12-25-11 CHRIST IS BORN!


Luke 2: 1-20

Today we celebrate the birth of Jesus, who Christians call Christ! For us it is the continuation of God’s care and love for us, shown from the beginning of the Bible. It is the culmination of God’s salvation story, not that there won’t be more people saved, but Jesus is the Savior! Although countless stories are read at this time that inspire the listeners—perhaps even to live better lives—there are few accounts of God’s salvation story that are better than those in the Bible. But with 39 books in the Old Testament, and 27 in the New Testament for a total of 66 books, how does one make a concise story of all that pointed to and led up to this day: that led up to the birth of Christ? One way is called “The Jesse Tree.” Some Christians have done what we have done with trees in our church: created Chrismons, Christ monograms, to adorn our tree during Advent and Christmas. Some people found Christmas trees to be more celebrative, but some are not distinctly Christian. Some thoughtful Christians, therefore, created what is called the “Jesse Tree.” Our Christian Educator, Mary Ann, created just such a tree in 2007 and gave our children home versions of it. Today you will get to hear—and see—the passages and symbols that show God’s irresistible grace, many of which point to Christ, especially on a day like Christmas. Let’s read our Bibles through the lens of the Jesse Tree today.

Once upon a time … at the beginning of time, God chose to create heaven and earth. It is recorded in Genesis chapter one. The Jesse Tree symbol is the sun. God, as we come to read, not only wanted creation to be wondrous and ordered; the pinnacle of creation was mortals; human beings, made in God’s image: man, woman: God’s masterpiece, in part, because God gave them (that is, us!) the ability to make moral choices; to not just act out of instinct as the animal world did, but to be able to choose between right or wrong. God did this knowing that the humans could choose their own way and not just God’s way. But it was a risk God took, because God wanted a relationship with and love returned from such mortals. We are reminded in Genesis chapter 3 of the story of Adam and Eve. The Jesse tree symbol is an apple. These first two created ones were the original ones to deflect responsibility that was rightfully theirs onto others when they did wrong. This is when the blame game started! It has been happening ever since. God saw that trouble was already brewing. In short order things went from bad to worse and God decided to start the world over, this time saving a faithful man: Noah, and his family. The Jesse Tree symbol is an ark. As you know it rained for 40 days and nights in Genesis 6 as Noah and his family continued to do what God asked. One of God’s first covenants was made with mortals using the sign of the rainbow. But God made even more promises after that. One was with Abraham in Genesis 12 and the Jesse Tree symbol is a tent. In Genesis God found a man, Abraham, who trusted him so much that he left his hometown and his family and his friends to travel to a land he had never seen or known simply because God said to do it. We imagine his wife Sarai had wished her husband had listened that closely toher requests and less closely to God’s, but Abraham’s ears were tuned heavenward! God said that because of Abraham’s trust, he would have more descendents than there were stars in the sky. Then in a supreme test of trust, symbolized on the Jesse Tree by a ram, Genesis 22 records the time that God showed Abraham that the child-sacrificing ways of the Canaanites who used to populate that land were passed, and God showed a supreme act to honor Abraham’s trust: a ram was provided for a sacrificial meal and the boy was spared. It was a test that makes most of us shudder. The son Isaac later marries and has two sons, Jacob and Esau, but through a series of tricks, Isaac blesses the younger son, Jacob. Jacob had not earned the blessing that he had received from his father, but there was a time, recorded in Genesis 27, when Jacob wrestled with an angel of God until God’s blessed him. The ladder is the Jesse Tree symbol. How important it is for us to feel blessed! Jacob himself had many sons, but he was not the best parent. He made it known that he liked his youngest one best! It is recorded in Genesis 37. Joseph was spoiled and his father gave him a coat of many colors. The Jesse Tree symbol is a coat! Later his jealous brothers sold him to Ishmaelites going to Egypt. Joseph grew to be respected by Pharaoh, later forgiving and saving his brothers. God continued to try to save others who were slaves under the Egyptian pharaoh. God chose Moses to be his leader in Exodus 3 and the Jesse Tree symbol is a burning bush. Moses tried to protest, but when God calls, it is hard to resist. God’s first deliverer had been chosen. Later God showed the wideness of holy mercy with the story of Ruth. The Jesse Tree symbol is a heart, one that connected Ruth to Boaz, whom she married. They had a son, whom they named Obed. Guess who he was the father of?  Jesse! Later the prophet Isaiah in chapter 11 said “A shoot will spring forth from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Most people think Isaiah was talking about Jesus! And it starts to fit together when Jesse also had a son, and guess who he was: David! And the Messiah came from David’s lineage! And guess who was in his line? Joseph, the man who agreed to adopt Jesus as his own son and be wed to Mary! But I’m getting ahead of myself! God had some wonderfully faithful people leading up to Isaiah. One of them was Samuel, symbolized on the Jesse Tree with a lamp. His story is in 1 Samuel. He listened to God call him to service. Another servant of the Lord that I mentioned was David, the shepherd king who is credited with writing many of the Psalms, the songbook of the Bible. His story also begins in 1 Samuel. He is symbolized on the Jesse Tree by a harp. Another great leader of God’s was David’s son, King Solomon, who is symbolized by a crown on our tree. His story begins in 1 Kings. One of the great prophets was Elisha, the very productive successor of the prophet Elijah. Elisha is symbolized on the Jesse Tree by a dove and his story begins in 2 Kings. And then we finally recognize the prophet Isaiah, who talked about a coming Messianic King so much; Isaiah is symbolized by a rose and his story is in the book named after him. A young prophet, sometimes called the weeping prophet, who proclaimed that God would make a new covenant with his people, was Jeremiah. His symbol is the Word of God. His story is also in the book named after him. But we must not forget Nehemiah, another man of God; he is famous for rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and instituting social reforms. God honored Nehemiah for that and his symbol is the Temple and his story is in Nehemiah! God also honored some priests over the years that had visions of God’s glory, and one of them was Ezekiel; his symbol is a wheel, t
aken from the dream in the book of Ezekiel in which he saw a wheel and God in Heavenly glory! It was spectacular! There were more fantastic stories of faithful people too, including Daniel, symbolized by a lion, and we know why, don’t we? Daniel had survived being in a lion’s den because he trusted in God. It was an amazing story in the book named for him! Unfortunately God had some prophets that tried to run away as well, the most famous one was Jonah. His symbol, of course, is a whale!

As we cross over to the New Testament, we find one of the people who pointed to Jesus better than anyone else! His name was John, and he’s known as “the Baptist.” His symbol is a baptismal shell and he’s described in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John! He had people trying to follow him, but with the integrity that God honored eternally, John said he was not the light of the world or the Christ, but he would show people who was. And he did! He pointed to Jesus, and called him “the lamb of God.” That title was both an honor and a burden: it foreshadowed Jesus’ later death. But God’s plans for Jesus to be born to save would never have been completed had he not found, and had the consent of, a young pure, virgin girl named Mary. Mary was God’s choice to bear his Son. She must have had a wonderful heart, and a good spirit, but also a steadfast faith. Her symbol on the Jesse Tree is a lily and her story is in Luke. As I said earlier, the pieces of the Old Testament puzzle would not have fit together if a man from David’s lineage, Joseph, hadn’t been chosen to be Mary’s husband! And he agreed to these extraordinary circumstances! His Jesse Tree symbol is a saw since he was a carpenter and his story is in Matthew and Luke. Mary and Joseph made the journey and the arrangements described in Luke chapter two. It must have been terribly difficult on them to make a journey of more than 7 days, with crowds on all the main roads going to their hometowns for the census. Mary certainly didn’t know exactly when she would have her baby, but she knew it would be soon! Likely she was very tired and uncomfortable. And the Bible tells us where he was born, doesn’t it: in a manger! Jesus was indeed born in the town of Bethlehem according to Luke chapter 2. And his Jesse Tree symbol is a manger! To some it might have just been an inconvenient birth. But to certain shepherds, to angels, to wise men, and to Mary and Joseph, they knew he was more than a newborn child: he was a newborn King! There were wise men, also called Magi, on their way to see the King! They knew he was going to be born! They had seen it in the stars and their symbol is, therefore, a star. Their story is in Matthew. “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?” they asked Herod. It must have rankled Herod, who already was king, to hear such a question! But by that time Jesus had already been born. Jesus was what the New Testament calls “Christos” or Christ; what the Old Testament called “Messiah.” The Gospel of John describes him. The Jesse Tree symbol is the chi-rho, the monogram for Christ. He was the one to change the world. And he has. No other one born on earth has affected the world as much as that one solitary life. May the celebration of his birth today fill you with faith, hope, and love. God came to us as a Savior! His name is Jesus. And he will rule the new world with truth and grace! What a gift! Thanks be to God!

Jeffrey A. Sumner December 25, 2011

12-18-11 MARY IS TOLD


Luke 1: 26-38

This last week Dr. Alan Wolfelt, Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Ft. Collins Colorado, was in town to share insights with both grieving persons and with those who counsel or comfort grieving persons. It was evident from the beginning that grief, even unmanaged grief, happens to people of every class, every background, and every age. He told the story of a very powerful and wealthy executive who called and booked a three hour time slot with Dr. Wolfelt. He flew to the Center on his company Lear Jet. Upon arrival, Dr. Wolfelt said before they could begin a session, he wanted him to take a chair on the porch of the lodge-like offices, nestled in the Rocky Mountains, and just breathe, look out, and gather his thoughts. The man, obviously wanting to get on with talking, nevertheless did as requested. As he sat down, two beautiful Siberian Huskies quietly and slowly walked to the chair where he was sitting. One was on his right, and one was on his left and, as if on cue, they laid their heads down on his lap, looking straight at each other, nose to nose. For 15 minutes, this busy executive had two well training or perhaps instinctive dogs on his lap, still, breathing steadily, calming him down, and giving his subconscious time to reflect. Then after that time, the dogs arose and left. It was time for the man’s appointment. He spent the next couple of hours in therapy, but at the end his said “Dr. Wolfelt, as good as I know you are from reading your books, the most transformational time for me today was not our conversation, it was sitting there with two beautiful animals next to me and then gently resting their heads on me. What a gift that was.

How few people, from children to youth to adults, find sitting for 15 minutes anything but boring, but in those few minutes of stillness, the man found peace. Most dogs that listen and follow commands have been well-trained; I have seen dogs that were not trained and I’ll take the trained ones any day. Likewise, we have seen children and teenagers, who perhaps reflect a lack of good training or upbringing. Perhaps they are disrespectful, perhaps they bully; some can’t put a proper sentence together or handle simple math. Some have parents who have been unable to parent effectively, or parents who are tired and have given up, or parents and children who fight constantly. Television is filled with the images of rock and sports stars who exhibit extreme narcissism; that is, they act like the world revolves around them. Narcissus was a teenager in Greek mythology who fell in love with his own image when he saw it in the still waters of a pond. That’s what narcissism looks like. Those who fall into that deep hole of darkness often find some of their idols have used drugs to get ahead. The world notices ruefully that court sentences court given out to stars seem to much lighter than they are toward regular public. Yet some still long for that life. Of all the time that children and youth spend in their lives, many of the hours are spent talking or texting on their phones, checking Facebook, or hanging out with friends. So the information they are getting about life is from peers, many of whom are not the clearest source of wisdom; the other place they put great weight is on shows or movies that are created with enough sordid details to make teenagers the greatest source of revenue for the film industry. This is the world that is teaching many of our teenagers.

But, there are those unsung people who are not noticed by many; to the teenagers who are here today, you might sometimes feel unnoticed or unappreciated; or you might be the target of taunters in school. Children may get that in their elementary school too. Are you one of those girls who quietly goes about your work, listening to parents and teachers, and getting good grades? Are you in some good after school activities? Or are you one of those boys who does some of the same things? Long ago, God was not looking for someone who was the most popular at school, he wanted someone who listened at home; he was not looking for someone who had a hundred friends, he was looking for someone who knew Him. God was looking for someone who had been brought up in a good home, had a decent relationship with relatives, and someone who did her chores. On some days this special girl might have even asked herself: “Is this all there is to life: listening, responding, following instructions, and doing for others? God searched the entire planet earth, with eyes better than Google Earth, with a heart who knew the ones he had created, and with a knowledge of his children so complete that he even knew how many hairs were on their heads, how many freckles were on their body, and where they focused most of their attention. God knows and sees you today in the same way. With all the importance of teaching that Santa Claus “sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness’ sake,” it is so much more important to know that God is watching you, and perhaps even deciding whether to choose you for something special or not. God doesn’t do “American Idol” searches or “America’s Got Talent” searches; God searches souls, and situations, not just highways, but also the byways.After all, in the first century he was searching for a human being, a girl, to be the mother of his Son, a Son who would be human-yes, but also be God. He would also need to find the right family where the man would agree to marry this woman carrying God’s child; a man who would still agree to raise this child as if he were his own. It was a tall order. No one knows how long God looked, but God must have looked; and looked; and looked. Of all the wise men or women in the world back then, few if any would have guessed that the mother of God’s son would come from a no-place town like Nazareth. A couple of hundred people their, maybe. And God chose her? God chose him? God chose them? How odd; or was it?

In today’s text, if we read carefully, we find that Mary came from a good family system. Most readings, even ours today, begin with verse 26: “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.” First, we know God wanted someone from “the house of David” since prophets said the messiah would come from that line. Check. Second, Joseph would have to adopt this boy as his son to make it so. Check. Finally, Mary had to be pure as the driven snow. Check. So much is contained in that one sentence! What is the significance of the sixth month? We have to read the verses before it to find out that her relative (probably a special woman to her) named Elizabeth, had been a person who prayed. Her husband was a priest in the Temple and he also believed strongly in God. Their lack of chi
ldren would have made people in town, (like the media of today) presume that God had forgotten them or was punishing them. Still their faith taught them not to give up hope, even as they got to be quite old. Then they learned that 
they, old as they were, were going to have a child: a son! He was to be named John! The Bible says Elizabeth hid herself from the public until her fifth month, perhaps waiting to be sure she would carry the child to term. She did not want to share her joy with others if she was going to have her heart broken again. But her heart wasnot broken; not only was she finally able to share her joy with others, she learns in her sixth month—there’s where the sixth month comes from, it was Elizabeth’s sixth month carry her child—that Mary is being sent to her because she in her young age—perhaps 13 -15 years old—is carrying a child even before she is married! Certainly she is betrothed—that is, engaged, which was much more of a promise than our engagements today, but she had not gone through the marriage ceremony yet. She was ushered out of town, way out of town to Ein Karem where Elizabeth and Zechariah lived. That kept Mary from facing the possible taunting of friends or finger-wagging of neighbors, She would have the support that only God could have planned: a new safe home for the time being with a trusted relative, one who had faith and wisdom to share, one who would nurture her knowledge of God, help her connect the dots of he family tree, and one who could share all the changes of body that a woman has when she is expecting a child. God had arranged for her to be where she could hear human affirmations instead of criticism, a place of joy instead of heartache. And she could connect with God in ways beyond the dreams that a virgin girl might have had a few months before. At her age, most of her friends were innocent as she was; it was only at that age that wise Jewish parents started to find a husband for their daughter. In those days over half the population died before they were 15, so having a girl with many child-bearing years in front of her was ideal. Her parents would look for a man who came from “good stock” as my Georgia aunt used to say; they would check out his parents, and make sure he was good at his trade; and they would see if they could get along with them. They would likely pick a young man a bit older than their daughter so he could protect her, provide for her, and have a little more wisdom than most girls had at that age. It was a loving matchmaking process, although some today may resent their lack of choice in the matter. But check the divorce stats for the first century and compare them with our century before you condemn arranged marriages! God had found the right family: Mary was likely a good learner, a faithful daughter, a girl respectful to her rabbi, and one who did as she was directed to do. Sometimes teenagers who do as their parents or teachers tell them to do today without arguments are called nerds or geeks, and some are teased or tormented at school. But God, and parents, and teachers, and later employers, will call you special; they will call you a blessing, and a joy to have around. I know some excellent students who once did poorly on some tests just so they could get the poor grades, keeping them from being tormented by those who hadn’t studied. But those of you who do well, dear teenagers and children, you will be leading the companies where poorer students may one day be applying for entrance level positions! You keep at being excellent; be quietly excellent. There is so much poor information and damaging information you will find on your social networks; the one God chose years ago was not in a popularity contest, but later she was lifted up as the most revered mother in the world; and I myself lift up Joseph as one of the most revered men in the world: what were his qualities? He was patient; he was able to listen to God and to wrap his mind around something miraculous; and he was also faithful even when his arranged marriage was so different and his wedding plans so altered from what he must have pictured. But he went along with God’s angel. I admire that; the world admires that; and the world honors Mary. Extraordinary things happened to them; it all began to fit into place when they said yes to one of God’s messengers. It might not seem like it now, my teenage students who are here, but when you get through the petty words and actions or insecurity of other students, God—who has known you from the beginning, and has watched your reactions to torment or teasing with tears in his Holy eyes—God will meet you at the end of your torment, or perhaps take you from your torment and say: You; you; do not be afraid; I have been watching how you handle your world. You stand out to me; and I have good plans for you.”

May you go about the good work of listening to your parents even if your friends don’t listen to theirs; may you go about learning when others only want to play; and may you take time for God, by reading your Bible not just owning one; by coming to church, and by talking about your questions to me or to Cara, or to your parents, even if your friends would laugh if they learned you were doing it. God may have more in store for you than you have even dreamed! Don’t let glamorized, over-paid, drug influenced persons on television be your idol! The people the world will never forget, long after the light of the world’s superstars has faded, are Mary and Joseph: chosen by God, to teach our Savior Jesus. God still has plans for the world, and they could include you in some special way! Thanks be to God who, in this busy world, comes along side of us and invites us to stop texting, to stop watching television, to just be still, even for 15 minutes, like a couple of Husky’s taught a busy business man. Sometimes we need someone to just sit with us and be with us. Thanks be to God for those teenagers who choose a different path from the crowd.

Jeffrey A. Sumner December 18, 2011  


sermon audio not available


John 1: 6-8;

years ago, ocean liners were used for safe travel to far places, not
just for cruises. The story is told of a liner making its way across
the north Atlantic in normal seas. There were people dancing after
dinner, others were at shows, and children were in the play area with
a care giver nearby. Before long the weather got remarkably worse; a
message from the bridge told people to prepare for rough seas ahead.
Indeed they did get rough; plates crashed to the floor, waves smashed
onto the front of the promenade deck, and a sense of panic began to
rise. Crew members were trying their best to hang onto something
while assisting passengers. Some were getting sick while others
cried. There were people wondering if the ship would break or
capsize. On the whole ship there was virtually no one who was still
playing, or dancing, or eating; no one except one young girl. At 9
years old, she was playing with a dollhouse. Although the ship was
swaying, she was still playing, apparently unafraid. A mother in came
to pick up her daughter who was crying. The mother looked over at
that girl and said: “We’re going through terrible waves, aren’t
you afraid?” “No ma’am” the girl replied. To which the woman
replied, “For Heaven’s sake, why not?” And the girl said to
her: “Because my father’s the captain.”

your father is the captain of the ship, and you have trusted his
strong back, his steady hand, and his wise decisions all your life,
then you can ride out the storm. Then it does not matter
you know, it matters
who you
know and if you trust that person. When I need help, I have a file
that includes the names of people I call to help in different
situations. Do you do that? Do you have people you consult, or that
you would recommend to others? I try to fill my life with people I
can recommend. My children say to others, “Dad always knows a guy.”
I know and trust the one who sells me cars, the one who fixes my air
conditioner, the ones who replaced my roof, and the one who put in my
landscaping and sprinkler system; I also trust the one I have gone to
for pastoral counseling. And I know and have recommended realtors,
attorneys, and financial consultants. I am less anxious knowing there
are experts I know and trust. I know people who will steer me back on
course if I start drifting. I am married to a person I trust and I
have children I trust; I have a staff I trust and people in the
church I trust. What do people do when they have gotten consistent
bad advice, have consistently had bad relationships, or have
regularly made poor life choices? Where do those people turn? What
can they do? Or do they just begin to trust no one?

of the ways Christians—good and faithful ones, not the ones who
just say they are Christians—can guide others is by reflecting the
light of Christ in what they do. Are you and I on someone else’s
list under a heading like “faithful Christian friend,” or “a
real Christian?” Might people turn to us as ones who point to
Christ as Savior; who trust Christ to guide our lives; or who can
give advice when a friend’s life seems off course? I have spent my
life getting to know Christ and making him known. You probably have a
story to tell about your finding Jesus as your Savior as well. Was it
at a church camp or retreat; was it when you hit your lowest point in
your life; or was it just because a neighbor invited you to come try
his or her church? Someone, or something, led you to Christ. It
happens every day and it first happened long ago.

was a man named John (known as the Baptist, not the writer of the
gospel) who first led people to Jesus. John was a charismatic man;
many people followed him; he was a purist, he was an orator, and he
had two clear purposes: one was to expose any who were hypocrites,
and the other was for sinners to repent. “You brood of vipers!”
he cried out. “Bear fruit that befits repentance, and do not begin
to say, ‘We have Abraham as our father!’” [Luke 3: 7-8]
Translation for us today: “Turn back! Turn from sin! Do not try to
hide behind the title ‘Christian’ unless your life reflects that
truth!” But John was treated as an expert: he knew Scripture, and
even more, he knew Jesus. Just six months older that Jesus, John was
one who knew him well; he watched him grow up, and now John began
to fulfill his God-given mission: to identify Jesus as Messiah. Even
John’s mother, Elizabeth, identified the child her kinswoman Mary
was carrying as “blessed.” That child was Jesus! When people came
to John asking for advice; advice like “Who has the truth?”
“Where is the light?” or “Who should I follow?” John
fulfilled God’s plan for his life. He was one who preached, and
also one who baptized; but mostly he directed people to Jesus. His
message was “Prepare!” and “Repent!” But his actions lead
others to the Christ.

the purpose of nearly every Christian the same thing? Aren’t we
also called to encourage those we know to get ready, because we have
witnessed the sudden deaths of others and learned that we do not know
the day or the hour that will be our last? Isn’t our role also to
reflect the one who is light of the world with our actions and words?
Part of our role is to help people see that the Kingdom of God is
beginning to break in even now. The world is filled with people who
just live in the moment; they rarely plan for what may happen.
Sometimes it’s because of poor planning, or sometimes because of
choice, and other times because of poverty, but I am amazed at how
many people walk around with virtually no insurance. Many don’t
plan for their demise or for possible catastrophes and others simply
chose not be plan; but we can be like John: we can urge others to be
ready. We may have a better idea of how to get a home ready for
guests than how to get human hearts ready to welcome Jesus. Welcome
involves things like a rugged self-examination of our own life; an
acknowledgement of sin; a desire to live a better life; and the
consulting of an expert: perhaps another Christian or a pastor to
help you get started. This is when your non-Christian acquaintances
might be turning to you. You, this season, can be like John or like
Philip( who I’ll describe in a moment) : they both honored and
pointed people to Jesus. If we are poor witnesses, never inviting
others to know Jesus, or never pointing others to him, or forgetting
to constantly reorient our own lives toward the one who is “The
Way,” then we indeed are not like John. But we

called to be like John: to point to Jesus
with our lives and our lips.

look briefly at what John and Philip did: The Gospel of John says
this about John the Baptist: “There was a man sent from God whose
name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light ….
He was
not the light,
but came to bear witness to the light.” God is not praised by
egotistical people thinking
are the light of the world! But God
is praised
by someone who is spiritually lost, or looking for a referral, coming
to you for help. The classic definition of a person connecting
another person to Christ was written by D. T. Niles. He says inviting
others to know Christ is like “One beggar showing another beggar
where to find bread.” I wonder how many opportunities present
themselves to us each week that slip through the cracks of our
distractions, or our unwillingness to get involved, or our
rationalization that a lost person just needs space, when really they
need the light? The Bible has many witnesses; John the Baptist is
just one of them who, in our text today, rightly turned away
self-aggrandizing titles and said instead, “I am the one crying in
the wilderness.” There are plenty of people lost in America today
in the wilderness of December. Your Christianity is your tether, your
lifeline; it is your mooring to the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.
It is incumbent on us to know our faith and to know our Lord. If
people really challenge you about your Christian knowledge or faith,
what kind of answer is it to say: “Ask Jeff, or Cara, or Richard?”
We are not the light; show others how
you know
Jesus as your light. If you’re not sure how, plan to come along
side of those who ask you and learn more about Him together; or you
can plan to study more next to other such beggars. Many who follow
Jesus are not preachers or prophets; they are simply followers.
Philip was also a follower. Right after Jesus invited him to be a
disciple, Philip also invited someone else to also come and meet the
Messiah! “I have found the one of whom Moses wrote!” Philip said,
and he immediately hit by a negative comment, like might happen to us
when we invite someone else to try our church. Nathaniel scoffed at
him, but Philip persisted: “Come and see.” He didn’t have to do
anything more than to challenge him “Come and see.” He pointed a
reluctant friend to Jesus. Philip is like any one of us: an ordinary
person. He was called by Jesus,
but so are
; he had a choice of following or just
being a bystander. “No thank you,” he could have said to Jesus.
But he didn’t.

December can be an invitation time for the world. “Prepare” is
supposed to be the work of the uncommitted, the unbeliever, or the
uninvolved person. It is not supposed to be for the Christian who
already knows Jesus. But if you have failed to live by your baptism
vows; or if your zeal for your Lord lapsed a while ago, or if there
is a danger of Jesus saying to you face to face one day “I don’t
know you,” then
you prepare.
Prepare again; or prepare for the first time. Then reflect the light
of Christ, and refer people to him, and let them know that he is your
anchor, your lighthouse, on life’s stormy sea. Let them know that
he is your captain.
If your Bible knowledge of Jesus knowledge is shaky, commit this
season to start to know him better. You have lists of people you
trust and call in many times of need; could you be on someone else’s
list of who to call for spiritual help? Does someone else see Christ
reflected in you? You can tell them about the true God: the one who
loved us so much that he came to earth in Jesus to save us; the God
who always is looking for the return of any prodigal children. Bear
witness to the light of the world; his name is Jesus.

A. Sumner December 11, 2011



Isaiah 40: 1-11

The mother called down the hall to her son who was apparently still sleeping in his room. “Son!” (No answer) “Time to get up and get ready for church!” (No answer) “I’ve made breakfast for you!” (Still no answer.) She went down the hall and opened his door. “I don’t want to go to church” he said to her, his head facing away from her, his body under mounds of covers. “But son, you have to go to church” she said. (Silence) I’ll give you two good reasons why you have to go: First, it’s Sunday and it’s the right thing to do to go to church. And you know the second reason: “You’re the Pastor!” Can you imagine a pastor who needed the comfort of his dark room instead of the confrontation of his congregation? I was there in 1987, and that dreadful time from which I was finally delivered gave me the topic for my planned doctoral thesis. When I became the Moderator of our Presbytery in 2002, I told others about the time of my need for comfort, the dreadful dark night, and the burnout that had hit me those years earlier. Three other ministers came up to me that day to say that they too were about to break. Those ministers needed comforting words from God, or from someone. Even Pastor Rob Bell, the author of several books being studied here on Wednesday nights and the creator of the NOOMA DVD series, told about his experience at the huge church that he had founded: One Sunday morning, before the 11:00 service, he recalled “I could feel my car keys in my pocket, and all I could think about was how far I could be by 11 a.m. How much gas was in my tank? How fast could I drive? Sitting in a chair in a storage room behind the sound booth, I could hear the room filling with people, and all I wanted to do was leave. What do you do when you’re a pastor of a church, it’s Sunday morning, the parking lot is filling with cars, people are finding their seats, the service is about to start, and you are scheduled in a few moments to give the message and you realize you have nothing to say? How did it come to this?” [VELVET ELVIS, Zondervan, 2005, p. 096] Rob Bell also needed comforting words from God, or from someone. He would not be the first or last preacher to need comfort. You might remember the story of Elijah who was a prophet. In 1 Kings he battled and won against the prophets of Baal. Afterwards King Ahab, and especially his wife, Jezebel turned all their subjects against Elijah; he felt alone; he wanted to die; he could fight no longer. He climbed into a cave. It’s recorded in 1 Kings 19. Elijah needed comforting words from God too, or from someone. And in the Gospel of Mark, we read that Jesus, in his first grueling preparation for ministry, was driven into a wilderness for forty days of hunger, thirst, and temptation by Satan. At the end of the time he was fragile and weak. And Mark 1: 13 says “And the angels ministered to him.” Jesus needed comfort from someone, and angels did the comforting.

Before we jump into the words recorded in Isaiah chapter 40, we need to decide how to say it, how to do it, and to whom to offer it. “How to do what?” you may ask; how and when to COMFORT. The first 39 chapters of Isaiah describe the catastrophic fall of the Southern Kingdom of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, to the Babylonians. Like the smoke and ash in New York City after 9/11; or the tremendous destruction caused by hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, or the destruction caused by an American bomber over Hiroshima Japan to help end World War II, the results were sheer devastation. That’s what Jerusalem would have been like. In addition, the Temple-the house of God-was not only destroyed, it was desecrated with foreign idols and sacrifices. Was God still with his people? Was God dead? Did God care?

It was years later, after a generation or so of Jews had moved away from the rubble of Jerusalem to livable Babylonian cities that life had changed forever for them. They not only had to mingle with unclean Babylonians, some even married them. They had to get Babylonian jobs and play by Babylonian rules. It was years after the first devastating changes set in that Isaiah’s words reached new ears. The people had lost all sense of self, and purpose, and of connection to their God: perhaps its the way some people you know have done after a disaster or a war; or after a child or spouse dies; perhaps its the way some you know have reacted when a fire destroyed everything they owned; or it may have been the way someone acted when a disease took a special life. Think about something, anything, that desperately crumbled you; or that brought you to your knees in prayer. How long was your agony? A month; a year; a lifetime? Are you still stuck in that darkness? Or do you know someone who is? Like the years that went by for Judah, God’s word can come to you today, and to those you know, as it came to God’s people over 500 years before the birth of Christ. At long last, Isaiah did not just bring God’s warning. This time, Isaiah was bringing God’s c-o-m-f-o-r-t. Say it slowly; say it gently, like you’re offering it to shaking puppy or a bunny; or a terrified child; or a man with a nervous breakdown. Comfort. Let it envelope you, or the broken person you know, like a blanket; like a comforter. Isaiah said to Judah that her warfare was ended; what has been the source of your own personal warfare or anguish? What must it have been like for prisoners of war to finally, finally get word that their war was over? That’s what Isaiah declared: The war is over! Now the nerves of the people, for the first time in years, could start to come down from the ledge. People could start to eat more normal meals; they could hug their family. Still, some things might haunt them forever.

At Advent, we cannot truly receive God’s word of comfort, with all it’s meaning, unless we re-imagine the time we were so terribly uncomfortable. Dare to remember those times today; remember them if you can, whatever it was for you; and then imagine God sending angels to comfort you. What was your pain; or what is your pain today? What is the shadow side of you that keeps you from looking forward to anything at Christmas? See what you can name of anything that has frightened or unnerved you. Go back to the time when you felt alone, or vulnerable. If you can go there in your mind, you can also step somewhat into the shoes of the Jews of long ago; their homes were pillaged, their women were molested, and their sacred spaces were profaned. Finally the Persians defeated the Babylonians, and King Cyrus of Persia permitted people to rebuild their faith and their city. Shell shocked, they began to do so. And you can too; perhaps you already have rebuilt your life from what devastated it. But if you haven’t yet, you can. Others here can walk with you. And as with Jesus, who once was parched, starving, and tempted, you too can experience God’s angels ministering to you. Open your eyes to watch for them; then close your eyes in regul
ar prayer to God. And finally, know that in this month and throughout the year, you can be, and are, surrounded by angels sent to comfort you, and by a loving God, who will not let you go.

Jeffrey A. Sumner December 4, 2011