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THE BIRTH OF THE NEW CREATION

Micah 5: 2-5a; Luke 1: 46-55

 

There have been plenty of fiery debates about when life begins, but I have heard fewer discussions about when salvation was created.  In our anthem today: Tschesnokoff declares that “Salvation is created” and then the people and the angels praise God with “Alleluias” which means they give God praise!  The words to prepare for worship today were written by John Brownlow Geyer in 1967 when he was a tutor at Cheshunt College, Cambridge. Says Geyer: “At that time a good deal of work was going on round the corner (involving a number of American research students) producing living cells. The hymn attempts to illustrate the Christian doctrine of baptism in relation to those experiments.” [Linda Jo McKim, The Presbyterian Hymnal Companion, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993, 495] But the words to the first line of our “words to prepare for worship” seem to describe the Christ of Bethlehem. It is a reading from the gospel of John, at the end of our Christmas Eve services that will declare: “In the beginning (meaning at the creation of the world) the Word was with God (that Jesus Christ was there!) and the Word was God! (Jesus Christ is one of the persons of God) … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us! (” [exclamations mine] Did you note Geyer’s words in your bulletin? “A new creation comes to life and grows.” (Could that describe the eternal Christ who was in the beginning and the end; who came to earth to dwell as Jesus Christ; who was prophesied to be born on earth in Bethlehem; and who was born with unfortunate timing for the young and unmarried Mary, but who was born with divinely providential timing?)  Matthew quoted Isaiah who, seven hundred years earlier, said, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called ‘Immanuel.’ All of a sudden a teenage girl, not married to a man but promised to him, is told she is expecting a child; and he is not the father! To the human race that information would be called ‘good news.’ We are amazed that Mary indicates no anxiety about sharing this news with her mother, her father, or her betrothed. The song continues: “As Christ’s new body takes on flesh in blood.” That is the doctrine of Christmas called the Incarnation. It’s the time when God became flesh and lived among us on Earth. That is the heart of Christmas; And the story unfolds in the little town of Bethlehem. Geyer’s words conclude Tschesnokoff concludes his salvation anthem: with a restored universe that sings “alleluia!” A restored universe singing “Alleluia!” is the motivation that drives the holy heart of God. That’s what God wants to hear!  Perhaps some people can’t wait until Christmas, and others until their wedding, and others until retirement, but God can’t wait until the universe is restored, delivered from its pockets of killing, and greed, and jealousy, and brokenness. So this week, the earth or more specifically the human race, may not yet celebrate the fulfillment of salvation, but it will celebrate its birth. 

 

When will you date your own salvation? Is it when you were born because you were, even then, a child of God, loved by God? Is it from your profession of faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior? Or do you date your salvation from the first Easter when Jesus arose from the dead; or from the first Christmas when “Christ the Savior” was born? This will be a season of personal recognition for many insightful people who will name the time when they knew that salvation was theirs.

 

Ages ago when the Northern Kingdom of Israel still existed because the Assyrians had not yet conquered its capital, Micah was preaching to any political figure and common citizen who would listen. His words were directed in exceptionally harsh ways to his faithless fellow citizens who had allowed oppression to flourish and government to grow increasingly crooked.  Micah had no use for politicians because they allowed gross injustices to continue.  Micah, who had heard from God in the matter, was pegging his hopes on a person in the line of David who would carry on the great tradition of justice and peace. Ever since King David chose Jerusalem as his capital, his hometown of Bethlehem had become less and less significant. Yet it was still the hometown of the King! It was where David’s father and his grandfather were from! Micah believed God when God told him that another king, also a shepherd king, who would be a proponent of peace and justice, would be born in Bethlehem. With the long lens of Christianity, we look with excitement as the glass slipper fits the infant foot of a baby born in Bethlehem to a virgin named Mary. She was not having a child by her fiancé Joseph, much to his early surprise and his later acceptance. She was having a child by God. Who would have believed it? Even Mary wasn’t sure that the angel who delivered the message to her had all the answers: “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” as the gorgeous King James Version puts her question. (Luke 1:34) When Mary hears the explanation she says “Very well,” or in King James, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy word.” (Luke 1: 38) And then, it is almost as if Mary knew the passion of Micah, the issues of Micah, and perhaps even the issues of God. Out of this young woman’s mouth come words that begin with glory, but they continue with the threat of condemnation like the sermons that Micah must have preached. Listen to this so called “Song of Mary:” “His mercy is for those who fear him…. He has scattered the proud; he has brought down the powerful from their thrones.” (Mary’s words are a history lesson for those who might have forgotten God’s record with such rulers, and an affirmation to the angel that Mary knows God’s heart in these matters.) She goes on: “He has lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things.” (Luke 1: 50-53)  Whether Mary is looking back affirming or looking forward hoping, her words are far more fierce than a sheltered girl would know. She is more than a physical handmaid of the Lord; she is also a witness to God as she remembers perhaps, what has taught to her by her parents, or grandparents, or by the local rabbi. She’s got it; she gets who God is, what God has done, and what God is likely to do with a world filled with injustice. She names what God has done before with both rich and poor people. In our day it would be like God confronting those in the news who have made millions for themselves, and comforting those threatened with eviction or bankruptcy. God’s justice wheels are turning for those who, from lay-offs, poor health, or crushing bills, have a water shut-off notice or cars that can’t be driven because of bad tires or no fuel. She sees that when the new creation breaks in “the rich will be sent empty away.” I wonder what Mary would say about executives who got bailouts a year ago and who’ve accepted seven figure salaries and bonuses a year later as others can hardly pay their bills or find work? I wonder what Micah would say to Congress? And more importantly, I wonder what Micah would tell us to do to let to help justice to roll down like waters?  I wond
er what the hard-hitting mother of Jesus would say about my life, or yours?
I think God knows exactly what a new creation will look like in our world, and if I’m right, it doesn’t look like December of 2009. The world needs a new creation; people’s hearts need a new creation; but it won’t happen until some rich people lose their spoon and some powerful people get their comfortable connections dismantled. It won’t happen until people who can’t get health care get it; until people who don’t have enough food have it; and until people who can’t find help can find it. We have a strong man and a strong young woman in our texts today both preaching the same messages. And who is listening? In Bethlehem 2000 years ago, some of the wisest people in the world traveled from the East to see the one born King of the Jews; they set aside their other work and followed a star to find him. Bumper stickers still say “Wise men still seek him.” What will it take to begin to make the world into what God and Micah though it should be, and what Mary and God know it must be?

 

Our world certainly enjoys some wonderful events at Christmas. But hearts tuned for holiness are troubled by what is going on, even after 2000 years. Perhaps the changes don’t need to start in the halls of Washington, or the Temple in Jerusalem. Changes can start in little towns in recessions, like Bethlehem, or the ones sprinkled around Daytona Beach, filled with hard-working people watching for signs of wonder and working for justice even here. So today we honor that Ruth and Boaz, Jesse and David, Mary and Almighty God all chose the little town of Bethlehem as the birthplace of our new creation.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                   December 20, 2009

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JOY

Zephaniah 3: 14-20; Philippians 4:4-7

 

In the prologue to his wonderful daily devotional called GRACE FOR THE MOMENT, Max Lucado says:  “Each day I am free to choose; because of Calvary, I’m free to choose. And so I choose … love.” That is his first point. As I started his book I joined him in silently declaring that: I too choose to love God and others. He then says “I choose peace.” That I could do too. Peace in tandem with justice is a winning combination to me. I too choose to work for peace. He then says “I choose forgiveness” and I knew I was with him there. I have gone through days, months, even years not forgiving another person. It sapped my energy every day; it drained my spirit every day; and it changed my mood every day. I have certainly decided to choose forgiveness. But the last point on the page made me struggle: Max says: and I choose joy. I don’t think that I am a glass-half-empty kind of guy, but I still wonder if I can choose joy. Certainly there I times I’ve experienced joy in wonderful and serendipitous moments; certainly I have hoped for joy for another person. But is all the human garbage in the world prohibiting or inhibiting me from declaring “I choose joy?” Political wrangling saps joy; knowing the secret anguishes of couples and singles can make joy difficult for me. It was Smokey Robinson who identified that there are few things sadder than “the tears of a clown, when there’s no one around,” Today I wonder how I can choose joy. And yet, Christmas carols implore Good Christian men (and women) to “Rejoice!” We sing of “Tiding of comfort and joy, comfort and joy, at the birth of the Savior.” I thought about the poignant 1966 song called “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night, sung by Simon and Garfunkel. As the beautiful harmonies on “Silent Night, Holy Night” are sung, a local newscaster’s voice grows louder and louder, almost drowning out the music with the report from the evening news: a civil rights march, a drug overdose, and wrangling in the House and Senate. I still wonder if I can choose joy. Certainly there are times, such as Christmas dinner or Christmas morning, when each of us could choose to compliment instead of criticize; to redirect children’s arguments into energy for games; or to embrace what Christmas is rather than pine for what Christmas no longer can be. Like the Simon and Garfunkel song, underneath the House and Senate wrangling, the drug overdoses, the affairs, and the men and women in uniform in harms way, is a persistent theme, a theme that grows louder, as a trumpet: The words of the prophet are these: “Sing! Shout! Rejoice! … The Lord will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love! He will exult over you with loud singing, as on a day of a festival!”  And when I read that, if it’s not too blasphemous to say, I picture the Lord smiling, and laughing, and celebrating. Do we allow ourselves the chance to picture a laughing Lord? Then reality sets in: there are words of judgment and doom before the ones of comfort and joy. The Bible has its share of “corrections,” of holy prescriptions on how to return to spiritual health. But the Bible also describes blessings- rewards that are ours for lives lived well. Chapter three of Zephaniah is the good news for those who “waited patiently for the Lord and served him with one accord.” Have you waited patiently for the Lord? I’ve asked myself the same question. How and when, then, shall we rejoice?

 

In the Christmas story, the 7 o’clock News includes a report of the maniacal King Herod murdering yet another family member, the Romans increasing taxes, and beggars, widows, and orphan crying for mercy. But suddenly, drifting in to the news report comes the messages of angels: One announced to Zechariah (father of John the Baptist, who is different from the prophet Zephaniah): “Fear not Zechariah, … thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. And thou shalt have joy and gladness, and many shall rejoice at his birth.”  [Luke 1:13-14] Angels described the joy that a childless old man and his wife would have, and the world would have too! That’s amazing! An angel then appeared to the Virgin Mary and told her the incredible news that she would bear a son, who will be the son of God. To her credit, she accepted the news, and then she rejoiced! “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit rejoices with God my Savior!” [Luke 1: 46-47]  The Christmas story is so full of people rejoicing that it makes the bad news of the world inaudible. Let me say that again: The Christmas story is so full of people rejoicing that it makes the bad news of the world inaudible! In fact, joy is not just a Christmas anomaly, it a Christian way of life for many! Take the apostle Paul for instance. He gets arrested and imprisoned, he is run out of towns, he has at least one major human impediment that he calls his “thorn in the flesh,” and he cannot make a living doing the Lord’s work so he has to work on the side making tents. Yet what do we find him doing while in prison? Singing; singing, and rejoicing, and converting the jailor by his joy! What a witness! In his letter to the Philippians, Paul speaks of either joy or rejoicing twelve times in four chapters. In today’s text he just gets delirious with joy: as the camp song put it “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice!” One might wonder how out of touch with reality this man was who, after enduring jails, criticisms, and physical limitations, said we should have no anxiety about anything! “Do you know what I’m going through, Paul?” you might want to cry out. And the man who had no real home, no car, a criminal record, critics, and a handicap might say right back: “Yes, I have a pretty good idea what you’re going through! But Jesus saves! In a land of pompous men, god figurines sold to unsuspecting tourists, and shallow lives, the news that Jesus saves is good news!” I can hear Paul say that and I can hear the enthusiastic way that he would say it! Presbyterian pastor and writer Earl Palmer describes Paul’s letter to the Philippians like this: “Here in verse 4 the call to rejoice is repeated. It is too much to say that joy is the theme of the letter, because nowhere does Paul describe it or treat it as a subject. But because it permeates his message, we can say that joy is the spirit of the letter. The apostle who once sang hymns with his partner Silas in a prison in Philippi (Acts 16: 25), now writes a letter of thanks to Philippi from another prison! With his [own] life in danger, Paul calls on the Philippians to rejoice with him in the Lord.” [Roger E. Van Harn, THE LECTIONARY COMMENTARY, Eerdman’s 2001, p.369.]  Hmmmmm. Max Lucado chose joy. God chose to rejoice over a repentant nation named Judah; angels told an old man who was about to become a father to rejoice, and another told a very young woman who was about to become a mother to rejoice. Young motherhood and old fatherhood can usually bring on worries, but they still heard the announcement and rejoiced! Paul chose joy even in prison.

Around the ch
urch, it seems, angels have planted messages wherever I go. On the bulletin inserts each week I see the words, Christmas joy! On the bulletin boards, angels get my attention with the words Christmas joy! Little church-shaped banks I gave out to children say Christmas joy! How hard-headed do I have to be? I hope your head isn’t as thick as mine!  With all the bad news of the world at the first Christmas, God chose joy. With all the bad news from the world at Christmas this year, I will join the ones I’ve read about in the Bible! I will join Paul! I will join Mary too! I will do it, Max! I will join you in choosing joy!

The angels in heaven are waiting on the edge of the clouds; they are waiting now with great hope, to see also what you will do with Christmas joy ….

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                         December 13, 2009   

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PREPARATION

Malachi 3: 1-4; Luke 3: 1-6

 

Sometimes our journeys demand preparation.  If you traveled any distance over Thanksgiving, or perhaps last summer, you had a better trip if you prepared.  If you have taken a recent cruise you found out that not only do you need to pack the different types of clothing you’ll want, and your different medications and toiletries, you will also need your passport. You will need that for sure or you’ll stay in the terminal as your ship sails. And these days the name under which you have booked your cruise needs to be the name on your passport exactly. It pays to prepare.

 

If you are flying it is even worse. You’ll need to plan how to pack, perhaps even figure what your suitcase will weigh, or if you can get along without a suitcase. You’ll also need to have your toiletries in an airline regulation zip lock bag or you’ll take the chance of confiscation.  In addition, don’t think you can bring a half-full big toothpaste tube or a big bottle of shampoo with a small amount inside: you will be searched for sure!  When I was coming back from our last Holy Land trip I thought I had packed my bags correctly; I certainly didn’t want security check examinations!  Confident that I was fine, I put my carry-on luggage on the conveyor belt and was surprised as I was pulled aside. She opened my bag and rather suspiciously pulled out two large bottles of Jordan River water that I had bought to bring back for baptisms! I had failed to put it in my checked luggage, and my checked luggage was gone. “But it’s holy water!” I explained lamely, which got me nowhere. She was confiscating my Holy Water! I had no other plan. Behind me in line was Jenny, who bravely volunteered to step out of line in that Athens airport and run the bottles back to one of our other passengers who was still in line to check her baggage. In doing so she was refused entry back to the gate and dropped outside the airport, almost causing her to miss our flight-all because I did not prepare my bags properly. It pays to prepare.

 

Life has been called a journey and indeed it is.  Some people try making it through life without preparation, and like a car without a service inspection, there will be problems on life’s highway ahead. Physically, although a few people have proudly made it through their lives with no regular doctor visits, having annual physicals can catch problems when they are small. Our Body, Mind, and Soul health ministry seeks to help people be proactive with their health and to prepare for any medical needs. Emotionally, due to the stigma associated with mental illness that has existed to this day, some people will not visit a psychologist or even a pastoral counselor for fear that people will think they are emotionally sick. Some of the most fruitful hours that I have spent, and that many others have told me about, have been talking out issues with a person trained in helping people make a good life better or a broken life to start healing.  It is so much better to proactively deal with small problems before they balloon into huge ones. 

 

Spiritually, the Bible records a history of sin-sick-souls. They are still around. Prophets warned people that there would be consequences for their riotous living.  There were; but God wants to pull us back on the right road before we fall off into a ditch. One of the great prophets was Malachi; like some doctors, he didn’t have much of a bedside manner.  His name simply meant “My Messenger” and little is known about him except his words. He starts out in an innocuous fashion: “I will send my messenger to prepare the way before me.”  Those words described the way a king would enter a city: he would sent a messenger ahead so that a proper welcome could be prepared. Malachi says the messenger is coming and then he says that the Lord himself will come after the messenger. Although it is hundreds of years before John the Baptist appeared preaching repentance and pointing others to the Christ, Malachi, some say, certainly sounds like he is describing John and Jesus!  But then he describes them in industrial terms: “Who can endure his coming? He is like a refiner’s fire and like the strongest cleaners used to make clothes clean. (He described a professional who was a Biblical dry cleaner who used a chemical called “fuller’s soap.”) People who purified silver and gold must have also had the color drain from their faces: the heat required to separate the pure from the dirt was scorching. That’s why we need to prepare?  This will not be an easy journey, as in days gone by, when travel by air or train or ship did not have so many regulations! Our journey through our life’s end and beyond takes preparation: preparation for the journey, preparation for the destination, and preparation for the check point. It’s not something that can be put off. John the Baptism joined the prophet’s chorus and urged change as well. And preachers from pulpits across the land have done the same to this day. Prepare; as for a hurricane, prepare. As for a trip, prepare. As for the meeting with Jesus, prepare. It is vital work.

 

Friday night Doug Harris’s father died; we will pray for him and his family today. We talked at length that night. He has changed jobs during this recession and has become a funeral director and pre-need counselor. He said: “If you plan your funeral ahead of time, the cost is 40% less than if your loved one comes in when you die. If you plan your funeral, I don’t have to watch children get into either shouting or pushing matches with their brothers or sisters over burial choices. If you plan, not only will you have peace, you will give your children the greater chance to have peace at such a stressful time.” I listened to what he said and I share it with you. What other ways might you and I be better prepared for what is ahead? In our spiritual lives, we can do what Isaiah once said and John repeated: We can make the rough places in our lives smoother. What will it take to do just one thing differently this Christmas season? We can make what was crooked honest and straight again.  Of what do we need to repent to make a good start on cleaning up a dusty corner of our lives? And with whom can we rebuild a relationship instead of letting it stay broken? There are so many ways we can prepare. Of course, no one is making you prepare. But according to John 14, even Jesus told his followers that he was going to prepare a place for them. I wonder what happens to those who, over the years and even today, turned a deaf ear to the words of Malachi, Isaiah, John the Baptist … and Jesus?

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner               &nbsp
;                                 December 6, 2009