation Bible School “The most fun a kid can have in church!” For 32 years here I have been involved and in character to do that. Today I want to take you back to your childhood if you attended church, and remind you of 5 of the great stories of the Bible.

In our Bible Story Station this past week, we turned the handbell room into our staging area for our dramas! Here are the highlights of what we taught:
“Daniel Trusts God in the Lion’s Den” Daniel 6
Our Power Launcher was; “Go beyond with faith!” Let’s say it together!
The story included a King of Babylon named Darius; and a Jewish young man named Daniel, who was taken to Babylon during the Exile of all the Jews from Israel; there he was asked to learn the ways of the Babylonians.
The King learned that Daniel had many gifts, including being able to interpret dreams. Some Babylonians were jealous when the King made Daniel second in command. But Daniel had faith as he faced a lion’s den. He prayed to God to save him. Tell examples of faith; like being blindfolded.
Think of times you have needed to depend of faith to move forward.
Faith is important!

Day 2: Queen Esther Takes a Stand
Our power launcher was “Go beyond with Boldness!” Let’s say it together.
That day our story came from Chapters 4-9 in the book of Esther.
The story was about a Jewish woman, who even when she was named Queen, had no power of her own. They were in the land of Persia and the King was Xerxes. His wife was Queen Vashti, who at one point refused to do anything her husband asked her to do (Yep, completely unreasonable, right men? Lol)‘Anyway because of that, he cast her aside and began a lengthy series of try-outs for the women of his kingdom to come and audition to be his queen! At long last he chose a woman named Esther. Esther was an orphan, raised by her cousin, a royal guard named Mordecai. King Xerxes appointed an evil man named Haman to be his second in command, one who hated Jews and was cruel to them. He particularly loathed Mordecai. When Mordecai refused to bow down to Haman, Haman went and squealed to, I mean, told the King. Haman was going to make it very hard on the Jews, even more than usual. Esther had a decision: should she speak up to the King to support her people, possibly alienating herself from her husband? She decided to do so; she acted in boldness to save her people. The King, for her sake, decided to save her people and took power away from Haman in the process. Queen Esther’s boldness saved her people. We talked with the boys and girls about times they acted with boldness, like standing with a friend against a bully, and telling an adult about the situation.
Think about times you might have, or might need to, act with boldness.

Day 3: A Good Samaritan Helps a Fellow Traveler
Our Power Launcher was “Go beyond with kindness!” Say it with me.
We followed the book of Luke, chapter 10, verses 25-37
A man who was an expert in Hebrew religious law challenged Jesus about
Eternal life. “Teacher” he asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” What does the law say?” asked Jesus. The man replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, with all your mind, and all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said, “Do that and you will live.” But the man of the law further asked him “Who is my neighbor?”
Then Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan.
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and got attacked by robbers.
Priest-explain that Jewish law said he couldn’t lead temple worship if he touched blood or a possibly diseased man.
Levite- like an elder in a church; same reason for not helping as the priest.
Samaritans were loathed and hated by Jews, but Jesus said the Samaritan acted like a neighbor. He was caring, and went above and beyond.
Who are the Samaritans in your life? Other races, other religions, other political parties? Do you ignore or shun or hate them?
Jesus calls them “neighbor.”
Some of the children decided they would be kind to some people to whom they aren’t usually kind: one boy said he would be kind to his brother! I asked, “Aren’t you usually kind?” “No.” he replied. It was a start!
You now know who your neighbor is.
Will you be as kind as even the Samaritan was to the beaten man?

Day 4 Jesus Heals 10 Lepers
Luke 17: 11-19; our Power Launcher was “Go beyond with Thankfulness!” Say it!
We learned that there was a big difference between leopards-big cats with spots- and lepers- people with horrible skin diseases. We also learned it would be nicer to call them people with leprosy instead of “lepers.”
Their skin disease made people afraid to eat with them, come close to them, or touch them. They were quarantine in colonies outside of town. But when they saw Jesus, they wondered if he might heal them like he healed others. To be considered clean, a priest had to examine their skin and pronounce them clean. Jesus told them to show themselves to a priest, implying that their skin would be better almost immediately. Nine left, but one stayed. Why? To thank Jesus for healing him. “Where are the other 9?” Jesus asked. He really knew. In our age and his age, only 1 out of 10 people remember to express thanks in more than a word. Giving thanks takes intention and action. The children wrote thank you notes to people they wanted to thank for things. They were instructed to not just put the note in their backpack, but to hand it or mail it to the person. It is good training and a good practice. Jesus only gave a blessing to the one who expressed thankfulness. Go and do likewise to receive your blessings because of your thankfulness.

Finally, Day 5: Jesus Comforts Friends on the Way to Emmaus; Luke 24: 13-35
Our Power Launcher was “Go Beyond with Hope!” Say it with me.
The boys and girls learned what happened in Jerusalem to Jesus on a cross, and how his body was laid in a tomb (a cave-like place) and after 3 days women came to bring spices and fragrance to honor Jesus’ body in his death, and they found his body gone! He had risen from the dead! Where did he go?
One place we learned he went was to a road outside of Jerusalem that led to the village of Emmaus. He started talking to two disciples who didn’t recognize him.
I told them that happens in grief sometimes, people don’t recognize others through their tears. They finally recognized him in the breaking of the bread- a motion that he made many times when he was with them.
The lesson we learned is that nothing is impossible. They saw their Savior risen from the dead because with God, nothing is impossible.
I told the children that our daughter Jenny teaches her son Marshall, who was at Bible School with us, to never say he can’t do something. Instead he is taught to say, “I need some help.” What a wonderful retraining from our times of saying “I can’t” or “God can’t” do something! If only people in the midst of despair, or feeling hopeless, would find the hopeful of words of asking: “I need some help;” or “with God nothing is impossible” before they do something quite irreversible like taking one’s own life. We taught the boys and girls to have hope, because the disciples didn’t think Jesus could rise from the dead; but he did! Whether they can’t tie a shoe, or work a puzzle, or pass a test, they can say “I need some help,” instead of saying, “I can’t do it.” They learned how to have hope again. And today, you learned how too! A visit with boys and girls can be trying one instance and rewarding the next. We hope the lessons we taught were a blessing for you today.
Jeffrey A. Sumner June 23, 2019

06-16-19 LEARNING FROM LIFE LESSONS

LEARNING FROM LIFE LESSONS
Romans 5: 1-8

A story I heard years ago came across my computer recently. It describes the situation in our Bibles today:
One Sunday morning in a small southern church, the new pastor called on one his longtime deacons to lead the opening prayer. The deacon stepped up front and started his prayer: “Lord, I hate buttermilk.” The pastor opened one eye and wondered where this prayer was going. The deacon continued: “Lord, I hate lard.” Now the pastor was perplexed, wondering if he should step in. But the prayer continued: “And Lord I sure don’t like flour. But mix it together with the lard and the buttermilk, and bake ‘em in the oven, they become biscuits. And Lord, I love biscuits. Help us to realize, Lord, when we can’t see how the ingredients of our lives can possibly come together, that you have a recipe for our lives. You call it a plan, or a purpose, but whatever it is, we need to wait and see what you are making of us. And who knows? Whatever it is , it might be better than biscuits. Amen.”

In other words: we may not like certain passages in the Bible. We may want to skip them. Thomas Jefferson actually took a sharp object, like a pen knife, and cut out bible passages that he found offensive! It is still preserved as the Jeffersonian Bible in the Smithsonian Museum of American History! But like the recipe for biscuits, the message of the Bible needs all of its ingredients! Paul said it this way in his letter to the Romans: “We know that in everything God works for good, with those who love God, and who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8: 28)

Today we are looking at Paul’s masterpiece: the letter he wrote to the Romans. Listen to the way the founder of Presbyterianism, John Calvin, describes this Epistle:
“With regard to the excellency of this Epistle, I know not whether it would be well for me to dwell long on the subject; for I fear, lest through my recommendations falling far short of what they ought to be, I should do nothing but obscure its merits….What can never be sufficiently appreciated—that when anyone gains a knowledge of this epistle—he has an entrance opened to him of the most hidden treasures of Scripture.” [Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol XIX, Baker Books, p.xxix.] John Calvin so respected Paul and his writing in Romans!

Romans is like an adult treatise in Christian theology. To thoroughly cover what we believe as Presbyterian Christians would take more time than we have today. We would need to cover the Ten Commandments and our belief in the Sovereignty of God. We would need to cover Genesis 1 and John 1and remember that Jesus became God in the flesh. We would recall that the Spirit is the Spirit of the Living God, and that the one commonly called the Father is our Creator. We would need to cover John 3:16 to remind ourselves that Jesus died to give us life eternally. And we would look at the church’s creeds, like The Apostles’ Creed, and the Nicene Creed, and masterpiece documents like the Westminster Confession of Faith. When we repeat the Apostles’ Creed today, hear these fresh words of explanation:
We believe in God, called Father, or Creator;
We believe in Jesus, the only Son, our Lord, and in all that the Bible says happened to him, including that he descended into Hell: which meant he felt truly separated and abandoned by his Heavenly Father, not for his own sins, but for ours, and that he really died; it was no act or charade.
We also believe in the Holy Spirit (who the Nicene Creed declares) proceeds from the Father and the Son, and along with them, is worshipped and glorified! (Trinity Sunday reminds us of that.) And yes, we believe in the holy catholic Church, words written long before the Protestant Reformation that simply means the holy universal Church contains many congregations, like Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians: “We are the Body of Christ, and individually members of it.” [1 Corinthians 12:27] “How can we tell the true church?” John Calvin rhetorically asked. He answered: “Where the Word of God is rightly preached, and the sacraments are rightly administered, where virtue is encouraged and where vice is vanquished, there, it is not to be doubted, a Church of Jesus Christ exists.” Finally in the Apostles’ Creed we affirm our belief in the forgiveness of sins, [which is what Jesus did for us by his death], the resurrection of the body (meaning Jesus physically rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven) and that we believe in the life everlasting, meaning we have every hope that we will be in Heaven one day.

With all of that said, if a believer wanted to learn the basic tenets of the Christian faith, Romans contains them. Paul’s letter is a treatise of Christian theology. Roman 8, Romans 12, and today’s text of Romans 5 are all Scriptural gold. Although Romans is bedrock Christianity, some statements might need to be read twice. Today, for example, we read: “Since we are justified by faith ….” What does that mean? It means we have been made right with God through our faith in God, not by our good deeds. One woman in the church helped me learn this forever. She said, “Being justified by God is being presented faultless before God just as if I had not sinned.” That is a wonderful way to remember justification. Christians believe we are presented faultless before God by our faith, not by our good works. Some people think we earn our place in heaven by our good works. Instead, we have faith that we already have a place in God’s heart, because we have faith in God, and our joyful response is with good works!

The second thing Christians believe is that we can obtain peace with God once we are put right with God. Notice our order of worship. We start by acknowledging God as we are called to worship, and as we sing a hymn of praise to God. Then we acknowledge our sinfulness and offer a group confession as a reminder of that. God already knows we sin and is ready to forgive us when we acknowledge it! The Declaration of Forgiveness points the way to restoring the broken relationship with our Creator. Then each Sunday, we pass a word of greeting and peace because we have been forgiven! Continuing in Romans, verse 2 of chapter 5 is tricky wording, saying we boast of (or have the assurance of) the hope that we will one day encounter God’s glory and live in the hereafter. We don’t boast in ourselves, we boast in what Christ has done for us, so others can consider being a Christian too! Verse 3 then says: “We also boast of our troubles, because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.

No one tests the mettle of my faith like those who have suffering, who are good people, and who are wondering about the presence and purpose of God. They ask “Why is this happening? What is the purpose? Where is God in all this?” In the Old Testament, Job was among those who asked those questions of God. In the New Testament, Jesus himself asked some of them. They had their faith tested, as some of you have today. Paul thinks holding onto hope is important in the midst of our struggles. As Jacob once wrestled with an angel to get a blessing from God, you too may need to wrestle with God, crying out for answers to questions and light for your darkness. Ask! And ask again! The great people of faith certainly wrestled with God, from Mother Teresa to the great Reformer Martin Luther. Even the person down the pew from you may be struggling. Wrestle with God, yes, but don’t move away from God, or write God out of your life! It seems odd to boast in one’s sufferings. Some have put it this way: the devil only meddles with the lives of committed Christians. You may feel tested. Hold fast to God. I have struggled with God too, including a life changing Dark Night of the Soul. Some of you have had even worse troubles and have come through your darkness. Some have been on our prayer list for weeks. And as hard as it is for Christians to handle their troubles, it is infinitely harder for the lost sheep of the world to handle them. Keep yourself anchored to the solid Rock of Christ. For our sakes, he was whipped under orders from Pontius Pilate; for our sakes, he agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane about facing the cross but accepted the will of his Father. For our sakes, Jesus felt forsaken. Last week I invited people to claim the words of the famous hymn “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.” Declare it today too as we sing it. In the midst of life, be anchored to Christ.

Jeffrey A. Sumner June 16, 2019

06-09-19 ACTS: A PROPHESY FULFILLED

Joel 2: 23-28; Acts 1: 1-5; 2: 1-8

There is something that we must admit to ourselves as we read our Bibles: there were many groups—and there still are many groups—that claimed that the Day of the Lord was near; even imminent. John, in Revelation, heard Jesus say, “Behold I am coming soon!” But more than 500 years earlier, the prophet Joel thought the Day of the Lord—that included the judgments of God—was near too! And as I said in May, we have plenty of contemporary authors and preachers who claim the Day of the Lord when Jesus returns is soon too! Even the Apostle Paul thought Jesus would return soon. What we might want to ask the Biblical writers, and Jesus himself, is “What does ‘soon’ mean to you?” Clearly lots of ink, and prayers, and hopes have been spent on this topic. Today we will find some followers of Jesus trying to connect an early 6th century B.C. prophet’s words with an event happening in Jerusalem around 30 A.D.! Let’s take some time to explore the stories of Bible readers trying to connect the dots in the Bible.

Professor Jacob M Myers, who once was a Bible Commentator and Senior Lecturer at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, wrote this about the Old Testament book of Joel:
The central teaching of Joel is that the Day of the Lord is at hand.(3:13-14) or that it is rapidly approaching. The locust plague with its accompaniments is a sure sign that the great and terrible Day is near. [It reminded people of how God acted decisively during the Exodus, making Pharaoh free the Hebrew people.] …For the earlier prophets—Amos and Zephaniah—the day of the Lord was an evil Day, sweeping away everything before it, like the Flood in the days of Noah. For Joel, it was a day of both judgment and salvation. The constant nearness of the Day, as viewed by Joel is also a feature of the New Testament ….The Day is always near, the harvest ripe, the kingdom of heaven at hand. [The Layman’s Bible Commentary, Volume 14, 1959, p. 73-74]
The guidance to “Be ready!” is probably the most pertinent guidance for Christians, “for He will come at an unexpected hour.” Nevertheless, people often have a knee-jerk reaction to incidents that seem supernatural, mysterious, or prophetic. As planes crashed into building after building on 9/11, I heard people cry out that it was the Day of the Lord. It wasn’t. As we have just honored the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the horrific three months of Allied forces finally forcing Hitler’s armies to surrender in France—I wonder if the blood, the bombs, and the combat might have caused some to think it was like the Day of the Lord? D-Day began some decisive and necessary days of reckoning for freedom loving peoples. Another frightful event, concocted by Orson Wells, was his famous radio broadcast “The War of the Worlds” when, in spite of an announcement that it was a play, made people across America think that the earth was being attacked by creatures from outer space! In our day, many of us get understandably unnerved when we hear what sounds like gunshots. On Friday at church I heard what I thought could have been gunshots coming from the kitchen. What I found was our Custodian stepping on bubble wrap with his foot. We are in times of heightened awareness! Imagine all the times before when people thought we were being invaded, or thought Jesus was coming again. Some called those times “Armageddon,” the end of the world as we know it. Today let’s look at something cataclysmic that was good!

The Apostle Peter, on a momentous day in Jerusalem, started his proclamation by quoting Joel. That might seem like a stretch, but it wasn’t. Jew after Jew had learned the Hebrew Bible. They were as infatuated and engrossed by the amazing and terrifying parts of it such as in Daniel, Ezekiel, and Joel, like people in our day quote from terrifying novels and films. Many of us get inspired by our heroes—like pride in our military personal, or in patriots who created our country, or in biblical heroes like Moses, Judges like Deborah, or Apostles like Peter. To inspire others the way Peter quoted Joel, some in our day have quoted the strong words of Julia W. Howe, who wrote them all the way back in 1861: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; he is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword, His truth is marching on.” Wow. Those words, like the words of Joel, have gotten the attention of people for generations. Joel said [Watch for these things to happen:] “My Spirit will be poured out on all generations. Sons and daughters will start to proclaim the word of the Lord, and will give warnings about the coming of the Lord; old men will begin to hope for a new tomorrow, including a different world for their children; and young men will begin to have clearer visions about the way they’ll fit into the future. When those things happen, says Joel, God is about to do something new in our midst.”

So we come to Pentecost in Acts chapter 2, generally observed in Jerusalem on the 50th day after Passover. It is also known as the “Feast of Weeks” or in Hebrew, “Shavuot.” It was a holy day, but not an extraordinary one; that is, until God’s powerful Spirit broke into the Jerusalem rituals, and an explosion of newness hit the ground! If we start with Acts 1, we are reminded that Jesus ascended into Heaven, and before her departed, he told his followers they should begin to tell others about him, beginning in Jerusalem. When they said they didn’t feel qualified to do that, he said they would be clothed with power from on high. What did Jesus mean? They found out: there on Pentecost, all of a sudden, a mighty wind—perhaps hurricane like—started to blow like never before. Some in hindsight might have called it the “winds of change” but it was more than that. It was the wind of power from on high. When people from different cultures and nations felt anemic on their own, together with others they found strength to proclaimed what they believed God wanted others to hear. Soon people from many nations heard and understood people from other nations! Never had this happened before! In our day we mechanically simulated it as members of the U.N. gather in their large New York conference room and understand each other using dozens of translators. But on Pentecost, the Spirit was the only translator! Peter, who was just getting his confidence back after denying Jesus three times, found his power, as the Spirit gave him voice! He was back, baby, and then some! He claimed the high title of “The Rock” that Jesus bestowed. Then he addressed the crowd. What words did he use to get the attention of the men of Judea? People who have stirred Americans in times of conflict might use the Battle Hymn; Peter, by contrast, recounted the words of Joel! Peter decided that what he had learned from Joel was starting to happen! He added some statements to get everyone’s attention, but basically he quoted Joel. Listen: “In the last days, God declared, I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. Your sons and your daughters will prophesy; your young men will see visions; and your old men dream dreams.” Then Peter threw in scary stuff like blood, fire, smoke, and mist, saying that the sun would turn dark and the moon would become as blood: things a good horror writer would include. Peter got everyone’s attention! That was the cataclysmic day when God took an ordinary holy ritual and made it an extraordinary event! From that point on, people of all nations and cultures have drawn power from God’s Holy Spirit. Sometimes it’s the power to save someone else from danger; sometimes it’s the courage to finally let God speak to others though you. And sometimes it’s when you have a new beginning, or some say get “born again,” and you say to your family, your friends, or anyone within earshot something like the words Edward Mote wrote in 1834, when he declared: “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand.”

Have you had an Exodus event: a time when God parted the waters for you and delivered you, or showed you the way out of your malaise or oppression? Or have you had a Pentecost event: when an ordinary day became extraordinary, or a time when God broke the mold of a ritual and made it new? What new birth, or new creation, or new idea came out of your momentous event? Perhaps yours is still on the horizon. One thing is for sure: what happened on Pentecost to Peter and to others gave birth to the Christian church, who stopped just following Christ; they started proclaiming Christ as well! Tap back into the fire of that glorious day, each time that you need new strength to face tomorrow.

Let us pray: I invite you to repeat this prayer after me:
” Spirit of the living God,
fall afresh on me.
Melt me,
mold me,
fill me,
use me.
Spirit of the living God,
fall afresh on me.” Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner June 9, 2019

06-02-19 ACTS: THE POWER OF GOD ON DISPLAY


Acts 16:16-34

In this age when “Avengers: Endgame” has broken attendance and income records at the box office, I am reminded again how creator Stan Lee wanted superheroes who were broken, or flawed, in some way to be the characters in his Marvel Comics. That is the story of the human race: flawed or broken people sometimes able to do extraordinary things. As we open our Bibles instead of our comic books, we find characters in the Old Testament who also broken, or flawed: Jacob, Leah, David, and Solomon to name a few. When we move to the New Testament, we of course, have Jesus, the Son of God without sin. He had the power to heal, to multiply bread, to raise people from the dead, and to make the blind to see. Aside from our Savior, we have 12 flawed Apostles who were granted the power from God to heal, preach, and baptize as Jesus described that they would have. We will celebrate the gifts of the Holy Spirit of next week in Acts chapter 2! But there was another major player in the New Testament: a man named Paul. Originally called Saul, he became an Apostle of Jesus called Paul, and he had the triple powers of Jewish training, Christian teachings, and Roman citizenship. He also had a “thorn in the flesh,” [2 Corinthians 12: 7-9] and people through the ages have guessed at what that was. Paul was proud to say that Christ made him perfect in his weakness. Almost superhero-like in what he did, one source put it this way:
Paul’s encounter with the resurrected Jesus transformed his life. He went from trying to bring an end to Christianity, to traveling roughly 10,000 miles throughout western Asia and parts of Europe to preach about Jesus and Christianity. And he did so at risk to himself, as Christianity was not a legal religion within the Roman Empire at that time. [azbible.com]

On his first journey, he visited 15 towns or cities; on his second missionary journey, he visited 19 towns or cities; on his third missionary journey, he visited a staggering 31 towns or cities; and on his fourth missionary journey he visited 10 towns or cities, ending his journey in Rome where he remained for two years! He was a giant for Christ! He was heckled, beaten, tortured, imprisoned, and eventually he died, according to the story, because he would not stop his missions, nor recant his message that Jesus was the Savior! British author A. N. Wilson, in his book Paul: The Mind of the Apostle, wrote this:
One of Jesus’ followers in Damascus, a certain Ananias, is told in a vision to go to the street called Straight and to lay his hands on Saul. When Ananias [protests] and says that Saul has been a persecutor of the Way, the Lord replies, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name to the Gentiles and kings.” So Ananias did as he was told and he went and laid hands on Saul, …and Saul began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues saying, “He is the Son of God!” … That is how the story of Saul, subsequently known as Paul, was first written down in the Acts of the Apostles. [Paul:The Mind of the Apostle, A.N. Wilson, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997, p. 16]

Today in Acts chapter 16, we visit our hero Paul doing more amazing things! From Asia Minor Paul goes to Troas in Iconium; he is preaching the gospel and praying. He has a famous meeting with a woman of God named Lydia, a seller of purple cloth in the village of Thyatira. God opened her heart to listen to Paul’s message. She was then baptized, and she invited Paul and his friends to come and stay in her home. To this day if you visit Thyatira, everyone has purple cloth for sale! In our passage for today, Paul was then on his way to a place of prayer, when he saw a woman who was employed (owned) by a man who profited from her ability to tell fortunes. Through her divination, she pointed to Paul and the others, declaring to all within earshot: “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation! [16:17] She said this loudly wherever Paul was for several days. That constant proclaiming certainly got on Paul’s nerves and he wanted to save her from bondage. So using the power of God, he cast out her spirit of divination. Out it came, which, of course, meant no one would pay her to use her gift anymore, and her employers lost the goose that was laying the golden egg. When will Paul learn? So they seized Paul and seized Silas and dragged them into the marketplace, accusing them of disturbing the peace, when the woman was truly the one disturbing the peace; Paul just disturbed their income! The crowd joined in attacking the two men, (as crowds often to do), and the attacks escalated. They struck the men with blows and threw them in prison! Can you believe how, with just this minor charge, Paul and Silas were placed in the inner prison, the most secure part, and their feet were put in stocks! Oh what our hero Paul endured for the sake of truth, justice, and the Godly way!

The story continues. Around midnight they were not letting other prisoners sleep because they were singing hymns and praying aloud! Paul! Have you no sense? But Paul had a secret weapon: not x-ray vision; not the ability to fly, not super strength. His secret weapon was his connection with the power of God, who honored Paul’s continuing praise in all circumstances. According to verse 26, there was suddenly an earthquake that was so strong and violent that the doors of the prison broke open and the chains became unfastened! Paul and Silas would have been free to go as soon as they overpowered the jailer. But you should know something: in the Roman Empire in those days, if it was learned that prisoners escaped, Caesar’s law said the responsible jailer would be killed in a horrible way. To avoid that misery and dishonor, the jailer drew his sword and was about to fall on it. But Paul shouted to him, “Do not harm yourself; we are here!” [vs.28] The jailer rushed in and sure enough, they were there! Amazingly, the jailer asked: “What must I do to be saved?”

So let’s regroup. When Paul comes into Thyatira he meets and, God working through him, leads a leader in her home and community—Lydia—to be baptized and saved. Then, as Paul goes toward a place of prayer, he meets a woman possessed by a spirit. He vanquishes the spirit of divination in her, and she became free from the slavery of her occult insights. Then Paul is taken to prison, along with Silas, but God breaks the prison open, and the jailer gets on his knees and asks, “What must I do to be saved?” Not bad for a day’s work! Again, our hero Paul takes insults, beatings, and jailings, and yet he keeps praising God and leading people to Christ! He is truly amazing. And he has 10,000 more miles to go!

Think about the people in your life that you can influence. Who can you free from their prisons of too much drink, too many drugs, or abject poverty? How might a new life give them a new direction? Think about those who, in spite of comfortable income, still finds their lives broken by physical or emotional issues, some of them serious. How can praying to and praising God hit a reset button for them? Through your gifts, we are able to help people get the therapy, clothing, food, and biblical insights that they need. Through your prayers, we are lifting up those who are hospitalized, weak, worn, and needing guidance for their future. Who knows when and how God will respond to your prayers, and my prayers? Today we use Paul’s example as our guide, for continuing our fervent prayers, and our praise.

Let us pray: Holy God, Scripture contains some unbelievable stories of salvation. Sometimes we wonder if those events still happen. Help us to have our hearts and eyes open to see the moving of your powerful Spirit. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner June 2, 2019

05-26-19 REVELATION: GATHERED AT THE RIVER


Revelation 21:22-22:5

Today we come to our last encounter for a while with the book of Revelation. Let’s recap:
1) The book is always Revelation, not Revelations! It is Jesus’ revelation to John.
2) We take the book seriously, but not literally; it means what it means, not what it says.
3) The book is a series of letters John wrote to 7 churches in Asia Minor regarding their persecution by the current (94 A.D.) Roman Emperor, named Domitian.
4) John’s message was meant to frighten those with little scriptural knowledge (like those who were guarding him) and meant to comfort people who knew scripture.
5) Of the 404 verses in the book of Revelation, 278 allude to an Old Testament passage.
6) The bottom line of the book: God wins; Satan loses.
7) Numbers are meaningful in this book.

Also as a reminder: Revelation is not an almanac or a predictor of what will happen in coming centuries. Hear what Dr. Craig Koester Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota says about the subject:
Members of sectarian groups have long been attracted to Revelation as a source of clues concerning the time of Christ’s coming. The groups described below exemplify a pattern in which a charismatic individual develops a distinctive interpretation of biblical texts and gathers a group of followers who anticipate that time will end in the near future…. One of the most important end-time movements in America began through the preaching of William Miller (1782-1849)…He settled in New York State, and after extensively studying Daniel and Revelation, … [said] that the consummation (rapture) would come in 1843-1844. As the time approached, Miller refined his calculations, announcing Christ’s return between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. When the dates Miller set came and went without Christ’s visible return, [Miller] acknowledged that [he] had misunderstood the time foretold by biblical prophesy… A woman named Ellen White, who experienced trances, gathered a few of Miller’s followers who adhered to this spiritualized view into the group that became the Seventh Day Adventists….In the decades that followed [what was called ] the Great Disappointment, new dates for the coming of Christ continued to be proposed….A man named Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916) began popularizing the view that Christ returned spiritually in 1874, inaugurating a millennial dawn period that would climax with the arrival of the Kingdom of God on earth in 1914. Russell spread his views by organizing Bible studies and producing literature through the Watch Tower Tract Society…. Revelation has had a central place in the thinking of Jehovah’s Witnesses [especially the literal interpretation that only 144,000 will have a special place there as priest of God and kings of God.] The idea came from Revelation 7:4-8 and 14:1-5. The other most famous group with a charismatic leader who read Revelation as a predictor of the last days was the Branch Davidians under the leader Vernon Howell, who renamed himself David Koresh.]
(Revelation and the End of All Things, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001, pp. 14-17)

So, stay on the straight and narrow with me! Last week we learned that John had just given a detailed account of the walls and gates of the holy city. The actual Temple had been destroyed about 20 years before Revelation was written. We might expect news from John that the Temple was going to be rebuilt. But no! The edifice that had been so important was now no longer is needed! Why? Chapter 21, verse 22 tells us: the temple in New Jerusalem “is the Lord God and the Almighty and the Lamb.” In other words, God is present everywhere in that Holy City, not just dwelling in a Temple! Incredible! We might expect street lights or lamps to be there, and we might wonder if we’ll see the sun or the moon. No; they aren’t needed since “The glory of God is the light for the city, and it’s lamp is the Lamb.” (Remember, the lamp is not a real lamb, the Lamb is Jesus Christ, who himself said in John’s gospel that he is the light of the world. John 8:12). In this new city, nations will walk in the light of Christ; and kings of the earth will bring their glory to the one who truly deserves glory! And almost like being near the North Pole, there is no night in the Holy City. Here we read how although the gates are open forever, those invited to enter are ones who call Jesus “Lord” and follow him. Those are the ones said to be written in the Lamb’s book of life. Again, don’t fall into literalism here or in the rest of Revelation. This revealing has a mystical sense about it. Also do not think Jesus needs you to be judge and jury about which of your acquaintances will be there and which ones will not. Leave that to Jesus!

In chapter 22 a new scene is revealed, almost like the curtain in a play rising to reveal it. In this scene, a river—bright bright as crystal—flows from the throne of God! Jesus promised to all who thirst that they will have “water from the fountain.” The thirst for righteousness is now being fulfilled in this new place! And in a vision that is almost a return to Eden, we find a tree—not the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—but the tree of life, with 12 kinds of fruit. Robert H. Mounce, who received his Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, wrote a commentary that our Revelation class used for the entire semester at Princeton Seminary. He wrote this about verse 2: “The imagery has a double source. In the early chapters of Genesis we read that if Adam had eaten of the tree of life, he would have received immortality (Gen. 2: 9; 3:22) In Ezekiel there is also a picture of healing waters flowing from the temple to form a river along whose banks are trees which each month bring forth new fruit whose leaves are for healing. (Ezekiel 47:12) The tree of life was a regular feature in Jewish portrayals of Paradise.” [The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing,1977, p. 387] Now we know why there were 12 kinds of fruit: a new and refreshing fruit grew once every month a year! It means there is plenty to eat for all!

Next it is revealed that nothing accursed shall be there: no serpents, not demons, nothing, but only those who love the Lamb Jesus and want to be with him forever! If you want that, then you get to see his face too! People have speculated about the face of Jesus from famous painters, to National Geographic researchers, to a little boy who said he saw Jesus in heaven, described in the book Heaven is for Real. What do you think Jesus will look like? Even though God said in the book of Exodus that mortals could not look upon the face of God and live, (Exodus 33:20) we will get to see the face of Jesus in New Jerusalem! And remember how Revelation 13:16 said people who followed the beast (who was the cunning and brutal emperor) would bear his mark upon their foreheads (perhaps not literally, but symbolically) to indicate that people who looked at them could see their loyalty to the beast? Revelation 22:4 indicates that those who love and are faithful to God “would bear the name of God on [their foreheads.]” (Mounce, p. 388) That means, “We belong to God.” Our Presbyterian Church (USA) “Brief Statement of Faith” begins with these words striking words: “In life and in death, we belong to God.” Indeed we do. Be comforted by those words here, and in the hereafter.

This is the final destination of our guided tour through this “apocalypse” (which means “revealing.”) What else is like this final scene? Very little. I tried to imagine it: Perhaps it is like those who go to Scandinavia and actually see the Northern Lights. Perhaps it is like those who went to the moon, peering out of the capsule windows and looking back at earth. Maybe it would be like legendary people going deep beneath the ocean and finding the lost city of Atlantis. It gives us something to dream about and to hope for. It also is yet another reason our Lord deserves our thanks and praise! Now, shall we gather at the river?

Jeffrey A. Sumner May 26, 2019

05-19-19 REVELATION: NEW JERUSALEM

Revelation 21: 1-6

Because the young and engaging Christian blogger and author Rachel Held Evans died just two weeks ago at age 37, I bought my second book of hers to read: Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, In it I found a striking parallel to our passage for today. Listen:

The people of Israel had once boasted of a king, a temple, and a great expanse of land—all of which they believed had been given to them by God and ensured to them forever. But in the sixth century BC, King Nebuchadnezzar [of Babylon] laid siege to Jerusalem, destroying both the city and its temple. Many of the Jews who lived there were taken captive and forced into the empire’s service. Others remained, but without a king, or a place of worship, without a national identity.

Israel had already gone through a national calamity in its history, creating a religious, political, and social crisis. But Jerusalem and the Temple had been rebuilt afterwards. It stood proudly until 70 AD when it was destroyed by the Romans. And to this day, it has never been rebuilt! The Western Wall in modern day Jerusalem is the last above-ground vestige of that holy edifice. Today’s passage is about New Jerusalem.

Remember that John wrote Revelation about 95 AD, 20 years after Jerusalem fell along with the temple. Today we have a lot of ground to cover since last week’s sermon ended with chapter 7. Today in chapter 8, the seventh seal is opened and there is a half-hour of silence followed by seven angels and seven trumpets, coupled with plagues and extreme events of nature. Those were meant to terrify John’s guards. Then there was a burning star, perhaps like a meteor, landing on the earth, making the waters putrid. Even though C.S. Lewis called a junior tempter to the devil “Wormwood” in The Screwtape Letters, here Wormwood is named after the name of a strong and deadly plant of the same name, referenced in Proverbs 5: 3-4, Lamentations 3:19, and in Jeremiah 9:15. There is then the naming of a woe coming upon the earth with the appearance like a plague of locusts. It is suggested that their king is from the bottomless pit of Sheol and the king’s name is Appollyn, or “destroyer.” These fearful warnings are woes to frighten the faithless and to comfort the faithful. John hoped they would recognize the stories of God’s deliverance from Egypt after God delivering plague after plague against Pharaoh and his people. Then he references an Ezekiel 2:8- 3:3 passage where God commanded to eat a little scroll. Following suit, Jesus asks John to pick up a little scroll, saying “Take it and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach but sweet as honey to your mouth.” (Rev. 10:9.) That was to say, “what you are enduring now is bitter, but the outcome will be sweet.” Next in chapter 11, the Temple was measured as if to see the dimensions for its re-creation! That was a hopeful message! Was it to be a rebuild? Yes, but in a different place. It was to become a new Jerusalem! The seventh angel blew his trumpet and he said what Handel captured for us forever: “The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ, and eh shall reign forever and ever!” (Rev. 11:15) Then “The twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshipped God! ….” “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple. (Rev. 11:16;19.) John again reminded his readers of the powerful words from the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk.“The Lord is in his Holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before him.” (Hab 2:20) What a drama these letters contain!

Now we get to some of the characters: The woman in chapter 12 sounds like she could be Mary, but remember, most references are from the Hebrew Bible. So, scholars say the woman is a heavenly representative of God’s people, whose prophet Isaiah declared, “for unto us a child is born”. A dragon appears, clearly called the Devil and Satan in chapter 12:9, and there is a depiction of a cosmic war. But remember, the underlying theme of this book never lets the devil win! The theme is: God wins; Satan loses. So we let this drama play out without being sucked into its dreadful images.

Chapter 13 is the famous one of the beast rising out of the sea. The horns in this case indicated the brute force by which the emperors had claimed their territories. They had 10 diadems, or crowns, to indicate they were the most ruthless of the 12 Roman Caesars. The seven heads on the beast (who is human) indicated that the emperor drew his evil power form the seven-headed dragon, who we learned was Satan. Revelation 13’s most famous passage is verse 18: “This calls for wisdom: let him who has understanding reckon the number of the beast, for it is a human number, its number is six hundred and sixty six.” Oh my goodness how much ink and film has been spent on that verse! Hebrew letters had numerical equivalents; John knew that and the people in the 7 churches knew that! They just had to figure out who he was describing. Through the ages writers have pointed to evil men like Adolf Hitler and said he was 666. He was evil, but not the one John was describing. In the 1980s some cryptologists wrongly said it added up to the name of a good man—Ronald Reagan—saying he was 666. Nonsense. 666 was the number for “Neron Caesar,” the most horrible emperor to Christians in recent memory. The alternate number in your Bibles, 616, indicated the more colloquial title of the emperor, “Nero Caesar.” John was saying “Remember how Nero had his life end in disgrace and humiliation? So it will happen with this emperor, (Domitian) too!” There has been so much publishing and film money raked in over such nonsensical identifications of John’s mystery beast through the ages.

Chapters 14 includes the wonderful verse you often hear at burials: A voice from heaven said: “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth. Blessed indeed, says the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors, and their words do follow them.” That is the comfort for the faithful. For those who are not faithful, we get the image from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” based on Revelation 14: “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” Rev. 14:14-20 is not good news from any enemies of God! Chapter 15 contains the “glassy sea” references in the beloved hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” which was another image to comfort the faithful. But then seven bowls of God’s wrath are poured out on those who seek to hurt God’s children in chapter 16! Just as all Jews remembered that Babylon fell along with Nebuchadnezzar ages before, here John equates Babylon with Rome, the city with its “seven hills.” She is depicted as a harlot, drunk with excesses in chapter 17. In chapter 18, Babylon—Rome—is about to fall. The merchants begin weeping as the coins they have to use have the face of the beast on them- the emperor! Extravagant and corrupt livings starts to make Rome crumble, which leads to loud rejoicing in Heaven, as all cry out: “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are just and true!” Rev. 19: 1,2,) Then “heaven opened, and there was the white horse! And he who sat upon the horse was called ‘Faithful and True.’” What a drama Jesus shared with John.

Chapter 20, and its interpretation has also been the source of countless pages of speculation about when Christ will return: before a thousand years, after a thousand years, or some other time? And in the meantime, will Satan be loosed or not? So many people slip into literal readings of Revelation 20: verses 7 & 8. It is imagery for the end of the first century, not a prediction for a thousand years from then, or 2000 years from then! You might remember many more books on the subject of the so called “rapture” and “tribulation as we got to Y2K. Cast those books aside. Even the exceedingly popular “Left Behind” series capitalized on the fear of the readers, strategically published the series from 1995-2007.

Finally, after enduring threatening storms, and beasts, and plagues, and horrifying images, we come into a clearing, and we find Jesus, ready to let us know that this was where he was leading us! There is a place, where Jerusalem looks majestic; there is a place where the temple is gloriously rebuilt with pearly gates (not literal, remember!) jewel adorned walls, and streets paved with gold! There is a place, and Jesus tells us what it is called. Listen:

21 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home[a] of God is among mortals.

He will dwell[b] with them;

they will be his peoples,[c]

and God himself will be with them;[d]

4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.”

5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. 

This is comfort for the faithful. Drink it in.

Jeffrey A. Sumner May 19, 2019

05-12-19 REVELATION: LAMB

Revelation 7: 9-17

Today we will continue to unpack the book of Revelation, one that some find fearful, while those with the code can find hopeful. As I said last week, in the last part of the first century, John, the author, wrote letters of hope and encouragement to 7 churches in Asia Minor, now modern-day Turkey. The 7 churches were in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. By extension, John’s advice can help modern day churches too. You might be saying in your head: “What modern day lesson can I possibly learn from this book?” I’ll tell you: more books have been written and wrongly interpreted about the tribulation, Armageddon, 666, the beast, and the Last Days to the point that it has kept Christian publishing afloat with all of its conspiracy theories, prophecy-filled warnings, and fear mongering. One wrong interpreter in the 1970s warned that the tribulation would come before the end of that decade, and that Christ would return then to judge all people. It didn’t happen, even as his words scarred a generation into looking into every headline as a sign that the devil was appearing from the sea of politics. In the 1980s, another man sent a self-published book to pastors all over the country warning them that Revelation has predicted that we are in the end days, and according to his biblical calculations, the world would end in 1988. The world didn’t end. What did both authors do? Both authors then published revised editions of their books with new predictions, saying that God told them a new date for the end of the world, which of course, was not true either. They continued to make more money off of naïve and fearful Christians. Don’t fall for those high-intensity authors who try to stir up the lives and souls of readers! Today I will keep trying to keep you well-grounded in this controversial book.

Last week we dealt with chapters 1 through 5. Now we are on to chapters six and seven. In chapter 6 the seven seals are opened by the Lamb (the honorific title for Jesus Christ,) and readers are invited to “Come!” (7 is the perfect biblical number) We then encounter the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” referenced mysteriously in literature and film through the ages. The reference, as with 75% of Revelation, is from the Old Testament, not some time in the 20th or the 21st century! The imagery is from the book of Zechariah (1:8-17 and 6: 1-8.) John magnifies the meaning of the colors of the horses, indicating that the white one symbolized conquest, the red horse bloodshed, the black horse scarcity or famine, and the pale horse, pestilence and death. That colorful description is part of the first four seals. The fifth seal revealed the prayers of the martyrs in heaven, and the sixth seal a warning of what it will be like when the great Day of the Lord arrives. Then like, with any good production, John adds a dramatic pause—an interlude—before the seventh seal is opened. That interlude is a source of one religious group’s belief that heaven has only 144,000 souls in it, based on the description of 12,000 sealed from the tribe of Judah, 12,000 sealed from the tribe of Reuben, and 12,000 from all the others tribes representing the 12 sons of Israel. But remember: Revelation is not intended to be interpreted literally any more than a Salvador Dali painting is intended to be. It needs our “right” brain; our disciplined imagination, not our flat-footed literal brain, to interpret it properly. The twelve thousand members of each of the 12 tribes of Israel are not meant to create a literal number; they are intended to symbolize completeness and inclusion, saying “Heaven has room for all the people of God!” In chapter 7, we see the believers in Jesus, who is the Lamb, come together in a time of heavenly worship, with white robes and palm branches, crying out “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!” (7:10)
There are two things to point out here: on Passover each year up to 70 A.D., a high priest would select the most perfect lamb, an unblemished lamb, to be sacrificed in the temple for the sins of the Jewish people. It was a yearly spring ritual, coupled with the fall holy day of Yom Kippur, on which the sins of Jews were forgiven. It was at that time of Passover, in the spring, at 3:00 p.m. when the high priest killed the selected lamb, the very time when the lamb of God who took away the sin of the world, died on the cross of Calvary. It was providential timing. Calling Jesus “Lamb” reminds us of his sacrifice; but it also makes him the focal point of Christian worship. That leads to the second point: if you have read our congregation’s Mission Statement for Worship, you might remember that it states: “The Westminster Catechism reminds us that our chief end is to ‘glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’ Worship takes its place as the central activity of the church, the ‘hub’ of the wheel from which other aspects of Christian life flow.” In other words, what we do every week on Sunday is a kind of preparation for our lives in heaven, when we will sing praise to God and the Lamb eternally!

Naively, in chapter 7, in that heavenly throne room, one of the elders asked Jesus “Who are these clothed in white robes? And Jesus said, “Sir, you know; these are the ones who have come out of the great tribulation.” (Remember, those seven churches were under great duress from Roman Emperor Domitian just as they had been under Emperor Nero.) This is another place you use your right brain and not your “left, or literal brain”: Jesus continued: “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” How could blood turn robes white? How could it not, if we think symbolically about the blood of Jesus?

The finale of our visit today keeps us in the throne room of heaven. Jesus continued to share his words of reassurance to the one who asked the question, and we get to listen in: Here is what John heard from Jesus about that scene:
Therefore, they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne (God) will shelter them. They will hunger no more, they will thirst no more. The sun will not strike them nor scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (7:15-17)

Can you imagine the comfort John’s apocalypse brought to the listeners of those seven churches? Of course you can! You, like people through the centuries, have also suffered hardships, and tribulations, and anguish, and grief. It is in those times that we turn to our Bibles and open them. In how many funerals have you heard these comforting words from Revelation?
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no more sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven ….And I heard a loud voice from the throne say, ‘Behold the dwelling of God is with mortals. God will dwell with them, and they shall be his people …and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more….

Images and words from this magnificent and picturesque book comforted Christians in the First Century, and in every century for those who knew how to unlock the code correctly! Others have lived in terror and paranoia, waiting for the dreadful “Day of the Lord” to immanently arrive. But you know how to read this kaleidoscope of a book! You can see through all the colors and shapes and voices and beasts! Christians who’ve had the code have found these words comforting. You have the code now: Don’t read the words of John literally. Do not be thrown off track by popular and dramatic Christian authors. Stay close to the source, and listen to solid interpreters with care. Next week we’ll continue our journey.

Jeffrey A. Sumner May 12, 2019

05-05-19 REVELATION: WORTHY

Revelation 5: 11-14

There is a commercial on television about a younger generation starting to act like their parents. In one scene the narrator says: “We can’t keep you from becoming your parents,” and in the background a man comes up to a scenic overlook and, instead of looking at the beauty of what’s before him, says, “Look! A plaque!” And he begins to read it aloud for all to hear. My mother used to do that at most every place we stopped (Eye roll). Today I become my mother! Not with a plaque, but as a guide, I want to help you approach the overlook of the book of Revelation! Do not fear! I am well trained in this book. Dr. Bruce Metzger, New Testament professor at Princeton Seminary when I attended, taught this book to a whole class of us for an entire semester. He is the one who translated and complied the Bibles in front of you. He taught us well. I have taught this book to our Men’s group recently and will teach it to our Disciple class in 2020. So get ready as you peer over the edge; your guide will read the Revelation plaques for you momentarily!

So, yes, I have become a plaque reader because I’ve learned so much by reading them. When Mary Ann asked me to accompany her almost five years ago to the Salvador Dali Museum in St Petersburg, Florida, I went with reluctance since I found his painting strange and incomprehensible. I went with attitude, but I came out a fan, thanks to plaques and guides; they helped me understand the man behind the strange paintings! Today you may also be sitting with attitude regarding the Salvador Dali-like strange book of the Bible, but by the end of this month I hope to allay your fears and help you find the book meaningful, rather than strange and incomprehensible. Let’s begin.

Dr. Metzger was fond of saying, “Revelation doesn’t mean what it says; it means what it means.” Gibberish, right? No. My grandson Calvin once heard a woman say about another person: “She’s as big as a house.” Calvin said, “She’s not as big as a house!” which of course, she wasn’t. I explained to him it was an expression, and an exaggeration. You’ll need to think like that to unlock the codes of Revelation! And indeed, there is a code to this book. It was written by John, imprisoned on the isle of Patmos for being a Christian witness. I have been to that island and witnessed that prison cell. Roman Emperor Domitian was brutal toward Christians, much as his predecessor Emperor Nero was. He is said to have burned Christians alive to light the games at the Circus Maximus. John was writing to seven churches in Asia Minor, which are in present day Turkey. I have also been to those sites. He was seeking to encourage them in Christ, even amidst persecution. His bottom line: “God wins; Rome loses.” His letters were meant for those specific churches, but they are timeless in the sense that they speak to modern churches as well. In order to get his letters passed the guards, he had to write them in such a way that they would think he was a ranting lunatic, hoping that the Christians, steeped in the words of what we call the Old Testament, would understand his meaning. You see, 75% of the symbol, images, and allusions in Revelation came from those early scriptures! John counted on the Christians getting his meaning and for the Romans to let the letters get to their destination. He said in a vision that he saw seven lampstands, (seven the number of completeness, and lamps being the light of Christ in each church). Each church also had an angel, a messenger and protector of sorts, and he mentioned them too for encouragement. He clearly described the tribulations of those congregations. Then in chapter 4, “A door in heaven opened.” That was the first of his visions of that glorious place called heaven, but remember, it is symbolic, not literal, when “around the throne were twenty four thrones (12 for those who came from a Jewish background, 12 for those who came from a Gentile background.) They were clad in white garments which symbolized purity. And golden crowns were on their heads meaning they were honored for following Christ. They were praising the one on the throne singing “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come!”

Then comes chapter 5, our chapter for today. In the right hand of him seated on the throne (the right hand is always known as the hand of blessing) there was a scroll, closed up with seven seals. “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” asked an angel. No one was worthy on earth; no not one. But an elder said: “Weep not, for lo, the lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, has conquered so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals!” So all the creatures and angels and others in heaven began praising and magnifying the name of the one seated on the throne—the glorified Christ! They were so grateful that they praised the only one who could share the blessings and open the seals! By his stripes, he was worthy!

Then we come to our text today: 5: 11-14. We are viewing what in music is called the “crescendo,” and in life it might be called a culmination. Imagine it being accompanied by timpani drums and herald trumpets, for it was a great announcement! Everything that had life and breath, as Psalm 150 describes, began praising the Lamb, who is the one who was slain and was granted all power by God! What a dramatic, majestic scene it must have been, unlike anything human special effects teams could create! Together they proclaimed what all of them knew; “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain!” Because he is so worthy, we are also are invited to transport ourselves to that heavenly throne room and bring his glory back here to earth: in our services of worship; with our witness; and through the majesty of rocks and trees and skies and seas, for all to hear and see! If this Lamb is worthy—this one we call Jesus Christ—of what is he worthy? The angels—myriads and myriads, thousands upon thousands, literally a heavenly host—tell us he is worthy to receive: Power! Wealth! (Things humans often clamor to get) Wisdom! (The Lamb’s wisdom is great; ours is wanting) Might! Honor! Glory! Blessing! Accolade upon accolade is poured out from the mouths of thousands! Why? So hopeless Christians will be reminded of how much power and wisdom has been given to their Savior; so that, as Paul put it in his letter to the Romans, we will never forget that nothing in all creation “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (8:39)

Don’t run from Revelation; we need the message of Revelation! And together, we will continue to unpack its message, including dazzling flashes of heaven and unfailing messages of hope. Now this joyous service of Holy Communion will get us in practice for the Heavenly praise and the banquet table that awaits us! The hymn we turn to now has as many superlatives in it as the book of Revelation does! Let us praise the Lamb of God!

Jeffrey A. Sumner May 5, 2019