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John 1: 43-51


My text for today is from the mouth of the Lord Jesus himself: “Truly, truly I say unto you: you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” 

The Father of Presbyterianism, John Calvin was born in 1509 in Noyon, France. While at the University of Paris he began to study law, the area which his father demanded he pursue. He was a brilliant student, but upon his father’s death in 1531, Calvin felt free to pursue interests of his own, which included ancient languages and literature. By age 23 he had completed his Doctor of Laws degree and published his first book. Two years later, he helped to draft a sermon for a friend of his, who delivered the sermon at the university. It accused current theologians of heresy (wrong belief) and set off such a storm that the two had to flee the city. It was after that experience that John Calvin had a conversion experience- not just in his head, for he was already a believer- no, it was an encounter with God that changed his life. From that time forth, according to former Stetson Chaplain Clyde Fant, “he was fully committed to a ministry of proclaiming the Word of God and purifying the life of the church.” It was Calvin who turned the hearts and the government of Geneva Switzerland to Christ, making it a theocracy of church and government, not separate, but together, intertwined in word and action.  He demanded right preaching, free education, clean government, and righteous living. He wanted God to be central in the lives of the citizens. Geneva is our first city of angels today. We remember it as Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man, was present in people’s actions and words, sending their prayers up to Heaven and conveying God’s guidance through the prayerful hearts of preachers. Thanks be to God for John Calvin.


But Geneva wasn’t the first city of angels. The Apostle Paul, as recorded in the New Testament of God’s Word, had his own conversion experience on the road to Damascus, moving from a persecutor of Christians to an evangelist for Christ after one blinding encounter with the Savior. The last half of the Bible is filled with cities he influenced or visited: Ephesus, Corinth, Thessalonika, and Athens among them. It was in Athens that his sermon to the philosophers was preached; those joining me on our Holy Land travels in March will visit that site. Paul’s words of Christian influence are recorded in rock there, and in word in Acts 17.  His preaching convicted some of his listeners so that they said to him “We want to hear you speak again about the one who rose from the dead.” One man, the Apostle Paul, preaching Christ, did not turn the entire aforementioned cities into cities of angels, but conclaves of Christians became a light for their darkness in each city.  Jesus began sending their prayers up to heaven and conveying God’s guidance to the people through Paul. Thanks be to God for him.


A student of John Calvin took his understanding of Christ back to his homeland of bonnie Scotland. Born near his beloved Edinburgh, John Knox had his spiritual enlightenment in 1543. He and his associate George Wishart were fiery challengers of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland and later of her Catholic queen. For his preaching Wishart– an ancestor of our own former church member, Ron Taylor, who now lives in Michigan- was burned at the stake. Burned at the stake as a Christian by so-called Christians; it was a crisis time for the faith. Ironically, it was with the assistance of Catholic Frenchmen that Knox was captured and imprisoned for his Christian work. He was placed on a French warship as a galley slave, chained down, and forced to pull the oars. It was grueling work. Upon his release from prison two years later, he first went to England as a successful minister. He then went to Frankfurt, Germany and ultimately to Geneva where his Christianity was reinforced by John Calvin, and a way to run a city dawned on him as a way to run a country. He brought the doctrines and polity (governmental plans) back to his homeland of Scotland. His battles with the Scottish Queen Mary became legendary.  He ultimately won, and Mary lost the throne and her life. Knox made sure Edinburgh became yet another city of angels. He called for right preaching and administering of the sacraments, and honest government. Jesus became present in people’s words and actions, as he sent their prayers up to heaven, and conveyed God’s guidance through faithful ministers. Thanks be to God for John Knox.


It was Frances Makemie who was called the Father of American Presbyterianism. Ironically, he was born and ordained in Ireland, a country not generally noted for its Presbyterian roots. It was while in Scotland, enrolled in the University of Glasgow in 1676, that he witnessed the extensive Presbyterian persecution that rose in Ulster and Scotland. His conversion experience convinced him to begin studying for the ministry. He was ordained in Northern Ireland by the Presbytery of Laggan so he could accept a call to become a missionary to America, establishing or preaching in congregations in Maryland, Virginia, New England, and Philadelphia. He established the Presbytery of Philadelphia and became its first Moderator, thus starting the Presbyterian Church in the United States in 1706.  Many cities of angels were established by his preaching, as he lifted up the message of Christ wherever he went. Jesus became present in the people’s actions and words, at least for a time. But like those who had gone before them and those who would come after them, they would slip back into sinful actions, needing weekly reminders from pulpits, including the condemnation of vice and the encouragement of virtue. Jesus sent their prayers up to heaven and sent down guidance through American pulpits. Thanks be to God for Frances Makemie, who received a call from God and traveled far for Jesus.


It would be another Scotsman who would bring Christ to Washington D.C. in the middle part of this century. Peter Marshall was born in Coatbridge, Scotland in 1902. At age 14 he joined the Royal Navy, but when they discovered how young he was, they sent him home. He studied Mechanical Engineering at the local Technical School. But what brought him to Christ? According to one source, a number of events. “He had several narrow escapes from death, convincing him that the Lord had significant plans for him. His own home had been deeply religious. But it was a missionary from China who ended up bringing the word to his receptive ears. At that service he publicly announced his plans to enter the ministry.” [Fant] Though he started seminary in Glasgow, a Scotsman friend urged him to move with him to America. The First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham, Alabama helped support Peter as he entered Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. His first call to ministry was in Covington, Alabama and his second in Atlanta where he married Catherine, who would later write his biography, calling it “A MAN CALLED PETER.” His final two calls were the most influential: the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., and finally to become Chaplain of the U.S Senate. By 1938 he had become a naturalized citizen of the U.S. Peter Marshall, made cities of angels wherever he preached. He is credited with instituting the “Kirkin’ O’ the Tartans” service. When he was at Westminster Presbyterian in Atlanta, a newspaper columnist wrote: “Peter Marshall has everything; he was called to an empty church on Ponce de Leon Avenue and shortly thereafter had it overcrowded. If you would like to see a heartening and amazing sight, go and listen to this boy preach, but go early.” (Catherine Marshall) Appropriate for today, his wife also wrote these words about her husband: “As Peter stood in the pulpit, people always seemed to be seeing him against a backdrop comprised of Edinburgh Castle, John Knox, bagpipes, and the Fifty-first Division, with a touch of heather thrown in.”  In Covington, Atlanta, and Washington D.C., Peter Marshall brought an unflinching message of Christ for the masses, leaving them with a picture of their Savior with rugged carpenter hands, fiery eyes towards sin and kind ones toward the poor, and a conviction to make a difference in the world.

Thanks be to God for Peter Marshall.


Today as our eyes look toward our nation’s Capitol this week, we again want Washington D.C. to become a city of angels; a city on a hill; a place where Jesus is present in people’s words and actions; a place where prayers are offered to Jesus so that they might be received favorably by his Father; a place that will be guided by the Savior’s own Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus described what a Kingdom city …indeed a Kingdom country, should be like. We pray also that from this pulpit and others in our city, and from your lives and actions, those whom we meet will be transformed … converted … unto Christ, and that this congregation, this community, and this nation will honor Him.  Today let us give all glory and praise to the Lord Jesus Christ, who shows us the way to honor God for all the ages.

Jeffrey Sumner                                      January 18, 2009



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Well, our big gift-giving day is over for another year. What was your best gift in recent memory?  Mine was a small painting from my parents two years ago.


See, growing up, my parents had a series of paintings by the one artist – The wolf at the door and the wolf at the table. <describe> I loved the paintings growing up, but we got them from a three rivers arts festival, so I never expected to get one of my own.


But my parents ran into this artist this summer and bought one of her pieces that fit me perfectly.  It was unexpected. And not really useful. I mean, what use is another piece of art?


I didn’t even really have a place for it, but it was the perfect gift.


Ever gotten that kind of gift? That doesn’t have a real use in your life? Are you the sort of person that just sticks it on the bookshelf or in the attic? Or do you actually appreciate that type of gift?


Gifts like these reflect the spontaneous, unpredictable giving that makes for joyful surprises. Sometimes the most practical gifts are not always the best gifts to give.


What person here truly enjoys getting a brand new multi-purpose mop or one of those “Lose Weight in Twenty Days” kinds of books? Or who is really happy getting yet another pair of the same boring socks?


So this morning we come to the magi who show up from the East bearing gifts for the Child-King, Jesus. Because of these magi who appear in Matthew’s gospel, the whole tradition of gift-giving got its start. It goes all the way back to these magi and their gifts for baby Jesus.


Matthew says that, after their long journey from the East, when they at last arrived Bethlehem, led by a star, and “They went into the house, and when they saw the child with his mother Mary, they knelt down and worshiped him. They brought out their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and presented them to him” (Matthew 2:11).


Did you notice the presents that these magi brought baby Jesus? Pretty strange gifts aren’t they? Especially for a baby. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There are a couple of different theories as to why they did this.


Some think that these three gifts were the three ingredients that the magi used in their secret incantations. That’s where we get the word “magician” from-the magi. These magi dabbled in the secret arts of magic and alchemy. So what did it mean when they gave these three items to the Christ child? Maybe they were demonstrating that they were no longer pagan dabblers in black magic; maybe they were the first to make a turn around by bowing before the true God and giving him the symbols of their old life.


Maybe. But others have suggested that the gifts are symbols that foreshadow the kind of life that this little baby will grow up to live. In a sense, these three gifts do give us a thumbnail sketch of the life of Christ. Gold, for instance, was the symbol of royalty. Jesus would be called a king. But what about the frankincense and myrrh?


Frankincense was burned to honor the deity. It was part of the worship ceremonies of the priests. Christ was and would be the son of God. Myrrh is used to anoint and embalm the dead. This gift even at a young age could mark his painful death on the cross.


However you understand the magi’s gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, it still seems to me odd gifts to give a baby.


Okay, so anyone can use a little gold here and there, but otherwise we have some pretty useless gifts here. Perfume? For an infant? Come on.


Not the practical kind of presents that I would have given. Instead, it looks to me as if baby Jesus is receiving some of those “good intention” kind of presents. A more thoughtful, practical gift might have been food, clothing, or tickets out of town to escape Herod. Give the kid some clothes, a US savings bond, a blue blanket maybe.


But not a two-ounce nugget and two bottles of perfume. What silly, pointless, useless gifts the magi laid before this poor baby!


So what does this say about what we give God?


Mostly practical things, I suspect. Tithes, and offerings, carefully crafted prayers like “The apostles Creed” which we prayed this morning. We give God some of our voice during the hymns. A smile or two. Show up and give God an hour and fifteen minutes of our time on Sunday mornings.  That’s what we owe to God, right?


Those are all practical gifts, the expected gifts that have the right size, color, design, and fabric. Do we need to give such gifts? Absolutely. More now than ever – if you’ve taken a look at the economy. Without the usual, sensible gifts like tithes and offerings we would never pay the light bills, the staff or pastoral salaries, never launch a mission, never pull off an evangelism outreach or offer kindness to homeless folks.


But don’t go to the magi to find out how to offer God those kinds of gifts; instead, go to the magi to discover how to offer God seemingly useless, unpredictable, spontaneous, give-what-you-have kinds of presents.


Gifts that erupt from the heart. Give God something of yourself. That’s what the magi tell us. It might be a painting that you have no real place for and merely touches a childhood memory, or it might be saying,


“No, I’ve never been in a small group before, but I want to begin.”  “I’ve never really attended this Sunday School class, but helping our children is one thing that I can do.”  “I’m retired-have served in this church faithfully for many years; I don’t have much to give you, God, but I’ll give what I can – I’ll give myself to help this congregation grow and thrive.”


“I’m busy and overworked, but yes, I’m willing to drive to the other side of the country, sleep in a tent and take cold showers all so that I can help the youth grow in their faith.”


“The only true gift,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “is a portion of yourself.”


The Philadelphia Inquirer ran an interesting story several seasons ago about the homeless shelters. Seems all the soup kitchens are overcrowded at Christmas, but not with the homeless and impoverished.


 No, they’re overcrowded and have even had to turn away, church groups who wanted to lend a helping hand during the Christmas season. The article went on to say that those same kitchens work at times with a skeleton crew much of the rest of the year for lack of just one church group coming to help them.


That’s what I’m saying. Offer God gifts that come from spontaneity, from gratitude, not from warm feelings and holiday seasons. To all of the wonderful gifts that we offer God each Sunday-our worship, our voice, and the words of our liturgy; to all of our prayers and the check we drop in the plate-add one more thing: yourselves.


God gave us what God had. In this baby in the manger, we are bold to say that we have seen the fullness of God. God has finally given himself.


Today I’m offering you a challenge. You will find in the narthex a basket filled with these yellow stars. Each of the stars has a word on it. It is your Epiphany star and the word on it is your gift for the year.


 This is a spiritual exercise that has been growing in popularity throughout the churches. I participated in it these past few years – getting the star from my mother’s church in New Jersey. My first word was Acceptance. 


While originally I thought this was asking me to accept others, as the year went on, I realized I was given the gift of acceptance of myself for the year. My life has changed in a lot of ways over the past six months, but I believe every change is for the better – and has strengthened my acceptance and my sense of myself.


This past year, my word was Participation. I thought that it meant that since I was moving to a new church, I should be trying to participate in as many activities as possible. I think that was definitely true, but the word went farther than that. Moving to a new area means that you should participate in every activity you get a chance to. Its hard fitting into a new community, but the more you participate the more chances  you have to find your niche.


So I challenge you now. Take a word as you leave. Don’t look for a word you like. Just pick one. Put it somewhere you will see it every day – your bathroom mirror, your dashboard, or on your computer. I keep mine on my fridge door. Think about what gift God is giving you with it. Follow your star to the epiphany of your year.


I was amazed in one Christmas pageant I saw part way through my seminary experience. Little three and four foot magi and princesses paraded down the aisle, bearing gifts of beads, perfume, and gold cardboard boxes. And the youth did an outstanding job of plunking, whacking, and wheezing through strange magi-type instruments. But for those who looked past the script-some real gold, frankincense, and myrrh was being offered. While all of us adults were all droning on in We Three Kings of Orient Are, with predictable, polite meter, something broke loose up before the altar. Right in the middle of the third verse, a four-year-old boy named Jordy cut loose with a dance; little Jordy whirled around laughing and full of exhilaration. That wasn’t scheduled in the bulletin-I checked. Totally spontaneous and freely offered.


From oldest to youngest, we are the magi invited to worship God, to give gifts that break beyond the accustomed, predictable gifts into spontaneous, wonderfully authentic and joyful worship.






This is the joyful feast of the people of God. They will come from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south, and sit at table in the Kingdom of God.

According to Luke, when our risen Lord was at table with his disciples, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them; and their eyes were opened and they recognized him.  This is the Lord’s Table. Our Savior invites those who trust him and call him Lord to share his meal which he has prepared.”

(8:45 For this service you will be invited to come forward in two lines, partake of the bread and cup, and deposit the cups in the baskets held by the children. At the end of that process if you have been unable to come forward and would like communion, it will be brought to you.)

11:00 For our service we use unfermented wine (grape juice) and common bread, and you will be invited to serve one another, demonstrating the Priesthood of All Believer and remembering that we are to serve others in the world.


The Lord be with you. Lift up your hearts. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

Gracious God, our hearts rejoice in your presence, as we give you our thanks and praise, for you are the fulfillment of all our searching. Since the time you created all things you have had a plan — hidden in mystery through the ages — to draw all the world into one body, and to share with all peoples your promises of glory.

And now the light has risen, the mystery is made known: your beloved child, Jesus, is revealed to the whole world as Savior and Redeemer, and as the King who reigns in justice and peace. You made him known first to the magi from the east, who came to pay him homage, though they knew of him only what the silent stars could tell.

And now, you draw us again to the feet of Jesus — the crucified and risen Christ — to offer our gifts of praise to the light of the world. Therefore, with our hearts lifted high, we offer you thanks and praise at all times through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.