Mark 1: 21-28

In spite of the very popular uses of DVRs to skip over commercials on television, there are some shows that are rarely recorded: the daily news, for example, or sporting events, and other live performances. In any one of these venues, pharmaceutical companies work on our philosophies of life. We are told in commercials that we could live longer, look younger, and be pain free. Men are given promises that their middle or old aged body can act like a 20 year old, and women are given hope of turning back the clock on their bodies as well. These are well paid advertising companies who know how to convince you and me, or at least make us consider, that we need not live with pain and that even over the counter medicines can fix our symptoms, masking our health issues.  Even though in recent years we have said that medical care in our country is broken, it is more the delivery of care that is broken rather than the level of competence. But even one of my doctors years ago admitted to me, “Jeff, there is almost nothing that doctors can fix. All we can do pave the way for the possibility for the body to heal.” And my friend Dr. Dan Hale, author of several books on medical and religious partnership, is convinced, as I am, that there is a body mind and soul connection. The world of healing today can include traditional medicines, holistic approaches, osteopathic or chiropractic care, and prayer. I have not read or heard about a single person who says that all things can be cured, nor have I heard of ones who say nothing can be cured; from some situations we heal, and from some, we do not. What do we do about both of those times? That is the issue I want to address with the topic “What Would You Want Jesus to Heal?”

The gospels, by their own stated purposes, are written to convince those who hear them or tell them that Jesus Christ is Lord. From reading the gospels, I believe that: Jesus is my Lord.  But if ad people of today make a case for their products, could writers out to convince a skeptical first century world include mostly the good and convincing parts of the healing ministry of Jesus? Could there have been some people, men, women, or children, who were not healed after he touched them, or did not stay healed? Today the ad people of the Gospels want to call Jesus “healer.” And we have many credible witnesses to show that he did heal. But were there times when he did not or could not? We’ll not know, because the writers wanted the readers to believe the “good news.” Why would a preacher bring this up today? I bring it up so that you can give thought, and not simply lose faith, when someone you love gets ill or dies. It seems to me there are several things that can happen when we get broken, or ill :  1) We can learn how to find our voice in our brokenness; or 2) we can be healed; or 3) we die or live with an illness or disease. First, some learn how to find their voice in their brokenness.  One of the best examples of someone who does this is Ruthann Ralph in our church. With a body racked with fibromyalgia, a weakened bone structure, and chronic fatigue, she grieved over the death of her son Bruce when he lost his life in a boating accident, and she thinks constantly about others. Though she can barely get out, she reads the Spire and stays in touch with me by email and phone calls and will be an upcoming Westminster Institute class teacher. She once found a book, and she gave me a copy. Called, “My Beautiful Broken Shell,” it tells the story of woman who used to walk the beach near her house to find perfect shells; she would get up very early to do so. But one day, she noticed the number of broken shells that got left behind by others, and she decided to also pick up the broken shells; the ones no one wanted. Ruthann’s body is broken, but she wants to care for others who are broken, and have a kindred sharing in their brokenness. Still for the picture directory, she enlisted the help of her other son Christopher, to come pick her up, bring her to church, help her onto her walker, and move into the Sunday School wing for her Olan Mills picture. While she was there, she asked if I would place a hand on her back and pray for her pain to ease, something that I had done with success before, not because of my power, but because of God’s power and her belief. I took her and Christopher into our chapel and I prayed for her as my hand was on her back. The next week she wrote this: Dear Jeff; I thought that you would appreciate an update since your laying on of hands last Saturday. 

I felt some relief right away and it continued to increase; I am sure it will more so.  Yesterday I actually went outside in my chair and got up and down at times to do what I wanted to do.  I took down some worn out decorations of silk flowers, arranged my beach bricks and cleaned out a ton of old leaves and weeds that I could reach and got them to the garbage.  I guess I was out there working for over two hours.  I haven’t done that in I can’t even tell you when, a very long time, years.  Praise the Lord and thank you for being there for me to help with this.  I am sure Christopher knows and has always known I had faith, but I know that he was impressed and awed by what you did for me.  Thank you so very much.  Love Ruthann

Sometimes, as in the Gospels, through prayerful contact with God, a healing takes place. Ruthann is still broken, but still, a healing took place. Another one in our church was too weakened by chemotherapy to be around the germs that people carry. For awhile she was sick at home; but then she found her voice and made regular calls to those in our church who were homebound, reporting to our Congregational Life committee what she had learned and said. That was finding a voice in a person’s brokenness.

I too prayed that, when I learned that I had diabetes, that I might be healed from it. God listened, but had other plans. My disease has now given me a voice in health ministry that I would not have had before. I am a board member of the national Presbyterian Health Network, and I have been invited to Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore to be a speaker for one or their Symposiums this fall. I also know of those who have lost a child and they turned tragedy into a triumph; I know others who have lost their spouse who found the strength to go on, and connect with others in ways that they would not have before. “Caring Friends of Westminster” is just one group that specifically walks with those who are broken. Some even find their emotional legs to move forward. Brokenness may lead us to new connections, rather than bitter faithlessness that asks “Why has this happened to me?”

A second resp
onse to illness or disease is a healing.
This is the one everyone wants; it’s the one we cling to as we read about the raising of Lazarus, or Jesus healing a blind man, or the man by the pool who was lame and told to stand up and walk. It’s the thing that makes many people flock to men who say they can, on cue and on time, get people on television to walk again, to see again, or to hear again. Most everyone first wants healing; their first hope is healing, and if there is a lack of healing, it shakes the foundations of their faith: understandably so.  So as in Jesus’ day, even in our day people go to healers in droves, in the desperate hope that a person who has healed before might heal them. They go to Pentecostal preachers, or medical specialists, or holistic healers, or to other countries for alternative treatments. Desperate illness brings out desperate measures. It is natural for people to seek them out. If your choice of healers is a preacher, you will need great faith that you will be healed. I once entered the hospital room of a man who was the husband of a woman who attended our church, but he didn’t. When I asked him “Would you like me to have a prayer with you?” he said “If it will make you feel better!” I told him it wouldn’t particularly, so I did not pray with him. Prayer has to have the consent and the collaboration of the one being prayed for to be most effective. But sometimes, through medical care, or prayer, or a renewed immune system due to laughter and love, people are healed. These are extraordinary and celebrative times. As in our text today, people can even be delivered from psychological or physical disorders. This is the hope for all healers; this is the hope for all broken people. It is the gold standard for all hopeful people, for their child, or their grandchild, or their best friend, or their spouse. But not everyone who asks, even people of faith as we have learned, is healed.

That leaves us in the dreadful third category: some beloved people do die early, and some do have to live with a disease. The Gospel of Mark, one of the ones written to be packed with “good news,” records a chief priest saying this, pointing to our bleeding, tormented Savior on the cross: “He saved others; he cannot save himself.” Jesus could not save himself. But when life drained from his body, his death became even more significant than his three years of ministry; he changed the world with a dreadful crucifixion. So there are some who do die young, or live with cancer or heart disease; some with diseases like leprosy that still ravage people in third world countries today; and others have debilitating conditions such as Parkinson’s Disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, or macular degeneration. When they turn to Scripture and long to get a word of hope for themselves from the healings recorded in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the astute Christian might gently lead them also to other places in the Bible where some broken people have turned to God: places like the Psalms, and the Lamentations of Jeremiah.  Not everyone in the Bible gets healed; and we only know of the ones Jesus healed that were written down. Life is filled with unexpected sorrows and certainly with brokenness. But it is in my brokenness, I have discovered, that I depend more completely on God and on others, and our shared brokenness is the starting point of a new relationship. We will celebrate healings for sure; but let us also walk with one another in our brokenness. As we connect with others and with God in prayer, Isaiah preaches this message to us: “those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” (40:31)

Let us pray:

O God who created us: you surely must know how much our prayers ache for healing; that is our first hope for ourselves, for our child, our grandchild, or our spouse. We want healing because Jesus healed. But the one who could not save himself also comforted those in sorrow; and there are people in the Bible with infirmities that are not healed and deaths that come too soon.  And dear Omnipotent God: we know you hear us as we pray; but you see the world and our circumstances with a much broader view than we have. Remind us that in all things “you work for good for those who love you.” We will work to put our trust in thee, even during our darkest days.  Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                   January 29, 2012




Jonah 1:
1-10; Mark 1: 14-20

of the things I have learned while taking my most recent class at
Columbia Seminary, the theological training ground of the Rev. Peter
Marshall, who is credited with creating the Kirkin’ O’ the Tartans
service, is that traumatic events experienced early in life have a
lasting influence on a person. That is so with John Knox, the man
credited with bringing the Protestant Reformation to Scotland. It is
not too much to say that Knox brought the Bible as the Word of God
back into the Christian pulpits of Scotland’s Churches. His fiery
sermons were thundered from the pulpit of St. Giles Kirk, and he took
on everyone from the devil to Mary, Queen of Scots. What were the
things that happened to Knox as a young man? In his book KNOX THE
MAN, Gordon Donaldson lists two of them:  

was his association with George Wishart, [a distant relative of the
late Ron Taylor of this congregation.] Knox, you remember, carried a
two-handed sword before Wishart for his protection. But when Wishart
was arrested, [for preaching without a license!] he advised Knox not
to seek to join him in martyrdom saying, ‘One is sufficient for a
sacrifice.’ It rather recalls our Lord’s rebuke of Peter in the
Garden of Gethsemane, when he bade him put up his sword. Wishart’s
advice, I suggest, may have implanted in Knox’s mind the idea that he
would be of more service alive than dead, and this is an idea which,
I believe, influenced his later actions. [Can you imagine an age when
government, highly controlled by the throne at that time, would put
people to death for preaching the gospel? Wishart was burned at the
stake.] The other episode which affected [John Knox] was his
experience in the galleys.” [Edinburgh, St. Andrews Press, 1975,
p. 3]

was on ship at sea, as Jonah was, but there the comparison ends.
Jonah tried to run from God, would not preach when God called him to
preach, and would not call for repentance from people he loathed.
John Knox, by contrast, was an unwilling passenger on a French galley
(or slave) ship for 19 months, and his experience there might have
hardened the heart and steeled the soul of this opinionated and
outspoken man. But unlike Jonah, he did
flee from God’s call to preach, he seized the opportunity! He
stoked the boilers of his soul and set forth, like a refiner’s
fire, to preach repentance in the footsteps of John the Baptist.
had cleansing to do!
He had change to bring
about for God in Scotland! It was treacherous territory like the land
itself could be, because of those in power. Although his mentor was
John Calvin—the father of Presbyterianism, the man who he believed
taught and administered the finest Christian School in the world—he
was living a treacherous life, almost like the fiery John the
Baptist. We heard in God’s Word for today that John was arrested,
and imprisoned also by a ruler, Herod Antipas. He later was given a
capital punishment sentence. Knox had watched as the same thing
happened to the faithful Christian leader, George Wishart, who guided
Knox’s thinking, saying he could do more good for the Reformation
of the Church alive than dead. But it did not quell his fiery voice
or accusative stands. The group that will go to Scotland with Rev.
Gee in May will certainly stop at St. Giles Kirk in Edinburgh; take
time to stand near the bust of John Knox, or step into his pulpit if
you are allowed to do so! What history happened there! What Godly
preaching worked to change an entire country of clans, and herdsmen,
and warriors, and scholars!

Knox read Scripture from the giant Geneva Bibles that were in the
Kirk or in his study, he would have read our passage today about the
call of the disciples countless times. His Savior passed along a sea;
virtually any man in Scotland was a man of the sea; many made their
living from the sea; trade necessarily came from the sea; and the
winter winds that chilled and summer breezes that blew made
inhabitants ones who were in touch with the sea. Knox could have
related to his Savior. And alongside the Sea of Galilee, his Savior
walked. Why was he there? Was Christ there to contemplate; was he
there to catch fish for a meal? Yes perhaps: but more than that
was there to call; notice he did not ask
you like to join me for an
adventure?” No! Our Lord’s call is not a question; it is an
imperative: Follow me”
he said first to
Simon (Later nicknamed ‘Peter’) and his brother Andrew. Did they
know him? Almost likely they did, all of them growing up in the same
small region. But if they
know him, why not question him? Who among us asks friends to come
with them without the friends asking “What for?” But there was
something about this man from the Galilee, this man from God, this
man from Mary, that somehow spoke to their souls. They must have
known they were not being asked to go to lunch or do an errand or
have a discussion. Scripture says a word that appears often in Mark’s
immediately. Immediately.
When was the last time you did something
without questioning? Don’t almost all children question, or sit
awhile longer when their parent wants them to move now? The
passengers on the Costa cruise ship tried to move immediately last
week when their captain delayed the order to abandon ship. But do
people move immediately when someone yells fire? And yet, these men
whom Jesus was addressing, probably fatigued from casting nets—an
exhausting job—went immediately after him! There were no questions
asked as the story is related in
any of
the gospels.
But if the Lord Jesus has claimed
you, or brought you to your knees with the power of the Almighty in
his voice, perhaps you followed him immediately too. What will you do
when Christ’s call falls on your ears?

we notice something remarkable: they left their fishing equipment at
the shore. These were not wealthy men: the life of a fisherman was
often hand to mouth. Certainly buying or replacing fishing nets was
not cheap. And if they were left at the shore, would they have been
taken by another person who noticed they had been abandoned? What
careful fisherman would leave his gear? My son-in-law Brian is a
fisherman and he is careful to maintain his boat, his trailer, his
fishing poles and tackle, and his electronic equipment. Few fisherman
I know would leave there equipment behind. Did Simon and Andrew do so
with some inner feeling that they were being led to a new way of
life? Did Simon and Andrew get a feeling from Jesus that he needed
them right then?
Have you dropped your former
life—your sins, your job, your habits—when Jesus called you to
follow him?
Or have
you tried the exhausting and equivocating balancing act of trying to
hold on to an old life and also live a new life with Christ? It won’t
work friends:
many wonderful Christians have
learned that over the years: the Apostle Paul preached it in his
second letter to the Corinthians saying: “Anyone who is in Christ
becomes a new creation. The past is finished and gone; everything
becomes fresh and new.” [5:17] Paul became new in Christ. John
Calvin, a Frenchman trained as an attorney, became a new creation as
he moved to Geneva Switzerland and brought Christian theology and
polity to a city that was spiraling downward. And thanks be to God
that John Newton, the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace” was
changed by Christ. He was indeed wretched in his mind as he looked
back on his own life of working and beating and killing slaves. He
was delivered from his hellish life. You too can be delivered from a
life of mediocrity or ambivalence; from a current life that is eating
you up or dragging you down. You can imagine yourself symbolically by
the Sea of Galilee, going about your business, doing your work,
providing for your family. And then a voice, a warmth, a power, a
presence comes near you, and you are strangely drawn to him. Follow
Christ: he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

A. Sumner
January 22, 2012

01-15-12 HERE I AM

“The word of the Lord was rare in those days….”

That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? We tend to think of the word of the Lord being pretty rare right now, don’t we? But did that mean that God had really withdrawn from Israel? Historians can stack up the reasons why God might well have decided to ignore those people at that time. But then again, they certainly were not behaving in a way that indicated that they had been listening. Had God continued to be reaching out, and they just were too busy listening to their own voices and desires to pay attention? Are we?

Henri Nouwen states, “We live absurd lives.” Then he talked about the meaning of that word “absurd.” Surd, Nouwen says is from the Latin word for “deaf.” When you look the word up in the dictionary you will find, “not to be heard, dull, deaf, insensible, laughably inconsistent with what is judged as true or reasonable.” It is our inability to hear, to listen, that creates the conditions for an absurd life. Nouwen goes on: “A spiritual discipline is necessary in order to move slowly from an absurd to an obedient life, from a life filled with noisy worries to a life in which there is some free inner space where we can listen to our God and follow his guidance.” Absurd living is simply not hearing and not listening to God. We need to avoid absurd living.

When we feel lonely, abandoned, stuck in a situation without solution, can we hear God’s voice? Or, when we feel complete, secure, satisfied, do we bother to listen? Whose voice do we listen to when we are trying to make a decision?

Specialists in communication speak of “active” listening. Active listening being something that takes a lot of effort and focus. We often avoid the effort it takes to listen to others fully. And when it comes to God, listening is more like an act of trust. We simply have to wait for things to unfold in God’s time. Hearing what God has to say to us is a long process, even an eternal one. If we don’t hear and understand immediately, even tomorrow or next week, we are called to persist in our listening, treasuring the fragmented, even sometimes distorted pieces we get in any given moment.

That trips us up sometimes, doesn’t it? We get impatient. We don’t want to put in the effort and the time to wait for all of what God is saying to us. We assume we already know and go ahead and do, rather than waiting for God to finish. We’d rather get our answers right now, wouldn’t we?

Or maybe it’s hard for us to say “Here I am” that openly because we aren’t really ready for God to come into our bedrooms and our dreams peeking into our innermost selves. Oh sure, Lord, we scrub up and come to church on Sundays, but don’t ever call on us in the middle of the night or in our businesses or our marriages or our friendships. Please, Lord, we’re not ready for that. Here we are hiding our secret sins in a room that not even God can enter, or so we think. We say casually, “Here I am, Lord. Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” But are we really all that ready for God to come in? Not that room, Lord. Any room but that one!

You and I have to face up to ourselves and this self-revelation often occurs in the middle of the night as it did for Samuel. Until we do that we will have trouble hearing God calling our names and leading us into new ministries and new lives. Other words will block God’s redeeming and cleansing word of grace. Samuel didn’t hear it the first time or the second time or the third. Maybe he was having a hard time hearing it because no one else was hearing it in those days.

And it doesn’t stop with listening in the story does it? God tells Samuel what he needs to do – condemn the sons of the man who is raising him. Listening isn’t even the hardest part when it comes to God’s call. We have to then go and do what God is calling us to do. That can be even scarier.

After the vision, Samuel goes back to bed rather than running to Eli with the bad news God has given him. He is afraid to speak. Can we really blame him? After all, the words he has been given to speak are against the family of his mentor. After all, Eli was Samuel’s guardian. In the social values of that time, Eli had authority to beat Samuel, fire him, even put him to death. Children and slaves were property, for the master to dispose of as he wished. I wonder some times why then we assume that responding to God’s call will always be easy and/or fulfilling for us.

When morning breaks, it is Eli who calls Samuel to his room and commands him to speak the word that he has received from the Lord. Eli really wanted to hear God’s message, no matter how bad it was. I think that’s pretty amazing of Eli. After all, how many people are there who really want to hear God’s disturbing news? I’m afraid most people don’t want to be challenged. They don’t want God to disturb their set ways of thinking.

I think dismissing Eli in this story is a mistake. Yes, his spiritual eyes were dim, and he had not heard the word of the Lord in a long time. And he did not recognize it at first when he did hear it. But he did finally recognize it. And when the young boy Samuel sought answers to his questions, Eli was there to guide him in the right direction. Even amid all the changes that were unfolding here for the nation, the new leader born and called by God to bring new light to the people needed the guidance of the blind Eli to know how to respond and what to do. Even though the old ways were dying, they still had a role in guiding the new generation into their calling as God’s people.

Remember, Samuel hears God’s voice, but he does not recognize it on his own and he does not know how to respond to it properly. Only when Eli tells him the right words to say can Samuel be in a position to receive God’s oracle. It is Eli who first realizes that God is attempting to speak to the boy, Eli who tells Samuel how to proceed and Eli who responds in pious humility after Samuel later tells him the contents of God’s message: “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”

Eli recommends seven simple words of prayer, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.” It’s a request that God help us to hear what he has to say –– hear his still, small voice among the many other competing voices in a noisy society. It’s a conscious effort to tune out the distracting babble of billions of fellow beings, and tune in the divine calling of Almighty God. Its an exercise in active listening. It’s a prayer that we will be able really to listen to the Lord, and determine together what he is calling his people to do and to be today.

I wonder about Eli in the days ahead. His reaction to Samuel’s news makes me wonder. After all, Samuel was still just a boy. Did Eli stay with him? Did he continue to mentor him in the ways of the Lord? I think he did. I think that’s part of the reason for Samuel’s success

In a New York Times article about friendship, the author describes a 2008 study with 34 students from the University of Virginia. Each student was taken to the bottom of a hill and given a weighted backpack, then asked to estimate the angle of the hill’s steepness. The students who were standing alone estimated the hill to be much steeper than those who were standing with a friend. And the longer they’d known the friend, the less steep the hill seemed to them.

When we know someone “has our back,” even if they can’t shoulder our weight for us, our climb is easier, our steps are surer, our load is lighter, our day is less troublesome. With Eli to guide him, to support him in the beginning of his call, Samuel could do things that would be daunting to an adult, let alone a child.

We are all capable of being intermediaries between another person and the holy. We can be intercessors when t
here is trouble, channels of encouragement when days are wearying, agents of peace when worry rules, instruments of hope when life seems broken. We need to remember that being that intermediary, being the mentor, is just as important a call as Samuel’s was.

We must first listen, and listen actively. Without hearing God’s call we can never go any further. But we can’t just stop there. “Speak for your servant is listening.” Your Servant Lord. It is not enough to hear. We must have the courage respond. Whether we are like Eli or Samuel, we are all a part of that new future that God is bringing.

Listen to where God is calling you in your life. Whether you are called to speak hard words or to mentor those who are in need of it, God will call you somewhere. God knows you, loves you, and calls you to God’s work. May you have the courage to say. “Speak Lord. For your servant is listening.”



Isaiah 62; Mark 1: 4-11

In his book TELLING SECRETS, author and Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner lets the cat out of the bag that in his family they told and kept secrets; they did it all the time; and the secrets had to be respected. One secret that kept his emotional wings clipped from childhood, to teenage years, to marriage years was that his father got up one day, went into his garage, closed the garage, turned on the engine and ended his life. Buechner was taught it was that which was not talked about. So not only did he not know his father, really, not knowing his father, or hearing any words of guidance or affirmation from his father, kept him rather emasculated in his marriage, his ministry, and his fatherhood. When his daughter developed anorexia, she began to grow thinner until she was skin and bones. He wrote: “The only way I knew to be a father was to take care of her, as my father had been unable to take care of me, to move heaven and earth if necessary to make her well, and of course I couldn’t do that. I didn’t have the power or the wisdom to make her well.” And about his father, he wrote “The sadness was I’d lost a father I had never fully found.” What power was drained from that man by never getting to know, but yearning to know, the man who was his father. On the other hand we know that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was haunted and even tormented by his stern and judging father, perhaps adding to his illness and early death. Novelist Franz Kafka, who was born in Prague, wrote some brilliant short stories before succumbing to a lung disease at age 41. But he was known to be hypersensitive and introspective, and he too felt emasculated by his domineering father. On the other hand, Lyman Beecher, the famous preacher and educator, was a well grounded and moral man with a robust nature and a courageous spirit. He had thirteen children, and one of them was the free-minded and self-assured Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of UNCLE TOM’S CABIN. Another of his children was Henry Ward Beecher, political orator, social reformer, and renowned preacher of a huge urban church in Brooklyn. He, like most of us, was tremendously influence by his parents and his surroundings. He thrived on the good guidance he had. Discerning readers also may have picked up that Louisa May Alcott chose to write autobiographically for her novel LITTLE WOMAN. She had a strong ethical backbone and a sense of self that she credits her mother for giving her. Literature is packed with good and poor examples of parenting.

What do we know from the Bible about the power of parenting, good or bad? Genesis itself is chocked full of stories some of which seem to show less than stellar characters. Abraham once raised a knife to his son, Isaac; Isaac married Rebekah, who, when she had twins, chose to have her husband bless the younger one-Jacob-instead of the older one-Esau. She and God had their chosen one! Jacob, then tricked by Laban, marries not Laban’s daughter that he loved-Rachel- but the daughter Laban wanted him to marry first- Leah. Leah bore him children, but he was still in love with Rachel. Finally he got to marry Rachel but she is barren until, at long last, she bears a son for Jacob named Joseph. Jacob was so taken by that child that came from Rachel—the love of his life—that he made it known to all his other children that Joseph was his favorite: a bad idea. Nevertheless, Joseph knew he was loved, and he had a close relationship with his parents, even if it was a distant one from his brothers. He grew in stature and God blessed his work and his life.

In each of these cases, what a difference was made when and if the parents, or other primary caregivers, exclaimed their pleasure about their children! What a difference that can be from all correction and ridicule! And can you imagine God’s pleasure over you, or do only words of holy judgment ring in your ears? Isaiah 62 is a wonderful source of changing the way you might be experiencing God! God rejoiced over his people Israel, even after enduring the consequences of their sin. God also rejoices when our sins and consequences are over, and God can simply be pleased to be in our presence. Isn’t it odd to talk about God being in our presence, but God is so glad to be invited into our lives and to be in relationship with us! God came to earth in Jesus to experience what we feel, and walk a mile in our shoes. God is thrilled to be invited into the often private parts of our lives. God never barges in, but comes at our invitation. It delights God when you or I open the door of our heart and say, “O God come in and share my joy,” or “O Jesus, come in and rule my unruly life.”

We can now imagine what a red-letter day it was as the Heavenly Father watched as his son on the day of his baptism! He was a grown man, ready to begin a fateful ministry. What might the Father’s emotions have been? Perhaps his emotions were mixed: Glad, on the one hand, to celebrate a day when he could say to his son, in the presence of witnesses, how pleased he was with him! But, on the other hand, it would start the clock ticking toward the cross. Still, the Heavenly Father wouldn’t miss that day for the world; there was no, “Sorry son, but I’m working out some peace issues in the far east,” or “I’ve got weather issues to face in the north” or “I’ve got so much on my plate that I can’t be there.” No; our Lord Jesus had his tremendous sense of blessing because he had been tremendously blessed by a prayerful and a guiding relationship with his Father; both of them actually, the one on earth and the one in Heaven. Good fathers often say to their child about a special event in which they will soon participate: I will not miss it; I will be there! And he was. Jesus was tremendously ready for his task because he had been intentionally blessed so that he could be a blessing to others; he was; and he is. But that day, it was all about him; even John focused attention on Jesus. Finally it was his time. The invitation to gather at the river had gone out, and the crowds had arrived. He, like others there, went into the water and then lifted his head out of the river. Perhaps the water was just dripping out of his ears when his Heavenly Father could contain his pleasure no longer. God broke some supernatural boundaries that day, perhaps out of joy: not only did his son hear his voice, the voice from heaven was surely heard by the crowd as well! In Mark’s gospel we get these intimate words: “You are me beloved son; with you I am well pleased.”

Drink that in; imagine that you can you hear your father’s voice; or your mother’s voice. Or imagine your grandparent’s voice; or a teacher’s voice, or a pastor’s voice or a Scout leader’s voice or a coach’s voice saying something like this to you:



Luke 21-40

It is the first day of a new year, a day some use for resolutions, some use to reminisce about “Auld Lang Syne” or “the good old days,” and almost all wonder about and hope for a better year ahead. Today we will do all of these. As we think about the Bible today—the written account of God’s relationship with the created ones—today we can also think about clues that the Bible lifts up for a day such as this. First, faithful people of the Bible honored, celebrated, or marked significant events in our lives by praising God. Since we will not pass this way again, we will do the same. And second, the Bible shows us that the end of our earthly life is not a finish line, it is a step into life again. We might consider it our step into a new Eden, a place where we can experience the tree of life, according to Revelation, and not the Genesis tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If we read the end of our Bibles, we find phrases like: there is a new heaven and a new earth; and heaven comes to earth adorned like a bride; God wants to live with us; so God comes down to transform earth at Christmas, rather than us leaving the mess we have made of the earth to go to heaven instead. Those who believe in the rapture and flying away will want to check those verses in Revelation out again; God comes to join the faithful in the end, not pull the faithful from the earth! Perhaps our later days are not up in heaven apart from earth, but here in a radically transformed world that will become heaven? The transformed picture in Revelation 22 is that there is a river, as in the beginning, and there is a tree of life that this time is life giving, rather than the tree of knowledge which was choice-creating. There will be nothing more that is accursed, and all will be light, and the Lamb of God will provide the lamplight.

In the amazingly popular show “The Lion King,” lyricist Tim Rice wrote these words:

From the day we arrive on the planet

And blinking, step into the sun

There’s more to see than can ever be seen

More to do than can ever be done

There’s far too much to take in here

More to find than can ever be found

But the sun rolling high

Through the sapphire sky

Keeps great and small on the endless round

It’s the Circle of Life, and it moves us all

Through despair and hope, through faith and love

Till we find our place, on the path unwinding

in the Circle, the Circle of Life.

Joni Mitchell called it “The Circle Game” when “The seasons they go round and round … we can’t return, we can only look behind.” And today we cannot return to 2011, and many would say “Good!” We can only look behind, and look to 2012 with faith, hope, and love. Troubadour Harry Chapin wrote “All my life’s a circle, but I can’t tell you why; seasons spinning round again, the years keep rollin’ by.” So here we are, at the beginning of another new year. This is first new year for infants; but for the rest of us we have done it before, and we may, by the grace of God, do it again.

This message about circle is not about reincarnation; it is about seeing every season of life as leading into a new season. But there is one other thing that happened all through the Bible that makes our thoughts and hopes different from what we get from a folk song or a New Year’s Eve song: that is, marking significant events in life. The people of Israel, when they experienced an exceptional event that blessed their lives, erected standing stones in the ground so that when people walked by, they knew that God had done something extraordinary there. It is a good practice; we usually mark events with a piece of paper called a certificate; and often it is with pictures, or with shared videos. The marking of events in our faith may include a baptism certificate, or a dedication certificate. In today’s Scripture from Luke you’ll recall that Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to Jerusalem to be dedicated, that is, to present him to the Lord. That was expected in order to express thanks to God for the gift of the child, and to dedicate the child’s life back to God. We still mark such special days in churches; we have certificates of Baptism and certificates of membership-when someone connects with this Christian community and with God; we also have certificates of Christian Marriage, when someone says before God and witnesses that they will pledge their life and love to the one who stands beside them; and we have certificates of ordination, when people are set apart for s
pecial work as ministers, elders, or deacons. Those are highlight days. But as I said to the children, when they play a game, they might win, or they might lose, but they can always start a new game at the end. 
They cannot change the outcome of the game they’ve just played, but they can learn from that game and perhaps play it better the next time. Life is something like that; unless we had time machines, we could not go back and re-do or undo our mistakes. And what if we could? We would never give thought to our actions because they could always be undone. Instead, God made it so our choices matter. We weigh our decisions before we make one, and at the beginning of this New Year, it is time to start weighing our 2012 decisions. God does not offer us do-overs for our mistakes; God offers us grace instead, to move us down the road of learning and maturing, and ultimately we can ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness is costly when God offers it, and it carries a painful price when humans offer it as well; but it is the way of moving on without untold anger, grief, or bitterness. Today we can emotionally mark this day with a spiritual standing stone: a note in a diary, a kept bulletin, or a prayer. We are not starting life over, nor is life really just a circle, but we are trying to live this year in a way that is better than the way we lived last year. We try to grow toward God’s hope for us. We will still be celebrating Easter and our birthday, and Thanksgiving in new ways. Therefore today we leave 2011 behind; now with our words of confession and our best intentions, we are starting 2012. We will begin with Holy Communion, remembering our God who loved us so much that he came to earth in Jesus. He wanted to be with us on earth; and God still wants that. And then, for those who would like the blessing of anointing, we will anoint you with the sign of the cross on your forehead that the Lord may bless and keep you in this new year. Life may seem like a circle, but it is also filled with milestones. Jesus had a dedication day. Today can be a dedication, or rededication day, for you.

Let us pray: O God of New Beginnings: the bread and cups have been prepared, and the oil is ready. Only you know the souls that are ready to start anew. Bless and keep them this day and in the new year. We pray in the name of Jesus, born so long ago to save us. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner January 1, 2012