Monthly Archives: January 2008

01-27-08 ATONEMENT

ATONEMENT

Leviticus 16: 6-10; Hebrews 11: 11-14

 

Human beings, along with any number of other animals, certainly cannot live without water, nor can they live without blood.  Horror movies love to show blood, usually in the form of red food coloring put in Karo Syrup. Alfred Hitchcock, in his famous shower scene in the film “Psycho,” used chocolate syrup going down the bathtub drain instead of blood because he said it photographed like blood for black and white film.  According to the American Red Cross website, 38,000 blood donations are needed each and every day; and every year, there are 15 million blood donations!  When someone is in an accident, almost always there is a need for blood; only those awaiting surgery “bank” their own blood, and it just lasts a short while. So donation of all types of blood are needed; to put the wrong type of blood in a person can kill them; to withhold the right type of blood for an accident victim can kill them.  Blood is liquid life! Now enough about blood for a moment, remembering that my son Chris can get faint at the sight of it!  But our center hymn today is even called colloquially, “one of the blood hymns,” because it proclaims that by Jesus’ blood, shed for us, we are saved. Historically it was with the blood from a Passover lamb, splashed on the door frames of Hebrew homes that notified the angel of death to “pass over” that house, thus keeping those children safe. That story is in Exodus. So the deliverance of the Hebrews from captivity, and the salvation of Christians from darkness all have to do with the blood of “a lamb” for one, and the blood of “the Lamb” for the other.  Both faiths describe a way to bring the children of God closer to God when they move far away through their sins.  For Jews, Yom Kippur is known as “The Day of Atonement,” the day that moves the people of God closer to God.  Can you believe that it is only once a year that Jews get a chance to bring their regret about, repentance from, and restitution for their sins before God for forgiveness? What a burden: carrying around your sins for 12 months before having a Rabbi declare that you are clean!  For Roman Catholic Christians, the upcoming Ash Wednesday is one of a handful of days on the calendar when the “faithful” line up for the Sacrament of Confession.  Priests declare forgiveness after some action of penance or some price of indulgence is paid.  For Protestants, there are a variety of times one can ask for forgiveness. For Charismatic Christians, droves of people raise their arms before Christ in tears of sorrow at the end of evening services, asking to be rid of the devil as they call out Jesus’ name in rapid fire fashion. Baptists and some Methodists hold revivals, and when they do, they sing gospel songs like the ones I have included today.  They weep, they pray, and they sing twenty nine or so verses of “Just As I Am,” listing every known sin under the sun: usually they include drinkin’, smokin’, cussin’, and card playin’, along with stealing and coveting and all the rest. You might have come from such a church. There are other Protestant churches that are labeled by some as “soft on sin.”  In those churches you may never hear a sermon on condemnation of sin, or the redemption of the sinner, or the mention the devil. Their aim is to bathe their parishioners only in positive, uplifting words.  And then there are other churches, like ours, where Christians weekly are reminded of their sinfulness through a prayer of confession, who understand that words of forgiveness are offered by a worship leader, but realize that forgiveness is “actually paid for” by the blood and cross of Jesus. They also join other Christians, and Jews, in believing what Jesus believed:  to be forgiven: remorse, repentance, and restitution had to be in place. They still do.  There are too many times in the world when people say they are “sorry” just when they are caught, just when they are confronted with the truth, or just when they want something!  No; that is not being sorry in the sinful sense!  That is trying to wiggle out of responsibility and lighten the punishment. It is worth remembering that no one gets to go to God and ask for forgiveness before going to the ones hurt by their sins and do the hard work of showing remorse, repentance, and restitution there first. The door to heaven is closed to the ones who have not first tried to make peace, not through the cross of Christ, but with a humble and contrite heart.  Are you tired, as I am, of suspects, running from police instead of stopping, driving off in cars at reckless speeds, destroying property and endangering the lives of others? Perhaps the law should say, “You resist arrest,” your sentence doubles. Does it seem that fewer people are willing to take responsibility for their crimes? Taking responsibility for actions is one of the best lessons of life: it is taught by Jews, Christians, and twelve-step programs.  Yet how many people are estranged from family, co-workers, friends, or neighbors through an event or words that have put a wedge between them? What a rush of joy and peace I get when a conflicted situation gets resolved, don’t you feel that too? God must also have a heart that longs not only for our human connections, but also our Heavenly one. As the old saying puts it, “If God seems far away, who moved?”  Sin moves us farther and farther from the distant shore of Heaven. Church rituals and human confession row us closer to that beautiful shore. But putting Jesus in the back of your boat to be your power and rudder is the most fabulous choice one can make.

 

In Leviticus, we heard a brief portion of the Day of Atonement ritual, the meaning of which may be best understood by splitting the word so it says “At-one-ment.” “This is God’s work to make us one with God. The “Christian Believer” text on this subject writes these words: “The idea of our human estrangement from God and of God’s seeking to bring us ‘at one’ again is quite beyond explanation….The Letter to the Ephesians uses the language of redemption: ‘In Jesus Christ we have redemption through his blood.’ Job declared ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that at the last he shall stand upon the earth.’” [p. 141] In our affirmation of faith today, we will use a portion of Paul’s Letter to the Colossians that ends with the words: “making peace by the blood of his cross.” Only a Jew, or an informed Disciple of Jesus, can begin to understand how the death of the God made man (who was called ‘the lamb’ by John) could possibly give us a highway to heaven and a new life here on earth. In Hebrews, we find another explanation for this mystery: expiation. “Expiation means appeasing or purifying through a sacred rite. It conveys a picture of our being soiled by sin and in need of cleansing.” How is that cleansing achieved? Through Christ’s blood sacrifice. A revival hymn proclaimed ‘What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus!’” Who washes in blood? How does blood make a soul whiter than snow? This answer is traced back to “expiation atonement” a big term described by blood making souls whiter than snow. Finally, the idea of substitutionary atonement traces its roots back to Genesis 22, when God provided a ram for a sacrifice to take Isaac’s place. God’s test provided a “scapegoat,” but without faith, the test would have failed. There are so many ways to get at the idea of being made “one” with God, that is, closer to God. The theory of Christ giving us power over evil (the “Christus Victor” theory) and the “Ransom” theory (where Jesus is exchanged for us who deserved to be on the cross where he hung,) are two more of the many facets of this diamond called Atonement.

God wants us close: the images of wide open arms, lamps left burning, a father running in robes, and a visit from heaven to a Bethlehem stable show us the lengths to which God will go to be close to us. But therapy rooms are filled with people who, because of painful events, are estranged from others, having shut the doors to human connections and sometimes to Heavenly ones. There are also times when people runs from the ones who caused them pain into the arms of exactly the wrong person; and times when, in anger or apathy, people move away from God, citing that they are spiritual but not religious, and connect with a counterfeit god instead. For all of those people: for you and me and others: God came in Christ, so that we might have life, and have it abundantly. Use whatever image that helps you grasp that. The cross, the blood, and the lamb are images that remind us of one thing: God is always throwing out yet another lifeline to those who are tossed to and fro in the tempestuous sea we call life. So remember and never forget: What can wash away our sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus!  Search your soul, sing your heart out, and make a commitment to reconnect, as we stand to sing this hymn.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           January 27, 2008

01-20-08 JESUS CHRIST: SAVIOR

JESUS CHRIST: SAVIOR

Isaiah 53: 1-7; and John 10: 7-16

 

In spite of this special day when we remember the people and places that shaped the Protestant Reformation, I continue with my year long series of sermons on doctrines related to The Christian Believer and his or her understanding of the faith. Today we look at the last letter of the acronym “ICHTHUS” the name for fish, with letters from early Christianity ascribed to stand for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.  The idea of a Savior is powerful to African Americans who were put in the bondage of slavery years ago; it was powerful for the martyrs in the first and second centuries who kept the faith but lost their lives; it is powerful today for women in countries where oppressive male regimes keep them poor, ignorant, and subservient. But do Americans need a Savior? Do Canadians, many of whom are here today, need a Savior, or other civilized countries?  How do we fit the idea of a savior into our virtually foolproof and protected lives?  Children that used to be allowed to play in old sandlot fields, playgrounds, or in the woods behind a neighborhood now are in supervised programs or have a parent watching them. Those on their own are often labeled “troubled kids” who just roam streets on skateboards or bicycles.  Teenagers and college aged students leave the houses and dorms armed with safety nets: a cell phone for emergencies and/or alarms on the key fobs of their cars.  For people of all ages there are other devices:  for Christmas I received a Garmin navigational system which alleviates any need to ask for directions, if I ever had such a need, (which, of course, as a man, I didn’t J) Some cars come equipped with “On Star” which is like having a Garmin along with a police cruiser, ambulance, and a tow truck following you at all times.  Each of my kids got battery chargers that stay in their cars so if they have a dead battery they have the means to start them: no need for a neighbor or a Good Samaritan. Is that a service or a disservice to them?  Sea travel is still threatening even though there are enough lifeboats: a bad list to one side can disable half of them.  Air travel, in spite of the warnings and instructions on each take off, is still a problem getting a plane loaded with people safely onto the ground if there is a major malfunction. And automobiles are safer and safer, if we choose to use their safety devices, but even driving well we can be struck from the front or the side and be badly hurt or killed.  There are some times we feel less safe than others.

 

But in the world of the spiritual, it is a frightening time: frightening in the sense that our Reformation forebears would shudder.  There are universalists who believe in a general way that everyone gets to heaven. No Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Roman Catholic, or any of two dozen other Christian denominations or non-denominational churches believes that!  But many in the world do:  when the average nominal Christian or non-Christian dies, most family members still expect the officiating clergy to say he or she will be in heaven. Youth who gather by the hundreds to pay respects to a classmate who was killed from drinking and driving overwhelmingly think he or she is in heaven when there may not be evidence of the classmate’s faith. Positive thinking places that are called churches sometimes strip auditoriums of all symbols of faith: no cross, and altars and communion tables are replaced with a stage. Preaching is conversational and dress is casual to make people more comfortable with the message which, like the name of beers, tongue in cheek has been called Gospel “Light.” Some have little mention of sin or repentance or the 10 Commandments or the agony of the cross that Jesus endured. “Why?” Surveys say “it keeps people from coming to church.” The Reformers would not believe our world. And so our world that so often glosses over the high price that Jesus paid for the saving of all souls that acknowledge they need to be saved!  Perhaps you’ve heard the old riddle, “How many pastoral counselors does it take to screw in a light bulb?” Only one, if the bulb has to want to be changed! So in today’s “we’re all going to heaven” worldview and the hugely tolerant viewpoints that some believe, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, New Agers, and Muslims are all going to the same place as Christians. Do you believe that? If so why do we need a Savior?  Why do Christians need Christ if that is true?  You see, in fact the opposite is the position of our New Testaments:  That God loved the world so much that Jesus came into it as a child, and grew and taught and was killed, so that those who believe in him might be saved! The New Testament teaches that Jesus is the Way, and that his cross is the bridge that has been built to connect us with Heaven. Of course, God is all powerful and has the right to save who God wants to save, but there is no Scriptural text that, like a game of hide and seek, says God will call “olly olly oxen free” and all will get to go safely home to heaven without price.  There is no place that says that, and people who believe the world view that “it really doesn’t matter what  you believe, but that you believe have a fool as a teacher. Neither John Calvin or John Knox, John Wesley or John the Baptist, John the Apostle (lots of men named “John,” aren’t there?) or Jesus himself taught  that!  Jesus tried to teach the opposite using so many metaphors. In our John text today, for example, Jesus said he was the door for his sheep (that’s you and me if you follow him!) “Whoever enters by me will be saved!” he announced.   He says he’s the “Good Shepherd,” and that only matters if you believe yourself to be sheep in his flock, incapable of being saved; incapable of finding food, or healing yourself, or being helped out of trouble!  And in case you now believe you, in fact do need a Savior, I have Good News for you: there is one; one who will go to the wall for you; one who will have your back. He said, “My Father loves me, because I lay down my life for you, and it is of my own free will that I do that.” I’ve heard of amazing people donating a kidney or some other organ; but on the fields of battle, it is the one who will lay down his life for you that gives you the courage to face each new day.  The assurance that your soul is saved today and that Jesus is preparing a place for you is not through the power of any other name, but at the name of Jesus that apostles and disciples and Reformers and every stripe of Christian have laid down their lives and taken their stand.  There is no solid rock on which to stand other then on his name.

 

Ages before Jesus’ birth, a prophet named Isaiah gave a description of a suffering servant that was read today. It’s a troubling description, and some have said it is a picture of Jesus.  But verse two troubles me: “He had no form or majesty (the King James says ‘comeliness’ as in ‘attractiveness’) that we might desire to look at him; nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”  But there must have been something about the man Jesus that made crowds follow him like a pop star, make people quit their jobs to accept a commission in his ranks; to listen to him and have even women and children find him most inviting and kind.  No there is something about the one some have called “The Lord of the Dance.” There is something about the man who was also God, the one whose sandals his cousin, John, did not feel worthy to untie.  There is something about his name that is above every other name. May the sense of fuzzy cultural thinking that says all roads lead to Heaven not lull you into complacency. Do you need a Savior, not for your car or your grades, or your job, but for your soul? Choose the one sent from Heaven with that job description; choose Christ, the one who saves souls.  Amen.

 

Jeffrey Sumner                                                                January 20, 2008

01-13-08 JESUS CHRIST: HUMAN AND DIVINE

JESUS CHRIST: HUMAN AND DIVINE

Isaiah 9: 2-7; Colossians 1: 15-20

Barbara Brown Taylor, a girl who grew up in Alabama, is now considered one of the best preachers in America today. Currently she is an adjunct professor at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. She tells a story to which I, and I think many of you, can relate, whether this has happened on a doorstep or in a college dorm: it is being hit with either the

D. James Kennedy “Evangelism Explosion” question: “If you died tonight, do you know for sure that you would go to Heaven?” or the Bill Bright “Four Spiritual Laws” booklets that have been shared by Campus Crusade for Christ members for over 30 years.  Here is Barbara Brown Taylor’s story modified just a bit for brevity: “One afternoon when I was a sophomore in college I was sitting in my dormitory room minding my own business, when there was a knock at my door.  I opened it and found two young women clutching Bibles to their breasts. My heart sank.  With my parent’s help, I had avoided organized religion most of my life, and these two—with their gleaming eyes, earnest faces, modest plaid skirts, and sensible shoes—these were just the sort of people I had hope to continue avoiding as long as I could.  The Holy Spirit had sent them, they said.  (‘Oh know!’ I moaned under my breath.) Could they come in, they asked, and while I was thinking of a suitable excuse, they came right in, and I knew I was a goner. They sat down on my bed, opened their Bibles, and began to ask me questions: ‘Are you saved?’ one asked. ‘Well,’ I answered haltingly, ‘that depends on what ….’ ‘No’ the other one wrote on her paper; ‘not saved!’ ‘Do you want to be saved?’ asked the first one, and both of them gleamed at me in a way that I thought it would be awful to say no. ‘Sure; I said lamely, and the leapt into action, pulling me down to sit beside them on the bed, one of them reading certain passages of Scripture,  while the other drew an illustration of my predicament on her pad for me to see.  ‘Here you are’ she said cheerfully, drawing a stick figure on one side of a yawning chasm; ‘And here is God,’ she said, drawing another figure on the other side. ‘In between,’ she continued, ‘is sin and death’ she said ominously, filling in the space with many dark scribbles from her pen. ‘Now,’ she said, ‘the question is, how are you and God going to get together?’ To which I said ‘I don’t have a clue,’ and they both looked delighted. The one bent over her drawing and connected the two sides of the chasm with the shape of a cross. ‘That’s how!’ she announced triumphantly, ‘Jesus laid down his life for you to cross over. Do you want to cross over?’ they asked.  ‘Sure’ I said in a white flag surrender kind of way. The look in their eyes was like one of those old cash registers where you crank the handle and the little ‘Sale’ sign pops up. They told me to kneel by my bed, where they knelt on either side of me and instructed me to repeat after them: ‘I accept Jesus Christ as my person Lord and Savior and I ask in to come in to my life. Amen.’ Then they got up, hugged me, gave a schedule of Campus Bible studies, and left. The whole thing took less than twenty minutes.”  THE PREACHING LIFE, Cowley Publications, 1993, pp. 103-104. Has that little event, or one like it, ever happened to you? It has happened to me.  The thing our text draws us to today is the bridge between the chasm from ourselves on one side, and God on the other.  The bridge, they said, was the cross, and in one sense that’s exactly right. But in another sense, the passages we read today, and countless others point not only to the man on the cross, Jesus Christ, but also to the very same being startlingly identified in Scripture: that he was also the Son of God.  He was mortal; he was God.  There was competition for that title in Jesus’ day but no faithful Jew believed it.  Augustus Caesar was one of the many Caesars to rule the Roman Empire over the years, and it was he who ordered the title “Lord and God” to be added to his name.  “Blasphemy” Jews believed. What did the Roman citizens do? They kept quiet, that’s what, for the Pax Romana, which was the peace of the Roman Empire in their day was achieved by squashing riots, objections, or challenges with brutal crucifixions and sporting dismemberments in the Circus Maximus.  They kept peace by making everyone tow the line that Caesar himself drew.

The group of Jews in Israel and Judah were part of that kingdom, since they themselves had not controlled their own destinies for over 200 years.  From that group, one preacher named Isaiah, ages earlier, proclaimed words that gave hope to Jews and were dismissed by non-Jews as wishful thinking. What were those words?  “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; they who dwelt in the land of deepest darkness, upon them hath the light shined. For unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder.” And what will this child’s name be, or what title will be given to him? “Wonderful counselor;” Isaiah first said. Okay, the world had wonderful counselors before; they could have another. But the next title caught in everyone’s throat: “Mighty God.” Mighty God!!!! Wait a minute!  Jews knew that the Lord their God was one God!  Romans would not have thought a Jew was predicting such a birth of a Roman boy! What was this announcement, early in Isaiah 7, that said a young woman would conceive and bear a son, that would mean she was having a human child, except for the curious title to be given to the child: “Emmanuel: God with us?” Other children’s names meant things like “God’s peace,” or “Jesus Saves.” But this child was to be called “Mighty God!” Which was he? God or man; Divine, or mortal; Heavenly or human?  Yes.  Yes is the bewildering Scriptural answer:  The one born years, later, according to John, was not only the Lamb of God, the Good Shepherd, the Door, and the Way, he was “The Word;” and the word was God. 

Three centuries later, in defense of the words that are in our Bibles today, Christians fought, and prayed and studied and sweat to make sure this amazing and powerful claim did not get swayed to one weak side or the other.  Jesus is truly and fully a human being, the Bible says, and truly and fully God; not half and half, not more one than the other.  If Jesus were just mortal, he might have fine teachings and be inspiring, but he would have no more ability to save us than any other fine rabbi. If Jesus were God alone, then all of the testimonies about him shedding human blood, and being tempted, and getting tired, and needing sleep, and needing food, would have been a lie.  So St. Paul mounted his Asia Minor pulpits and proclaimed, especially in Corinth, that “God was in Christ.” (2 Corinthians 5:19) He was in Christ on the Cross, during the miracles, during his arrest, and as he taught. It was John who said that the Word was God, which became flesh and lived among us; (John chapter 1) and it was Jesus himself who said “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9)  So to keep Christianity from drifting into false teachings, defenses and rebuttals were set up with official and prayerfully adopted documents that were not Scripture, but protected the integrity of Scripture. The one that finally got called the Nicene Creed protected the idea that was shared by the girls in Barbara Brown Taylor’s dorm room; it’s the idea brought forth from the prophet Isaiah; it’s the one solidified in St. Paul and St. John’s Scripture texts: that Jesus was of one substance with the Father; not similar to, not close to, but the same as. And it was the Son of God and Son of Man who died on the cross for you, and for me.  It took the blood, sweat, and tears of the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. and finally the revision by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D.  (over 125 years!), for the church to come up with the document- the defense of the faith- that we have in our statements of faith, and that every other creedal branch of Christianity has in theirs: Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox: the Nicene Creed- the creed of Communion: the other famous creed is the Apostles’ Creed- the creed of Baptism, but it is not used in Eastern Orthodox Churches. The statement in the Nicene Creed: “of one Being with the Father” has to do with both how Jesus knows our pains, our sorrows, our deep despair and depth of sin; and, how Jesus also has the power to save us from them. Only Jesus has the power to both walk beside us and lift us up; to know our sorrows and how to save us from them; to empathize and sanctify; Jesus can do it all.

 If there is one place outside of Scripture where the Jesus who relates to human suffering and the Jesus who lifts us up from suffering is most demonstrated, it is in the power of the Spirituals and gospel songs: In the spiritual, “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me” did the writer of that song want the carpenter who drove nails into wood and stone with a hammer, or the Savior who had the two edged sword? YES! In “What a Friend We Have in Jesus;” did that writer mean the human man Jesus or the holy God Jesus? YES! And in “Were you There When They Crucified My Lord?” did the writer mean the man who stilled the waters and calmed the sea, or did he mean the Son who bled and died when God in Christ took away our sin? YES! Thank God for spirituals that connect the Heavenly Christ with the Human one. Thank God for creeds that mount a formidable defense against those who would twist the meaning of Scripture to fit their own teaching; and thank God for faithful witnesses like those two girls in a dormitory room years ago, because the fine preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor, names those 20 minutes as her conversion to Christ that brought her to seminary, to the ordained ministry, and to the Christian pulpit. God was in Christ, reconciling you … and me, and countless others to himself. Is your life so good that you don’t need him?  Is your soul so weak that you can’t call on him?  Find a way, a way to call on the Savior: the bridge, over your chasm of sin.

Let us pray: “I accept Jesus Christ as my person Lord and Savior, and others here do to; if still others here wish it now, I ask for Jesus to come in to the life of all who invite him; today, here, and now. May conversion begin for them today. In His name I pray. Amen.”

Now, you might be saying, out of all those good gospel hymns he named, why are we going to sing this hymn???  Listen to what Hymnologist Austin Lovelace has written about “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence:” “This ancient prayer is one of the oldest in the Christian Church, traditionally ascribed to St. James, the brother of Jesus. Its first written form existed in the mid fourth century [while the Nicene Creed was being formulated] and it was written in both Greek and Syriac, and is still sung in Jerusalem on Sundays after Christmas. It is appropriate for the celebration of the Incarnation.” [When God comes to earth in the person of Jesus Christ.] [HYMN NOTES FOR CHURCH BULLETINS, GIA, 1987, p.61.]

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                            January 13, 2008

01-06-08 SALVATION

SALVATION

Psalm 33: 13-22; Acts 10: 34-48

 

St. Thomas Aquinas once wrote: “Three things are necessary for the salvation of [mortals:] to know what they ought to believe, to know what they ought to desire, and to know what they ought to do.”  A little later than our Acts text today, in the New Testament, the timeless question was asked; “What must I do to be saved?” [Acts 16:20]  But those who are ignorant of the early church theologians like Aquinas, or who do not regularly hear a sermon preached on Scripture but just dip into it to find support for a particular cherished belief, can be swayed to act like their salvation costs them something rather than the way that The New Testament teaches: Our salvation cost God something: a high, high price of love. Still ever since the New Testament was written, there are tales of people trying to work out their own salvation, such as the morality play called “Faust,” where he sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power; or Stephen Vincent Benet’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster” who receives a decade of material wealth in exchange for selling his soul to the devil called “Mr. Scratch.” These stories of people seeking their own fame, fortune, glory, or dare we call it, salvation, are not just in the past; they are happening every day.  What child thought his or her life would be ruined this Christmas if they didn’t get a certain phone, certain, game, or certain toy? What youth thinks life is over without a certain car, a certain guy or girl, or a certain accessory of clothing? Not salvation issues you say? Try telling that to teenagers. What adults try to change the lumps of coal that life seems to have left them by playing the lottery, or quick picks, or any number of sweepstakes, thinking that getting rich will be their salvation?  On any number of game shows or contest shows I have seen over the holidays, a frightening number of contestants have “spent their last dime” to get to the show for a chance at, say, a million dollars. What is not promoted as much, except on news shows, is the misery that comes with getting a windfall of money- the line that forms to borrow or ask for some; the divisions that form when the winners say “no” to requests, and the trappings that come with fame.  The meltdown of yet another star who has sought to work out her own salvation has been one of the stars not to follow this Epiphany season. And there are plenty of more subtle ways that people put shaky saviors on the fifty yard lines of their lives:  husbands or wives figuring ways to get out of their marriages by spending emotional time with others; men or women not investing themselves in the job they have because they believe they deserve the job they want. Teens and college aged girls saving all their money for surgery to get the glamorous look they want; or men and women of any age thinking that getting thin will be their salvation. There are so many who put their fortunes and their faith in charlatans, quacks, and impossible dreams. 

 

Human nature hasn’t changed much over the centuries; opportunists have just come up with new schemes to try to fulfill people’s longings. But once all of the other schemes fall by the wayside, your church is still here preaching Jesus Christ and teaching the faith; your pastor is still here pulling for you, praying for you, and seeking to help rescue from dangers; but most of all, Jesus Christ, whose portrait has been attempted by countless artists and even children with crayons, may be illusive in that we cannot see him, but is dependable because in faith we know he is with us. The real thing came into the world long ago, on Christmas Day.  We know from the Old Testament that an unblemished lamb paid the price for sins at the Temple, so Jesus was called the Lamb of God, by John. We know that magi, who were like the Levites of Judea except they were likely from Persia, were respected prophets and watchers of the stars. They believed that the character of a child born could be seen according to the time of year and time of day in which a child was born. And history has recorded two or three astrological events that would have pointed to Jesus’ birth in Judea. Even Roman historians knew about it. The historian Seutonius wrote: “There has spread all over the Orient an old and established belief that it was fated at the time from men coming from Judea to rule the world.” [Suetonius: LIFE OF VESPASIAN, 4:5] And Tacitus wrote “The East was to grow powerful, and rulers coming from Judea were to acquire a universal empire.” [Tacitus: HISTORIES, 5:13] And so, pulling together the message of Jewish Prophets, and Roman historians, who foretold what came true,  was a man who was both a Jew and a Roman citizen: St. Paul the Apostle, in his many letters. And today, it is St. Peter himself being described in Acts as one who finally understood and preached that Salvation was offered by God not just to Jews but first to Jews. Then, to both Jew and Gentile alike, the salvation that came into the world described in John was a reality. And in naming the child, Mary and Joseph got guidance from the messenger of God to let this child’s role be clear to all the world: his name would be Jesus, the Greek form of the Hebrew name, Joshua, which means: “The Lord is Salvation.”  Count on it, today, this year, and forever. Jesus saves; and Jesus has already saved some of you; and he can save any others who, this day, call on his name and follow him as Savior. So, do you want to be saved?

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           January 6, 2008