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IF YOU ONLY BELIEVED ONE THING

John 3: 14-21
It was reported this week that Encyclopedia Britannica will stop publishing its volumes of encyclopedias for the first time in 244 years. Information in the 21st century changes too rapidly for print. This year I finally took Mary Ann’s advice from a couple of years ago and gave away our family set of World Book encyclopedias, we bought in 1990 for our whole family to use. What is the culprit for the enormous decline in the purchase of encyclopedia sets? Of course it’s the internet. Technology has brought us Google and Yahoo and other search engines to find most anything we want to find. And the new go-to source is Wikipedia: the free online, constantly being updated encyclopedia. The downside is that anyone can go on and update Wikipedia, sometimes with wrong information; consequently as I do my research for my doctoral degree, Wikipedia is never an acceptable reference source! In this age of technology I often send text messages back and forth to staff, elders, and family to get a message to them quickly. Many of you may do that too! Perhaps you also use abbreviations in your texts, and if you read texts enough you can read abbreviations as if they were the full word. People also abbreviate in their Tweets. A Tweet, as many of you know, is a communication invention created by Jack Dorsey who came up with the name, meaning: “a short burst of inconsequential information” and “chirps from birds.” Dorsey sent his first Twitter message on March 21, 2006, just 6 years ago this Wednesday! We love to have messages sent in brief ways in this technical age; and men’s brains, I learned two years ago, are wired for that kind of “bottom line” information. Women typically, researchers tell us, notice things more, explain things more, and can describe things better. Men’s brains go for the “gist” of information. Many men, and even woman, love to just know what “the bottom line” is. When negotiating for a car the buyer says, “So what’s the bottom line.” When getting an estimate on a repair we ask “So what’s the bottom line.” I have tiny little Bibles that were given to me to share with boys and girls years ago but most of the passages listed in those tiny Bibles seemed harsh to me and the King James wording was hard for a child to follow. If, however, any of you would like your own brief version of Bible passages in a tiny little Bible, you may take one from one of the baskets in the back as you leave. There is one verse that is included in those little Bibles that I think is wonderful. And guess what? This most important of verses in the Bible, this crux of New Testament theology, has exactly 140 characters in it, the maximum number of characters in a Tweet! The most perfect Tweet is the message that I gave the children on a card.
If you only believed one thing in the Bible it is this message that fits in that Tweet and is found on posters at ball games. The posters that you may have seen in person or on television say “John 3:16.” You heard it in the anthem today and here it is; exactly 140 characters: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” That’s a Tweet for the ages; that’s the message for the ages; that’s something to memorize and to teach your children and your children’s children. That’s a passage that is learned in the King James Version most profitably. That one line has been historically called “The Gospel in Miniature.” It is at the heart of all the books and letters that we call the “New Testament.”  It is the Good News! Believing that is what makes you a Christian, and those who do not believe that are not Christians in the classical sense. It is found in the Gospel of John. After almost three months of preaching from the Gospel of Mark, we are shifting for a few weeks now to the Gospel of John.  The author of this gospel could very well be the Disciple we know as John, the one who referred to himself as “The disciple whom Jesus loved.” He is not John the Baptist. John, the writer of this Gospel, seems to have known Jesus exceedingly well, and Jesus, in turn, trusted John so well that at the cross he entrusted his mother to his care. So we are hearing from someone who not only tells what happened to Jesus, John wants his readers to know who Jesus is. It is John who calls Jesus “The Word,” and says not only that the Word was with God in the beginning, but also that the Word was God. It is John who calls Jesus the “Lamb of God,” recalling both the precious and sacrificial references Jews attributed to unblemished lambs. And it is John who is a master of words, mysteries, and double entendre. John is the one who records the conversation between Jesus and the learned man Nicodemus, who thinks like a 5th grader when he interprets Jesus’ imperative, “Ye must be born again” as an invitation to re-enter his mother’s womb. No; Jesus was talking about being born from above; having a spiritual rebirth. So John is brilliant, but sometimes cryptic, with what he has written down.  Jesus was a little like that too, wasn’t he? That’s part of the brilliance of this first century theologian: he turns the phrase of an Old Testament story or phrase that is instantly recognizable, and then he looks at the event through the lens of Christ. Soon many events in the Old Testament start to point to our Lord.
While studying in my room at Columbia Seminary for two intensive weeks twice a year, I have the luxury of digging into texts with more depth than a normal week in my life often permits. My professors encourage us to read, think about, and be still for at least 30 minutes or longer in considering a verse such as John 3:16. Certainly when asked to spend time on a passage like that, some minds begin to wander after 10 seconds! Our human programming in the 21st century is to see as many shows or films, read as many books or blogs, or do as many things in a lifetime that time permits. Many in the last five years have even created “Bucket Lists” a creation of the Jack Nicholson/ Morgan Freeman film of a few years ago. Who has time to spend 30 minutes or more on one Bible verse? In our text-driven, cell phone-filled frantic world, I tend to read a sentence and stamp “Done!” on it when I finish it, then go on to my next task. A practice called “Lectio Divina” invites Biblical readers to ruminate over a text for an hour, or a day, or more. What would it be like to spend an hour, or a day with just the 140 characters of John 3:16? In my Wednesday night Lent class, called “The Lives of Great Christians,” we are learning that some of the great Christians were those who studied, prayed over, and copied manuscripts of Scripture all their days. We would not have Bibles that are so accurate without people, as we say today, who “Spent time in The Word.” To spend days in the Word—the Bible—is not just to see how fast you can read; it is drinking it in, and pondering it at times so that in a lifetime you may read it deeply once, or twice, or perhaps more. I am being reminded of that in my studies, but like many of you, I tend to read quickly to accomplish my work. This week, perhaps you too will join me in stopping to consider the Gospel in Miniature. In his commentary on the Gospel of John, Presbyterian founder John Calvin spends 10 full pages on just verses 14-21 of our lesson today. Words to ponder include these: God; God loved; God so loved the world. And so on. You may wonder what kind of love it is that God gave his only Son. Who does that? Why not give God’s own life to show love?  John says, in fact, that he did. God was in Christ; and this death was rich in power for the listeners. The first born son for Jews in the Bible had the most power, the most to inherit, and more prestige than any later born children. He was precious. Jesus died as a human it is true, but also as
the only begotten Son of God, rising as the triumphant Christ. It is not easy, nor appropriate, to think about God in human terms on this one, condemning God for not stopping the death of his own Son. This was a masterful plan of redemption! Remember, John speaks in metaphors and Jesus does too; we see through a glass darkly as we hear words like father, and son, and everlasting life. What we can count on is love that does not withhold; love that does not become conditional; and love that does not end. That is the love that God offers.
A point to ponder: “If God loved you as much as you love [God,] what would the state of your soul be today?” Sometimes people treat God with conditional love, only being delighted with God when their prayers are answered the way they ask. But God in Christ loves unconditionally. If God loved us, like some in our world choose to love God—in fickle ways—we would be in eternal peril.
Finally, a story: The land of Persia was once ruled by a wise and beloved Shah who cared greatly for his people and wanted only what was best for them. (Hard to believe these days, isn’t it?) One day he disguised himself as a poor man and went over to the public baths. They were heated by a furnace in the cellar so he went deep into the cellar and decided to visit the man with the thankless job of keeping the fire stoked. He returned on subsequent days, brightening the long hours of the lonely man with the hot and dark job. The man told others about the man who “came to visit him where he was.” He was touched that someone would come down to the level where he worked and stay with him. He never forgot it. When it was finally revealed to him that the man was actually the Shah, the man said to the Shah with great love: “You left your palace and your glory to sit with me in this dark place, to eat my coarse food, and to care about what happened to me. What wondrous love you show!”
God came to us from glory, to eat with us, to care about us, and to sit with us where we are. God came in Jesus Christ. The Gospel of John contains the wondrous story about how God chose to be with us, and to show great love.
Thanks be to God!
Jeffrey A. SumnerMarch 18, 2012

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SHAKING THE FOUNDATIONS

Mark 2: 13-22

 

Since the beginning of time it has
been happening: new ideas, sinful actions, wonder, curiosity, and willfulness
have, in different ways, stretched, challenged, or cracked the foundations of the
earth’s norms and truths we treasure.
Today I want to consider the religious history of the shaking of the
foundations and what has come about as a result. Let’s begin in the beginning:
Creation. God created the first human beings who we know as Adam and Eve. Even
though God created, God also gave the mortals free will so that they could
choose between, life and death, blessing and curse, always hoping, of course,
that humans would choose life. The humans were given an idyllic world in which
to live; the foundation was firm; and God was pleased.  Then came the entrance of sin, in the form of
a serpent, and the foundations shook.
Original sin was born. From those two sinful people, two brothers were
born: Cain and Abel, and sin continued with fratricide: Cain slew Abel. The
world’s story had some very flawed characters. God, it is said, wanted to start
over and did. All the earth was flooded except for a faithful man and his
family; it’s the story of Noah. Talk about shaking the foundations; drowning
them was more like it! God started again ages later with a man named Abraham,
surely a descendent of faithful Noah. The Lord God established a firm
foundation with Abraham; it was firm because it was an everlasting covenant,
not one that could be broken by human sin; it was kept by holy sovereignty. On
that man’s faith a new covenant flourished. Later God tried again to offer a
covenant to his people through Moses, but his people sorely disappointed him,
breaking the commandments time and time again. God adjusted to the foundation-shaking
sins that his people were exhibiting. So God sent prophets: people who spoke
for God. Among them were young ones like Jeremiah, and older ones like
Isaiah.  Jeremiah still saw what we see
today: the shaking of the foundations. His world, and ours, had issues of
respect, corruption of political leaders, children who did not adequately learn
the faith and the importance of tradition, and families sometimes fighting
families. There were even natural disasters then as there are now. Young
Jeremiah proclaimed these words when he looked around him: “I look out on the
earth … and lo, all is chaos; I look at the heavens … its light is gone. I look
out on the mountains … they are trembling; and the hills are swaying!”
[Jeremiah 4] Could the foundations haven been shaking because the Lord himself
was shaking them, trying to get his people to turn back from sinful ways? The
prophets saw it that way. The prophet Isaiah said to the cities of Judah: “The
foundations of the earth shake: earth breaks to pieces, earth is split in
pieces, earth shakes to pieces …lift up your eyes to heaven and look upon the
earth beneath.” [Isaiah 24.] When the earth shook figuratively or actually, was
it sin that shook it? Is it sin that shakes our world over the ages?

 

In God’s own time, Jesus was born,
and lived on the earth. During his ministry, events happened that were
described in our text today, Mark 2. He was born a Jew and was taught as a Jew,
yet he did things that faithful Jews would not do: he ate with sinners. To do
that would have made a Jew ritually unclean. Jesus shook religious foundations.
Jews fasted at certain times when Jesus did not; the serious business of
keeping Torah did not seem to be the focus of Jesus’ life. It was nearly
scandalous and was a source of religious upheaval. Jesus was shaking the
foundations of his faith, and he explains why with his words about the
bridegroom. Just as some rituals are abandoned when a loved one has a terminal
illness, Jesus’ time on earth was terminal and he knew it. He had more pressing
things to teach than ritual procedures. It was upsetting to others. His new
emphasis he called “new wine.” He was so different that Jews who followed him
separated from other Jews. History would call them “Christians.” His
crucifixion shook the foundations of the world, darkened the skies, tore the
curtain of the Temple, and caused cataclysmic reactions. The foundations of the
earth have never been the same since God came to earth in human flesh. People
who followed him were not just Jews or Gentiles; they became known as
Christians and they still are. Over the ages there have been fractures even in
the human gatherings of Christians. Monks fought other monks; believers fought
those who they called “heretics” (wrong believers); and doctrines were won over
blood. If the Lord Jesus died for them, our forebears believed, then he was
worth dying for as well. And they did. Sometimes it is painful to read our
history. But thoughtful persons kept trying to move closer to the truth when
they believed others were moving farther away. It happened with early leaders
like St. Benedict who went to Rome for education and left immediately for
Sabiaco and Montecassino because he found Rome to be too corrupt. It happened
with a priest named Martin Luther who took issue with the Church of Rome. His
stand grew into a movement that became the Protestant Reformation. And the
foundations shook, and they still shake, over that.

 

We still have things that seem to
shake the foundations of Christianity. In 1837 in our part of the Christian family,
even the Presbyterians split in half into two groups called “Old School” and
“New School”: two groups who still loved Jesus, but differently. The Old School
later spit into the Northern and Southern Presbyterians in 1861, and reunion
with one another took an embarrassing 122 years later in 1983. But even then,
there was another branch, and now there is still another branch, with still
another forming now: the painful observation is that everyone thinks their
version of the church is closer to the truth. But the good news ought to be
that they all love the Jesus, but differently. It shakes the foundations of
denominations, but does it trouble our Lord? Does he just shake his head as he
did weeping over the fate of Jerusalem, or does he look at our infighting and
say “This isn’t at all what I envisioned my church to be”?  Today across the globe there are churches that
are purely Biblical and others that interpret the Bible with creeds; there are
churches that call themselves fundamentalist, and others say they are
progressive. There are those who have a free liturgy of worship and others with
a stated or strict liturgy. There are even churches today that have done away
with a cross in their facility, have no communion table and baptize more than
once. Such practices shake the foundations of Presbyterians. But does it shake
the Lord of the cross and the Lord of the dance? Some Christians see heaven and
hell differently from others, often to the point that some denominations call
the others “heretics”; but does it shake the one who stilled the waters, calmed
the sea, ate with sinners, and did not obey the orders for fasting? What does
Jesus think? How does the man who created a whole new following respond to
giant new gatherings of people who praise him, but not the way we do it? Jesus certainly
shook the foundations of his day; but it is God who “laid the foundations of
the world”, which he thundered to Job. It is Jesus we will follow, and it is
God who loves us so much that we can even do so in denominational or even
non-denominational ways. It might rattle my theology or your sense of
tradition. But thanks be to God that love is the true measure of whether or not
we have been fully transformed by Jesus Christ as Lord. How are we doing?

 

Back in 1948 Theologian Paul Tillich
preached to a different world than ours, but he too addressed what “The Shaking
of the Foundations” meant for him and for his world. He said this: “In the
language of the prophets, it is the Lord who shakes the mountains and melts the
rocks. This is a language that modern man cannot understand. And so God, who is
not bound by any special language, not even to that of the prophets, spoke to
the men of today through the mouths of our greatest scientists, and this is
what he said: ‘You yourselves can bring about the end upon yourselves. [The end
of the world, that is] I give the power to shake the foundations of your earth
into your hands. You can use this power for creation, or destruction. How will
you use it?’ [Charles Scribner and Sons, 1948, p.4] So now let us step back for
a final moment. There are three levels
of the shaking of the foundations, aren’t there?  The
first
is the level thundered by prophets at the behest of God, telling
people to turn back from their sins that were leading their souls to
destruction. A second level was
demonstrated by our Lord Jesus in moving from a focus on the minutia of rituals
to loving and caring for others. Finally,
we know the foundations of the world can shake when we, as God’s stewards (or managers),
destroy or hasten the destruction of land, seas, and nations. It happens by the
rise of avarice, greed, and the rise of evil in all areas of the world. It even
can happen in the name of progress and profit. God is watching us; God empowers
us. And God wonders: What my people do with what I have given them?  The next steps are up to us.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner
March 11, 2012

 

 

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WHY WOULD YOU FOLLOW THIS TEACHING?

Mark 8:31-38

In the story of Tom Sawyer, a bored boy uses his head to get other boys to line up and whitewash 30 yards of fence for him rather than playin’; they could have been goin’ fishin’, playing marbles, or any of a dozen other things a boy would rather do in a sleepy town near the banks of the Missouri River. How is it that Tom Sawyer talks a string of boys into doing his job and paint the fence he was responsible for painting? He not only talks them into it, they beg him to let them! Mark Twain says Tom figured it this way: “He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it—namely, that in order to  make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.” [TOM SAWYER, Grosset & Dunlap, 1946, p.20] Tom learned at a young age what good motivational speakers and teachers of salesmanship have known for years: in order to make someone want something, you have to make it hard to obtain. Tom Sawyer got people to listen to him and to his story because of his coy approach to a job that was a chore. Later on we learn that his friend Huck Finn had every adult in town disapprove of his lifestyle, and partly for that reason, every boy, especially Tom, wanted to be around Huck! Why do people follow other people?  Why did some people, smart people, even religious people, follow demented and destructive leaders like Adolph Hitler, like Osama Bin Laden, or like the cult leader Jim Jones?  Was it charisma, or persuasiveness; was it because of intimidation or threats? Sometimes people follow others because they seem to have a Midas touch and they fill needs for people: the late Steve Jobs did that and Oprah Winfrey still does. Sometimes people follow others because they are employed to follow them; at other times they follow of their own free will.  Is it the teaching, or is it the teacher?  Sometimes it is helpful to check out the human race to see what motivates us and what, at times, allows us to be manipulated.

As we read the Old Testament, we are privileged to be in the armchair (so to speak), watching prophets deliver words of judgment to the people of Israel. Even before the prophets of the Bible speak to us from the pages of Scripture, they speak to those in their own time, and we get to listen in!  Why did people listen to prophets? One reason is their belief that prophets were the mouthpiece for God; that if they said it, God was the original source. Revering God is one reason that prophets of God carried a big verbal stick with their listeners. But notice also how often the prophet’s words fall on deaf ears; how the prophet’s warnings and calls for repentance brought slow responses. When do people make changes in their life? Is it when they are first told to change? In the Bible I can think of only one case when a prophet told people that God said “repent!” and they repented on the first try. Do you remember it? It was when Jonah told the Ninevites to repent and they did. They were sinners and they repented! But in most cases in the Bible, people are rather slothful about changing their ways except: 1) If they have made such a mess of their life that they’re ready to try a new way; or 2) if the new way is intelligently and persuasively presented as benefiting them (especially financially); or 3) if they respect the one asking them to change. But even a respected prophet had scant success in moving people from their ruts, their ways, or their customs, except when the people believed that they needed rescue or when they thought change would benefit them.

That brings us to a perplexing text to ponder today: “Jesus called the crowd with his disciples and said this: ‘If any want to follow me, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow me. For those who want to save their own life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.’”  Denying ourselves is not in our nature. From the day we enter the world, we continue to be the center of our own universe unless we decide to show devotion to God, or to a spouse, or a boss, a job, a friend, or a child. Denying ourselves is something we might choose to do, but not readily. More often we deny ourselves in times of war or national crisis, or because we are abused or confined and forced to do so. We have to have a good reason to voluntarily deny ourselves. Even in Jesus argument, both paths led to death at first glance: his listeners had seen the crosses on which people were crucified as rulers tried to force people to conform; Jesus was not the first or the last man that the Roman emperors crucified. But the other choice, besides submitting to crucifixion was also bad: “those who want to save their life will lose it.” Most believe that Jesus was talking about losing eternal life in that phrase. For years people greatly feared not having eternal life; today I wonder if you give your eternal destiny much thought, or do you just assume that God grades on a curve? Certainly Jesus saw the big picture; a resurrected life, Heavenly glory and the like; but those in his day hardly had an inkling of that life beyond life. So why did some decide to follow this teaching; to stick with the man who was taunted, and mocked, and flogged, and crucified? Why would they not fall away with self-satisfaction, thinking to themselves that they were too smart to be hoodwinked by the man from Nazareth? In all I have read, there was only one good reason why those people of Jesus’ day chose his path instead of the easy one: it was the incredible authority they gave his words after being convinced by his deeds.  This was the man who got blind people to see; he got lame men to walk; he fed four thousand people at one lunch hour and five thousand at another lunch hours from supplies that would barely have fed the Twelve; he had also walked on water. Some certainly decided that they were going to listen to him.  They followed Jesus because his actions made them believe his words. Notice, however, that those who were well off financially or well-connected politically walked away from his teaching or were threatened by it. But those who were poor, or spiritually poor, found faith, and hope, and love in the teachings and person of Jesus.

Today you will have to decide if everything is just fine in your life; if there is no good reason to shake up your world because you have enough money, enough health, and enough contentment. Do you take pleasure in your and in your family? And most importantly, if you have full confidence in your afterlife, then following Jesus may not be compelling for you, even less compelling than a boy who talks other boys into painting a fence. But if there are parts of your life that need love, forgiveness, hope, and especially correction, than you are more likely to follow his teaching, even if it means a cross. Some choose to die meaningfully rather than die miserably and emotionally. The former persons choose to follow Jesus and his challenging teaching. Whether you choose the li
fe of just being a church attender, or whether you decide to be a Christian disciple instead, is a personal choice. You may not want to paint a fence; but Jesus does not respect anyone who just sits on the fence either. Choose him; or you may be choosing doubt, or even darkness.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                            March 4, 2012